3:oo Thursday. Hit the East Parking lot, and it’s already full. A group of middle school girls start on the trail as I ready the dogs.
I’ve often dreamed of a perpetual summer life. I could plan outdoor trips that stretch for days, come back and write some insight I’ve gained, pick up new supplies and a check, then head right back out. I thought it would give me all the time in the world to play outdoors. And I would still accept a sponsorship. REI? National Geographic? Are you listening?
It’s okay that it hasn’t materialized that way, but in the summer time, I still play this game. For this week, it’s a three day trip to P-Town, with an option for a fourth, based on how things go. Hike in Thursday. Meet up with my friends on Friday. They have jobs, so–lol–they have to leave on Sunday morning. I can stay another night or so if I want. For at least a brief moment, I have all the time in the world.
Teachers can complain about lots of things, but one thing they can definitely be grateful for is time off. At least in America, few professions sniff the amount of vacation teachers get. Do we sometimes have to work harder to make ends meet? Of course. But the value of free time is not to be denied.
4:00 At the base of Schoolhouse Falls. 20 minutes and a 400 ft climb later, and I crest Little Green. There are the girls’ backpacks. My desired spot is taken, so I head down the trail toward Tranquility and find a little pocket in the trees, just enough for a hammock and two dogs.
6:00 Switch to the day pack and head back down the trail. Let all the girls meet the dogs with backpacks. By 6:50, I am at Devil’s Elbow and Red Butt Falls, 25 minutes before my turnaround point–when I need to turn around to make camp by nightfall. I jump in the water and thunder threatens. The swim is short, and I am soon back on the trail for camp and dinner.
8:30 back on top and cooking dinner. I shake the fuel can. Probably not enough to make it through Monday. The sun begins to radiate behind the mountain. Boil the water. Let it sit. Darker. Darker still. The girls offered me leftover quinoa. “Didn’t you have to cook that for–like–25 minutes?” I asked.
“But it’s so worth it,” she replies.
The girls chatter where they eat, and in the valley below other campers whoop and holler. But everything eventually quiets into the disappearing twilight.
Morning breaks early, and I have had breakfast and am on the trail by 8:15. Priority 1: Secure the shelter. Continue on the trail. Down, down, into the flat valley. By 9:30, I have arrived. Shelter secured.
A storm is in the works for later in the day, so once I’ve de-packed and fed the dogs, it’s off to gather fire wood. By 11, I have scoured the forest for every last loose bramble and stick I could find, enough that when–kept dry–it will burn brightly into the night. Base Camp, for the day, is secure.
Now is when the time slows. I string up my hammock. I read a chapter of the book I’ve brought, Into Thin Air, an account of a disastrous season of climbing Everest in 1996. They’ve just arrived at base camp and are beginning to make month-long preparations for the ascent. Nic worries I’ll read this and start dreaming of climbing Everest–not an unfounded anxiety, I suppose. But for now, I read about base camp, and begin to doze off, in and out of a restful sleep beneath the trees. A humming bird, no bigger than my thumb, hovers over my hammock, fluttering, observing my daydreams.
Soon, the urge to hike, to explore strikes again. There is only so much time before the rain, before the dark, before I return home, and so much to see and experience. Hammock goes inside. Dogs get packs. Food gets hung in the tree. But as I’m about to hit the trail and climb another mountain or find another waterfall, two sounds arrest my progress.
The first are loud, exuberant teenagers coming down the trail. I heard them on the mountain last night. I passed them on the trail this morning. There are about twelve people all told. They see the dogs and smile. Their leader asks me if I am staying in the shelter tonight. “I am,” I say.
“Cool, we’ll head on down the trail.” And they do.
Next comes the thunder. Yesterday, ominous storms threatened on the horizon all day but never delivered. Today, their payment came due. Steady, dumping rain. I think about the teens now building camp, and feel a twinge of guilt that I have the shelter all to myself while they set up in the rain. I adjust my hammock and begin to read. The day is dark, and I need a headlamp. The climbers move from base camp slowly through the altitude while I am enclosed by rain in the shelter, thwarted in my attempt to explore. Other hikers find the shelter, meet the pups, and get a rest from the rain. The group of teens hit the creek to get some water for camp. I read more in my hammock. The climbers are within 2,000, evading falling ice and dead bodies on the trail to Everest’s peak. The teen group’s leader comes into the shelter to try to get a signal, I think to call back to the HQ. Rain and remoteness thwart his effort. No signal.
“Listen,” I say. “If I had known it was going to dump like this, I would have invited you in to wait out the storm.”
“It’s cool,” he says. “It’s a group of at-risk youth, and I’m not really allowed to have them around anyone.”
He walks on. The climbers are about to start their last ascent up Everest. They establish turn-around times to ensure they return in daylight. They leave in the middle of the night. The glut of people complicates the climb. Radio communications begin to fail. Things begin to spin out of control.
Then the rain breaks. Slowly, the percussion of droplets on the tin roof becomes merely the excess from the trees, and the sun begins to streak through the grey. I am sore and tired from being confined to my hammock, and take the dogs to the creek where I see my friend crossing into camp. The sun radiates through the trees. The creek is now flooded, so we take a short hike to Granny Burrell Falls, now racing down the river.
By 9:30, everyone is in camp and the fire is roaring. The next day brings more of the same. Collecting new wood. Communion around the fire. I get the itch to hike again, but again the skies open up. Another three hours in the shelter under the rain. I doze in and out of sleep. The narrator has made the top much later than he thought, and begins his descent. Little hitches in time begin to have profound consequences. The descent from the peak bleeds into the night and a raging storm looms on the horizon. Wait times over ledges increase. Oxygen runs low and then disappears, causing hallucinations and poor judgment. People slide off the mountain. People get lost in the storm fifty feet from their tent. People refuse to give up the urge to reach the top and die in the pursuit.
Soon, the rain subsides again. I’ve been sitting around all day. I’ve given up on camping Sunday and have been eating lazily through my food. I need to walk. The dogs need to walk. I coerce one of my friends to go find the close waterfall that I haven’t seen yet, the only hike within my grasp before nightfall.
7:00. We cross the bloated creek, climb the hill, and shimmy down a ledge to arrive. It is beautiful in the afterglow of the afternoon showers. Maybe a half-mile from camp and right off the trail…no Everest-like effort needed to reach this point.
Krakauer got his assignment to write about Everest to explore the booming business of getting people to the summit; caught in the business, he endured one of the worst disasters in the short history of climbing Everest. But still, he got his way paid on that expedition. Getting paid to go all over the world and write about vast, remote places seems like a dream job, but even when I’ve explored this option, there’s already a guy with my name who does this. He worked on a National Geographic climb of Everest in 2012. I wouldn’t even be the first “me” up that mountain. Everest always allures, but not enough to make me trudge the snow to get there.
Sunday morning rolls around. Two of our posse peel off to hit breakfast early. I work to get my pack together at a leisurely pace. I won’t be camping another day, but by parking to the east, I’ve ensured myself a much longer hike this morning. My friend and I hug and part ways, and I travel through the east, tromping over modest mountains and through melodious creeks. Soon I am back to my car, back on the road, back to the comfortable life out of the woods. In a few days, I will start another adventure across the pond, and then the adventure of another school year. Still playing and still writing, and off the mountain with no regrets.