2001-08-20

The K-Rock


AT Thru-hikers who had just graduated from high school made a strong impression on me. I spent a day hiking with Wrong Way, and parts of a couple days with Devin and SlowRide. Their maturity and common sense promise great things for the future of our country.

In Pennsylvannia, where the rocks pounded all the sensation from the soles of my feet, I caught up with an informal group of hikers that separated during the day and often met at night. SlowRide was a runner-up high-school state wrestling champion from Indiana. Eagle Scouts Phil & Devin came from Ohio. Toll Booth Willy, a little older, hiked at 3.5 mph in wool socks and rubber sandals. By the time this “posse” got to Springer Mountain, the total number of hikers swelled to ten, including others I knew.

On the first night, these guys had a plan to stop at an old pottery workshop, so as to send out for pizza. So we ate more than we could easily finish and stuffed ourselves to the point of groaning. The only problem with this plan was the 34.9-mile distance to the next convenient shelter.

So, as usual, I got going early. Phil and Devin soon passed me. Plodding on, I would catch up with them when they took a break. Then Devin took it into his head to go full-speed uphill, so off he charged at 4 mph using hiking poles for power, with Phil following
almost as fast.

A minute or two later, Toll Booth Willy caught up. He had started last, and before long, he passed me. Later on, after missing the side trail to a shelter, I came upon Toll Booth Willy again, sitting on a rock in the middle of the trail and finishing a cigarette. We figured Phil and Devin had lunch at that shelter. Toll Booth Willy went on ahead.

The day dragged on and on, and finally I arrived at Peters Mountain Shelter, somewhat out of breath after an uphill climb. Another posse of southbound thru-hikers had just arrived at this new, upscale shelter. There was Toll Booth Willy looking well-rested and blending in with them. An older gentleman, section hiking with his two-grown-up daughters, was also there.

By the time I got water from the spring, Phil and Devin arrived. Then a little while later SlowRide arrived. His shorter legs prevented him from keeping a fast pace, so he had spent the whole day catching up. From the bottom of the hill, he started shouting, “I’m NEVER going to hike that far again! I don’t care if I sleep in a SWAMP! I’m NEVER going to hike that far again.” Pretty soon he was in a good mood, joining others in a card game.

The atmosphere of this chance congregation of hikers spontaneously became festive. The two section-hiking daughters handed out cheese snacks on crackers, so I ate them as fast as they could make them. Their father, whom I’ll call the Warrior, was telling veteran stories with salty language, as if to show his daughters how real men live. It seemed that this was a longstanding family tradition, and maybe now the daughters were taking HIM camping.

Meanwhile, I met the laconic Solo, one of the few thru-hikers from my age group. It seemed that thru-hikers were generally younger or older than us. He wryly commented that younger thru-hikers should do a better job of holding their liquor at town stops.

At some point I heard the Warrior incredulously ask, “Why didn’t he just break off a piece of it?” SlowRide had placed a big rock on the picnic table, claiming that he had carried it all the way from Mount Katahdin. It was oval, like a dinosaur egg, but imperfect at one end. It had to weigh AT LEAST 7 pounds! I was astounded.

In fact, for the remaining 1,139 miles of the Appalachian Trail, I told everyone about this incredible wrestling champion from Indiana and the rock he carried. It was the stuff legends are made of.

Early the next morning, Solo and I departed with our flashlights in the dark. As I prepared my pack near the fire ring, I brushed away some inquisitive daddy long-legs spiders. Nobody told me until much later that SlowRide got the rock from the same fire ring.

The joke was on me! SlowRide must have enjoyed a hearty laugh on many occasions at the rumor of his feat. Not me. I say he got that rock on Mount Katahdin. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

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