Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hiking with the Diva

I had started making plans to hike the Appalachian Trail with Smartest Dog--I still have the Mastercard bill that began with the charge for her backpack and ended with the charge for her cremation. After Diva Dog came, somehow the Trail plans kept receding. First it was about Diva Dog's age--she would be less than a year old the summer I'd planned to go with Smartest Dog, and I didn't want a growing dog carrying a pack or even walking for that long. The next year it was my massage course, which finished in July, months too late to start the Trail. Finally, I committed to do it when Diva Dog was 2 1/2, leaving as soon as the tutoring program could spare me, and planning to return in time to start up again in the Fall.

We trained on short hikes on the trails of Nearby Creek Gorge, and we trained on an overnight with Diva Dog's best Aussie friend and one of his owners, and we went on our own on what turned out to be an overly-ambitious circuit hike in Western PA that very nearly left me trapped in the wilderness when I sprained my achilles' tendon on the second day. I had to hike out on it 13 miles, and then it started raining. It was pretty scary. After dark we finally flagged down a young couple in a pickup truck who drove us back to the ranger's house where I'd parked my car. After I changed into dry clothes, he plied me with ice packs, Kool-Aid, spaghetti, and bitter cucumbers from his garden before letting me begin the drive back across the state--I stopped in the first hotel I came to, more or less shivering. Luckily they took dogs.

That was my first encounter with trail angels, and the first of many rides in pickup trucks that Diva Dog and I would have while hiking--lots of the time, hitching is the only way to get to town, but folks who live along the Trail are used to hikers needing rides, so it's not as dangerous or frustrating as you might think. Still, having her with me made me feel better about doing it, and talking to other hikers, it seemed like young woman-pretty dog was the ideal combination for getting rides. Mostly we were going to get them from pick-up trucks, but in those parts of the country, pick-up trucks are plentiful. Red ones.

I know that having her with me made friendship easier. The first friends we made on the Trail were the Fantastic Four: two sisters and their half-brother and the fiance of one of the sisters, who were hiking with a dog. At the end of the day when all the people were zombified, the two dogs would flop for an hour, then chase each other around the shelter.

My first break from the Trail was for Diva Dog's paws. They got pretty torn up the first week hiking, so we stopped in a little town in N. Georgia that's zoned Heidi for tourist purposes (no, I'm not making this up.) I made her an Epsom salt bath and watched Homicide on the hotel-room TV. We caught up to the Fantastic Four pretty quickly, and we kept passing them and falling behind and passing them again until I got off the trail in Virginia.

I would write about our hiking days in the shelter logs, and M., my eventual human hiking partner, who unbeknownst to me was a few days behind us until we took time off in the Smokies, was reading about us there. (Since hikers communicate via trail register you only know about the people ahead of you and are blind to the people behind you unless you're passed by someone hiking super fast. So hiking behind someone is a little like lurking.)

There are no dogs allowed in the Smokies, so Diva Dog was going to take time off no matter what, but I had to get off to go to my brother's college graduation, which he had arranged as conveniently as I could ask him to--he was at Vanderbilt and his commencement fell right when I needed to deliver Diva Dog to the kennel lady, who gave me a ride across the mountains because she had to drive Diva Dog that way anyhow. She said some racist things about Philadelphia, where she had once lived, and I tried to object without prejudicing her against my dog. Either I was too wimpy or I succeeded because she wound up giving Diva Dog the run of the place with all of her house dogs because she liked her so much.

But M. was hiking behind us, and everyone uses trail names in the registers and Diva Dog's real name was a person name, so M. thought that she was a human hiker until he caught up with me. At the end of the park I waited for the kennel lady to deliver her and I was so excited to see her again. She had a summer haircut that made her look like Audrey Hepburn. She was my movie star dog.

She loved the sun and when we were hiking I resorted to taking the hottest hours of the day off and tying her up in the shade so she couldn't overheat. She learned to drink from my water pack, and she learned how to use gravity to get her pack off when we were going downhill. When we hiked through the herds of feral ponies in Virginia, she circled me on her leash until she had me tied in knots.

You sleep a lot in shelters, three-walled structures with a wooden floor raised above the ground, usually equipped with a steep corrugated roof and a whole lot of places to hang food bags so the mice don't get in, sometimes with a table and benches in front. Our usual arrangement was me in my homemade fleece sleepsack next to a wall, with M. in his sleeping bag on my other side (I have never slept well near strangers, or even my own daughter). At my feet, so she wasn't in the line of other sleeping people: Diva Dog on her super-high-tech, stuffed-with-polyester-and-shredded-mylar, flannel-on-top-and-nylon-on-the-bottom dog blanket from 0rvis. If any hikers objected, I would tie her under the shelter, but that didn't happen real often because mostly people who are happy to be outside and unshowered for weeks on end don't mind a dog on the edge of a space that is, after all, a freestanding sleeping porch.

Sleeping outdoors in the Appalachians taught Diva Dog a healthy terror of thunderstorms. When the thunderstorms rolled in--which could be nightly--Diva Dog would pace and cringe and whine and burrow her way in between us. One of our first nights out--long before M., when it was us and the Fantastic Four and a few others who'd started at the same time--we were in a shelter at the top of a mountain, and everyone had piled in just before the rain hit. It hit hard, and so did the lightning, striking an outcropping of rock maybe twenty feet from the open wall of the shelter. It was as bright as you'd expect, and sounded like loud, loud gunfire, almost a small bomb. We saw rocks zinging off from the spot where it hit. There were other strikes that sounded as close or nearly, but none where I was actually looking at the right place at the right time.

Until the end of her life, Diva Dog firmly believed that the best and safest place to be during thunder was in a tiled bathroom. Perhaps one day someone will do the study to back her up on this.

I could go on and on. I have a lot of stories. I have a lot of pictures. I didn't make it the whole way. I gave it my best shot, but I tore up my feet and our hike ended when I couldn't walk anymore. I had made a deal with myself at the outset that the one thing that would take me off the Trail was a debilitating injury. I was imagining something like a broken ankle or a tree falling on me--these were both things that happened to hikers I knew--not what amounted to fallen arches. But I was using my hiking poles as crutches by the end of every day, and the end of every day came after fewer miles, and I needed more frequent and longer town stops to feel able to keep going. We had jumped up to New England to reach Katahdin, the northern terminus, before it closed for snow. The thing about thru-hiking is that it is a practical exercise in basic algebra: distance = speed x time. Imagine living with that equation every minute of the day. We didn't need to look at the numbers because we knew them by heart, and if we didn't pick up the pace we wouldn't make it, even having skipped 700 miles. Experimentally, I tried doing a day long enough to get us there--just one day and it was over. We were at Killington. We made our way to Rutland. I found a clinic that x-rayed my feet and saw the bone spurs. I found a podiatrist who opened his office for me on a Sunday. He taped my feet, taught me how to do it myself, and sent me home. I couldn't walk for a month.

Hiking the trail was my first stab at blogging, before it was called that. My year, 1998, was the 50th anniversary of the first unsupported thru-hike of the AT (some Boy Scouts with vehicle support may or may not have hiked the whole thing previously). That hike had been made by a WWII vet named Earl Shaeffer, and he'd done the whole thing a time or two since, and 50 years later he was repeating the hike for history's sake. There was a bit of buzz about this, as you might imagine, and one of the more prominent people in AT circles decided to organize 50 hikers to do online journals of their hikes. One of those folks was me, and every time I got to town I mailed my handwritten pages to a volunteer transcriber in Kansas. Those archives are gone now or I'd point you there, but maybe someday when I don't have anything better to do I'll hunt down the loose pages and type them up here. I sort of think, though I can't be certain, that if you were following my hike on that webpage, it listed me and Diva Dog both as hikers.

Next: From 2 to 5; from 2 to 10

4 comments:

Dorothy W. said...

Oh, I loved reading this account ... my husband and I are doing sections of the trail during summers when we can, and our dog comes with us. I'd love to try to hike the whole thing at once, although I'm not sure I'll ever do it ...

S. said...

Welcome, Dorothy!

If you're out there section-hiking enough you probably know that time and demographics are on your side: plenty of retirees are out there on the trail, and they usually have enough cash to take it easy when they get to town.

At this point, I think if I ever finish it I'll be in my 50's or 60's.

a.k.a. Zooomabooma said...

In the Smokies, you plan your trip so there's a Full Moon when you're in the middle of the park. Bring extra batteries, hike dusk till dawn by the light of the moon and headlamp. What about a headlamp for the dog? Remember a dog doesn't need a flashlight!

And here's a tidbit of info about Baxter State Park (where no dogs are allowed.) Mr. Baxter, a governor, i think he was, was not a Nazi. But the people running his land seem to be. I wholeheartedly believe in conservation (the slightest evidence of suburban sprawl makes me want to live in Siberia where that doesn't happen) but what the park managers at Baxter go extreme lengths that simply are not needed. Mr. Baxter was a dog owner. He wasn't just a dog owner, he was their human, he loved his many dogs more than he loved some people. Upon their passings he would order flags on the statehouse lowered to half staff in their honor. These are dogs we're talkin' about. When Mr. Baxter went into the woods to enjoy nature, he didn't leave his puppers at home, no, no, Fido and Spot, you must stay because you'll do harm to the environment. No, Mr. Baxter had his dogs along loyally at his side. But nowadays that's a no no in the state park that bears his name, the state park that was HIS land which he GAVE to the state.

No dogs in the wilderness is pure crud and if I wasn't a Christian I'd say MUCH worse!!!

Not all dogs should go, though. Not all humans teach their dogs well enough to behave when they should and not all dogs can stand the rigors of 2,000+ miles.

But through the Smokies there is a way if one is gutsy enough. And the same could be done with Baxter, not easily, but possible.

Happy Trails!

S. said...

Zooomabooma, welcome, and that's a great story about Baxter.