Hiking and Reminiscing

It’s not unusual to find that your itch for adventure is satisfied long before your adventure is over and you find yourself yearning for the mundane. A hot chicken sandwich. A bed. A toilet. A shower. This happened to me recently when I found myself on top of a cold deserted West Virginia mountain wrapped in a tarp being besieged by angry winds. It started when I found my hiking backpack as we were getting things out of closets and preparing to move for the third time this year (seriously). It occurred to me that the last time I used it was many years ago. In Thailand, actually. I was single and in pursuit of meaning and fulfillment and found myself in a jet headed for the other side of the world.

Actually the Thailand story started in Hong Kong. My friend, Huey Hippenhammer, was living in Hong Kong where he was involved with a ministry that delivered “bread” to a certain Communist regime on a regular basis. I was friends with Huey’s brother, Herman, who also happened to live in the same house as I did. In fact, Herman owned the house. This made our friendship a little tumultuous especially when I was late on the rent or I wanted to change my motorcycle’s oil while it was parked in the living room. My motorcycle was later stolen off of the back porch because, obviously, it wasn’t in the living room. 

Anyway, Herman and I decided we would fly over to Hong Kong to visit Huey and help him make some deliveries. While we were in Hong Kong, we found ourselves looking at a world map on the wall of the office.

“You know,” Huey said, “Thailand isn’t very far away from Hong Kong. I bet tickets are pretty cheap.”

“I always wanted to go to Thailand,” I said. I always wanted to go anywhere, really. Except New Jersey.

“We have some contacts in one of those Communist countries bordering Thailand,” Huey said, “I bet we can set up a trip to deliver bread. After we’re done with that, we could go sightseeing for a few days.”

So we found ourselves in a little apartment in a border town in Thailand with stacks of bread in the garage. The apartment was used as a staging base for deliveries but apparently it was unused for some time, or else they were using it as a holding pen for a cattle auction. It was absolutely filthy. So filthy, in fact, that three bachelors who were staying there for only a few days voluntarily took it upon themselves to get down on their hands and knees and clean it. 

The next day we emptied our hiking backpacks of all our personal stuff and filled them to the brim with bread. This bread wasn’t light and fluffy; it was hard, heavy, and square – and also gluten free. We fit probably several hundred loaves in one bag. We were trying to maximize each trip because you never knew when the bread police would catch you at the border and take all of it. We grabbed our bags and hoisted them over our shoulders as our eyes bulged from their sockets. Our packs must have weighed over a hundred pounds!

“It’s important not to act like your pack is heavy,” Huey said. Huey had experience delivering bread so he had a few pointers. “If you are staggering across the border, the bread police will know that you have the wrong type of bread in your pack and search you. So act normal.”

“Sure thing,” I gasped between lungfuls of air. We staggered out the door and hoofed it half a mile to a busier road where we could grab a tuk-tuk, a local taxi, and get a ride to the border. Tuk-tuks were motorcycles converted to tricycles with seats for paying passengers mounted over the rear axle. Each driver decorated his tuk-tuk and some were quite extravagant. Tuk-tuks run down the streets of Thailand like water.

We waved down a tuk-tuk. The driver was very friendly and offered to load our bags. We politely declined. Our bags weighed almost as much as him anyway (Thai people are small in stature) and we didn’t want him getting suspicious of what we had in them. Bread isn’t illegal in Thailand but they still don’t want you taking it across the border since it can harm relations with neighboring countries. We ruptured our spleens by nonchalantly trying to load our bags onto the tuk-tuk. Then we hopped inside. “Okay!” We gave him the all clear. He floored the throttle and the engine vibrated weakly as he tried to move into traffic. He quickly braked, wiggled the handlebars around, yelled something, and hopped off the tuk-tuk.

“What’s wrong?” Huey asked.

He pointed to his front wheel and said something excitedly in Thai. We all dismounted to see what drama bewitched us and found that, since our packs were so heavy and we loaded them all behind his rear axle, his front tire was off the ground! He couldn’t steer! He quickly tried moving our packs around but after much grunting with little effect, he changed tactics. He sized all of us up. He pointed to me and then motioned that I should sit right behind him on the front of the tuk-tuk. Apparently I was the most effective counterbalance in the group since the problem was resolved. Off we went! Praise the Lord, the bread runs were all successful.

But anyway, that was one of the last times I really used my backpack. I had the itch to do it again. Of course, I’m married now and have two kids. I could barely afford one plane ticket to Thailand then, there’s no question about it now – I’m not going to Thailand! I settled for adventure on a smaller scale. West Virginia is only five hours away and it has some of the nicest hiking trails in the mid-east region. Of course, adventure is no fun if you don’t share it and so I texted my old buddies I grew up with who live in Pennsylvania; “Wanna go hiking in West Virginia?”

West Virginia was also a good meeting place because it was five hours from Ohio and four hours from Pennsylvania.

Me, Tony, Jeff, Adam, and Andrew

Several weeks later we found ourselves at the trailhead of North Fork Mountain Trail. I whipped out the map. I had carefully laminated it with clear packing tape and had stowed it in a front pocket of my pack for easy access. We started going over our route. We were going to hike around 13 miles the first day and 11.4 the next day. I would like to say our aggressive plan was because I’m a go-getter and an avid hiker but the reality was I’m just ignorant. I haven’t been hiking in years and I forgot exactly how long it takes to hike a mile with a fifty or sixty pound pack.

Andrew was looking at the map. “Wait a minute,” he said, “Nothing lines up here. This is the wrong map.”

“Let me see that,” I grabbed the map. Sure enough, several weeks earlier I had printed out maps of various trails in the region and had them all strewn about my desk. I grabbed the wrong one! Luckily Tony, one of the hiking buddies, had taken a screen shot of the correct map I had emailed everyone a week before. We would just hope his phone battery made it through the hike.

North Fork Mountain Trail runs along a ridge past the back side of Seneca Rocks. It’s a gorgeous hike with so many beautiful vistas that after awhile you don’t even bother to take the time and look. The only downside is that there’s not many reliable water sources since it’s high on a ridge. This means you pack a lot of water. Water is heavy! I packed two and a half gallons of it, which of course turned out to be too much. I always overpack. I hate suffering and so I try to minimize it by bringing along the remedy for any conceivable calamity.

It didn’t take us long to realize we were all a lot older than the last time we went hiking. Body parts began falling off of us as we hiked along the trail. A knee would rattle off, a finger would work itself loose, a rib would jiggle free from the cage and bounce around. It was like a box truck full of mannequins crashed down over a mountain leaving debris scattered behind. We finally stopped for the night, lit a fire, and told each other how much fun we were having.

Our campsite was right beside a 300 foot cliff.

“This is the life! Sure, this hammock costs $30 and bends my back like a bad chiropractor but it sure beats my $1,000, two foot thick, pillow top  mattress. Ha! Who needs civilization?”

“My ramen noodles with tuna hit the spot. Sure, my wife was making cheesy mashed potatoes and ribeyes tonight but when you’re starving, this ramen noodle slop tastes better than anything!”

“My blisters don’t feel too bad. I just have to wring the blood out of my socks every couple miles so my shoes don’t get too heavy. Still, better than wearing my horrible flannel lined slippers. We should go on a hiking trip every year!”

“I ate ten pounds of beef jerky today so far. This is the life.” (Five minutes later) “Where’s the shovel and toilet paper?”

We sat around the campfire, caught up with each others’ lives, and stoked the fire of friendship. The next day we gathered all our body parts together, crudely assembled them, and limped off into the woods. The last day of the hike is always the worst and each mile gets longer and longer. The closer you get to the end, the longer it takes to actually get there. We were hobbling and wincing with each step. Well, except for Jeff. Jeff literally ran a marathon in four and a half hours and a marathon is two miles longer than our two day hike. Nobody really likes Jeff.

Well, I mean, he’s fine. Just don’t try to keep up with him when you’re hiking.

From a little hamlet in Ohio,

Josh