January 29 - February 1, 1993by Rodger Ling
Skidmark has been planning the trip for weeks, and when you go backpacking with Skidmark, you don't just hop in the car and stop at the first place that looks good. You spend hours on the phone, juggling maps and negotiating a destination. You have meetings at his house to study the itinerary, plan menus, and talk about equipment.
The controversy this time, all along, has been the distance. All of us want to walk the Appalachian Trail around the Standing Indian Basin near Franklin, North Carolina. Brady and I want to do a 21 mile trip over the three-day weekend; Skidmark insists that we will never survive that distance. The debate continues as we drive towards North Carolina. Brady and I capitulate, but the closer we get to the trailhead, the more Skidmark hesitates. By the time we're being shuttled to the drop point, he's ready to abort completely.
"My throat is getting scratchy," he says. "And my heel is hurting. I'd better just stay at the campground."
In his younger days, Skidmark backpacked solo for weeks at a time in the roughest terrain. But since those days he's gained a few pounds. He's crashed his mountain bike and broken his arm and shoulder. He's been married three times, nearly gone bankrupt, had an operation on his back that almost killed him. In short, the once fearless Skidmark has grown less sure of himself. In stark contrast is Brady, fifty pounds and five kids over his fighting weight, a former high school track star who now spends eighteen hours a day in front of a computer, eating sausage biscuits and refusing to have his cholesterol checked. Brady freely expresses doubts that he will live through the trip, but you can tell that he doesn't really believe that, not for an instant.
"Come on, Mark," he says. "Get your pack on and let's go."
It's an old story: the aging athlete still dreaming of a comeback. What happened to Skidmark happens to all of us, sooner or later: the inevitable crisis of confidence when the body becomes suspect, when prudence goes haywire and becomes debilitating. I think back to Doctor Dan Twilley, who could surely shed some light on all this. Doctor Dan is a chiropractor, not a real doctor, but he knows about stuff. According to Dan, aerobic capacity, the ability of the body to use oxygen efficiently, declines as the body ages. But physical strength actually tends to grow.
"What kind of people are happiest when they get old?" Dan once asked me. "Rich people? Poor people? People with families? People living alone?"
I ventured that the rich were probably pretty happy.
"No!" Dan had declared. "Active people! Look at the research. The people who are happiest are the ones who stay the most active."
And so, in our quest to stay active, Skidmark and Brady and I shoulder our packs and enter the woods at Bettys Creek Gap. We hit the Appalachian Trail after just a quarter of a mile and turn southward. We pause for lunch at a dramatic overlook, where the granite cliffs of Pickens Nose are visible across a gaping valley, then move on to Carter Gap Shelter and make camp. We have traveled only four miles.
From the top of a nearby hill I try to reach Chattanooga on my 2-meter radio and end up talking to some guy in South Carolina (later, at the appointed time of 7:00 p.m., I am able to talk to Annie via a nearby repeater). We cook and retire to our sleeping bags, where I lie awake most of the night, listening to a virtual symphony of snores.
In the morning we hike along the ridge that surrounds the huge basin, down across two gaps to begin climbing Standing Indian Mountain. The grade is an easy one; the trail, scenic and at times beautiful, particularly as we near the summit. At 3:00 p.m. we are standing in a clearing on top of the mountain, where a group of earlier arrivals are basking in the sun. The view to the west is spectacular: we can see Lake Chatuge, the stone tower on top of Brasstown Bald, Lake Burton, and ridge after mountainous ridge extending to the horizon. Our original plan to continue onward to a shelter evaporates. We will spend the night here.
From the top of the mountain I can easily reach Chattanooga with my radio. Brady and Mark call their wives on the phone patch to confirm they are still alive. The sunset turns the sky orange with a glow that lasts thirty minutes or more. With the sun gone, the temperature drops and the wind picks up. As Skidmark and the others retreat to a fire they have built a short distance away, where the trees provide some shelter, Brady and I stand in the zero-degree wind chill with the world spread out below. Down at the fire, they laugh at us and call us crazy, but Brady and I sleep out in the open there on top of Standing Indian.
The sun rises, and we emerge from our insulated cocoons into the frigid air to begin the hike down to Deep Gap. From there we take the Kimsey Creek Trail toward Standing Indian Campground, where we plan to call for our shuttle to pick us up. Brady, having lived through the night, is being beaten down by blistered feet. With three miles to go, I offer to switch boots with him. Even so, he still falls off the pace. I push on with growing discomfort in Brady's now infamous boots, which he has appropriately named the "Iron Maidens."
Early that afternoon I limp into the campground with Mark. Brady isn't far behind, but we can't find the pay phone. I offer that the phone is almost certainly right down the road. Mark will have nothing of it. "Stay right here," he orders. "I'll find the phone!" Mark is happy. He has not only survived the hike, but has energy to spare.
I locate the pay phone, right down the road. It doesn't work, so Mark hitchhikes back to his truck. When he returns he is still in good spirits, full of confidence and already talking about his next backpacking trip.
Brady, on the other hand, is a broken man. He reclaims his boots and wordlessly places them in a nearby trash can. He speaks without much enthusiasm of trying to get back in shape, maybe doing some biking, of adventures he had hoped to accomplish and now fears he never will.
"If I don't change my lifestyle," he says, "I'll be dead before I reach forty."
"Come on, Brady," I exclaim. "How old are you now?"
"Thirty-eight," he says. "And a half."