Note: This is LONG. If you don't make it all the way, and you might not, it is, after all, a longish journey and deserves to be told in a single telling, be sure to go to the end to the video anyway. Otherwise that title isn't going to make an ounce of sense if it didn't jump right out at you in the first place.
It took me awhile to get to there, there not being anywhere in particular, more like leaving that back there, and not jumping ahead to over there and not shading my eyes and looking over several horizons for the vague idea of where I thought I was supposed to be. I saw a lot of things and a lot more things probably saw me but in the end it came down to this: 'ma'am, I am tonight'.
Maybe better said is this: It took me awhile to turn the noise off in my head, open my eyes and realize I actually WAS walking the path. I was starting to panic for the looking of it. Ah, there's that too. Nobody ever said it was supposed to feel any specific way. Do I really feel the way I feel?
I didn't feel right Sunday morning but I left anyway because not leaving would have felt far worse than putting it off another day. I had three days left on the back end to mess with and the trip to CG's farm could have been on the front end although I think the journey through the mountains first was in the right order. I was anxious. I didn't bother with any maps other than the PDF of the Parkway I'd pulled from the internet which didn't give me specifics for getting on and off and since the Parkway doesn't have a route number in the beginning, as it turns out it's easy enough to find yourself off the Parkway and if you don't happen to stop for gas at a station that doesn't happen to have synthetic oil and you've got to make a side trip and actually ask someone how to go back the way you came you're not going to KNOW you're sort of wandering in a possibly sick vehicle in the middle of nowhere. With no lodestar in sight.
I was anxious because I didn't exactly know how to get to the first campground. But the navigator assured me it did because I gave it an address. I was anxious because I didn't have a reservation and even though it was Sunday I didn't know anything about the campground and it might have been completely booked and then what would I do (actually, I had a lot of options)? I was anxious because I was going to be alone and what if something happened to me? I was afraid I'd be lonely. I also had the crackberry OFF because I had to make the battery last nearly three entire days and therefore, even though I wouldn't have been calling anyone anyway I felt entirely cut off. I was already lonely. I was afraid I'd made a horrible mistake.
The campground was self-service. No ranger at the gate. I drove around awhile until I found the tent pads (really cool platforms with exceptional drainage (I'll get to that) and a sort of but not too terribly isolated location. I pitched my tent, got relatively situated and then walked back down to the self-pay station to check myself in. It was HOT. I walked around in my jeans and long sleeve shirt. I looked at the lake with all the people swimming and picnicking and felt a little out of sorts but on my feet. Later I met the host couple who live in the middle of the grounds and then I felt safe. I went back to my own site and started writing. I lit my fire, turned on my lamp, read my book when I'd spit out everything backed up in me from the day and just before bed the ranger and his wife came by in a truck saying hello site by site making sure everyone was all right (and probably everyone was well behaved). They stopped at each site and called out hello and how are you this evening from their truck. My paperwork clearly stated one occupant. The called out conversation clearly stated, 'you all'. I think they cast their own sort spell like a net over my site. I felt cared for and then I crawled into my tent and I went to sleep.
At about 11 PM I woke up. To say the rain was torrential is an understatement. Let's try this: It was raining sideways, the lightening was within a mile (less than a one mississippi between lightening strike and thunder - which means it might as well be RIGHT THE FUCK ON TOP OF YOU) and the hail hitting the top of the tent was golf ball size. I know this because there was enough light in the sky to SEE that hail perfectly well. It reminded me of Captain Kangaroo when all the ping-pong balls fall down on his head. Except ping-pong balls are a lot lighter. And I had failed to tie down the fly; although this fly does have snap locks into the bottom four corners of the tent. But still.
I don't remember now if this went on until 1 or 2. Somebody told me in the morning because eventually I just went to sleep. There wasn't anything else to do. You surely are not going to open that zipper and exit the tent. Really, you are not going to do that. Maybe if the pad was anywhere near the car you might think about it. But it's not. You are going to lay there on your crash pad and be very still, look up at the light if you want and if you can, you're going to go back to sleep. At some point I stopped worrying about whether or not a tree was going to come down; the winds didn't seem all that high despite the sideways rain and at some point I stopped worrying about the tent taking on water BECAUSE the pad was miraculously draining. I could hear it. I could also see it happening around the tent during the light periods. The tent seams on the newer tents are bowed up so that they are off the ground a couple of inches. Besides, my crash pad is two inches thick and will float. That's cool.
I woke up around 5:30 and managed to force another 15 minutes of half sleep before I gave up and crawled out of the tent. I made coffee and instant oatmeal. I sat at the picnic table and realized even the man on the motorcycle one site up camping in one of those very low to the ground sarcophagus shaped tents made it though the night unscathed. I also realized I felt as if I'd never been sick. At about 6:15 the old man from the host trailer drove by in a golf cart checking on everyone the same way the ranger and his wife did the night before. He had a big grin for me. He knew I was alone too. He asked how far I was headed today and I told him Peaks of Otter. He told me to behave myself with an even bigger grin or at least behave myself to the best of my ability. I said I'd do my very best. No judgement. Just good will.
I broke camp, asked the man with the motorcycle and sarcophogus if he knew how to pick up the Parkway (he had a real map) and hit the road.
Within a mile the exclamation mark idiot light came on. Oh hell. I needed gas anyway so I pulled over at a gas station and started filling my tank. An old man came out of the station. I couldn't tell if he worked there or not but I called out and asked if he knew if there was any synthetic oil in there or not. He came over and asked why I thought I needed oil and why I thought I needed synthetic oil. I said I didn't know for sure I did need oil but the exclamation idiot light was on and this car does take synthetic oil and periodically it wants oil although that wasn't the light came on. I popped the latch, opened the hood and before I could reach for the dipstick he had it out and pronounced it wanting. He told me to go to the stop sign, take a left and head into town a few miles to the local auto parts store that would be opening up right... about... now.
When I got to the stop sign I looked across at the road I would have continued on had I not needed oil. I raised an eyebrow. Erm. OK. That might be considered two lanes. Mebee. I'll worry about that later. I found the auto parts store, had a conversation with the good old boys in the store about what weight (oh HELL, I don't know) and how many (two because it's an exclamation point and it appeared to be more than one quart down (and the oil light didn't come on WHY?) and then, because I was honestly starting to wonder I asked how to get back on the Parkway and three or four times it had to be explained to me. Ma'am, you have been off the Parkway for quite some time now. Sigh. Good to know.
I went outside and oiled the car. The idiot light stayed on. The car ran just fine except at just after starting (it started just fine) in those first twenty feet and periodically the back brakes felt a little funny but the sound wasn't quite the sound of back brakes being wrong. Also, the service oil message, which I have never seen, came on in the lower left corner of the dash just after starting. BMW has all sorts of messages but most are symbols and largely clear as mud. This one had actual words. By the way, there is no sign of any sort of fluid leakage coming from the vehicle, no odd smells and no sign of overheating. It runs at 90 beautifully and gets 35 mpg instead of it's usual 20.
Don't judge. 700 miles is a long way to go on the way home and I can almost always find a handful of point cars with in state license plates to follow from 200 yards or so. I stopped one time 11 miles short of the halfway point for the only pit-stop allowed short of a bonafide emergency (I'll pass on the definition of bonafide emergency, I'm sure you can work it out).
Back to the Parkway. I got there. And I drove very slowly. The speedlimit, actuall which is 45 mph and it was worth every minute. A lot of the time I had to pull myself, like a reluctant horse by the bit back onto the trail and quiet the voices in my head to refocus back into the mountains because it was so very easy to go back there or fast forward to that. Also I'm not so good at pulling over stopping. Refer to the last paragraph. That got a lot easier with practice.
Along the way I came upon an abandoned Pit bitch trotting up the center of the road. She was collarless and had whelped not too long ago although the milk was just about gone. Her ribs were starting to show so I'd guess maybe a week on her own. She was still trying to find her way home. Not gonna happen up there. I stopped the car in the middle of the road (because mostly you can up there if you're not in the switchbacks) and I could feed her bits of sandwich (which is all I lived on besides powerbars, instant oatmeal and coffee, by the way, having left all the cookables at home at the last minute because I just didn't FEEL like it) out the window but every time I got out of the car she ran off. I followed her for a long time like a sheep in the middle of the road and one time a bunch of bikers went by and said, not your dog. I said, I know. Eventually I pulled the car over into a ditch and followed her about a mile up the road. Eventually she took off into the woods and I sat down and cried. I walked back to my car. I didn't see her again.
I got to Peaks of Otter about noon and pulled into the campground. Nobody at the guard station. Self check in again. OK. I know how to do this. This campground was a lot older than the last. The forest was much deeper, darker and downright dank, damp, dark and empty. Not a soul in sight. This time I picked out a pad within shouting distance of a camper that looked to be the host camper which was situated fairly close to the gate but there wasn't anybody home. I took out my soaking wet ground cloth and tent and got that set up. I made camp best I could for the time being and then given the not entirely full night's sleep decided I ought to have a nap. That felt a little funny. Alecto, where do you get off having a nap in the middle of the day while you're on the road? You're wasting the day, woman. Wait a minute. It's my day and it's now only 12:30, I've checked in, my car and name are duly registered and I can if I want to and I want to. I slept until 2.
I'm still waiting for the journey to begin. I haven't done a lot of hiking yet, just the on and off again into the woods from the pull overs off the road but now there are actually significant trails and I'm going up that mountain. I drive the car across the Parkway because I have this idea I might not want to actually walk back up this hill once I'm done (I was right), have a brief conversation with the volunteer in the information center (a person!) and head up the path. Turned out to be a four mile circle which I swore on the way up was ALL up hill until I finally reached the peak.
I turned to look for someone to say, do you see that?! Is this not unbelievably amazing? But there was no one there. There was only me. Something had been creeping up on me when I was climbing that hill (it had switchbacks too) and it was this: I've traveled a lot of places in this country and this world. I've seen some really amazing things with a lot of different people. One of those people is Nomans. With him I've maybe seen some of the more spectacular places in the world and done some pretty amazing things and those journeys don't belong to me anymore. I'm sure with some doing I can get them back but like the Entire State of Vermont they are currently offline. At the peak it solidified. This journey is mine and mine alone and no one can ever take it from me. There is also no one to share it with but that stopped being relevant right there. Seriously. Not even a little bit. I expanded somehow. Or maybe there was some sort of opening. I stopped looking for agreement or approval or confirmation and there wasn't any way anything could boxed.
I have to qualify this a little. There are some side trips I've made on business trips that are only mine but they were shorter and lacked the opening part of the journey that took enough skin off to get to this place. Those trips were mine alone also but I found myself going back with another person later to validate the experience thus boxing it finally into something other than just my experience.
Back to the peak. I wanted to see a little better so I dropped my pack and started to scale this magnificant boulder that balanced out over the drop. I got about halfway up and stopped dead in my tracks. Oh holy mother of all gods. I am ALONE up here. That volunteer down there might have known I was heading up the path but she didn't know my name and she's not going to know whether I come down or not because she is going to go HOME before I come back down (sure enough the place was locked up when I got back) and if I fall off this cliff they aren't going to find me until the next millennium. Well, OK, maybe they will because there's this bright red backpack on the trail but since I haven't seen anyone EXCEPT the volunteer and a couple of very old people in the parking lot reading the signs I could be down there for a week and die of dehydration before anybody finds the pack and there's nothing in there that even identifies it as mine. Alecto, you fall off this thing and you are officially toast. You get your cotten picking tuchas off this boulder ASAP. Plus, you've only been able to check in with Cielo today (because she pinged and you had enough signal to catch it) but you only got a small message out before you lost the signal again and because you said no signal she wrote back, oh good! you're almost to CG's! which is when you gave up. She has NO idea where you are.
I got off the rock and began the descent and here is the conversation with my knees that ensued immediately:
Me: Are you shitting me?
Them: Do we feel like we're shitting you?
Me: How 'bout like this?
Them: Try that again and you're going down the next mile on your ass.
Them: Try us.
Me: OK. Fine.
Me: (a little later) How 'bout now?
Them: Are you still an idiot?
The next morning on the way downhill to the flush toilets:
Me: good morning.
Knees: still an idiot.
Me: I thought you'd gone home.
Knees: If we'd gone home you'd be all floppy on the floor of your tent.
Me: When are you going to get better?
Knees: When you stop walking on us.
Knees: Try not walking downhill.
Knees: idiot. 4 mile uphill downhill hike.
Me: (it was worth it)
Knees: WE HEARD THAT!
I broke camp and pulled out of the Blair Witch camp ground but before I did I put my hands together in prayer, bent forward at the waist toward my campsite and said Namaste.
I as singing.. om shanti om shanti om shanti om... for a very long time that morning.
As a compromise the knees allowed that because of the fluid in / fluid out rule I did need to get out of the car to pee on a fairly regular basis and in order to avoid displaying my butt to the world at large (there are, after all cars on the Parkway) I really did need to hop over the wall and climb down the embankments at least five or six feet somewhat gingerly and that was OK as long as I drew the line at any additional trail exploration (once. OK? once I tried. I'll spare you the wrath of knees that stopped me dead in my tracks on step three).
Remember no map? I meant it. No map. I had this vague idea where I could get off the Parkway and head West. I'd be crossing back and forth over the Virginia / North Carolina line and eventually I'd get to where I needed to be and eventually I'd plug the navigator back in and give it an address. I didn't want to do that too soon because the navigator would NOT want to go to Damascus it would want to hightail it to Route 81 and I had no intention of going anywhere near an interstate until it was time to go home. So I got off the Parkway where I thought I should get off the Parkway and because the internet provided Parkway PDF map had a vague sort of surrounding area map I had a vague sort of series of route numbers and I went for it. I headed straight toward Damascus and by God, I got there.
I stopped to get gas. There was a sheriff and another good old boy sitting on the porch. I stood and talked for quite awhile. The good old boy had to have been in his late sixties and he'd spent some time in New Haven back in the late sixties and boy did he ever wish he could go back there just one more time because nobody but nobody had the any idea what he was talking about when he said the word grinder and nobody knew how to make that kind of chewy bread and boy would he like to have himself that sort of bread just one more time. I gave him a look and said, no, you don't want to go back there. Not today, not anymore.
We got to talking about my trip South and my camping alone and the sheriff asked if I was armed. I laughed and said, I have a PELLET gun! That doesn't travel well and sure doesn't load fast enough to be much good in a tent or in a pinch! And besides, I'm not sure how well THAT would go over in my neighborhood, with a laugh.
And he got this look on his face and said...
By God! It's your God given right to own and carry a firearm!
And as CG said later on, and right then and there you knew where were, didn't you? You're in the South.
And I'm expecting some sort of firearm to sprout off my right hip and I actually glance down as if maybe it even did...
Later that day I met up with CG at the barn. It was good to be in a barn again and breathe in all that horse smell. It was good to push wheelbarrows of shavings into stalls and dump them and haul the hose around to fill the buckets (a hose in a barn! freakin' nirvana!). It was good to be that sort of dead on your feet tired and it was so very, very good to drive up that rutted, muddy, currently a bit washed out from the rains mountain road, walk through that door again and find myself at home.
I love that this video is only the words. I know that the last sentences might mean something other than what I hear but quite honestly I think they are nearly the very best part, so don't miss it.
And if it moves you, because it sure moves me (I played two of these cassette tapes to death when this album first came out) and you find yourself singing this song and you get to this part, bellow it out at the top of your lungs (with FEELING!)
MA'AM I AM TONIGHT!