Archive for September, 2009

Sep 30 2009

Profile Image of Walt

Alienation and the Wild

Filed under Blog Post

A month after hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness, I still feel the tug of the wild.  This wouldn’t be a problem if society weren’t pulling me in a different direction.  Oh sure, I have my circle of friends who know and love the wild as much as I do, but society at large seems to be disconnected from it.  And that puts every woods wanderer in a tight spot.

How can one maintain a connection to both society and the wild?  It’s tricky, to say the least.  I didn’t invent this conundrum.  Thoreau wrestled with it a hundred and fifty years ago, as did every other 19th Century woods wanderer.  Entire communities have arisen to address this problem.  Maybe I should join one.  But no, beneath every such community lurks a religious, social or political agenda of some sort.  And the one thing the wild teaches you is to go your own way.

A wild animal is, by definition, one that isn’t caged.  Same goes for a man or woman.  I ran wild for a couple weeks in the Maine Woods.  Now here I am, hustling to make a buck, promoting my so-called literary career, and trying my best to treat others decently in the process.  I get up every morning and read the newspaper.  My wife and I discuss the state of affairs over coffee and breakfast, then we set to work on one thing or another.  I’m rarely bored by society at large.  All the same, I can’t quite relate to it.

The health care fight and other congressional debacles; pirates, scam artists, ad men and drug traffickers; rogue nations with big missiles they call dongs; lawyers and lies; broke desperadoes living in motels; angry demonstrators raising their fists for peace and love – the list goes on.  Homo sapiens is, above all else, a patently absurd creature.  Am I any different?  Of course not, but at least I know what a fool I am.  Most people take themselves way too seriously.

Perhaps the word “alienation” is too strong.  It’s more of an inner tension, really, between conflicting interests and realities.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like being clean, dry and warm.  I like waking up next to my wife in a soft bed, making myself a cup of coffee with the mere push of a button, and eating whatever I feel like eating.  This cushy, utterly civilized life has its amenities, no doubt.  But there are times when my gut reacts violently to it.  There are times when I read something and feel an overwhelming desire to throw up.

Maybe it’s just the printer’s ink.  Maybe it’s those perfumed swatches inserted in newspapers and magazines that are making me sick.  Maybe I should stop reading altogether, go crawl into a hole and stay there.  But no, denial won’t resolve this matter.  Somehow, someway, I’ve got to bring the wild home and keep it there.  Somehow I have to bring society and the wild together.  Good luck with that!  Thoreau couldn’t do it.  What makes me think I can?

Comments Off on Alienation and the Wild

Sep 23 2009

Profile Image of Walt

Greater Nature

Filed under Blog Post

Judy and I were returning home from a late dinner out the other day when we looked up and saw the Milky Way splayed across the sky.  No moon, not even the wisp of a cloud anywhere, and the sun was long gone.  Thousands of stars glittered overhead.  Judy suggested that I pull out my telescope for a quick look.  I noticed that there were no bugs out and the air temperature was nearly ideal, so I did just that.

I pointed the instrument at the brightest object in the southeastern sky, thinking it could be Jupiter.  Sure enough, it was.  Once I centered that planet and its four biggest moons in the eyepiece, Judy took a look.  I told her that she was seeing what Galileo saw with his telescope four hundred years ago: another planet and its satellites – the first hard evidence that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe.  I think she was impressed, not so much by my words but by the image itself.  Yeah, when it comes to astronomy, seeing really is believing.

Judy has encouraged my stargazing over the years but hasn’t taken much interest in it herself.  Quickly sweeping through the sky, I looked for nebulae, recalling how impressive they looked to me when I first saw them.  I wanted to wow my wife.  I had no star map in hand, though, so I gave up that hunt before Judy lost all interest.  I went looking for Andromeda Galaxy, instead.  The Great Square was in clear view directly overhead, so finding Andromeda wasn’t too hard.  All I had to do was follow a familiar path away from the Square with my binoculars.

When finally I got Andromeda Galaxy in sight, I showed it to Judy.  She saw only a fuzzy spot in the eyepiece.  I told her that was all she was going to see with my humble instrument, then reminded her that she was looking at an object two and a half million light years away.  Numbers like that are difficult for anyone to grasp, though, so I expounded:  When the light now reaching her eye left Andromeda, our ancestors were just starting to use stone tools.  But even that was a gross understatement.  Spacetime defies all description, really.  All we can do is approximate it.

Nature is all around us all the time – no farther away than the blades of grass underfoot, the bee buzzing past, or the breeze caressing our brows.  We have come to know it well through our senses, and nearly everyone knows intuitively the difference between what is natural and what is man-made.  But there’s a greater nature out there that requires our reasoning skills as well as our senses to understand, where the boundary between the concrete and the abstract is blurred, where cosmic forces are hard at work and objects are much, much farther away than they appear.  I for one can’t gaze deep into the night sky without thinking about God, about nature with a capital “N.”  Someday I will wander aimlessly through that wilderness as I do the woods.  Someday I will wander and wonder without physical restriction.  Someday.

One response so far

Sep 18 2009

Profile Image of Walt

The Passing of Days

Filed under Blog Post

You aren’t supposed to talk about it.  You’re considered a pessimist if you do.  But when the leaves start to turn in early autumn, I can’t help but consider the fleeting nature of things, the passing of days, my own mortality.

Three weeks after leaving the trail, my right knee still complains.  My ankles are still shaky, as well.  My body just doesn’t spring back the way it used to.  In my 50s now, I suppose it’s unrealistic for me to expect that it would.  Still, these nagging joints are constant reminders of a fact I’d rather ignore: I’m not going to live forever.

Unlike me, my 4-year old German shepherd dog, Matika, is stronger now than she was when we hit the trail a month ago.  I toss a rubber ball, it bounces on the hard, dry ground, and she leaps into the air after it with unbridled joy.  I vicariously enjoy her blatant demonstrations of physical prowess.  But deep down inside, I know how temporary it all is.  I’ll have to be lucky to have her by my side on a hike ten years from now – real lucky.

Moving stone.  I helped my neighbor cart and shovel two tons of drainage stone this week, placing it around his mobile home in a foot-wide skirt.  It serves no purpose but he likes the look of it.  The job made me feel like Sisyphus but he was happy in the thick of the task, as if having something to do was reason enough to get up in the morning.  I suppose that, at 86 years of age, one takes one’s small pleasures wherever one finds them.

A literary friend of mine died recently.  I read about it in the newspaper.  We weren’t close, but we liked to get together on occasion to talk about nature, literature and politics over tea.   I’ve been meaning to call her.  Where did the time go?  I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.

Yes, the leaves are turning now.  I find the transition between summer and fall both sad and beautiful.  I want to go for a long walk in the woods soon, kicking up the brilliant red, yellow and orange leaves with each step, and smelling it – smelling the passing of days.  Strangely enough, I’m not nearly as afraid of it as I was as a young man.  Back then springtime was the only season I could really appreciate.  But things change.

One response so far

Sep 11 2009

Profile Image of Walt

Wilderness Dog

Filed under Blog Post

Judy and I now call our dog, Matika, the 100 Mile Wilderness Dog.  Not only did she accompany me on that trek but she carried her own pack most of the way.  She carried about 6-8 pounds in a two-pouch dog pack that vaguely resembles a saddlebag.  That was roughly half of the extra weight that her companionship cost me.  Despite all my complaints about being overloaded on my trek, the few extra pounds I carried on her behalf were well worth the trouble.

Not all dogs are suited for long-distance, backcountry travel.  Small dogs can’t make the trip for obvious reasons.  Really hairy dogs are too easily overheated.  Others simply aren’t strong enough or nimble enough on their feet to do it.  Matika passed the trail’s tests with flying colors.  Most of the time, she was 20 yards ahead of me and rarin’ to go.  “Wait, Tika, wait!” became a common refrain during the course of the day.  Whenever she heard it, she would stop, turn around and wait until I gave her the release command.  Usually she was higher up an ascending trail than me and all smiles.  Sometimes that irritated me to no end.

Most dogs aren’t disciplined enough to travel the trail.  Matika has learned over past the 3 years, since Judy and I rescued her from an animal shelter, that commands are not negotiable.  She’s no robot, but she minds me most of the time.  When she and I approach other hikers and I shout: “Back,” she knows to get behind me.  When I say “Sit” or “Stay,” she does what she’s told.  Her obedience is absolutely essential whenever we’re in the wild.  Someday it could be the difference between life and death.

Early in the trip, Matika fell 8 feet off a boulder, while negotiating a particularly tricky section of trail.  Fortunately, she landed on her feet in soft forest duff so she wasn’t injured.  After that, she was much more wary of tight spots in the rocks, exposed cliffs, rotten boardwalk, stream crossings, and any object in the trail that she couldn’t see over.  She would stop and wait for me to lead the way.  I wouldn’t even have to give her a command.  Good dog!  We got into a rhythm after a while and were able to tackle anything that came along.  I carried her pack whenever we forded a deep stream or navigated steep uphill and downhill sections.  I picked her up and lifted her over fallen trees and big rocks whenever it was too much for her to handle.  She learned to trust me implicitly.

Chasing chipmunks was the only thing she did that pissed me off on a regular basis.  At first I let it go, thinking she’d never catch them anyway.  Then it occurred to me that she might hurt her feet while bounding recklessly after them through the cluttered woods.  That’s when I invented a new command:  “No chipmunks!”  I barked it whenever her ears perked up at the tempting chatter of those little critters.  The command didn’t quite take.  We’ll have to work on that one.  Yeah, that means Matika will be accompanying me on all future treks.  She’s obedient for the most part, strong, agile and has her trail legs now.  And I thoroughly enjoy her company.  Animals make the best trail companions, I think.  They’re more in tune with their surroundings than most humans, take to the wild faster, and don’t talk all the time.  What else could a woods wanderer ask for?  A little less chipmunk obsession, that’s all.

One response so far

Sep 04 2009

Profile Image of Walt

Weighty Matters

Filed under Blog Post

Supply is the great challenge of the 100 Mile Wilderness.  This seems a rather abstract and unimportant consideration until you lift an all-too-heavy pack to your back and try to hike 10 miles with it.  Like many of those who have taken on this challenge over the years, I trimmed what I could from my load then shouldered the weight.  This decision set the tone for my trek.

AT thru-hikers running north from Georgia travel with the minimum amount of food and equipment.  Most of them have ultra-light gear and that alone sheds ten or more pounds from the load.  Since they’re accustomed to hiking 15 to 20 miles a day, they traverse the 100 Mile Wilderness in 6 to 8 days, sometimes less, even though there are signs posted at both ends urging backpackers to carry at least a ten-day supply of food.  I encountered one fellow who had only a four-day supply.  He was resigned to hiking long days and going hungry –– a regrettable strategy if anything goes wrong along the way.

Some backpackers get creative.  They have a support team that drives up one of the many logging roads in the area and supplies them on the run, or they pay the folks at Shaws Boarding House to do this.  Others take a side trail to Pemadumcook Lake, where they sound a horn and the folks at Whites Landing motor over by boat to pick them up.  At Whites Landing you can pretty much get whatever you want… for a price.  The owners advertise it as “an oasis in the 100 Mile Wilderness” and many hikers use them that way.

Make no mistake about it, the Maine woods are magnificent woods, and the 100 Mile Wilderness – that section of the Appalachian Trail cutting through the heart of it – is as wild and beautiful as any sprawling forest can be.  But its remoteness should not be underestimated.  I started into those woods with a 65-pound pack and cursed this ridiculous load all the way, even as it grew lighter.  Then again, I was completely self-sufficient, never having to rely upon AT shelters or anything else.  In that regard, it was a bona fide backpacking trip.

The logistic challenge of this trek was interesting enough, but next time I venture into the woods for an extended period of time, I’ll do things a little differently.  My big regret is that I spent too much time pounding the trail, racing against my dwindlng supplies.  Next time I’ll hike ten or twenty miles into the woods and land somewhere for a few days.  After all, what’s the point of being out there if you’re not going to take the time to groove on the wild?

Comments Off on Weighty Matters