By Myke Johns
It did not begin as a trudge. It started as a hike. From the very foot of the Appalachian Trail to about twelve miles in. This gaggle of boys carrying sticks, wearing backpacks, our faces expectant even at that hour. Under any other circumstances it would be inexcusable for us to be awake—not for a school day, not for church, not for Christmas morning. Yet here we were with boots on, intently listening to our Scoutmaster go over trail safety one last time.
“Troop 410,” that was us, “we do not hike alone. If you have to stop to rest, to go to the bathroom, to pass out, you buddy up.”
We all eyed each other and quietly decided who our real friends were. I was not going back into the woods with Quentin or Hunter—those two did not have my best interests at heart. I figured I would buddy up with whoever was closest should the need arise. Raoul and Jason stepped almost imperceptibly closer to one another, though they didn’t have to. There was no coming between those two, and everyone recognized and respected that.
“Guys, are we ready to go?” Raoul called out, and the lot of us fell in behind them.
None of us consciously thought of them as leaders, but they were easy to spot in a crowd—Raoul’s dark skin and gangly legs, jutting from the bottom of his shorts, Jason’s ball cap. They were nice dudes—treated everyone square. They were a year older than most of us—or maybe not older. They were taller.
One mile down the trail is the best moment in any hike. That wasn’t so bad, you think, I can do eleven more of those! Hell, I could do twenty. Let me go, and I’ll make it to the Georgia line. I’ll make it into New England. I’ll do twenty two hundred more of these. I’ll see you in Maine, boys. I’ll send you a postcard.
By mile five, the uneven terrain and the morning chill humbled me slightly. I started to notice how most other kid’s walking sticks weren’t just broom handles with crude carvings in them. I compared their expensive metal-framed backpacks to my regular, overstuffed school pack, my sleeping bag strapped to the bottom with bungee cords. The next mile kept getting further away.
But we were out in nature! Daniel stood in the trail ahead of me, facing east. I got close, and he waved me over.
We stood at the base of some great rock outcropping, maybe a boulder, but in the North Georgia chill, a layer of ice had formed on it. Now, as the day warmed, the sheet was melting, but not in a way we’d seen before. We strayed there for a moment, watching water drops like tadpoles squiggling down the inside of the ice, the boulder perspiring in the sun.
Daniel’s pack was the opposite of mine—aluminum-girded and clanking heavy with tin cans, camp gear, everything strapped down and tight. But we had an easy back-and-forth and he was small like me. We buddied up and the next mile stepped lighter. We ran into Jason and Raoul, taking a knee just off the trail.
“You boys doing alright?” Jason asked.
We’re fine, we say. They pulled the canteens they’d dunked into the creek.
“Do you guys need tabs?” Daniel asked. Water purification tablets, as we’d all become familiar that morning. They turned your water a pale yellow which was wholly unpleasant to look at, and made the water taste like a really weak tea made from dead leaves and potting soil. Nobody liked them, everybody used them. Except apparently for Jason and Raoul. They capped their canteens and made off down the trail ahead of us.
The last couple miles before the campsite, the trail led down into a valley and the slow-going switchbacks caught most of the boys up with each other. So for a short while before our stopping point, we all got to see how the others had fared. We were all doing okay and the collective boost of confidence had us speaking as men do with one another in the woods. Our conversations became jocular and adult. We talked about boobs and the best ways, we supposed, of seeing them. Not a one of us eleven-year-olds was an authority on this, but we had all hiked twelve miles into the Appalachian Trail. We could not celebrate with beer, we could not have uncomfortable-but-awesome sleeping bag sex with our girlfriends—we did not have girlfriends. But we could engage in some casual adolescent sexism as we merrily pitched our tents, built fires and ate dinner.
There around the fire, we laughed and told our stories from that day on the trail—the falls, the sights… Hunter claimed to have seen a bear, “I swear, on the ridge as we rounded the lake!” No one believed him.
Raoul’s eyes went wide.
He stood, turned, and his skinny legs propelled him into the dark forest just beyond camp. We called after him. Jason followed his friend into the woods, and we fell in behind him, abandoning the fire, grabbing flashlights and tearing off into the dark.
Jason shook us and we called their names, the lot of us, sweat-stained and wondering if Raoul had spotted Hunter’s phantom bruin. One of us made out shapes in the moonlight, and we broke sticks and brush underfoot tramping up to them.
We found them there, the two, bent over the same log—pants around ankles, hands clutched at bellies. A foul, earthy stench, like peat or spoiled soup wafted through the pines and the two boys groaned as they splattered the forest floor with their unspeakable filth.
They were buddying up on diarrhea. I glanced at Daniel—he arched an eyebrow and simply said “the tablets.” Everyone seemed to understand what that meant. The troop turned and silently made our way back to the fire. Surely they’d be fine, we thought, as long as they were together.
Throughout the night, as the fire died and we bedded down, Jason and Raoul periodically scooted off to soil the forest floor with their regrets, one always following the other, like a pair of sad angry Sasquatches, groaning into the black night, ruining their asses in the pungent and terrible woods.
We go outside to grow up. We’re educated in buildings and raised in houses, but we go into the wilderness to mature. We’ve built cities to protect ourselves because most everything out there in the world will maim us in some way, from mosquito bites to thorny brush, sharp rocks against our tender feet, teeth against our soft flesh. When camping it is imperative that you grow accustomed to the sight of your own blood. There is an easy mortality about us in the forest and sometimes watching your friends turn into shit golems is what teaches you to respect the world around you.
It rained in the night and it soaked into my tent and my sleeping bag and everything, really, that we had carried onto the trail. We stood around eating Nutra-Grain bars for breakfast. No one wanted to break camp. Mostly because everything we had carefully packed the day before was now swollen, wet, and seven pounds heavier.
Except for Jason and Raoul. Their faces were drawn, their eyes sunken. If they had slept, it did not show.
I saw Daniel eating from a cold can of beans by the wet ring of stones which had once been our campfire.
“How’s your gear?” he asked me.
“Just about ready,” came a voice from behind me. I turned and the rest of the troop were standing over my shoulder, watching Daniel coolly spooning beans into his mouth.
I ate my crummy breakfast and packed up all my wet shit. The other boys did the same. We had another ten or so miles to go that day. There was heaving and swearing all about as we got our backpacks on. It was truly awful and cold, but somehow our camaraderie had not been broken. Daniel dug in his pack, produced a roll of toilet paper, tossed it to Raoul. The boys fell in line behind Daniel, obscured by his giant backpack. He turned to the trail.
“Are we ready to go?”