فصل 04

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فصل 04

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Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive.

So woods are spooky. Quite apart from the thought that they may harbor wild beasts and armed, genetically challenged fellows named Zeke and Festus, there is something innately sinister about them, some ineffable thing that makes you sense an atmosphere of pregnant doom with every step and leaves you profoundly aware that you are out of your element and ought to keep your ears pricked. Though you tell yourself it’s preposterous, you can’t quite shake the feeling that you are being watched. You order yourself to be serene (it’s just a woods for goodness sake), but really you are jumpier than Don Knotts with pistol drawn. Every sudden noise– the crack of a falling limb, the crash of a bolting deer–makes you spin in alarm and stifle a plea for mercy. Whatever mechanism within you is responsible for adrenaline, it has never been so sleek and polished, so keenly poised to pump out a warming squirt of adrenal fluid. Even asleep, you are a coiled spring.

The American woods have been unnerving people for 300 years. The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed,so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a visit to Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core. This wasn’t the tame world of overgrown orchards and sun-dappled paths that passed for wilderness in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, but a forbidding, oppressive, primeval country that was “grim and wild . . . savage and dreary,” fit only for “men nearer of kin to the rocks and wild animals than we.” The experience left him, in the words of one biographer, “near hysterical.”

But even men far tougher and more attuned to the wilderness than Thoreau were sobered by its strange and palpable menace. Daniel Boone, who not only wrestled bears but tried to date their sisters, described corners of the southern Appalachians as “so wild and horrid that it is impossible to behold them without terror.” When Daniel Boone is uneasy, you know it’s time to watch your step.

When the first Europeans arrived in the New World, there were perhaps 950 million acres of woodland in what would become the lower forty-eight states. The Chattahoochee Forest, through which Katz and I now trudged, was part of an immense, unbroken canopy stretching from southern Alabama to Canada and beyond, and from the shores of the Atlantic to the distant grasslands of the Missouri River.

Most of that forest is now gone, but what survives is more impressive than you might expect. The Chattahoochee is part of four million acres–6,000 square miles–of federally owned forest stretching up to the Great Smoky Mountains and beyond and spreading sideways across four states. On a map of the United States it is an incidental smudge of green, but on foot the scale of it is colossal. It would be four days before Katz and I crossed a public highway, eight days till we came to a town.

And so we walked. We walked up mountains and through high, forgotten hollows, along lonesome ridges with long views of more ridges, over grassy balds and down rocky, twisting, jarring descents, and through mile after endless mile of dark, deep, silent woods, on a wandering trail eighteen inches wide and marked with rectangular white blazes (two inches wide, six long) slapped at intervals on the grey-barked trees. Walking is what we did.

Compared with most other places in the developed world, America is still to a remarkable extent a land of forests. One-third of the landscape of the lower forty-eight states is covered in trees– 728 million acres in all. Maine alone has 10 million uninhabited acres. That’s 15,600 square miles, an area considerably bigger than Belgium, without a single permanent resident. Altogether, just 2 percent of the United States is classified as built up.

About 240 million acres of America’s forests are owned by the government. The bulk of this–191 million acres, spread over 155 parcels of land–is held by the U.S. Forest Service under the designations of National Forests, National Grasslands, and National Recreation Areas. All this sounds soothingly untrampled and ecological, but in fact a great deal of Forest Service land is designated “multiple-use,” which is generously interpreted to allow any number of boisterous activities–mining, oil, and gas extraction; ski resorts (137 of them); condominium developments; snowmobiling; off-road vehicle scrambling; and lots and lots and lots of logging– that seem curiously incompatible with woodland serenity.

The Forest Service is truly an extraordinary institution. A lot of people, seeing that word forest in the title, assume it has something to do with looking after trees. In fact, no–though that was the original plan. It was conceived a century ago as a kind of woodland bank, a permanent repository of American timber, when people grew alarmed at the rate at which American forests were falling. Its mandate was to manage and protect these resources for the nation. These were not intended to be parks. Private companies would be granted leases to extract minerals and harvest timber, but player in the American timber industry that was cutting down trees faster than it replaced them. Moreover, it was doing this with the most sumptuous inefficiency. Eighty percent of its leasing arrangements lost money, often vast amounts. In one typical deal, the Forest Service sold hundred-year-old lodgepole pines in the Targhee National Forest in Idaho for about $2 each after spending $4 per tree surveying the land, drawing up contracts, and, of course, building roads. Between 1989 and 1997, it lost an average of $242 million a year–almost $2 billion all told, according to the Wilderness Society. This is all so discouraging that I think we’ll leave it here and return to our two lonely heroes trudging through the lost world of the Chattahoochee.

The forest we walked through now was really just a strapping adolescent. In 1890, a railroad man from Cincinnati named Henry C. Bagley came to this part of Georgia, saw the stately white pines and poplars, and was so moved by their towering majesty and abundance that he decided to chop them all down. They were worth a lot of money.

Besides, freighting the timber to northern mills would keep his railroad cars puffing. In consequence, over the next thirty years, nearly all the hills of northern Georgia were turned into sunny groves of stumps. By 1920, foresters in the South were taking away 15.4 billion board feet of timber a year. It wasn’t until the 1930s, when the Chattahoochee Forest was officially formed, that nature was invited back in.

There is a strange frozen violence in a forest out of season. Every glade and dale seemed to have just completed some massive cataclysm. Downed trees lay across the path every fifty or sixty yards, often with great bomb craters of dirt around their splayed roots. Dozens more lay rotting on the slopes, and every third or fourth tree, it seemed, was leaning steeply on a neighbor. It was as if the trees couldn’t wait to fall over, as if their sole purpose in the universal scheme of things was to grow big enough to topple with a really good, splintering crash. I was forever coming up to trees so precariously and weightily tipped over the path that I would waver, then scoot under, fearing the crush of really unfortunate timing and imagining Katz coming along a few minutes later, regarding my wriggling legs and saying, “Shit, Bryson, what’re you doing under there?” But no trees fell. Everywhere the woods were still and preternaturally quiet. Except for the occasional gurgle of running water and the tiny shuffle of wind-stirred leaves along the forest floor, there was almost never a sound.

The woods were silent because spring had not yet come. In a normal year we would be walking into the zestful bounty of a southern mountain spring, through a radiant, productive, newborn world alive with the zip of insects and the fussy twitter of birds–a world bursting with fresh wholesome air and that rich, velvety, lung-filling smell of chlorophyll you get when you push through low, leafy branches. Above all, there would be wildflowers in dazzling profusion, blossoming from every twig, pushing valiantly through the fertile litter on the forest floor, carpeting every sunny slope and stream bank–trillium and trailing arbutus, Dutchmen’s breeches, jack-in-the-pulpit, mandrake, violets, snowy bluets, buttercups and bloodroot, dwarf iris, columbine and wood sorrel, and othercheerful, nodding wonders almost beyond counting. There are 1,500 types of wildflower in the southern Appalachians, 40 rare types in the northern Georgia woods alone. They are a sight to lift the hardest heart. But they were not to be seen in the woods this grim March. We trudged through a cold, silent world of bare trees, beneath pewter skies, on ground like iron.

We fell into a simple routine. Each morning we rose at first light, shivering and rubbing arms, made coffee, broke down camp, ate a couple of fistfuls of raisins, and set off into the silent woods. We would walk from about half past seven to four. We seldom walked together–our paces didn’t match–but every couple of hours I would sit on a log (always surveying the surrounding undergrowth for the rustle of bear or boar) and wait for Katz to catch up, to make sure everything was OK. Sometimes other hikers would come along and tell me where Katz was and how he was progressing, which was nearly always slowly but gamely. The trail was much harder for him than for me, and to his credit he tried not to bitch. It never escaped me for a moment that he didn’t have to be there.

I had thought we would have a jump on the crowds, but there was a fair scattering of other hikers–three students from Rutgers University in New Jersey; an astoundingly fit older couple with tiny packs hiking to their daughter’s wedding in far-off Virginia; a gawky kid from Florida named Jonathan–perhaps two dozen of us altogether in the same general neck of the woods, all heading north. Because everyone walks at different rates and rests at different times, three or four times a day you bump into some or all of your fellow hikers, especially on mountaintops with panoramic views or beside streams with good water, and above all at the wooden shelters that stand at distant intervals, ostensibly but not always actually, a day’s hike apart in clearings just off the trail. In consequence you get to know your fellow hikers at least a little, quite well if you meet them nightly at the shelters. You become part of an informal clump, a loose and sympathetic affiliation of people from different age groups and walks of life but all experiencing the same weather, same discomforts, same landscapes, same eccentric impulse to hike to Maine.

Even at busy times, however, the woods are great providers of solitude, and I encountered long periods of perfect aloneness, when I didn’t see another soul for hours; many times when I would wait for Katz for a long spell and no other hiker would come along. When that happened, I would leave my pack and go back and find him, to see that he was all right, which always pleased him. Sometimes he would be proudly bearing my stick, which I had left by a tree when I had stopped to tie my laces or adjust my pack. We seemed to be looking out for each other. It was very nice. I can put it no other way.

Around four we would find a spot to camp and pitch our tents. One of us would go off to fetch and filter water while the other prepared a sludge of steamy noodles. Sometimes we would talk, but mostly we existed in a kind of companionable silence. By six o’clock, dark and cold and weariness would drive us to our tents. Katz went to sleep instantly, as far as I could tell. I would read for an hour or so with my curiously inefficient little miner’s lamp, its beam throwing quirky, concentric circles of light onto the page,like the light of a bicycle lamp, until my shoulders and arms grew chilly out of the bag and heavy from tilting the book at awkward angles to catch the nervous light. So I would put myself in darkness and lie there listening to the peculiarly clear, articulated noises of the forest at night, the sighs and fidgets of wind and leaves, the weary groan of boughs, the endlessmurmurings and stirrings, like the noises of a convalescent ward after lights out, until at last I fell heavily asleep. In the morning we would rise shivering and rubbing arms, wordlessly repeat our small chores, fill and hoist our packs, and venture into the great entangling forest again.

On the fourth evening, we made a friend. We were sitting in a nice little clearing beside the trail, our tents pitched, eating our noodles, savoring the exquisite pleasure of just sitting, when a plumpish, bespectacled young woman in a red jacket and the customary outsized pack came along. She regarded us with the crinkled squint of someone who is either chronically confused or can’t see very well. We exchanged hellos and the usual banalities about the weather and where we were. Then she squinted at the gathering gloom and announced she would camp with us.

Her name was Mary Ellen. She was from Florida, and she was, as Katz forever after termed her in a special tone of awe, a piece of work. She talked nonstop, except when she was clearing our her eustachian tubes (which she did frequently) by pinching her nose and blowing out with a series of violent and alarming snorts of a sort that would make a dog leave the sofa and get under a table in the next room. I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared. It became evident from the first moment that she was a rarity.

“So what are you guys eating?” she said, plonking herself down on a spare log and lifting her head to peer into our bowls. “Noodles? Big mistake. Noodles have got like no energy. I mean like zero.” She unblocked her ears. “Is that a Starship tent?”

I looked at my tent. “I don’t know.”

“Big mistake. They must have seen you coming at the camping store. What did you pay for it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Too much, that’s how much. You should have got a three-season tent.”

“It is a three-season tent.”

“Pardon me saying so, but it is like seriously dumb to come out here in March without a three-season tent.” She unblocked her ears.

“It is a three-season tent.”

“You’re lucky you haven’t froze yet. You should go back and like punch out the guy that sold it to you because he’s been like, you know, negligible selling you that.”

“Believe me, it is a three-season tent.”

She unblocked her ears and shook her head impatiently. “That’s a three-season tent.”

She indicated Katz’s tent.

“That’s exactly the same tent.”

She glanced at it again. “Whatever. How many miles did you do today?”

“About ten.” Actually we had done eight point four, but this had included several formidable escarpments, including a notable wall of hell called Preaching Rock, the highest eminence since Springer Mountain, for which we had awarded ourselves bonus miles, for purposes of morale.

“Ten miles? Is that all? You guys must be like really out of shape. I did fourteen-two.”

“How many have your lips done?” said Katz, looking up from his noodles.She fixed him with one of her more severe squints. “Same as the rest of me, of course.” She gave me a private look as if to say, “Is your friend like seriously weird or something?” She cleared her ears. “I started at Gooch Gap.”

“So did we. That’s only eight point four miles.”

She shook her head sharply, as if shooing a particularly tenacious fly. “Fourteen-two.”

“No, really, it’s only eight point four.”

“Excuse me, but I just walked it. I think I ought to know.” And then suddenly: “God, are those Timberland boots? Mega mistake. How much did you pay for them?”

And so it went. Eventually I went off to swill out the bowls and hang the food bag.

When I came back, she was fixing her own dinner but still talking away at Katz.

“You know what your problem is?” she was saying. “Pardon my French, but you’re too fat.”

Katz looked at her in quiet wonder. “Excuse me?”

“You’re too fat. You should have lost weight before you came out here. Shoulda done some training, ‘cause you could have like a serious, you know, heart thing out here.”

“Heart thing?”

“You know, when your heart stops and you like, you know, die.”

“Do you mean a heart attack?”

“That’s it.”

Mary Ellen, it should be noted, was not short on flesh herself, and unwisely at that moment she leaned over to get something from her pack, displaying an expanse of backside on which you could have projected motion pictures for, let us say, an army base.

It was an interesting test of Katz’s forbearance. He said nothing but rose to go for a pee, and out of the side of his mouth as he passed me he rendered a certain convenient expletive as three low, dismayed syllables, like the call of a freight train in the night.

The next day, as always, we rose chilled and feeling wretched, and set about the business of attending to our small tasks, but this time with the additional strain of having our every move examined and rated. While we ate raisins and drank coffee with flecks of toilet paper in it, Mary Ellen gorged on a multicourse breakfast of oatmeal, Pop Tarts, trail mix, and a dozen small squares of chocolate, which she lined up in a row on the log beside her. We watched like orphaned refugees while she plumped her jowls with food and enlightened us as to our shortcomings with regard to diet, equipment, and general manliness.

And then, now a trio, we set off into the woods. Mary Ellen walked sometimes with me and sometimes with Katz, but always with one of us. It was apparent that for all her bluster she was majestically inexperienced and untrailworthy (she hadn’t the faintest idea how to read a map, for one thing) and ill at ease on her own in the wilderness. I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for her. Besides, I began to find her strangely entertaining. She had the most extraordinarily redundant turn of phrase. She would say things like “There’s a stream of water over there” and “It’s nearly ten o’clock A.M.” Once, in reference to winters in central Florida, she solemnly informed me, “We usually get frosts once or twice a winter, but this year we had ‘em a couple of times.” Katz for his part clearly dreaded her company and winced beneath her tireless urgings to smarten his pace.

For once, the weather was kindly–more autumnal than springlike in feel, but gratifyingly mild. By ten o’clock, the temperature was comfortably in the sixties. For thefirst time since Amicalola I took off my jacket and realized with mild perplexity that I had absolutely no place to put it. I tied it to my pack with a strap and trudged on.

We labored four miles up and over Blood Mountain–at 4,461 feet the highest and toughest eminence on the trail in Georgia– then began a steep and exciting two-mile descent towards Neels Gap. Exciting because there was a shop at Neels Gap, at a place called the Walasi-Yi Inn, where you could buy sandwiches and ice cream. At about half past one, we heard a novel sound–motor traffic–and a few minutes later we emerged from the woods onto U.S. Highway 19 and 129, which despite having two numbers was really just a back road through a high pass between wooded nowheres. Directly across the road was the Walasi-Yi Inn, a splendid stone building constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (a kind of army of the unemployed) during the Great Depression and now a combination hiking outfitters, grocery, bookshop, and youth hostel. We hastened across the road–positively scurried across– and went inside.

Now it may seem to stretch credibility to suggest that things like a paved highway, the whoosh of passing cars, and a proper building could seem exciting and unfamiliar after a scant five days in the woods, but in fact it was so. Just passing through a door, being inside, surrounded by walls and a ceiling, was novel. And the Walasi-Yi’s stuff was, well, I can’t begin to describe how wonderful it was. There was a single modest-sized refrigerator filled with fresh sandwiches, soft drinks, cartons of juice, and perishables like cheese, and Katz and I stared into it for ages, dumbly captivated. I was beginning to appreciate that the central feature of life on the Appalachian Trail is deprivation, that the whole point of the experience is to remove yourself so thoroughly from the conveniences of everyday life that the most ordinary things–processed cheese, a can of pop gorgeously beaded with condensation–fill you with wonder and gratitude. It is an intoxicating experience to taste Coca-Cola as if for the first time and to be conveyed to the very brink of orgasm by white bread. Makes all the discomfort worthwhile, if you ask me.

Katz and I bought two egg salad sandwiches each, some potato chips, chocolate bars, and soft drinks and went to a picnic table in back, where we ate with greedy smackings and expressions of rapture, then returned to the refrigerator to stare in wonder some more. The Walasi-Yi, we discovered, provided other services to bona fide hikers for a small fee–laundry center, showers, towel rental–and we greedily availed ourselves of all those. The shower was a dribbly, antiquated affair, but the water was hot and I have never, and I mean never, enjoyed a grooming experience more. I watched with the profoundest satisfaction as five days of grime ran down my legs and out the drainhole, and noticed with astonished gratitude that my body had taken on a noticeably svelter profile. We did two loads of laundry, washed out our cups and food bowls and pots and pans, bought and sent postcards, phoned home, and stocked up liberally on fresh and packaged foods in the shop.

The Walasi-Yi was run by an Englishman named Justin and his American wife, Peggy, and we fell into a running conversation with them as we drifted in and out through the afternoon. Peggy told me that already they had had a thousand hikers through since January 1, with the real start of the hiking season still to come. They were a kindly couple, and I got the sense that Peggy in particular spends a lot of her time talking people into not quitting. Only the day before, a young man from Surrey had asked them to call him a cab to take him to Atlanta. Peggy had almost persuaded him to persevere, to try forjust another week, but in the end he had broken down and wept quietly and asked from the heart to be let go home.

My own feeling was that for the first time I really wanted to keep going. The sun was shining. I was clean and refreshed. There was ample food in our packs. I had spoken to my wife by phone and knew that all was well. Above all, I was starting to feel fit. I was sure I had lost nearly ten pounds already. I was ready to go. Katz, too, was aglow with cleanness and looking chipper. We packed our purchases on the porch and realized, together in the same instant, with joy and amazement, that Mary Ellen was no longer part of our retinue. I put my head in the door and asked if they had seen her.

“Oh, I think she left about an hour ago,” Peggy said.

Things were getting better and better,

It was after four o’clock by the time we set off again. Justin had said there was a natural meadow ideal for camping about an hour’s walk farther on. The trail was warmly inviting in late afternoon sunlight–there were long shadows from the trees and expansive views across a river valley to stout, charcoal-colored mountains– and the meadow was indeed a perfect place to camp. We pitched our tents and had the sandwiches, chips, and soft drinks we had bought for dinner.

Then, with as much pride as if I had baked them myself, I brought out a little surprisetwo packets of Hostess cupcakes.

Katz’s face lit up like the birthday boy in a Norman Rockwell painting.

“Oh, wow!”

“They didn’t have any Little Debbies,” I apologized.

“Hey,” he said. “Hey.” He was lost for greater eloquence. Katz loved cakes.

We ate three of the cupcakes between us and left the last one on the log, where we could admire it, for later. We were lying there, propped against logs, burping, smoking, feeling rested and content, talking for once–in short, acting much as I had envisioned it in my more optimistic moments back home–when Katz let out a low groan. I followed his gaze to find Mary Ellen striding briskly down the trail towards us from the wrong direction.

“I wondered where you guys had got to,” she scolded. “You know, you are like really slow. We could’ve done another four miles by now easy. I can see I’m going to have to keep my eyes on you from now——say, is that a Hostess cupcake?” Before I could speak or Katz could seize a log with which to smite her dead, she said, “Well, I don’t mind if I do,” and ate it in two bites. It would be some days before Katz smiled again.

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