With the film releases of WILD and A WALK IN THE WOODS, stories based on long-distance backpacking have, at last, reached a mainstream audience. Thru-hiking the AT is not just about pain, hardship, and perseverance, it’s about triumph, love, and joy. The experiences faced by my six main characters along the way make NOMADS a compelling read.
Chapter No Chapters-character changes
Solitude, Equation, Chase, Solitude, Equation
I’m tired. Bone tired. The kind of tired that makes you want to cry when no one’s looking, or even if they are. It’s a little disconcerting being so beat, when I’ve only been on the trail for two and a half weeks. I mean, I knew it would be hard, but I never expected it to be this hard. Not so soon, at least.
It was unseasonably hot when I left Springer Mountain and it got even warmer, despite the fact that it was only the first weekend in May. Through Georgia, the temps topped out at eighty-five, with this dry Sahara-like wind that sucked the moisture from your skin faster than you could replenish it, just like the desert—not that I’ve been there, the Sahara, that is—but now, it’s cold again and the wind’s back to damp and raw. I’ve had to wear my winter gear for the past forty-eight hours and spent two sleepless nights at the Mount Collins and Pecks Corner Shelters trying to keep warm. It was a losing prospect, despite the added layers I’d bundled up in, and I’m totally exhausted from lying awake and cold. It would have served me better, probably, to forget about rest and just keep hiking.
Overhead, the sky’s clouding up. I can hear thunder rumbling in the distance as I check my AWOL Guide to chart my progress. It’s disappointing. So far today, I’ve made it only six miles. I’d planned to hike twenty-three and a half to Davenport Gap, but with the weather moving in and the fatigue in my legs, I’ll be lucky to reach the Crosby Knob Shelter, a shy thirteen total. Although thirteen’s not terrible, it’s short of the fifteen mile a day average I have to maintain in order to reach Mount Katahdin before Baxter State Park closes for the winter. I know I’m going to have to bump it way up and stop taking these short days if I hope to finish the trail without flip-flopping the end.
I push myself faster as the sky grows dark and the wind dies out. There’s an ominous silence in the forest, broken only by the ever-closer claps of thunder. When the first drop of rain hits my shoulder, I stop and pull my cover free from my pack, yanking it tight around my belongings. My rain jacket’s way on the bottom and too hard to dig out, so I leave it there and hope I can make it to the shelter without getting too wet.
I’ve passed no one all day, so it surprises me when, upon rounding a sharp bend, I come across a couple of hikers who’ve also stopped to cover their packs. The woman’s older, I’m guessing late forties, while the guy’s closer to my age—her son, perhaps, or nephew. She’s talking about making it to Crosby Knob as she pulls her blonde hair through the back of a baseball cap and lets it dangle in a loose ponytail that reaches just past her shoulders. Turning, she notices me, startling slightly as though I’ve caught her sneaking penny candy. “Sorry,” I tell her. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”
“No worries,” she replies, wrestling her pack cover free and draping it over the top of her blue Osprey. “The wind takes the sound. Are you thru-hiking?”
I nod. “You?”
“Yes. I’m No-No and this is Chase.”
I’ve been using my trail name for a while now, but it continues to sound awkward. “I’m Solitude. You guys headed for Crosby Knob?”
She eyes the sky and shrugs. Raindrops leave dark splotches on the olive green of her cap. “If we’re lucky.”
“Mind if I tag along?”
The guy smiles and my heart gives a jolt. I’ve seen him before, back on the bridge at NOC. It was only the one time, but once was more than enough to cement his face in my memory. He’s cute, really cute, with blonde hair that falls across his forehead and a rough beard. His eyes are the same clear blue of the sky on a crisp September day, or a robin’s egg. In fact, I realize, they’re the exact color of mine. I can feel the heat of a blush rise to my cheeks, and bend down to fiddle with my bootlace, hoping he won’t notice.
“Where’re you from, Solitude?” No-No asks.
It’s a question I try to avoid, being equally embarrassed by Niagara Falls and Utica. Upstate New York’s nothing special, particularly the part I come from. Unless you’re into monster trucks and stock car racing, or watching the water flow over the falls, there’s no good reason I can think of to go to either city. I flip a mental coin and go with my last place of residence and birth city. “Utica, New York. You?”
“Maine,” she replies. “Close to Rockland.”
I’ve got no idea where Rockland is, but I nod anyway. “You, too?” I ask Chase.
“Naw,” he says. “I’m from Massachusetts. Boston.”
His accent gives it away. He sounds just like Ben Affleck, or Jimmy Fallon, or who’s that guy? Another comedian? Dennis Leary.
He smiles again and I’m about done for. I wonder if he can tell. “Are you headed to Davenport Gap today?” I ask, as the rain falls harder.
“No, no,” No-No says. “We thought we’d camp at the next shelter. Try to avoid getting too wet.”
“Hopefully there’ll be room,” Chase adds. “It looks like it’s going to be a rough night. Good thing we don’t have the dog.”
“They don’t allow dogs at the shelter?” I’m confused. I’ve seen plenty of dogs at plenty of shelters. Besides, there’s no sign of a dog around, at least that I can see.
No-No looks wistful and shakes her head. “They don’t allow them in the park. I wanted to bring him but I never registered him as a service animal. Same thing happened at NOC. I wanted to hang out for a day, but they wouldn’t let me rent a cabin as long as I had Easy with me.”
She smiles but looks sad, as she reaches for her Lekis. “We should probably get moving if we want to get to the shelter before we get soaked, huh?”
Striking out, she continues along the trail without waiting for either of us to follow. I turn to Chase, wondering what I said wrong. “It looks like I hit a nerve. She really misses her dog, huh?”
He shakes his head. “She’s been moody all day. Something’s eating her, but she doesn’t want to talk about it.”
“Maybe you should go with her.”
He stays put and waits for me to load up my pack as the shower turns to full-on rain. “I think I’ll give her a couple minutes. She’s got some shit she’s dealing with and she probably needs some alone time.”
He looks concerned, though, and I’m struck by the possibility that, despite their age difference, they’re more than just friends. “We’re all dealing with shit,” I say. “That’s life.”
He shrugs. “Some people’s shit’s worse than others.”
If he only knew the half of it. “Do you know what it is?” I ask him. “What’s bothering her?”
He shakes his head. “Nope. We started hiking together just before Hiawassee and we’re friends but, to tell you the truth, I don’t know much about her personally.” Shouldering his pack, he starts north up the trail. “Some things are better off not knowing, don’t you think?”
I hurry to catch him. Somehow, I’ve managed to make a piss-poor mess of this first meeting. Then he turns and grins, and it’s all okay. Whatever I said, it’s not that bad. Chase, at least, is still smiling.
I’m sitting along the trail with my AWOL open, trying to figure out how far it is to Hot Springs, when I get stung by three yellow jackets. It’s the last straw. My feet hurt and my back’s killing me, and now I’ve got a bunch of welts that itch and sting. Despite making a couple of friends and having a few fun nights along the way, I’m done with the AT. There’s nothing I want more at this moment, than to quit.
But I can’t figure out how to do it without pissing off my father.
He’ll be mad after all the money he’s spent, and he won’t make any bones about telling me so. I can see it now: me and him in his office, with me in the hot seat like I’m facing the firing squad and him across his desk…Torquemada at the Spanish Inquisition. “I didn’t expect you to make it all the way, Sam,” he’ll say, leaning back in that leather chair he loves, half-sloshed on hundred year old scotch. “But I certainly expected more of an effort than this. You didn’t even make it to the Virginia line, son. I didn’t raise you to be a quitter.” Then, he’ll shake his head and pour another finger of Glen-something or other, all full of himself from his latest business deal as he gives me that half-disgusted look of his before signaling my dismissal. If I’m lucky, he won’t add what we’re both thinking: Not that I didn’t expect it.
When it comes to meeting my father’s expectations, I’ve never fail to fail. I’m not athletic or funny and I’ve never come close to being popular. Had I possessed even one of those desired traits, I might have passed muster, but I don’t. And my weight only adds to his disappointment.
All my life, I’ve been fat. I don’t know why, but it’s the sad truth. Over the past twenty-two years, I’ve been through every program in the book: Weight Watchers and Nutri-Slim, Lean Cuisine and Slim Fast. I’ve walked and jogged and aerobicized, counting calories and points like a zealot. There’ve been untold nutritionists and thousands of hours on treadmills, fad diets and common sense but, at the end of the day, nothing has helped. Despite my best efforts, the scale stays constant and I remain hopelessly overweight.
“You take after your mother,” people say, for lack of a comment more positive.
If it’s so, I can’t see it. Mother’s rail thin and perfectly coiffed. Politically correct, she’s almost never emotional. Except for the color of our eyes, a murky fish-pond hazel, we’re about as similar as a celery stick and a watermelon. And as for resembling my father, my tarnished apple fell even further astray. When it comes to our lack of similarities, you’d probably guess I’d been sired by the milkman. Or the mailman, with whom I have a little more in common…fifty pounds, at least.
Pleasing my parents has always been difficult. If my father had his way, I’d be the star quarterback (first choice), pitching ace (passable second), or singles champ (just okay). As it is, I’m horribly inept at all three sports—I can neither throw a pass, pitch a strike, nor ace a serve. My athletic talent’s so non-existent, in fact, he gave away the family ping pong table before I hit the ripe old age of ten. There was no point in keeping it, he said, when I couldn’t return anything more than three balls in a row.
His hopes rose for a while when I went off to boarding school, but they only fell harder when I called home a week later to report the unappreciated news that I’d joined the Math Club. On the other end of the line, my father’s sigh was heavy. “At the very least,” he said, “I thought you’d row crew.”
On the flip side, I’ve always been a serious student. Whether my parents respect the fact or not, my grades speak for themselves. I was valedictorian of my class at The Salisbury School and graduated from MIT Summa Cum Laude. I’ve earned full-ride offers to grad school from MIT, Harvard, and Stamford, and am, in fact, beginning a masters/PhD program at my alma mater in January. You’d think that my intellect would buy me some points on the home front, but in my family good grades pale beneath the golden glow of athletic prowess.
My failures are no big secret around our house, and neither mother nor father sugar-coats their criticisms. This is nothing new. Take, for instance, my seventh birthday, when I crashed my brand new bike on loose gravel in the driveway. There I was, all scraped up with blood running from both knees and rocks embedded in my palms. I managed to get up and limp inside looking for—I’m not sure—the kiss to make it better, maybe? Or soothing words of comfort? But no, neither of those was in the cards. Instead, my father called me a crybaby and told me to suck it up. “Quit your whining, Sam, and get back on that goddamned bicycle,” he added without compassion. “Or I’ll take it to the dump.”
I did as I was told. My hands were a wreck and so were my knees. Blood dribbled down both of my shins to my brand new Air Jordan’s, staining them this dull pink that never came out. The next morning mother had our maid, Bertie, scrub them, but it was no good; the leather was ruined. I didn’t want to wear them anymore but she refused to buy me another pair, forcing me to put them on each and every day, a pitiful reminder of my ineptitude, for another three months. Mercifully, after that, I outgrew them.
The biking debacle wasn’t the only day my mother and father failed Nurturing 101. There was also the time that I asked Katie McGowan to the middle school dance. We were friends, you know? Sat beside each other in two or three classes and studied together in Open Library. Still, friends or not, I didn’t really expect her to say “yes”. To my total amazement she did. I was both elated and terrified.
I went home and broke the news to mother and father, who seemed more shocked than I was. With the two of them unresponsive, Bertie rushed in to dispel the stunned silence, congratulating me and offering to help me buy a suit. (Bertie’s like my fairy godmother. She’s old and sweet and my best friend. With no one else to care about me on the home front, at least there’s Bertie.) Rising to the occasion, mother shelled out some cash and gave her the keys to her Mercedes. “Try to keep it under two hundred dollars, and be back in time to serve dinner,” she admonished.
Off we went downtown, to this place that specializes in suits, where Bertie sorted through them for one that would fit the bill. It took her only ten minutes and she gave a grunt of satisfaction as she pulled it from the rack and held it up for my approval. I remember it to this day—a charcoal gray three-piece ensemble that was a little long in the arms, giving me the look of father’s banker friends, in miniature.
“It’s grand,” Bertie said, standing back to get the full view as I modeled it for her. “I’ll just put a little hem in those cuffs and it’ll be perfect.”
My suit purchased with shoes to match, we moved along to the florist’s shop where we spent an hour picking just the right combination of flowers for the corsage for Katie’s dress. Confident that someone would ask her, she’d already picked one out. It was a ruffled Laura Ashley number, she’d told me. Soft pink.
By the time we got home, I was feeling a lot more confident.
Bertie reinforced my optimism. “You look nice, the flowers are pretty, and Katie likes you, Sammy. Dances are meant to be grand fun. What could go wrong?”
The fateful day arrived. On the night of the dance, my mother and father drove me over to Katie’s house and walked me inside to meet her parents. I shook her dad’s hand and her mom helped me with the corsage. Everything was going perfectly, until my father opened his mouth. Then, while Katie and I stood there waiting, he went into a half-hour diatribe of my inadequacies.
At the end of it, I was totally mortified, her parents were embarrassed, and Katie was looking at me like I was something worse than pond scum. She hugged the door on her side of the back seat, keeping as far from me as possible. When we arrived at the school, she preceded me through the door like we weren’t even together.
I spent the rest of the night going through the motions, bringing her punch and cookies and telling her she looked pretty while she hung out with her girlfriends at the edge of the gym. The entire night, she barely looked at me—we never even danced! When my father picked us up to drop her home, she offered a perfunctory “thank you”, and went inside without so much as a peck on the cheek. I was almost relieved when the door closed and she was gone. The night had been bad, but at least it was over.
“It didn’t work out but it’s not the end of the world,” Bertie consoled me the next morning at breakfast. “Go into school and be her friend again. You can do that, can’t you Sammy?”
On Monday, I bolstered what little confidence I had left and went to my first class, prepared to do just that. But as it turned out, Katie wasn’t interested in resuming our old friendship. “You’re a loser,” she told me, loud enough to start the whole class snickering. “Even your dad thinks so.”
And that was the end of that. Katie cut her losses, casting me out of her social circle, and I sank deep to the bottom of the barrel of social misfits, where I floundered for the rest of the year.
It was miserable and I hated her for a while, but looking back now, I can understand her cruelty. I mean, who could blame her? What girl wants to hear about how her date pissed his pants at his grandmother’s seventieth birthday party? Or how he threw up in the middle of his aunt’s wedding ceremony after sneaking into the reception area to scarf down the top layer of the six-tiered cake? My father had black-balled me so thoroughly, I completely understood her disgust. I was disgusted by me, myself. That’s my father for you. In a nutshell.
Anyway, when you get right down to it, I guess I love him anyway—it’s just that I don’t get him. So telling him I’m quitting because I’m tired and got stung by bees is something I suppose I can’t face yet. Bolstered by the usual motivation of fear and shame, I resolve to hike a few more miles. The state line’s about five hundred miles along, and a respectable distance to reach before I hang it up. If I can make it to Damascus, I can honestly tell my parents I gave it a good effort. Once I’m there, I’ll call my Aunt (the other one, whose wedding I didn’t ruin), and ask her to pick me up. Then I can go home, visit my grandparents, and spend the rest of the summer at the beach. After that, there’s grad school and Cambridge, where I can sink into the pleasant pastime of classes, labs, and everything academia—something I’m good at, for a change.
I leave Chase and No-No at the hostel when they stop to collect her dog, a scruffy-looking mongrel who Chase refers to as “The Little Bastard”.
It’s almost a relief to move along without them, No-No in particular. There’s something off-putting about her—like Chase belongs to her. He doesn’t look happy about it, but they’ve been together for a stretch now and he stays the course, remaining at her side instead of moving forward with me. I’m not too worried about leaving him behind. I can tell he likes me. Now, the ball’s in his court—if Chase decides I’m what he wants, all he has to do is leave No-No and hike a little faster.
It’s not that far now to Hot Springs, and I’m eager to get to town. I’m almost three hundred miles into my hike and nearing the quarter-way mark. I text Cookie to tell him the bad news, but he’s unconcerned. Three hundred’s a long way from twenty-two, he texts back. Keep walking, honey.
I wonder if he’ll really cough up the money when I complete the trail, or if he’ll come up with a good excuse not to? So far, I’m holding up just fine.
With Chase and No-No behind me, I spend two days hiking alone. On the third morning, I meet up with a girl called Peace Frog. As we cover the final miles into Hot Springs we get to know each other. She tells me she’s taking a zero there, and asks me who else I’ve seen lately.
“Chase and No-No,” I tell her. “Tigger, Air Max, Muddy Waters, Numb Thumbs, Grace, and Equation.”
Her eyes light up for a moment, and I guess that she’s sweet on Chase. Why wouldn’t she be? All the girls are sweet on him.
“Are you taking a zero?” she asks when I’ve finished my who’s who of hikers still behind us.
“I was planning to, but now I’m not sure.” Pausing at the south end of Main Street I get a good look at the town. Hot Springs is hot, temperature-wise, but definitely not bustling. “Doesn’t look too happening, does it?”
“From what I hear, this is as happening as it gets,” she says. “At least until we get to Damascus. Besides, I think it’s quaint. So. You staying?”
“I think I’ll resupply, grab a bite, and decide later. How about you? Are you going to hang here for a zero?”
She nods. “I’m waiting for someone.”
Chase. It has to be. Peace Frog doesn’t seem to be his type, but she’s pretty enough—if unconventional—and she’s certainly interesting. My jealousy’s as unexpected as it is irrational. I’m not with him, so why should I care? I shake it off and tell her I’ll look for her up the trail. Then I turn toward the store to replenish my dwindling resources.
Hot Springs may be a one horse town, but it has the sole essential that every thru-hiker needs: a Dollar General.
“You’re a writer.”
For once No-No doesn’t say ‘No.’ I turn and know I’m right by the look on her face. “Aha. A writer! Gotcha!”
“It’s only a hobby,” she says. “It doesn’t really pay the bills.”
I’m intrigued. I’ve never met a real writer before. “What’s your genre? Historical fiction? Sci-Fi? Romance?”
Her blush gives it away. “Romance? Really? As in Harlequins?”
She nods. “Before that, I was a stay-at-home mom. My husband was the bread-winner of the family, you know? I had a bunch of time on my hands after the kids left the nest, so I started writing.”
“So, you’re not, like, Nicolas Sparks, are you?”
“I wish.” She sighs. “It’s a tough market to break into and it doesn’t pay much—unless you really are Nicolas Sparks—but it’s something. My turn now, right?”
I wonder why she doesn’t want to talk about it. So, she’s a Harlequin writer. So what? It’s no big deal—certainly nothing to be embarrassed about. Unless….
She composes herself and I wait while she goes through all the occupations she’s guessed before, starting with carpenter and ending with fighter pilot. Then she studies me for a long moment and says, “Felon.”
You could bowl me over with a marble, I’m that shocked. In all the days we’ve been playing this game, neither of us has come anywhere close to guessing the truth. Now, in two guesses, we’ve uncovered each other’s occupations as though we knew them all along.
“Actually, I’d say ‘thief’,” I admit with a candor that’s unlike me. “But technically, you’re correct.”
Her lips twitch and all of a sudden she’s smiling. “Are you a wanted man?”
I start to lie, then nod. “You can keep a secret, can’t you?”
“I can if you can,” she says.
Which starts me wondering again. “Okay, I’ve come clean, so it’s your turn. What, exactly, do you write?”
Leaning toward me, she lowers her voice. I have to bend close to hear her when she whispers, “Erotica.”
“Erotica? As in porn?” Okay, now you could bowl me over again. I might have suspected, but I never actually believed it.
Her cheeks color and she shakes her head a little too emphatically. “No, no. Not porn, Chase. It’s called ‘hot with plot’, actually.”
I’m quiet, trying to digest it. It’s a little like finding out MaryAnn’s a coke fiend who supplies Gilligan through the US Mail. “You’re published, I take it.”
“Yes,” she says. “Under a pseudonym, of course.”
“Of course.” My ever-fertile imagination’s off and running. Teri told me once that she was voted her community’s Mother of the Year. How would her friends and neighbors feel if they knew about the porn angle? Probably the same as mine if they found out I’m the one who stole their diamonds and cash during their daughter’s first communion party.
Neither of us has an occupation that’s conventional, and since I’m not really ready to elaborate on mine, I let the subject drop. But truthfully? Her dirty little secret more than surprises me. Truthfully, truthfully? It boggles my mind. I wonder what kind of experience she’s had and if her sex scenes are convincing. “What’s your pen name? Maybe I’ll check you out.”
To my surprise she tells me.
“Jeanie. Jeanie West.”
If you don’t count the Katie McGowan debacle, I’ve only ever had one girlfriend in my entire life. It’s not something I’m either proud or ashamed of, just the sad fact. It was back in my sophomore year at MIT. She was a Statistics major at Harvard named Karen, whom I’d met at a Math-Olympics competition. We weren’t together long—only a couple of months—but it was fun while it lasted. When she ditched me for her old boyfriend, I thought the world would end. But it didn’t. And even though we never get back together, we remain quasi-friends to this day. Friendship…I guess that’s the most important thing, right?
With my experience at love lackluster at best, it takes me by surprise when I meet up with Peace Frog again in Hot Springs. I haven’t seen her since the day she hiked along with me and Grace and, to tell the truth, I haven’t thought much about her either. She asks if I’m taking a zero day and I bat the idea around. “I wasn’t planning on it really, but the way I drag-assed into town, maybe I need one. I probably shouldn’t though,” I add, “I’ve got a lot of territory to cover to get to Damascus.”
“What’s in Damascus?” she asks. “It’ll still be there if you take a zero here.”
“A milestone,” I tell her, reluctant to admit that I’m quitting. “But it sure is tempting to take a day off.”
Peace suggests we hang out, get some food, and maybe share a campsite and, all of a sudden my decision’s made. “Sure,” I tell her, digging for my wallet. “Did you already pick one out?”
We spend the afternoon by the river drinking Mangoritas and Twisted Teas, before heading over to the hot springs to check out the mineral baths. I’ve never really liked the water much and I’m thinking about skipping it, when she takes off her clothes and gets in. All of her clothes! Not just her shorts and t-shirt, but her bra and underwear, too. (Did I mention she has a bright green frog tattoo on her right hip?)
Anyway, I change my mind and climb into the tub beside her and she hands me another Mangorita and tells me to catch up. Then she kisses me, tongue and all, before ducking under to soak her dreadlocks.
Man, I am not expecting that! She laughs when she sees the look on my face and says, “What, you’ve never seen a naked girl before?” Then she tells me she’s been thinking about me since the day we met south of the Smokies.
“Me?! Why?” For the life of me, I can’t come up with a single solitary reason I’d be on her mind.
She shrugs. “You’re not really my type, so I’m not sure. Chemistry, I guess.”
It’s a strange response, but it’s good enough for me. Watching her splash around in the chin-deep water of the hot tub, I’m all about chemistry myself. So we spend the rest of the afternoon together and the evening as well, during which time I get a better look at who and what she is. To my surprise, as much as I’d thought us different, we’re remarkably the same. Peace is a serious student, for one, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology from Penn State. Secondly, she’s also heading back to grad school in January to pursue her Masters—at Boston College, right across the river from MIT! And last but not least there’s her real name—Peace Frog’s name is Samantha to my Sam…how weird is that?
So we cook, and we talk, and we drink a few more beers by the river. And before she heads off to her tent she tells me she really likes me.
I like her too, but truthfully? I think it might be a little more than just ‘like’. Truthfully? I think I’m in love.