By the end of January I found more inspiration to write about why I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.
I imaged it would be like a video game.
A real-life video game.
Sounds like this young man didn’t want to grow up.
Can you blame him?
This was another Trailjournals.com entry that I titled “Simple Magic.”
Simple Magic – January 30 2001
I grew up on video games, among other things.
The Legend of Zelda, for example, is nothing short of pure magic to me.
That golden cartridge, with the sword and shield and what not on the front, in its black sleeve. You blow the dust off the connection, press it down in the console and start it up.
If you’re lucky, the old fossil of a video game system works on the first try. Then the wonderfully simple electronic music begins to play, and life is one hundred percent euphoric happiness from that moment on. And if you’re a brave, skillful, and lucky hero, you get to rescue Zelda herself.
Those video games are magic to me, I think, because they bring me directly back to the time when I was, say, seven years old and playing them. When you’re at that age and all your consciousness is completely poured into something that simple and fun… well, it’s pure joy.
It’s like when you’re young during an endless summer evening, and shooting hoops or playing kick the can or something, and it gets dark out. You could just wish for nothing more in the world at that moment than to be able to stay outside and keep playing just a little bit longer… even though you can barely see the ball in the dark anymore, and your mom’s calling across the open playgrounds to you to come in for dinner. It’s the same feeling. Once you grow up, it’s very hard to get quite that same kind of exhilaration out of anything… ever again.
One night after going to a basketball game my senior year, my friend Dave and I had some abnormal plans. It wasn’t a party or anything like that.
I went right home after the game, and lugged about five or six heavy boxes from the basement storage area up to the second story apartment where I lived, one box at a time.
He arrived shortly afterward. My prized collection of Lego toys from back in the day was slumbering inside of those treasured boxes, and feeling very lonely. We sifted through them and built things throughout the night and into the next morning, loving every second of it.
This wasn’t long after we had dug out and dusted off the old Nintendo system. I think we must have been going through a mid life crisis of sorts or something, at the age of 18. Senior year of high school is a crazy time. You want to get out of there, but at the same time part of you doesn’t want it all to end.
An Appalachian Trail hike can be considered to be similar to the really good video games. You’re on a quest. It has many levels, each different and challenging. It’s in the forest and mountains where dangerous creatures lurk (Maybe not dragons, but there are bears, and, uh, squirrels, and oh! Rabbits! I must pack a holy hand grenade).
You are the lone adventurer and hero. If you decide to quit, well, game over.
You must equip yourself with weapons and armor and items to finish the quest.
“Yes, Mr. Merchant, I’d like the chain mail armor please… I mean, the rain jacket with the Gore-Tex shell.”
“What? 300 gold pieces! It looks as though I must go earn more rubies.”
I also equip a map and compass, bottles filled with the reviving water of life, magic boots, a candle or lantern or headlamp to find my way through the dungeons, and all those things found at the weapon & armor shop… I mean, the outfitter.
On the journey itself you cross paths with many people. You can stop and push the ‘A’ button and they will talk to you. You need valuable information from them to complete your quest. It is also essential to stop in the towns to gather more information, equip more advanced items, and stay at the inn to replenish your life and magic power (And take a shower!).
With every step you gain experience points, which make you an altogether stronger hiker. You need to pick up many tips along the way – maybe the best places to stay when in town or what to do in the event of a black bear encounter.
Most importantly, there are those totally magic, “happy” scenes in the video games. In one of the fancier newer versions of Zelda, there’s this grove of trees hidden in the Lost Woods where there is a sparkling sword in a stone, rays of sunlight shining through the trees, and happy little squirrels and chipmunks and such that bounce around when you arrive. It is very magical, and I am at a loss for words to describe the scene other than pure magic.
(Editor’s note: The “fancier newer” version of Zelda is “A Link to the Past,” for the Super Nintendo…)
Now, I told you about that to tell you this.
I work full time, five to six nights a week cooking at a restaurant (But I won’t be for much longer!). Because of the hours, I rarely saw any of my friends when they were home from college during the summer.
I’d get out of work at midnight or one o’clock, and sometimes I liked to sit out on the balcony of the apartment where I lived and just kick back and listen to Springsteen tunes, basically enjoying the late, warm summer nights, wondering how everybody was doing.
Well, on this one moonlit night in June when I was out there, around 2am, a car drove past, went around the block, and parked on my street. In the silence of my suburban neighborhood, the car’s engine stopped and the headlights shut off. Somebody got out, slammed the door, and walked across the grassy lawn toward me.
It was my friend Mike that I hadn’t seen or heard from in a long time. What a very unexpected and pleasant surprise! Who knows what inspired him to come over. I hadn’t been in touch with him, and he wouldn’t have rang the buzzer at that hour. He couldn’t have expected me to see him outside, but there he was.
It was just very “good luck,” or whatever you choose to call it, because that night I almost went to bed and never went out on the balcony at all, and he showed up only minutes after I had stepped out.
He walked up and we just sat out there talking about nothing but the trail for a few hours, getting really excited. He’s one of my few buddies that gets psyched about backpacking. We were planning a week-long trip for the end of July. We talked on and on, I mean, getting really pumped up.
It must have been about 4:30am when we had enough talk, got in his car, and drove about 45 minutes to an AT trailhead near Windsor Furnace shelter. It wasn’t long before we came across white blazes and an official AT directional signpost in the dim, cool air before dawn. That was quite a magical sight to behold in itself. And, whoa, there was a tent! And a shelter in the distance! Thru-hikers! Holy sh*t! They were like sacred people to us, and we were surely not worthy of invading their world with our lowly presence – clad in khaki shorts, sneakers, cotton shirts and deodorant, with our vehicle a short distance away, etc., so we didn’t disturb them and simply walked.
We wandered up and up the winding trail for about a mile and a half in the early morning light. Yellow beams of sunlight were shooting through the canopy of leaves overhead, shining in and spotlighting the forest floor, awakening the wilderness with color and life.
Patches of crisp blue could be detected overhead, marking the beginning of another beautiful day. Being on the trail at that moment in time was like one of those great dreams where, when you wake up in the morning, you want to instantly fall back asleep and get back to the dream. Each bend lifted us higher and nearer to the summit, from where it seemed some primeval force was drawing us.
And there, at the top of the ascent, was the magical grove from the Zelda game. I paused and admired the grassy clearing before my eyes, prior to advancing into it.
It was a bit like I imagine the thru-hikers do when they see the sign at the summit of Katahdin just ahead.
I walked a few steps into the scene before me, and dared to look out at the view from an overlook called Pulpit Rock. The sun was just shining up over the green ridge, and misty fog still lingered in the valley below. It was perfect and beautiful. Something very special was going on here.
In flooded that simple, magical, blissful state of mind from playing video games or tossing a football around as a child. But this, this was in the real world, with a real forest and valley, and real mountain ridges on the horizon… scenes better than those in the best movies, and a real life adventurous path that could be followed and experienced and savored… and potentially six simple months filled with moments just like this.
And oh, if I only had a pack strapped to my shoulders! To have ventured here from Georgia, through wind and rain and endless mountains and ridges! To be able to hold my hand over my brow to shield the incredibly bright light of the sun, judge the day’s weather from the puffed white clouds in the sky, gaze out at a distant peak on the horizon, weary and sweaty with lean, hard, trail worn muscles; to pull out a map, glance up again, stroke my beard, and say something prophetic like
“We ought to be over that distant ridge by sundown.”
To be a Thru-Hiker!
Is it April yet?