Thursday, December 10, 2009

Appalachian trail journal Nov. 30, 2009

There's a bunch of reasons why I decided to do this section hike of the AT. One reason is I recently immersed myself in reading the two-volume, 2009-page Hiking the Appalachian Trail, edited by James R. Hare (note that last name because it connects with the proceeding). Reading accounts of early thru-hikers makes me realize that, while times, fashions, and gear change, the essential experience of long-distance hiking remains the same.

But what struck me about these early accounts are people's fascination with snakes. There are at least 100 documented snake killings in these books. I've never killed a snake, despite numerous encounters on the AT and PCT. I've always thought it best to give rattlesnakes a wide berth and leave them in peace. These early hikers believed they were doing a service to fellow travellers by destroying snakes. This mindset is anathema to the Leave No Trace philosophy. The only justification I can have for killing snakes is if I find one nested in my dwelling. That's my environment and no other critters are allowed. But out here is their environment.

So, here I am sitting in the loft at Gooch Gap shelter listening to hikers below me talk about, what else, snakes. A section hiker from New Hampshire with a thick accent told the Sobo brothers about a huge ball python belonging to his friend. The snake was so big that it fed on rabbits, and it was a terrible thing to behold because rabbits scream like a human being when they are in danger. The New Hampshire man said he could hear the bones crunch when the python put a rabbit in its grip. And here I am reading an account about rabbit society in Watership Down.

It rained all day, a driving, sideways, wind-blown rain. Gusts sound like a banshee or some emissary of death. The rain stopped just before I got to the shelter, but the wind still roars and rattles the ridge line trees.

I met my first southbound thru-hikers today, Jellybean and Ledge. Jellybean already finished the trail, but went back up to rejoin Ledge for his finish. Ledge plans to bike back to Millinocket when this hike is finished. They were relieved when I told them they would eventually regain feeling in their toes.

We talked for about 15 minutes on the side of the mountain while a storm raged on us. The encounter reminded me of being 17 years-old and marching in the Cavaliers drum and bugle corps. After shows and at other times, we would play four-square in parking lots and sit around on the concrete talking. I remember someone saying that they've never just hung out sitting in a parking lot, that this type of thing could only happen in drum corps. The reason I remembered this so well is that it is only on a long-distance hike people stop in a driving rain to talk and pass the time, oblivious to the weather. In town, I'd dash for cover, umbrella blown inside out, in such conditions. But not out here.

Sassafras mountain was the major climb of the day, the wind growing in ferocity with each switchback. I half-expected the rain to turn to snow once I got to the top. Marble abounds in these mountains. There was a moment of disgust, looking to a hillside and seeing a jumble of white. From a distance, it looked like garbage strewn about, but as I got closer I realized they were marble rocks. On the drive to Amicalola Falls, Biloche pointed out three marble mining operations, the piles of stones illuminated by spotlights. The errant rocks exposed on the mountain look like mastodon skulls.

Left Stover Creek Shelter in mist and fog, the hemlocks and rhododendron carrying me back 10,000 years to a time when mastodons roamed the earth. Forest primeval. Ascending Justus Mountain, the primitive motif reinforced by a rock ledge overhang, a respite from the storm. No petroglyphs could be found.

I couldn't get "Fountain of Lamneth," an obscure song from Rush's Carress of Steel album, out of my head, in particular the lines:

"Yet my eyes are drawn toward
The mountain in the east
Fascinates and captivates
Gives my heart no peace
The mountain holds the sunrise
In the prison of the night
'Til bursting forth from rocky chains
The valley floods with light

Living one long sunrise
For to me all things are new
I've never watched the sky grow pale
Or strolled through fields of dew
I do not know of dust to dust
I live from breath to breath
I live to climb that mountain
To the Fountain of Lamneth"

Went to a spring to get water and see the late day sun shining above me on the trees on the ridgeline. Something about that moment, getting water from its source, direct out of the mountain and seeing the sun for the first time all day, albeit indirectly, seemed a most holy and transcendent moment.

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