The sun scorched the hiker as he crossed Fontana Dam. It was late morning and, though it was only the middle of May, the heat and humidity was already unbearable. Sweat drenched the hiker’s red bandanna wrapped around his head. His mid-weight boots plodded on the asphalt. Despite his discomfort, he stopped for a moment to snap off a couple of photos of the man-made lake and the surrounding mountains, the famed Smokey Mountains. Tucking the digital camera back into the pocket on his waist-strap, he pushed on across the dam and hurried into the cool shade of the trees.
The climb up to the first shelter in The Great Smokey Mountains National Park seemed interminable. Nine long miles he climbed, stopping often to catch his breath and sip from his two-liter reservoir. He had taken a longer break at a cascading stream to fill up his reservoir and rinse the sticky grime from his face, chest, arms, and legs. Other hikers passed him along the way, giving him words of encouragement. He envied their bodies, fit compared to his over-three-hundred-pound blob of wobbling flesh. Breathing hard, struggling with each step, dripping with sweat, heart pounding with threats of an early failure, the hiker persevered until he crashed down onto the wooden floor of the shelter.
“You made it! One step at a time, man!” A young man congratulated him with a pat on the back before dashing off into the woods with a roll of toilet paper and the shovel provided by the park.
More congratulations came from the other hikers. He nodded in gratitude, too exhausted to speak. He permitted himself only a few minutes to rest. Dusk would arrive soon. There were many things to do before he could crawl into his sleeping bag and pass out for the night.
Many days passed in similar fashion along the Appalachian Trail. The hiker climbed the curved walkway to the top of the observation tower on Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak on the entire AT, and sat on the rocky outcropping fondly named Charlie’s Bunion. He hiked in wonder through a corridor of ice-covered trees and bushes on the ridge of the Smokies. He passed a day in the help-yourself hostel for hikers, Standing Bear Farm, where another hiker he met at the hostel gave him the trail name Standing Bear. “It fits you. You’re big, hairy, and you’re still standing,” the other hiker explained. “Yeah, I’m still standing,” the hiker replied, accepting the name.
Onward through North Carolina and Tennessee he continued, still standing after many others quit and returned to the comfort of their homes. In Damascus, VA, he celebrated with a huge dinner and rounds of beer with the hikers staying at the hostel operated by the local outfitter. Though he had never had the chance to really get to know any of his fellow hikers, not being able to do the miles to keep up them, he felt an instant camaraderie with most of the hikers he encountered. He knew exactly what they were going through, and they likewise knew what he was going through.
“463 miles and 54 pounds down!” Standing Bear proclaimed. His companions cheered raucously and chugged their beers.
“1710 miles to Katahdin!” added another hiker.
Standing Bear’s journey carried him through the blooming rhododendrons and rocky formations of the Grayson Highlands, where wild ponies crowded him and ate from his open palm, over the repetitive ups-and-downs of central Virginia, up the many false peaks and down the treacherous crags of Dragon’s Tooth, and to the marvelous views of the Shendandoah Valley on McAfee’s Knob and the storied, rocky walls of Tinker Cliffs. Fewer hikers passed him now so late in the hiking season. He was mainly on his own except for the occasional short-distance hikers and gaggles of youths. Averaging a steady fourteen to sixteen miles per day whereas his fellow thru-hikers were now doing more than twenty miles per day, he did not expect to catch up with the hikers who had passed him by.
So he was surprised when he did catch up with another thru-hiker twenty miles before Waynesboro, VA.
“Hey, Standing Bear!” He was greeted at the shelter by an emaciated man in a blue shirt and tan shorts, all polyester, with wild brown hair all over his face and head.
“Hey. I’m sorry, but I don’t recognize you.” The two hikers bumped their fists in greeting, a custom that developed after several incidences of giardiasis.
“Don’t worry. I look much different now than back in Damascus. We stayed at the hostel and had dinner together. It seemed like ages ago. I’m Raging Wind.” Close up, Standing Bear could see the man’s smooth skin, darkened by the sun, and clear blue eyes. His bony frame and bushy face made him appear older.
“Yup! I run the trail like a raging wind, I’ve been told. I know! A lot of people think it’s because I’m flatulent, but I’m not. I just hike really fast. At least, I used to until I sprained my ankle five days ago. Fucking rocks!”
“I’m sorry to hear that. It’s a wonder you’re still hiking. Shouldn’t bahis firmaları you compress your ankle at least?”
“I should, but I don’t have a bandage or a brace. Thing about going ultra-light is that you have to sacrifice a lot of useful things. I’ve been using my bandanna and soaking the ankle in the streams. Plus, a lot of vitamin I. God bless whoever came up with ibuprofen!”
“Here, you can use my bandage. I’ve carried it since Springer and haven’t used it even once.” Standing Bear leaned his hiking poles against the shelter wall, sat down next to Raging Wind, and unstrapped himself from his backpack. He pulled out a first-aid kit from a side pocket and handed over the roll of bandage. “Do you need help putting it on?”
“Thanks, man. I can manage. You know, it’s good to have another thru-hiker around. I’ve been alone the last couple of days.”
“Me too. Well, I ran into the ridgerunner.”
“Oh, yeah. Did you get an official welcome? ‘Welcome to the Tye River Section of the Appalachian Trail!’ She scared the shit out of me. I came around a bend and suddenly this little old lady was shouting at me.”
“I got the official welcome, plus tidbits about a special flower. I can’t remember the name of the flower, but I took a photo of it.”
They shared a comfortable moment of silence. Standing Bear retrieved his bag of mixed, salted nuts and munched as Raging Wind rolled the bandage around his swollen ankle. He sighed contentedly. This comfortable silence shared with another human soul was something he missed very much. It was far too rare for his liking. Why is it that people can’t be comfortable in silence? he asked himself.
“How does that look?” Raging Wind broke the silence.
“Looks good. It’s not too tight?”
“Doesn’t feel too tight.”
“Good. I should filter water and rinse off a bit. Do you want me to fill your platypus bladder?”
“Do you mind?”
“Not at all.” Standing Bear pulled out his reservoir and filter and grabbed Raging Wind’s. He didn’t notice Raging Wind looking on as he stumped off to the spring behind the shelter.
“Fucking huge!” Raging Wind subvocalized. Standing Bear had lost much of the flabbiness that Raging Wind remembered from Damascus. The man’s trail name fit him more and more. Standing well over six feet tall and heavy set with a pelt of black hair on his hardened limbs, the man truly looked like a standing bear. Even the short, black hairs of his head and face, from a recent trim obviously, reinforced his bearish mien.
They chatted as they prepared and ate their dinners.
“Where are you from, Standing Bear?”
“Western Mass. You?”
“Manassas, west of DC. My parents will pick me up in Waynesboro on Saturday. I’ll need to get off the trail for a while. Hopefully, not too long.”
“Yeah, I hope it’s not too bad. I can’t imagine hiking with a sprained ankle. Hey, where are you staying at in Waynesboro? Today’s Wednesday, so we’ll end up in town on Friday.”
“I haven’t decided yet. I could stay an extra day at the shelter five miles before Waynesboro or camp in the YMCA’s yard.”
“I plan to rent a room at the Quality Inn. It’ll likely have two double beds. You’re welcome to share the room with me. It’ll do your ankle good to elevate and ice it.”
“Thanks, Standing Bear. I appreciate it, but at this point I can’t even afford the usual $10 fee for a second person.”
Standing Bear took note of the young man’s reduced physique. The only hiker he could recall at that dinner in Damascus who fit Raging Wind’s height, color, and voice was slim but buff. Hikers were bound to lose weight on the trail, but the weight loss usually plateaued after a couple of months. Standing Bear was still losing weight after three months what with all the excess fat he was still carrying. Raging Wind had nothing more to lose.
“Hey, when did you start on Springer?” he asked the young man.
“Two months ago. May 12th.”
“I hate to say it, Raging Wind, but you need to get off the trail. You’ve lost too much weight and with your ankle…well, it’s a bad combo. A week or two of healing and bulking up, and then back on the trail. If you’re planning to complete the thru-hike, you may have to flip-flop to Katahdin and go southbound. Once I get home to Mass, I’ll probably do the same.”
“Yeah, I know. You’re right. I’ve been thinking along the same line.” Raging Wind’s hushed voice was tinged with resignation.
“And I insist you stay with me in Waynesboro. I’ll cover the extra fee.”
“Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
They sat together for a while longer, cleaning up their titanium pots and spoons and speaking in sporadic bursts. When dusk arrived, Standing Bear hunted for a tent site big enough for his three-person tent. Two-person tents lacked the floor space for his bulk and large backpack. He considered just sleeping in the shelter with Raging Wind, but he had discovered he slept more soundly in the privacy and protection kaçak iddaa of his tent. Being trail-fit now, he had more than enough energy to deal with setting up and breaking down a tent. Once the bright orange rainfly was staked down, creating a dome, Standing Bear threw in his pack and blew up his sleeping pad. He brushed his teeth and hung up his food-bag on a thick branch at least twelve feet from the ground and four feet from a tree trunk with a thin nylon rope. He felt more at ease having the company of another thru-hiker; he felt less alone.
A white truck stopped to give them a ride into town on Friday afternoon. They sat in the empty truck-bed and grinned as the strong wind cooled them down. The Quality Inn was north of the center of town and across the road from a strip mall. Standing Bear showered first, emerging from the steamy bathroom with only a towel around his waist and split down the side of his thigh. There were still some glistening beads of water on the dark hairs of his broad torso. His upper body wasn’t buff yet, but the folds of flab were entirely gone. His lower body, on the other hand, were hard and massive. His thick thighs and round glutes and calves were tough as stone. He sat down on one of the two double beds, spreading his legs apart, and turned on the TV. Walking by to take his shower, Raging Wind stole a glance between those hairy legs and saw a round pink scrotum partially exposed beneath the towel. Yum, he thought to himself.
“I’m going to go get a trim at the barber shop across the street while you shower and then walk over to Ming’s for Chinese buffet. Do you want to join me for an early dinner? My treat.”
“Have you met a thru-hiker who passes up free food?”
“Neither have I. Thirty minutes?”
Ming’s was unusually fancy and good for a buffet. The hostess asked them if they wanted their own room. “I bet you get a lot of stinky hikers here,” Raging Wind commented to the waitress. She only smiled back and guided them to a rear party-room. After three fully loaded plates of various appetizers and entrees, two fully loaded plates of desserts and fruits, and a small cup of vanilla or chocolate ice cream, the two hikers were at last mostly content. They hobbled back to the motel, their legs stiff and sore from sitting for so long. The rubber tip of Raging Wind’s hiking pole thudded softly on the cement.
It was an uncomfortable night for Raging Wind. Standing Bear had no hesitation about stripping down to his boxer briefs and watching TV while sitting on his bed. The gray polyester fabric cupped his genitals into a round bulge between his legs. His squarish face with well-groomed beard and mustache was relaxed and handsome. The young man noticed a touch of gray hair around the ears. Feigning sleepiness, Raging Wind hid his raging erection beneath the blanket. For once in his life, he was glad the air conditioner was set on high. He slept fitfully, stroking himself quietly. In the middle of the night, he got up to relief himself in the bathroom while Standing Bear slept covered only with the bed-sheets, one leg exposed.
His parents arrived a little after ten in the morning. They were kind enough to give Standing Bear a ride back to the trail, where he and Raging Wind said their farewells and expressed their mutual hopes of running into each other again. “Take care of that ankle,” Standing Bear called out as he headed for the southern entrance to the Shenandoah National Park. “I will. Happy trails!” Raging Wind replied, gazing at the large man’s ass and calves.
The Shenandoah National Park was bit of a disappointment for Standing Bear. He had expected to see plenty of vistas and wildlife. Though he encountered plenty of black bears and deers, some huffing right along side his tent, the vistas were few and often far off the trail. The water sources were abysmal, nothing more than shallow and murky puddles. The dry heat was a curse for hikers like him. He stopped at every wayside restaurant, campground, and lodge to grab a quick meal, quench his thirst with free refills of soda, cool down with blackberry milkshakes, and sometimes to shower and do laundry. Beyond the park, he endured the dreaded Roller Coaster, ten rocky ascents and descents in 13.5 miles, and later arrived at the quaint, historic town of Harpers Ferry, WV. The town nestled between the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, a bucolic tourist trap. The amenities for hikers were few though despite being home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The restaurants were over-priced and their hours accommodated the throngs of tourists who arrived mid-morning and vanished by mid-afternoon. He visited the ATC headquarters, got his photo taken for their album, and caught the local bus to a grocery store to restock. He pushed on afterward instead of staying the night.
He hiked through Maryland uneventfully and arrived at the trail’s mid-point in Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA. He devoured a half-gallon of chocolate kaçak bahis ice cream in one seating to celebrate, joining the ranks of the few hikers who succeeded in this daunting task. His boots got eaten up by the small, jagged stones that comprised the trail through much of Pennsylvania, where it is said that boots go to die. Standing Bear took a zero-day, a day of zero miles, in Delaware Water Gap, PA, to break in the new boots he purchased at the local outfitter. At the hostel run by the Presbyterian church, he frowned as he tallied up the miles to Mount Greylock in northwestern Massachusetts. It was already mid-August. He would have to flip-flop to Katahdin now if he wanted to get through Maine and New Hampshire, the most difficult sections of the AT, in good weather. The thought of running into other thru-hikers who were nearing the end of their journey excited him and sealed his decision.
Several bus rides, an Amtrak from Boston to Bangor, ME, and then another long bus ride brought him to the little town of Millinocket, ME. The local hostel shuttled hikers to and from Baxter State Park. Four miles of vertical ascent, of which one mile was a scramble over large boulders, and Standing Bear was on the top of Katahdin, posing at the sign with a group of seven triumphant thru-hikers. The view from the peak was simply breathtaking, large mountains with bald faces and flat green land pocked with blue lakes. Later at the hostel, the seven hikers fell silent, saddened that their long journey had come to an end and friends would disperse back to the “real” world. Standing Bear stood apart from them, his journey not completed and no solid friendship to miss.
The hundred-mile wilderness, which wasn’t hundred miles long nor really a wilderness, was made difficult by a rocky terrain snaked through with roots and littered with moose droppings. But the bountiful lakes, ponds, and streams provided ample opportunity for an unscheduled swim. He took his time, careful with his footing and lingering at water sources for a moose sighting. He saw the furry horns of a young male bull while soaking his aching feet at Cloud Pond, his orange tent just a few feet away. There were other thru-hikers at the shelter a ways up, but he didn’t relish their company as he had hoped. They were loud, crude, and arrogant in their sense of entitlement. What happened to the humble and tolerant hikers, commiserating in their shared ordeal and yet feeling utterly alive? He preferred his quiet solitude.
The sky darkened quickly with the onrush of storm clouds. The wind picked up and thunderclaps echoed in the depression which formed the bed of the pond. Standing Bear rushed to a tree far from the pond and urinated. He dived into the shelter of his tent, stripping off his shirt and shorts as the heat built up beneath the rainfly. The pitter-patter of rain against his tent turned into a deafening hammering, the wind howling and crashing into the taut fabric. He read his Thru-Hikers’ Companion with a headlamp to kill the time; it was too early for sleep.
“Fucking rain!” he heard someone yell. “Holy shit! I can’t believe this. Is that you Standing Bear? Who else would have an orange three-person tent!”
“Raging Wind? Is that you out there?” he roared to be heard above the rain and the wind.
“None other, buddy! Do you mind if I hammock next to your tent? Not many choices here.”
“Don’t be silly! You can’t set up a hammock in this. Come inside!”
“I’m fine! I can manage. Thanks though.”
“Come inside right now!” Standing Bear commanded with a bellow.
The rainfly zipped open and a little man covered in dark blue rain gear hunched his way into the vestibule. He held his backpack, larger than the one he had used back in Virginia, on a raised knee to remove the dripping raincover and handed over the pack to Standing Bear through the unzipped mesh of the tent. His rain jacket and cover he tied to a short string dangling from the inner seam of the rainfly. Raging Wind peeled down his rain pants and sat his tush inside the tent to remove his soaked trailrunners and the pants, which he tied to another string. He wore the same blue shirt and tan shorts. Once inside the tent, he turned to Standing Bear and said, “Thanks, man. I really didn’t want to set up my hammock. It’s nasty out there.”
“No problem. It’s good to see you…and looking healthy.”
Raging Wind’s cheeks were full now and his limbs robust. His head was buzzed down to the scalp and his facial hair was just a stubble. His blue eyes were bright against his lightly tanned face. “Feel good, too. I took four weeks off. My ankle took a while to heal and my parents wouldn’t let me go until they were satisfied with the weight I put back on. And to top it all, they’re financing my hike now. They’re worried I’ll die of starvation or something.”
He stared at Standing Bear’s buff physique. There was a noticeable firmness to his chest and abs, though they weren’t bulging with muscles. The gray bulge between his legs seems larger on his slimmer body. Raging Wind turned away quickly, realizing he was staring. “Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. I’ll set up my hammock when the rain dies down.”