Chapter 2: Waking Up On the Appalachian Trail

Day 1

Trail Mile 5

My body felt like it had been thrown off of Mount Katahdin— so swollen and tender, every joint and tendon. I couldn’t tell if I’d slept or not. Stretching from inside the relative comfort of my down sleeping bag, I peered over at Ben. He shuffled inside his bag, shifting chaotically, almost defiantly, as if under a magnifying glass. He sighed, unable to find a comfortable resting place.

“What time is it?” I asked. A digital beep lit the tent with a faint blue tint.

“Quarter to four.”

I sighed at the thought and listened while so many expectation-shattering patters of rain rolled off the tent’s rainfly.

Rubbing my eyes, I considered the series of events that would have to occur before we could begin our first full day of hiking. First, I’d have to put on my clothes from the day before. They were wet and had filtered a perspiratory sheen I hadn’t produced domestically since before I’d left for the Iraq desert two years prior.

I would have to start with the socks, wringing them by hand before sliding them onto swollen feet, then the pants and shirt, followed by boots and rain gear. We would have to cook oatmeal inside the tent, but first, we’d have to traipse through the dark woods in search of our bear bag—assuming it had remained suspended above the forest floor and not become lodged in the digestive tract of a contented black bear.

Mount Katahdin (I think) in the early morning light of our first day on the trail.

Then, assuming we could complete those tasks, we’d have to pack our backpacks with all our wet gear, jamming the soaked tent into its stuff sack; our equipment had sopped up at least an extra pound of water that we’d carry for the rest of the day. On top of that, I didn’t know what direction we would have to hike to leave the park and enter the 100-Mile Wilderness.

I closed my eyes at the thought, though it all seemed domestic compared to my time in Iraq. A couple more hours of rest would help everything. The world dropped away as I drifted into a sort of half-sleep, pushing the day’s worries out of my mind.

“Alright,” Ben said, louder than necessary, as he sat upright in his bag. “Might as well start the day.” He unzipped his side of the tent. Cold water splashed onto my face.

“Can’t sleep for shit, and you’re already awake.” Son of a bitch. His tone registered like a shot across the bow. I rolled over in an act of nonviolent resistance.

Sliding out of his sleeping bag, he began putting on his cold, wet socks. “Wake up,” he said, nudging my shoulder.

Definitely a shot. Perhaps I’d misjudged his potential as a hiking partner when I told myself that we would have fun together. Maybe our five-year separation had irrevocably split us apart. Perhaps we weren’t as similar as I’d always imagined.

N. B. Hankes

N. B. Hankes

Founder and best selling author of "Waking Up On the Appalachian Trail."
Humboldt County, California