It was a late autumn Saturday and the football team was away. As things settled into the weekend forays of a typical college town, I set out alone on the Blue Ridge Parkway, an hour or more on that endlessly winding road into the reaches of Jefferson National Forest somewhere west of Roanoke.
I’d woken up that morning feeling unsatisfied and itching to get out of the apartment, another strange little instance where inspiration struck only as the opposite force to boredom. And I was again victim to my own last minute planning. But the weekend and fair weather were at stake, and an opportunity to get out into the mountains, companions be damned, was not to be squandered. I unfolded the plastic topo map across my bed and picked a section of the AT with a shelter – I didn’t yet own a tent – that I had passed through a year before.
It was cold, the sky cloudless, autumn blue and gray forest and green pine. I parked at one of the many pull-offs and disappeared down the tangent trail, walking below the road’s embankment, eyeing the saplings cut short to maintain the view from the road. The AT shelter was only a few miles away, mostly downhill.
I had worn my synthetic down jacket and jeans, and cheap hiking boots I would later jettison after purchasing a pair of Vasques using Christmas money from my grandfather, which was fitting as he had always extolled the virtues of quality footwear in his own unpolished way. I had’t acquired much in the way of kit then, an external frame Janson, a cooking pot from the thrift store, a cheap sleeping bag, but for single-nighters in less than extreme conditions, it was usually enough.
The trail followed an easy, downtick grade, and I quickened my pace in the failing light. I had gotten my start late in the day and wanted to reach the site early enough to prep dinner and make a fire before nightfall, the azure darkness already creeping over the hollow like a blanket.
I sat on the edge of the shelter after posing for the camera some feet away, perched on the rock pile surrounding the fire pit. It was something I had always done, selfie before the selfie. Analog camera, decent little Canon, beat to hell from sand and dirt, balanced on some rough surface and aim askew. I wanted it to paint my own portrait alongside those in my head, Jack London at a makeshift desk below the trees, Nessmuk sketched in 19th century garb, Chris McCandless leaning against that bus. I’d read Into the Wild sometime the previous spring and it had struck an identifiable chord. I bought it on a whim at the campus bookstore – the cover caught my eye – in a section where some professor had assigned it to a class, though I don’t remember who or which one.
I still had the book, earmarked and torn, stuffed down in the violet nylon next to Robert Service and a ziplock with my toothbrush, bandaids, deck of cards, and iodine tabs. I read by the firelight, the smell of Ramen still in the air. I couldn’t seem to get comfortable and the evening breeze was pushing up the valley in cold wisps. I cursed out loud and stomped out the dull glow of the remaining coals, rolled out my thin, foam sleeping pad on the floor of the shelter and lay flat with my balled sweatshirt under my head. It was marginally more comfortable, but at least I was out of the wind. The room smelled of must, as they all did, and was sparsely ornamented with epithets scratched or written into the walls about the smell, the cold, the rain, the trail.
With my LED headlamp on, I caught the iridescence of a spider’s web in the corner. He sat prone surveying the room. Like a landlord, I thought, waiting to collect rent.
I drifted back to my book and soon fell into fitful sleep.