فصل 21

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فصل 21

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So we didn’t see Katahdin. We didn’t even see Katahdin Iron Works, except as a glimpsed blur because we shot past it at about seventy miles an hour on the bounciest, most terrifyingly hasty ride I ever hope to have in the back of a pickup truck on a dirt road.

We held on for dear life in the open back, lifting our feet to let chainsaws and other destructive-looking implements slide past– first this way, then that–while the driver propelled us through the flying woods with reckless zest, bouncing over potholes with such vigor as to throw us inches into the air, and negotiating curves as if in startled afterthought. In consequence we alighted at the little community of Milo, twenty miles to the south, on unsteady legs and blinking at the suddenness with which our circumstances had changed. One moment we had been in the heart of wilderness, facing at least a twoday hike to civilization; now we were in the forecourt of a gas station on the edge of a remote little town. We watched the pickup truck depart, then took our bearings.

“You want to get a Coke?” I said to Katz. There was a machine by the gas station door.

He considered for a moment. “No,” he said. “Maybe later.”

It was unlike Katz not to fall upon soft drinks and junk food with exuberant lust when the opportunity presented itself, but I believe I understood. There is always a measure of shock when you leave the trail and find yourself parachuted into a world of comfort and choice, but it was different this time. This time it was permanent. We were hanging up our hiking boots. From now on, there would always be Coke, and soft beds and showers and whatever else we wanted. There was no urgency now. It was a strangely subduing notion.

Milo had no motel, but we were directed to a place called Bishop’s Boarding-house, a large old white house on a handsome street of elegant trees, wide lawns, substantial old houses–the kind of homes where the garages were originally carriage houses with quarters upstairs for the servants.

We were received with warmth and bustling kindliness by the proprietor, Joan Bishop, a cheery, snowy-haired lady with a hearty Down East accent who came to the door wringing floury hands on an apron and waved us and our grubby packs into the spotless interior without a flicker of dismay.

The house smelled wholesomely of fresh-baked pastry, garden tomatoes, and air undisturbed by fans or air-conditioners–old-fashioned summer smells. She called us “you boys” and acted as if she had been expecting us for days, possibly years.

“Goodness me, just look at you boys!” she clucked in astonishment and delight. “You look as if you’ve been wrestling bears!”I suppose we must have looked a sight. Katz was liberally covered in blood from his fraught stumble through the woods, and there was tiredness all over us, even in our eyes.

“Now you boys go up and get yourselves cleaned up and come down to the porch and I’ll have a nice jug of iced tea waiting for you. Or would you rather lemonade? Never mind, I’ll make both. Now go on!” And off she bustled.

“Thanks, Mom,” we muttered in dazzled and grateful unison.

Katz was instantly transformed–so much so that he felt perhaps a trifle too much at home. I was wearily taking some things from my pack when he suddenly appeared in my room without knocking and hastily shut the door behind him, looking flummoxed. Only a towel, clutched not quite adequately around his waist, preserved his hefty modesty.

“Little old lady,” he said in amazement.


“Little old lady in the hallway,” he said again.

“It is a guest house, Stephen.”

“Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. He peeked out the door and disappeared without elaboration.

When we had showered and changed, we joined Mrs. Bishop on the screened porch, where we slumped heavily and gratefully in the big old porch chairs, legs thrust out, the way you do when it’s hot and you’re tired. I was hoping that Mrs. Bishop would tell us that she was forever putting up hikers who had been foiled by the Hundred Mile Wilderness, but in fact we were the first she could recall in that category.

“I read in the paper the other day that a man from Portland hiked Katahdin to celebrate his seventy-eighth birthday,” she said conversationally.

That made me feel immensely better, as you can imagine.

“I expect I’ll be ready to try again by then,” Katz said, running a finger along the line of scratch on his forearm.

“Well, it’ll still be there, boys, when you’re ready for it,” she said. She was right, of course.

We dined in town at a popular restaurant called Angle’s and afterwards, with the evening warm and congenial, went for a stroll. Milo was a sweetly hopeless towncommercially forlorn, far from anywhere and barely alive, but curiously likeable. It had some nice residential streets and an impressive fire station. Perhaps it was just that it was our last night away from home. Anyway, it seemed to suit us.

“So do you feel bad about leaving the trail?” Katz asked after a time.

I thought for a moment, unsure. I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings towards the AT that weren’t confused and contradictory. I was weary of the trail, but still strangely in its thrall; found the endless slog tedious but irresistible; grew tired of the boundless woods but admired their boundlessness; enjoyed the escape from civilization and ached for its comforts. I wanted to quit and to do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see a hill again. All of this all at once, every moment, on the trail or off. “I don’t know,” I said. “Yes and no, I guess. What about you?”

He nodded. “Yes and no.”

We walked along for some minutes, lost in small thoughts.”Anyway, we did it,” Katz said at last, looking up. He noted my quizzical expression.

“Hiked Maine, I mean.”

I looked at him. “Stephen, we didn’t even see Mount Katahdin.”

He dismissed this as a petty quibble. “Another mountain,” he said. “How many do you need to see, Bryson?”

I snorted a small laugh. “Well, that’s one way of looking at it.”

“It’s the only way of looking at it,” Katz went on and quite earnestly. “As far as I’m concerned, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I hiked it in snow and I hiked it in heat. I hiked it in the South and I hiked in the North. I hiked it till my feet bled. I hiked the Appalachian Trail, Bryson.”

“We missed out a lot of it, you know.”

“Details,” Katz sniffed.

I shrugged, not unhappily. “Maybe you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right,” he said, as if he were seldom otherwise.

We had reached the edge of town, by the little gas station/grocery store where the lumberjacks had dropped us. It was still open.

“So what do you say to some cream soda?” Katz said brightly. “I’ll buy.”

I looked at him with deepened interest. “You don’t have any money.”

“I know. I’ll buy it with your money.”

I grinned and handed him a five-dollar bill from my wallet.

” ‘X-Files’ tonight,” Katz said happily–very happily–and disappeared into the store. I watched him go, shaking my head, and wondered how he always knew.

So that is how it ended for me and Katz–with a six-pack of cream soda in Milo, Maine.

Katz returned to Des Moines to a small apartment, a job in construction, and a life of devoted sobriety. He calls from time to time and talks about coming out to try the Hundred Mile Wilderness again, though I don’t suppose he ever will.

I continued to hike, on and off, through the rest of summer and into fall. In midOctober, at the height of the foliage season, I went for what proved to be a final walk, a return visit to Killington Peak in Vermont, on one of those glorious days when the world is full of autumn muskiness and crisp, tangy perfection and the air so clear that you feel as if you could reach out and ping it with a finger. Even the colors were crisp: vivid blue sky, deep green fields, leaves in every sharp shade that nature can bestow. It is a truly astounding sight when every tree in a forest becomes individual; where formerly had sprawled a seamless cloak of green there now stood a million bright colors.

I hiked with enthusiasm and vigor, buoyed by fresh air and splendor. From the roof of Killington there was a 360-degree panorama over nearly the whole of New England and on to Quebec as far as the distant bluish nubbin of Mont Royal. Almost every peak of consequence in New England–Washington, Lafayette, Grey-lock, Monadnock, Ascutney, Moosilauke–stood etched in fine relief and looked ten times closer than it actually was. It was so beautiful I cannot tell you. That this boundless vista represented but a fragment of the Appalachians’ full sweep, that under my feet there lay a free and exquisitely maintained trail running for 2,200 miles through hills and woods of equal grandeur, was a thought almost too overpowering to hold. I don’t recall a moment in my life when I was more acutely aware of how providence has favored the land to which I was born. It seemed a perfect place to stop.I would have had to anyway. Autumn is fleeting in New England. Within days of my walk up Killington, winter began blowing in; the hiking season was clearly at an end. One Sunday soon afterwards, I sat down at the kitchen table with my trail log and a calculator and at last totted up the miles I had done. I checked the numbers through twice, then looked up with an expression not unlike the one Katz and I had shared months before in Gatlinburg when we realized we were never going to hike the Appalachian Trail.

I had done 870 miles, considerably less than half the AT. All that effort and sweat and disgusting grubbiness, all those endless plodding days, the nights on hard ground–all that added up to just 39.5 percent of the trail. Goodness knows how anyone ever completes the whole thing. I am filled with admiration and incredulity for those who see it through.

But hey and excuse me, 870 is still a lot of miles–from New York to Chicago, indeed somewhat beyond. If I had hiked that against almost any other measure, we would all be feeling pretty proud of me now.

I still quite often go for walks on the trail near my home, especially if I am stuck on something I am working on. Most of the time I am sunk in thought, but at some point on each walk there comes a moment when I look up and notice, with a kind of first-time astonishment, the amazing complex delicacy of the woods, the casual ease with which elemental things come together to form a composition that is–whatever the season, wherever I put my besotted gaze–perfect. Not just very fine or splendid, but perfect, unimprovable. You don’t have to walk miles up mountains to achieve this, don’t have to plod through blizzards, slip sputtering in mud, wade chest-deep through water, hike day after day to the edge of your limits–but believe me, it helps.

I have regrets, of course. I regret that I didn’t do Katahdin (though I will, I promise you, I will). I regret that I never saw a bear or wolf or followed the padding retreat of a giant hellbender salamander, never shooed away a bobcat or sidestepped a rattlesnake, never flushed a startled boar. I wish that just once I had truly stared death in the face (briefly, with a written assurance of survival). But I got a great deal else from the experience. I learned to pitch a tent and sleep beneath the stars. For a brief, proud period I was slender and fit. I gained a profound respect for wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn’t know I had. I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists. I made a friend. I came home.

Best of all, these days when I see a mountain, I look at it slowly and appraisingly, with a narrow, confident gaze and eyes of chipped granite.

We didn’t walk 2,200 miles, it’s true, but here’s the thing: we tried. So Katz was right after all, and I don’t care what anybody says. We hiked the Appalachian Trail.

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