a short story by Jay S. Winston, all rights reserved
The past is never dead. It’s not even past
May 1st, 1992
The spotted puppy ambled forward a ways and stopped. Following a moment’s reflection—responding to a call or, simply, at a sudden, frightening recognition of aloneness—he turned and bounded back. After a minute or two, he ambled forward again.
We followed, moving in long strides, now and then surprised by a sudden sweetness of honeysuckle around a corner, or what sounded like a bear, crashing through the underbrush in fear at our approach. Around nine-thirty, the sun, gradually rising above another grey-green ridge to the East, became visible through illuminated leaves and branches arrayed in multitudes along the slender pathway, offering up tiny blossoms just then breaking into soft pinks and blues. It was good. We smiled and kept walking, southern ground comfortably moist beneath dry, mud-flaked boots, dawn’s lingering chill lightly pinching exposed flesh, floating in and out of nostrils with fecund scents. Rarely speaking, listening to crackling twigs beneath boots and the chaotic hosannas of birds on all sides, we moved gradually, purposefully, content in following that crazy dog all the way to Damascus.
On another morning, barely a week before—though already the story had been told and freshly embellished half a dozen times—I’d crossed a series of Southern Balds—“the Humps”—in blinding snow and fog. The Southern Balds, according to the trail guides, are an unexplained phenomenon—mountains in the Southern Appalachians with no trees on top, just grassy meadows, as if there were a tree line, but there isn’t.
I’d spent the night before in the frigid loft of an old slatted barn with a couple of recent college drop-outs. They were hiking from Georgia to Maine, like myself, though moving a good deal more slowly. Once finished, they said, they might go back to school, or not.
Marla said they were hiking together but not “together.” She wanted to be an artist, but was concerned that formal education might get her caught up in old ideas, hindering the free flow of her creative energies. She had spiky hair dyed unusual shades of orange and red, wore glasses with gigantic horn rimmed blue tortoise-shell frames and was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the fifth time. “It says the trip itself is more important than the destination. I agree with that.” Allowing me no time to respond, she held up a picture she’d been using as a bookmark. It showed her on somebody’s back porch, yin-yangs, ankhs, peace signs, and anarchy symbols in the midst of endless psychedelic swirls drawn by “artist friends” all over her naked body in black magic marker. One of the artists, Raven, had been trying to talk her into going out to Boulder, where they could both study “movement.” She’d never eaten meat in her life, wrote her trail journal backwards, hated anything artificial, was thinking about becoming a Sufi.
Chris wanted to get an MBA, eventually, and maybe work in advertising. “At least that’s what I tell the rentals. For now I just wanna party.” Once, a couple weeks before, he’d hitch-hiked sixty miles to a county that wasn’t dry to buy a twelve pack of beer. Back on the trail, he’d carried it, with the rest of his gear, ten miles and approximately three thousand vertical feet to the top of a mountain. There he sat and tossed back the beers one by one, taking in a view of what seemed like infinite grey fog before hiking back down the other side. It was an incredible experience, he said, maybe the best he’d ever had. He’d felt, though he couldn’t quite explain it, that, for the first time ever, though he couldn’t really see anything—or perhaps because of that—his life made sense, everything was perfectly cool, though afterwards he’d had to set up his tent in the dark and crawl into a sleeping bag soaking wet from the melted bag of ice he’d used to keep the beer cold in his pack. He seemed to be trying to get somewhere with Marla.
“I’m lost,” I said. College graduated, no particular career ambitions, no clear future to be seen. “But I’m enjoying it, for the most part, for now.” They said that was cool, but didn’t seem like they cared to hear much more. That was fine.
It was the last week of April, deep in the Sunny South, but snow had been falling, gradually increasing, all day, and icy winds came in relentlessly through wide slats in the barn walls as we sat, insufficiently wrapped in mummy bags, taking quick slugs from Marla’s bottle of Jack Daniels. Most likely, we’d have been warmer outside, in tents, but realizing that certainly wasn’t going to make us decide to go out there. Chris produced a couple of joints, along with a deck of cards, water damaged but useable for endless hands of hearts as snow blew into the loft in drifts, giving ghostly illumination to our huddled forms, fingers growing numb as we played. Now and then someone made the mistake of looking at Chris’s watch, finding, invariably, that the hour was far earlier than expected, and we still had a long time to go before morning brought some modicum of warmth, or a least light, so we could move.
A week or so before then, we’d had a teasing bit of spring weather, following a month of endless icy nights surrounding mercifully short days spent trudging with muscles unused to such constant exertion along ridges barren but for the occasional rhododendron or pine, disconsolate but not expected home ‘til Fall. My partner quit early on, in Georgia, so I was mostly alone—eyes watching tiny buds appearing slowly on skeletal limbs through the hills of North Carolina, first hard and small, hardly appearing to contain even latent life, then gradually growing fatter and softer as I got thinner and harder. At Fontana Dam, in Tennessee, all broke open, just in time to be left behind for the high sharp ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains, where trees remained bare but legions of wood sorrel dotted new grass like stars.
And now this, when morning finally arrived: “The Humps.” For lack of trees on which to paint blazes, rocks had been used and these, of course, were obscured if not covered completely by close to two feet of snow. To the extent that “forward” had meaning in the midst of that directionless white, it was the way I moved. Kept to what seemed like it might be the trail, hopefully was the trail, the closest thing to a trail to be seen; trudging on only because I’d been foolish enough to start—leaving my potential companions behind, still bundled in sleeping bags in the barn loft, tiny clouds of vapor rising from their openings—and it was better than stopping. Sure as hell better than turning around and going back
At some point, trees appeared again, white-blazed no less, a discernible pathway between them. From that Nordic purgatory, the trail meandered into a somewhat infamous section mentioned in hiker stories and myths for the past hundred miles or so, announced by a barbed wire fence festooned in repeated signs reading:
TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT!
According to somebody, the trail corridor was bought by the Interior Department from people who didn’t want to sell and weren’t fans of the federal government in the first place. Legend had it that locals strung fishing line across the trail, hooks at eye level; a trail shelter was burned down; a female hiker lured into town and raped. Others said it was all talk, no more real than the one about the local prison escapee with a hook for a hand; people around there just liked to be left alone.
After a while, there was a road and I hitched into the nearest town, which had a sleazy motel run by a semi-friendly biker, with a special “hiker hostel” room—bunk beds without sheets, dirty floor, shower and heat for ten bucks a person a night. Chris and Marla showed up later, said they’d followed my footprints through the snow. “What are you, idiots?” I asked. They stared blankly. Somebody scored a couple mason jars of shine from a local and we drank heartily to ever-changing seasons.
Now, Spring had returned. At first light I’d rolled up my sleeping bag, exchanged rancid long underwear for mud-spattered shorts and sweat-stained t-shirt and eaten the usual granola mixed with dehydrated milk and iodine-tainted water in a battered aluminum camp kettle, thinking ahead to getting into town for hot chow, mail, and a shower, just eight miles up the trail.
It was Saturday, so the post office in Damascus, Virginia, closed at noon. Dogman was an unusually quiet bike mechanic from somewhere in Ohio whose real name I never learned, hiking with his nine-month old springer spaniel, Fargo (no trail name). He needed to get to the P.O., too, so we decided to pace each other. Around ten, we crossed from Tennessee into Virginia—longest state on the trail, as well the land where my forebears rode out from the old family plantation in grey uniforms, to live and die in Dixie—and where a distant cousin sat on the board of directors of a country club which, at the end of the twentieth century, continued to defend its all-white membership list, old times not forgotten. But that was my family, not me, not now. What counted now was now, here: the ridge, the trees, the sudden honeysuckle, the bears, walking. The rest was far away, foggy detritus, unreal, wholly antithetical to the fragrant new leaf brushing against the newly bearded cheek, the copious dirt around fingernails.
(We were, for the most part dirty men and boys—lots of Adams, few Eves—crammed against one another in musty sleeping bags in tiny lean-to’s on rainy nights, making all-too-relevant fart jokes ‘til everybody fell asleep and could no longer hear or smell. I’d started seeing someone just before heading to Georgia: cool, smart, pretty—we had such a promising start, but that turned out to be all—then, what do you expect when you disappear into the woods for half a year? Dreams came and went, one melding into another—some pure fantasy, others momentarily catching on the swaying branches. Feet kept moving—that much was real, at least: the ground, the movement).
Dogman, listening to tiny headphones a few paces ahead, glanced around at one point, removing one miniature speaker, and spoke. “The death toll’s up to forty.”.
Did I want to know what he was talking about? Probably not.
We both kept walking, quiet for a few minutes.
“What death toll?”
“You haven’t heard?”
“The verdict came in Wednesday, for the Rodney King trial. All four cops were acquitted. There’ve been riots all over the country, especially L.A..”
“Oh,” I said, adding, after a little while, “that sucks.”
In town, a pizza place filled with members of the roving trail community, all hungry: “large pie, sausage, pepperoni, extra cheese...you got Canadian bacon? One for each of us....”
“The world’s gone insane,” said an older guy with long white beard (first he’d ever grown, just retired from the phone company).
“If your world is L.A.,” said another, a silver haired gentleman, born and raised in Mississippi. He changed the subject to finding a car to go see a movie a couple towns over. Lunch finished, went next door to buy a box of Little Debbie’s cakes for dessert.
Biscuits and gravy. Fried eggs with Smithfield ham, bacon and sausage comfortably nestled in hot fluffy golden biscuits. Sitting in the tall grass on a Sunday afternoon, watching a small town pass by. Strangers on porch swings wave and start rambling conversations about anything or nothing, with the musical twang of country speech. Pink, wide open blossoms on trees in well tended town parks. Tangy pork barbecue on a bun with fresh slaw. Fried chicken and ‘taters. Collard greens and sweet potato pie. The sound of a semi-mythical banjo in the distance. Look away, look away, look away.
Small town newspapers, the kind that carry banner headlines about church bake sales, didn’t have much to say about the riots. Maybe a mention somewhere, some local person who happened to be visiting L.A. and sure would be happy to get home—not exactly in-depth analysis. All efforts to find a New York Times proved fruitless. Probably just as well.
Got a large bottle of cheap red wine, another box of Little Debbie’s and a paper bag of ham and sausage biscuits from a place by the river that sported authentically rusted “co-cola” signs next to a bigger, better tended, newer one reading “Guns, Videos, Snacks.” Went and sat by the river to ponder. Was this all simply the way of things—falling apart, centers unable to hold? Was it the old, deferred dream that explodes? Would something new rise—another morning in America? Having imbibed most of the bottle, I thought about Jack Kerouac rambling on about wandering mountain tops with a rucksack, praying for the sad world below, and wondered if maybe something like that was my true purpose—cresting the ridges of the world’s most ancient mountains in solitude while America’s cities burned with rage, finding a peace and clarity in solitude that might somehow radiate outward. Or something like that. Soon the bottle was empty, along with the Little Debbie’s box and the greasy brown bag, and I went back for more.
Still wandering around the little town a day or so later, I found a convenience store by the highway. Inside, a skinny black guy with a Caribbean accent was taking shelter from the rain, apparently waiting for a ride. His little tape player, held together with masking tape, played Bob Marley, as he provided commentary in an enthusiastic monotone to the plump, pigtailed white girl standing uncomfortably behind the counter. “Get up stand up, yah, that’s what’s happening now, yah. That’s what’s happening in L. A.. Stand up for your rights, yah. It will happen everywhere now, yah. Don’t give up the fight. Yah....” I got some Pepsi, nacho flavored chips, ice cream and another sausage biscuit or two, paid at the counter and left.
Monday morning, pack loaded down with new food, I tromped in sunshine toward Mount Rogers, where, in an open area called Grayson Highlands, wild horses run on a landscape that’s been compared to the open spaces of Montana (generally by people who’ve never been to Montana). Unexpected hard sleet began to fall as I stopped for the night at a trail shelter just at the edge of the Highlands.
Four older hikers were already there (most thru-hikers were either under thirty, like me, or over fifty)—retirees, military veterans, telling army stories ‘til dark in slow drawls. One guy, Old Bob, told about how he’d quit drinking. One night in Saigon he and a buddy, both military policemen, got tanked and decided go looking for Viet Cong, “armed to the teeth.” As it turned out, they found quite a few. “God knows how, we made it back in one piece, and I said right then, the Good Lord my witness, I’d quit drinkin’. Ain’t touched a drop since.” The first time I’d met him was maybe a week or two earlier, a few days after the last big snowstorm, in another early twilight. I lay exhausted on my sleeping bag, and there he was: three hundred or so pounds that had traversed the entire trail two or three times, standing beneath a tall pine, late rays causing raindrops to sparkle on tiny needles hanging, a fragile presence, between us and the sky. “If you don’t believe before you start,” he said, looking up toward that incredible light, “you will by the time you’re done.” At that moment, it was hard to disagree.
I finished dinner, rinsed metal dishes, brushed teeth and prepared to sleep as current events slowly came to fill the narrow wooden space.
“...it sure did look on that videotape like those cops were overstepping...”
“Oh, come on now, there were three other blacks in the car. They didn’t get beat up. Nobody laid a hand on ‘em. They did what the officers told ‘em to and there was no problem...”
“That’s what they can’t seem to understand...”
“....burned down their own damn projects...”
“That’s right! And just you wait! The damn federal government’s gonna step right in and rebuild those projects so they can burn ‘em right down again...”
“Way it always works, damn it...”
“Oughtta learn to reap what they sow, take responsibility for themselves...”
“...for a change....”
“That’s right. Let ‘em sleep on the streets for a while, do the rebuilding themselves...”
“...find out what it’s like to work, ‘stead of sittin’ around on the front porch steps waitin’ for the damn welfare check. Might teach ‘em somethin’...”
“Damn right. Teach ‘em the value of...”
“...expect handouts... giveaways... everything for free. Don’t wanna work for nothin’...”
“...travel in packs... made sure my wife got outta town when they had their big street fair in Atlanta last month....”
At some point in the night, one guy, a retired colonel from Texas, went out to piss. Pushing aside the camouflage tarp he’d put up earlier in a futile attempt at keeping out the wind, he said “there’s eight inches out there.” I rolled over, pretending not to hear.
In the morning snow swirled in a deep fog. The old guys were up before I was, but slower getting ready. There’d no venturing off alone this time. We entered the highlands in formation—the last guy staying behind with the last trail marker, the first going ahead to find the next, those in between providing communication between the ends.
At one point I slipped, feet flying out, falling hard on snow covered ground.
“Man down!” the guy behind, a retired mailman from Knoxville, yelled to the others. With striking efficiency, they pulled me up, brushing the snow off my clothes, making sure I was uninjured before continuing, promptly, forward.
Couldn’t see the horses at all, but heard them off in the fog, running, whinnying helplessly in fear, like the sounds of some cavalry battle fought long ago. Continuing. The old Colonel leading, we trudged on, into white.