Hi, all, Daniel-of-2017 here.
I will not attempt to describe my Absence in as-it-is-happening style blog posts. For one thing, that would take three years. But I am taking a couple of posts to summarize.
As I said in my previous post, the masters vanished, quite literally, from what had seemed the middle of a farewell celebration. They never re-appeared. Instead, we all left. We had to. It had been made clear to us, and to our parents, that for the time being, we were no longer welcome on campus. Some of our group would likely come back to visit and volunteer within a few weeks. Others, like me, intended to go into Absence. Either way, we had to pull a disappearing act ourselves.
I felt dazed, overwhelmed, but I got in my parents’ car and we went home.
I didn’t stay there long. By prior arrangement, Rick was waiting for me at the house. As expected, I had received all the gear I would need for my through-hike as gifts for either Christmas or graduation. Rick had made all the other arrangements himself and had bankrolled the whole thing (though I agreed to pay him back a large part of my share and my parents had made up the difference by arranging steep discounts on supplies through some business connections of theirs. We had a big sort-of “welcome home” dinner, I went to bed, and then well before dawn the next morning I woke, climbed in the car, and my mother drove Rick and me south, into the net phase of our lines.
On February 4th, Rick and I started our thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
Whenever I admit that I am a thru-hiker (meaning someone who has completed the entire Trail in one hiking season), I always get the same questions—and they are the wrong questions.
Yes, we got cold.
Yes, we got wet.
Yes, we got tired.
A moment’s thought should answer all these questions, which is why they are frustrating to try to answer. Better questions, questions that really get at how we hiked and what hiking was like might be how did we cope with the snow and the cold? How much of each day did we spend hiking? Did we get off the Trail often to rest or party? Did either of us ever doubt we’d finish? Did we make friends with other people on the Trail? Did we get along with each other?
We hiked in snow shoes for the first month or so, and until the snow melted free we usually camped in shelters—these are three-sided shedlike things every few miles along the Trail. We both knew how to camp in the snow, obviously, but it’s just easier not to. Most days we’d spend about ten hours hiking, including short breaks to eat and so forth, but sometimes we went longer—we did 14 hours at least once, but probably should not have. In the first week or so, we had a couple of very short days because we were still figuring out how to do things and it sometimes took us a long time to break camp. Days when we went into town were short, too.
The short days were the problem. It was almost March before we entered Virginia, a pace far too slow to finish the Trail before we had to leave for our summer jobs. After some rather panicked mathematics, we realized that our short days were sinking us, pulling down our average. Thereafter, we were diligent about keeping our short days as long as possible, and our average came up considerably. That we were past the snow and north of the highest mountains helped, too, because we could lighten our packs by mailing home our winter gear. By the end of March, we’d passed the halfway point, in Pennsylvania.
People sometimes ask me if that pace was too fast for us to really enjoy the Trail—as though the scenery were passing us by in a literal blur. But we very much enjoyed it—and we were only walking at about two and a half miles an hour. But do that for ten hours, and you go 25 miles. Do that every day for forty days, and you’ll do a thousand. It’s not going fast that does it, it’s the not stopping part.
We never got off the Trail to rest or to party—we had miles to cover, for one thing. For another, most of the places where we might have stopped, hostels and so on, were still closed for the winter until almost the end of our trip. And there wasn’t anyone to party with. Because we started so early, we virtually had the Trail to ourselves. We didn’t make any friends. The traveling camaraderie of hikers you sometimes hear about wasn’t our experience. We didn’t even have trail names, because there was no one around to use them.
I don’t know if Rick ever doubted he’d finish—I never did. We both sometimes doubted that I’d finish, though, for the simple reason that my summer job started a week and a half earlier. Neither of us ever thought we might quit (when you’ve spent three days in the dark trying not to talk, even in your sleep, you know how to not quit), and we tried not to dwell on the possibility of being injured.
I did not fear quitting (or bears or muggers). I did sometimes fear the cold or, later in our trip, lighting. We had several bad lightning storms in May, often when we were high on some mountain and very vulnerable. I remember frantically praying, promising Jesus that if he got me out of this storm unscathed, I’d start going to church regularly again. Then the storm would pass and I’d realize I’d been silly—not silly to pray, but silly to bargain for safety, especially not with Jesus. There are deities who promise personal safety and worldly success to their followers, but Jesus isn’t one of them. I’ve been to church regularly enough to know that.
I never spoke of my religious speculations with Rick. We seldom spoke at all, except for practical matters. I sometimes pointed out things of interest to him, things I’d noticed but thought he might not have, but he never did so with me. We got along in that we never seriously argued, but I often thought what he liked best about me was that I allowed him to ignore me.
Once, I remember asking him why he’d asked me along. We were lying in our sleeping bags in a shelter in Pennsylvania on a ridgeline overlooking a wide valley. It was night, and we could see the distant lights of buildings and streets, like stars through the bare winter branches of trees. I didn’t mean any complaint—I knew Rick would not have gone so very far out of his way to make sure I could join him if he did not value my company, but I honestly could not tell why. So I asked.
“I needed to hike with somebody,” he said. “Solo hikes are more dangerous, especially when there’s no one else on the Trail, and you bug me less than most people. You’re helpful for talking to other people when I don’t want to.”
“Take me or leave me, Kretzman. I like your company most of the time, though. Does that help?”
“I don’t hang out with you too be liked,” I told him, which is largely true, but that’s not why I said it. “What’s your plan, though?” I added. “I can’t imagine you settling down with anyone, or anything like that.”
“Oh, I might, if I found the right guy,” he said, his voice swimming out of the dark and the early spring cold silence. “But I admit I don’t see anyone thinking I’m Mr. Right. I know how I am. It’s alright; I like my company, even if other people don’t.”
His words made me sad for him, but I could not tell if he was sad, if the prospect of being alone his whole life bothered him. But it’s not the sort of thing he’d want me to ask, so instead I asked the other question that was bouncing around in my brain.
“The right ‘guy’?”
“Yes, the right guy,” he said, as though it should have been self-evident. “What, didn’t you know I’m gay?”
“No, how would I? You never said. Anyway, why would I care? I’m not going to ask you out.”
“You could do worse, Kretzman.”
“I could. I like a lover who likes me, though.”
“You slept with Joanna,” he pointed out. “She doesn’t like you.”
“She’s so good in bed, though,” I said, and regretted it.
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Wow, you think you know a person.”
“Nobody knows me,” said Rick.
But he was a good man to hike with and, overall, an excellent companion, provided I did not expect an emotional response I knew he could not give. In the middle of May we completed our hike, climbing Mt. Katahdin together just days before I had to report to my job. I didn’t have much time for self-reflection. I was aware only that I was glad to have finished, proud to have finished on time (most thru-hikers take four to six months. We’d set out to do it in only three and a half and succeeded), and sad that the hike was over. I have since reflected plenty.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail did not change my life—sometimes it does for people, but for me it was an interlude, a halfway point between two very different ways of life. Overall, I enjoyed it, but I have not felt tempted to do it again. I did come away from the experience with the definite sense that I could adapt myself, that there are many different ways my life can look, and that I can choose or make a different way if I want to. I also know now that I can walk anywhere, provided it is not covered with water and provided there is enough to eat and drink along the way. I have it in my power to get up and walk to New York, or Alaska, or Tierra Del Fuego, if I want to.
I’ve never been tempted to walk to New York, or Alaska, or Tierra Del Fuego, but I can.