The Old Man and the Sea

I came upon an old man on the Trail and, as I approached him on a cold, windswept ridge, I noted that he was standing in place and trying to do something with his pack strap while his pack was still on.

I slowed down and observed that he was very old–much older than me, it appeared. He had liver spots on his skin, his face was wrinkled, drawn, and gaunt, and he could have been in his eighties, though I certainly couldn’t know. I felt concerned for him as he was well away from help and the weather was more than a little threatening that day, especially where we were. But, the advice most often given on the Trail is for everyone to ‘Hike Your Own Hike’ (HYOH is the acronym, and yes, there are t-shirts and bumper stickers.) This means two things to me: do your own thing and don’t too quickly hitch your wagon to someone else’s pace, plans, etc. and conversely be respectful of everyone else’s way of doing the AT. Therefore, I didn’t want to question his situation and so I simply said hello and asked if I could help with anything since he was still working his strap issue.

He looked at me and said ‘yes, thank you’ and I helped him adjust a loose piece of blue foam that he was trying to work back in place under one of his backpack straps. Up close now, I could see that his hands were gnarled and arthritic, that his nose was dripping continually, that his hair and long beard were unkempt, and I felt, guiltily, a slight repulsion. However, upon looking into his eyes, I saw that he had kind eyes and he seemed quite together and unworried, despite the cold wind beating at us on the narrow ridge. So, I lightened up a little bit and then offered him my gloves. It wasn’t a gratuitous offer; I really wanted him to have the gloves since my hands hardly ever get cold and frankly, the gloves weren’t very expensive gloves. They were simple gray wool gloves but perfect for the conditions we were in. He refused however, though very politely. I then insisted that I’d see him somewhere up the Trail and get the gloves back eventually, trying to bury the issue as a gift and resurrect it as a loan so he could save face if that’s what was needed to close the deal. But again, ‘oh no, no thank you though’ said quite amiably as if he were an English Gentleman of old saying ‘Why don’t be silly, my good man–I wouldn’t hear of it!’

As I continued, I thought about how heroic his journey felt to me. At his age, and with his infirmities, he was way out here, hundreds of miles into the Trail with a heavy pack, and was clearly intending to through-hike the whole Appalachian Trail. And, during our earlier conversation, I had gathered that he was not a person of great means and had had his share of ill luck in life. And so I was reminded of the protagonist in Hemingway’s epic ‘The Old Man and the Sea’.

(An old Cuban fisherman, down on his fishing luck and derided by his village for it, finally captures the fish of a lifetime–a giant Marlin–and undertakes to tow it back to his village in his little boat. The villagers will be astounded at his accomplishment, he will make a great deal of money selling the fish, and he will salvage his reputation in the eyes of his fellow fishermen, the village, and himself. But sharks appear, and worry the great Marlin down to the bone on his long return journey and, though he battles the sharks relentlessly, he returns to his little beach at last with only the head and skeleton of the great fish intact. In deep despair, and exhausted, he falls asleep in his meager fishing shack and dreams of his youth. Meanwhile, villagers discover the carcass and realize, with admiration and pride, the gravity of the struggle that the old man must have endured and that it was the biggest Marlin any of them had ever seen.)

And so was this old man’s journey on the Trail a similar effort at restoration of stature late in life? The sharks on the Trail can be numerous and they can attack the impetus for success daily, even hourly. I saw this man only one more time, at a hostel, and he was significantly bruised above his right eye and forehead–clearly the result of a fall–and it looked very bad as bruising in older people can. Yet, he was calmly making oatmeal in the kitchen of the hostel, though sandwiches and other ‘real food’ options were available for sale at the hostel store. He was delighted to talk with me again, having remembered our earlier encounter. I talked with him longer this time and again assessed that his mental condition seemed fine.

I would love to learn that this guy makes it all the way to Mt. Katahdin, the endpoint of the Appalachian Trail. But even if he doesn’t, I hope he takes pride in having pushed his little boat out to sea and hooked onto a great struggle; he is fighting the sharks with dignity and aplomb.

We[blog] still active

Hello. I guess the secret is out that I’m home now, and that my Trail days are over. Well, we had a little fun, didn’t we? I wanted to mention that I’ll still be blogging, at the behest of several people. I do like to write and need the practice so I’ll take them up on their command. Subjects will run the gamut as whim, caprice, and various mood disorders dictate.

Extra credit if you’re still here!

Trail Days Dresses

An odd thing appeared to me as I entered Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia. Of the many thousands of people attending the events, vendors, music venues, street theater, tent city area, food trucks, etc., I noticed that many of the men were dressed in dresses. Women’s dresses. When I say many, I mean about every 10th guy had on some type of skirt, kilt, or, more often than not, a long women’s dress. And if every 10th guy is in a dress, then I’m noticing a guy in a dress about every 10 seconds! Hairy legs were sticking out the bottom and hairy arms and back stuck out the top of these dresses, but, of course, one doesn’t say anything. And these were some flamboyant dresses; nobody wearing a dress was trying to ‘blend in’ and ‘pass’ as a woman.

OK. Wow. I thought about it and concluded that this was a pretty brave thing happening here and, oddly, I was proud of the ‘hiker community’ for expressing themselves as such. This must be a statement about the safety of expressing one’s gender-fluidity, about expressing oneself in the manner of dress that one likes regardless of societal pressure. Possibly even many of these people were not themselves inherently inclined to such dress but were, (even more brave, perhaps?), coming out as ‘allies’ in the effort to bring awareness to the strictures of societal norms while encouraging the abolition of stereotypes of dress and behavior that keep so many people from living their lives in concert with their true feelings. Furthermore, now that I thought of it, what better venue for this progressive demonstration of the comprehensiveness of humanity than in the ‘Trail Community’ of hikers where all walks of life converge annually in a pilgrimage to understanding, healing, and fellowship–a living slipstream of all ages, orientations, and backgrounds where tolerance, support and fellowship flourish as naturally as wildflowers bloom in Spring.

Overkill? A little heavy-handed? I’ve had those thoughts before, and one example comes to mind: When I started law school in 1996 I immediately noticed that all, all references to lawyers and judges in the casebooks used the feminine pronouns: she, her, etc. I thought it was bizarre; literally every such reference, on every page, jumped out at me as there were then relatively very few women in the legal profession at the time and I considered it heavy-handed that the authors had made the deliberate decision to go 100% female in the depictions of legal professionals. Maybe some sociologist Graduate student had this brilliant idea to train a new generation of lawyers into thinking less stereotypically and the publishing community bought off on it. Well, the times they were a’changing and the authors knew it and they had the last laugh. By the end of the very first semester, I no longer thought of it as odd that women could be lawyers or judges. I laughed at how effective the technique was–a blitzkrieg of new understanding–and I was better off for it. (Incidentally, over half of all lawyers are women today!)

So, back to men wearing dresses. I hitch-hiked a good portion of the way home and the person who picked me up was also leaving Trail Days and at one point mentioned how Trail Days does something silly every year for the fun of it. This year it was ‘men-wear-dresses’. Just like ‘silly hat day’ at work or whatnot.

Whoops! Maybe sometimes I overthink things. You think?

17 May – 19E Shuttle to Damascus, VA Trail Days

On 17 May, I split a shuttle with 9 other folks to Damascus, VA to see what Trail Days was all about.    

“Damascus is the home of the annual Trail Days festival, and is known as Trail Town USA due to the convergence of four scenic trails in the town, including the Appalachian TrailU.S. Bicycle Route 76, The Iron Mountain Trail, and the Virginia Creeper Trail. Damascus also is on the route of the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail and the Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail. The Trail Days festival is held around the middle of May each year and draws in excess of 20,000 tourists, making it the largest single gathering of Appalachian Trail hikers anywhere.

Well, it’s a big fun party. . . a parade, games, all the relevant equipment vendors helping people with their equipment (really: repairing [sewing, adjusting], replacing, giving advice, etc.), all kinds of carnival food, etc. . . and many charitable organizations, usually religious, offering free showers, laundry, and food for the Hiker community.  Really, just a nice big ‘Trail’ celebration.

On Friday night, I took a walk into the woods to see the ‘Drum Circle’.  This was actually arranged by some Trail acquaintances of mine and they insisted I go, so on Friday night I marched to the sound of the drums. . . In the (dark) video, -hang with it-, you’ll see that the woods where everyone tented out is a labyrinth of people, lights, sounds, and who knows what else is going on in the dark!  (Not that I don’t trust co-ed 20-somethings with all the time in the world on their hands, a carnival tent city at night, beer, marijuana, and hormones all generously available . . . )  

In the daytime video, you can see the stage where music played all day and night. . . they had performers lined up for the whole weekend and they were all good. . . 

I set up in the supposedly ‘quiet’ section of the Tent City but it turned out to be not so quiet as one might expect . . . 


16 May – Bradley Gap to US19E (16.1 miles)

Went up and over ‘Hump Mountain’, (5500 feet or so in elevation) and eventually got to RT19E. From this highway, I arranged a shuttle, as did many other people, to go to ‘Trail Days’ in Damascus, Virginia, the following morning.  Trail Days celebrates all things Appalachian Trail for a few days a year– always the weekend after Mother’s Day and always in Damascus, Virginia. . . 

This was another great day for the weather and I felt strong and good the whole day!

15 May – Little Rock Knob to Bradley Gap (17.3miles)

 As I write this, I’m in a Hiker hostel where there is a TV.  I had MSNBC news on a little while ago and was catching up on the Iran tensions and recent abortion rights paroxysms in the nation.  I left to switch out some laundry, -10 yards away- came back and…(as God is my witness!) someone had switched the channel to Wheel Of Fortune!  And the guy was eating a hamburger—close enough to meatloaf for me!  Oh well… I guess I saw it coming…

(That’s what I get for introducing politics to this blog.  I’ll just stick with death and taxes from now on.)

Had a great day yesterday.  Went up and over a mountain that was protecting a rare ‘coniferous forest’ for these parts.  

Before I came to the sign and big roped off areas, I could smell Christmas very strongly… every memory came flooding back with that lovely fir/pine smell…and we all know, just that smell can induce sentimental thoughts, way out of season or not…

Got to the top of a mountain where the ‘Cloudland Hotel’ stood.  Real interesting big beautiful hotel stood here from 1884 for 20 years or so only.  People could look out over the mountains from a big porch and stay here with three meals a day—all for only $2 per day!  (It was dismantled due to high maintenance costs; only the foundations remain.)

Saw this old spooky chimney on the Trail.  This story is well known; it is addressed briefly in the guidebooks but I also looked it up.

In 1927 a Swede, working in the local logging camps, had a cabin here and one night during the brutal 1927 winter he killed his family in an alcoholic rage.  Wife, daughter and two grandchildren.  Being snowbound at this extreme elevation, and expecting to remain so for weeks, he dragged the bodies out onto the trail to freeze.    Later, he cut them up into ‘log-length’ pieces and tied them up in burlap and hid them in his woodpile.       Eventually, he hiked through the snow to the town of Roan Tennessee and confessed to the authorities because his family ‘won’t leave me alone’—calling out to him at night from the woodpile! (The trail to his cabin later being incorporated into the Appalachian Trail.)   Supposedly, many AT hikers have ‘felt’ the presence of ghosts and sadness at this point and you can see where the Trail is considerably widened out by hikers skirting the ruin.   By the looks of it, and all the intact moss, nobody dares to touch it either—I sure didn’t!   Well, if you made it this far in the story- gotcha!  This is just a chimney I saw on the Trail.  Someone must have lived here I guess…

14 May – Beauty Spot Gap to Little Rock Knob (15.6 miles)

Don’t know where this day went…  got going early in a spooky cold fog (sorry I didn’t think to take pictures!) and just plugged along all day, thinking all my crazy thoughts and marveling at some really nice mossy old-growth-looking coniferous forests at elevation.  (again no pictures!)  

“What crazy thoughts?” you say;  here’s one:
Isn’t the idea of having a President embarrassingly antiquated already?  [No specific reference to our current President who happens to make my case in Spades:  I’ve been thinking this for several Presidencies now]. 

Here’s the argument:  why should we let one person make huge decisions that affect everyone which could be driven by whim, caprice or worse:  stupidity or political vengefulness?  How can we be in a position to entrust earth-influencing decisions to a single human with, in most cases, frailties of reason and emotional soundness?  We call this ‘representation’ of the people?  No, it’s a largely false and half-hearted representation of the voters, based on cotton-candy campaign promises during the election carnival, which survive the general election by about 5 seconds.  Then the flip-flops happen and we all make little concerned faces and go on about our business of watching Wheel Of Fortune while parked behind a good meatloaf.  Meanwhile, our ‘President’ wakes up on any given day and simply decides climate change is a hoax, or that we ought to invade Iraq or elsewhere, or that horrible despots are cool people after all.  Or that cute young interns are fair game for romance, or that the biggest financial criminals in the world won’t be prosecuted though they caused world economic collapse, or that maybe we should, or shouldn’t, have a space program, or be drilling for oil in the Arctic.  And enormous resources and prioritization of effort are allocated to these things voters never specifically agreed to.  But again, we have Wheel Of Fortune and meatloaf to console ourselves with.  

We can’t depend on Congress to check our Presidents, (ok-I’ll give you the Nixon thing but it took journalists to force that outcome).  I’ve encountered more spine in a banana than in Congress and no wonder:  their first priority is to remain in office and the rest of their priorities don’t deviate from the first—that’s what I’ve seen. (Don’t get me started on fundraising, voting strict party alignment and making it ok to not answer questions—though even trace elements of integrity would demand public servants not obfuscate.) 
Back to the original point:  how soon before we look back and laugh in amazement that we hung with the President thing so long?  I wish I was already from another planet so I could laugh now.  Let’s get over the Founding Fathers thing…they were smart and brave for their time but they shit in buckets and owned slaves.  In other words, times have changed, and government should change with it.  Right now our concept of President is not materially different from having a King and his advisors (party loyalists).  And you know how we think the King thing was so Medieval….

What’s the solution?

Anything is worth a try…  how about leveraging technology to give every voter a chance to really represent their positions when someone upstream is doing something  capricious?  Or, do away with the Executive having more than administrative power, or elevate Congress to new and more representative powers, subject to term limits and subject to rqpid voter override?  Or, let the Judiciary have some kind of oversight on the Executive—oversight with teeth.  And spine.  I don’t know.  

But global government is inevitable, and when it comes, I hope there isn’t one person at the top who can act like a ‘President’. (You asked!) 

12 May – Erwin Tennessee to Beauty Spot Gap (11.3 miles)

Forgot to show you this picture of a library I went to in Erwin TN; they converted the old train station into a library!  It is right on the railroad tracks of course.  Adorable inside too…

These entire 11 miles were all uphill, gradually going from 1600’ to 4500’ over the  distance with nary a downhill stretch.  That’s right—I said nary. … That’s why I didn’t set any mileage records today though I hiked hard and strong all day.   Still no blisters, still no return of the litany of previous muscle maladies I seem to attract, and still feeling no sickness since the one bout.  😀

I’ve had a strangely suppressed appetite going on many weeks now…  just not ravenous at any one time though I should be-due to caloric expenditure.  I’m still eating for fuel but the magic is gone somehow… I eat more as a task and am not sure what is happening with the appetite.  A natural metabolic change from the exercise?  Or a subconscious protest against the lack of Friendly’s Neapolitan half gallons of ice-cream out here in the woods?  Or is it that I’m drinking so much water that it is fooling the hunger triggers?  Keith- you studied this stuff in college—what’s your guess?