By SCOTT GRABER
It is Wednesday and I’m at (Massachusetts) Mile Marker 81.8 on the Appalachian Trail. I’m with Polly and Cathy — two retired women from Pennsylvania — to whom I’ve attached myself for a short 7.5-mile segment. Of the three of us, Polly is the most dedicated, having done 700 miles of the 2200-mile trail.
Polly is not a through-hiker but is doing the entire length in segments. She walks for a week or two, then stops, goes home to Pennsylvania to recruit another companion to walk the next segment with her. Her current companion, Cathy, is 65-year-old retired medical assistant.
I have always had this notion that one day I would buy myself an ultralight backpack, fill it with dehydrated, just-add-water risotto and walk from Springer Mountain (in Georgia) to Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
I have read the books and seen the movies (Walk in the Woods) and have thought that one day I would do this solitary, almost spiritual trek along the crest of the Appalachians.
I was also inspired by Bruce Chatwin and his famous non fiction book, In Patagonia. This book details the South American travels of Chatwin — mostly on foot — meeting people and telling their stories.
“I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through bone white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no other sound than the wind, whirring through the thorns and whistling through the dead grass, and no other signs of life but a hawk and a black beetle easing over black stones.”
But In Patagonia is also an essay on being a nomad, traveling lightly, unencumbered by mortgage payments, family or Rotarian obligations.
“The real home of man is not his house but the road. Life itself is a travel that has to be done on foot.”
Because I am only a temporary tag-along on this particular hike, I only have a USGS topographic map for guidance. It’s old and well-creased with brown contour lines that tell me when I will climb and when (mercifully) I will descend. I have had this map, for years, usually contemplating the landscape from the comfort of my black, Ikea-bought couch. I have also packed a Nature’s Path (organic) Breakfast Bar and a (Shop and Stop) tangerine.
When I joined up, Polly looked at my bottle of Zephyrhills 100% Florida Spring Water and said, “You can’t drink this. There aren’t any electrolytes in this water.”
“But it’s spring water,” I replied.
“You’ve need electrolytes. I’ll give you some of mine.”
In addition to her electrolyte-enhanced water, Polly has an app that tells us where we are on the trail. This device also tells one the changes in elevation, distance travelled and time of arrival. From time to time I stop, look down at my stained, well-creased USGS map and say, “This must be Mt. Fitch.”
“We’re past Mt Fitch — actually 43.4 meters past the summit — and we’ve got another 1366.6 meters until we reach Mt. Williams.”
Polly and Cathy do not set a blistering pace — we are often overtaken by bearded through-hikers who seemed to be speed-walking up and down the Berkshire Mountains — but my companions are steady and determined and stop at regular intervals so I can catch my breath. For most of the morning I am fine.
But in the late afternoon, we are caught by a storm and the rain has made the stones slick and our long descent from Mt Prospect an unpredictable, tricky affair. As we slip/slide down the mountain my knees begin to ache, and my right ankle is giving me — as doctors often say — discomfort.
So, inevitably, I begin to rethink my notion of a wandering, untethered, dehydrated-risotto life on the Appalachian Trail.
But the real pain is centered in my toes. They are being banged against the toe of my boots and are telling me that there will be anatomical consequences to my small adventure. Probably blisters and swelling. But I can take this pain because I know tonight there will be a shower, some rudimentary first aid and a glass of Aberlour Double Cask Matured Single Malt Scotch.
For Cathy and Polly tonight will be a tent, and tomorrow will be another 7 to 10 miles up and into Vermont’s Green Mountains.
For me, this 7.5-mile walk in the woods is enough to say, years from now to a newly-met stranger in a darkened bar, “You know I did a part of the Trail back in 2019 …”