فصل 20کتاب: قدم زدن در جنگل / فصل 20
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Well, that rather colored things, as you can imagine. We never said another word about it.
It just hung there. At breakfast, we exchanged good mornings, more or less as normal, but didn’t speak beyond that. Afterwards, as we waited by Keith’s van for a promised lift to the trailhead, we stood in an awkward silence, like adversaries in a property dispute waiting to be summoned into the judge’s chambers.
At the edge of the woods when we alighted there was a sign announcing that this was the start of the Hundred Mile Wilderness, with a long, soberly phrased warning to the effect that what lay beyond was not like other stretches of the trail, and that you shouldn’t proceed if you didn’t have at least ten days’ worth of food and weren’t feeling like the people in a Patagonia ad.
It gave the woods a more ominous, brooding feel. They were unquestionably different from woods further south–darker, more shadowy, inclining more to black than green.
There were different trees, too–more conifers at low levels and many more birches– andscattered through the undergrowth were large, rounded black boulders, like sleeping animals, which lent the still recesses a certain eerieness. When Walt Disney made a motion picture of Bambi, his artists based their images on the Great North Woods of Maine, but this was palpably not a Disney forest of roomy glades and cuddlesome creatures. This brought to mind the woods in the Wizard of Oz, where the trees have ugly faces and malign intent and every step seems a gamble. This was a woods for looming bears, dangling snakes, wolves with laser-red eyes, strange noises, sudden terrors–a place of “standing night,” as Thoreau neatly and nervously put it.
As ever, the trail was well blazed, but in places almost overgrown, with ferns and other low foliage all but meeting in the middle over the path, reducing the visible trail to a razor line along the forest floor. Since only 10 percent of thru-hikers make it this far, and it is too distant for most day hikers, the trail in Maine is much more thinly used, and so the foliage encroaches. Above all, what set the trail apart was the terrain. In profile, the topography of the AT over the eighteen-mile section from Monson to Barren Mountain looks reasonably undemanding, rolling along at a more or less steady 1,200 feet with just a few steep rises and falls. In fact, it was hell.
Within half an hour we had come to a wall of rock, the first of many, perhaps 400 feet high. The trail ran up its face along a slight depression, like an elevator shaft. It was as near perpendicular as a slope can get without actually being a rock climb. Slowly and laboriously we picked our way between and over boulders, using our hands as much as our feet. Combined with our exertion, the cloying heat was almost unbearable. I found I had to stop every ten or twelve yards to draw breath and wipe burning sweat from my eyes. I was swimming in heat, bathed in heat, swaddled in it. I drank three-quarters of a bottle of water on the way up and used much of the rest to wet a bandanna and try to cool my throbbing head. I felt dangerously overheated and faint. I began to rest more frequently and for longer periods, to try to cool down a little, but each time I set off again the heat came flooding back. I had never had to work so hard or so tiringly to clear an Appalachian impediment, and this was just the first of a series.
The top of the climb brought several hundred yards of bare, gently sloping granite, like walking along a whale’s back. From each summit the panorama was sensational–for as far as the eye could see nothing but heavy green woods, denim-blue lakes, and lonely, undulant mountains. Many of the lakes were immense, and nearly all of them had probably never felt so much as a human toe. There was a certain captivating sense of having penetrated into a secret corner of the world, but in the murderous sun it was impossible to linger.
Then came a difficult and unnerving descent down a rocky cliff face on the other side, a short walk through a dark, waterless valley, and delivery to the foot of another wall of rock. And so the day went, with monumental climbs and the hope of water over the next hill the principal thing drawing us on. Katz was soon out of water altogether. I gave him a drink of mine and he accepted it gratefully, with a look that asked for a truce. There was, however, still a kind of odor between us, an unhappy sense that things had changed and would not be the same again.
It was my fault. I pushed on farther and longer than we would have normally, and without consulting him, unsubtly punishing him for having unbalanced the equilibrium that had existed between us, and Katz bore it silently as his due. We did fourteen miles, anexceedingly worthy distance in the circumstances, and might have gone farther, but at half past six we came to a broad ford called Wilber Brook and stopped. We were too tired to cross–that is to say, I was too tired–and it would be folly to get wet so near sundown.
We made camp and shared our cheerless rations with a kind of strained politeness. Even if we had not been at odds, we would scarcely have spoken: we were too tired. It had been a long day–the hardest of the trip–and the thought that hung over us was that we had eighty-five more miles of this before we got to the camp store at Abol Bridge, 100 miles till we reached the challenging mass of Katahdin. Even then we had no prospect of real comfort. Katahdin is in Baxter State Park, which takes a certain hearty pride in its devotion to ruggedness and deprivation. There are no restaurants and lodges, no gift shops and hamburger stands, not even any paved roads or public phones. The park itself is in the middle of nowhere, a two-day hike from Millinocket, the nearest town. It could be ten or eleven days before we had a proper meal or slept in a bed. It seemed a long way off.
In the morning we silently forded the stream–we were getting pretty good at it nowand started up the long, slow climb to the roof of the Barren-Chairback Range, fifteen miles of ragged summits that we had to cross before descending to a more tranquil spell in the valley of the Pleasant River. The map showed just three tarns in those mountains, remnant glacial ponds, all off the trail, but otherwise no indication of water at all. With less than four liters between us and the day already warm, the long haul between water sources promised to be at the very least uncomfortable.
Barren Mountain was a strenuous slog, much of it straight up and all of it hot, though we seemed to be getting stronger. Even Katz was moving with a comparative lightness.
Even so, it took us nearly all morning to hike the four and a half miles up. I reached the top some time ahead of Katz. The summit was sun-warmed granite, hot to the touch, but there was a wisp of breeze–the first in days–and I found a shady spot beneath a disused fire tower. It was the first time in what seemed like weeks that I had sat anywhere in relative comfort. I leaned back and felt as if I could sleep for a month. Katz arrived ten minutes later, puffing hard but pleased to be at the top. He took a seat on a boulder beside mine. I had about two inches of water left, and passed him the bottle. He took a very modest sip and made to hand it back.
“Go on,” I said, “you must be thirsty.”
“Thanks.” He took a slightly less modest sip and put the bottle down. He sat for a minute, then got out a Snickers, broke it in two and extended half to me. It was a somewhat odd thing to do because I had Snickers of my own and he knew that, but he had nothing else to give.
“Thanks,” I said.
He gnawed off a bite of Snickers, ate for a minute and said from out of nowhere: “Girlfriend and boyfriend are talking. The girlfriend says to the boyfriend, ‘Jimmy, how do you spell pedophilia?’ The boyfriend looks at her in amazement. ‘Gosh, honey,’ he says ‘that’s an awfully big word for an eight-year-old.’ “
“I’m sorry about the other night,” Katz said.
“I just got a little … I don’t know.”“I know.”
“It’s kind of hard for me sometimes,” he went on. “I try, Bryson, I really do, but–” He stopped there and shrugged reflectively, a little helplessly. “There’s just this kind of hole in my life where drinking used to be.” He was staring at the view–the usual verdant infinity of woods and lakes, shimmering slightly in a heat haze. There was something in his gaze–a miles-away fixedness– that made me think for a minute that he had stopped altogether, but he went on. “When I went back to Des Moines after Virginia and got that job building houses, at the end of the day all the crew would go off to this tavern across the street. They’d always invite me, but I’d say”– he lifted two hands and put on a deep, righteous voice–’’ ‘No, boys, I’m reformed.’ And I’d go home to my little apartment and heat a TV dinner, and feel all virtuous, like I’m supposed to. But really, you know, when you do that night after night it’s kind of hard to persuade yourself you’re leading a rich and thrilling existence. I mean, if you had a Fun-o-Meter, the needle wouldn’t exactly be jumping into the orgasmic zone because you’ve got your own TV dinner. You know what I’m saying?”
He glanced over, to see me nod.
“So anyway one day after work, they invited me for about the hundredth time and I thought, ‘Oh, what the hell. No law that says I can’t go in a tavern like anybody else.’ So I went and had a Diet Coke and it was OK. I mean, it was nice just to be out. But you know how good a beer is at the end of a long day. And there was named Dwayne who kept saying, ‘Go on, have a beer. You know you want one. One little beer’s not gonna hurt ya.
You haven’t had a drink for three years. You can handle it.’ “ He looked at me again. “You know?”
“Caught me when I was vulnerable. You know, when I was still breathing,” Katz said with a thin, ironic smile, then went on: “I never had more than three, I swear to God. I know what you’re going to say–believe me, everybody’s said it already. I know I can’t drink. I know I can’t have just a couple of beers like a normal person, that pretty soon the number will creep up and up and spin out of control. I know that. But–” He stopped there again, shaking his head. “But I love to drink. I can’t help it. I mean, I love it, Bryson–love the taste, love that buzz you get when you’ve had a couple, love the smell and feel of taverns. I miss dirty jokes and the click of pool balls in the background, and that kind of bluish, underlit glow of a bar at night.” He was quiet again for a minute, lost in a little reverie for a lifetime’s drinking. “And I can’t have it anymore. I know that.” He breathed out heavily through his nostrils. “It’s just that. It’s just that sometimes all I see ahead of me is TV dinners–a sort of endless line of them dancing towards me like in a cartoon. You ever eat TV dinners?”
“Not for years and years.”
“Well, they’re shit, believe me. And, I don’t know, it’s just kind of hard. …” He trailed off. “Actually, it’s real hard.” He looked at me, on the edge of emotion, his expression frank and humble. “Makes me kind of an asshole sometimes,” he said quietly.
I gave him a small smile. “Makes you more of an asshole,” I said.
He snorted a laugh. “Yeah, I guess.”
I reached over and gave him a stupidly affectionate jab on the shoulder. He received it with a flicker of appreciation.”And do you know what the fuck of it is?” he said in a sudden pull-yourself-together voice. “I could kill for a TV dinner right now. I really could.” We laughed.
“Hungry Man Turkey Dinner with plastic giblets and 40-weight gravy. Hmmmmmmmm. I’d leave your scrawny ass up here for just a sniff of that.” Then he brushed at a corner of eye, said, “Hoo, fuck,” and went to have a pee over the cliff edge.
I watched him go, looking old and tired, and wondered for a minute what on earth we were doing up here. We weren’t boys any more.
I looked at the map. We were practically out of water, but it was less than a mile to Cloud Pond, where we could refill. We split the last half inch, and I told Katz I would go on ahead to the pond, filter the water, and have it waiting for him when he arrived.
It was an easy twenty-minute walk along a grassy ridgeline. Cloud Pond was down a steep side trail, about a quarter of a mile off the AT. I left my pack propped against a big rock at the trailside and went with our water bottles and the filter down to the pond edge and filled up.
It took me perhaps twenty minutes to walk down, fill the three bottles, and walk back, so when I returned to the AT it had been about forty minutes since I had seen Katz. Even if he had tarried on the mountaintop, and even allowing for his modest walking speed, he should have reached here by now. Besides, it was an easy walk and I knew he was thirsty, so it was odd that he wasn’t more prompt. I waited fifteen minutes and then twenty and twenty-five, and finally I left my pack and went back to look for him. It was well over an hour since I had seen him when I reached the mountaintop, and he wasn’t there. I stood confounded on the spot where we had last been together. His stuff was gone. He had obviously moved on, but if he wasn’t on Barren Mountain and wasn’t at Cloud Pond and was nowhere in between, then where was he? The only possible explanations were that he had gone back the other way, which was out of the questionKatz would never have left me without explanation–never–or that he had somehow fallen off the ridgeline. It was an absurd notion–there wasn’t anything remotely challenging or dangerous about the ridgeline– but you never know. John Connolly had told us weeks before of a friend of his who had fainted in heat and tumbled a few feet off a safe, level trail; he had lain unnoticed for hours in blazing sunshine and slowly baked to death. All the way back to the Cloud Pond turnoff I carefully surveyed the trail-edge brush for signs of disturbance and peered at intervals over the lip of the ridge, fearful of seeing Katz spread-eagled on a rock. I called his name several times, and got nothing in return but my own fading voice.
By the time I reached the turnoff it had been nearly two hours since I had seen him.
This was becoming worryingly inexplicable. The only remaining possibility was that he had walked past the turnoff while I was down at the pond filtering water, but this seemed manifestly improbable. There was a prominent arrowed sign by the trail saying “Cloud Pond” and my pack had been clearly visible beside the trail. Even if he had somehow failed to notice these things, he knew that Cloud Pond was only a mile from Barren Mountain. When you have hiked the AT as much as we had, you get so you can judge a mile with considerable accuracy. He couldn’t have gone too far beyond without realizing his mistake and coming back. This just didn’t make sense.
All I knew was that Katz was alone in a wilderness with no water, no map, no clear idea of what terrain lay ahead, presumably no idea of what had become of me, and aworrying lack of sense. If there was ever one person who would decide while lost on the AT to leave the trail and try for a short cut, it was Katz. I began to feel extremely uneasy.
I left a note on my pack and went off down the trail. A half mile farther on, the trail descended very steeply, almost perpendicularly, more than 600 feet to a high, nameless valley. He had to have realized by this point, surely, that he had gone wrong. I had told him Cloud Pond was a level stroll.
Calling his name at intervals, I picked my way slowly along the path down the cliff face, fearing the worst at the bottom–for this was a precipice one could easily fall down, especially with a big ungainly pack and a preoccupied mind–but there was no sign of him.
I followed the trail two miles through the valley and up on to the summit of a high pinnacle called Fourth Mountain. The view from the top was expansive in every direction; the wilderness had never looked so big. I called his name long and hard, and got nothing in return.
It was getting on to late afternoon by this time. He had been at least four hours without water. I had no idea how long a person could survive without water in this heat, but I knew from experience that you couldn’t go for more than half an hour without experiencing considerable discomfort. It occurred to me with a sinking feeling that he might have seen another pond–there were half a dozen to choose from scattered across the valley 2,000 feet below–and decided in his perplexity that perhaps that was it, and tried to reach it cross-country. Even if he wasn’t confused, he might simply have been driven by thirst to try to reach one of those ponds. They looked wonderfully cool and refreshing. The nearest was only about two miles away, but there was no trail to it and it was down a perilous slope through the woods. Once you were in the woods and bereft of bearings, you could easily miss it by a mile. Conversely, you could be within fifty yards of it and not know, as we had seen at Pleasant Pond a few days before. And once you were lost in these immense woods, you would die. It was as simple as that. No one could save you. No helicopter could spot you through the cover of trees. No rescue teams could find you. None, I suspected, would even try. There would be bears down there, too–bears that had possibly never seen a human. All the possibilities made my head hurt.
I hiked back to the Cloud Pond turnoff, hoping more than anything I had hoped for in a long time that he would be sitting on the pack, and that there would be some amusing, unconsidered explanation–that we had kept just missing each other, like in a stage farce: him waiting bewildered at my pack, then going off to look for me; me arriving a moment later, waiting in puzzlement and going off–but I knew he wouldn’t be there, and he wasn’t. It was nearly dusk when I got back. I wrote a fresh note and left it under a rock in the middle of the AT, just in case, hoisted my pack, and went down to the pond, where there was a shelter.
The irony was that this was the nicest campsite I experienced anywhere along the AT, and it was the one place I camped without Katz. Cloud Pond was a couple of hundred acres of exquisitely peaceful water surrounded by dark coniferous forest, the treetops pointy black silhouettes against a pale blue evening sky. The shelter, which I had to myself, was on a level area thirty or forty yards back from the pond and slightly above it.
It was practically new and spotless. There was a privy nearby. It was nearly perfect. I dumped my stuff on the wooden sleeping platform and went down to the water’s edge tofilter water, so I wouldn’t have to do it in the morning, then stripped to my boxers and waded a couple of feet into the dark water to have a wash with a bandanna. If Katz had been there, I’d have had a swim. I tried not to think about him– certainly not to visualize him lost and bewildered. There was, after all, nothing I could do now.
Instead, I sat on a rock and watched the sunset. The pond was almost painfully beautiful. The long rays of the setting sun made the water shimmer golden. Offshore, two loons cruised, as if out for a spin after supper. I watched them for a long time, and thought about something I had seen on a BBC nature program some time before.
Loons, according to the program, are not social creatures. But towards the end of summer, just before they fly back to the North Atlantic, where they pass the winter bobbing on stormy waves, they host a series of get-togethers. A dozen or more loons from all the neighboring ponds fly in, and they all swim around together for a couple of hours for no discernible reason other than the pleasure of being together. The host loon leads the guests on a proud but low-key tour of his territory–first to his favorite little cove, say, then perhaps over to an interesting fallen log, then on to a patch of lily pads.
“This is where I like to fish in the mornings,” he seems to be saying. “And here’s where we’re thinking of moving our nesting site next year.” All the other loons follow him around with diligence and polite interest. No one knows why they do this (but then no one knows why one human being would want to show another his converted bathroom) or how they arrange their rendezvous, but they all show up each night at the right lake at the right time as certainly as if they had been sent a card that said: “We’re Having a Party!” I think that’s wonderful. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t kept thinking of Katz stumbling and gasping and searching for a lake by moonlight.
Oh, and by the way, the loons are disappearing everywhere because their lakes are dying from acid rain.
I had a rotten night, of course, and was up before five and back on the trail at first light. I continued on north in the direction I guessed Katz had gone, but with the nagging thought that I was plunging ever farther into the Hundred Mile Wilderness–not perhaps the best direction to go if he was somewhere nearby and in trouble. There was a certain incidental disquiet at the thought that I was on my own in the middle of nowhere–a disquiet briefly but vividly heightened when I stumbled in my haste on the return descent to the deep, nameless valley and came within a trice of falling fifty long feet, with a messy bounce at the bottom. I hoped I was doing the right thing.
Even flat out it would take me three days, perhaps four, to reach Abol Bridge and the campground. By the time I alerted authorities, Katz would have been missing for four or five days. On the other hand, if I turned now and went back the way we had come, I could be in Monson by the following afternoon. What I really needed was to meet somebody coming south who could tell me if they had seen Katz, but there was no one out on the trail. I looked at my watch. Of course there wasn’t. It was only a little after six in the morning. There was a shelter at Chairback Gap, six miles farther on. I would reach it by eight or so. With luck, there might still be someone there. I pressed on with more care and a queasy uncertainty.
I clambered back over the pinnacle of Fourth Mountain–much harder with a pack–and into another wooded valley beyond. Four miles after leaving Cloud Pond, I came to a tiny stream, barely worthy of the term–really just a slick of moist mud. Speared to a branchbeside the trail, in an intentionally prominent place, was an empty pack of Old Gold cigarettes. Katz didn’t smoke much, but he always carried a pack of Old Golds. In the mud by a fallen log were three cigarette butts. He had obviously waited here. So he was alive and hadn’t left the trail, and clearly had come this way. I felt immeasurably better. At least I was going in the right direction. As long as he stuck to the trail, I was bound eventually to overtake him.
I found him four hours after setting off, sitting on a rock by the turnoff for West Chairback Pond, head inclined to the sun as if working on his tan. He was extensively scratched and muddy, and wildly bedraggled, but otherwise looked OK. He was of course delighted to see me.
“Bryson, you old mountain man, you’re a welcome sight. Where have you been?”
“I was wondering the same of you.”
“Guess I missed the last watering hole?”
He nodded, too. “Knew I had, of course. Soon as I got down to the bottom of that big cliff, I thought, ‘Shit, this can’t be right.’ “
“Why didn’t you come back?”
“I don’t know. I got it in mind somehow that you must have pushed on. I was real thirsty. I think I might have been a little confused–a little addled, as you might say. I was real thirsty.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well, I pushed on and kept thinking I had to come to water sooner or later, and eventually I came to a mud slick–”
“Where you left the cigarette pack?”
“You saw it? I’m so proud. Yeah, well, I soaked up some water there with my bandanna, because I remembered that’s what Fess Parker did once on the Davy Crockett show.”
“How very enterprising.”
He accepted the compliment with a nod. “That took about an hour, and then I waited another hour for you and had a couple of smokes, and then it was getting dark so I put my tent up, ate a Slim Jim, and went to bed. Then this morning I sponged up a little more water with my bandanna and I came on here. There’s a real nice pond just down there, so I thought I’d wait here where there was water and hope that you’d come along eventually. I didn’t think you’d leave me up here on purpose, but you’re such a walking day dream I could just imagine you getting all the way to Katahdin before you noticed I wasn’t with you.” He put on an exaggerated accent. “ ‘Oh, I say, delightful view–don’t you agree, Stephen? Stephen. . . ? Stephen. . . ? Now where the deuce has he got to?’ “ He gave me a familiar smile. “So I’m real glad to see you.”
“How’d you get so scratched up?”
He looked at his arm, which was covered in a zigzag of dried blood. “Oh that? It’s nothing.”
“What do you mean it’s nothing? It looks like you’ve been doing surgery on yourself.”
“Well, I didn’t want to alarm you, but I also got kind of lost.”
“How?”“Oh, between losing you and coming upon the mud slick, I tried to get to a lake I saw from the mountain.”
“Stephen, you didn’t.”
“Well, I was real thirsty, you know, and it didn’t look too far. So I plunged off into the woods. Not real smart, right?”
“Yeah, well, I learned that real fast because I hadn’t gone more than half a mile before I was totally lost. I mean totally lost. It’s weird, you know, because you’re thinking all you’ve got to do is go downhill to the water and come back the same way, and that shouldn’t be too tough as long as you pay attention. But the thing is, Bryson, there’s nothing to pay attention to out there. It’s just one big woods. So when I realized I didn’t have the faintest idea where I was I thought, ‘OK, well, I got lost by going downhill, so I’d better go back up.’ But suddenly there’s a lot of uphills, and a lot of downhills too, and it’s real confusing. So I went up and up and up until I knew I’d gone a lot farther than I’d come, and then I thought, ‘Well, Stephen, you stupid piece of shit’–‘cause I was getting a little cross with myself by this time, to tell you the truth– I thought, ‘you must have gone too far, you jackass,’ so I want back down a ways, and that didn’t work, so then I tried going sideways for a while and–well, you get the picture.”
“You should never leave the trail, Stephen.”
“Oh, now there’s a timely piece of advice, Bryson. Thank you so much. That’s like telling somebody who’s died in a crash, ‘Drive safely now.’ ‘’
“Forget it. I think maybe I’m still a little, you know, unsettled. I thought I was done for.
Lost, no water–and you with the chocolate chip cookies.”
“So how did you get back to the trail?”
“It was a miracle, I swear to God. Just when I was about to lie down and give myself to the wolves and bobcats, I look up and there’s a white blaze on a tree and I look down and I’m standing on the AT. At the mudslick, as a matter of fact. I sat down and had three smokes one after the other, just to calm myself down, and then I thought, ‘Shit, I bet Bryson’s walked by here while I’ve been blundering around in the woods, and he’ll never come back because he’s already checked this section of trail.’ And then I began to worry that I never would see you again. So I really was glad when you turned up. To tell you the truth, I’ve never been so glad to see another person in my whole life, and that includes some naked women.”
There was something in his look.
“You want to go home?” I asked.
He thought for a moment. “Yeah. I do.”
So we decided to leave the endless trail and stop pretending we were mountain men because we weren’t. At the bottom of Chairback Mountain, four miles farther on, there was a dirt logging road. We didn’t know where it went other than that it must go somewhere. An arrow on the edge of my map pointed south to Katahdin Iron Works, site of an improbable nineteenth-century factory in the woods and now a state historical monument. According to my Trail Guide there was public parking at the old iron works, so there must be a road out. At the bottom of the mountain, we watered up at a brook thatran past, and then started off along the logging road. We hadn’t been walking more than three or four minutes when there was a noise in the near distance. We turned to see a cloud of dust heading our way led by an ancient pickup truck moving at great speed. As it approached I instinctively put my thumb out, and to my astonishment it stopped about fifty feet past us.
We ran up to the driver’s window. There were two guys in the cab, both in hardhats and dirty from work–loggers obviously.
“Where you going?” asked the driver.
“Anywhere,” I said. “Anywhere but here.”
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