There’s nothing like cresting a long hill, especially at the end of a long day of hiking. My wife and I needed a break and thought a few days on the Appalachian Trail would do us good. We started at Damascus, Virginia and hiked ten miles that first day.
At the top of the hill, a sign marked a trail junction, and as I caught my breath and waited for my wife, I read the words that pointed the way. To the left, our campsite was a quarter-mile further. To the right, tomorrow’s hiking waited. My wife joined me a moment later, happy that we were done for the day.
Though it was mid-May, the night promised to be a cold one, so we hurried to set-up the tent and get our things squared away before dark. At dusk, we gathered our food, stove and other essentials and went to the shelter where there was a table. To the right, a guy was building a fire.
As we ate our freeze-dried food, an older man stumbled into camp, accompanied by a large chihuahua and an Australian cattle dog. We’d passed him on the trail earlier. He was loud and funny, a big talker. He hadn’t hiked a mile in twenty years, he told us, and on a whim decided to get back out and see if he could still do it at sixty-seven years old with one re-constructed knee.
The guy who’d built the fire had started at the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, at Springer Mountain, Georgia, about a month ago and planned to hike all the way to its northern terminus at Mt. Katahdin, way up in Maine. He was painfully shy and gave off an awkward vibe as he sat silently by the fire, occasionally poking it with a stick. Thin, with a bald head and dark, woolly beard, he reminded me of the comedian David Cross.
After dinner, I put away our things and found our reward for a hard day of hills – a flask of red wine for my wife and a bottle of bourbon for me. I held up the plastic Coke bottle I’d funneled the 100 proof Old Grand Dad in the night before and beheld the metallic, copperish glow, backlit by the fire, then screwed off the cap and caught a whiff of the caramel and vanilla before taking a long drink. It entered my mouth cool, like water, but grew warm as it made its way over my teeth and down my gullet, the perfect antidote to the night’s chill air.
The old man hand taken a seat next to me, complaining about his knees, and I offered him the bottle, telling him this might help. He smiled as he took bottle and thanked me. He sniffed the opening of the bottle and closed his eyes, savoring the aroma before lifting it to his lips.
“This ain’t no cream soda,” he said, handing the bottle back.
I offered the bottle to the fire builder. He asked if it was whiskey, and I told him it was bourbon. He leaned forward and took the bottle and considered it a long while.
“You needn’t worry about germs,” the old man said. “Alcohol kills cooties.”
Thus prompted, the fire builder took a tentative drink. “Nice,” he said, nodding his head. He handed me the bottle without further comment.
Passing the bottle around the fire was like entering a trail fraternity, where the social barriers of the outside world melted away, leaving us only with our selves, our stories and our bourbon. And so we sat until late into the night, sharing experiences of other trails and other times, the men passing the bottle and my wife enjoying her wine.
As we parted for sleep, I asked the old man how his knee felt.
“What knee?” he asked, winking. I feel nothing.
I would say it was the perfect start to a wonderful three days on the trail except that we drank all the bourbon that first night, leaving me nothing for the next two days. That small detail aside, I doubt we would have enjoyed the night nor each other quite so much, had there been no bourbon with which to break the ice.