Rusty got a hitch into Gorham, New Hampshire where I was. It was wonderful to see her. We spent a night there and the next morning, we called for a shuttle to take us to the notch to continue along our way. I was in a lot of pain and trying to hang in there. My foot ached so bad. Rusty taped my foot up with KT Tape as she had begun doing on the regular. The KT Tape really supported my foot. I was abusing myself by taping my foot up to keep going, but it worked!
The shuttle arrived 15 minutes late and I was irritated. When I opened the back of the shuttle, a bunch of backpacks fell out on top of me and I noticed that the vehicle was full, except for one seat. Rusty and I were a party of two, and I had told them this on the phone. I said something about it and the young college age driver shrugged his shoulders. Not having many options, we got in. I became increasingly angry that it was so crowded and that there were not enough seats for both of us. Rusty was sitting in my lap. I got into a battle of wits with the driver. I was really pissed, but calmed down by the time we got to where we were going. The driver ended up saying that the ride was free. We tried to pay him anyway, but he took off. Over a year later I can say that I still would have been upset about the driver’s smart mouth, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. In retrospect, I was probably transmuting the pain into the beratement that I gave the driver. Sorry bub.
Pinkham Notch Visitor Center is where we were dropped off. We went inside and looked at the gear and books they had for sale. There was a cool 3D topographic map that I really wanted, but it didn’t seem practical to carry it on my pack. After filling up our water and using the bathrooms, we stepped off. It was a nice little nature walk for a minute, until it was time to ascend up into the mountains again. There was a bit of a nerve-wracking scramble that we both had to go up. I told Rusty to stay way back from me, in case I were to slip, because I didn’t want to create a domino effect and crush her. We both made it up and continued hiking up to the top. We sat down together on a flat rock overlooking Highway 16 in New Hampshire. I began to shake vigorously. The sweat combined with the wind chilled my core. Rusty and I cuddled up and I began to cry. She tried to comfort me, but I was miserable. I felt sick, broken, and was beginning to wonder if I had some kind of infection that was giving me fevers. The words came out as painful as what I was feeling in my foot,
” I might have to get off the trail, Rusty.”
Rusty: “Will you go back to Georgia?”
Me: “I don’t want to. I don’t want to leave you or the trail.”
Rusty: “I don’t want you to go either, but I have to finish the trail.”
Me: “I know. Maybe, I can go back to Georgia and recover and get a bicycle and peddle it to New Orleans to see you. That would be a fun adventure… AAAHHHH. I am going to try to keep going. LET’S GO!”
I got up and continued hiking over 4,000 foot mountains, in the autumn, in the White Mountain National Forest. Every third step heard me cussing. I was cold while I hiked. I kept thinking to myself, “Why am I cold? I am on mile 5, hiking over a ski mountain, I should be warm.” But I wasn’t. We took a break on top of Wildcat Mountain, but didn’t stay long. I was so cold, sickly, and broken that we had to keep moving. After several miles, we began to descend into another notch. It was so beautiful and steep. The foliage is burned into my mind. We made our way to the bottom and took a side trail to one of the huts. I am so happy that the White Mountains have the hut system, because they saved my tail – twice!
We walked along a stunning side trail. There were little ponds on each side of us and I took some beautiful photo’s of my lovely lady and tried to make it a happy experience, because I knew this might be the end for me and the Appalachian Trail. We made our way inside the hut and searched the log for the names of our friends.
“Oh look Rusty, Grock stayed here on his way down from his flip!”
Rusty managed to get a work for stay, but I paid for myself. The last thing I wanted to do was work. We played cards and board games and had a good time. There was another pair there. Eventually, we retired to our private bunkhouse. The only reason it was private was because it was so late in the year. Many huts had already closed. As I laid there on the bunk, I began to shake uncontrollably. Rusty laid on top of me to warm me up. I was so cold that she became cold, as well, in her efforts to warm me. I couldn’t figure it out. I knew how to dress, but my body would not regulate properly. I called my friend James, from New England, and asked him for advice. It was all stuff that I knew and nothing was working. I told Rusty that I was going to have to quit my hike. We both cried and went to sleep.
The next morning, Rusty had to continue hiking north. I would be taking the 19 Mile Brook Trail down to the highway and calling a shuttle. It was a very emotional morning. I walked her out to where the trail forked for us to go our separate ways. We stood there embracing for the longest time. It was difficult. By this time, we were really in love with each other, but maybe too close to see it. She told me that we would could keep dating and that I could see her when she was done with the trail. I wasn’t ready to totally part company with her. I decided to take a shuttle to the next town that she would be at and I would brainstorm on how to stay with her for a few days until I saw her again.
Never-the-less, it was an emotional departure. I used to yell, “YEE-YEEEEEEE” as my call to let my tramily know that I was near-by. Rusty had been living up to the nickname that she got in New York, Mama Wolf, and howling to call out. Sometimes, she still sets the woods alive with the howls of Canids reaching out to her. After a long tearful embrace, we parted ways. We called to each other for a mile, until the distance was too great. I sobbed. I couldn’t be without her.
The hike was incredibly easy and beautiful. The 19 Mile Brook Trail is almost graded and very well groomed. Limping out alongside this amazing brook helped to calm me. I continuously checked my cell phone for service and when I got it, I called a shuttle driver who was listed in the Guthooks App. He met me at the trailhead and took me to Bethel, Maine, where I would await the arrival of my queen. I hobbled into the main entrance of the Chapman Inn, where I told the lady my troubles and our love story. She put me up in the bunkhouse and said that when my Lady Love arrived, that we could have a private room. The Chapman Inn was a great place to get my head together. I could barely walk, but the one Uber driver in town was really nice to hikers and really helped me out, for a small fee. As I was lying in my bunk, licking my wounds, I got a satellite text from Rusty. She had summitted Carter Dome, but her water purifier broke and the rain cover on her pack flew off. Freezing rain was coming down with heavy winds blowing across the peaks. She said she also missed me and that she was taking a side trail out of the forest and coming to see me. I called the same shuttle driver and told him what happened and he said that he would be waiting at the trailhead for her. I felt bad that she had some logistical hiccups, but elated to know that I would soon be in the warm embrace of “Rusty, Mama Wolf, Bad Ass”. She arrived and we were moved into one of the haunted rooms at the Chapman Inn.
In September of 2019, while hiking the New England section of the Appalachian Trail with Rusty, I broke my foot. I can’t tell you how many times I yelped and mumbled a cuss word under my breath, or how many times she looked back at me with concern. At first, it had to be tendinitis, but at what point it actually broke, I can only guess. The pain was relentless. The worst part of it is that you, as the reader, want to know how I did it, but I don’t know. Walking?
North Face Ultra Fastpack III boots were waiting for me in Hanover, New Hampshire. The Ivy League school, Dartmouth, is what makes Hanover a town. It is a very artificial looking place, almost like walking onto the set of a TV show. Dartmouth students flock the streets like sheep on a hillside. Seeing their reactions to the dirty, stinky hikers who have invaded their gargantuan, green pastures was a real treat for me. Dartmouth? MEH! I am a Harvard man! Yes, it’s true: I, Swan the Guide, am a Harvard man, thanks to Charles W. Eliot. He was the president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909 and is considered to be responsible for building Harvard into one of the worlds greatest universities. He put together a list of books and said that if a person were to read every single one of these books, they would have what is equivalent to a Harvard education. These books could take up a whole book shelf with titles such as: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, The Iliad, and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. It is a 51 volume anthology. Does Harvard know I am a student? Probably not, but when I am done with the list, I will be sporting a Harvard t-shirt. As much progress as I have made on the list, perhaps I should wait no more.
Back to Dartmouth – We had heard that the Dartmouth Outing Club had a system for allowing hikers into the cafeteria for free food. Rusty, Crash, and I all tried to reach someone by phone, but were unable. I took the lead and asked a random student from overseas if they would, “swipe me in”. Each of these students has a card that allows them to eat and they have so many guests who are allowed to use it per year. Unfortunately, my manners were exceeded by my hiker hunger. My sponsor seemed to want to ask me a lot of questions about the trail. I was freaked out by the amount of people inside, the amount of food options they had, and my friends had not yet made it inside. I was rather short with the kind individual who let me in the cafeteria, but I think he understood how hungry we all were. The smell exuding from me, had to help me make my escape from socializing. Many a wrinkled nose was pointed at me, but not a word was said.
The cafeteria at Dartmouth is like the food court in an upscale shopping mall. There was pizza, burgers, Asian food, salads, Mexican food, soft serve ice cream, and more. One could actually go to every line if they wanted. I quickly got my food and found a corner table for Rusty, Crash, and I. It was so loud. The sheep dotted the cafeteria so thick that it was difficult to walk. I was on the edge of my seat waiting for Rusty to rejoin me at the table. What we ate, I can not recall, but it was filling.
Afterwards, we walked to the Dartmouth practice fields and camped in the woods behind. The next day, Rusty and I went to the coffee shop and the post office. The Dirt Cowboy Cafe was very crowded, but we were able to sit at a table, charge our phones, enjoy pastries and coffee, and use the bathroom. I kept making lame jokes about how a real cowboy was eating at the Dirt Cowboy Cafe in an Ivy League town, while getting stares and nose wrinkles. Speaking of nose wrinkles, on our way up to the coffee shop, some stuck-up, entitled, little Dartmouth girl had the nerve to make eye contact with Rusty and wrinkle her nose and looked us up and down as if to say, “How dare you dirty people enter my artificial town”. I can see why some Ivy League politicians are so out of touch with the rest of the country. They grow up in a super safe and idyllic pasture of theory without application and then shape-shift into wolves once they take office.
At the post office, Rusty and I both picked up packages. Finally, new boots. I had only been needing new boots for a couple hundred miles. “This could be the end of my troubles,” I surmised. It was also beginning to get cold and I needed a puffy jacket. Due to spending all of my spare money in North Adams, I didn’t have money for a puffy, so I spent less than twenty dollars on an army field jacket liner. It was better than nothing. Rusty had a poor opinion of my new garment. I defended it the entire way, because if I admitted it was sub-par then I would feel colder than I already was and I couldn’t afford anything better.
Nervousness was setting in as we got closer and closer to the White Mountains. I was nervous for a few reasons: It was getting cold, I was injured, and about to meet Rusty’s parents. We were 40 miles from Hikers Welcome Hostel where we would stay. One thing about meeting Rusty’s parents is that they did not know that she had a lover. It was incredibly awkward for me, because I was in love with her and would be hiking with them. She explained to me that she felt more comfortable telling them in person. It was also strange, because for hundreds of miles, we were inseparable. I didn’t have any money for staying in hostels, so I paid a small amount to camp out behind the hostel and use the shower and laundry. Rusty went out with her parents and had told them about us before she came back. They picked us up the next day and we hiked up Mt. Moosaulake together. Mt. Moosaulake is a monstrous mountain. I was injured and feverish and looked miserable. I was trying to look happy and make a good first impression, but there was no mistaking the pain that I was in.
I was very impressed with her parents hiking ability. It was a strenuous hike for us, but we had our trail legs. We made it to the top and hung out in these walled off areas made of rocks that lay on top of the peak. It was a nice wind break. I took some photos and then made my way back down the mountain, giving Rusty time alone with her parents. Much to my surprise, Rusty’s father put us up in the Holiday Inn and was so hospitable and kind to me. Her step-mother is an avid hiker and her excitement for our cause allowed me to be more comfortable around them. She seemed to be in tune with what we were doing.
Remember in my last story how I was talking about how pervasive hiker funk is? Rusty and I were sitting in the hotel room when there was a knock at the door. It was her father. She jumped up to let him in and it was so funny: he had a kit of different deodorizing products for us to use on our gear, clothes, and body. He looked a bit mortified to know that those smells could come out of his progeny. Maybe he felt sorry for her for having to deal with my stink. Either way, we were very thankful. We get used to it and can’t really smell each other, but we also know how bad we must smell to the outside world. I always tell her that she couldn’t possibly smell bad, because nothing comes out of her except sunshine and rainbows.
Meeting her dad and step-mom was a real honor for me. I had a cold, fever, broken foot, and was nervous as hell. They were as gracious as they could be to me. On their last day with us, we took many pictures. Her dad said, “Why do I feel like I am taking wedding pictures?” I remember thinking, “That could happen one day.” Of course, I never said that. Her step-mom looked me in the eyes and admonished me to, “take good care of her”. It was all I could do to keep up with her at that point. All I needed was to hear that from her step-mom for it to become my duty. No matter how much pain I was in, how could I possibly leave the trail? We were about to walk through the roughest section of the Appalachian Trail.
The people of Pennsylvania were wonderful, but I hated the trail there. The trail in New York was beautiful, except all the people and car sounds. Connecticut, well that is New York’s, suburb. We made our way through Great Barrington and camped out behind the rec center in Dalton, Mass. In Massachusetts, we found ourselves back in the mountains. What beautiful mountains exist in Western Mass. Mt. Greylock is a mountain that has inspired many literary giants: J.K. Rowling, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville, to name a few. It is the tallest point in the state.
Growing up in Georgia, I often heard negative things about the Northern States. I have to say that what I heard about New York was accurate. Most of what I heard about Massachusetts came from northerners who moved to Georgia. They informed of the term, “Masshole”. I have to say that I never saw it. Maybe that is in the city, but even on my foray into Boston, I didn’t see it. The folks on the western end of the state kept their distance, but were nice and helpful. The people in Boston were distant, no matter how close the physical proximity, but one local picked us up and gave us a ride and we were not even hitching.
From the moment I met Rusty, I started keeping an eye out for where I might find art galleries along the Appalachian Trail. She is a very talented artist, working in oil/acrylic and ink. North Adams was the place to be. During our visit, there were close to 20 murals on the walls of establishments throughout the city. They even had brochures with maps on how to get to each one. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) is located in the city with other museums of note nearby. We wanted to go to the one that had Renoir’s nudes, but being on foot, we weren’t sure if we could make it there. Mass MoCA was a couple blocks from the Holiday Inn we stayed at. We went there and another smaller gallery with cool geometric shapes made from hardware cloth that you pass through light to see different angles of trapezoids, parallelograms, etc.
Modern/Contemporary art and all the abstractions do not give me the pleasure that more real and impressionistic styles give me. Even so, we went because it is a world renowned art gallery. There was a pile of toys that a kid forgot to pick up. This is art. I had a million dollars under my bed as a kid and my parents never knew it. There was also the Mound People. It was an exhibit of paper meche mounds that you could go inside with creepy religious paraphernalia and adolescent angst. The artist created an entire comic book of over 500 pages based on the mound people. It was obvious that he had a very difficult time growing up in his fundamentalist religious home. It was creepy and creative and I was ready to leave. We left from that football field size exhibit to go into a room with colored lines painted on the walls. I found a nice bench to sit on. Another couple walked by us and said, “Is it bad that we think the benches are the nicest things in this museum?” We all laughed. It was an experience.
It wasn’t all like that. There were large staged photographs of veterans dressed in their uniforms, only back at home with their families. One illustrated a female veterans PTSD from being blown up in Iraq, by showing a pilsbury dough can exploding in her kitchen in between her and the children. The veteran was cringing and covering herself as the can exploded. Another photo showed a male veteran sitting beside his buddies covered in blood and his wife on the other side of the photo camping alone. It depicted the difficulty in their relationship because they used to love camping until the man was in Iraq, isolated with his squad, inside tents, until they were attacked and a squad members eyeballs rolled in front of them. It was moving and brought tears to my eyes, that I am thankful to have.
After the museum, we went back to the hotel. When you are on a long distance hike and rent a hotel room, the stink from the gear and your body fills the room. The smell becomes thick as smoke, although you can’t see it. When we opened the door, hiker funk hit us in the face. I feel sorry for the housekeepers. We left a tip. We were back on trail the next day.
A local shuttle driver (David Ackerson) who also is a hiker and outdoor rec worker took us to the hotel and gave us a ride back to the trail. He told us about some of the galleries nearby and offered to help us get a pass to see Renoir’s nudes, but we went to Mass MoCA instead. He was interesting to talk to. He was section hiking the A.T. and after he dropped us off that morning, he drove to his next section and left a bicycle on one end and parked at the other. He said he would hike to his bicycle and then ride it back to the car. The shuttle driver also said he likes to snow shoe and cross country ski Mount Greylock. It all sounded like a lot of fun to me. He dropped us off and we continued to hike north. Ever since I met him and heard his story, I have thought about about how cool it would be to work in a university outdoor rec department. Unfortunately, I don’t have a paper degree, just over a decade of personal expeditions, combined with self-study, short courses, and military training. I wonder what life would have been like if I went to school for an outdoor recreation degree.
I think that Rusty and I hiked away high from our time in North Adams. I spent a lot of money in North Adams wanting to spoil Rusty and show her how important she is to me. I think that after spending my monthly discretionary budget in 2 days to impress her made me realize that perhaps I was in love with her. The constant thought in my head was, “I really hope that this doesn’t end in a matter of days or weeks now. Gosh, that would really suck if I did all that and it doesn’t go anywhere. Oh well, even if it doesn’t go anywhere, I love art, good food, and nice hotels, and wanted to have a good time. I have all the food and gear I need, so it really doesn’t matter. I have to be ready to let her go anyway. I should just focus on the here and now and not all the what-if’s.” I know that she had a wonderful time and she profusely thanked me while encouraging me not to go all out like that, because I needed my money to hike on. She really is the best person I know.
Our time in North Adams over-shadowed our experiences from the rest of the state. It will forever be a fond memory of a place, time, and person. I don’t remember anything else after that until we arrived in Bennington, Vermont. Keep your eyes out for the next story in the series. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine is where things got real in every sense of the phrase: love, weather, injury, sickness, and meeting the parents.
I am so lucky to have friends across the country. It was amazing to have been taken care of by such good people as Ed and Ren. Thankfully, the intermediate medical facility they took me to billed the Department of Veterans Affairs and did not give me any trouble. On the contrary, they were of great help. I wish it were that easy in my home state of Georgia. After a few days, I passed the kidney stones and was taken back to the Port Clinton Pavilion where I got back on trail.
I had lost my “trail legs” (After so many miles, your legs become tireless and strong). The Kiltman was South of me. Crash and Rusty were ahead of me. I already had very strong feelings for Rusty. She is so wonderful. I wanted to catch up with Rusty, but I didn’t want to be a stalker. The decision that I made was to let her know that I was going to stay on trail after all and catch up with the Kiltman for a reunion and continue hiking to Katahdin. I sent Rusty a text letting her know. Quickly, I received a reply saying, “If you want to yellow blaze up to me, I wouldn’t judge.” Yellow-blazing is hiker terminology for when someone skips ahead on the trail by way of a car and the yellow lines on the road. I was elated.
I knew how much the thru-hike meant to Rusty. I COULD have just hopped in a shuttle and met up with her, but I was weak from carrying and passing the kidney stones and had lost my trail legs. The Kiltman was alone and trying to catch up to Crash, so instead of hiking north to Rusty, I hiked south to the Kiltman. It sounds counter intuitive, but I wanted to be sure that I was in marching shape before I caught up with Rusty, so I wouldn’t chance slowing her down. For three days in almost constant rain, I hiked south to meet up with my friend. When I did, we camped at our rendezvous point by Swatara State Park and then hiked north together the next day. In that week, I hiked something like three 17 mile days in a row and then two shorter days followed by a 24 mile day back into Port Clinton. This showed me that I was back to my old self and ready to join Rusty.
Rusty is a total sweetheart and everywhere she goes, people love her. Such was the case with “Rooster” and “Tinklebell” who live near Port Clinton, PA and had met her while hiking in a different state. They loved her so much, they gave her an invitation to their house for when she made it to Port Clinton. I told Rusty where I was and she contacted them as a reference for the Kiltman and I. These amazing hikers/trail angels came and picked us up at 10PM in the dark, next to a set of railroad tracks, loaded all of our stink into their car, and took us to their home.
It was such a blessing to be picked up by them. Remember how I mentioned it rained for days? Well the tops of my feet were covered with rash worse than I can ever remember. I was miserable, but highly motivated due to hitting miles and being on my way to see Rusty. I could barely move by the time we arrived at their house. It took me several minutes of just sitting motionless outside of their front door. Finally, I was able to move inside. These beautiful people took our dirty, nasty clothes and washed them for us. I mean: THEY WASHED THEM FOR US! Do you know what wet dog smells like that has just rolled in something fragrant in the yard? Multiply that times 5 and that is how bad a wet hiker smells.
To my recollection, Rooster is a vegetarian and Tinklebell is a vegan. They cooked eggs for us and we had a wine and cheese party (Of course Tinklebell abstained from the eggs and cheese). The Kiltman cannot consume gluten, so they even went to the trouble of going to the store and buying gluten-free bread for him. The hospitality was moving. Almost a year later, I still feel the warmth of their hospitality. Perhaps it is the Chai Latte I just had. No, they will forever be a fond memory and example of selfless service to a stranger. I am so glad that Rusty vouched for us. Did I mention they even let us use their car?
After two days of recover, they returned us to the trail. I went to the Port Clinton Hotel where I waited for a shuttle to come pick me up and drive me 100 miles north to Rusty. The bartender at the hotel gave me a dirty look and pointed at a sign on the wall with her eyes. “We reserve the right to refuse service if you have not showered and aren’t wearing deodorant.” Obviously, they are used to dirty, nasty hikers coming through. I immediately said, “Hey, I am a hiker, but I promise I slept inside and showered this morning!” Having concealed the fact that I was not wearing deodorant, she let me order some food. Hikers often do not carry deodorant, because what’s the point? I ate a hearty meal and then waited outside for my shuttle.
It was a $200 ride and worth every freaking penny. The afternoon of August 20, I was dropped off at the Warwick Drive-in Theatre. The Lion King was playing. We had a drink at the cidery across the street. There was a hiker there who was finishing up his hike from the previous year. He hung out with us some, but when I asked him what his name was he said, “Nick….FUCK… ‘TUMBLEWEED’, for this reason, he got the new trail-name: “Nickfucktumbleweed”. I liked the guy even more because he would laugh whenever I called him that. In retrospect, I suppose it could have been annoying, but he was a good sport. We actually leap-frogged for several days and had a few meals and camped near each other. I was glad that he finished his hike. One day, I will too.
That night, Rusty and I slept in my MSR Hubba Hubba for the first time together. It was a big deal for me, because I am claustrophobic. I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to sleep in a tent with her. We did every night for months after that. The next day, we began our section of “Deli-Blazing”. In New York, there is a 3 or 4 day stretch where you almost don’t even have to pack food because of all of the deli’s. Around mid-day, we stopped at a creamery near the Hawk Mountain Preserve and we charged our phones. Rusty had ice cream and I had homemade Greek yogurt. It was DEE-LISH! That night we camped privately by a waterfall that we spent some time in. It was beautiful. People had taken rocks and built a pool at the base of it. It was a magical evening that neither of us will ever forget.
We hiked all day, every day, for the next few days. The night after the waterfall, we camped behind a deli and pizza place. New Yorkers love their pizza and Rusty was met with some attitude when she asked for a slice. After all, this was New York. “WE SERVE PIES!” On another night, we slept beside a deli and some railroad tracks. Deli blazing was very convenient.
One thing about hiking the A.T. in New York: You never stop hearing cars. I would also have an attitude if there were no place to escape the hustle and bustle. I know people like it around New York City, but I have to be able to actually be in nature, which means you can’t hear car sounds. 30 to 60 miles from New York City, you can still hear it. We met some SOBO hikers (Southbound), who we told this to and they said it was funny, because in Connecticut you hear lawnmowers every where. It sounded odd, but we found it to be true. We walked through the most crowded park that I have ever been to and ended up at the saddest zoo I have ever been to. It was abominable. Honestly, I hope one day that the sad bear in there escapes and eats the board of directors.
Speaking of bears, at the base of Bear Mountain, Rusty and I were walking along when a group of 4 tourists stopped us with tears in their eyes. “OHHH You two are obviously together! How did you meet?” They took our photos and gooed and gawed over us for a bit. It was heart warming to know that our love shined like that. I love her so much. Connecticut wasn’t much better than New York. The best part of the trail in the Mid Atlantic section for me was when we got to Massachusetts, AKA New England.
Keep a look out for my next post. Rusty and I have wayyy better adventures:
It rained for over a week straight. The rain reconfirmed that the south eastern area of the United States is a temperate rain forest. The band wasn’t always hiking together. Crash and I pitched our tents by a wide and lazy stream. There was a deluge and we had cell service, so we called for a shuttle to pick us up and take us to get some restaurant food. It was nice to have that comfort amidst our seemingly new life at a constant 100% humidity.
I think it was the next day that we hiked to Boots Off Hostel (www.bootsoff.camp), about 20 miles south of Damascus, VA. What a great place! They have cabins, a tenting area, and an old converted bus for lodging. There is a small resupply and a large covered porch with a kitchenette. The owner took us fellas from Los Hobos on an “Aqua-blaze”. There were twice as many other people there who we had been bumping into from time to time. This group became a much larger Tramily with some great people! We all aqua-blazed together. Aqua-blazing is when you travel along the Appalachian Trail by water instead of walking.
This was my last day with the Tramily as a whole. Squatch had previously hiked on to new trails. Moses eventually took a break from the trail at Dismal Falls in Virginia after I left. When I got to Boots Off, I received a call from a fishing guide service that needed some help. They flew me out and you can read about that story here: https://swanhikes.com/2020/05/23/the-wind-river-range/
After my detour through Wyoming, I rode down to Colorado for a couple of nights and flew back to the trail. I arrived at Dulles International Airport where a shuttle driver was waiting to take me to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. I was dropped off at the HI Hostel. I didn’t exactly look like a hiker – dressed in jeans, plaid shirt, cowboy hat, and a leather belt with a skinning knife sheathed on it. I had a few books with me about mountain men and the wind river range that I donated to the hostel. Eventually, I rid myself of my cowboy attire and donned the hiker trash uniform. Crash and The Wandering Kiltsman would soon be there, or so I thought. Waiting by the river in Harper’s Ferry for over a week was the most boring part of my entire hike. River water is not the tastiest, so every day I would walk to the outfitter in Harper’s Ferry where they told me I could refill on water whenever I needed to. They were afraid that I was hanging around so long, because I was hungry. They kept trying to feed me and even picked up Crash and I one night as we were walking down the road a couple miles from camp. Before I resumed my hike, I gave my knife to the main outfitter employee who helped me so much. He appreciated the knife so much that he warmed my heart a second time.
Crash finally made it, but The Wandering Kiltsman would not be there for a while, due to technical difficulties on a crazy long aqua-blaze that you can read about on www.thewanderingkiltsman.com. The next day, Crash and I began heading north. Although I missed the 500 miles through Virginia, I wanted to hike with Los Hobos. Unfortunately, Los Hobos was too scattered to be a band. Viva Los Hobos! That wasn’t the end. Real hiking bards and troubadours don’t quit. We might take a long hiatus, but we never quit! Don’t worry folks. If you keep reading my future stories, you will get to see a social distancing concert we have lined up at an all new location.
Crash and I hiked up to Dahlgren Backpacker Campground in Maryland and stayed there one night. They had free hot showers, which I was grateful for the next day when I met a goddess. Truly, I met a goddess in person. Have you ever heard of the Latin goddess Ariana? Remember the Labyrinth and the Minotaur? Dionysus? Well, our story is much different. I am certainly no deity or hero, but a goddess helped me find my way through the “New World Labyrinth”. We saw her on the trail a couple times that day. We thought we knew everyone that was on the trail behind us, so we ignored her at first, thinking she was a “Weekend Warrior”. Come to find out, she thought the same about us!
As Crash and I walked up to a pavilion at a state park, we see this goddess again. She was sitting there eating lunch and we both sat at different tables to spread out while we ate. There was a bit of small talk before we all finished lunch at the same time and resumed hiking. Crash and I forgot where the trail was, but this goddess showed us the way. I told her that I was a wilderness guide and just got back to the trail from work. Where I was working is a place that Lewis and Clark explored and when I set foot back on trail in Harper’s Ferry, I saw the museum dedicated to the beginning of their journey. With this fresh on my mind I said,
“Daaaaang…You are like Sacajawea! Guide to the guide!”
We all laughed, because it was corny and Crash and I were just being bone-headed and didn’t pay attention to where we left the trail for the state park, but it was within 50 yards of mowed lawn in front of us. Honestly, I think we were both captivated with this divine creature that made me forget everything and every woman except for her. I didn’t know that I loved her at that moment, but I was stunned.
She even made me forget about the kidney stones inside of me. OK…If you have had kidney stones, then you know that part is a lie. I hung on like a champ, every day for three weeks, never knowing if I would see her the next day or not. We would bump into each other every few days and talk and get to know each other. I got on trail to be alone, but a tramily was formed. Thirty-two-Hundred air miles, 500 backpacking miles, 200 horse riding miles, and 12 canoe miles later, there was something new inside of me and I didn’t want to be alone.
I was waiting at the ATC in Pennsylvania. The pain in my kidneys was getting severe and a shuttle was coming to pick me up. I had bought a plane ticket to go home to Georgia, but it wasn’t for a couple weeks. Fortunately, while I was waiting outside of the ATC in Pennsylvania, Crash hiked in. He told me that “Rusty” was not far behind him. My heart skipped a beat. “Rusty” is one of the goddesses many names, her trail name, along with: “Mama Wolf” and just plain “Bad Ass”. We walked along the path through town to meet her and the three of us walked back to the ATC together. Rusty and I started talking and I found out that along with being a full-time hiking goddess, she also is a creator of fine paintings! It just so happens that, not only can I be an unkempt and somewhat uncouth mountain man, but also an amateur aficionado of fine art, wine, cheese, and sushi. We had important things to discuss.
She showed me her work on the Deviant Art platform online and I looked intently at each one. Rusty said no one had ever been that interested in her art before, but that it is her passion. We talked about art for a while and then she invited me to walk over to the post office with her to continue our conversation. I was so excited, I almost stepped out in front of a car. When we made it back across the street to all our hiking friends and acquaintances, my ride to the Cardinal Inn was there. I didn’t think I would ever see her again. We traded phone numbers, FaceBook, and hugs. Off I went to hike no more.
The shuttle driver (The owner of the inn) questioned me about why I was quitting. I had not yet seen a doctor, so I didn’t want to lie and say I had kidney stones. I was just telling people that I was tired and had enough. The driver was a Vietnam-era U.S. Army Infantryman and started encouraging me not to quit. He said,
“You don’t seem like a quitter to me! I don’t know what is going on, but I hope you change your mind. You have friends out there and you want to be with them at the finish. You are a soldier! Don’t quit!”
He took me to his and his wife’s inn/home where there was food waiting for me. It was a beautiful setting beside a Mennonite farm. The matriarch of the family was there. She was blind and asked me to come close and she touched my hands and asked me what my name was. I told her my name was Swan, but she asked me what my mom called me. I said, “Brandon”. She told me that she was mom and that she loved me. I went up stairs and spent the rest of my overnight visit locked up in my room in agony.
The proprietor of the inn took me to Port Clinton, PA, where I would wait for my friends Ed and Ren. I stayed at the Pavilion in town that a local church erected for hikers. It was mostly due to one man in the church who was an advocate for hikers. He was a WWII veteran who spent a couple of years in a Japanese POW camp. He said that every year when he would see emaciated hikers coming through, tired and hungry, that it reminded him of the POW camp. They built a beautiful pavilion and began providing an outhouse for hikers because of that sweet man. I know these things, because the weekend before I set up camp there, the church built a patriotic memorial in his honor. As I sat there alone one day, bearded, tattooed, smelly, and wild-eyed, this 90 year old woman walked up and sat beside me for half an hour to talk about her husband, the former POW and friend of hikers. She said that he was quite a man, and I believe her. Thank you, “Friend Of Hikers”!
Crash hiked in and I got to see him again. It was nice. I was getting lonely. I felt stupid, because days prior I had texted Rusty a mushy text message about her smile and her soul. Immediately, I started tripping out on myself and telling myself how stupid I was for sending such a strongly worded message and the reason I had not heard back had nothing to do with being in the mountains and wilderness. I thought about her constantly.
It was Crash’s turn to pay for a hotel, so I moved camp from the pavilion up to a single-bed room where I intended to sleep on the floor. Crash said he had just run into Rusty downstairs and she invited him to have a drink with her. I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, but I was jealous. I was already falling for her, but I told him to have a nice night and that I would see him later. He went downstairs and a few minutes later I was asked to come downstairs and join them. When Rusty saw me, she was giddy with joy. I was giddy that she was giddy. The polite version of the story was that we had a few drinks responsibly and I walked her home and kissed her goodnight on the doorstep. Do you think that is what happened? What doorstep? We were living out of backpacks! We built a spiritual connection that night. I walked a mile up trail with her the next day and kissed her goodbye. My friends would be there soon to pick me up and I would fly back to Georgia. Rusty and I made plans to see each other when she finished her hike, hoping to continue this beginning of bliss. She seemed serious about seeing me again. It was difficult to say goodbye.
Ed and Ren picked me up after a week, as per our plan. They said they were surprised that I was getting off trail and wanted to know why. These people are my friends and helping me out, so I felt obligated to tell them that I thought I had kidney stones. They did not even take me to their house without stopping at the doctor first! I am glad they did. They really looked after me. I didn’t particularly want to go. My gratitude to them could never be overstated.
When one can surmise how bad the kidney stones are based upon the X-Ray techs exclamations, you can be sure it isn’t pretty. The doctor came in and said,
“You have STONES. PLURAL. BOTH SIDES. LOTS OF LITTLE ONES! The good news is that as long as you can stand the pain, you can hike!”
I left the doctor with some Flomax and antibiotics and was better a few days later. The recovery at Ed and Rens really helped. Ren took me to the grocery store so I could resupply and they cooked a delicious meal. It was a good time visiting with people who quickly became beloved friends for what they did for me. They returned me to the trail.
What happens with Rusty and I? Keep an eye out for my next story:
Upon leaving the Smokies, we headed to a place named Max Patch. It is a beautiful bald mountain that is a local favorite in North Carolina. The trail was crowded that day. I wanted to hurry up and get to the top, because Los Hobos had planned to camp together and catch the famous sunset and sunrise. This guy named “Pasta”, who I mentioned in PART IIIhttps://swanhikes.com/2020/05/19/los-hobos-journey-through-the-smokies/, had been leap frogging with us for over a week. We felt like we had been getting on his nerves, because we were playing instruments and singing every where we went. We tried not to be a nuisance, and most people enjoyed our playing. We had asked Pasta several times if we were bothering him and one time he told us, as long as we cut it out by a certain time, he didn’t care. We love to have fun, but try to be respectful, especially of wiser, more experienced outdoors-people. We all felt honored when Pasta asked us in a very humble manner if we minded if he camped on top of Max Patch with us, because it was his last day on trail.
“OF COURSE, WE WOULD LOVE FOR YOU TO CAMP WITH US!!!”
I hiked as quickly as I could. It was so crowded. There was a mix of locals and outsiders. It was obvious who the locals were. We were in the South and the locals all smiled and said, “Hello”. The people visiting from outside, didn’t even know how to smile back or reply. When I reached the bald hilltop, I ran into two local females who stuck a large Tupperware container in my face, filled with mixed berries. I almost dove in with both of my ferociously filthy hands. An inch from the gorgeous, gushing berries, I stopped and cupped my hands palms up.
“Thank you so much! I am filthy and haven’t bathed in a week. Would you mind pouring them into my hands so I don’t infect your food?”
The ladies graciously did so. They were so happy to give me nourishment, that my acceptance of it seemed as though it were a gift to them. I was so happy to receive it. This aspect of the trail is what makes it such a vibrant community. It changes people. The trail helped to restore my faith in humanity.
One by one, the tramily came trampsing up the trail. Max Patch became so littered with people and tents, there was no place to have any kind of privacy. We played some music, but not much. The Wandering Kiltsman, Crash, Moses, Squatch, Ramses, Pasta, and myself were all present for the spectacular sunset.
The next morning, I woke up to start my trek to the town of Hot Springs, NC. Early morning hours are a special time for me and I hiked off alone. There was a very old and decrepit shelter that I stopped at. I laid there on the picnic table bench, stretching, eating, and pacing myself for a very long day. I had my 4 liter Platypus water filtration system hanging up from the a rafter on the shelter. It is a gravity fed system that works excellent for someone who drinks as much H2O as me. It also works great if you are hiking with a partner or base camping. It costs about $100.
The tramily was trickling into the shelter and several of us left out together. When we got 2 miles away from the shelter, I realized that I had forgotten my water filter. We were already doing my first 24 mile day on trail into Hot Springs. I didn’t have enough money at the time to buy a new one, but I didn’t want to get separated from the group, nor was I capable of adding 4 miles for a total of 28. It was a huge blow. Thankfully, as I was getting ready to turn around to retrieve it, and miss the much needed rest and recovery in Hot Springs, Moses offered to buy me a Sawyer Squeeze and let me pay him back. I want to say it was a gift, even. Moses saved my day. He didn’t part the sea, but I was able to flood my cells with Giardia-free water.
The hike from Max Patch to Hot Springs is a long, but mild hike and it felt really good to accomplish that. Nevertheless, I was still exhausted. Several more miles were walked through town trying to find a room to rent and resupply options.
It was the night of a holiday and many businesses were not open. We went to a bar and grill on the river. There were not many places to sit, but we saw two older thru-hikers who invited us to sit with them. They were really drunk and I am somewhat averse to being around drunk people. I was also famished. I am talking about an all consuming hunger. It was beyond what they call “Hiker Hunger”. Hiker hunger is an appetite you develop while on trail that allows you to eat copious amounts of calorie dense food. In retrospect, I was irritable and not thinking clearly. I had to be hypoglycemic by this point. I could not control the look on my face. The hunger was deep.
There would be an hour long wait, but there was nowhere else to go. I was practicing patience and sometimes laying my head down on the table, because of how miserable I was. An hour went by and I walked over to the kitchen to ask if it would be much longer and thank them for working so hard. Thirty more minutes went by without food. I noticed that one of the older gentlemen was in the kitchen talking loud and being aggressive with the cook staff. I had no idea what he was doing. A kitchen worker came out and pulled his shirt to the side, allowing me to see his knife. This made me angry and curious at the same time. That is when I realized that this old drunk was in there harassing the kitchen staff, in MY name. I ended up leaving the restaurant and sitting elsewhere for a bit, hoping that my absence would help to deescalate things so I could eat. After three hours of waiting, we were the last ones to be served, despite the fact that we had been there 2 hours longer than all the other people being served. We were all upset. I promised everyone that the bar and grill would be getting a bad review where hikers could see. This is it: Spring Creek Tavern. It is located on the creek in Hot Springs, NC. The service was atrocious and the food was not very good either.
We stayed in town for a couple days. The next morning, we ate breakfast at an amazingly delicious establishment called, The Smoky Mountain Diner. It appeared to be a family business. They have art and quilts decorating the walls. Every single worker there was friendly. Not only was the food scrumptious, the portions would satisfy the deepest of hiker hunger. We left them a good tip, because we were so grateful for that experience after what happened the night before, elsewhere. I would highly recommend The Smoky Mountain Diner. Tip well, because they go the extra mile.
I hiked out of Hot Springs with my back torn up with heat rash. It was one of the worst cases that I have ever had. After two days of hiking, I could not take it anymore and hired a shuttle to take me to Nature’s Inn Hostel. If you are a Facebook friend of mine (If not, send me a friend request @ gb swann), then you saw my video review. It was a great stay in a tiny cabin on the creek. They cater to bikers and hikers.
Ever since Franklin, NC, we had been hearing about a bad guy named “Sovereign”. He had been harassing people on trail and was locked up and released. He went back out on trail and became more violent. Everyone on the A.T. in 2019 was cautious and watching for that guy. He finally took his words to action and attacked a male veteran and his female hiking partner. They were both slashed up pretty good. The male veteran fought a valiant fight, but was murdered. The woman held up her hands in surrender, was attacked and injured, then pretended to be dead until the criminal left. She ran 9 miles to seek shelter. I can only imagine the terror they must have felt. The veteran was on trail trying to lay his PTSD to rest. Writing this, there are tears in my eyes. Politics aside, most soldiers join because of a patriotic idealism, because they want to serve their country. He came home to be murdered during a peaceful journey. Ronald Sanchez Jr. A name, with a story, that is worth remembering!
His killer fled to harm other people. He crossed paths with a woman and her daughter and mentally tortured them for half the night with threats of setting them on fire inside of their tent with gasoline. Thankfully, he did not act any further on his threats and left. The ladies fled to Nature’s Inn Hiker and Biker Hostel, where the owners let them use the phone to call the police, which led to the killers arrest. I arrived to the hostel the next morning, thankful for my timing.
The first night we camped at Birch Spring Campground. The only Campground in the Smokies. It is located in a ravine. As you walk along the ridge, you come to a side trail that leads you down into the ravine. There was a fire ring and some logs that we made ourselves comfortable on. This is where we met a children’s author named, “Quill”. We also camped by a family on their first backpacking trip. They brought everything, including the kitchen sink.
We were worried that the family atmosphere would put a cramp in our style, and it did. It was nice that we were able to find camping spots near each other and mostly out of the way. The next morning after breakfast, I hiked off. I passed the family hiking down the trail in a row. They were beating their trekking poles together, as if they were rhythm sticks, because they were terrified of bears. It was reminiscent of the movie, The Parent Trap. Meanwhile, The Kilt-man was assaulted by a deer during his morning ritual (www.thewanderingkiltsman.com).
After a couple of days, we made it to Clingmans Dome, the high point of the Smokies and the second highest point on the Appalachian Trail. It was a beautiful day. We played frisby and guitar in a grassy park while we waited for the Kilt-mans family to show up. They picked us up and bought us Bar-B-Que. It was delicious. The details are getting fuzzy, but I think they dropped us off back at Clingman’s Dome where we hiked another day or two before they picked us up again for a zero day. We were all very grateful to his family.
The next morning, we woke up in camp and hiked off early. Squatch was with me when we walked up to the biggest living bear I have ever seen. It had to be 400 lbs. Squatch was in front of me, but we were hiking pretty close. It is fun to hike with Squatch because of his energy and music. I knew when he said a 4 letter word that it had to be something cool. Yes. A 400 lb bear.
“Hey Bear, I know this is your trail, but can we use it too? It’s your woods…We are just passing through!”
We both made noise and the bear just stared at us from the middle of the trail for a few minutes before he sauntered a few feet away and looked back at us with a hunger.
“Hey Bear, we see you, we don’t want any trouble. We are just trying to hike!”
We took a few steps. The bear moved farther away. When it felt safe, I snapped the best photo I could. Squatch was concerned because he felt like I had turned my back to the bear. He had a point. I figured that he was already watching that particular bear, who gave us room to pass. I was concerned about walking into another bear and wanted to have eyes in all directions. It was cool. We lived.
Fraser Firs and Red Spruce filled this section of boreal forest in the “high country” of the South East. There were breath taking view points. Wildlife is so abundant in Smoky Mountain National Park. After hiking for a while, we were ready to hit a particular shelter for lunch. The shelter was in sight and once again we were stopped. This time there was a 6 foot long rattle snake coiled up in the middle of the trail. The foliage was so thick to our left and right that we could not go around. At first, it was just two of us. Soon the rest of the Tramily arrived. It felt like we stood there for 15 minutes. We tried everything to get the rattler to move. Finally, Quill, the children’s author, walked up and said,
“Hey you little snake!!! You just need to slither on away from here!”
She said it in a sweet, but firm voice. The snake was diffused and slithered away. We continued to the shelter and had lunch with Quill, The Snake Whisperer.
The Smokies were also a time of great social synergy. Our tramily was having a good time and so was everyone else. We had really banded together when Merlin was with us, because there was a killer on the loose named, “Sovereign”. Really, that is how Merlin came to hike with us. Squatch brought up a good point that if he had a little sister and knew she was hiking out there alone with a killer on the trail, he would want to know she was protected. Merlin was no longer with us, but the band was as tight as ever.
One night, we stopped a little short of our goal and ran into a guy named “Mix Match”. I met him for the first time at Clingman’s Dome, but the rest of the band had met him long before. He was the proud recipient of a present from a local shelter: Norovirus! He got off trail to recover and then resumed his hike. He also plays the guitar and we had a great time passing it around the circle. There were lots of laughs and lots of singing. It was a good night.
I woke up incredibly early and took off ahead of everyone. It must have been 2 or 3AM. I made my way to the next shelter where everyone was sleeping. There were some people there who had been getting on our nerves, or else we would have pushed on to that shelter. Knowing they were there, we stayed behind to put distance between us. Every once in a while, I admit, I can be a bit mischievious. Everyone was asleep. I used the privy first, so I could make a quick get-a-way. I snuck up to the shelter and spotted the cables provided by the park service for hanging your food bag. It keeps bears and rodents out. A bush was beside it that I was able to crouch behind as I rattled the bear cables loudly and then stopped and froze. A hiker woke up and shined his flashlight toward the bear cables and scanned the area. Soon, his light went off and I was at it again, rattling the cables, as though a bear were nearby. The light came on again. He scanned more and kicked the wall of the shelter. I remained still. After the light turned back off, I bolted through the woods like a bear, until I could put some distance between me and them! The funniest part: a couple weeks later, we saw those guys again, and they told us about their bear encounter at the shelter and how they scared it off.
When we made it through the Smokies, I was ahead of everyone and came to a gravel road. There was a sign pointing to a general store about a mile off trail. The store was not on Guthooks and I had not heard of it. As I recall, I was famished and the next resupply would be several hours later at Standing Bear Hostel, however, I was trying to avoid Standing Bear Hostel because of a recent Norovirus outbreak. To my knowledge, they are great upstanding people, but those thing happen sometimes, and I didn’t want to put myself at risk.
I walked a mile down off the mountain and came to a general store in the middle of nowhere. They were not yet open, but had a picnic table out front. I dropped my pack, took off my boots, and laid down on the seat. They opened an hour later and actually had a shower that I paid to use. When I got out of the shower, there were a couple of section hikers who I had met the night before. They had completed their hike and were going home. I wished them good luck. They wished me good luck and I started shopping for my resupply. The cashier rang me up and asked for $40. I told her that I should be paying about $20 more.
“Yes Sir, you are right, but those gentlemen who were in line ahead of you donated a 20 dollar bill to your hike. They told me not to say anything until they left.”
The store had everything I needed, except for a fuel canister. They told me that the original A.T. route went along the road by the river and I might be able to catch a hitch if I took that route back to the trail. I did what she suggested. Walking alongside the swift, white, water was welcome to break up the monotony. It was a treat to be able to see the mountains from the gulch. Several cars passed me. Most people don’t like picking up a large male hitchhiker with a beard. There have only been a couple of occasions where I scored a hitch.
As I was thumbing my way down the road, a guy with a neck tattoo pulled up and asked if I needed a ride. I got in and told him I needed to go to Walmart or some place where I could buy a fuel canister. Instead, we pull up in his yard where it looked like a party was going on. He said that he had a spare one in the house that I could have and to come in and accept some hospitality. As I stepped into the hazy, smoke filled room, I noticed a large water bong being passed around. As my eyes adjusted more, the bare plywood walls were covered with swords and knives held up by nails. The closet was stacked with guns, with no door to hide them. One person was in a corner, inhaling Cannabis smoke through a gas mask. I only tried the gas mask on to evaluate it for it’s effectiveness because of my military training. I did not inhale.
On the next trip, we had another new guy. This one seemed great. He didn’t know much, but was strong, intelligent, took direction, etc. It was a relief to have him in camp after the last two “Camp Jacks”. I really respected the guy. Unfortunately, his third day on the job, his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and he quit. Thankfully this guy was driving down to Texas and liked me enough that he let me ride with him from Cowpoke, Wy., down to Colorado Springs where I spent two nights and then flew back to the Appalachian Trail. The main reason for my departure is explained below:
We were camping near the base of Mount Baldy. Being 20 miles from the nearest road and hours from town, you had better be prepared. Remember the story about the stove pipe continuously falling on the tent? I let the outfitter know that, for days, I had been dealing with a cook tent that was filling up with smoke to the point that I couldn’t cook. It would be great to get this resolved in between trips The stove pipe was rusted, cut, and improperly fitting. One of the legs was broken and I had to wrap tin-foil around a stick and attach it with bailing wire. This is the first day of our second pack trip of the summer:
Me: Sir, we really need to get this taken care of. I thought it would happen over the weekend. How am I supposed to work if I am literally trying to put out fires???
Boss: What do you want me to do? Run to the f****ng 7/11 ????
Me: Sir, obviously we can not do that. That is why I said something before we rode back in camp. Perhaps, when we get back to town in a couple of days, we could get a new one. Maybe I could call in to base and let them know we need one.
Boss: We have one!
Me: Yes sir and it is going to burn down your tent! I am literally putting out fires!
Boss: Once again, What do you want me to do? Run to the f****ng 7/11?
Me: No sir, but looking at everything that was packed for me… I don’t have enough eggs for this trip! Someone is going to have to come up here anyways.
Boss: Why don’t you have enough eggs?
Me: I don’t know, Sir. I told your wife and daughter (who did the packing) that I only had one tray of eggs left. I use one tray of eggs per day. It is not my job to go to the grocery store and pack. I just give them my inventory and they are supposed to give me back what I need.
Boss: Are you saying that my wife and daughter don’t know what they are doing??
Me: No sir, I am saying that I can not help it if the eggs are not here, because I told them how many I needed and it is their job to go get the stuff. What else can I do?
Boss: I NEED EGGS! I Want eggs! How can we be in camp without eggs??????
Me: WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO, SIR? RUN TO THE F****NG 7/11 ??? I want a stove pipe so I don’t die of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. I would like a stove pipe so I don’t have a head ache every day from smoke inhalation at high elevation. You are worried about eggs? Why don’t you call a wrangler to bring in a new stove and stove pipe along with some eggs?
The next day, a rider rode in with a new stove, stove pipe, and eggs. Two days later, we all rode out of camp for the weekend. The owner asked me to ride with him back to the lodge. I was peeved and did not want to be near this guy. He did not like it when I spoke to him the way he spoke to me and had not stopped pouting since the day before. I had been getting 4 hours of sleep a night on top of all the other issues. The outfitter became instantly insecure as we rode down the road together.
Boss: Those clients were nice people.
Me: Yes Sir.
Boss, 5 minutes later: The Mexicans have been working hard on the fire mitigation.
Me: …well I said nothing, because I was tired and a statement was made that did not require a reply.
Boss, 5 minutes later: WHATS YOUR PROBLEM???
Me: What do you mean, Sir?
Boss: YOU ARE IGNORING ME!!
Me: What did you say, Sir? That the Mexicans are working hard? Yes sir, it appears that they are still working just as hard as they were when you made the same comment last week when we came through here. There is no need to yell at me. What’s my problem? I am very tired. I have a headache. I did not have the things that I needed in camp. I was literally putting out fires all week. Now you are getting a freaking attitude with me and I worked my butt off. Obviously, the clients had a great time or I would not have made $500 in tips in three days off of a family of 3. How about the week before when I got a trophy knife and $800. I am sorry that you had a bad week and didn’t catch any fish. Maybe instead of yelling at me, you should thank me for showing the clients a great time.
Boss: Yes! You made lots of tips! The clients loved you! You are being rude as hell to me right now!
Me: Sir, I am not sure how I am being rude. You literally will not leave me alone. You keep yelling at me. I am exhausted physically and mentally. I HAVE HEARD ENOUGH!!
Boss: FINE I DON’T KNOW WHY I EVEN TRIED TALKING TO YOU! When we get back to the lodge, I don’t need you to do anything else. Just go shower and go to bed!
Me: Yup, that is what I intend to do.
As much as I love that kind of work and being in the Wind River Range, I decided to quit, and did so the next morning. I walked into the kitchen with a stack of things to return to the outfit. I walked up to the owner and his family to quit and they said they needed to talk.
Boss: Swan, I did not appreciate the way you spoke to me. Also, you forgot to take out the trash the night before we left on our last trip. There was some broth that spilled out in the bag and got on the floor. My wife had to clean it up. WERE YOU TRYING TO BURN DOWN MY HOUSE?
Me, with a chuckle: Burn down your house, Sir? With broth??”
Boss: YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY??
Me: NOPE! I think it is sad. I walked in here to quit anyways. Here’s your paper work back. Here is the current camp inventory. I need my checks.
Boss: Here are your checks, SWAN. I’m watching you on your way out. You better not steal anything.
Me: Well, Sir, considering that my checks are short, it looks like you are the thief!
He corrected the checks and I left out with the camp hand. What the camp hand was going through was an awful thing. The outfit had been talking behind his back and saying that it was just an excuse to quit, but there is no way. That guy talked to me for a while about his mothers pancreatic cancer. His mom told him that she knew how much this job meant to him and for him to stay. His dad called him and said she did not have long to live and if he wanted to say goodbye, that he had better come home. It had me tearing up from thinking about when my own mother had cancer. Thankfully, mine pulled through OK. The prognosis for pancreatic cancer is not very good. I hope that she made it through and that he went on to better adventures. I am very grateful for the ride to Colorado.
I began my second season as a wilderness cook the evening I got to Cowpoke, Wy., at the house of a certain outfitter. It was a really cool place. The owner has a wildlife biology degree and grew up in the outfitting business under his grandfather. There is a lot of really interesting history with that outfit and in the Wind River Range. Even the small town of Cowpoke is super interesting for anyone who loves history. I was very excited to be there. Little did I know: I was being dropped into the middle of a wild west family drama, complete with cowboys and Indians, a killer, and the mob.
I was hired to be a camp cook/manager for their summer fish and horse pack trips. We would be riding 20 miles out into the wilderness and I would stay there for weeks to months while the wranglers brought me resupply and clean laundry. It was a dream job for me. I hit the ground running. Everyone was happy with my first dinner – Moose meatballs, in honey garlic sauce, on top of mashed potatoes, with salad. Over the next couple of days, I got to know the crew and company. Before we were able to get up into the high country, we had to stay at the bunkhouse, in town, on the outfitters property. The owners specifically asked me to get the bunkhouse under control. Sometimes, they have clients who need to stay in there. They said they always had problems with dirty cowboys to the point that the owners wife would go into the bunkhouse and rip apart all of the employees beds and even toss their possessions out of the living quarters. I was hoping to take a more mild approach. First step on the plan was to clean the bunkhouse to the point of being passable for a military inspection. Although, I was not required to, I cleaned it myself, because leaders set the example. I cleaned it for 3 days while the crew was out repairing tack. When they came back, I set up a cleaning schedule for them, and let everyone know that they needed to keep their possessions in their personal area so that everyone can utilize the bathroom. I had just cleaned the toilet that still had a turd in it and pee on the floor. The newest camp hand told me that he did not have to clean or pick up after himself.
He said, “I DIDN’T TAKE A WILDERNESS JOB TO BE CLEAN! YOU CAN’T MAKE ME TAKE MY STUFF FROM MY BUNK TO THE BATHROOM AND PUT IT UP EVERY TIME!”
I told him that everybody has to, including me. In the wilderness, hygiene can become even more important than in town. If he didn’t like it, we could take it up with the company owners the next day. He told me that I was a tattletale and pulled a knife out and told me he likes to fight. I pulled my shirt off and showed him the crossed rifles tattoo, the symbol of the infantry, on my back and said,
“These crossed rifles PROVE that I like to fight! Now put the knife down while you talk to me!”
He did so. The next day, he decided that he respected me enough to start talking about his life to me and asking for advice. Then, during the course of a routine conversation, he tells me:
“Every time the owners daughter (a company foreman) gives me any sort of ‘constructive criticism’ I want to kill her.”
I told him that – THAT was not OK. I suggested that when she takes any corrective action with him, that he picture her body with a two year old’s face on it and pretend that she is having a tantrum. This is an exercise I use to deal with people who rub me wrong. I wish I could remember to do it more often.
At first, I thought he was a guy who just did not have control over his mouth. Then I began thinking about the knife situation, the threat, being far out in the wilderness, and the lack of sleep we were about to have for the foreseeable future. I went backpacking that weekend, one of two weekends I had off. It bothered me to the point that I called the foreman and had a talk with her. The following Monday, he was fired. It’s too bad he lost his job, but in the wilderness, you have to be able to have a basic level of trust. It especially bothered the foreman, because she had been put on a hit list.
There was this 17 yr old guy she went to school with who was described to me as being socially awkward and angry. He wrote out a 30 person hit list. This guy wanted to be with the foreman and she didn’t want to be with him so she ended up on the list, as well. He killed some people, but was not able to finish his list before he was apprehended. Every time he comes up for parole, her family lives in fear. What do you do when someone under the age of 18 does horrific things like that? I guess, what they did: Lock him up and hope he doesn’t get out to kill again.
To replace the crew member we lost, they hired a 20 year old kid who had just graduated a guide school that did not have him prepared in the least bit. There will be more about guide schools later. Furthermore, he hates horses. He was hired as a wrangler (Horseman) and camp hand. John – the wrangler, he seemed to be a very polite and hard working person. It was his first camp job, so he wasn’t expected to know much.
We had a long ride up to camp. It was my first ride in 7 months and it was going to be a 20 mile day. They gave me lots of warnings about how steep and rocky the mountains were. This didn’t bother me, because I grew up riding in the Appalachian Mountains and rode hundreds of miles on the western slope of Colorado the year before. They provided me with a horse that did not know anything. Normally, an outfitter wants their cook on a “Dude Horse” (A dude is someone from the city), but I had promoted my ability as a horseman in my resume’, because that is rare for a cook and I wanted to have a competitive edge. Actually, the week before, this particular horse had bolted on a greenhorn and dumped the newbie on the ground. From what I heard, it was hysterical. Honestly, they gave me the horse because I gave the guy a hard time about it. I thought it was in good fun, but maybe I did get carried away. It was my ego. I was a manager and this city slicker kept calling me “Dude”. It was silly on my part. Regardless, I rode that horse like a champ.
As I said, it was my first ride in 7 months. At the beginning of our journey we had to ride up “The Bastard Hill”. Why is it named this? If you ever have the chance to ride down it at night in a hailstorm, you will find out! There is a mental picture that this outfit likes to paint for people to motivate them to use proper riding posture, “Picture a monkey screwing a football.” That would be the wrong way to look while riding a horse. Now picture a large burly man riding up a mountain, looking like a monkey screwing a football. Good! That was me. After that day, I insisted that I be allowed to saddle my own horse.
Half-way up to the ridge, I stepped off my horse and got everything re-situated. It was much better. I was able to ride at max comfort and proper posture. Riding is not just sitting on a horse. Riding is an action you take in connection with that animal. It is almost like a dance. You want your body to move in rhythm with the horse. You keep pressure in the stirrups, thus always using your legs. We got into rhythm together and had a mostly pleasant ride.
She was as spooky as a 10 year old in a graveyard on Halloween night, especially while walking through water. This didn’t bother me too much, because I am an experienced rider. Picture a mule train with three strings of animals. In other words: A man on a horse, holding a lead rope with six mules tied together with string, walking at a slow and steady pace, in a straight line X 3. There is $10,000 worth of gear in each string, plus the cost of the animals. Now imagine a 1,200 lb animal freaking out and running through the middle of all that. She tried to get scared and bolt on me, but I was grounded and centered. There was not a soft place to land. We were in the middle of an alpine stream, filled with rocks and boulders. On each side of that are limbs to get “Clothes-lined” on. I took deep, deliberate breaths and imagined my calm energy transferring into the horse as I whispered, “Eeeeaaasssssyyyyyyy Hoss. Good Hoss. Calm. Calm.” I stroked her neck and her jaw began to soften and her lips quivered. This is a good sign that a horse is relaxed. My heart was racing, but my mind was clear. It was a peace beyond understanding. It is a feeling, that for me, seems to be exclusive to the wilderness: The physical feeling of adrenaline combined with the peace of mind and soul in the wild. At my core, I am wild. It is just a return to my true nature. For me, being in the forest is more sacred than church. I can look at building permits and know who put this church here. People have to go inside that box and invite the Creator in. It seems like a whole lot of extra steps, when I could just hug a tree, instead of cutting it down to build another box to put people in. I am too claustrophobic for boxes.
We made it to camp and set up all the tents (I continued to sleep in my backpacking tent), the high-line, toilet tent, and fire ring. The last thing we did was put an electric fence around the cook tent that did not work. It was to keep grizzly bears out. After the tents were up, the whole crew rode out and I stayed in camp alone for the next few days. I completed a list of tasks that had to be done in camp and setup my cook tent ahead of the clients arrival. Just before the clients arrived, I took a swim in a glacial lake, started a fire, and took a smoke bath to deodorize.
The crew would arrive first. It was late June, but still fairly cold at 10,000 feet elevation. I had the fire roaring inside the wood stove in the cook tent. I was tired and dozing off. Every time I got into a state between awake and asleep, the popping and crackling of the stove would sound like approaching horse hooves and I would jump up in excitement to meet the crew, and grab the 16 coolers and panniers filled with our food for this 6 day trip. This continued for 3 hours until they arrived.
I got all of the food organized. We used a mule train of 20 animals to bring everything into camp. The coolers and panniers had to weigh within 2lbs of each other to balance on the animal. They were packed accordingly. Everything was deep frozen. As soon as it gets to camp, I had to reorganize the coolers so that white meat was with white meat, red with red, dairy on its own, etc. I also had to change the amount of ice in the coolers so things would thaw in the same order as the menu was being served. Meanwhile, the wranglers and camp hands were out collecting water, wood, and solidifying what their tasks would be for the trip.
John was left with me as my primary camp hand while the other two wranglers rode out to get work done. I went over Johns tasks with him, wrote them down, and asked if he had any questions. It was an odd day since no one got into camp until the afternoon, so he wanted to know what to do at that very moment. I asked him to go start a fire for the clients. We were in a rush to get everything perfect for the clients arrival. He was not able to start a fire, so I gave him lighter fluid, as a short cut, to get the job done. We can’t use lighter fluid all the time, because we can only carry so much. He ended up using half a bottle to start one fire.
The next day, I was working my butt off. In camp, the cook often works 18 hour days. We are up before everyone and often times can’t go to bed until everyone else does too. John was going about his tasks when it came time to burn trash. We kept a “burn bag” and a “pack out bag” for trash. Whatever could not be burned got packed out. Every day we burned paper and placed the “pack out trash” inside of coolers, to cut down on smells and bears. I asked John to build a fire so he could start burning the clients trash.
An hour later he walked in the cook tent and said, “Swan, I am still having trouble with the fire thing.”
I walked outside and saw that he had dumped a whole bag of wet, paper trash into the pit and tried to light it with a lighter.
“John, I asked you to BUILD a fire and ADD trash to it. You cant dump a bunch of stuff on the ground and spark a lighter. You have to build the fire, get it going, and slowly add the trash to it.”
Together, we cleaned out the fire pit and I showed him how to build a log cabin style fire and slowly add trash. He got it all done.
The next day, I noticed that even though his tasks never changed, I had to keep asking him to do them. I further noticed that, often, he was nowhere to be found. Tasks were piling up and I was having to do his work and mine. The wind picked up and knocked the rusty, improperly fitting stove pipe down, on top of the canvas tent. The whole tent was filling up with smoke as I tried to get this red hot stove pipe off the cloth tent without injuring myself. I was wearing leather gloves that I destroyed, plus using oven mitts that singed. I was yelling for him to help. It took some time for him to get there, because he was off on a nature hike instead of working. We got the stove pipe back up. By this time, the entire cook tent was filled with smoke and I had to cook for the clients, who were soon to arrive. I would hold my breath as long as I could and run in to do some work, then run back out and manually fan smoke out of the front flaps and try to catch my breath. I did this for an hour.
Meanwhile, John, was supposed to be building a new fire for trash that day. Finally, the smoke had dissipated and I was able to more efficiently do my job. I was in the tent cooking and had not heard from John in a while. I poked my head out of the tent and saw that there was STILL no fire going. John was sitting cross-legged on the ground with his face in his hands and bags of trash beside him. I patiently walked over and asked if he was OK?
He began sobbing into his hands, “I JUST CAN’T START A FIRE, SWAN!!!”
On the inside, I was flabbergasted. How could a 20 year old, who supposedly grew up hunting, went to guide school, and was hired as a camp hand/wrangler NOT know how to start a fire. I said, “OK John, just relax. It’s OK. Yesterday, I showed you how to start a fire by stacking your sticks like a log cabin. Today, I am going to show you how to build a ‘Lean-to’ fire.”
We built the fire together. I went back into the cook tent and resumed the cooking. Silently wondering what this world was coming to.
The next day, a couple clients stayed in camp due to fatigue. This usually means that along with cooking in a primitive setting and running camp all day, I also had to entertain clients. That is no problem. I have always enjoyed having one-on-one interaction with the clients. I had to keep John on task, because he kept wanting to disturb the clients, by asking lots of questions when they were trying to rest and he needed to be working. I asked him to go start a trash fire. He finally and successfully built a fire. I congratulated him. I went back to the cook tent and resumed my job.
After a while, I heard the clients out there and thought it was odd that they would be hanging out next to a trash fire, so I poked my head out of the tent to see what was up and they were watching John try to get the fire going again. He built a little fire and then suffocated it by dumping all of the trash on top of it at once. I walked over with heavy feet. At this point, I was sick of it.
I greeted the clients with a smile and said with a tired voice to the camp hand, “John, good job on building the fire. I think where you went wrong here was by dumping too much onto the young fire. I know this may sound strange, but fire is alive. It is born. It lives, feeds, and breathes. Then it dies. Think about nurturing the life of the fire with the perfect amount of air and food, because you keep snuffing it out. Have some patience.”
He proudly told me that he knew a trick. He asked to see my knife. I handed him my 6 in long Ka-Bar knife with an impressively sharp edge. He rammed my knife into a plastic bottle, dulling my blade. He handed my knife back in an arrogant manner, knelt down by the fire and began blowing through the bottle to give the fire more air. This let me know that he understood better about fire. The problem is, you don’t treat someones prized knife like that. I became furious, but held my tongue. I did not want to break his spirit or his passion for the outdoors. He had confided in me that he was not enjoying the work, and felt that if he continued to work there, that he would lose his passion. I told him that I did not want that and would help him however I could. The clients saw what happened. Being older outdoors-men, they instantly understood what happened. Their eyes widened and eyebrows raised. John handed me back my knife. I pursed my lips, squatted by the fire, and took a breath. I looked up at him, took my cowboy hat off, and lightly fanned the flame as it kicked up into a roar. As I stood up and put my hat upon my head, he said, “I didn’t want to get my hat dirty, Swan!”
The next day, I lost my temper with him. I was dealing with the sub-par equipment the outfitter had me using, and my two camp hands were working hard, but the good camp hand had to work twice as hard to undo the mistakes of John. There was a task that I could not do without them. They were in the middle of moving all of our stock (Horses and Mules). I knew how bad John was with the animals, so I thought everybody could get things done quicker if I went and helped with the animals. John was trying to walk a mule train through an alpine marsh carrying a bundle of 6 manties (tarps that cover the horse pack) in his arms and leading 6 mules at the same time. He kept dropping the tarps and tripping while leading the “string”. A string is a mule/horse train tied together by string that can break in case of an accident so it doesn’t wreck the whole train. I took the string from John and told him just to carry the manties (See main photo for an example of a mantie).
We had to continuously remind John, not to get behind the animals. It spooks them. As I am leading the string down to the new high-line area (High-lining is a way to secure the animals while lessening the chances of them getting tangled or tripped.), John walks directly even with the last mules hind-end. There are 6 mules heads ahead of him and 5 butts. How he came to the conclusion that he was not behind them, I don’t know. He tripped and dropped all of the manties, the mules went from being head to tail, to forming a shoulder to shoulder wall and running as fast as they could towards my back. I heard the commotion, looked behind me and tripped.
I thought, “best case scenario: I get trampled and die. Worst case scenario: I get trampled and spend the rest of my life as a paraplegic or vegetable.”
Miraculously, every single horse hoof missed me. I was terrified and shaken. I stood up and cussed John out.
He looked at me with a tear in his eye and said, “Swan, I don’t appreciate you calling me a ___________________.”
There was a loud apology, “I’M SORRY JOHN… but in moments of near death, sometimes I cuss… HOW MANY TIMES DO WE HAVE TO TELL YOU NOT TO WALK BEHIND THE ANIMALS???!”
He said he wasn’t. What else could be said? I later apologized again, because I began to wonder if this person was legitimately, “A few french fries short of a happy meal.” I felt awful, but other people said that they felt I was as patient as anyone could be with him.
After dinner the next night, I was getting ready for bed. As I customarily do, if the company owner is in camp, I asked him if there was anything I could do for him before I went to sleep.
He said, “Yes, I asked John to dump the dirty dishwater on the clients fire after they go to sleep tonight. Will you just remind him? You know how he is…”
I gave him a, “Yes Sir!” and dutifully looked for John. He wasn’t by the fire, so I went to the staff tent. The other hands had not seen him in hours. I walked the perimeter of the camp and even went to the toilet tent. It was dark out at 10,000 feet in the Wind River Range, 20 miles from the nearest road. Where could he have gone? Immediately, I told the outfitter that he was not in camp. This was a serious cause for concern. At the same time, we can not let the clients know what is happening. The boss asked me to go search for him by the high-line and to climb up the cliff and see if he is up there trying to get cell service. I took my head lamp and searched a half mile radius for this guy, alone. The other staff had a rough day and needed sleep. The boss is old and out of shape. It was up to me. He was nowhere.
Once again, I went to the outfitter and said, “BOSS, I’m sorry, but he is nowhere to be found. I even yelled out, ‘If you can hear me, you are not in trouble and no one is mad. We care about your life and want to make sure you are safe!”
The boss asked me if I had heard any gun shots. “Ohhhhh….s**t. You know, he HAS been depressed and talking about how bad he misses his mom and sister. This is his first time away from home. He was home schooled his entire life, and thinks that he knows all about the real world because after high school, he lived at a Christian camp for a year where he was, ‘On his own’. I didn’t hear a gun shot, Sir, but ya know… he did tell me earlier today that he was feeling very low. I tried to encourage him…but ya know, he did almost get me killed and I lost my temper and cussed at him. Do you think that was it?”
The boss said, “No Swan, I was pretty hard on him every day. You were actually really good to him. He just isn’t cut out for this. He can’t handle the horses. He is a hard worker, but he just isn’t meant for an outfit with horses. Will you go look for him one more time? If you don’t find him, call back to base and let them know to send Search and Rescue in the morning.”
I was off to find this guy. No one was going to get lost on my watch. No one was going to kill themselves. This guy needed to know that we all think he is a good person and a hard worker, but maybe he needed to find a place that would work better for his skills and temperament. I was so worried.
“JOHN! JOHN!! You have been gone a while! You aren’t in trouble! No one is mad! We need to know you are OK!!!! JOHN!!!!”
I walked back to the cook tent where the boss was sleeping.
I hung my head and said, “I couldn’t find him, Sir. I called base and let them know that he was missing. They are going to wait for one more call from me in the morning. If he has not shown up by then, S.A.R. will be out here.”
“Hey Swan, what’s up?? I was on the phone with my sister.”
In a hushed yell, “JOHN! GET YOUR ASS TO THE COOK TENT NOW! WE NEED TO TALK!”
We walked to the tent together to see the boss-man and thankfully, I was excused to get a whopping 3 hours of sleep, before I had to wake up the next morning and start another 20 hour day, breaking down camp, riding 20 miles on horseback to the trail-head, and then an hours drive to the lodge. Their conversation was a short one, but John later told me that it was an encouraging conversation. He went home the next day.
We had 5 clients on that trip. On our second to last night with them, they awarded me a very nice skinning knife in a wood case as a “trophy”. They said that the fishing sucked and weren’t happy with my boss. Normally, they all chip in on a trophy to give to whoever catches the most fish. They said they couldn’t do that this year, but had an amazing time in camp and wanted to give it to me, along with an $800 tip. It was much appreciated. I thanked everyone, except for one of these gentlemen, who was somewhat cantankerous and difficult to be around.
At one point, my boss was giving him a hard time and saying, “you know, some guys can be the nicest guys in the world, but when they get to elevation and it starts getting to them, they become real pricks!”
His friends understood the insinuation, laughed, and interjected, “HAH! Not him! He is a prick all the time! If he starts acting nice, he is sick.”
The only reason I did not thank him at the same time as everyone else was because he was not there.
I sought him out and said, “Sir, I want you to know how much I appreciate this knife. I know that you are not as happy as you were expecting to be, but you just made me very happy with this gift. Is there anything else that I can do for you?”
He said, “No Swan. You deserve it! Thank you for the camp experience!”
I smiled and nodded and helped him on his horse. The best clients that I ever had were now riding away.