He ain’t heavy; he’s my hiking brother
Buzz Trexler | (email@example.com)
It’s amazing to me how much a person can learn about themselves on a trail, even at my late age.
The Labor Day Hike 2010 from Dennis Cove Road to Wilbur Lake Road was the first three-day hike that I completed, having begged off after the first day of the Memorial Day Hike from Hughes Gap to Apple House. The Hughes Gap climb of 2,100 feet in 2.5 miles nearly did me in, but it also revealed that too much time in my own head can lead me to rationalize giving up in tough circumstances.
I think that was the first personal insight I gleaned on the trail.
Our hike leader (sometimes called “Papa Smurf,” other times “Griz”) is Steven Gilreath, a great American flying machine now serving in Glasgow, Ky. He’s a great Christian leader and encourager, but sometimes I wonder about his judge of distance. Greg Houchin, who was also among the Kentucky bunch, said it’s because he’s usually flying from Point A to Point B.
About halfway up a 1,000-foot climb on Pond Mountain during that Labor Day Hike, I was longing for his rescue chopper.
The way the group was arranged went something like this for most of the hike: Steven led, with his bionic son, Josh, behind him, both from Kentucky; then came me, then my son, David, who was followed by Greg and Chris Phillips, who came with Steven from Kentucky.
Greg and Steven are both EMT-trained professionals, which gave me great confidence that any medical emergency could be handled on the Trail -- if we could convince them to go on duty.
Immediately, the trail was dry and dusty, with loose rocks here and there. I joked that it looked more like some scene from a Humphrey Bogart movie where he was hiding out in Death Valley or some other forsaken place. Likewise, it took us out of the cool canopy in which we had been hiking along and placed us in a bit more heated environment. About halfway into what was supposed to be a 1.5-mile climb, I sucked the CamelBak dry, but I later discovered I wasn’t alone.
At various points it would appear that we were approaching the ridge, but the switchbacks kept coming. I lovingly chided Steven occasionally about his pre-hike comment of, “It’s a climb, but it’s nothing like Hughes Gap.” That was a true statement, but we also hiked a number of miles before ever getting to the Pond Mountain climb and three-quarters of the way there, I was definitely feeling my 54 years and extra weight.
There were times when I wanted to give up, or at least fall back, and Steven knew it.
“I can cross your pack for you,” he offered.
“No, no. I can make it,” I said. “I just need to get my wind.”
We’d climb along for about 50 yards and I’d have to stop and get my breath when we approached another switchback or some other resting spot. “Give me a second, guys,” I’d say, sometimes using the resting time to make an equipment adjustment, but careful not to make that as an excuse to stop. After all, there was no sense in covering: These brothers, including my son, know me well enough.
But then the 50 yards of progress would drop to perhaps 40, then 30 ...
“I can take that pack for you,” Greg offered from behind me.
“No, I’ve gotta do this thing,” I said, then added: “It’s not pride. I just have to do this myself.”
We climbed some more and then I recall hitting a level area for awhile. Steven would say something encouraging and I’d feel good, not so winded.
“Things are looking up,” I thought. “I might make this leg after all.”
But then we’d hit another switchback and climb again.
Twenty yards ... break. Then 10 ... break.
I turned and looked at Greg, who I think offered again to take my pack.
“No, you guys just need to go on ahead,” I said, knowing that we now had very little water left within the group and there was supposed to be an “undeveloped water source” near our camping spot at Pond Flats.
Greg looked straight at me and said, “I’m a Ranger. We don’t leave a brother behind.”
I had to smile.
I also noticed that Josh, Steven’s bionic son, was not in the group and was told he had gone on ahead to see how further it was to the camp site. Not long afterward, I noticed Steven wasn’t in the group.
We rested some more and then Steven showed up and led us on. We came to something of a bend in the trail with another trail cutting off to the left and downhill.
“We shoulda run into Josh by now,” Steve said with a tone of concern. “I bet he mistakenly went down that trail,” he added, pointing to the left.
“Josh!” he shouted. “Josh!”
There was no answer.
We then heard the pitter-patter of feet coming up the errant trail and then Josh emerged. I noticed for the first time that he appeared a little winded.
“I kept going down the trail and then thought, ‘This doesn’t look familiar,’” Josh said.
I then asked the most common question you get when you run into somebody on the trail coming from the direction you are heading: “How much further is it?”
Josh gave me something of a sad look. “It’s still a good ways,” he said. “And that last leg is pretty steep.”
I let out a sigh.
“I can take your pack,” he offered, explaining that was why he went on to the camp site and dropped his own pack.
“No, let me keep going,” I said.
We trudged on about another 20 yards, and I gave up the ghost. We stopped and I grudgingly started unsnapping my pack. “I didn’t come on this hike to have someone carry my [expletive] pack!”
Josh hefted my pack. “Better to let someone help you than not finish the hike,” he offered.
I knew he was right.
We went on, but I still had to stop about 20 yards into that last, steep grade.
“It’s not pride,” I had told Greg.
If it’s not pride, what is it?
Sometimes we have to let someone else carry the load.
As for the “undeveloped” water source at Pond Flats: It was nonexistent. Every hole was dry.
There may not have been a tablespoon of water between us until
we hiked a little more than three miles to Shook Branch in the morning.