Photo: Clearing at Derrick Knob Appalachian Trail Shelter by jatdoll, Flickr Creative Commons
I'm no longer in the mountains and by the time I got out of bed yesterday, I already regretted it. I wasn't even supposed to be home when I awoke in my own bed that morning. My time on the SWEAT Crew doing trail maintenance on the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ended a day early because of problematic weather forecasts. It was only about 9:30 and already the temperature was over 90 degrees outside as unpacked all of my hiking crap to hang out in the backyard to dry. The unairconditioned utility room was a sauna as I shoved in rank clothes to clean, some of which took two passes through the washing machine to lose their smell. In 30 minutes I'd already sweat more than I had through four days of manual labor on the mountain.
There was a time earlier this week when I was longing for home, though. For some reason for the first couple of days I was nervous. I was surrounded by ten other people I had just met and I was going to have to poop in a slit trench and burn the toilet paper for my six-day, five-night stay on Derrick Knob. I've never spent more than two nights out in the woods and by the morning after the second night, I'm more than ready to come back into the welcoming arms of indoor plumbing for a hot shower. It probably didn't help that my previous backpacking trip a week earlier had ended with the loss of a wedding ring, a camera, and half of a tooth. Five days of that kind of misery may have turned me against wilderness hiking forever.
The weird thing was that as I pressed past that point with no way to leave — even I were to pack up my stuff and hike the eight miles back out to the trail head, I would have dozens more miles of walking and hitchhiking to get back to my own car — I finally broke through the nerves and began to really enjoy myself. The work wasn't easy, but it also wasn't as hard as lugging a 45-lb pack across 10 or more miles of hills each day, either. The exhaustion that normally eggs on my desire for modern conveniences never set in. Besides, I was really starting to like the people. By the end of the week it felt like we had been friends for years, probably the end result of being stuck together in a difficult situation for a week. It's a shame that I'll probably never see any of these people in person again, although maybe that's also for the best. Many of us probably don't have enough in common to keep the good vibes going back in the real world and in that real world we come from Maine in the north to Miami in the south and Arizona to the west.
I do plan on going back to work an Appalachian Trail crew again next year. The work is surprisingly fulfilling. The AT is one of the more amazing phenomena in the US. It's a wilderness trail wending its way for more than 2,000 miles through the middle of the most densely populated side of the country. It's a part of the National Park Service but it's maintained through private funds and work, and for a week I got to be one of the guys who lugged heavy tools up a mountain to help keep it from returning to the wild while trying to keep the wild as close as possible.
Sorry for the lack of photos, though. As I mentioned before, my camera died on an earlier trip.