Guys, I apologize for the uncharacteristically brief report. I am prepared now to offer the real story, and I think you will soon see why I hesitated to come out with it in the first place. In this tale, all of the above questions will be answered. God help us all- this is how it really happened...
The internet is a great and terrible tool for communication. It brings together people with diverse backgrounds, geographic ranges, and interests who all share a love for backcountry travel. Unfortunately, forum members come to the table with their own set of assumptions, and absent the subtleties of facial expression and other social cues, often seem helpless to understand each other’s intentions. Arguments ensue, and, without fear of personal consequence, people address each other in ways that would not appropriate were they sitting face to face.
Every now and again though, someone stands out from the crowd. A person whose words and deeds consistently reveal their character, generous nature, enthusiasm for life. Over the years, I’ve subconsciously kept a mental catalog of these folks I’d like to hike with. Recently, I had the opportunity to finally meet one such individual for a couple days of hiking on the Black Forest Trail in Pennsylvania.
This trip was a cluster**** from the start. We had been talking about it for probably a year and a half, and after many failed attempts to make it happen, I finally had an opening in my schedule during a cold week in March. I had just gotten back from Ontario a couple weeks earlier, so I knew my wife would not be keen for me to leave again. I felt compelled to make it happen though, so I made various trades I won’t elaborate on here to ensure her cooperation.
Two days before the trip, disaster struck. My daughter had gotten strep throat and couldn’t go to school. Since my wife was working, I’d need to stay home with her. A hasty conversation with Doug from the doctor’s office and we pushed the trip back a day.
A day before the trip, Keira was back at school. I was starting to get a stuffy sensation in my nose, but was too stubborn to postpone or cancel yet again. Unbeknownst to me, Doug had strained his calf, but was also too stubborn to postpone or cancel. So it was that I left my house at 9 pm that evening, driving through the night to meet Doug by the trail the next morning. I had slept for a couple hours in the back of my car and was looking pretty ragged.
We hit it off right away and were soon unashamedly delving into each other’s business without regard for personal boundaries. Doug learned why I go backpacking so often, and I learned why he comforts himself with cuben fiber every night. I also found out that Doug is not a big fan of pictures (hence the lack of smiles).
I tried to respect this, taking out my camera only when his back was turned.
I also learned that saying, “This one can be for your match.com page” would likely get me a full frontal shot, though not necessarily a smile.
The trail was remarkable in its constant changes in elevation. I thought Pennsylvania would be a pushover, but this was turning into a workout. Breaking through a hard snow crust with every step was also exacting its toll. Meanwhile, Doug’s strained calf was taking a beating but he was too stubborn to show it, so we maintained a decent pace, up and down, up and down until we could go no further.
Finally, we stopped for the night by a little pond. At this point, my cold came on in full glory. I wasn’t able to breathe through my nose from then on, a real conversation stopper by the way. This is when things got really weird. As we set up our tarps for the night, I could hear a buzzing sound coming from inside Doug’s trailstar. It sounded like a battery-powered vibrator. Seriously? Here? What was that sound?
Then came the final blow. Two missed calls from Doug’s dogsitter. Without any cell phone reception, there was no way to call back, and I think we both worried she was a goner. There was no easy way to extract ourselves that night and Doug’s hypothetically dead dog pretty much put a damper on any socializing we might have done. My dinner tasted like ash, and I don’t think Doug ate at all. We both retired sadly to our shelters. 20 minutes later, Doug called out. I was still awake at the time. All the while I had been trying to squirm out of my stupid Patagonia guide pants. With no fly or stretchy waistband, it was virtually impossible to extract myself from them without serious contortion. I don’t even want to tell you how hard it is to take a leak in those things. Anyway, he had just gotten his messages and everything was ok- she had eaten a trivial amount of chocolate and had been made to vomit it back up.
Breakfast the next morning was a cheerier affair. We dawdled in camp for a while discussing the best way to bury turds in a frozen landscape, and whether they would still be there come spring. (As a dog owner, I can positively tell you that they will).
The big excitement of the morning came 40 minutes into our hike with a frosty river crossing. Now that we were having fun again, I was pretty excited about this. I had been planning to go full monty, but the river wasn’t actually all that deep, so we contented ourselves with just taking off our socks. It was about 20 F and pretty painful by the time we reached the other side.
I look happy here because I'm not actually crossing, and also because I got to keep my pants on. The second time through, I may have been a little less pleased with myself.
Wait till Doug's back is turned, then snap, snap..
It was at this time that Doug conveniently remembered we might have a few more wet river crossings yet that day. Having already taken off my socks once, I was pretty vocally committed to getting across all other rivers fully clothed. This led to some interesting hopscotch on ice-slicked stepping stones later on that could have resulted in disaster, but didn’t.
The day passed pleasantly with plenty more ups and downs, and lots of salami and cheese (since we hadn't really eaten the day before). Finally, at day’s end, we hit the road and walked to a nice inn with great burgers and fries with gravy. Some nice folks offered to shuttle us back to the car after dinner, but then left soon after without saying a word. I think they finally smelled us.
I’ve had some failed trips in the past, but this one really took the cake. And yet, in the process, I found a kindred spirit. Someone I’d hike with any time. It’s not how you handle the fun stuff, but what you do when the chips are down that makes the person. Can’t wait to hike with Doug again!