Backpacking, and getting by with a little help from our friends

Ken Sehested

Porch Story night, 6 February 2023

Introduction: The story below is from a recent Porch Story night, a monthly gathering (similar to The Moth Radio Hour) here in Asheville, NC, mixing five storytellers with three musical offerings by a local artist. If you’re a fan of good stories, you should check out The Porch Magazine. The editors also sponsor a variety of festivals and retreats, both here and in Northern Ireland.

We haven’t done it for more than a decade—winter hikes on the Appalachian Trail. The limitations of age caught up. Unreliable backs, cranky hips, joints that complain loudly from sleeping on the bumpy ground or hardwood platforms.

There were four of us—sometimes five—who would rendezvous at Sunny Inn Retreat Center in Hot Springs, a rambling, two-story house with many bedrooms, each with a menagerie of beds and thrift store furniture. It was usually about this time of year.

We liked winter hikes because the bugs were scarce and, with deciduous trees having lost their leaves, we had breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks and hollows.

We kept a moderate pace. Sometimes we walked bunched up, chatting away. Other times we strung out along the trail, keeping solitude with our thoughts.

All of these friends are wonderful storytellers. Once we stopped for a lunch break and got so caught up in stories that, before we knew it, it was mid-afternoon, and we had to pick up the pace to make it to the next shelter.

We always arrived in Hot Springs late afternoon on a Tuesday or Wednesday, shortly before dinner. Elmer, The Sunny Inn proprietor, had an earlier career as a gourmet vegetarian chef, so our meal was exquisite.

After everyone finished, Elmer would pose a question to initiate an extended table conversation. I remember one of those: If you could have a leisurely meal with three figures in human history—current or past—who would they be, and what would you ask?

After dinner our group would lay all our provisions on a bed and divvy them up, so each of us would carry approximately the same weight.

After breakfast the next morning, one of Elmer’s crew would drive us north or south to a trail head, and we spent the next 3-4 days hiking back to Hot Springs for a welcomed shower and a lunch bowl of beans and rice before heading home.

To this day, a number of memories from those hikes remain vivid. Here are three.

§  §  §

      On one of those years, when I arrived I immediately called home to check in with my wife. Our youngest daughter and her fiancé had set a June wedding date. But the previous week, Alayna’s soon-to-be mother-in-law, Kathy, had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.

It was worse than we hoped. Kathy’s doctor told her that here life expectancy would be measured in days—weeks at best.

I said a reluctant goodbye to my hiking buddies and headed back to Asheville. Everything speeded up. We were going to attempt a wedding ceremony the next afternoon in the Shelby County Hospital oncology ward.

What happened over the next 24 hours was extraordinary. The hospital gave permission to use a conference room. Kathy’s surgeon volunteered to play a wedding march on a borrowed electric piano. (He had never before played in public.) One of the nurses managed to find two candelabras; another found strands of plastic English Ivy for decorations. A member of Kathy’s church arranged punch and cookies for a brief reception after the wedding.

Alayna had already picked out a wedding gown, and the store owner agreed to make the necessary alterations overnight. Kathy’s pastor cleared his schedule to conduct the ceremony.

The nursing staff gave Kathy a boost of pain medication, then rolled her hospital bed into the room, adjusting it to a reclining position so she could take everything in.

I recalled the line from an old hymn: “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet?” None of us escaped leaky eyes.

§  §  §

      Fast forward a couple years. Nancy and I were on a month long stay in Mexico to learn Spanish. Near the end of the first week, my sister called to say that Dad’s health was deteriorating quickly. We immediately flew back.

We arrived in late afternoon at my parents’ house along the bayous south of New Orleans. I drove to the hospital to spell my sister keeping vigil at Dad’s bedside. He was unconscious.

I spent the night sitting next to his bed, reading half-way through the Book of Psalms, then singing all the old gospel hymns I could recall, most of whose verses were still burned into my brain. Dad never awoke. Every breath he took was a struggle. I told him several times it was OK for him to let go.

At dawn my sister came to take my place, so I could get some sleep. She called mid-morning. Dad had passed.

As it happened, the start of our annual winter hike came two days after we returned home from Dad’s funeral. I had previously told my friends that I wouldn’t make the hike this year. But Nancy said, “Well, maybe this was just the thing you need.”

So I decided to go. (Nancy’s often right about such things.)

At the conclusion of our first day on the trail—after eating, then building a campfire—my friends told me they wanted to hear stories about my Dad. So I began digging into memories.

I had brought a 12-ounce plastic water bottle filled with bourbon. After each story, I took a sip and passed the bottle around. After a few rounds, my friends begged off, so I had the rest to myself. The result allowed me to access some painful memories. And I told those, too.

I will never be able to adequately thank those friends for that opportunity to publicly grieve. Leaky eyes and all.

§  §  §

      Preparing for another year’s hike, I decided to take my light sleeping bag. The previous year my heavy bag was too heavy. Not long after dozing off, I would wake up sweating, unzipped it and tossed it back, only to wake up freezing a while later.

The winter weather was always plenty chilly. But when you’re walking most of the day, carrying 30-40 pounds on your back, and then sleeping in a decent bag, the cold wasn’t a problem.

Until it was.

We awoke our first morning to four inches of snow on the ground. But we had waterproof boots (or, at least I thought I did). The main problem we faced, due to the snow cover, was staying on the trail. We had to backtrack a few times. And it was harder to see protruding rocks and tree roots.

As it happened, that day’s hike included going through several rhododendron forests, whose branches were bowed low with wet snow. The tops of our backpacks frequently struck these branches, showering snow down out backsides.

By the time we stopped for the night, my clothes were pretty wet. The snowfall was the leading edge of a cold front, so temperatures plunged after the sun went down.

I had a tough decision to make: take off my wet clothes and have them freeze solid over night. (You don’t take much spare clothing on a short hike.) Or wear everything to bed. I chose the latter.

After an hour or so, I woke up shivering. I thought to myself, well, my body heat will eventually warm up my sleeping bag.

But it didn’t.

Before long, my teeth started to chatter uncontrollably. Maybe I could just tough it out and finally get back to sleep.

I didn’t.

I began fearing the onset of hypothermia.

It was.

In desperation, I reluctantly woke up Mark, the friend sleeping to one side, quickly explaining my dilemma, asking him to scoot over next to me. Then, the same thing with Mahan, my friend on the other side.

Squeezed between them, I couldn’t move much; but the borrowed heat finally began taking effect. I don’t recall sleeping at all after that, but next morning my friends assured me that I’d snored on and off.

That night we shared the shelter with two other hikers. In the hour before dawn, they began to stir. One of them put on his headlamp, looked at his watch, and announced in a groggy voice, “Friends, it’s 9 degrees!”

Regardless of my fatigue, I had never been so happy to scarf down hot oatmeal, sip some instant coffee, and get up and get moving.

Nary a year goes by that my heater friends and I retell that story and laugh and laugh, giggling like school boys who had successfully pulled a prank.

Thank you.

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