At some point during the climb to Cheoah Bald, Thin Timber wanted to pass me in order to go faster.
“I'll wait for you at the shelter, OK?”
“Alright,” I said. “I'll be there.” I trusted that it wouldn't be too far ahead; I didn't look at my own Data Book when traveling with 'Timber. And anyway, I told myself I wouldn't cry about it if we did get separated. I felt free.
The shelter turned out to be so far away by terrain that was so brutal that I hiked until what was probably close to 2am in order to reach it. And my flashlight had run out of batteries. Jacob's Ladder, the last three miles before the shelter, entailed a series of false summits before resuming a near vertical course, but I enjoyed myself, taking my time, happily exhausted and singing as I climbed. I felt so good that at one point I actually lay down in the middle of the trail, arms stretched out at my sides. Not at all concerned about dirt in my hair or bugs on my body, I relaxed and breathed deeply, staring up into the vast dome of sky above me. Peaceful. Sometimes I talked to myself or reached out tentatively, trying to pray. It's difficult if you're not in the habit. But it felt right to narrate my inner thoughts aloud in a buoyant, humorous stream-of-consciousness.
By all appearances, to the uninitiated observer, I would have seemed insane, perhaps dangerously so. But I'm not. I do know that the outward signs of hilarious joy and outrageous despair may appear to be the same to a “stable” person. They'd just term such extreme displays of emotion as madness or, more accurately, mania. There is not much difference between my happiness and my sadness. It's all the same to me, one prolonged exclamation point going on forever.
When I got to Brown Fork Gap Shelter, over eight miles distant from where Thin Timber and I had last seen each other, I hoped to wake him in setting up my tent. I admit to wanting to impress him. Besides, I required the use of his headlamp.
“Hey.” I heard Thin Timber greet me in the dark. I was setting up next to his hammock.
“Hello! You wouldn't believe the effort it took me to make it here to you,” I said.
'Timber clicked his hanging globe light from inside his netting and it slid across its cord as the equilibrium and weight balance shifted. His feet elevated as he unzipped near his throat and, as if to reward me, he snaked his soft-capped head outside. Hello.
April 6, 11.6 mi
That day I compelled Thin Timber to wait for me a total of about five hours, most of it in the morning. A register entry of his from last night cut my heart to a bloody mess: “Ran the last of today's miles with Peach. We made excellent time and did Jacob's Ladder in under 45 minutes! Fontana Dam today with C.V. --Thin Timber”
All I could do after I'd seen it was wallow in the privacy of my tent. Nevermind the blazing sun and the heat. I needed to be alone.
“What's wrong?” he asked, but I refused to answer this.
“You deserve to have people in your life.”
I don't think so.
“Whatever has happened in your past, you -” I interrupted him here ad said that I wanted to get moving.
Our paces staggered once again but 'Timber left me notes weighted down with Slim Jims or sour Jolly Ranchers. “C.V.: Meet me at Yellow Creek Gap. --Joe, aka Thin Timber” Then later, at the Gap, I found another one: “I waited for you for over two hours! --Joe” I found his whole business of note leaving very insulting.
His exact location was never known to me, and I relished my time alone, especially around the golden, 5 o'clock hour. Around this time, with the ordinary forest around me, I ascended to a heightened sense of awareness. Vividness, poignancy, and unspeakable beauty defined the scene. All I could do was mutter broken phrases in Italian. I had such strong feelings that I had to do something, even if it wasn't perfect or worthy of nature. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” was a current theme throughout my long prayer.
I cried for all the sins of my life. In maudlin woe I feared that I was living in sin at that very moment, that there was nothing I could do to get away from my past, from the devil. That I would always in some way be contributing towards unnecessary conflict in the world.
Pure golden sun slant lit the forest up to my left. To my right, blue mountain slopes hollowed out a gentle, tree-filled basin. The light and the dark were both there, playing on each other in a visual total, and I got to be a part of it. I was walking through the middle, so carefully, very slowly.
“Mi dispiace, mi dispiace.” Many tears ran the full course of my face and collected at my chin. “Mi dispiace, Dio mio! Mi sento come Giulietta degli Spiriti. Sotto gli alberi raggiungio con la gente stranaccia. Che confusione, Dio! Non so, ma sembra che non possa andar via da sola cosi. Perche? Amo, amo. Ma non ne posso piu. Mi dispiace...mi dispiace...”
I successfully stopped hiking with Thin Timber for all of three miles. I tried my best to impart my desire to be alone to him. I wanted to tell him I was jealous of Peach but my pride wouldn't let me even come close. I was just miserable at the state of everything. If I hadn't camped with the Wolf Pack that night but had instead traveled on as was my wish, I wouldn't have felt any pain.
“I don't want to hike with anyone,” I said simply.
“You can go on pretending that no one is in front of you and no one is behind you, but we're still here,” he said.
He made me pause. For a full minute I didn't know what to say. Then somehow I made a beginning. It probably sounded just as irrelevant as his remark to me had seemed, but without the strength of his rhetoric my remarks just sounded feeble. I meandered around, awkwardly searching at great length for evidence for my simple truth, and finished by defending my right to “hike my own hike.” I'd been talking for quite awhile. Ashamed of myself, no conviction about me at all, I looked up to him.
“Well! That's the best conversation we've ever had,” he said. His subtle sarcasm wasn't lost on me. But I could think of nothing to say. Mute, all I could do was wait for him to move on. He was faster than me.
He couldn't walk away from me soon enough.