Beauty at the Extremes

The following piece is a short account of a backpacking trip along a section of the Appalachian Trail in New York and Connecticut that, in 2010 during my southbound thru-hike, I had skipped in a blasphemous aquablaze. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an aquablaze means taking an alternative to the marked trail via a water route, which, in my case, involved floating in an innertube down the Housatonic River. From what I’d heard, the trail in this section is quite lovely, and I wanted to see it for myself. At the time of my redemption hike, I was on the lam at my sister’s place in Connecticut. In a month’s time I’d be out west to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. However, getting back on trail could not wait. I needed to scratch the itch that only comes from the wonderful creature called the hiking bug.

Setting off from my brother-in-law’s car for the Appalachian Trail just outside Pawling, New York, I had a limited amount of supplies.  These consisted of a liter of water, a blanket that my brother-in-law’s dog used almost exclusively, a pack for said blanket, and some foreknowledge that it was gonna be cold and I was probably verging on hiking insanity. Three days and two nights out on the trail with no food, and no emergency anything. Just me and my borrowed blanket. Instead of wearing hiking boots, or even trainers, I opted for a 4-millimeter thick layer of rubber with three holes for shoestrings. Needless to say, I was not the spitting image of the typical backpacker.

After hiking up hill and down dale for 13 miles, I was getting a little worried I had passed by the shelter without realizing it, since it was already dusk. Luckily,  I came to the shelter just in time, and to my surprise there was another person as loony as me out there.

My mate for the night, Gus, was on the other end of the loony spectrum. He was 67, Colombian by birth, and carried over 50 pounds of gear for a three day jaunt where every day he would travel four miles. All day. Four miles. Some worms travel faster than that. So here was old man Gus with his gear strewn about, and here was I with nearly no gear to speak of, trying to wrap myself up in a dog blanket and catch up on some sleep. Falling asleep early, I felt vindicated by my fortitude, but that paled in comparison to how I felt the next morning when Gus’s thermometer read 17 degrees.  He told me that he barely got any sleep at all in his -10 degree bag, even while wearing long johns, to boot.

Score one for loony Garik!

Gus then offered me tea, but not just any type of tea.  This was $100 per pound, loose leaf tea straight from China Town. It wasn’t against my fast, and I didn’t want to turn down free water, let alone hot water on a cold morning.  Plus, Gus had about 10 pounds of white gas in his tank, so I figured I’d help him lighten his load the teensiest amount. The tea wasn’t magic, though it came close. Revitalized, I went out across the bridge over Ten Mile River and walked along the short cliffs above the free flowing Housatonic. The whirlpools and rapids added an unexpected element to my stroll. So, too, did all the snow later.

I slaved on with my weighty pack because I knew I had to pay penance. To whom and why I didn’t really get, but the whole, “Gotta pay penance,” mantra sounded good. I’d used it before when I thru-hiked the AT a couple years earlier, and that went well enough. So here I was, shouting: “Gotta pay penance!” alone in the woods, Gus still in the shelter packing up all his belongings.

But, when it comes down to it, hiking is penance.  What’s penance? Penance is taking life as it is; it is full acceptance of your situation and your responses to that situation. While I had no burden to carry in terms of weight, I sure had other difficulties that needed to be worked out. Would I call that a sin? Not exactly, though it requires forgiveness of mistakes if you want to move past them and grow. Or,  in my case, to just keep moving and moving in order to keep warm.

Penance partially paid, I came up to Mt. Caleb, overlooking the idyllic village of Kent and the Housatonic Valley, and made camp. Making camp involved me gathering dry leaves for added insulation and wrapping myself in my dog blanket. Life was rough. The view from the mountain was no alpine wonder, yet it still offered that “cute Connecticut” charm. The sun was a perfect sphere set against an ephemeral backdrop and chocolate brown hills. Then I watched the great light show. I got a more comfortable night’s sleep than the night before, so much so I got up at sunrise to watch the great light show in reverse. I just sat for two hours watching the slowing pace of the sky’s hue change as the morning went on. All the exciting stuff happens at the boundaries, the extremes.

I rolled up my blanket and headed out for the day. Sore as I was, owing to poor training and an outdated gauge of my abilities, I made my way to where only two years before I had taken an inner tube and 9 PBRs, all to myself, in tow down the Housatonic. I remember, while in my drunken state, seeing hikers on the trail and yelling at them because they were NOBOs, sheep shaggers and lolligaggers as we then called them. The joke, that day at least, was on me because only a few minutes later I would be passed out, naked, getting the worst sun burn of my life. Clearly, that’s a story all to itself. This time, however, I wasn’t even a NOBO. I was a measly section hiker with no friends, no inner tube, and no PBR.

The reminiscent river walk over, I popped down River Road to get a look at the houses. As luck would have it, I came across what is likely my favorite house I’ve seen in the flesh. It was an 18th century barn that had few frills on the outside, but was visibly updated. The exterior was painted in a thick, green coat, though not thick enough to cover the individuality of the cuts of wood. Some nice lamps rounded out the decorations. All the street views made me want to knock on the door just to take a tour. But alas, I just hopped back on the trail and went back up and away from the river.

When I got to town later that day, I headed straight for the general store. Since I didn’t have cell service, I figured I’d wait for my brother-in-law for an hour, then ask someone to make a call. Besides, I had told him when and where to meet me. That’s good enough, right? An hour came, and an hour went. That meant I needed to ask to make a call, but first things first. A man’s gotta eat! With ginger ale and jalapeño chips in hand, I was next in line to place my order at the deli when the ol’ bro-in-law popped in. I then bought my customary pint of Ben & Jerry’s to break my fast and relive my days on the trail. Victory never tasted so good, and, let’s be honest, the same can be said for all $10 worth of Taco Bell I had an hour later.

As I reflect on the wild experience I enjoyed while hiking in Connecticut, I realize that it had a lot to do with serendipity. The trail always provides, as long as we let it. It’s a hard lesson to learn, and I keep hiking because I am always due for a refresher course. At times, I like to think there is more to life than that, than going with the flow and simply being, simply hiking. But then again, I don’t want to think too hard.

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