فصل 13

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فصل 13

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And that was about it for the start of our great adventure. We walked eighteen miles to Front Royal, where my wife was to pick us up in two days if she managed to find her way by car from New Hampshire in an unfamiliar country.

I had to go off for a month to do other things–principally, try to persuade people to buy a book of mine even though it had nothing to do with effortless weight loss, running with the wolves, thriving in an age of anxiety, or the O.J. Simpson trial. (Even so, it sold over sixty copies.) Katz was going back to Des Moines, where he had a job offer for the summer building houses, though he promised to come back in August and hike the famous and forbidding Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine with me.

At one point very early in the trip he had talked earnestly of doing the whole trail, pushing on alone until I was able to rejoin him in June, but when I mentioned this now he just gave a hollow laugh and invited me to join him in the real world when I felt up to it.”To tell you the truth, I’m amazed we’ve come this far,” he said, and I agreed. We had hiked 500 miles, a million and a quarter steps, since setting off from Amicalola. We had grounds to be proud. We were real hikers now. We had shit in the woods and slept with bears. We had become, we would forever be, mountain men.

Eighteen miles was a heroic distance for us, but we were filthy and trail-weary and more than ready for a town, and so we plodded on. We reached Front Royal about seven, dead tired, and went to the first motel we came to. It was arrestingly dire, but cheap. The bed sagged, the TV picture jumped as if it were being mercilessly goosed by an electronic component, and my door didn’t lock. It pretended to lock, but if you pushed on it from outside with a finger, it popped open. This perplexed me for a moment until I realized that no one could possibly want any of my possessions, so I just pulled it shut and went off to find Katz and go to dinner. We ate at a steakhouse down the street and retired happily to our televisions and beds.

In the morning, I went early to Kmart and bought two complete new sets of clothessocks, underwear, blue jeans, sneakers, handkerchiefs, and the two liveliest shirts I could find (one with boats and anchors, the other with a famous-monuments-of-Europe motif). I returned to the motel, presented Katz with half–he couldn’t have been more thrilled–then went to my room and put on my new attire. We met in the motel parking lot ten minutes later, looking crisp and stylish, and exchanged many flattering comments. With a day to kill, we went for breakfast, had an idle, contented saunter through the modest central business district, poked around in thrift shops for something to do, found a camping store where I bought a replacement hiking stick exactly like the one I had lost, had lunch, and in the afternoon decided naturally to go for a walk. It was, after all, what we did.

We found some railroad tracks, which followed the stately curves of the Shenandoah River. There is nothing more agreeable, more pleasantly summery, than to stroll along railroad tracks in a new shirt. We walked without haste or particular purpose, mountain men on holiday, chatting seamlessly about nothing in particular, stepping aside from time to time to let a freight train lumber past, and generally enjoying the abundant sunshine, the beckoning, infinite gleam of silver track, and the simple pleasure of moving forward on legs that felt tireless. We walked almost till sunset. It was a perfect way to finish.

The following morning we went to breakfast, and then came the three hours of fidgety torture of standing at the edge of a motel drive watching traffic for a particular car filled with beaming, excited, much-missed faces. For weeks and weeks I had tried not to visit that shadowy ache where thoughts of my family lay, but now that they were nearly herenow that I could let my thoughts run free–the anticipation was nearly unbearable.

Well, you can imagine, I’m sure, the joyous reunion scene when they finally arrivedthe exuberant hugs, the scatter-gun chatter, the tumble of needlessly but delightfully detailed information about the problems of finding the right interstate exit and correct motel, the impressed appraisal of dad’s new body, the less impressed appraisal of his new shirt, the sudden remembering to include Katz (bashfully grinning on the margins) in the celebrations, the tousling of hair, the whole transcendantly happy business of being rejoined.

We took Katz to National Airport in Washington, where he was booked on a late afternoon flight to Des Moines. At the airport, I realized we were already in different universes (he in a “Where do I go to check in?” sort of distraction, I in the distraction ofknowing that my family waited, that the car was badly parked, that it was nearly rush hour in Washington), so we parted awkwardly, almost absently, with hasty wishes for a good flight and promises to meet again in August for the conclusion of our long amble.

When he was gone I felt bad, but then I turned to the car, saw my family, and didn’t think about him again for weeks.

It was the end of May, almost June, before I got back on the trail. I went for a walk in the woods near our home, with a day pack containing a bottle of water, two peanut butter sandwiches, a map (for form’s sake), and nothing else. It was summer now, so the woods were a new and different place, alive with green and filled with birdsong and swarming mosquitoes and pesky blackfly. I walked five miles over low hills through the woods to the town of Etna, where I sat beside an old cemetery and ate my sandwiches, then packed up and walked home. I was back before lunch. -It didn’t feel right at all.

The next day, I drove to Mount Moosilauke, fifty miles from my home on the southern edge of the White Mountains. Moosilauke is a wonderful mountain, one of the most beautiful in New England, with an imposing leonine grandeur, but it is rather in the middle of nowhere so it doesn’t attract a great deal of attention. It belongs to Dartmouth College, of Hanover, whose famous Outing Club has been looking after it in a commendably diligent and low-key way since the early years of this century. Dartmouth introduced downhill skiing to America on Moosilauke, and the first national championships were held there in 1933. But it was too remote, and soon the sport in New England moved to other mountains nearer main highways, and Moosilauke returned to a splendid obscurity. Today you would never guess that it had ever known fame.

I parked in a small dirt parking lot, the only car that day, and set off into the woods.

This time I had water, peanut butter sandwiches, a map, and insect repellent. Mount Moosilauke is 4,802 feet high, and steep. Without a full pack, I walked straight up it without stopping–a novel and gratifying experience. The view from the top was gorgeously panoramic, but it still didn’t feel right without Katz, without a full pack. I was home by 4:00 P.M. This didn’t feel right at all. You don’t hike the Appalachian Trail and then go home and cut the grass.

I had been so absorbed for so long with setting up and executing the first part of the trip that I hadn’t actually stopped to consider where I would be at this point. Where I was, in fact, was companionless, far away from where I had gotten off the trail, and impossibly adrift from a touchingly optimistic hiking schedule I had drawn up nearly a year before. This showed me to be somewhere in the region of New Jersey by about now, blithely striding off up to thirty miles a day.

It was clear that I had to make some adjustments. Even overlooking the large hunk that Katz and I had left out by jumping from Gatlinburg to Roanoke, and no matter how I juggled the numbers, it was abundantly evident that I was never going to hike the whole thing in one season. At my pace, if I returned to the trail at Front Royal where we had left off and resumed hiking north, I would be lucky to reach central Vermont by winter, 500 miles shy of the trail’s northern terminus at Mount Katahdin.

This time, too, there was no small, endearingly innocent pulse of excitement, that keen and eager frisson that comes with venturing into the unknown with gleaming, untried equipment. This time I knew exactly what was out there–a lot of long, taxing miles, steep rocky mountains, hard shelter floors, hot days without showers, unsatisfying mealscooked on a temperamental stove. Now, moreover, there would be all the perils that come with warmer weather: wild and lively lightning storms, surly rattlesnakes, feverinducing ticks, bears with appetites, and, oh, one unpredictable, motiveless, possibly drifting murderer, since reports of the deaths of the two women killed in Shenandoah National Park were just making the news.

It was more than a little discouraging. The best I could do was to do, well, the best I could do. Anyway, I had to try. Everyone in town who knew me (not a huge number, admittedly, but enough to have me forever dodging into doorways whenever I saw a familiar face approaching along Main Street) knew that I was trying to hike the AT, which patently I could not be doing if I was to be seen skulking in town. (“I saw that Bryson fellow today slipping into Eastman’s Pharmacy with a newspaper in front of his face. I thought he was supposed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail. Anyway, you’re right. He is odd.”)

It was clear I had to get back on the trail–properly back on, far from home, somewhere at least reasonably proximate to northern Virginia–if I was to have any pretense of hiking the trail with anything approaching completeness. The problem was that it is almost impossible nearly everywhere along the AT to get on and off the trail without assistance. I could fly to Washington or Newark or Scranton, or any of several other places in the region of the trail, but in each case I would still be scores of miles short of the trail itself. I couldn’t ask my dear and patient wife to take two days to drive me back to Virginia or Pennsylvania, so I decided to drive myself. I would, I figured, park at a likely looking spot, take a hike up into the hills, hike back to the car, drive on a way, and repeat the process. I suspected this would turn out to be fairly unsatisfying, possibly even imbecile (and I was right on both counts), but I couldn’t think of a better alternative.

And thus I was to be found, in the first week of June, standing on the banks of the Shenandoah again, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, blinking at a grey sky and trying to pretend that with all my heart this was where I wanted to be.

Harpers Ferry is an interesting place for a number of reasons. First, it is quite pretty.

This is because it is a National Historical Park, so there are no Pizza Huts, McDonald’s, Burger Kings, or even residents, at least in the lower, older part of town. Instead, you get restored or re-created buildings with plaques and interpretation boards, so it doesn’t have much, or indeed any, real life, but it still has a certain beguiling, polished prettiness. You can see that it would be a truly nice place to live if only people could be trusted to reside there without succumbing to the urge to have Pizza Huts and Taco Bells (and personally I believe they could, for as much as eighteen months), so instead you get a pretend town, attractively tucked between steep hills at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.

It is a National Historical Park because, of course, it is a historic place. It was at Harpers Ferry that the abolitionist John Brown decided to liberate America’s slaves and set up a new nation of his own in northwestern Virginia, which was a pretty ambitious undertaking considering that he had an army of just twenty-one people. To that end, on October 16, 1859, he and his little group stole into town under cover of darkness, captured the federal armory without resistance (it was guarded by a single nightwatchman), yet still managed to kill a hapless passerby–who was, ironically, a freed black slave. When news got out that a federal armory with 100,000 rifles and a great deal ofammunition was in the hands of a small band of lunatics, the president, James Buchanan, dispatched Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee (at that time still a loyal Union soldier, of course) to sort things out. It took Lee and his men less than three minutes of fighting to overcome the hapless rebellion. Brown was captured alive, swiftly tried, and sentenced to be hanged a month hence.

One of the soldiers sent to oversee the hanging was Thomas J. Jackson–soon to become famous as Stonewall Jackson–and one of the eager onlookers in the crowd was John Wilkes Booth. So the capture of the federal armory at Harpers Ferry served as quite a neat overture for all that followed. Meanwhile, in the wake of Brown’s little adventure, all hell was breaking loose. Northern abolitionists like Ralph Waldo Emerson made Brown a martyr, and Southern loyalists got up in arms, quite literally, at the idea that this might be the start of a trend. Before you knew it, the nation was at war.

Harpers Ferry remained at the center of things throughout the exuberantly bloody conflict that followed. Gettysburg was just thirty miles to the north, Manassas a similar distance to the south, and Antietam (where, it is worth noting, twice as many men died in one day as the total American losses in the War of 1812, Mexican War, and SpanishAmerican War combined) was just ten miles away. Harpers Ferry itself changed hands eight times during the war, though the record in this regard belongs to Winchester, Virginia, a few miles south, which managed to be captured and recaptured seventy-five times.

These days, Harpers Ferry passes its time accommodating tourists and cleaning up after floods. With two temperamental rivers at its feet and a natural funnel of bluffs before and behind, it is forever being inundated. There had been a bad flood in the town six months before, and the park’s staff was still busy mopping out, repainting, and carrying furnishings, artifacts, and displays down from upstairs storage rooms. (Three months after my visit, they would have to take everything back up again.) At one of the houses, two of the rangers came out the door and down the walk and nodded smiles at me as they passed. Both of them, I noticed, were packing sidearms. Goodness knows what the world is coming to when park rangers carry service revolvers.

I had a poke around the town, but nearly every building I went to had a locked door and a notice saying “CLOSED FOR FLOOD REPAIRS.” Then I went and looked at the spot where the two rivers flow together. There was an Appalachian Trail notice board there.

Although it had been only about ten days since the two women were murdered in Shenandoah National Park, there was already a small poster appealing for information. It had color photographs of them both. They were clearly photos taken by the women themselves along the trail, in hiking gear, looking happy and healthy, radiant even. It was hard to look at them, knowing their doom. It occurred to me, with a small inward start, that had the two women lived they would very probably be arriving in Harpers Ferry just about now, that instead of standing here looking at a poster of them I could be chatting with them–or indeed, given a slight alteration of luck and fate, that it could be them looking at a poster of me and Katz looking trail-happy and confident.

In one of the few houses open I found a friendly, well-informed, happily unarmed ranger named David Fox, who seemed surprised and pleased to have a visitor. He bobbed up instantly from his stool when I came in and was clearly eager to answer any questions.

We got to talking about preservation, and he mentioned how hard it was for the ParkService with so little funds to do a proper job. When the park had been formed, there had been money enough to buy only about half of the Schoolhouse Ridge Battlefield above town (one of the most important if least celebrated of Civil War battle sites) and now a developer was in the process of building houses and shops on what Fox clearly saw as hallowed ground. The developer had even started running pipes across National Park land in the confident–but, as it happened, mistaken–presumption that the Park Service wouldn’t have the will or money to stop him. Fox told me I should go up and look at it. I said I would.

But first I had a more important pilgrimage to make. Harpers Ferry is the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference, overseers of the noble footpath to which I had dedicated my summer. The ATC occupies a modest white house on a steep hill above the old part of town. I trudged up and went in. The HQ was half office/half shop–the office portion commendably busy looking, the shop half arrayed with AT guides and keepsakes.

At one end of the public area was a large-scale model of the entire trail, which, had I seen it before I started, might well have dissuaded me from attempting such an ambitious undertaking. It was perhaps fifteen feet long and conveyed arrestingly and at a glance what 2,200 miles of mountains look like: hard. The rest of the public area was filled with AT goods–T-shirts, postcards, bandannas, books, miscellaneous publications. I chose a couple of books and some postcards, and was served at the counter by a friendly young woman named Laurie Potteiger, whose badge described her as an Information Specialist, and they seem to have chosen the right person, for she was a mine of information.

She told me that the previous year 1,500 prospective thru-hikers had started the trail, 1,200 had made it to Neels Gap (that’s a dropout rate of 20 percent in the first week!), about a third had made it to Harpers Ferry, roughly halfway, and about 300 had reached Katahdin, a higher success rate than usual. Sixty or so people had successfully hiked the trail from north to south. This year’s crop of thru-hikers had been passing through for the past month. It was too early to say what the final figure for the year would be, but it would certainly be higher. It rose, in any case, almost every year.

I asked her about the dangers of the trail, and she told me that in the eight years that she had worked for the ATC, there had been just two confirmed cases of snakebite, neither fatal, and one person killed by lightning.

I asked her about the recent murders.

She gave a sympathetic grimace. “It’s awful. Everyone’s really upset about it, because trust is such a kind of bedrock part of hiking the AT, you know? I thru-hiked myself in 1987, so I know how much you come to rely on the goodness of strangers. The trail is really all about that, isn’t it? And to have that taken away, well . . . .” Then, remembering her position, she gave me a little bit of the official line–a brief, articulate spiel to the effect that one should never forget that the trail is not insulated from the larger ills of society but that statistically it remains extremely safe compared with most places in America. “It’s had nine murders since 1937–about the same as you would get in many small towns.” This was correct, but a wee disingenuous. The AT had no murders in its first thirty-six years and nine in the past twenty-two. Still, her larger point was inarguable.

You are more likely to be murdered in your bed in America than on the AT. Or as an American friend put it to me much later: “Look, if you draw a two thousand-mile-long line across the United States at any angle, it’s going to pass through nine murder victims.”“If you’re interested, there’s a book about one of the murders,” she said and reached below the counter. She rooted for a moment in a box and brought out a paperback called Eight Bullets, which she passed to me for examination. It was about two hikers who were shot in Pennsylvania in 1988. “We don’t keep it out because, you know, it’s kind of upsetting, especially now,” she said apologetically.

I bought it, and as she handed me my change I mentioned to her the thought that if the women in Shenandoah had survived they would be passing through about now.

“Yeah,” she said, “I’d thought about that.”

It was drizzling when I stepped back outside. I went up to Schoolhouse Ridge to have a look at the battlefield. It was a large, parklike hilltop with a wandering path lined at intervals with information boards describing charges and last-ditch stands and other confused, noisy action. The battle for Harpers Ferry was the finest moment for Stonewall Jackson (he who had last come to town to hang John Brown) because it was here, through some deft maneuvering and a bit of luck, that he managed to capture 12,500 Union troops, more American soldiers than would be captured in a single action until Bataan and Corregidor in World War II.

Now Stonewall Jackson is a man worth taking an interest in. Few people in history have achieved greater fame in a shorter period with less useful activity in the brainbox than Gen. Thomas J. Jackson. His idiosyncrasies were legendary. He was hopelessly, but inventively, hypochondriacal. One of his more engaging physiological beliefs was that one arm was bigger than the other, and in consequence he always walked and rode with that arm raised, so that his blood would drain into his body. He was a champion sleeper. More than once he fell asleep at the dinner table with food in his mouth. At the Battle of White Oak Swamp, his lieutenants found it all but impossible to rouse him and lifted him, insensible, on to his horse, where he continued to slumber while shells exploded around him. He took obsessive zeal in recording captured goods and would defend them at all costs. His list of materiel liberated from the Union Army during the 1862 Shenandoah campaign included “six handkerchiefs, two and three quarter dozen neckties, and one bottle of red ink.” He drove his superiors and fellow officers to fury, partly by repeatedly disobeying instructions and partly by his paranoid habit of refusing to divulge his strategies, such as they were, to anyone. One officer under his command was ordered to withdraw from the town of Gordonsville, where he was on the brink of a signal victory, and march on the double to Staunton. Arriving in Staunton, he found fresh orders to go at once to Mount Crawford. There he was told to return to Gordonsville.

It was largely because of his habit of marching troops all over the Shenandoah Valley in an illogical and inexplicable fashion that Jackson earned a reputation among bewildered enemy officers for wiliness. His ineradicable fame rests almost entirely on the fact that he had a couple of small but inspiring victories when elsewhere Southern troops were being slaughtered and routed and by dint of having the best nickname any soldier has ever enjoyed. He was unquestionably brave, but in fact it is altogether possible that he was given that nickname not for gallantry and daring but for standing inert, like a stone wall, when a charge was called for. Gen. Barnard Bee, who gave him the name at the First Battle of Manassas, was killed before the day was out, so the matter will remain forever unresolvable.His victory at Harpers Ferry, the greatest triumph for the Confederacy in the Civil War, was almost entirely because for once he followed the instructions of Robert E. Lee. It sealed his fame. A few months later he was accidentally shot by his own troops at the Battle of Chancellorsville and died eight days later. The war was barely half over. He was just thirty-nine.

Jackson spent much of the war in and around the Blue Ridge Mountains, camping in and marching through the very woods and high gaps through which Katz and I had lately passed, so I was interested to see the scene of his greatest triumph, though really I was curious to learn if the developer had done anything up there worth getting indignant about.

In the rain and dying light, I couldn’t see any sign of new houses, certainly not on or near the sacred ground. So I followed the path around the undulating field, reading the information boards with dutiful attention, trying to be absorbed by the fact that Captain Poague’s battery had stood just here and Colonel Grigsby’s troops were arrayed over there, but being considerably less successful than one might hope when one is growing slowly soaked in the process. I didn’t have the necessary energy to imagine the noise and smoke and carnage. Besides, I had had enough death for one day, so I tramped back to the car and pushed on.

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