Wednesday 24 June 2015
Today I hiked past the Lemon Squeezer, which, if I'm honest, is the whole reason I decided to hike this section. In 2004, this was the first white blaze that I blue-blazed, thus, in my mind, invalidating my entire thru-hike. Not really, but kind of. When Big County and I came to this section, northbound, I couldn't get up the rock face. I took as many pictures as I could manage (I had to make it to the bus, after all) but they do not manage to convey how steep and challenging this boulder set in the middle of the trail is.
In 2004 I came here, to this patch, a rock I had to climb straight up, vertically. I tried it first with my pack on, throwing myself against the rock. That failed. Then I handed my pack up, to County, and tried it without the pack. Still no luck. I was not strong enough then, or now, to pull myself up vertically using just my arm strength. I never have been. In middle school, I was unable to sustain a ladder hold (the girlie version of a pull-up) for even a second. In elementary school, I did not play on monkey bars.
And there's no place to rest weight on a foot, although it is very hard to tell from the photographs. I could have asked County for help. He could have offered. Neither of us did those things—for me, asking for help during a physical challenge is as bad as failing at the physical challenge. In those days, the side trail around the rock, probably a ten-foot diversion, was white-blazed. In those days, I was a purist. I'd passed every single white blaze from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Southfields, New York. To the Lemon Squeezer.
But I knew, and he knew, that the trail went up that boulder, not around its side. Today, in 2015, it's even more clear, and more well-marked: the side trail is blue-blazed (meaning it's not official Appalachian Trail) and marked "Easy Way." [Incidentally it's also clear the the Appalachian Trail, especially in New York, is built and maintained by sadists.] So if someone's hiking pure, it's get through the Lemon Squeezer or else.
I didn't in 2004. I took the side trail and its gimme white blaze. I was determined to succeed today. Every day of this three-week hike, if I'm honest, has been building to this moment. Back in Massachusetts I reminded people of the Lemon Squeezer, and for the last couple of days north-bounders have been warning me: it's going to be even worse for you, coming down. I didn't care. I was going to get down that boulder if I had to take all day doing it.
But I kept asking myself questions. Would it count if I couldn't do it with my pack on? What if I just threw myself down and fell—would that count? What if I couldn't do it southbound and took the side trail around, and then was able to pull myself up going north? That was what I missed the first time, but didn't that mean I was taking the easy way in another sense?
So I was eager with anticipation and nervousness and determination. And pain. My knees are getting worse, not better. I'm walking now with a noticeable and humiliating limp. When I come up on people on the trail, I double my speed, gritting my teeth, and falling back into my heaving monstrous limp once they go by, when no one can see.
I passed two north-bounders in the morning, hikers with daypacks, one in jeans—two brothers, it looked like, of vaguely mixed race—maybe half-Latino, or Arabic. We nodded and passed each other, and they looked at me with that suspicious look one would give a Martian. I'm mysterious out here—not just my all-black hiking spandex, when it's ninety degrees out; but my giant, ripped, oddly-shaped eleven-year-old pack; my barefoot-running shoes; my green glasses and the communist cap I bought at the Lao border. I gritted my teeth and pressed on.
Then the Lemon Squeezer. I came to it and barely had time to take some pictures and plan my attack when they came up behind me. I hadn't thought about them in hours—but of course if they were out for the day they'd have to hike out and turn around. Being watched is the worst—I find I'm able to attempt almost anything if I'm alone. Hiking by myself in North Carolina I climbed a hundred yards down a sheer cliff to retrieve a food-bag that had rolled off. In Aroostook by myself I spread out sewing projects and do cooking experiments and set up composting bins in weird arrangements without fear. But as soon as someone's watching—even a single person—I cringe in humiliation, fearing their criticism. Nowhere is this more true than in feats of physical strength. The best thing about backpacking is being able to walk alone, almost always.
And here I was, at the crucial point of my hike, a moment I'd been thinking about for eleven years. With two strangers watching.
I let them by.
"Go ahead," I said. "It'll take me a while."
The first, fitter and smaller, got down relatively easily, sliding halfway on his butt and then leaping. The bigger brother also did okay, relying more heavily on his rear end. He did panic a little, partway, making me feel better.
Then, they turned around to stay and watch me descend. I couldn't tell them to shove off, keep going, that I'd do it myself.
First I tried with my pack and when I realized immediately tit was impossible I sent it down. They offered to grab it, but I wanted to be able to do it all by myself. I hung the pack as far down as I could, and it was still a good two feet off the ground. So I dropped it, and it felt on its side and rolled over. No problem.
Then I positioned myself to come down, both men watching. I slid my butt to the point where I couldn't go any farther without dropping, my feet awkwardly braced on rock, my arms clinging above me.
I don't really remember getting down, or maybe I don't want to remember. I did say at one point:
"I'm going to die! I'm going to die!"
And one brother stepped forward and offered me a hand somehow and I made it down alive. Didn't break any bones.
But does it count? He helped. I didn't get down by myself. Did I pass that blaze? Can I say I walked that stretch of trail when I didn't? I fell down it, barely avoiding injuring myself—I didn't walk. I still haven't hiked it northbound, which was my original intention, to do it both directions, when I came to that point, so I could say that I'd hiked this section purely, both north- and southbound.
The two day-hikers raced ahead, embarrassed for all of us, maybe. That's how it felt. I limped on, barely able to walk. Flagged down my bus at the side of the road, rode to New York City while all the people held their handkerchiefs against their nose against my hiker scent. I didn't see them again. But I keep thinking about it.
In the Bible, angels often appear in pairs. They are nameless and disappear mysteriously. In one of my favorite Bible stories, a stranger appears alongside two disciples, on the road to Emmaus. He walks beside them, but they don't notice him, or don't think to wonder who he is.
I don't know what I would have done if they hadn't been there. I probably would have made it down, probably wouldn't have hurt myself, at least not more than I'm already hurt.
When I missed that section of trail in 2004, in some ways, it ruined my hike for me. After that I abandoned purism. We skipped miles of trail, including a big chunk of Vermont so that we could make it to Katahdin in time. In other ways, it was the most important part of my hike. I said that it was a gift, that I'd been set free, that what the AT does is cure a person of purism, because you're always going to break some rule for yourself. You'll slack-pack, or hike a section the wrong direction. The trail will be routed past a high-running river, or around a washout. Its difficulty and length is the reason it's so important, because purism, in some sense, becomes impossible.
But this missed blaze haunted me more than any of the others, because this was my breaking point. And now I come to it again, and this time again, my desire for perfection is flouted, subverted by the appearance of mysterious strangers.
Remembering those late weeks in Maine, almost to Katahdin—how in pain I was. How much I suffered. And how I damaged my body in ways that are only beginning to manifest now, injuring my knees and shoulders. I did that because of my clenched-jaw stubbornness that refuses to ask for help, refuses to accept help, and refuses to accept my own weakness. It was good that I skipped that blaze, because we made it to Katahdin. The handful of miles we missed are always going to be there if I want to hike them, and if I'd forced myself to hike them then, I could have hurt myself to the point where I had to abandon the thru-hike entirely. I was completely unable to listen to my body then. I didn't know how.
Maybe God's trying to tell me something. It's okay to be weak. It's okay to be imperfect. It's okay to be in pain. It's okay to accept help. What's not okay is insistence on perfection, in myself or in anyone else.