By Captain

Fall 2010

The Appalachian Trail is 2,179 miles long, plus or minus, and the Patio Boys walked 21.79 miles of it, plus or minus, thus covering one one-hundredth of the trail.  

So in just 99 more trips of equidistance we will have walked the “AT” start to finish.  Given our current rate of two trips per year, we will finish in 2060, when Silver Pops (our oldest member) will be 111, which will give him the high distinction then of being the oldest living human to have walked the length of the trail.  Crack open the best bourbon. Throw the biggest log you can find on the campfire. We're excited already.

Should we pull this off, we’ll be in that elite and honorable company of “Thru  Hikers” – that is, those 10,000 or so pertinacious hikers who’ve walked the trail end to end. They hiked all the way “thru.”  Should we fail, we’ll instead be “Through Hikers” – that is, those who quit without finishing. They were “through” with the blisters, noodle dinners that taste no better than if you salted and boiled your socks, the relentless monotony of flora and fauna (if you've seen one fertile frond all you need to see) and peeing within reach of ticks and chiggers.

There's no dishonor is quitting the AT. Vince Lombardi said "winners never quit and quitters never win" but he was speaking in terms of 100 yards not 2,179 miles or even 21.79 miles. Bill Bryson quit and then wrote the most famous book ever on the AT. He got crazy rich.  So if we quit, we’d be in the elite company of the most famous Thru Hiker turned Through Hiker.

Bryson, who is from Iowa but who moved to England and now talks fancy, as if ordering tea and crumpets with every sentence, disappointed a lot of readers when he walked only 870 miles of the trail.  But as Sir Bryson explained himself, that’s like walking from Chicago to New York. Not many people do that, and fewer still with 40 pounds on their backs. Hats off to Brit Bill, whose book “A Walk in the Woods” is worth every penny of the $1.89 it costs used on Amazon.com, especially if you secure free shipping.

Think of it this way. If Sir Bill had walked the whole trail the book would have been way too long.  As it is, “Walk” is 416 pages just to cover 40 percent of the trail.  Had he walked the whole bloody trail (Britainized Bill no doubt would say “bloody trail, and without shame), the book would have been 1,048 pages.  Who reads books that long?  Only onchocerciasis victims, confined to bed for weeks of intravenous injections of obscure drugs with awful side effects, and therefore nothing to do other than read thousand-page books.  Of course, the “Twilight” crowd also reads thousand-page books, but only if there are clearly drawn vampire metaphors to retell the otherwise dull story of teen-age libidos run amok.  Suffice it to say the Twilighters would rather have a stake driven through the heart of their wan anti-heroes than read 1,048 pages of middle-aged male humor about hiking.  As for onchocerciasis sufferers, ochocerciasis isn’t a disease you get from watching Ochocinco overcelebrate the touchdowns he often makes when the game isn't on the line.  That's onchochincocerciasis, which is characterized by a strong sense of objection to millionaire football stars showing up on reality TV shows where they select women as if they were on the back lot of Thomas Jefferson's farm, oblvious to any contradiction, whether historical or contemporar. Onchocerciasis is river blindness.  If you go river blind, you aren’t going to read one page of a “A Walk in the Woods,” much less 1,048 pages.

Enough math. Enough history. Enough sports medicine.  I want to tell you the story of the Fall 2010 hike.

Followers of our past hikes know the Patio Boys have endured our share of accidents and incidents.  We have been lost -- or as we prefer to describe it, “misplaced”. We have been soaked by enough rain to shake the faith of Noah.  We have chipped a quarter inch of ice off our kindling just to get the meekest of fires to sputters feeble flames in Arctic conditions.  We have run out of bourbon and Diet Mountain Dew. We have been offended by the smell of our own bodies.  We have endured blisters larger than our own feet, which may seem impossible but is not.  We have seen one of own disappear in cloud of thick black smoke in front of us while driving home, a function of his putting four quarts of oil in a four-cylinder engine that was one quart low because, hey, he checked the manual and it said the capacity was four quarts.  We have been dehydrated and hungry, tired and sore.  We have even hiked with a recent liver transplantee, Murph, who had clearance to summon in a medical helicopter to the eastern Kentucky holler of his choosing should the need arise to be evacuated to the Cleveland Clinic.  In fact, it did arise. He just ignored it and walked on,  resting every five steps until he got to the car. Bill Bryson, top that.

Like I said, accidents and incidents.  For a scribe such as I, misfortune is a gift.  It’s honey to the bee.  It’s sweeter even. It’s more like another response from the online dating service to Sean, the unmarried Patio Boy who carries his CrackBerry on the trail, just in case Miss America responds to his ad.  She hasn't, but single divorced mothers who smoke and who aren't seeking men fixated on past relationships but who like to cuddle while watching NASCAR seem to ping him frequently along with their glamour shots. It's amazing how cute a girls can look in an NFL jersey if the lighting is just right.

Misfortune is material I can work with.  I’ll give you an example: Ank sat down atop a wall at the Wayah Bald observation tower that nearly toppled him to oblivion.  Ank also is trail-named “Billy Goat” for his surefootedness.  Ank doesn’t slip.  He’s as solid on his feet as they come.  He's a human Jeep. He's what that primordial fish that first crawled from sea to sand dreamed of being: upright and certain to remain that way. Betting on Ank not falling would be like betting Obama will offend the Tea Party.  Count your money. You won.

Ank had calculated that if he sat just right the bottom of his pack would rest squarely on the back portion of the top of the wall, thus relieving the weight of his pack from his shoulders for a moment or so while he enjoyed the view from the bald. Alas, he miscalculated. The pack overhung the edge of the wall, which was built around a precipitous and surely maiming if not fatal drop.  Ank's pack missed the wall, resting upon thin air, otherwise known as nothing at all.  The pack gave in to gravity and pulled Ank off balance until he nearly tumbled toward an opportunity to meet Elvis in person.  All of this in a split second – the same split second in which Ank’s billy goat instincts kicked in.  He righted himself, leaning forward toward the bald’s solid ground.  It was, as they say in sports, a good save, but unlike in sports, this one was life or death.

So you see, misfortune, even near-miss misfortune, makes for good material if you are a writer.  Hence the whole crime genre and the “Law & Order” franchise.  No mayhem, no story.  No  murder, no script.  But we are neither interested nor willing to sacrifice Ank to the writing gods.  His happy ending is going to have to do.  And besides, the near fall left us with one good trail joke about the ability to stay erect while hiking: Is that erectile dysfunction?  And how would you treat it?  Blue pill or yellow?  With apologies to Viagra and Cialis, here would be the medical advice: The blue would be situations anticipated and singular.  So if you knew you were going to fall over next six hours and fall only once, take the blue pill.  If you assume you will fall several times over the course of the coming weekend, take the yellow pill.  Don’t take either with excessive alcohol, and if your erect walking lasts more than four hours, seek medical treatment immediately.  Also, if you take the yellow pill you may end you day in a discarded bathtub for some inexplicable reason.

By not falling, Ank  left me without a real theme for this essay, or so I feared for a time.  Then it dawned on me: The theme is the Appalachian Trail.

The Patio Boys have been on the AT a few times, but only for part of a spring trip here, or a fall trip there.  We were visitors; interlopers, dabbling dilettantes. This trip, our Fall 2010 venture, was our first hike exclusively on the AT.  Never mind that we did only one one-hundredth of the trail, we have an AT story to tell. And based on the literature, ours is legit and aligns with the peer-reviewed research of Thru Hikers and Through Hikers alike.  And why shouldn’t it? Political pollsters routinely tell us what America thinks of this or that. Do they interview all Americans?  Of course not.  They don’t even interview one one-hundredth of all Americans.  So there you have it.  Proof that our four days and 21.79 miles is a representative sample of the real, authentic AT experience.  What we learned amounts to an AT primer.  It’s not the definitive text.  It’s not the Bible.  By all means, consult other resources before hiking “thru” or even 870 miles.  But we learned a few things, which I, as the Boy's designated scribe, share in the spirit of trail bonding that is the basis of our website:

Good weather is good. We’ve experienced foul weather, friends, so we know its misery.  But on this trip, the sun shone.  The temperatures were perfect for hiking – 40s, 50s and 60s.  Not too hot, not too cold.  On the way home we stopped at the Clingman’s Dome Overlook and saw snow on the trees at high elevation.  We felt lucky that we never hiked so high as to experience that.  

Were we to hike the AT again, all or in part, we’d love to have good weather again.  There’s nothing bad about it.  The cute little counsel you hear from time to time about how you can dress for foul weather is secretly perpetrated by the outdoor clothing industry, so as to continue exploiting Third World children in textile mills located just past the boundaries of the local Christian mission.  The truth is this: You can dress for foul weather but you can dress also for pleasant weather and the latter is more pleasant to dress for and the clothes weigh less.  Neither wardrobe helps those exploited children; only a serious commitment to social activism will accomplish that, and that's apparently out of fashion, at least in our congressional district.

The AT is more social than most trails. We met a lot of good people along the way, including a few quirky people, each of whom enriched our experience.  Yes, we hike for solitude and so we can catch up with each other. We update each other on our kids, our jobs, our home repair projects, our sports betting. We don’t hike to add Facebook friends.  So on most trips, we are delighted to enjoy each other’s company and stay the hell away from everyone else.  But the AT draws a crowd, perhaps because it is so famous.  Not a big crowd, but a crowd.  Furthermore, hiking a section of the AT usually is done point-to-point , so people get on one place, get off another, and thus cross paths in between periodically.  You keep leapfrogging each other.  Maybe Group A is moving faster at the start, but stops for lunch at 11 a.m.  Group B walks past them and says hello, then stops for a late lunch at 1 in the afternoon, so Group A moves back ahead and the two groups exchange hellos once again, getting to know each other in increments.  Before long, they’re naming their firstborn sons after each other.

So it was for us with a group that included one man who was the spitting image of Peter as in Peter Paul and Mary. Peter Minus Paul and Mary got to know us.  They also got to know Gimbli, the friendly boxer who accompanied us on this trip.  Gimbli, at each successive rendezvous, would bound up, wagging his stub of a tail as if it were the remains of a good cigar. Irrestible.  Gimbli was to us what a Wal-Mart greeter was to Sam Walton, our hail fellow who well met strangers.  Had Peter Minus Paul and Mary been about 40 years younger, then you might expect to see some first-graders named “Gimbli” show up in six years somewhere in a school district down south.  In the end, Peter twisted a knee and hitched a ride back to town before the final night on the trail.  We had “through” envy, but pressed on, as did Paul and Mary (neither of whom looked much like Paul or Mary).

And then there was Kelly, who maybe looked something like the pre-PBS Mary -- otherwise, she wouldn't be hiking, right? Kelly, reared in a real estate family and so wise the deal making,  sold her Florida office services business for enough cash to give her the freedom to travel the world.  She’s hiking the AT piece by piece over periodic long weekends.  Often, she hiked with a friend, though this time alone.  Soon after starting, she’d found  and connected with a companion, Richard, who walked about her pace and provided her with something that women hiking the AT need – a safe male companion.  While the AT is safe more or less, rape and murder occur, so a woman hiking alone is not as safe as a woman hiking not hiking alone.  As one guidebook aptly put it, the trail is a respite from modern life but not so insulated as to be immune from its ills.

We encountered Kelly and Richard any number of times long the trail, so we got to know them better each time. Kelly had a map and the pages from a guidebook, which alerted her to an upcoming apple orchard, which she in turn told us about – and so we all had an apple feast in the afternoon sun of cloudless, beautiful day.  Were you hiking 2,179 miles from Georgia to Maine, you would remember days like this one all of your life and especially on days of your life when you were stuck on some obscure, rocky part of the AT on a cold, wet day when a fresh apple might as well be a sirloin perfectly cooked by Bobby Flay.

Of all the people we met on our little bit of the AT, no one made quite the impression – or made it so fast – as Don Chicken Feathers.  Don, who showed up in our camp after dark, his resonating stage voice dripping with the accent of a man who learned to talk south of the Sweet Tea line. The Sweet Tea line, if you don’t know, is that demarcation being the true divide between north and south, more so than the Mason-Dixon Line – below it, all tea comes sweet and above it you have to ask for sugar.  Footnote: If you order a biscuit and it comes with a butter knife as well as a bread knife, you also are in the South. Yankees are tacky about this, buttering their biscuit with the same knife used to acquire their gob of butter. This transfers biscuit crumbs to the butter stick, which is gross.  On the trail, there’s no butter, so this doesn’t avail itself.  But trust me; this is a culinary issue of consequence and an absolutely unassailable detector of whether you have crossed the Sweet Tea Line.

“Get that light out of my eyes!” Don commanded.  It was Don’s way of saying, “Hello. Delighted to make your acquaintance.  I’m on death’s door and could use a hand.”

We’d heard Don’s approach and gone to investigate. It was as night as night could be.  We had finished dinner and settled by a nice campfire with sips of bourbon and stories to tell.  Don, on the other hand, was still hiking and headed, he thought, toward water and an AT shelter  “that I know’s around here somewhere.”

The problem was, Don was delusional from lack of water and food; he was exhausted from hiking too far too fast.  He was not a young man. Sixty-five he told us, but on this night he looked 85 at least, and in no shape to live to be 86.  The bright light was bugging him, and he told us so – which seemed an impudent way to great your rescuers.

What happened made you proud to call yourself a Patio Boy.  Two Boys headed to the shelter to see if there was any room left to camp there.  We knew that Kelly, Richard, Peter Minus Paul and Mary, and his two companion hikers might already be there, and perhaps others.  Since the shelter might be full, we tried to persuade Don to stay put.  We had room for him.  It took some convincing.  Don was a little stubborn, in the way that mules are.  Finally, he acquiesced, and two of us set up his tent for him. Another loaned him a camp chair to rest his weary bones.  We got him some water and, because two Patio Boys are nurses and one an ex-Air Force medic, we gave Don the benefit of free health care, which included the very sound assessment that he needed to get some fluids and food into his system and then bed down.  This, friends, was a rescue.  It was almost an accident or incident.

Next morning, Don was refreshed.  That dinner bell of a stage voice he was born with boomed, “Good morning” to the first Patio Boy to slink from his tent, and had the effect of waking up every other Patio Boy.  Salient point: We left home at 3 a.m. and drove seven hours so this was the first sound sleep in two days.  Don’s disruption didn’t endear Don to the Patio Boys exactly, though all in all it was great to meet him.  We found some comfort in seeing a willful 65-year-old man persisting and persevering on the trail.  Don’s wife had gone to Vegas, and he asked her to drop him off for a few days on the AT.  We like that.  In addition, he carried an alcohol stove – something most of us haven’t seen before and it was interesting to see that ultralight staple of Thru Hikers put to the task.  It boiled water fast and with simplicity.  We generally conceive of alcohol as having purposes other than boiling water.  Don, in contrast, informed us, “Whisky has no place on the trail.”  It’s an opinion we did not seek.

Don – whose trail name is Chicken Feathers – if your out there, buddy, keep on trekking.  But be a little quieter in the morning.  We met others, including a father and son.  The boy was 10 at best, and carrying his own pack.  They were a cheerful pair, and on Sunday morning, they blessed us.  How can you beat that?

The local color is colorful. This bit of AT wisdom is a subset of above “social” note, inasmuch as it involves meeting people on the trail – friendly, interesting people.  For the section of trail we were on, from Wayah Gap to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the local hikers notably included “bear hunters.” These were men, young and old, who were out to run their bear dogs.  We’re not experts, but we assume that during the real, actual bear hunting season created by the North Carolina law for the benefit of re-electing candidates sworn to uphold the Second Amendment, the dogs find and tree the bears and the hunters dispatch one more specimen of Ursus americanus .  During the off season,  we presume, the dogs practice finding bears.  They sort of fasciculate around you; you are out there alone, and then out of the blue a lot of Dogs Name Blue hound you with their howling.  As a result of this activity, hikers hoping to see a bear in the wild are likely to see only bear shit.  Bears hear the howling and head off to the Smoky Mountains, where bear dogs are banned and people leave Pop Tarts in their day backs.  On the AT, no one brings Pop Tarts.

We didn’t have a lot of intercourse with the bear hunters; that is, we didn’t really talk to them. But we kept crossing their paths, and for a time one of their hounds, whom we trail-named  Frodo in keeping with Gimbli’s  whole “Lord of the Rings” thing, tagged along with us.  He’d gotten outside the range of his radio collar, and so he was happy to join a new pack.  Eventually, we crossed paths with some other bear hunters, who had some spare leashes with them. They hooked Frodo up and agreed to contact his owners, thus returning him to a life of riding in a multi-stall kennel in the back of a rusty pickup truck with a Confederate flag painted on the bed, before being released into the woods to sniff out bears (which smell bad, presumably to dogs, too), all the while barking louder than Don Chicken Feathers talks.  And, we can assume as well, Frodo returned to his old name, which probably wasn’t Sherman.

Heavy is bad, light good. This is a rule on the trail always, but the AT drives the point home. Partly, that is because people (the social thing again –Mark Zuckerberg, are you listening? Time to launch Trailbook.com?) on the AT love to talk gear.  The alcohol stove saves two or three pounds.  A tent may not be necessary if you can stand to sleep in the shelters, which means you have to be willing to sleep with mice.  A water filter weighs a lot more than purification tablets and works no better.  And so on. The Patio Boys travel in style.  We don’t carry extra leashes for stray bear dogs but we do carry a lot. Most everyone has at least  two-man tent, though we sleep one per tent.  It’s a homophobic thing, our critics say, but it has more to do with snoring, gas and the whole Man Cave ethic.  About half the group packs camp chairs.  One of us carries a French press and fresh coffee beans, hence his trail name, Frenchie.  Alcohol may evaporate faster than water (especially if the cap is off and the bottle is near Mooch, who is so named for good reason); but so long as the cap is on, the weight is the same as water – one quart, two pounds.  Ank brings speakers and an iPod dock, so we have music.  We’ve found that heavy metal downloads weigh the same as light rock, so there’s no real advantage to suffering through too much of Silver Pop’s Eagles Greatest Hits, even though “Lyin’ Eyes” is one fabulous song.  But how long before the story of a young woman married to a geezer who sneaks out to be with a boy her own age resonates differently with us than it did when we weren’t the geezers?

    What stands out on the weighty issue of weight about this trip, is that the Patio Boys were genuinely inspired by the AT ethos: We want to shed weight – from our packs at least.

Water matters. We were, like AT hikers whether Thru or Through, obsessed with water.  Finding it.  Purifying it.  Carrying it in the right amounts.  Boiling it.  Is it one minute or five to kill those pesky microbes?  Never can quite remember.

    The AT, at least where we have been, is mostly a ridgetop trail, which means it often is above the rivers and streams, so the sole water sources tend to be small springs.  When you come to your first one, you inclination is to think, “I’m not getting my water from that piss hole.  I’ll wait for something better.”  And then next spring is more spot than puddle and you wish you’d taken advantage of the really great water source you passed up two miles back.  Again, we are not and don’t pretend to be AT experts, but based on our one one-hundredth of the trail experience, we advise the Janis Joplin approach to water, though she applied it unfortunately to Southern Comfort:  That is, get it while you can.  By the way, had Janis lived, imagine the great songs we’d be humming on the trail.  “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to loose” is a gift to hikers already.  C’est la vie.  In any case, drink up.

Shelters. The AT has shelters every few miles, and these afford hikers a place to bed down, tentless. The shelters are wood sheds.  If the Park Service added a donkey and a baby Jesus doll in swaddling clothes, they’d have a Christmas attraction.  One of these is what Don was seeking when he wondered out of his frigging mind into our camp.  Why, we don’t know.  The shelters aren’t that great.  You end up sleeping next to strangers while mice play World Cup on your chest all night.  You have to listen to gearheads tell you what’s good, what’s not (see “Walk” for a good sample of this kind of crap, which nearly drove Sir Bill to jump of escarpment and would do the same to any sane person.  The shelters aren’t exactly dirty but they aren’t exactly clean either.  And their graffiti is awful.  The average gas station toilet stall is a far superior place for wisdom.  AT shelters have things like, “Go for your dream and you will smile large” carved into the wood.  Apparently, poets don’t sleep in the shelters.

Tent sites are at a premium. The AT is about shelters, not tent camping, so finding a place to pitch a tent isn't easy. Sites aren't just around the next bend; they are miles apart. On this stretch of the AT, and I assume others, a handful of sites had plenty of room, which is why we could accommodate dying Don on our first night. But on our second, when we were tired and walked out, we couldn't find a place to pitch our tents until we came upon a site cleared for two or three tents. We had seven. The only hikers doubling up were Gimbli and his human. So picture a scene in which vestibules overlapped vestibules, as if a bunch of developers had found a block of prime real estate and paid off the zoning board to do whatever they wanted with it.  Maybe Kelty should design a high-rise tent.  Moral of the story is: If you are tent-camping on the AT and you see a good tent site, take a load off Fanny.

You know, this seems a good time to state one of the truths of all eternity: The Band rocks. 

Destinations. What drives hikers in general and AT hikers especially is the destination – the next stop.  You cannot walk 21.79 miles or 2,179 miles without breaking it down.  It might be the next shelter, the next water hole, the next trail junction, the next bald with a view, the next downhill, the next town.  Whatever it may be, it propels you forward.

And there’s another important thing about destination – the next one.  By this I mean the next trip.  We came here hungry to hike a piece of the AT.  On the trail, an AT veteran told us of exotic places elsewhere on the trail, and made them sound as inviting as St. Croix in winter.  Damascus.  Harpers Ferry.  And so on.  It makes you plan the next trip in your head; it propels you.  If you are not careful, you’ll become a Thru Hiker.

Undulation. A trail that tracks a ridge undulates a lot.  Up one minute, then down, then up.  You get to the point that if you are going downhill you worry because you know it is a short reward; if you go down, you soon will need to go up.  This 21.79 mile stretch of the AT was a perfect example of that.  We came to terms with it this way: All trails are downhill.  It just depends on which way you look.  Trying thinking about a two-mile uphill climb in that way.  Use it as a tool to calm your anxieties and cool your burning lungs.  You will find it doesn’t work at all.

Monotony. There is a downside to the AT.  It can be monotonous.  Because it follows ridges, it has a sameness.  We read of one woman who said she couldn’t wait to get to Virginia – and then couldn’t wait to get out of Virginia.  Five hundred miles of trail does that to you, I suppose.  But 21.79 miles of trail can start to look the same, too.  Couldn’t the Park Service add a few water slides and Taco Bells?  How about a Tikki hut with tropical drinks and belly dancers?  The monotony is an illusion by the way.  If, at any given point, you stop and look at the plants around you, for example, you will be astounded by the botanical variety.

Books. Once you hike the AT, even a fraction of it, you’ll want to read about it.  If you haven’t read “Walk,” read it.  You’ll like it, even if you do get a little put out with Sir Bill for not completing the trail.  Most people don’t, so that’s real.  Also Patio Boys endorsed is “Walking the Appalachian Trail” by Larry Luxenberg.  Don’t be fooled by the vanilla title – it’s not the literary equivalent of well whisky; it's the good stuff.

The other thing about books is that you might want to bring one with you. I recommend the slender and poetic  “Sailing for Home: A Voyage from Antigua to Kinsale” by the Irish writer, Theo Dorgan.  Sailing and hiking have much in common, including the need to pack food and clothing efficiently but as importantly the human relationships on the trail can match what the elegant Dorgan describes about the sailboat.  Nothing happens on the trip he describes.  No storms, perfect or otherwise.  No pirates. Monotony happens you might say.  But monotony can be beautiful.

Catching a ride. The AT passes through towns and semi-towns. Thru and through hikers like to stop tor the three R's (not reading, writing and arithmetic; resupplying, rejuvenating and relaxing). That means getting to town and then getting back to the trail, and that means a motorized vehicle would be handy though hikers don't have one. So hitching or hiring a ride is part of the gig. We only needed to get from town to trail. We hired Jim, a Viet Nam veteran. We knew he was a Viet Nam veteran because he wore a hat that said "Viet Nam Veteran" and had a vanity plate on his van that also declared this aspect of his biography. Had he turned on his CD player, it probably would have played "Ride of the Valkyries." Most of us had deferments, low draft numbers or birthdates after 1954, thus sparing us the hell to pay what Jim paid. So hats off to Jim, who provided us with safe, cordial transportation to the trailhead, along with some local history. We learned we were in the very vicinity where the Abortion Clinic Bomber hid out, concealed by the dense forests beyond the road.

In the front seat of Jim's van, there was a lot of serious subject dialogue. Deep stuff. Gravitas.  About the bomber. About Agent Orange. About other shuttle drivers who were candidates for mayor (this is, after all, the fall trip, which casts it into the election season). I can't tell you much about that because I wasn't in the front seat. I was in the back bench seat of a seven-passenger van with eight people and a dog. And by the way, seven-passenger vans are not really built for seven people. They are built for two humans (one each on the two front bucket seats) and five space monkeys doped up on Thorazine suppositories. Or maybe eight hobbits. We were eight men and a boxer, the aforementioned Gimbli.

One of our number is allergic to dogs, which is how we came to drive three cars instead of two from our suburban Vahallas (devotees of Scandanavian mythology will note this clever connection to previous mention of Valkyries) to North Carolina. The dog has to have his own ride during that seven hours. But for the shuttle, we were all crammed into a Dodge mini-van turned sardine can. I'll recount the dialogue at take-off:

 "You OK with the dog?" someone asked.

"Sure. The only risk is that my esophagus will swell shut and my breathing will cease."

"No problem," assured one of the Greg Fockers on board. "I know how to do a tracheotomy with a Bic pen."

"Thanks. I'll do it myself. We used to practice on cadavers."

Meanwhile, Gimbli was restless. Turning this way and that, smelling stuff, slobbering, and generally objected to confinement. The three of us on the back bench sat perfectly still, as if trapped in one of those impossibly narrow seats they now install on jetliners, where you get stuck beside an apparent descendant of President Taft -- the guy who got stuck in the White House bathtub. Those seats, by the way, were originally designed for French women who eat a capful of yogurt on Thursdays and little else the rest of the week but it turned out the market niche for transporting them by air wasn't all that large so there was a surplus of these tiny seats. You can't just sell them off to Overstock.com or Big Lots, so all the airlines just bought and installed them. And Dodge.

We finally made it to the trailhead, exited and paid -- $100 total. Jim's usual tab was $25 per head but since we were all one group and had graciously agreed to cram into his van with packs perilously strapped on top, he discounted the $175 full rate  or $200 flat had Gimbli counted, and why shouldn't he? We tipped well and traveled on.

Should you hike the AT, count on needing a shuttle at some point and count on getting a story out of it.

Logistics matter. The Patio Boys drifted in recent years.  In the beginning, we left on the same day, car camped on Night One together, arrived at the trail head together, hiked more or less together and ended the day at the same campsite, then came home together.  But over the past couple of years, we got out of the togetherness habit to our near peril.  Some left Thursday, some Friday, some Saturday. There was our whole 2009 fiasco (see previous accounts re: Campsite 21 and 22 at Elkmont), the high watermark for failed logistics.  This trip we returned to a rule: Stick to the plan.  That is, when you carefully craft an itinerary, everyone should abide by it or things will go wrong.  They did on our Fall 2009 trip and again on our Spring 2010 trip.  This time, we stuck to the plan and it worked for the full 21.79 miles.  Multiply times 100 and you can see why it would be important to stick to the plan for a Thru Hike on the AT.

Now we do have subsection of this rule: Be firm but flexible.  So it’s not that the logistics cannot be revised.  But they cannot be revised without consensus or chaos results.  Trust us. We know. On the AT and elsewhere, a campfire and conversation will sooner or later bring wise thoughts.  Our contribution to mankind is this: Imagine the ability to unf@!* something you f@!*ed up in life.  We introduce to the canon the concept of unf@!*ing. Think of it as sort of a Mulligan for life, though why limit it to one per round?  Take all you want … or a least all you deserve.  This needs more study.  That is, more campfires.

Here is an example of unf@!* in an actual sentence.  I set my phone alarm for 2:27 a.m. on Friday, so I would awake in time to leave at 3 a.m., as scheduled.  See “logistics” above.  I selected the option “weekdays,” thus assuring the alarm would not go off on Saturday morning or Sunday morning.  By Monday morning, I was fast asleep in an upstairs room of the cabin we rented for the last night, with the door to my bedroom shut.  Two Patio Boys were asleep in the living room, one on the couch and one on the floor.  At 2:57 a.m. on Monday morning, my phone – which was recharging nearby – sounded its alarm with the same authority that Don said “Good morning” at 6:30 a.m. two mornings earlier.  It took the two sleepers a while to figure out where the sound was coming from.  First, they assumed someone was calling.  Who calls whom at 3 in the morning?  Maybe the dating service match?  Finally, they unplugged the damn thing and (I’m guessing here based on where I found the phone a few hours later) flung it through the air.  Later, this sentence was constructed: “You need to unf@!* that phone.”

A beer and cheeseburger taste really good after 21.79 miles. According to more comprehensive accounts of AT hiking, the thought of pub grub is a force of nature.  You want it.  You need it.  And when you get it, it’s quite good.  The River’s End diner at the Nantahala Outdoor Center has satisfied this yearning hunger for AT hikers, Thru and Through, for years, and it did the same for us after three days on the trail.  Oatmeal, gorp, Clif bars and Moutain House freeze-dried imitations of actual food don’t quite cut the mustard, and a cold draft is rather tasty compared to creek water flavored with purification tablets.

A little trail is like a little tail; you want more. We loved the AT, and we want to hike more of it.  That, we assume, is how Thru Hikers are born.  We don’t expect to be Thru Hikers – time is not on our side.  But we do want to hike more of the AT, and one plan we are floating is to at least hike the AT through the Smoky Mountains.  Stay tuned.

Patches are cool, and so are the Patio Boys. Maybe it’s the latent Boy Scout in them, but some of the Patio Boys really like patches and their packs are a travelogue of past trips.  Likewise, some AT hikers are patch hounds too.  On this trip, we were not finished until we found AT patches.  The Elkmont  Ranger  Station and Visitors Center in the Smoky Mountains has a shop well-stocked with all the haute couture patches.  The Natahala Outdoor Center has a lot of good stuff, especially if you like kayaks, trail bikes or women’s wicking underwear in size XS.  But it was fresh out of patches.  Just for the record, not all the Patio Boys are patch hounds. Some of us view it this way: “Patches? We don’t need no stinkin’ patches!” That is, we here to the Yeats view of trophies:

Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.

 

OK, enough of the mild literary-derived insults.  To each his patch.  Patches are cool; the Patio Boys are cool; the AT is cool; Yeats is cool; everything’s cool.  End of story.