Sunday, April 10, 2005

Sunrise, on the trail. by Charles Moore

The morning was sunny and warm. The traffic up the highway along Stoney Creek got thinner the closer to the trailhead I drove. My plan was to hike southbound on the Appalachian Trail from the highway to Iron Mountain Shelter, about five miles one way. The trail, I knew from previous experience, runs about as flat as it can be in this part of the world along the top of Iron Mountain. From Iron Mountain Shelter further south for another seven miles is Vandeventer Shelter, then another four miles, all down hill, from Vandeventer to the Watauga Dam road. From my starting point, where the highway crosses in Johnson County and on into Shady Valley, it’s northbound is 21 miles to Damascus, Va., and 16 miles southbound to Watauga Lake.

As I entered the trail from the parking, into the dark green tunnel that many hikers dislike after they've been on the grassy balds, I passed a campsite not 100 yards from the trail head. Someone had put up a graveside canopy complete with “funeral” on the scalloped edging. They had wrapped a blue paint tarp around three sides to keep out the breeze. The place smelled like a latrine. I hurried on by although no car was parked near and there was no activity.

It was a good day for a hike. Warm sun, slight breeze. Touch-me-nots in bloom. Was that a violet still blooming? The trail had been weeded some time during the last two weeks, the green tunnel solid to my right, the Stoney Creek side, but open to my left, the lake side, all the way to the sky. With minimal pack and a full head of speed I covered the five miles in an hour and a half, passing a father and son who had stopped for a break. I pulled into the shelter a lot sooner than I expected. The father and son showed up within 15 or 20 minutes.

“Where ya headin’?” the father asked. He was mid-thirties, a tad shorter than me, lean and tanned, short dark hair, not from around here I could tell, with modern-Army surplus web belt but a Camp Trails pack. In his bed roll was a camouflage closed cell pad. They had brought a tent.

“You goin' to Maine?” asked the boy. I didn't quite understand the question at first. Maine was north, we were all three heading south. At least I intended to come this direction. Had they? The son was outfitted in relatively new Boy Scout gear: flat canteen, pocket knife, a smaller version of his father's pack. When I was a kid we did a lot of camping but not much hiking. Where I was from didn’t have trails.

“We're going to stay at Vandeventer tonight,” said the father. “Do you think we can make it?

“At seven miles,” I replied, “you can be there before late afternoon. Where to after that? Down the big hill, obviously.”

“Got that right. I've hiked up to Vandeventer from the Watauga Dam road. Like'd to killed me. I know it's still be tough to go four miles of nothing but downhill. But if we leave there reasonably early we can make the road by noon. Don't you think?”

“I’d say so,” I said. One time Ed and I had slogged up to Vandeventer for an overnight with about 15 pounds extra too much. Each. Seemed like it took five hours to go five miles!

“All that downhill is no picnic. I brought the tent since I don't think I want us sharing a shelter with strangers. My son is going to Damascus next week. Two troop leaders and his scout patrol. From out here at highway. So he'll have put in better than 37 miles in two weekends."

We chatted about the trail and I donated most of my remaining water because this time of year the springs were unreliable. But, for some reason, the father was hesitant about boiling spring water thinking the water ought to be good.

I left them at the Iron Mountain Shelter, my pack one quart of water lighter (about 2 pounds) and an apple and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich transferred from my pack to my belly. The return trip ought to take about another hour and a half, easy. I started back slowly giving my knotted muscles a good stretching.

Hiking speed can be purely mental. When I finally decided it was time to lengthen my stride, my pace picked up so much you'd almost have thought I didn't like being there.

I heard the sounds first. Shots travel well through the forest but I couldn't judge distance or any particular direction. I kept hiking. My stride was strong and long. The shots were at least a minute apart. Soon, I could just barely feel the shock wave in my ears. They and I were getting very close. The green tunnel hid us from each other. I skipped over the swamp bridges so I knew I was down to counting the distance to the car in hundreds of yards. Next shot and I stopped dead in my tracks. I could feel the concussion but no shot rattled through the leaves. That meant either they were aiming some where else or were farther away than I thought. I moved on, stopping immediately at each report. I threw my hand over my face with each sound. Did I expect the pellets to travel that slowly? I still couldn't see anyone nor see the funeral canopy where I suspected this was coming from. When I finally got within sight I still wasn't sure what to do.

The shooter was a boy, maybe ten or eleven, about the same age as the boy hiking with his father. I shouted “hello” but my voice died on the Rhododendron leaves in front of me. The boy was partially out of sight when the next shot made me jump in my boots. Too many movies about disasters in the woods. The boy carried the gun back to the tent, loosely; the barrel pointed toward the trail. I shouted once or twice more. No response. I figured to move between shots so I went ahead and started again along the trail. The boy had been 50 feet to the side aiming at cans down on the ground. His line of sight was parallel to the trail. He was firing a .410 single shot popgun, I thought; I hoped. Maybe a 20 gauge but that seemed too much gun for this kid and the forestock configuration was too long for a heavier gun. At a distance even my short barreled 20 gauge looks very nonintimidating but'll blow a nasty hole in you just the same. As I passed the boy, he was carrying the shotgun to his father under the graveside canopy. He never saw me.

I quietly skirted the camp, looking over my shoulder for some notice by them--would I have smiled and said “hey” or would I have chewed 'em out if they acted apologetic?--I could see the father was laying on a cot, holding a peppered can in one hand and pointing to each hole.

“One, two, three, four, five,” he counted in singing rhyme to the alphabet song. “Six, seven, eight, nine . . .”
“Did I do good?” the boy asked. If I could hear them why couldn't they hear me?

I calmed down walking to the car. No jays screamed. No squirrels chattered. I didn't notice touch-me-nots or the smell of wet woods. I drove down the twisted highway along Stoney Creek, towards the increasing traffic, down to the ranger station, down to tattle about one father and son and only remember, vaguely, the other.

Some where in this is an irony still trying to catch up to me.