فصل 12

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فصل 12

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I’d expected Katz to be insufferable in the morning, but in fact he was surprisingly gracious. He called me for coffee and when I emerged, feeling wretched and cheated of sleep, he said to me: “You OK? You look like shit.”

“Didn’t get enough sleep.”

He nodded. “So you think it really was a bear?”

“Who knows?” I suddenly thought of the food bag–that’s what bears normally go forand spun my head to see, but it was safely suspended a dozen or so feet from the ground from a branch about twenty yards away. Probably a determined bear could have gotten itdown. Actually, my grandmother could have gotten it down. “Maybe not,” I said, disappointed.

“Well, you know what I’ve got in here, just in case?” Katz said and tapped his shirt pocket significantly. “Toenail clippers–because you just never know when danger might arise. I’ve learned my lesson, believe me, buddy.” Then he guffawed.

And so we returned to the woods. For virtually the length of Shenandoah National Park, the AT closely parallels and often crosses Skyline Drive, though most of the time you would scarcely guess it. Often you will be plodding through the sanctuary of woods when suddenly a car will sail past through the trees only forty or fifty feet away–a perennially startling sight.

In the early 1930s, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club–which was Myron Avery’s baby and for a time virtually indistinguishable from the Appalachian Trail Conference itselfcame under attack from other hiking groups, particularly the patrician Appalachian Mountain Club in Boston, for not resisting the building of Skyline Drive through the park.

Stung by these rebukes, Avery sent MacKaye a deeply insulting letter in December 1935, which effectively terminated MacKaye’s official (but even then peripheral) relationship with the trail. The two men never spoke again, though to his credit MacKaye paid Avery a warm tribute on his death in 1952 and generously noted that the trail could not have been built without him. A lot of people still dislike the highway, but Katz and I quite warmed to it. Frequently we would leave the trail and hike on the road for an hour or two. This early in the season–it was still early April–there were hardly any cars in the park, so we treated Skyline Drive as a kind of broad, paved, alternative footpath. It was novel to have something firm underfoot and exceedingly agreeable to be out in the open, in warm sunshine, after weeks in impenetrable woods. Motorists certainly had a more cossetted, looked-after existence than we did. There were frequent expansive overlooks, with splendid views (though even now, in clear spring weather, blanketed with a dirty haze beyond about six or seven miles), information boards giving helpful explanatory notes on the park’s wildlife and flora, and even litter bins. We could do with some of this on the trail, we agreed. And then, when the sun got too hot or our feet grew sore (for pavement is surprisingly hard on the feet) or we just felt like a change, we would return to the familiar, cool, embracing woods. It was very agreeable–almost rakish–to have options.

At one of the Skyline Drive turn-ins that we came to, an information board was angled to direct the reader’s attention to a nearby slope handsomely spread with hemlocks, a very dark, almost black native conifer particularly characteristic of the Blue Ridge. All these hemlocks, and all the hemlocks everywhere along the trail and far beyond, are being killed by an aphid introduced accidentally from Asia in 1924. The National Park Service, the board noted sadly, could not afford to treat the trees. There were too many of them over too wide an area to make a spraying program practicable. Well, here’s an idea. Why not treat some of the trees? Why not treat a tree? The good news, according to the board, was that the National Park Service hoped that some of the trees would stage a natural recovery over time. Well, whew! for that.

Sixty years ago, there were almost no trees on the Blue Ridge Mountains. All this was farmland. Often in the woods now the trail would follow the relics of old stone field walls, and once we passed a small, remote cemetery–reminders that this was one of the few mountaintop areas in the entire Appalachian chain where people once actually lived.Unluckily for them, they were the wrong kind of people. In the 1920s, sociologists and other academics from the cities ventured into the hills, and they were invariably appalled at what they found. Poverty and deprivation were universal. The land was ridiculously poor. Many people were farming slopes that were practically perpendicular. Threequarters of the people in the hills couldn’t read. Most had barely gone to school.

Illegitimacy was 90 percent. Sanitation was practically unknown; only 10 percent of households had even a basic privy. On top of that, the Blue Ridge Mountains were sensationally beautiful and conveniently sited for the benefit of a new class of motoring tourist. The obvious solution was to move the people off the mountaintops and into the valleys, where they could be poor lower down, build a scenic highway for people to cruise up and down on Sundays, and turn the whole thing into a great mountaintop fun zone, with commercial campgrounds, restaurants, ice cream parlors, miniature golf, and whatever else might turn a snappy dollar.

Unfortunately for the entrepreneurs, then came the Great Depression, and the commercial impulse withered. Instead, under that dizzying socialist impulse that marked the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the land was bought for the nation. The people were moved out, and the Civilian Conservation Corps was put to work building pretty stone bridges, picnic shelters, visitor centers, and much else, and the whole was opened to the public in July 1936. It is the quality of craftsmanship that accounts substantially for the glory of Shenandoah National Park. Indeed, it is one of the few examples of large-scale human handiwork (Hoover Dam is another, and Mount Rushmore, I would submit, is a third) anywhere in the United States that complements, even enhances, a natural landscape. I suppose that, too, is one reason I liked walking along Skyline Drive, with its broad, lawnlike grass verges and stone retaining walls, its clusters of artfully planted birches, its gentle curves leading to arresting, thoughtfully composed panoramas. This is the way all highways should be. For a time it looked as if all highways would be like this.

It is no accident that the first highways in America were called parkways. That’s what they were envisioned to be–parks you could drive through.

Almost none of this spirit of craftsmanship is evident on the AT in the park–you wouldn’t expect it to on a trail devoted to wilderness–but it is agreeably encountered in the park’s shelters, or huts, which have something of the picturesque rusticity of the Smokies shelters but are airier, cleaner, better designed, and without those horrible, depressing chain-link fences across their fronts.

Though Katz thought I was preposterous, I insisted on sleeping at shelters after our night at the spring (I somehow felt I could defend a shelter against marauding bears) and in any case the Shenandoah shelters were too nice not to use. Every one of them was attractive, thoughtfully sited, and had a good water source, picnic table, and privy. For two nights we had shelters to ourselves, and on the third we were just exchanging congratulations on this remarkable string of luck when we heard a cacophony of voices approaching through the woods. We peeked around the corner and found a Boy Scout troop marching into the clearing. They said hello and we said hello, and then we sat with our legs dangling from the sleeping platform and watched them fill the clearing with their tents and abundant gear, pleased to have something to look at other than each other.

There were three adult supervisors and seventeen Boy Scouts, all charmingly incompetent. Tents went up, then swiftly collapsed or keeled over. One of the adults wentoff to filter water and fell in the creek. Even Katz agreed that this was better than TV. For the first time since we had left New Hampshire, we felt like masters of the trail.

A few minutes later, a cheerful lone hiker arrived. His name was John Connolly, and he was a high school teacher from upstate New York. He had been hiking the trail, evidently only a couple of miles behind us, for four days, and had been camping alone in the open each night, which struck me now as awfully brave. He hadn’t seen any bears–indeed, he had been section hiking the trail for years and had seen a bear only once, briefly, rump end and fleeing, deep in the Maine woods. John was followed shortly by two men about our age from Louisville–Jim and Chuck, both real nice fellows, self-effacing and funny. We hadn’t seen more than three or four hikers since leaving Waynesboro, and now suddenly we were mobbed.

“What day is it?” I asked, and everyone had to stop and think.

“Friday,” someone said. “Yeah, Friday.” That explained it–the start of a weekend.

We all sat around the picnic table, cooking and eating. It was wonderfully convivial.

The three others had hiked a great deal and told us all about the trail ahead as far as Maine, which still seemed as distant as the next cosmos. Then the conversation turned to a perennial favorite among hikers–how crowded the trail had become. Connolly talked about how he had hiked nearly half the trail in 1987, at the height of summer, and had gone days without seeing anyone, and Jim and Chuck heartily seconded this.

This is something you hear a lot, and it is certainly true that more people are hiking than ever before. Until the 1970s, fewer than 50 people a year thru-hiked the AT. As recently as 1984, the number was just 100. By 1990, it had pushed past 200, and today it is approaching 300. These are big increases, but they are also still tiny, tiny numbers. Just before we set off, my local newspaper in New Hampshire had an interview with a trail maintainer who noted that twenty years ago the three campsites in his section averaged about a dozen visitors a week in July and August and that now they sometimes got as many as a hundred in a week. The amazing thing about that, if you ask me, is that they got so few for so long. Anyway, a hundred visitors a week for three campsites at the height of summer hardly seems overwhelming.

Perhaps I was coming at this from the wrong direction, having hiked in crowded little England for so long, but what never ceased to astonish me throughout our long summer was how empty the trail was. Nobody knows how many people hike the Appalachian Trail, but most estimates put the number at around three or four million a year. If four million is right, and we assume that probably three-quarters of that hiking is done during the six warmest months, that means an average of 16,500 people on the trail a day in season, or 7.5 people for each mile of trail, one person every 700 feet. In fact, few sections will experience anything like that high a density. A very high proportion of those four million annual hikers will be concentrated in certain popular places for a day or a weekend–the Presidential range in New Hampshire, Baxter State Park in Maine, Mount Greylock in Massachusetts, in the Smokies, and Shenandoah National Park. That four million will also include a high proportion of what you might call Reebok hikers–people who park their car, walk 400 yards, get back in their car, drive off, and never do anything as breathtaking as that again. Believe me, no matter what anyone tells you, the Appalachian Trail is not crowded.When people bleat on about the trail being too crowded, what they mean is that the shelters are too crowded, and this is indubitably sometimes so. The problem, however, is not that there are too many hikers for the shelters but too few shelters for the hikers.

Shenandoah National Park has just eight huts, each able to accommodate no more than eight people in comfort, ten at a pinch, in 101 miles of national park. That’s about average for the trail overall. Although the distances between shelters can vary enormously, there is on average an AT shelter, cabin, hut, or lean-to (240 of them altogether) about every ten miles. That means adequate covered sleeping space for just 2,500 hikers over 2,200 miles of trail. When you consider that more than 100 million Americans live within a day’s drive of the Appalachian Trail, it is hardly surprising that 2,500 sleeping spaces is sometimes not enough. Yet, perversely, pressure is growing in some quarters to reduce the number of shelters to discourage what is seen–amazingly to me–as overuse of the trail.

So, as always when the conversation turned to the crowdedness of the trail and the fact that you now sometimes see a dozen people in a day when formerly you would have been lucky to see two, I listened politely and said, “You guys ought to try hiking in England.”

Jim turned to me and said, in a kindly, patient way, “But you see, Bill, we’re not in England.” Perhaps he had a point.

Now here is another reason I am exceptionally fond of Shenandoah National Park, and why I am probably not cut out to be a proper American trail hiker–cheeseburgers. You can get cheeseburgers quite regularly in Shenandoah National Park, and Coca-Cola with ice, and french fries and ice cream, and a good deal else. Although the rampant commercialization I spoke of a moment ago never happened (and thank goodness, of course), something of that esprit de commerce lives on in Shenandoah. The park is liberally sprinkled with public campgrounds and rest stops with restaurants and shopsand the AT, God bless it, pays nearly every one of them a call. It is entirely against the spirit of the AT to have restaurant breaks along the trail, but I never met a hiker who didn’t appreciate it to bits.

Katz, Connolly, and I had our first experience of it the next morning, after we had said farewell to Jim and Chuck and the Boy Scouts, who were all headed south, when we arrived about lunch-time at a lively commercial sprawl called Big Meadows.

Big Meadows had a campground, a lodge, a restaurant, a gift shop/general store, and lots and lots of people spread around a big sunny grassy space. (Although it is a big meadow, it was actually named for a guy named Meadows, which pleased me very much for some reason.) We dropped our packs on the grass outside and hastened into the busy restaurant, where we greedily partook of everything greasy, then repaired to the lawn to smoke and burp and enjoy a spell of tranquil digestion. As we lay there propped against our packs, a tourist in an unfortunate straw hat, clutching an ice cream, came up and looked us over in a friendly manner. “So you fellas hiking?” he said.

We said we were.

“And you carry those packs?”

“Until we find someone to carry them for us,” said Katz cheerfully.

“How far you come this morning?”

“Oh, about eight miles.”“Eight miles! Lord. And how far’ll you go this afternoon?”

“Oh, maybe another eight miles.”

“No kidding! Sixteen miles on foot? With those things on your back? Man–ain’t that a kick.” He called across the lawn: “Bernice, come here a minute. You gotta see this.” He looked at us again. “So whaddaya got in there? Clothes and stuff, I suppose?”

“And food,” said Connolly.

“You carry your own food, huh?”

“Have to.”

“Well, ain’t that a kick.”

Bernice arrived, and he explained to her that we were using our legs to proceed across the landscape. “Ain’t that something? They got all their food and everything in those packs.”

“Is that a fact?” Bernice said with admiration and interest. “So, you’re like walkin everywhere?” We nodded. “You walked here? All the way up here?”

“We walk everywhere,” said Katz solemnly.

“You never walked all the way up here!”

“Well, we did,” said Katz, for whom this was becoming one of the proudest moments of his life.

I went off to call home from a pay phone and use the men’s room. When I returned a few minutes later, Katz had accumulated a small, appreciative crowd and was demonstrating the use and theory of various straps and toggles on his backpack. Then, at someone’s behest, he put the pack on and posed for pictures. I had never seen him so happy.

While he was still occupied, Connolly and I went into the little grocery part of the complex to have a look around, and I realized just how little regarded and incidental hikers are to the real business of the park. Only 3 percent of Shenandoah’s two million annual visitors go more than a few yards into what is generously termed the backcountry.

Ninety percent of visitors arrive in cars or motor homes. This was a store for them. Nearly everything in the store required microwaving or oven heating or scrupulous refrigeration or came in large, family-sized quantities. (It’s a rare hiker . who wants twenty-four hamburger buns, I find.) There was not a single item of conventional trail food–raisins or peanuts or small, portable quantities of packets or canned goods–which was a little dispiriting in a national park.

With no choice, and desperate not to eat noodles again if we could possibly help it (Connolly, I was delighted to learn, was also a noodles man), we bought twenty-four hot dogs and matching buns, a two-liter bottle of Coke, and a couple of large bags of cookies.

Then we collected Katz, who announced regretfully to his adoring audience that he had to go–there were mountains still to climb– and stepped valiantly back into the woods.

We stopped for the night at a lovely, secluded spot called Rock Spring Hut, perched on a steep hillside with a long view over the Shenandoah Valley far below. The shelter even had a swing–a two-seater that hung on chains from the shelter overhang, put there in memory of one Theresa Affronti, who had loved the trail, according to a plaque on its back–which I thought was rather splendid. Earlier visitors to the shelter had left behind an assortment of canned foods–beans, corn, Spam, baby carrots–which were lined up carefully along one of the support rafters. You find this sort of thing quite a lot on thetrail. In some places, friends of the trail will hike up to shelters with homemade cookies or platters of fried chicken. It’s quite wonderful.

While we were cooking dinner, a young southbound thru-hiker–the first of the seasonarrived. He had hiked twenty-six miles that day and thought he had died and gone to heaven when he learned that hot dogs were on the menu. Six hot dogs apiece was more than Katz and Connolly and I could eat, so we each ate four, and a quantity of cookies, and saved the rest for breakfast. But the young southbounder ate as if he had never eaten before. He downed six hot dogs, then a can of baby carrots, and gratefully accepted a dozen or so Oreos, one after the other, and ate them with great savor and particularity. He told us he had started in Maine in deep snow and had been endlessly caught in blizzards, but was still averaging twenty-five miles a day. He was only about five-foot-six, and his pack was enormous. No wonder he had an appetite. He was trying to hike the trail in three months, mostly by putting in very long days. When we woke in the morning, dawn was only just leaking in but he had already gone. Where he had slept there was a brief note thanking us for the food and wishing us luck. We never did learn his name.

Late the next morning, when I realized that I had considerably outstripped Katz and Connolly, who were talking and not making particularly good time, I stopped to wait for them in a broad, ancient-seeming, deeply fetching glade cradled by steep hills, which gave it a vaguely enchanted, secretive feel. Everything you could ask for in a woodland setting was here–tall, stately trees broken at intervals by escalators of dusty sunshine, winding brook, floor of plump ferns, cool air languidly adrift in a lovely green stillness–and I remember thinking what an exceptionally nice place this would be to camp.

Just over a month later, two young women, Lollie Winans and Julianne Williams, evidently had the same thought. They pitched their tents somewhere in this tranquil grove, then hiked the short way through the woods to Skyland Lodge, another commercial complex, to eat in its restaurant. No one knows exactly what happened, but some person at Skyland presumably watched them dine, then followed them back to their campsite.

They were found three days later in their tents with their hands bound and their throats cut. There was no apparent motive. There has never been a suspect. Their deaths will almost certainly forever be a mystery. Of course I had no idea of this at the time, so when Katz and Connolly caught up I simply observed to them what an attractive spot it was.

They looked at it and agreed, and then we moved on.

We had lunch with Connolly at Skyland, and then he left us to hitchhike back to his car at Rockfish Gap and return home. Katz and I bade him farewell and then pushed on, for that was what we did. We had nearly completed the first part of our adventure, so there was a certain home-stretch perkiness in our steps. We walked for three days more, stopping at restaurants when we came to them, and camping in shelters, which once again we had mostly to ourselves. On our next to last day on the trail, our sixth since setting off from Rockfish Gap, we were walking along beneath dull skies when there came an abrupt, cold roaring of wind. Trees danced and swayed, dust and leaves rose up around us in boisterous swirls, and our jackets and outerwear took on sudden lives of their own, leaping and flapping about us. There was a roll of thunder and then it began to rain–a really cold, miserable, penetrating rain. We sheathed ourselves in nylon and stoically pushed on.It turned out to be an awful day in nearly every way. In the early afternoon, I discovered that I had lost my backpack raincover (which, may I just say here, was a completely useless, ill-designed piece of crap anyway, for which I had paid $25) and that nearly everything in my pack now ranged from disagreeably damp to completely sodden. I had, fortunately, taken to wrapping my sleeping bag in a double thickness of trash bags (cost: 35 cents), so it at least was dry. Twenty minutes later, as I sheltered under a bough waiting for Katz, he arrived and immediately said, “Hey, where’s your stick?” I had lost my beloved walking stick–I suddenly remembered propping it against a tree when I had stopped to tie a lace–and was filled with despair. That stick had seen me through six and a half weeks of mountains, had become all but part of me. It was a link with my children, whom I missed more than I can tell you. I felt like weeping. I told Katz where I thought I’d left it, at a place called Elkwallow Gap, about four miles back.

“I’ll get it for you,” he said without hesitation and started to drop his pack. I could have wept again–he really meant it–but I wouldn’t let him go. It was too far, and besides, Elkwallow Gap was a public place. Someone would have taken it as a souvenir by now.

So we pressed on to a spot called Gravel Springs Hut. It was only half past two when we got there. We had planned to go at least six miles farther, but we were so soaked and the rain was so unrelenting that we decided to stop. I had no dry clothes, so I stripped to my boxer shorts and climbed into my sleeping bag. We spent the longest afternoon I can ever remember listlessly reading and staring out at the pattering rain.

At about five o’clock, just to make our day complete, a group of six noisy people arrived, three men and three women, dressed in the most preposterously Ralph Laurenstyle hiking clothes–safari jackets and broad-brimmed canvas hats and suede hiking boots. These were clothes for sauntering along the veranda at Mackinac or perhaps going on a jeep safari, but patently not for hiking. One of the women, arriving a few paces behind the others and walking through the mud as if it were radioactive, peered into the shelter at me and Katz and said with undisguised distaste, “Ooh, do we have to share?”

They were, to a degree that would have been fascinating in less trying circumstances, stupid, obnoxious, cheerfully but astonishingly self-absorbed, and not remotely acquainted with trail etiquette. Katz and I found ourselves carelessly bumped and jostled into the darkest corners, sprayed with water from clothes being shaken out, and knocked in the head with casually discarded equipment. In astonishment, we watched as clothes we had hung up to dry on a small clothesline were pushed and bunched to one side to make abundant room for their stuff. I sat sullenly, unable to concentrate on my book, while two of the men crouched beside me, in my light, and had the following conversation: “I’ve never done this before.”

“What–camp in a shelter?”

“No, look through binoculars with my glasses on.”

“Oh, I thought you meant camp in a shelter–ha! ha! ha!”

“No, I meant look through binoculars with my glasses on–ha! ha! ha!”

After about a half an hour of this, Katz came over, knelt beside me, and said in a whisper, “One of these guys just called me ‘Sport.’ I’m getting the fuck out of here.”

“What’re you going to do?”

“Pitch my tent in the clearing. You coming?”

“I’m in my underpants,” I said pathetically.Katz nodded in understanding and stood up. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “can I have your attention for a minute? Excuse me, Sport, can I have your attention?

We’re going to go out and pitch our tents in the rain, so you can have all the space in here, but my friend here is in his boxer shorts and is afraid of offending the ladies–and maybe exciting the gentlemen,” he added with a brief, sweet leer, “so could you turn your heads for a minute while he puts his wet clothes back on? Meanwhile, I’ll say good-bye and thank you for allowing us to share a few inches of your space for a little while. It’s been a slice.”

Then he jumped down into the rain. I dressed hastily, surrounded by silence and selfconsciously averted gazes, then bounded down with a small, wimpily neutral good-bye.

We pitched our tents about thirty yards away–not an easy or enjoyable process in a driving rain, believe me–and climbed in. Before we had finished, voices from the shelter had resumed and were succeeded by peels of triumphant laughter. They were noisy until dark, then drunkenly noisy until the small hours. I wondered if at any point they would experience some twinge of charity or remorse and send over a peace offering–a brownie, perhaps, or a hot dog–but they did not.

When we woke in the morning, the rain had stopped, though the world was still insipid and dreary, and water was dripping from the trees. We didn’t bother with coffee. We just wanted to get out of there. We broke down our tents and packed away our stuff. Katz went to get a shirt from the line and reported that our six friends were sleeping heavily.

There were two empty bourbon bottles, he reported in a tone of disdain.

We hefted our packs and set off down the trail. We had walked perhaps 400 yards, out of sight of the camp, when Katz stopped me.

“You know that woman who said ‘Ooh, do we have to share?’ and shoved our clothes to the end of the clothesline?” he asked.

I nodded. Of course I remembered her.

“Well, I’m not real proud of this. I want you to understand that. But when I went to get my shirt, I noticed her boots were right by the edge of the platform and, well, I did something kind of bad.”

“What?” I tried to imagine, but couldn’t.

He opened his hand and there were two suede shoelaces. Then he beamed–a big, winning beam–and stuck them in his pocket and walked on.

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