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A Tough Slog
A thru-hike of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail can teach you many things. The long distance hiker would be hard pressed to “walk away” from this experience without a greater understanding of the difference between “needs” and “wants”, or a deep appreciation for the human capacity for kindness. While those lessons were not lost on me, perhaps my greatest lesson was dispensed by a tiny bird.
My story starts in Gorham, New Hampshire on July 29, 2000. After nearly 4 months and 1,892 miles, I found myself at Hikers Paradise, a hostel 16.5 miles from Maine, and less than 300 miles from my final destination – Mt. Katahdin. While I had felt run down for the past few months, this evening I was feeling particularly worn out.
That night I slept fitfully, and as I packed up in the morning, something wasn’t quite right. I was exhausted. After breakfast I threw my backpack in the back of the motel pick-up truck, and climbed in for a ride to the trailhead. I was joined by two friends that I had hiked on and off with since Virginia. Brian (aka Funk n’ Wagnalls) and Chris (aka Crispy Hexagon) were both strong hikers in their early 20s. Bruce, a giant of a man who worked at Hikers Paradise drove us to the trailhead, and entertained us with bawdy jokes along the way. As we bid Bruce goodbye and started our morning hike, I immediately felt my energy drag. This continued all day. Finally, late in the day we arrived at the Maine state line, where my friends and I rejoiced and took the obligatory photos. It was a wonderful moment. We could now say that we had walked from Georgia to Maine!
That night at the Carlo Col Shelter – I was filled with dread. Some of the toughest miles of the trail lay ahead of me, and I simply wasn’t feeling up to the task. The next morning we headed out, and soon found ourselves in the Mahoosuc Notch. Reputed to be the toughest horizontal mile on the entire Appalachian Trail, this area is a narrow notch nestled between two mountains, where the hiker has to scramble over, around and under a series of house-sized boulders. While my friends were laughing and having a great time, I was not enjoying myself. I soon found out why. While perched high on a boulder, my head suddenly began to swim as a wave of nausea swept over me. I was sick.
My friends stayed with me until we emerged out the north end of Mahoosuc Notch. There, at the base of one of the toughest climbs on the entire trail – Mahoosuc Arm – I encouraged my companions to go on without me. I simply couldn’t keep up with them any longer. After an extended break, I slowly dragged myself up Mahoosuc Arm – a 1620’ elevation gain in 1.6 miles. At the top, completely exhausted and bathed in sweat, I found myself at beautiful Speck Pond. I dropped my gear and fell fast asleep in the Speck Pond Shelter. It was only 4 PM. Later that night I awoke and became violently ill.
When I awoke in the morning, I was scared. Nearly 15 miles of tough trail lay between me and the trail town of Andover, Maine. I needed to get to town to rest. I dragged myself along the trail all day, and finally, after a brutal hike which included climbing over beautiful Bald Pate - where I was buffetted by 50 MPH winds - I found myself at East B Hill Road near Andover. The first vehicle to come along on this road was a logging truck. The logger pulled over and let my friend Wendy (aka Philosophy) and me hop in. Soon, we were dropped off at the Andover Guest House. It was there that I would stay for the next five nights.
It was clear from the start that I had some sort of stomach ailment, as I was having trouble keeping any food down. By the end of my third day, I was so weak that I was having difficulty climbing a flight of stairs. I wondered how I could possibly complete the trail in my current physical state. On the morning of my fourth day in Andover, I made an important decision. I asked Peg Leg, the owner of Andover Guest House, to shuttle me out to walk a 10 mile section of the trail using only a day pack. The hike went surprisingly well, and I had the good fortune of seeing a black bear – my first since New Jersey.
The next day Peg Leg dropped me off on the trail and I walked another 13 miles using only a day pack. At the end of the day, I was feeling good, and made a decision to try and hike out the next day with a full pack.
On the morning of August 6, a full week since I first started feeling ill, I awoke filled with anticipation. Would I be able to make it the rest of the way? Was I really better, or would I once again fall sick on the trail – far from help? As I packed up my backpack upstairs in the hiker bunkhouse, I heard a small sound – THUD. I looked around, and my eyes were drawn to the sliding glass door at the back of the room. Outside on the landing lay a small bird. I walked outside and carefully picked up a Black Capped Chickadee. The bird had apparently flown into the glass door, and was stunned, but still alive.
The bird sat motionless in my hand, but I could feel the beating of its tiny heart. I carefully cradled the bird in my hands, and after about 10 minutes, placed the bird upright on the wooden railing. The bird was slowly regaining some activity, but was still stunned from the encounter with the door. I went inside, and filled a Dixie Cup with water. I went back outside, and the bird was still sitting motionless on the railing. I took the water and wet my fingers. I then splashed some droplets of water on the bird’s head. Immediately I could see the bird’s awareness heightened. Next, I took some water and carefully splashed it on the bird’s back. Finally, I placed a few drops of water on the bird’s tail.
The bird now appeared to be awake and alert, so I slowly bent over and placed my face inches away from the bird. I quietly said “fly away.” To my amazement, the bird did just that! As I stood there in amazement at what I had just witnessed, the obvious dawned upon me. If that little bird could fly away after hitting the proverbial wall, then I could do the same.
That day on the trail was one of my most memorable of the entire hike. The weather was glorious, I heard my first Loons, and the strength in my legs was returning. Two weeks later I climbed Mt. Katahdin, and my journey was over. Of all the lessons that I learned in my five and a half month walk in the woods, I'll always look back at my encounter with the Chickadee as the signature moment of the experience.
By Jeffery Hunter
December 17, 2006