Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey: Chapter Ten

One of the first northbound views of cloud-crowned Mount Katahdin, Maine

What do we do given life?
We move around

Solitude, reach for light
Reach or slide
We move around

—Stephen Stills, “Move Around”

[On August 1 I summited Mount Katahdin in Maine to complete my 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail backpack trip.  Coincidentally, it was exactly a year to the day since my wife “rescued” me from thrombophlebitis near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, after which I was sidelined for nine months.  This entry effectively finishes my A.T. travelogue.  I’ll probably offer some sort of denouement later, a clean green ribbon to wrap up the whole series.]

The so-called “Hundred-Mile Wilderness” which extends from Monson, Maine to Abol Bridge at the foot of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park presented a few surprises.

First, it is not truly a wilderness as defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964.  It is not federal land that restricts habitation and motorized vehicle activity.  There are private cabins, gravel logging roads, and even an active sawmill whose racket can be heard from the trail.

Second, it is more rigorous than I was led to believe.  There are two significant mountain ranges: the Chairback and Whitecap ranges, plus several individual, smaller mountains.  There is also much twisting, turning, and root, rock, and boulder negotiation, especially during the first 50 miles. 

Third, there were far more hikers than I envisioned.  I expected thru-hikers and sectioners.  But I also encountered day hikers.  Even a family picnicking on a sand beach at Nahmakanta Lake.

For someone hoping for peace and solitude on relatively easy trail, this was all a bit disconcerting.

Hundred-Mile Wilderness caution near Monson, Maine

The good news is that I maintained my daily hiking average of 15 miles, arriving at Abol Bridge in my predicted six-and-a-half days’ time.  I had more than enough food to sustain me the entire way (supplemented by wild blueberries and huckleberries for vitamin C).

A large number of veteran backpackers evidently didn’t feel confident about preserving a requisite quantity of food in their packs, since many relied on food “drops” by hostelries at one or more gravel roads.  This surprised me.  One of the appeals of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, in my opinion, is the challenge of shunning outside support and relying on your own preparedness.

I’m assuming there were the ubiquitous slackpackers using vehicles to haul their gear, since I met several northbound (NOBO) hikers with small packs headed in the opposite direction.

There were a few highlights.  I was reunited atop Little Boardman Mountain with old friends Hums and Checklist, a young married couple from southern Indiana whom I’d met just before the New Hampshire-Maine state line.  We later found great overnight spots at Antlers Campsite on Jo-Mary Lake, replete with swimming, blueberry picking, and the eerie sound of a distant loon.  Thru-hikers Chef Decker, Pi (from Germany), and a southbound (SOBO) section hiker named Solo completed the Antlers group.

Hums (left) and Checklist (right) atop Little Boardman Mountain

Our tents flooded that night from a torrential rain.  Wet gear, especially wet boots and socks, is one of the banes of backpacking, but we had fun for at least a few hours.

For the second time I bumped into Warren Doyle, the dean of Appalachian Trail hikers, who has thru-hiked more than any other hiker (nine thru- and nine section hikes) and runs a school for aspiring A.T. backpackers. (He’s also controversial with some people, promoting athletics on the trail and violating regulations that he dislikes.) Doyle and a sweet woman aptly named Sweet Potato were at a gravel road and treating poor Pi, who had either tripped or fainted, then fallen, consequently restructuring her nose and left eye.

Another highlight was having Little Beaver Pond to myself for my final night in the Wilderness.  This pond was a quiet surprise.  It’s a concealed sub-lake that spills into the eastern tip of larger Rainbow Lake.

There is no sign for Little Beaver on the A.T.  There is a sign for Big Beaver, but considering Big Beaver is 0.7 miles down a side trail, few hikers bother to walk it.  But just a tenth of a mile down this blue-blazed side trail is a tiny sign with an arrow that reads “Little Beaver.”

Little Beaver Pond tentsite and wild blueberries

I pitched my tent in a small oval of dry pine needles, the pond 100 yards below.  Surrounded by blueberry bushes, I devoted an hour to plucking ripe berries until my baggie was heavy.  These I gorged on later for dessert, then again for breakfast next morning.  In between I watched the sun set over the towering pines that rose over the shore of Little Beaver, while stoking a modest fire, smoking my “peace pipe,” and pondering the immensity of Mother Nature.

It’s a cliché, but out here your ego dissolves and you can feel your insignificance.  This is good.  It’s something one doesn’t often feel elsewhere, and it’s one reason why so many of us, ever since John Muir, flee to the mountains.

Rejuvenated by Little Beaver, I burned almost 18 miles next day to exit the Wilderness at Abol Bridge and reach base camp at The Birches campsite for my Katahdin climb.

Bulldozer, Heat, and me at Abol Bridge. Bulldozer was awaiting his family and summited Katahdin later.

The Birches is set aside for distance hikers intending to hike Baxter Peak, tallest point on Katahdin.  It’s located about a quarter-mile from family-friendly Katahdin Stream Campground.  This separation ensures the Griswold family won’t be disturbed by the sight of dirtbag backpackers getting wasted or peeing in the woods.  But for us hikers, it means a long slog to the stream just to fill our water bottles.

Only 12 hikers are permitted to camp at The Birches on any given night.  On the night of July 31, I was sixth out of seven hikers to sign up.  The others were Checklist, Hums, Heat, Chef Decker, Trash, and Wet Willy.  (The last-named was a really fun fellow, but he had two blown knees and had no business being with us.)

Around suppertime, Ranger Pete Sweeney dropped by to collect our registration cards and ten-dollar camping fee.  He also gathered us around the fire ring like a benevolent schoolteacher to discuss the sacredness of the mountain to native peoples…and to discourage us from celebrating too raucously at the peak.

I didn’t sleep much that night due to my excitement.  I’d come 2,185 miles and now had only five miles left.  So many times I’d wondered if I’d ever finish this Sisyphean venture, and it was hard to fathom the end was looming.

We rose from our sleeping bags with the first rays of sunlight (except Wet Willy), packed our gear, then hiked to the ranger station to trade in our heavy packs for lighter day packs.  I felt somewhat guilty about this, since I’d thus far prided myself on hauling my home on my back the whole way.  My justification was that a heavy pack up Katahdin could be extremely dangerous, plus there was no camping at the summit that required a full pack.  Also, with this short, five-mile “slackpack,” there would be no unnecessary burning of fossil fuels.

So I pulled out my Gregory day pack and filled it with peanut butter, tortillas, Clif bars, and my water flask.  Going suddenly from 40 pounds to five pounds felt like heaven, especially with all the adrenaline pumping through me.  I whisked through Katahdin Stream Campground, offered a knowing nod to Chef Decker (whose family was joining her for her final climb), and began my 5.2-mile ascent up the legendary mountain.

Cauliflower fungus (Sparassis crispa)

Katahdin is not easy.  The climb starts with a glide on gently sloping soil, then steeper dancing on rocks, then gymnastics on extremely vertical walls of boulders.  Some of the smoother boulder sections have rebar to assist climbers, this man-made addition courtesy of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club.

But I had time and adrenaline on my side.  Each day throughout my hike I had one song that I would whistle or hum to help my frame of mind.  Today I gustily sang out loud about a dozen of my favorite tunes—from Burt Bacharach to The Byrds—not even caring if anyone else heard me. 

About a mile from the summit begins The Tableland, a sea of rocks where the A.T. (here known as “Hunt Trail”) is delineated by stone cairns.  This is cloud country, and the wind and chill increase dramatically.  Suddenly, I see a group of hikers gathered near what looks like an oversized wooden sawhorse.

“Omoo!”  “Omoo!” they shout.  Heat, Hums, and Checklist have already arrived.  There are hugs and congratulations all ‘round. We collectively soak in this magical moment.  

As William Clark wrote in his journal when the Corps of Discovery first laid eyes on the Pacific Ocean in 1805: O! the joy.

We spent about an hour at the summit, taking pictures and responding—with as much humility as we could muster—to the day hikers’ many questions.  Hiking compatriots Lobo (a biology teacher from Richmond, Virginia), Zippy Morocco (a Triple Crowner from Missoula, Montana), Rabbit, Trash, and Chef Decker arrived later. Cell reception was no problem at 5,300 feet, so I called Lynn to let her know I was okay, and I’d soon be home to take care of the moles tearing up our lawn.

A bobcat posing in clouds with alma mater, Ohio University

Although I could have hung around the peak all day, I knew the climb down would be equally treacherous and cumbersome, plus I planned to thumb a ride into the town of Millinocket, so I reluctantly descended.  A few hikers were still ascending.  The last one I saw was Wet Willie.  (It turned out he did reach the peak, despite the admonitions of his partner, Trash.  However, on the descent he fell, gashing his head and breaking his glasses.  He didn’t reach the hostel in Millinocket until well after dark.)

All of the August 1 summiters reunited at the Millinocket hostel, except Heat and Lobo, who were elsewhere with their families.  We shared three large pizzas at Angelo’s (their white pizza was exceptional) and also, of course, shared our thoughts about the trail.  Next day I joined Checklist and Hums on a shuttle/bus trip to Bangor.  They flew home to Indiana, but I stayed over another night to decompress and celebrate with Maine lobster roll.  (TIP: if you visit Maine and want fresh lobster, it helps if you’re near the coast.)

***

Since my start at Springer Mountain, Georgia on May 2, 2021, I spent over 160 nights on the Appalachian Trail, most of them in a one-person tent.  About once a week I got either a motel room or stayed in a hostel to shower, eat, buy provisions, and clean my clothes.  The animals I encountered included one bear, four beavers, two porcupines, two foxes, one rattlesnake, one copperhead (whose head I stepped on), one water snake, several black snakes, one bald eagle, one Northern goshawk, several grouse, and dozens of whitetail deer, red squirrels, chipmunks, orange newts, and toads.  I hiked around multiple piles of moose scat but never saw one.

I met hundreds of distance backpackers and liked almost all of them.  They ranged in age from 19-year-old Cole, whom I encountered north of Buena Vista, Virginia, to intrepid 80-year-olds.  Women hikers were just as prevalent as men.  A few hikers were transgender.  Many backpackers like me walked solo, while others found security in a trail family (“tramily”).

Only one backpacker my entire hike recognized my trail name, asking “Isn’t that a book by Herman Melville?” when we identified ourselves.  It was in southern Virginia at exactly the one-quarter mark.  He was about 30 years old, a former thru-hiker now doing a SOBO section.  His name was Deep Roots.

Sunrise at Jo-Mary Lake

I met a number of eccentrics and heard about others.  They ran the gamut from the motor-mouth ex-boxer at Niday Shelter to a man named Leafblower, who hiked with a large…what else?…leaf blower, and always rented an extra hostel bed for his machine. 

My emotions also ran the gamut.  Hiking alone, I often mulled over my past: vacations I took as a child, old friends.  I constantly thought about my loved ones, especially my deceased parents.  I’m not religious—in fact I’m agnostic—but I could sense my parents’ spirits being with me.  Once, while alone atop Mount Washington in early morning, the grey clouds broke briefly to reveal a layer of blue sky with higher, wispy, white clouds.  This serendipitous event coincided with my thinking of Mom and Dad.

But despite my sentimental moments and occasional bouts of loneliness, only once did I get choked up.  It was on top of Katahdin while talking to my wife.  I told her that hiking this trail was the hardest thing I’d ever done, physically and mentally.  It was harder than leaving home, than any job, than any marathon race.  Raising a family was difficult, but she helped me with that.  This thing, however, was all on me.  I told her there were times of discouragement when I wondered if my hike would ever end.

Now…it was finally over. And I really felt it.

For my next adventure I’m planning a solo canoe trip on the Charley and Yukon Rivers in north Alaska.  After all…we move around.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter Seven

Little Rock Pond, Vermont

Arrived in Killington, Vermont yesterday for a two-day R&R at beautiful The Inn at Long Trail. (The Long Trail stretches the length of Vermont, ending at the Canadian border, and shares the A.T. over its southern half.)

It’s good timing. Not only am I nearly halfway (for this year) to my climax at Mount Katahdin, but I depleted all my resources: trail food, clean clothes, cell charge, boots, and calories. Yesterday I took care of the first three; today I bought new Merrell boots, and I’m stuffing my pie-hole with an Italian sub, chips, and Powerade as I write this.

When your bones protrude enough to interlock with the tree roots under your tent floor, it’s time to build some fat.

Skin and bones hiker smiles while finding sanctuary at The Inn

I’ve always loved Vermont’s Green Mountains from a distance. Inside, on trail, they are more menacing, but the dense red spruce/balsam fir forests make for a stimulating olfactory experience…Killington Peak, the second-highest summit in the Greens (4,229 feet) is the best-smelling mountain I’ve yet hiked.

The ski resort town of K-ton is also impressive. They just had a Memorial Day trifecta event of golf, bicycling, and skiing (still happening!) at one resort, and unlike what might occur in my home state of Ohio, golf was the least popular event! (I love Vermont.)

The Inn might be my favorite R&R spot this entire thru-hike. It’s a time-tested rustic ski lodge, with ski superstars like Mikaela Schiffrin and Petra Vlhova dropping in during the World Cup, but which I have to myself, now, with a lull between ski season and the bubble of distance hikers. The Irish Pub and draughts of Guinness downstairs might have something to do with my enthusiasm.

The trail itself has been a joy compared to WV, MD, and (much of) Rocksylvania. Lotsa quiet mountain ponds, vistas, and wildlife. My last day in Massachusetts presented a porcupine, and first day in Vermont graced me with four fat beavers lazily swimming across their watery estate.

Two other highlights include the surprise I had on top of Black Mountain in upstate New York. Gazing out over distant peaks, my knees almost buckled when, swiveling my head left, I caught the distant skyline of New York City. Surreal is the word. Hard to imagine the riot of activity, noise, smells, and powerful deal-making in that tiny, smoky sliver of spires in the distance. I could almost see my uncle pouring vodkas through the window of his Upper East Side apartment. Yet here so solitary and peaceful.

The other highlight was my side-jaunt via thumb to Pittsfield, Massachusetts to visit and tour Arrowhead, where Herman Melville wrote America’s greatest novel, MobyDick. (Some of you know that Omoo, a Polynesian word for “rover,” was used as a title by Melville for his second semi-autobiographical book.) From his upstairs study he could view double-humped Mount Greylock, largest peak in MA, which supposedly seeped into his conception of the white whale. The view seeped into me, too.

Arrowhead, one-time home of author Herman Melville

Nice trail friends, too. Two include L.A., a veteran hiker who is actually from Nantucket and suffered heat exhaustion around Greylock, and with whom I shared burgers ‘n’ brews with in Bennington; and Golden, a UMass-Amherst kinesiology student on her first solo thru hike (Long Trail) and on whom I actually bestowed a trail name, based on her golden hair and personality.

Golden on Bromley ski slope, which the A.T. crosses

Well, it’s Guinness time, after which I have one more comfortable sleep before newly commencing my roving…hopefully with a bit more cushioning around my bones. As always, thanks for joining me, trail and non-trail friends.

Till next time…

Omoo (and his mute hickory trail companion, Queequeg)

Murray, owner and bartender at The Inn

Sheba

October 18, 2021

It’s been a sad few days here in the longitudes household.  Our beloved dog, Sheba, trotted over the Rainbow Bridge on November 1.

I’ve done obituaries here in the past, for both animal and human loved ones.  Sharing their photos and stories helps me deal with grief…and I’m really grieving now…so I appreciate your indulgence.

Sheba was 16 years old.  She was with us for 12 years and 7 months.  We always identified her as a “Border Collie mix,” but Lynn did a canine DNA test a few years ago which surprisingly revealed German Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, Chow Chow, and unknown herding breed!  But other than herder, I’m not convinced of this finding, as her photos might show. 

Sheba’s first photo, probably the day we got her. She was very malnourished. We still have her pink bandana.

We found her at the Franklin County (Ohio) Dog Shelter in March 2009 as Lynn and I approached “empty nest” status.  They have a “Mingle with Our Mutts” event every other Sunday from 12-2, a veritable flea market of dogs from shelters in central Ohio.  We arrived at 12 p.m. sharp, and it couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds before we spied Sheba amongst maybe a hundred canines.  She was up for adoption along with another dog through Saving Pets One at a Time (S.P.O.T.), a humane society recently formed in nearby Morgan County. 

With her fluffy ears, curlicue tail, and striking coat of white fur, Sheba (her original name) stood out immediately.  She also had a distinctive dark, moist scar running from her left eye that looked like dripping mascara. S.P.O.T. told us she’d been scratched by a “weed.”

November 2009. Starlet Sheba, with our daughter Holly

Her personality was sweet as sugar, too.   Unlike our previous dog, Brownie, Sheba appeared sociable with strangers as well as other dogs.  At the pound, Lynn and I took turns guarding her—so she wouldn’t get swooped away—while each of us checked out the other “wares.”  But from the moment I met her I was convinced she was the dog for us.

I’ll never understand how her original owners could have given Sheba up.  For us, she was a fur angel, the proverbial plum pulled from the pie.

November 2010. Sheba loved laying on the couch.

Sheba’s favorite activities were joining me on runs and walks, chasing squirrels in the backyard, and playing fetch and tug-of-war.  Her favorite human foods were Lynn’s homemade pizza (crust) and my Sunday morning “au jus”—sausage drippings mixed with dry dog food.  Whenever we had company, she always inserted herself in the middle of the action.  She also followed me around the yard when I did yardwork, and often from room to room.  And at night she slept on a pad on the floor, next to me, shifting position throughout the night.

October 2011, front yard of new house

Sheba loved people and strolled right up to both neighbors and strangers alike, ears pinned back and tail wagging.  She also enjoyed meeting other dogs, although she sometimes displayed a mild “alpha female” tendency with certain females.  She rarely barked, and when she did it was muffled.  Her barking moments occurred when flying out the back door toward her neighbor dogs, or whenever I encouraged her with mock growls (or, after she jumped on the bed with us weekend mornings, when I teased her with “How-deee PARD-A-NER!”).

Sheba’s only faults—if they can be called that—were a morbid fear of loud noises; thunderstorms and the Fourth of July had her trembling and crawling under furniture. And she was an expert fur shedder.  In fact, we’ll be vacuuming clumps of white hair for the next several months!

May 2012, while visiting “Gram”

Walks and runs were her favorite times, even more so than eating.  If she heard the words “run,” “walk,” or “walk-ey,” she became glued to me, often inserting her head under my legs while I tried to tie my running shows at the foot of the stairs.  Walks could be difficult for Lynn, because Sheba was strong and had never been trained to heel, and she loved to sniff more than any dog we’ve ever known.  As time progressed and her stamina and rear legs began to fail, the runs were eliminated.  Then the walks became shorter and shorter.

February 2014, with cats Chloe and Alex in my music/computer room

I could go on and on about this beautiful animal.  Everyone adored her.  She gave us a ton of love, and we did our best to do the same, although we could never equal what she gave to us. She was not just a pet, she was a living and breathing symbol of home, warmth, comfort, family, and unqualified love.  All the things that make living worthwhile.

Sheba, you will be in our hearts forever.

January 2017
January 2019. Caught in the act, in my muddy garden!
October 19, 2021. Sheba on her “pad” in my music/computer room. She followed me in whenever I was on the computer or was reading. She also had two pads in our bedroom.
Last photo. Together at the fire pit, October 23, 2021

Where Are All the Tropical Fish Stores?

I recently joined my wife in retirement (accompanied by a giant pent-up sigh of relief). Yesterday, as we felt our aging bones calcify by the minute, we discussed possible light employment options for household pin money.  She suggested part-time work for herself at a local arts and crafts shop.

“Great idea!” I said.  “I’ve thought about a used bookstore.  Or maybe a tropical fish store.”

Then I thought, “Wait a second…do those even exist anymore?”

I can’t recall seeing a store that specializes in tropical fish since, oh, “Afternoon Delight” was a hit song.  What in tarnation happened to them?

When I was a teenager I had a 10-gallon tropical fish tank in my bedroom.  It had an overhead hood light, a thick layer of pink and blue pebbles, artificial coral, assorted plastic plants, and a couple small ceramic structures, such as a sunken galleon or treasure chest.  I had the usual assortment of small, freshwater tropical fish, like black mollies, neon tetras, zebra danios, redtail sharks, guppies, angel fish, a coolie loach to scavenge for debris, and my pride and joy: a beautiful ruby-red male Siamese fighting fish (also known as a “betta”).

At one time I tried mating my fighter with a creamy pinkish female betta that I’d named “Rosy.”  My man got about halfway through blowing bubbles for the bubble nest—to hold the eggs that he would eventually squeeze out of her—then abruptly stopped.  I never figured out why.  I’m guessing he either found Rosy less sexy than I did, or maybe he was a latent homosexual.

I used to relish lying in bed at night near the glow of the tank, sleepily gazing at my fish as they swished through the water, the soft burbling sound of the water filter lulling me to sleep.

As much as I loved doling out affection to my fishies, I also enjoyed purchasing them.  Once, I found a store that had rare glass catfish, a translucent fish whose bones are visible.  One of the great mysteries of my youth was returning from vacation and finding that all of my glass cats had disappeared.  I’m assuming the other fish consumed them, slender bones and all, out of hunger, but spontaneous combustion is also a possibility.

My first job, not counting newspaper delivery (click here), was a summer job as afternoon clerk in a local tropical fish store.  I & J Tropical Fish was in a rundown building just north of Mansfield, Ohio on Ashland Road.  It was the perfect job for a lazy 17-year-old, because only a few customers ever visited.  And it was always the same people.

My main duties consisted of shaking flaky fish food into the tanks, occasionally cleaning them (a real chore), and guarding the cash register.  To alleviate the boredom, I smoked cigarettes that I stole from the pack that the morning clerk—a pregnant, married woman—stored under the register.  Since I was at the experimental age and it was only a few cigarettes here and there, I thankfully never developed a habit.

Being your typical confused and horny teenage boy, I also got my jollies in other ways.  Once when things were especially slow, I slipped into the dirty storage room in back and sat on the yellowed toilet with a Penthouse Magazine for reading material.  (I’m pretty sure it was the August 1976 issue.)  Right when I was approaching the climax of the story I was reading, I heard the entry door jingle.

“Hello?  Is anyone here?” I heard a woman inquire.

It took me several minutes to wrap up my business, make myself presentable, and scurry out front.  I’ll never know if she detected my cotton mouth or the beads of sweat on my forehead.  She probably did.

The owner of the store was a guy named Bob.  He was a family man, a bony guy with black hair, about 35 years old.  I think the “I” and the “J” were his kids’ initials.  I remember that he always had a concerned look.  Just before he hired me he gave me a pop quiz.

“What is another name for a Siamese fighting fish?” (Betta.)

“What happens if you put two male Siamese fighters together?” (They fight…duh.) 

Although I was usually alone, once in a while Bob drove into the gravel lot in his plush, customized, stereo-equipped van to check on me.  The first time he did this, about a week after I was hired, I actually had a customer.  Bob stood behind me while I handed the man his change.  With Bob over my right shoulder, silently observing the transaction, I was as nervous as he looked concerned. 

“Here you go,” the man said, as he surprised me by returning a five dollar bill. “You gave me too much change.”

After the man left, Bob waited about 30 seconds, allowing my head to fill with warm blood.  Then he spoke in a low, deliberate voice.  “You need to be very careful when you give customers their change.”  Uh, thanks, Bob. 

One time about a month after I started, my dad dropped in after work.  He was happy that I actually had employment, since it helped cover the repair expenses for the station wagon I’d recently wrecked.  Bob just happened to be there. 

“How’s the boy doing?” Dad asked Bob with unconcealed pride.

Bob stammered.  “Well, uh…he’s uh…he’s getting better and better!”

I’ve thought about why there are no tropical fish stores anymore.  Of course, it’s the same reason why there are no hamburger joints like Burger Chef, and why small farms are disappearing.  We live in a world of giant, generic conglomerates, and the “little guy” just can’t compete.  Maybe it started with McDonalds.  Later it was Wal-Mart.  Tyson.  Barnes and Noble.  Target.  Jiffy Lube.  PetSmart.  Petco.  Pet Supplies Plus.

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot—Joni Mitchell

I’ve often wondered, too, when exactly did I & J Tropical Fish go out of business?  I think the lot is occupied by a dive bar now.  The dilapidated building looked like it might have fronted a methamphetamine lab, and I do know that abuse of crystal meth later exploded in the 1980s and ‘90s.  Maybe the building caved in, or the health inspectors discovered the yellow toilet in back.  Or maybe Bob cashed in his meager chips and hauled his wife and kids and their purple super-van to Florida.

I didn’t care for Bob all that much.  Let’s just say, I can’t imagine him and me laughing over beers at Rocky’s Pub.  But he did after all give me my first real job.  So for that I say, “Thanks, Bob.” 

Chloe: A Life with Love

Mad Cat 2

Friday night I had to do something that I didn’t think would bother me as much as it has. I took our cat, Chloe, to the vet and had her euthanized.

A cat? That’s right. While cats are not my favorite animal species, when you have a house pet for 17½ years, memories are formed. My wife and I got Chloe for our daughter when Holly was having some difficulties in junior high school. As often happens, we became closer to Chloe than Holly did, and she to us.

Chloe

Chloe had a unique personality. Frequently, the whole family would be gathered in the den, including our dog and our other cat (Alex). “Where’s Chloe?” we’d wonder. Once, I searched for her and found her asleep on some linen in the dark corner of an upstairs closet. Cats are independent by nature, and Chloe was her own cat.

Camoflaged Cat

But she wasn’t totally antisocial. She often jumped up in my lap when I was reading or watching TV. She made her bed by kneading my stomach with her front paws (a stomach that becomes softer as the years go by). Then she’d lie down, close her eyes, and purr with contentment.

Fall 2018

I often lie on the bedroom floor to stretch after my evening jogs. Chloe seemed to know when this occurred, because she’d appear out of nowhere to rub her head against whatever free hand was available, coaxing me to massage her. She loved having her cheeks and forehead stroked, getting what I called “Chinese eyes” whenever I palmed her entire head and stroked.

Her biggest eccentricity was her penchant for hibernating in unusual places. Empty cardboard boxes were a favorite domain. Eventually, if we received a large package in the mail, we deliberately saved the cardboard box for Chloe. She’d fancy her new box for a few days, then grow bored with it.Cat Nap

Boxes, soft shoes, clothing, duffel bags, blankets, plastic laundry basket…all were favorite places to take a “catnap.”

Another idiosyncrasy was her taste for lettuce and spinach (and, frustratingly, indoor plant leaves). I always eat a big bowl of leaf spinach in the evening, and often, when hearing the familiar sound of the plastic spinach tub being opened, she would trot over and stare at me. I’d drop a few leaves on the floor, and she’d chew them with delight. This became more difficult as she got older and lost several teeth.

Although an indoor cat, once in a while she’d sneak out the backdoor, and immediately head for the grass, not to stalk birds, but to munch on the grass blades.

Lookouts

We were beginning to think Chloe really did have nine lives. Several times in the last year, we discovered she was peeing outside her litter box. “I think it’s time,” I would say to Lynn. But at the last minute, even after making an appointment with the vet, we’d decide to give her another chance. We filled two litter boxes, one for the basement and one upstairs. We moved these around as needed. And she seemed to adapt to our new techniques.

The last couple years, she was joining the dogs by greeting me when I came home after work, waiting for a stroke and a few Temptations treats. “Hello, Chlo!” I’d say in my Mickey Mouse voice, while Sheba jealously tried to intervene. Chloe took in stride my morbid joke “So, I see you’re still alive!”

Beanbag Pussy

By the time last Friday rolled around, though, she was bone covered with fur. The fur itself had become increasingly matted, indicating she was unwilling or unable to groom herself. She seemed to hang around water a lot, even the wet bathtub and shower floors. And over the last couple days, she only sniffed and slightly nibbled her food. She had mucous and moisture under her eyes, and she was having balance problems.

She was probably also losing her mental faculties. The last time she jumped in my lap, on March 21, she didn’t know what to do or where to lay.

Dec 1 2018

She’s now resting in the woods in back of our house, just uphill from Alex. With the trees still bare, I can just see the top of her headstone from the back window.

Yes, the memories. People? Definitely. Dogs? Probably. But I didn’t think a cat’s death would cause the grief it has. Chloe and I did have a bond, however insignificant it might seem. Writing is therapeutic for me, so I appreciate your indulgence.

I’m not religious, but I think we’ll be reunited someday, humans and animals, in a better place. Anyway, that’s what I told Chloe, as I stroked her head while she drifted to sleep for the last time.

Sleepy Head

Here’s an obit that Lynn composed about our beloved “Chlo-Cat.” Lynn always sees the glass as being half full. (If you’re a regular visitor to longitudes, you know that my glass only has one drop, it’s whiskey, and it’s quickly evaporating.)

Celebration of Life!

Chloe, July (?) 2001 – March 22, 2019

Chloe, Ruler of the Kurtz Clan, passed away on Friday, March 22, 2019, at the age of 18 of a prolonged illness.  Sadly missed by her human subjects, Peter and Lynn of Maineville, Ohio; her dog subjects, Sheba and Ginger, also of Maineville; Nick Kurtz of L.A.; and Holly Kurtz of Glasgow, Scotland. Chloe started the world in humble surroundings as a street urchin taken in by the Kurtz’s.  Chloe succeeded her mentor, Brownie Kurtz, to the throne in 2008.  She went through careful training to be excellent in her role. She was preceded in death by her only other cat subject, Al.  Al, or Alex, sometimes showed great disdain at Chloe’s role, but managed to do well as the lowly Kurtz cat subject.  Chloe liked to eat her subject’s food on occasion.  She had palace rooms on the ground floor and frequented the rest of the house on most evenings.  She liked to terrorize her neighbor and petsitter, Becky, by growling and hissing, and got out of her annual physicals by acting very snooty on her doctor visits, and was at one point put in solitary confinement while staying at the vet when her home changed, in 2011.  In her failing health, her grooming became a bit unsightly, and bathroom facilities had to be updated. 

Contributions can be made to Kings Veterinary Hospital in her memory.

A Kiss

A Boy and a Raccoon

Rascal book

“It was in May 1918 that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring-tailed wonder.”

Among other neuroses, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It may have started in 1968 when I was 10 and became obsessed with having a wild animal as a pet. A therapist might deduce that I craved attention. Having a wild animal as a pet, instead of a dog or cat, draws attention and makes a young person special.

My favorite wild animal was the raccoon (Procyon lotor). I became a child expert on raccoons, and I’ve always remembered the Latin name that I just tried to impress you with.

It started in fifth grade when I read a children’s book called Little Rascal, about a boy and his pet raccoon. A few months later, I graduated to the full novel, Rascal. The novel was a 1963 bestseller, Newbery Honor book, and the first Dutton Animal Book Award winner. It was popular enough that it became a 1969 Disney movie starring Bill Mumy and Steve Forrest (critic Leonard Maltin gives the film two-and-a-half out of four stars, which I might agree with… movies are seldom as good as the books they’re based on).

I read Rascal several times and saw the movie in the theatre the first week of its release. Eventually, my obsession with raccoons became so strong that in 1970 I captured my own baby raccoon in a box trap and made him a pet, with my dad building a 10-foot-tall cage at the side of our house. Rascal II and I became the talk of the neighborhood. My chatterbox friend used to perch on my scrawny shoulders, his black mask like a pair of racing goggles, while we tooled around the streets on my red Schwinn Sting-Ray. For a short time in 1970, before Rascal felt the call and disappeared to locate a mate, I was a minor celebrity.

But enough about my OCD. May 2018 is 100 years since author Sterling North became acquainted with an animal that changed his life, so I’d like to talk about him, his pet raccoon, and his special book.

Sterling North House

Sterling North House (photo public domain)

Sterling North was raised in the small town of Edgerton in southern Wisconsin, on the banks of Rock River near shallow Lake Koshkonong. In 1918, Lake Koshkonong was a wild and scenic lake rimmed by dark forest. But a dam was built in 1932, creating an enlarged reservoir that is now studded with public beaches and boat landings, and an interstate now cuts along the western shore, so much of the lake’s wildness is gone (in the 1970s, the lake came perilously close to hosting a nuclear power plant). In 1918, North was age 11 and spent many hours both on the lake and in the woods surrounding it. He lived alone with his often-absent father, his mother having died when he was only 7, his two older sisters having moved away, and his older brother, Herschel, was far away in France, fighting to end the war to end all wars.

One evening in May, he and his friend Oscar venture into Wentworth’s Woods, where Sterling’s devoted St. Bernard, Wowser, digs up a den of raccoons. The mother and babies hightail it into the brush, but Oscar scoops one of the babes into his cap. He knows his tyrannical father won’t let him keep it, so he gives it to Sterling. Over the next year, Sterling and Rascal have numerous adventures together.

On the surface, Rascal appears to be just a children’s story about a boy frolicking with a wild animal. But it’s a book equally appealing to grownups. I read it again 9 years ago and discovered layers I didn’t know existed. North’s relationship with the lovable, intelligent Rascal is a friendship as tangible as that between people. In the book, he instills human characteristics in his furry hero, but without stretching credulity or sounding trite. He also captures a bygone time of innocent rural Americana, when hickory and walnut hunting, whippoorwill sighting, pie-eating contests, and trotter races are small treasures, and not corny anachronisms.

Sterling North Society

Sterling North and friends (photo Sterling North Society)

In Rascal, North makes plain that his childhood is unorthodox. His father allows him to keep numerous wild and domestic pets, wander deep into the woods, sleep alone outdoors, skip school, etc. The entire living room is cloaked in sawdust from a canoe that Sterling is building by himself. While Sterling’s martinet eldest sister, Theo, scolds their father for creating an unhealthy household environment, his other sister, Jessica—a surrogate mother for Sterling—is more tender and understanding. She realizes that Sterling’s world of flora and fauna is a way of coping with their mother’s death.

And Sterling’s father indulges their self-sufficiency, knowing that being “different” and not trotting after the pack are a healthy thing.

Sterling’s pet raccoon introduces humor and sunlight into the boy’s life. Rascal also brings about a jarring awakening. After seeing a picture of a trapped raccoon on the cover of his fur catalogue, the sensitive boy pictures Rascal’s soft, inquisitive hand clamped in a jaw trap, and he decides to give up trapping. He declares a “peace” with nature on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. North concludes this chapter with the memorable sentence: “It is perhaps the only peace treaty that was ever kept.”

John R. Sill

Lake Koshkonong (photo John R. Sill)

***

North grew up to be a successful reporter and editor and wrote a children’s book that became a 1949 feature film, So Dear to My Heart, featuring Burl Ives. But Rascal is the book he’s most known for. In Japan, the book became a cartoon series in 1977, and the raccoon character is still very popular there, supposedly bigger than Mickey Mouse.

When he retired, North and his wife moved to Morristown, New Jersey, choosing the location specifically because there were lots of woods and wild animals, including raccoons.

During this time, my aunt and cousin lived in nearby Millington, New Jersey. When my family visited in the early ‘70s, my aunt found out about my interest, and telephoned the North home to see if I could stop by to meet my favorite author (I was too shy to call myself). But Mrs. North said her husband was suffering from a long illness and was unable to have visitors. She said he’d be pleased to hear that I’d called, though.

In January 1975, while a sophomore at boarding school, I read in the back pages of Newsweek that Sterling North had passed away at age 68. It was like another piece of my childhood had passed away.

Rascal_3

(Author photo)

On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner

yogi_sign

“Aren’t you worried about bears?” (my boss)
“Oh no. Now I have to worry. Aren’t there bears and wolves in those mountains?” (my mom)
“Why do you do these things to me?” (my wife)
“Are you gonna pack a sidearm?” (my friend Dave)

These are a few of the reactions I got this past summer when I announced that I’d be doing a solo hike through Shenandoah National Park, on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s something about camping in the woods that scares the bejeebers out of people. It might be the stories we read as children: Hansel and Gretel, Peter and the Wolf, Where the Wild Things Are. Later on came feature films: The Wolf Man, The Night of the Grizzly, The Edge. Be it bears, wolves, cougars, giant venomous snakes, bloodthirsty bats, witches, goblins, headless horsemen, Texas chainsaw killers… dense, dark forest has become a metaphor for danger and fear.

black bear

American black bear (Ursus americanus)

The reality, of course, is that our cities – and increasingly, our suburbs – are far more dangerous. But humans can’t seem to shake certain embedded fears. And of all creatures in the woods, nothing seems to worry people more than bears.

Bears are big. An adult American black bear (Ursus americanus), averages 125-550 lbs. Its cousin, the more aggressive grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), averages 400-790 lbs. Some freak grizzlies grow even bigger. Both species are omnivores, eating both plants and animals. But a grizz standing on its back feet can reach over nine feet in height, and can take down large mammals such as bison, moose, elk, and caribou. His claws can grow to four inches in length.

Also, although extremely rare, bear attacks do happen. The most infamous occurred in Glacier National Park on the night of August 12, 1967. On that night, two young women, Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, were dragged from their sleeping bags by two hungry grizzlies… unbelievably, in separate incidents nine miles apart. Their bodies were eventually located by searchers. Helgeson hung on for a few hours before succumbing to blood loss. Only portions of Koons’s body were found.

grizz

Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilus)

But horror stories like this occurred back when little was known about bear behavior, and campground bears were still feeding at open-air garbage dumps. The two grizz that killed Helgeson and Koons were later tracked down. One had glass imbedded in its molars, and the other had a torn paw pad, probably from stepping on broken glass. Wildlife officials speculate they were in extreme pain when they attacked.

But I didn’t need to worry about grizzlies when I began my hike. The only grizz in the lower 48 are in Yellowstone and in small pockets of Montana and Idaho. However, there are a lot of black bears along the AT, particularly in Shenandoah National Park, which has a number of public campgrounds (“Hey, hey, hey Boo-Boo, do I smell a pic-a-nic basket?”). Like many people, I was hoping to see a bear on my hike. But I never thought I’d share my campsite with one.

____________________________

I started my hike at Rockfish Gap, outside Waynesboro, Virginia. The first day I covered six miles, some of which found me slogging through a relentless rainstorm. I camped near a large cairn at the top of Calf Mountain. It was a good campsite, right next to the trail, with good, flat stones for setting up my campstove, and enough tree branches on which to drape my soggy clothes.

I got an early start the next day. Watered up at a spring near the shelter halfway down the mountain. While filling my canteen, I met a hiker coming from the shelter. She was a middle-aged woman who was trekking 100 miles to Manassas Gap. She called herself “Owl.” Hmm. Shouldn’t she be hiking at night??

Sawmill Run Overlook2

Scenic overlook at Sawmill Run

At the base of Calf Mountain at Jarman Gap, I officially entered the park. It was at a fire road near a huge gnarled tree, maybe the oldest I’d see on the entire hike. Later, at Sawmill Run Overlook, I gobbled some trail mix and provided a curious spectacle to a few tourists who were cruising along Skyline Drive.

Then at Turk Gap, I met my first thru-hikers, a college-age couple who’d started way up in Maine months earlier. They were headed for the Springer Mountain trailhead in north Georgia. They represented the “advance guard” of southbound thru-hikers, and they had the lean, muscular look of swift, veteran hikers. Surprisingly, they gave off no odor, and they also looked really clean and manicured – even the man’s red beard looked shapely.

Near Riprap parking area I met a young woman. She was an emergency nurse from nearby Charlottesville, out enjoying a sunny day hike. Then I lunched at the edge of the parking lot, where I met another solo day hiker. I would bump into him again, the following day, at Loft Mountain campground. His name was Jackson, and he was a high school senior from Richmond, Virginia. He was just bouncing between campgrounds, doing short hikes on the AT, and squeezing in some summer kicks before the school year started. Nice kid, long blonde hair, really laid back. I noticed his truck had a plate that said “Don’t Tread On Me.” I wondered if his parents might’ve named him after exalted Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

As I approached Blackrock Mountain, I started to get really thirsty. Also, worried, since I only had a few drops left in my canteen. Two years earlier I’d hiked the AT through Georgia, and I’d crossed a lot of mountain streams and springs. But Shenandoah was extremely dry. Climbing the straight ascent up the side of Blackrock was taking a toll.

Blackrock Mtn summit2

Summit of Blackrock Mountain

Help came in the form of two more thru-hikers coming down the mountain. They were a married couple, the “Honeymoon Hikers.” They’d already done a northbound hike on their wedding honeymoon, and were now hiking southbound. Amazing! Mr. Honeymoon told me the summit wasn’t far ahead, and after that it was smooth sailing. He said Dundo Picnic Grounds was only a few miles ahead, and it had a water pump.

Blackrock Mountain summit was aptly named: huge, dark boulders stacked a hundred feet high, like a scene from Planet of the Apes. I rested on one of the rocks, then savored a smooth downhill trek into Dundo Picnic Grounds. At Dundo, I replenished my water at the pump, and took a refreshing sponge bath. There were lots of picnic tables here, but the only visitors were an elderly couple enjoying an early supper at one of the tables. Before exiting the grounds, they circled their car over to the water pump and kindly offered me some granola bars and bananas.

Now it was time to find a campsite. I was hoping for a nice, quiet, trailside site similar to Calf Mountain. But at Browns Gap, where Skyline Drive again crossed the AT, there was just an empty parking lot and a couple lonely fire roads that meandered into the woods. It was getting late. A few cars whizzed by on Skyline Drive. I started to clear out a primitive tent site near the parking lot. But it just didn’t feel right.

When all else fails, hit the trail. So I started up another incline. About a half mile up… voila! There, on the left, was my home for the night: a clearing, moderately used, with flat ground for my tent. And at the far edge of the clearing were two skinny trees, about ten feet high. A horizontal log beam was resting on two forks carved at the tree tops. It looked a little like a pole vault bar. Someone had built this thing to hang his or her food bag so marauding bears wouldn’t get it.

Usually, backpackers will seek out a single tree that has a high, horizontal limb on which to hang their bear bags. So this designer bear beam was really convenient. Surely this construction project took a lot of time. But why would someone devote so much time and energy to building it? Maybe a ranger built it.

Was Yogi or Boo-Boo in the vicinity??

(If you want to hear the rest of my bear encounter, please check out my book Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker.)

boo-boo

A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

July_7_08

(I submitted this essay to the NPR series This I Believe several years ago, after our dog Brownie died.  Anyone who’s lost a beloved pet knows how difficult it can be)

 

I open the front door and step onto the tiled hallway floor.  I grasp the brass doorknob of the coat closet, turn the handle, then reach in and shuffle the hooks on the coat rack.  Before draping my jacket over the wire, I hear a flurry of rapid clicking sounds on the porcelain.  By the time I hang my jacket, he’s lunging at my waist, panting heavily, gaping jowls and eyes afire.

__________________

While he was alive, I never thought of Brownie as being my best friend.  He was the one, more than anyone else, who anticipated my arrival home. Sometimes, instead of accosting me at the coat closet, he’d rush into the den, and I’d hear his big paws thumping the carpet, in joyful harmony with the sound of his favorite squeaky toy.  Happy because I’d finally returned.

Brownie and I both loved to run, and he treated every evening jog like an exotic vacation. There were all sorts of smells to be investigated, squirrels to be corralled, fenced-in dogs to strut in front of, shrubs and street signs to be marked. As we approached home, I always felt refreshed, but also relieved that my exercise was over. I’m not sure how Brownie felt. But I have a feeling he’d delay even his evening meal to do it all over again.

One often hears the expression “unconditional love.” I believe that phrase was coined over a dog. Yes, children too offer love without condition. But eventually they mature, lose their innocence, and often grow distant. One time my temper got the best of me after Brownie became, shall we say, “casual” with the carpet. He patiently tolerated my yelling until I made the mistake of grabbing his neck fur. Then, only in defense, he let me have it (I still bear the scarlet letter, on my right palm). But only seconds later, he was nudging up to me, pleading for my love and forgiveness.

Brownie was an Australian Shepherd, or “Aussie.” This breed is very family-oriented and protective. Brownie was happiest when the whole family was together. He expressed his contentment by laying at the nucleus of our little circle in the den and licking the carpet. “Brownie, stop licking the carpet!” my wife would scold. It didn’t bother me. Perhaps this was his way of licking all of us at the same time.

We didn’t know Brownie had cancer until it was far advanced. One evening I led him out the front door on his leash.  But this time he didn’t prance in front of me.  The leash suddenly became taut.  I turned around, and saw Brownie sitting like a lump on the front walk.  Something was wrong.  “I’m leaving Brownie inside tonight,” I yelled inside to Lynn.  “I don’t think he feels good.”  As I walked down the driveway, Brownie gazed after me through the glass, his fluffy ears upright as if to say “Why aren’t you taking me with you?”  I walked slowly until I was outside his range of vision.  Only then did I start to run. When I returned home, he was waiting for me by the driveway.  While I stretched my legs on the grass, he ambled over to me, his head lowered. The vet later said that the moisture under his eyes was probably caused by a fever. But I don’t know.

So now I’ll be running alone. I knew this day would come.  But, as when a close family member dies, I never expected it to hurt so much. My partner, my compatriot – my best friend – is gone.

I believe that, even though I didn’t know it when he was alive, Brownie knew he was my best friend. That thin little pink line on my right palm reminds me. Strangely, the scar doesn’t elicit a bad memory. The brief anger I felt toward my friend – a very human moment of weakness – was obliterated by what transpired immediately afterwards.  Something far more powerful: Brownie’s unconditional love and forgiveness.

Canine Madonna