2007-12-30

The Canadian Penny

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On the thirty-third day of my road walk, I planned two more days of hiking to reach the Southernmost Point. I had always secretly wished to complete a 50-mile distance in one day, but the swelling of my balky ankles ruled that idea out of consideration.

It was just plain odd that my motel was located right before the 50-mile marker on US Route 1 in the town of Marathon, and that I walked past that marker several times on the way to buy groceries and dine. Further, it was odd that my Chinese fortune cookie predicted I would get my heart’s desire. What was my desire? Maybe to get home to my sweetheart by Valentine Day.

And most unusual, I found a Canadian penny on the pavement somewhere near that 50-mile marker. Of the several dollars of coins found during a month on the road, only this coin had been Canadian. I prized the symbol of my long walk.

As for my heart’s secret desire, I did walk 50 miles all in one day. At 2 p.m. the next day, after 30 miles, I took the decision to go for broke. Going 50 miles did not make me feel wonderful. I simply wanted to say I had done it at mid-life.

I also made it home in time to give Tricia a pair of conch shells for Valentine Day. My ankles healed, and I have since learned to keep my physical build in hiking form. The trail has not beckoned again.
Six months after getting home, the phone rang. It was my friend Darek, who once sat in council with the Chiefs of the Lakota Sioux. When I described how some events in my walk seemed to take place on a spiritual plane without my planning them that way, Darek commented,

“Don’t you see? The coin was a gift from Pamola. That Old Spirit was saying you passed the test.”

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2004-02-07

Celebrity


Towards the end of my road walk in Florida, a resort on Long Key in the town of Layton offered the only convenient option for lodging. Having already stayed in places with broken bathrooms, unwashed sheets, and dirty walls, I simply wanted a secure landing place from which I could depart before dawn. Okay, this time I would pay double the cost of a trucker’s motel.

Across the bridge to Long Key, the vegetation in remote, outlying areas blocked the wind. The heat verged on oppressive. My path carried me over the disturbing charred spot of a recent car wreck. Roadside scenes such as this were difficult to ignore when traveling at 3 miles per hour on foot.

Eventually I arrived in Layton, consisting mainly of a fire and police station, where a town dinner was being planned. I reported to the cooks that I had placed a lost license plate beside a police cruiser. The cooks told me to keep my trophy and come back for dinner, too.

So I checked in at the resort and headed for the hot tub. Then I resupplied at the convenience store, socialized at the town party, and broke away to turn in early. Despite feeling groggy, I decided to relax in the hot tub one more time. Gale force winds blew off the water, but the hot tub made any discomfort vanish.

The young man sharing the tub had just driven with his wife and another couple from Michigan, chased by a big snowstorm. Incredulous about my walk, he began praising me enthusiastically. Somehow in his mind, his adventure had been rewarded by meeting me.

Thinking out loud, as if he were planning to tell friends about this chance event, he recited the outline of my story. “I know I talk a lot,” he said. Then he recounted the whole story all over again, adding how impressed he was. After my fifteen minutes of fame concluded, I excused myself and retired to bed.

Shortly afterward, there was a knock at the door. I put my clothes on and answered the door. Evidently the young man had observed which room I retired to, because he brought his wife to meet me. They made a very attractive couple.

“Honey,” he said, “This man walked ALL the WAY to FLORIDA!” As we shook hands, his wife said, “I know he talks a lot. It’s very nice to meet you.” Somehow, she seemed genuinely glad to meet me. As I closed the door, I too felt his sense of elation, for just a moment.

Later, when a noisy car passed me on the road, with arms waving out the windows, I figured it was them. After being mistaken for a criminal, I didn’t much mind their celebration.

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2004-01-30

Armed with Sunscreen


It had been a rough few days of hiking in steady traffic. This morning, the stretch along Route 1 into Vero Beach was a freeway. A lot of hard effort in close proximity to the 18-wheelers.

In downtown Vero Beach a shopping plaza appeared on the left of the four-lane main drag. A highway sign announced the good news: 11 miles to Fort Pierce. Feeling exultant over my progress, I sat down in an empty lot in the shadow of a phone pole to prepare for a hot day. I systematically put sunscreen on head, arms, and legs, along with antiseptic on my feet. At 9:50 a.m., with 69-degree temperatures, and sun shining through hazy skies, the weather had already begun to cook. Apparently the rest stop of exactly twenty minutes lasted too long, because a door slammed in the adjacent flower shop across a driveway, and a pair of young men jeered at me from a car pulling away.

Ten minutes later, about a half-mile further up the street, a police cruiser driven by a woman officer pulled in front of me at a gas station. She jumped out of the cruiser and screamed, “Freeze!” In shock, I stood motionless like a scarecrow, with arms held out from my sides in plain sight, as she patted me down. She asked if I had a knife, so I told her where to find my tiny Swiss Army knife, buried in the pack. As another cruiser drove up, she glanced over the contents of my pack and said that I matched the description of “a bearded man in a baseball cap flashing a knife.” Trying to be helpful, I said the only things I could have been flashing were tubes of ointment.

The tension decreased as she learned more about me. “So you said you’re staying in motels?” she asked, probably thinking ahead to filing a report. I showed the newspaper article about me to the other officer, who relaxed and suppressed a smirk. For an awkward moment, the woman officer appeared uncomfortable. With business concluded, they both left. People at the gas station ignored my pleasantries.

I meandered out of town in a bewildered frame of mind, having lost the advantage of my early progress. As the days passed, I gradually connected the dots. The flower shop had used the police to roust the riff-raff.

The incident taught me to move briskly in future situations where my presence could be considered provocative. Cutting back on rest stops inevitably compounded my foot problems. So when four hurricanes hit the area later that year, I imagined that nature fully repaid the kindness of my benefactors.

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2002-09-24

Emma Jean


...Canoe builder Bill Miller had recommended I contact the trail angel Emma Jean in Kedgwick. When I reached her by phone, she agreed to pick me up that evening after I hiked further ahead on the rail trail. When Emma Jean drove me back to Kedgwick, the wide open views from the road astonished me. The landscape had been obscured by trees all afternoon.

Gratefully, I treated Emma Jean to a fish dinner at a local restaurant. We had a pleasant conversation, part mundane and part philosophical. What a nice lady!

When we finished eating, she announced in a matter-of-fact way, “There are a lot of unemployed guardian angels waiting for jobs. I’m going to assign one of them to you. Tell me the first name that comes into your head.”

Her announcement took me completely by surprise. I blurted out the word, “Pamola,” if only because I would prefer to have that demon on my side, rather than against me.

After I had described the terrain of Mount Katahdin, my experiences at the Chimney, and the Indian legend about the fierce spirit of Pamola Peak, Emma Jean again spoke matter-of-factly. “Pamola is your friend.” Emma Jean stated, “She saved your life.”

In truth, I was more preoccupied with my sore toe and knee than with angels. This talk of spirits and angels perplexed me. I had thought the “demons” I faced on that foggy passage of the Knife Edge were my own, and that such words represented convenient simplifications.

In my mind, the mountain had spared me, not saved me. And why was this spirit a “she” instead of a “he?” How happy would Pamola be to take this assignment? Not very happy at all, I thought...

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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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2001-08-05

Raccoon


With my schedule calling for 6 more miles per day, a sense of urgency put me in a bit of a hurry.

As I walked around Upper Goose Pond (near the Mass. Pike) late in the morning, a disheveled raccoon made a left turn onto the trail and shuffled stiffly ahead of me. He paused to fish around with his claw under a log. His action caused me to catch up within 15 or 20 feet of him.

Seeing me, he arched his back like a cat and hissed with a sort of clucking noise. If he could have spoken, he might have been saying, “Look, I’m having a very bad day, and if you provoke me, there’s no telling what I might do.” Having warned me, he irritably resumed walking up the trail.

We proceeded in the same direction, with him appearing not to notice me as long as I stayed 20 feet back. Presently the trail and the perimeter of the pond came to a bend. The raccoon disappeared behind a knee-high rock, presumably to descend the bank for a drink of water.

Quietly and cautiously, I tiptoed to the bend and peered around the rock. Seeing nothing, I scooted ahead on the trail. No sooner had I taken three steps, when the raccoon ran over the bank at full speed, chasing me with a crazed look in his eye.

Suddenly I was running and he was gaining on me, getting close enough for me see the foam on his mouth. Spotting a sapling tree growing on the bank of the pond, I leapt upward from the trail, pivoting on the tree like a fireman, in hopes that the raccoon would jump off the bank after me.

In a flash, the raccoon ran up the tree toward my hands, so I let go and dropped maybe eight feet into the brush on the edge of the pond. With one foot in the water, I scrambled to my feet, preparing for the next onslaught.

The raccoon had climbed the tree. He reversed direction, walking straight back down the tree. Fortunately, he returned to the trail, whence he came. I wasn’t sure, but I might have heard him mutter, “Some days it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed.”

A pair of fishermen in a nearby boat looked to see what the commotion was about. With false bravado I shouted in a shaky voice, “Bet you never saw a hiker run like that!” The incident caused no damage, beyond some scratches on my elbow and feeling of disorientation.

The next person I met afterwards was a remarkable grandmother. She never told me so, but I later learned through friends that she was thru-hiking the trail for her deceased son.

One-Braid had told me to “Listen to the trail.” Perhaps the trail was teaching me to treat it with more respect... We don’t conquer the trail. It lets us pass.

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