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Saturday, January 23, 2010

The story behind the The Story

Before I knew that I was going to write a novel featuring an individual using the Appalachian Trail as a safe haven to escape the eyes of the law I unintentionally used the AT myself as a head-clearing trip after my last divorce.

Filled with depression and not knowing what way to turn I set out on a journey and ended up humping a sixty-pound pack on the high-grounds of Georgia and North Carolina. I survived to tell the story that eventually went out to become the root of what is a critically acclaimed novel, Blood on His Hands. If you have read the book you will see for yourself.

I had blogged previously on another forum about my personal experiences while out hiking in Northern Georgia and I an going to re-enter those journal entries below so those who  are not familiar with the story behind The Story can read where the motivation for the tale began. These where originally penned in February 2007:

"... Each of us has had, to one extreme or the other those dark feral moments in our lives, when all seemed lost and wished that perhaps we were no longer of this world. Depression takes a wide variety of forms and so mine led me down to it's lowest level. I had been out on my own, surviving day to day as one does after a divorce, and this being my fourth you would have thought perhaps I was used to it by now, but no, failure is never a pleasant avenue to waltz down and one licks ones wounds until you can pick yourself up and move ahead. I had engaged myself with a counselor to try to come to the bottom of why I was an abject failure at relationships, and was attending Divorce Recovery sessions, trying to gain an understanding as to why and how I had gotten to this level in my life.

I was ready to put and end to it all. Needless to say after a succession of failed and botched attempts at suicide I realized that I was not man enough to do myself in physically but needed to find another way to end it all where I was not “pulling the trigger” it were. Looking back and writing now about events that happened six years or so ago now seems pretty lame but at the time I was just scared and tired and ready to give up.

I disappeared. Packed a small bag, and left town. If I was going to die where did I want to go to do that where I would feel the most comfortable, and perhaps never be found. After all at this point only one person knew where I was anyway (due to my inability to give up the cell phone and/or e-mail contact briefly at small town libraries whenever I needed to check in). I put my friends through about as much hell as I did myself. Vegas seemed like a meltng pot to hide and jump off from. I dumped my car on a side street, after all I was intent on ending it all, I wouldn’t need the car (as it was it cost me $600.00 to get it out of the tow shop plus airfare for two at a later date to recover it all!). With Vegas in my rear view mirror I determined to hit Atlanta and head out to the Appalachian Trail in Springer GA and start the 2170 mile trek toward Maine knowing that at some time I would run out of food, water, succumb to the cold, snake bite etc. in an effort to do away with myself without having to do anything but fall over from sheer exhaustion and so the Appalachian trek was on.

After 52 hours on the Greyhound bus, driving through places I had never been from remote towns in Utah, Vail, Colorado with no snow just beautiful green countryside and wonderful houses, to the arch in St. Louis, Missouri and the quaint town of Knoxville, Tennessee - to name the few that made an impression (perhaps I was asleep or missed other stops in the dark) - we arrived in Atlanta. I went and had my head virtually shaved, (who has time for hair care while on the AT)? I has a pocketful of cash having cashed my last paycheck so I looked up the largest camping store in town REI, outfitted myself with about $600.00 worth of sleeping bags, tents, a light weight Kelty Yukon pack and transferred all my worldly goods, along with a small gas burner, a tin cup, plastic utensils, compass, whistle, iodine tablets and a couple of changes of clothing to my pack. I stopped at a dry goods store and added a couple of bags each of oatmeal and egg noodles, enough to sustain energy for a while to get me far enough into the mountains to hide and disappear. I jumped another bus to Springer, spent $100.00 on a taxi to get me to the trail-head and started walking. It was July 17, 2000.

I wish I could say that I at least did this right but having misread the compass I found myself, half an hour later staring at a group of people looking at the bronze Georgia AT Club plague that marks the summit of Springer Mountain, the start of the trail. Apparently my taxi driver had set me down at the wrong trail head! At least now I could say I started from the beginning as I embarrassedly turned and headed back to whence I had come! Besides I really didn’t want an interaction with people that might remember my face should anyone come asking about seeing me. I adopted a moniker for the hike, as most thru-hikers do, my nickname, which seemed more appropriate at this point than any other in my life, 'Sadman'. That night with my sixty pound pack feeling like twice that weight I made it the first 7.6 miles to Hawk Mountain Shelter. There were a crowd of Boy Scouts there that night so without revealing my presence I pulled out my tent, just big enough for one, and camped off to the side hoping that their noise would at least scare off bears and collapsed in exhaustion, a feat I accomplished every night out on the trail, without eating and was soon sound asleep.

During my walking which started at daybreak every day and ended usually around 6pm that afternoon I has lots of time to consider my plight and to evaluate the next step. I had a word with God most everyday and had made it abundantly clear to him that as much as I wanted to end my existence on this planet I did not want to be devoured by a lion or a bear so I asked that he steered those critters from my path, so I could just drop from natural causes. One of the things I discovered when I awoke the next morning was that although I had purchased a small Coleman Dual Fuel stove I had not purchased the fuel! Breakfast was raw oatmeal with cold water; not bad when you have nothing else! Just determined to make it to the next campsite before dark and pushing myself to the point of exhaustion I made it the next 12.4 miles to a sloped grassy knoll off a roadside picnic area known as Woody Gap. I pitched the tent by the road but before I climbed in for the night a group of kids pulled up. At first I thought it was yesterdays boy scouts but after listening it appeared they were some boys penal group with a couple of councilors trying to give city boys a country experience. They were noisy and kept me up most of the night. That I was on a downwards slope and that it was raining didn’t help much either. This was not a wonderful experience so far, but what should I expect from someone trying to waste their life anyway. The following morning I was up at first light. The two camp counselors shared a cup of coffee with me, and I got the first insight on an experience that I had read about on several occasions, the helping hand for strangers from strangers on the AT, also known as 'Trail Magic', they gave me a spare fuel capsule. Wow, at least that day I had hot oatmeal and egg noodles that night. As exhausted as I was from the travails of the prior evening and the days hike previously I struggled mightily that day and only made it about 6.7 miles to Wood’s Hole Shelter at Bird Gap. Try as I might I just could not shake throngs of people. This was however the first real shelter that I came across and there was a weekend crowd that night in the shelter and they had a weenie roast going on. Another group were setting up tents and stringing up their backpacks in the trees with ready made 'bear ropes'. I hadn’t heard the about the necessity to do that yet, but you can be rest assured that I took advantage of that at every opportunity I had after that.

It was at this site that I had time to reflect an my situation and to start to miss my nine year old son back in Tucson and to think how my current situation would be affecting him, and how much I missed seeing him. I was also able to engage in some deep conversation with a camper from Franklin NC named Bud. He and a young fellow named Chuck walked in together, however Chuck left as he had heard rumor of a “keg party” a couple of miles further up the trail at Blood Mountain. Bud and I exchanged pleasantries and thoughts and food. It appeared he had plenty of Snickers bars! Had to hang up the wet clothes on the trees that night as we has had a slow drizzle all day, and I hoped that perhaps a little night wind would dry them somewhat, and pitched a tent and talked a while further before heading for the sleeping bag. We walked the next day, in wet clothes as the drizzle continued. When we got to Blood Mountain Shelter there was no sign of a party the night before, or of Chuck. A couple of miles further down the road we got to Neels Gap and Bud had his car parked there and wished me luck and suggested when I got to Franklin to stop in and look him up. He provided me with a phone number and bade me adieu. He emptied his pack of all the remaining snacks and bestowed them on me as hikers on the AT are tend to do and left me. It has amazed me as I look back on my journey now and read the notes I made to discover that this one man, who made such an impression on me, only walked 4.1 miles with me and yet bought me to realization that perhaps my trek was for another purpose than how I initially intended it to be, and yet we had never discussed my plight much at all. I am a firm believer that God works in mysterious ways and looks out for us in ways that we can never imagine.

Neels Gap was a blessing in itself. A store and a hostel . I arrived around lunch time and found out for $10.00 I could get a bed, well a canvas bunk for my sleeping bag, and a hot shower. I camped my happy-ass there, did laundry, got dry clothes, ate ice cream and microwave burgers and fried pies until I was stuffed! I was the only visitor there all day; at least that was staying overnight, in a large sleeping room with a dozen or so bunks, I sat back in the living room watching movies on the VCR from the ample stock they had and just whiled away the time. Later in the evening a young girl, redheaded and pretty, stuck her face in the door said she had come to inspect the place to see if she was going to stay or head down the road to another place she heard of, and then left. A couple of hours later, as dusk fell, she showed up again. She had gone to the other place but they were closed up so she was back. Again God was working his ways upon me. This was Tyga Hunter, barely 18 and a thru-hiker having made her way down from Maine and close to being finished on the trail. She was a little hippie girl with innate wisdom beyond her years, and knowing I would never see her again after this night poured out my troubled heart to her. As I write these words I am looking at a piece of paper I use in The Thru-Hikers Handbook, by Dan 'Wingfoot' Bruce as a bookmark. I bought the book at the store at Neels Gap and carried it with me as my on-trail Bible, and wrote notes in the margins to remind me of my travels, because after this meeting with Tyga I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was going to survive this trail-by-fire and live. I wasn’t sure that I was going back to Tucson at this point but yes I was going to live! On the paper she left me she stenciled a swirly design in blues and purples and wrote on the back “Mark, Clear your mind and the rest will fall into place. Tyga”. The bookmark remains on page 17 of the book because that is as far as I made it on my journey, which I hope to go back to and finish at some point in the future. With a new outlook on my life and ready to forge ahead I was ready to meet my future, whatever that would be. Already I was thinking river raft guide in Virginia etc. The following morning, with a quick hug from Tyga I headed North. The first thing I stumbled over was a walking stick left for me by some anonymous donor and my enlightened journey began. 

As I recite these happenings in writing for the first time, researching my meager notes and equally meager memories, the one thing that stands out is actually the lack of time, in the amount of actual days spent on the trail, I actually spent on the AT as compared to how I recall and have recounted the tale over the years. I find it hard to believe that in actual fact I spent only ten nights on the trail. The time sequence in my mind seems like it was a least a month. The thirty pounds I lost, plus the 4 inch reduction in my belt size, must have been not just the meager 1100 or so calories I was consuming each day to the 6000 or so I was burning off as I pushed myself to exhaustion, but also the stress and angst I was committing myself too during this time period. Not a day went by without my praying, crying, wailing out loud, and soul searching. The people I interacted with all added to the spiritualism I felt from just being on the trail. When you are alone on the trail with no human contact for days at a time, it is very easy to feel totally insignificant. Time stops. There is no way to describe the little things that influence you; the way running water sounds in the distance as you began to wonder where your next drop was to come from and then how delicious that dirty, scummy, insect filled, drips you scraped from the tiny inch wide stream finally tastes after you have spent an hour filling your canteen and then having to wait the interminably long hour for the iodine pills to make the water clean enough to swallow. How alive you feel first thing in the morning as invisible strands of spider web gossamer hits you in the face every third step as you walk through the rhododendron bushes that shelter all sun from you as if in a tropical rain forest, as you carefully pick your way across roots that you hope are not snakes laying in wait for your foot. Your day is made when you find fresh blackberries on the trail, and even better at your campsite to mix with your oatmeal that morning, and realization hits every time you come around a blind corner and find a steaming pile of bear poop right under foot. Your senses are heightened, ears perked, eyes alert for movement in the bushes, and for the next hour or so you jump every time a branch falls close by or a deer crashes through the brush in close proximity. Every shelter that I came too I found myself adding a short letter to my son back in Tucson to the daily journal that had been left by prior occupants of the shelters. Slowly but surely I was getting to grips with my circumstances and allowing the spirituality of this wonderful place heal my scars.

From Neels Gap I pushed on steadily up and within five miles at the summit of Cowrock Mountain , I met a couple coming from the South. They were from Glendale AZ, just another reminder of what I was still running from. I made it that night a little over ten and a half miles to the Low Gap Shelter. This was four and a half miles past Whitley Gap Shelter but was on a downwards path so I made it in time to find the shelter and a supply of water as I was bone dry at this time. Each shelter I came to I read the diary note books that past inhabitants of the shelters left, and noticed I was reading Tyga’s notes from a few days before as I ascended where she had descended. Luckily just ten minutes north of Low Gap was a gusher so I left my backpack at the shelter and went in search of the water fall I could hear. Water was just poring from a rock fresh from a spring. I stripped off to the buff, after filing up both water containers and adding the iodine pills, and allowed this ice cold blast to run over my salt caked body. The day had been very humid and my shirt was stained white as it dried and the sodium marked my sweat stains. Having no towel I gathered up by sweat soaked clothes and strolled back to the shelter as naked as the day I was born. There was an area to build a campfire, but I was not inclined that night. I was tired and so laid out my tent on the floor to stop the breeze blowing up from the floor boards, laid out my sleeping bag on top and my boots for a pillow and grabbed some clean clothes from the pack.. The shelter was designed like a low ranch house from the old Western movies, with an over hang leading to a hitching post looking like where John Wayne might have tied his horse too. In between the post and the floor of the shelter was a picnic table. I read in the diary here, with no little trepidation, that a bear had stood on this table just last night! It did not take much imagination to see him easily gaining access to the inner shelter, and me, if he should do so again. Also the diary noted that this particular shelter was plagued my mice so badly that it was impossible to sleep as they ran over your body during the night. Great! After securing my pack in the high branches of a tree a couple of hundred yards from the shelter I determined how best to overcome these wild creatures of the night. Firstly I took a peanut butter cracker that I left from the cache Bud had foisted upon me, and crumbled it out on the hitching post. I figured that just might appease the mice. Secondly I determined to be master of the bear by marking my territory. I marched around the hut and urinated in a circle to make it known I was the alpha male that night. I lay down and with a quick prayer to remind God that he and I had a pact to keep the bears away, and that I had done everything I could think of to help him help me I crashed out. Whether there was a bear or mice I have no idea. I slept like the proverbial log that night. The next night the crumbs were gone, I was in one piece still, no teeth or claw marks that I could make out, so I filled up again the one container from the still gushing spring and retrieved my pack and headed off down the trail to the next shelter. This was to prove a decent climb as I ascended from 3040’ above sea level to Blue Mountain Shelter at 3970’. Only seven miles, but along with the rocky path and the rain that fell on and off all day, that was as far as I was able to make it by early evening.

I should interject at some point, and this seems as good as any, having read other peoples stories of similar long hikes in the AT, I had absolutely no problem with bugs, mosquitoes etc. Most every one I read about was consumed alive by these pesky insects. I did have a Deet repellent that I applied fairly liberally at the start of each morning and every night and I was not bitten once. Either that or I bathed so infrequently that even the pests kept their distance due to the malodorous stench that I’m sure I emitted by this time.

Bright and early the next morning I walked the trail noticing from the directions in the handbook, which was now proving to be an invaluable tool I monitoring distance and water sources, that I would be crossing a road within a couple of miles, and since I was growing weary of the tedium of oatmeal or egg noodles I decided, through my paranoia of people still, (as I did not want to be recognized as the face in the crowd assuming that the authorities probably had an APB on me), to try to get a ride into nearby Helen, GA (the trail book told me it was just ten miles to the right) when I got to the roadside.

The wonderful thing about being out alone on the AT was the way time was no longer a factor in my life. I could come and go as I pleased, no fixed agenda, and since I was walking anyway, a hike into town for supplies and back out was just naturally part of what I was currently involved in. The trail kind of zigzagged down and pretty soon I was able to glimpse occasional cars on the road as blurs of color heading down the highway ahead. To my right as I descended was the forest and rolling hills of Georgia, to my left lay a slope all the way down to the road, laden with bracken and ferns and, a small black bear cub! Suddenly all my senses were heightened! I froze, looking around slowly turning; eyes peeled looking for the accompanying parent. I had read the very last thing you want to do is put yourself between a mother bear and her cub. I was less than 800 yards from the road. I could have wept! So close and yet my heart was beating like Cozy Powell’s drum. God please don’t forget our pact, any way but the bear way Lord! Not hearing or seeing any sign of a large black bear I got out of there faster than any other time that I moved along the trail and made the road without incident, and even better within five minutes a friendly driver in a small pick up truck stopped and offered to give me a ride into town. Throwing my pack into the bed of the truck I sat back and listened to his aimless chatter as we headed down the road to Helen.

Having secured a ride I found myself with more time than I expected to wander around the town. The town is an alpine haven; all the homes and businesses looked like they had been pulled from the Swiss Alps and laid here on the side of the Chattahoochee River. I found a bank and utilized my debit card. The job I had walked away from some weeks previously had my check on automatic deposit, so I still had access to a few hundred dollars. I did this reluctantly knowing, from watching all those TV shows about law and order, that this would create a paper trail and possibly alert the authorities to where I actually was! Wandering around I located the library on a back loop of the town and settled down to send off the first brief e-mail that I could so that certain sources back home, not having heard from me know in what must have been an eternity to them, would at least know that, if nothing else, I was still alive. Heading back through the small town of less than 500, I was surprised at the number of restaurants. They must have a quite a tourist trade here. I stopped and chowed down on a huge breakfast of eggs, sausages, gallons of OJ, fresh biscuits. What I site I must have looked to the other occupants of the dining room, though I would imagine by now they are fairly used to the sight of dirty, smelly, unshaven thru-hikers wolfing down food as if there was no tomorrow! After sating my appetite here I walked down the street to Betty’s Country Store. I filled up on fresh fruit, especially bananas and grapes, and lots of nut mixes by the bag full, and so stuffed every available space in my back with goodies, not knowing when I would have the opportunity to restock again on the long journey that was awaiting me outside of the stores front door. Almost reluctantly I remembered that I needed to be on my way and so allowing myself the luxury of an ice cream bar I took off and started the hike back to the trail head. The only really remarkable incident that I recall was right outside of the store just moments after I had crossed the main road, a horse and carriage went by at full speed and out of control, the harnesses dragging on the street. Someone intercepted the horse, who I assumed had gotten spooked, but against my natural curiosity I did not stay and watch; I didn’t want to be remembered. Again I was lucky enough to have a car stop and take me back out to the trail head and so my Northern journey commenced. The trail head at this point is known as Unicoi Gap.  It too is marked with a brass plate similar to the one I had encountered back at Springer. The area here is just so lush and green and wet, and such a joy to immerse one’s self in. That particular day, July 24, was indeed wet. Several times I had to stop in small dry patches I could find on the trail under large overhanging trees where the rain did not quite penetrate. Another five and half miles of grueling up hill trail with frequent stops, found myself at Tray Mountain Shelter, just off of the summit. The views all around from here were spectacular and I was fine with making my way slowly and steadily enjoying each eye-opening panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

The shelter here was about a quarter of a mile off of the main trail. The path was grassy and overgrown with evidence of several camp sites that I could see by the circles of stones and burned ground where fires had been set. This cabin had a new privy hut about 500 yards from the trail. What luxury. There were no bear ropes at this location but a wooden peg, high up on the eaves at the right of the cabin served as sufficient height to get my pack up off the ground and outside, but with protection from the rain. Perfect. I unloaded my gear for the night, and looked around for water to boost my meager supplies. A note in the journal left here indicated that a small stream ran about 200 yards behind the cabin. It also noted that a wild boar had been sited in the area and used the overgrown trail to the stream as his path up into this area. No wonder all those camp sites were back there toward the main trail. Great, more wildlife that I hadn’t expected to encounter! Whistling loudly and banging in rhythm on my tin cup with a spoon I headed down to the stream. Not being much a tracker I failed to notice any little piggy tracks and re-supplied my water and got back to the cabin safely. I boiled up the egg noodles, ate some grapes and decided to toddle off to the privy before settling in for the night. I still had a couple of hours of daylight but the total exhaustion that takes over every bone in your body on this type of hike allows you sleep through just about anything. I sat and did my business, looking out of the doorless privy hole, again enjoying the sweeping views of the Georgia mountains, and thinking how much soaking in a bath tub out here with the same views would be enjoyable. Heading back up the trail to the cabin I pulled up short. There was a pig between me and the open cabin. Now this is no enclosed hut, it’s just three walls with a roof. The entire front is one big open space and a large boar with tusks was standing in the way. Having watched the movie Old Y ellar. I knew how one of these bad boys could rip you up. I stood back, and initially threw stones in his direction hoping he might wander off. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only ten minutes, he disappeared from view around the back and so I took the opportunity to carefully creep forward and made it into the shelter. I could hear him digging around outside, probably looking for roots or truffles or whatever these things rooted around for. He did come back around to the front and take a look at me. I grabbed my stick and knife ready to do battle should he enter my abode, and I started shouting and banging. Now he was tall enough that his entire face, snout, jowls and chin were over the stoop of the cabin, but he gave me one of these looks that I interpreted to mean I see you and as long s you don’t come out here I wont come in there. It was a face off for a few minutes and he eventually strolled away. My sleep was shot for the night! By the next morning he was gone and I was out of there lickety-split.

I made good time on day seven, clipping along at a pace that took me just short of fifteen miles. There was initially a nice down hill hike for about five miles, and then the grueling climb up Kelly Knob at 4,250 feet above sea level. I’m sure that I ate lunch briefly here but had to push as the next shelter appeared to be about nine miles ahead, but all down hill. When I descended upon Dick’s Creek Gap I crossed the road there and on the far side picnic area, asleep on top of one of the tables, was the young fellow Chuck that had walked into camp back at Woody Gap along with Bud. I walked on by him without waking him figuring as young and fit as he looked once he awoke he would probably outpace me and be ahead again. I pushed on to Plum Orchard Gap Shelter. This place was a castle compared to the other shelters so far. It was three stories, and a true log cabin style shelter. Apparently the military had it flown in via helicopter and assembled it for thru-hikers to enjoy, and boy did I ever. After washing up in a nearby stream so that I felt a little more human I was preparing my bunk on the third tier when in walked Chuck. He finally caught up with me. Not long after that a man named Mike showed, so we got a fire going. Mike was ready to get off the trail the next day and had an abundance of food left over, in the way of freeze dried meals, (beef stroganoff) so we had ourselves a feast. Mike gave each of us a couple of meals to take on our way for later use too, so this was an enriching experience in many ways! We lay around, telling tall tales of our journey so far, late into the night. We became aware of a bat as it swirled around our faces, squeaking. Not fancying being bitten during the night, in case it was inflicted with rabies, we decided to take the bat out. With the help of a flash light beam to “freeze” it the wall, and Chuck’s hearty walking stick (Chuck was a hearty country boy from North Carolina, used to being outside roaming the countryside at will. He always carried a huge stick that looked like a rain stick, you know the kind that when you tilt it the seeds fall to the other end making a rain like noise. He called it his frog sticker, and he had fashioned it so the one end was larger with a hidden compartment where he kept a spear head and fishing gear, just in case!), I smashed the bat into the wall! It fell, leaving a smear of fresh blood on the cabin wall , but with all that excitement we all three finally packed it in, and each of us, with out own tier to sleep on, fell asleep.

My eighth day started out being one of the better ones on the trail. Yes, that’s right there was a handfull of blackberries growing on the nearby brambles to give my oatmeal a little sweetener that morning. I needed that extra sugar since the climb ahead of me was a dour one. Luckily Chuck was heading in my direction too, and although he climbed ahead of me most of the way with little conversation, it was pleasant to have the companionship of another human. Within the first four miles, with Chuck barely a spot on the horizon, we crossed the State lines into North Carolina at Bly Gap , having risen 830 feet in altitude in that short space of time. The next three miles climbed an additional 900 feet and by the time I reached Muskrat Creek Shelter, Chuck was a distant memory and I was soaked in sweat. I had to stop and grab lunch while trying to keep my heart rate down. Talk about burning off calories! All the time my senses were heightened too, as at every available trail head and notice board along the way the authorities took every precaution to remind you to the fact that North Carolina is a bear sanctuary; in other words if attacked by a bear you might be arrested if you hurt it!

The next portion of the trail was as much up as it was down with rolling hills and by the time I finished a little over twelve undulating miles for the day I caught up with Chuck at Standing Indian Shelter. There were several tents here also as a family with several unruly kids seemed to have taken over the shelter. I was exhausted and in no mood to put up with a bunch of kids, and Chuck seemed to be of similar mindset. I can’t say we booted them unceremoniously out of the hut, but before long, as we prepared our bedrolls, the noise level dropped and they all seemed to disappear to their tents. We slept like logs, neither of us much in the mood for conversation as the total climb of 1,710 feet from our last camp had been the toughest yet.

We woke early the next day. I had rained during the night, and the family’s camp fire smoke was blending with the fog as it rolled through camp, causing rather an eerie spectacle through the low lying trees. We quietly sat up and dressed, scrounged a little food, and then headed over to a nearby brook, just a hundred yards away, and washed the salt from our faces and filled up all the containers with fresh water. Chuck had a pump to purify the water and I continued to use the iodine and purifying tablets I had. The way ahead was a hard one, if you believed the notes in the handbook. In the next half mile we were to ascend 800 feet above sea level, the first time on the trail that we would go over the 5000 foot mark, until summitting at Standing Indian Mountain. At least I was taking on this climb while feeling refreshed from a good night’s sleep. I rejoiced more than ever that I was a “morning person”. This was my best time of the day. We decided to meet up at Big Spring Shelter, if we both made it on time (in other words if I could hack it!) which was a distant fourteen and a half miles ahead. This would be the longest mileage that I would have walked in one day, and of course the hardest part of the trail. I was, by this time of my journey, starting to feel in pretty good shape, walking with a sixty pound pack and dropping plenty of weight. Every day I looked back and realized that joining the down town YMCA in Tucson had been such a wonderful idea. For 3-4 months prior to starting on my journeys I had worked on the weight machines three or four times a week (I had no social life being newly separated and divorced) working on back and shoulder exercises. Now having to hold up this back I realized it would have been impossible, or at least a hell of a lot more difficult, to have made it this far without having completed the weight regime. Again, pre-planning without realizing it; God has away of influencing us without knowing he is. I had run four marathons over the last couple of years prior to this and so I knew that I good handle endurance, as I was a slow but steady runner. I usually did not bother with weight training so I must have been influenced to start that up without the knowledge of the physical and mental strain that would materialize as I began the re-discovery journey of my life. The thought I always maintained as I climbed up was at least when you get to the summit you get to go down, and that was always good in speeding up the journey. It was a struggle going up and Chuck was soon, again, a distant memory, as I struggled and cursed and sweat along the trail. When I got about half way through the day, and at about the half way mark for the day too, I reached a new shelter at Carter Gap. Here was little trail magic, for hanging from the ceiling in the shelter was a small black mesh bag full of crackers, dried fruit and foil packets of tuna, and yes, the bushes had berries. I took about an hour to rest up, stuffed myself with the contents of the bag and feeling revitalized, shook of the weary ache in my legs and headed back out, after leaving the by now customary note in the journal here. The next seven miles or so were relatively easy compared to the morning's climb, or at least until I reached the bottom of Albert Mountain. To the left was a fire road that looked like it would have made the next part of the trail a little easier, but being a purist at heart I knew that I had to tackle the difficult slope. That seemed like a metaphor for my ongoing mental struggle at the time so I took the plunge and stepped up. The trail here is rocky and straight up for almost a quarter of a mile. It was slow going and I often had to dig in my walking stick and use it for leverage to pull myself and this heavy old pack up the mountain. As I reached the summit and pulled myself up the final ledge I was happy to find Chuck, taking a nap in the late afternoon sun, on the grassy knoll. Here also is a fire tower (I had glimpsed it protruding through the branches as I had climbed), and after resting up and catching my breath, and letting the heart start pumping normally again, we climbed the tower and took in the amazing views. You could look in all directions and see no trace of humanity, as if you were the only beings to exist in the world. The sun was starting to set, so we reluctantly came down from our perch at the top of the world, and within about a mile reached our destination at Big Spring Shelter. We were the lone occupants of the campsite that night. After securing our packs up in the trees it was Chuck’s turn to unburden himself on a me and tell me of his family and how he had grown up as teenager. Our lives could not have been anymore different, and I was enthralled with his tales. In the end he decided that once he got to Fontana Dam, some 66 miles ahead he would get off the trail..I was still undecided about how far I would go, or could make it before winter would set in, and I was figuring perhaps Virginia. Knowing that Chuck would out distance me the next few days he planned on leaving me his supplies at the dam, at a site he told me about behind a tool shed. He gave me a handful of home made fire starters, and some matches to aid me until I reached the dam. We fell asleep watching the stars twinkle so far away.

We hiked together for the next half a dozen miles, fast paced all down hill cutbacks until we reached the road at Wallace Gap. Following the Old Highway 64 for about a mile we made it to Rainbow Springs Camp Ground,  a hostel.. My journey for the day was to end here, and Chuck was going on the Franklin, NC about four miles ahead. This was where Bud, the gentleman that both he and I had befriended  before Blood Mountain, resided. Chuck intended going to town and call Bud hoping, I suppose, for a meal before he headed back out again. Chuck seemed in no rush to leave so after securing a room we both hung out at the camp store and ate a candy bar and drank a soda as I did my laundry at the attached launderette. Finally he was on his way and I headed over to the bunk house. I was the only occupant again (I was getting used to that by now) so I secured myself a bottom bunk on the far wall. Heading over to the showers I spent an eternity letting the hot water drain the grime and salt from my face and body and actually used soap and shampoo for the first time in what seemed like forever. It sure beat crouching over a freezing cold mountain stream half naked cleansing the dirt from body parts as best as one could. I headed up for the camp store again, bought food to use in the microwave at the bunk house and prepared for the afternoon to kick back, eat and read from the extensive volumes of Reader's Digest Condensed Novels that sat in the bookcase. No television here, just a warm stove, a comfortable bed with a quilt and food. Luxurious, what else could a man in seclusion need. Well there was one additional item, and that arrived unceremoniously with a knock at the door. The door opened and the smiling visage of Bud appeared, followed by a cooler with a couple of beers! I pumped his hand until he must have thought his arm would falloff. He explained that if I made it into Winding Stair Gap by eight the next morning he would stop by and pick me up take me to breakfast and help me re-supply with food and fuel, Another story of trail magic that just happens to make the AT such a special place.

I was up and ready to go early the next morning, and was sitting waiting on Bud when he pulled up in his red pick up truck. Franklin was about ten miles ahead, and we started the day with blueberry pancakes and coffee at a local restaurant. I told him that I would like to use the Internet if there was a local library so he dropped me off with a promise to swing back by in about an hour after he ran some errands. When I opened my e-mail account up there was a message from my cousin in England. I didn’t even know she new my e-mail address. It was a simple message. “Your brother Peter has been trying to reach you. Here is his phone number.” Talk about being blown away. I had wondered for the last few days how to reach him as a subliminal message from on high had told me I needed to. From the pay phone outside the library I called collect; in tears I listened as he told me how he had been in contact with my ex-wife and the authorities in Arizona and that everything had been sorted out and I should go home. Not only that but no charges had been filed against me and that he was coming to see me as soon as I got there. Bud must have wondered what had hit me when showed up an hour later. I can imagine the mess I looked like, and not just from the trail. The salt on my face was that from tears not sweat. I struggled between gasps of breath to explain to him all that had happened, and he, like the true friend he was, listened patiently. He drove me to the bus station and waited with me, giving me some words of wisdom about life and the changes we go through on our journey as we sat and waited for the Greyhound to arrive. Thank God for the people he puts in our path when we need his help. It was like being in the presence of a guardian angel. My time had come, this is where I had to leave the trail behind."

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