By George Lancaster
Hiking the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. How I always forget the pain. Preparing for another trek I’m like a mother expecting her second child — the prolonged agony of past experience is but a distant memory, replaced by the joy of anticipation.
And so it was when the three of us started out that April day in 1980. We practically pranced up Springer Mountain, excited about the four days ahead. Anne, from Connecticut, a classmate from college in the Midwest and down South for the first time, was proud of her new, modern equipment. Seeing us in our gear the first time, she’d made fun of our stained wool pants and red sweaters. And bright orange hunters’ caps.
“You all really fit in ’round these parts,” she said, trying and failing a Southern accent.
I merely exchanged smiles with David, a high school friend. We’d hiked together before and appreciated the vagaries of Southern mountain weather. And that the forests were shared by others, some of whom you’d never dream of seeing up close back home. We once made the mistake of hiking in late November. Dressed only in muted greens and browns, we’d spent a miserable three days in fear of imminent death. All I can remember was the incessant gunfire, and the boy, his rifle nestled in the crook of his arm, proudly standing by the bleeding remains of a gutted three-pointer straddling the trail. It was illegal to hunt within a hundred yards of the AT, and if they ignored that rule, maybe they’d ignore them all and hunt year round. Ever since, being noticed took precedence.
The morning we left Decatur, Georgia, the town David and I called home, the skies were blue and the breezes benign. By the second day on the trail the weather had collapsed into a driving rain, transforming the more eroded sections into raging creeks. The slippery trail turned steeper — the AT took perverse pleasure in attacking mountains head on. A tricky descent followed each ascent, and each summit rose higher than the last. Calves screamed going up. Knees buckled going down. Reaching the campsite, we barely got our tents up before we fell exhausted into a fitful sleep.
Rain fell hard all night and our tents leaked, soaking my synthetic sleeping bag. But I had stayed warm – man-made fibers, even saturated, retain body heat. Down, though, if wet, is reduced to tiny clumps of almost nothing, providing as much insulation as soggy newspaper. Water oozed from Anne’s down sleeping bag as she stuffed it into its carrying sack. She put on a game face when I inquired about her night’s sleep.
“I slept fine,” she said stoically, and I took her at her word.
Midmorning of that third day we reached a high ridgeline, and a biting wind hit us broadside. Slanting rain slashed into our eyes. Sudden wind shifts brought a fog so thick we could barely see two feet in front of us. We stopped for lunch, but our fingers were too stiff with cold for the dexterity required to prime our gas stoves, so we shared cold deli meat and soggy trail mix under a rocky overhang that did little to deter the elements.
Anne refused to eat. Her eyes were hooded, her skin pale. The wind had whipped her poncho into a flapping scrap of plastic, doing nothing to prevent rain from permeating her down jacket. She shivered uncontrollably. David and I implored her to eat something, anything, but she responded only with a head shake and a barely audible grunt. I offered my jacket but she waved me away. Fearing the effects of further exposure, we numbly headed onward to the safety of the distant shelter.
At 4 in the afternoon we finally struggled onto the summit of Blood Mountain. The area around the mountaintop shelter was stripped of saplings and ground cover, leaving it one big boot-sucking pit of black mud. Opening the shelter door we were shocked to see garbage piled high in every corner of the one large room. It stank of rotten food, stale beer and underneath it all, animal decay. Water dripped from the ceiling, creating rivulets that snaked across the floor. Parts of the building had been ripped away over time to add fuel to the immense fireplace in one corner. There used to be thick shutters covering the one window; now the freezing precipitation came howling in unimpeded. Until our arrival we hadn’t considered the effect of Blood Mountain’s proximity to a paved road just two miles down. The hike up, though arduous, was easily attempted by day and single-night hikers who weren’t in the least bit concerned with the conditions they left behind.
The sight hit me like a punch in the gut. Imagining a clean, warm shelter at the end was the only thing that had kept me going for the last two miles. Despite the cold-enhanced bone weariness and mental fatigue, we now faced more work. We didn’t have a choice. We were stuck in that hellhole for the night. Our tents were sopping from the night before and they weren’t designed for high winds. Besides, Anne had to get warm, and stay warm. She needed the fireplace.
Mindful of the dying light, David and I set about making the room livable. While he went out to gather firewood I hauled the trash outside. A crumpled sheet of black plastic lay at the bottom of one pile and I stretched it over the window, taking care to cut a few holes in it so the wind would pass through without ripping it away entirely. David quickly built a roaring fire and placed Anne close to the flames but she continued to shiver as violently as before, her teeth clicking loudly. I then wrapped her in my wet sleeping bag and hoped for the best. We prepared a warm meal, which again, despite our best efforts, Anne refused to eat. By now her lips had turned a frightful blue.
Energized by a full belly, and naively assuming the best for Anne, I left her with David and ventured outside. The wind sounded a steady roar and I yearned to feel it up close. On Blood Mountain’s summit is an exposed cliff facing west. I found my way onto it in the dark and stood at the very edge. The wind came straight at me, not in staccato gusts, but in a steady pulsating surge. Leaning forward, the wind held me. I leaned even further out, spread my arms wide and balanced over the precipice, at an angle impossible to sustain under normal conditions. It felt like I was flying. A spark of lightning brought me quickly back to my senses. In the brief flash I saw treetops under my feet too far below for comfort.
Returning to the shelter I discovered someone new had joined our little party — a middle-aged man dressed entirely in bright blue expensive Gore-Tex and sporting a shaved head. He and David were chatting away as I entered the room. The air near the fireplace glowed with heat, but Anne, sitting next to the blaze, stared vacantly and shivered as before.
“Listen to this, George,” said David. “Ben here is hiking the whole trail. He’s from Maine and is walking home! Nice start, eh?”
“You’re not kidding,” said Ben, as he stirred some mac and cheese on his small stove. “I thought I’d left the cold behind.”
Bald heads make even the gentlest folk appear menacing. And here we were up on top of a storm-addled mountain with a domed stranger, with nowhere to turn if he suddenly brandished a weapon. His next words, though, immediately dispersed my fear.
“You know,” he said, grinning, “I cut it all off to keep me on the trail. I don’t want to be seen by anybody I know until it all grows out. Figured it’d keep me focused.”
We chatted a while longer, our voices getting louder as we adjusted to the approaching thunder. Then Ben calmly said, “Your friend there, she’s not going to get any warmer. You know she’s got hypothermia.”
“What?” asked David. “What the hell is hyperthermia?”
“HyPOthermia,” Ben corrected. “A medical term. She’s been too cold for too long. Her body can’t generate enough heat so she’s slowly freezing to death. One of you will have to sleep naked with her tonight. It’s the only cure this far from a hospital.”
Before his words had a chance to sink in, lightning struck a direct hit on the shelter. The ear-splitting thunderclap hid the sound of the door slamming open. In stumbled two couples, soaked and mud-spattered. The two young men had beards, rough skin and beer bellies and they each held half-finished bottles of Jim Beam. They weren’t wearing foul-weather gear, just jeans and flannel shirts. The women, dressed for spring, were visibly chilled and their mates kept urging them on to drink from the bottles. “It’ll warm you up!” they cried in unison.
As the women put the bottles to their mouths, beer belly number one (BB1) called out, “Ah’ll be gol-durned! Ain’t this a fahn fahr!” He moved toward the fireplace while looking around at us for an encouraging retort, but we stayed silent. I’d grown protective of our little enclave and I didn’t relish additional company, especially the loud and uncouth kind. I stayed silent, frowning, willing David and Ben to join me in focusing brain waves of hostility at them. Hopefully they’d get the message and leave. David ruined that plan by speaking out.
“So, where y’all from? You also going back to Maine like my friend here?” he joked as he placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder.
“Hell, no,” said BB2, in all seriousness. “Drove over from Ellijay. Barely made it up ’ere from the road two miles back! You ain’t tried ass-breakin’ work ‘til you wrastle all yer ’quipment AND two cases o’ beer up ’at trail in the dark. Sheeit! That lahtnin’ scared the shit outta us. I mean the ladies.” He yanked a bottle from one of the women and took a protracted gulp.
My angry silent treatment failed miserably as the four settled down around the fire. BB1 waved his hand in front of Anne’s face. “Whatsa matter with yer girl, here? She don’t blink, an’ she’s praticly in the fahr! Lookee here. See? Her sleeping bag’s smokin’! So how come she shiverin’ like ’at?” He looked around quizzically.
“She’s got hypothermia,” Ben said drolly.
“Hypowhat? The hell is ’at? She some sorta druggie?” asked one of the women.
“It’s called hy-po-thermia,” continued Ben patiently, dragging out the syllables for emphasis.
“She’s so cold, there isn’t a fire that can warm her back up. She could freeze to death.”
Pointing to David and me, he added, “The only way to save her is for one of these fellows to sleep with her tonight and transfer his heat to her. And they gotta be naked or it won’t work.” Ben could be dramatic. I’d heard this twice now and it had me scared.
BBs 1 and 2 raised their eyebrows, grinned and grabbed their crotches. I knew what that meant. They thought they had a remedy hotter than fire.
“You shittin’ me?” said BB1 looking over at one of the women. “You mean all this time I coulda got me some, jess sayin’ I’s cold?”
He jabbed an elbow in BB2’s ribs and winked for all of us to see.
“Not likely,” said Ben under his breath so only David and I heard him. “By the way,” he added, loudly this time, “if I were you I’d stop drinking. It’s thinning your blood, robbing you of heat. If you aren’t careful you’ll get what’s she’s got. And you need warm bodies to bring the frozen ones back to life. Speaking for myself, I can’t see volunteering for that job. How about you guys?” He looked over at David and me.
Nothing stops a good time like sound, practical advice. Before we could reply, the BBs squinted their eyes and scowled at Ben. They backed off from the fire, gathered their women and made for the door. At the threshold, BB1 turned around and asked gruffly, “Hey, uh, can one o’ y’all give us a hand? We ain’t stayin’ in this rat hole no more and we got tents need settin’ up.”
Greatly relieved, I went out with David to help unroll and stake. The rain held off but thunder crashed frequently, and the lightning brought the swaying trees eerily to life. Just as we secured the tents, pea-sized hail bounced painfully on our heads. As if someone had dumped a large bucket of marbles upon us from high above. The couples quickly escaped into their tents without so much as a thank you and we scurried back into the shelter. The hail and the wind sustained a deafening pitch against the walls and roof. Anne, meanwhile, sat placidly, a little whiter, a little less alive. Not convinced Ben’s cure would work, panic began to well in my stomach. Most of the firewood was gone and the glowing embers wouldn’t last much longer.
But before we turned in I felt compelled to set the record straight.
“Sorry, Ben,” I said. “We’re not all like that in Georgia. I’ve lived in Decatur all my life and the closest I’ve ever come to that is watching ‘Deliverance’.”
He took a second to reply.
“You ever been to Maine?”
I shook my head.
“Let’s just say rural folks are rural folks, wherever you are. Just different accents. You know, I’m disappointed they didn’t stay. They’d’ve had some funny stories.” He smiled and began unrolling his sleeping bag.
His words shone a fresh light on my own reaction. Of feeling anger and dread at the first glimpse, assuming dangerous behavior. An uncomfortable realization popped into my head. My god, I thought, am I prejudiced? But setting that right would have to wait until morning.
Tonight I had to take care of Anne.
We were close friends, and only that. I valued our platonic engagement and hoped to keep it that way. But this was life and death, and though we’d be naked, the circumstances weren’t titillating in the slightest. I spread my wet sleeping bag on the muddy floor in a corner of the room as far away as possible from the window. David helped me carry her over before he retreated a respectful distance and began preparing his own bed. Taking her clothes off proved difficult as she offered no cooperation to the task. Like wrestling with an adult-sized sleeping baby. Once we were in, I discovered the zipper couldn’t close but halfway. Sleeping bags are designed for single occupancy, and though she was small, and I squeezed as close to her as possible, it was still one too many bodies. Nothing protected my bare back from the cold, wet and mud, but I had no other choice – according to Ben, anything less than direct skin-on-skin contact could jeopardize the cure. Whatever suppressed fantasies I may have had about sharing naked space with a woman were summarily dashed. Anne was ice-cold, out cold, and shivering like a scared puppy.
I dozed on and off, envying Ben and David their ability to zip all the way up within their cozy cocoons. My arms, wrapped around what felt like a vibrating block of ice, turned numb and prickly, and my back stayed exposed to the frigid air blasting in through the holes in the plastic sheet on the window. I wondered how the couples in the tents were faring, and what, if anything, I could do to make amends in the morning.
Anne’s stirrings woke me with a start. In the dawn light I found her eyes looking deeply into mine, a dreamy smile spread across her face. She no longer shivered and her skin radiated heat against mine. She seemed quite pleased to have woken up naked with me. I suddenly realized my false assumption on a shared sense of platonic love and scrambled out of the bag, mumbling something inane. My body ached but I couldn’t get into my wet clothes fast enough. Though happy to see the pink glow on her cheeks, I squirmed at the implication of her smile. Now what? I thought. With the evidence before us, how do I express pleasure (at her beating the odds) without also expressing interest (for her sexually)? Taking the coward’s route I left it for another time. In the end, it took the entire next term to work it out.
David had stoked a small fire and we gathered around the fireplace. It was just the three of us, Ben having already moved on in the early hours. Anne had no memory of the day, or night, before, her brain having shut down to conserve her body’s dwindling energy. She was famished, and we ate heartily anything and everything we had left. No sense keeping anything; we were about to re-enter civilization. Packing up we suddenly heard high-pitched squealing outside.
David opened the door and stood still for a second. Then he shouted, “Damn, wouldn’t you know it!” and ran outside. Anne and I reached the doorway together and we beheld a wondrous vision. Six inches of snow smothered everything in pristine white. No mud met our gaze and tree limbs bowed down from the weight. A dark blue sky, untarnished by clouds, formed a welcome backdrop. A pair of footprints traced a path toward the trees. We followed them and the squealing grew louder. In a small clearing we found the two couples and David engaged in a spirited snowball fight. He waved us over and soon we were all throwing icy projectiles at each other, the forest ringing with our collective delight. For the duration there was no “us,” there was no “them.” The snow had brought us together. We had found common ground.
The snow began to melt quickly under the warming sun and I walked over to BB1 with my arm extended, meaning to apologize for my behavior the night before.
“Sorry about last night,” I said, as we shook hands.
“Wasn’t yer fault,” he said, nodding sagely. “That bald guy was a real asshole. Couldn’t hep hisself, I reckon, bein’ a Yankee.” Before I could explain he’d turned back toward his friends.
Oh well, I thought. At least I apologized.
We shouldered our packs and waved to our new friends as we headed down the mountain. In a parting shot, nature sent a last squall of sleet our way, but by the time we reached the road the sun had returned and we were sweating in the heat. I smiled at Anne, her face contorted by laughter at something David had said. I looked back up the trail with longing, a sense of joy eclipsing any lingering memories of pain and fear. Less than 15 minutes had passed since we’d descended and the AT was already weaving its magic.
I couldn’t wait to return.