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  • Thursday, June 12, 2008

    The Knobstone Trail, Part Four
    - Number 69 on my life list.

    Part Four 
    Go to Part 1, 2, 3, 4

    I woke up in the middle of the night and, for just a moment, I felt like I couldn't move my legs. I thought for about two seconds that it was another episode of sleep paralysis; where you are conscious but an ill-timed disconnection between your brain and body prevents you from moving.

    I realized quickly that I was just extremely stiff. I had never been so stiff in my life. The next morning I spent several minutes stretching and felt amazingly better. I felt so good that I couldn’t believe how I felt the night before. 

    After another couple of miles going down into shaded valleys then back up again on switchbacks, I came to Elk Creek Lake. The sky over the lake made for an appealing photo opportunity so I stopped briefly at an established campsite, that was right next to the water. I passed many ideal campsites like this, but they were never there when I was ready to stop for the night. If I do the trail again I’ll adjust my mileage to change that. 

    It had been over two days and I hadn’t spoken a word since the couple of sentences to the father and son I met just after mile six. Never was this more evident than when a toad crossed my path and I greeted it. I tipped my hat and nodded but the word "ma'am" only came out as a hoarse whisper. Perhaps not talking for a couple days also causes me to do peculiar things; like properly greeting a toad, that I presumed was female, in much the same way a 19th century cowboy might have greeted a woman passing him while exiting a saloon. 

    At about mile 33 I passed another backpacker and shortly after a gray-haired older man who I assumed was his father or grandfather. As the old man met up with us he fell but got back up quickly. I asked if he was alright and they both ignored the whole situation like it happens a lot. I figured he was about 70 years old. He looked like he has had his share of adventures and hard work. Kind of rugged looking and showing his age but at the same time seemed youthful and spry.

    One day he said he heard about the KT and decided, "I’d like to try that." The younger man who was with him asked if he wanted company, so, they went to buy gear and headed out for their first backpacking trip.

    "You picked a tough trail to be your first", I said unnecessarily since they had already figured that out. 

    “So you do this a lot?” the old man asked. He didn’t say it but the look on his face and his tone suggested that his next comment might have been, “are you nuts?” I asked them if they planned on thru-hiking. He said that was the original plan but wasn’t sure if they could finish. 

    They had hiked thirteen miles since Saturday afternoon and as I was about to find out it was a tough thirteen miles. In my opinion, whether he finished or not didn’t matter. What did matter was that he was still searching for an adventure. I hope that I find that spark of courage to accomplish something new in my later years. 

    We exchanged some information about what was coming up for each other on the trail. I told them of the easy section around Elk Creek but also warned them of the exhausting terrain that would follow. We went our separate ways and the old man turned to thank me for the information. 

    When I'm hiking I like that my mind wanders and I occasionally have an interesting thought or remember some repressed memory that I hadn't thought about in years. One childhood recollection in particular made me want to be at home sitting in front of a fan on high, eating cereal, and watching my copy of the Karate Kid on VHS. 

    As the day went on, my thoughts weren't as nostalgic and certainly not interesting. That afternoon I was thinking of the lyrics to the song ‘Ironic' by Alanis Morrisette and how nothing she says in it is actually ironic by definition, coincidental maybe. Technicalities aside, I couldn't get the song out of my head. It really isn’t necessary to say, but, I was running out of things to write about in the little black journal I keep in my back pocket. 

    I was six miles from the finish and decided I wouldn’t be stopping for a third night; but instead would push through the final stretch. Partly this was due to the tick problem. I wasn’t able to lie on the ground or sit up against a tree and enjoy the simplicity of it all like I normally would. I could only focused on the tiny legs of ticks and mosquitoes and very small insect mouths digging in to pilfer my hard-earned blood. 

    Also, I had eaten all of the appetizing food left in my pack and had no desire for the other foods that I would need to retain my energy level. I had only eaten about one-fourth of the calories I should have and I started craving a fast food cheeseburger which I hadn’t eaten in years. After a while the taste of the water from the streams became less exceptional and was starting to be hard to swallow. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s time for a new filter. It was hard to keep down so I was only drinking enough to not get dehydrated.

    Every stream I passed was extraordinarily refreshing to see and hear, but not to drink, which made me even thirstier. Whenever I heard the sound of rushing water I wanted to dive in. I stopped at one stream that was deep enough to stick my whole head into, which wasn’t all that common on this trail. Some salamanders, that had already claimed the spot, were somewhere between their hatching day and emerging from the water to test out there fancy new lungs. Their feathery gills still remained, along with four legs with toes all sticking straight out from their sides. They wiggled towards the protection of the roots of a tree while I got down on the ground to put my head in the water. 

    I relished the feeling of being on the ground with my hands on the rocks, getting dirty and not caring, while the cool water surrounded my head. After hiking for three straight days without a shower it was the most refreshing thing in the world. You might be contemplating something right now that you think is more refreshing, but you'd be wrong. This is the most refreshing thing, trust me. 

    One of the final sections of trail was through a forest of towering pine trees on a path of brownish-orange dried pine needles that contrasted the bright green foliage on each side. White moths fluttered around me creating a especially peaceful atmosphere that felt much different than the rest of the trail.

    After some trouble getting around two large fallen pine trees and emerging on the other side with a couple of scrapes, I had a choice to make. Towards the end of the trail it does a loop for those who want to do a short section that begins and ends at their vehicle. I could take the long way and do an extra mile or take the shorter but more difficult route. I decided on the shorter but harder section and after one more final climb I got back to the car. I could see its green paint between the green-leaved branches of the trees. It was such a sight for sore eyes.

    I was thirsty, hell-bent on eating a cheeseburger and ready to rest my now very sore left foot. I stopped to take a photo to mark the end of my journey and immediately drove to a soda machine that I knew was next to the showers at the campground. Luckily it had something other than soda. I don’t drink soda, but probably would have in this case. I grabbed a dollar from my wallet but the machine wouldn't take it. Isn't it coincidental? Don't you think? It's like rain on your wedding day. Uh, that song was still in my head.

    I turned on my “Songs From Quentin Tarantino Films” playlist and headed out of Delaney to the theme from Pulp Fiction. It seemed a good fit to the end of my short but exhausting expedition. 

    I drove into Salem about sever or eight miles from the campground and, after a few minutes, found a Wendy’s. I stared at the menu for a few seconds at the selection of cheeseburgers. From left to right each burger got larger and less healthy than the one before it. I settled on the largest greasiest most unhealthy in the bunch. A double cheeseburger with a half pound of beef and several strips of bacon. I knew I wouldn’t have another one for a few more years if at all so I ate it slowly and enjoyed each bite to the fullest then washed it all down with 32 ounces of lemonade… it was glorious.

    When I arrived at home I didn't bother taking my gear inside. I opened my fridge and guzzled every ounce of liquid I could find. I headed upstairs and crashed on my bed with my aching feet propped up on pillows; not waking up once for the next 12 hours.

    On my backpacking trips, I come back with a new appreciation for things that would normally seem mundane. This one was no exception; namely cheeseburgers, lemonade, showers, a tick-less place to sit, and music blaring on a car radio speeding down a highway. That is one of the great aspects of backpacking. Even though there will occasionally be things that makes a trip less enjoyable than you’d like, you will always enjoy something enormously by the end of it that you weren’t enjoying before you left. Whether it’s the trail itself or those same mundane things you had at home all along. In this particular case it was a little of both. 

    Go to Part 1, 2, 3, 4