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Sat, 28 Feb 2009


Last Fall I was up on Blue Mountain (about 10 mi west of the NE Extension PA Turnpike tunnel. It was very nice too. Crisp at night, but not cold. Near full moon. Clear skies.

An odd thing happened, though.

It happened as I was sitting there, alone in the woods on the Appalachian Trail, maybe 5 trail miles from the nearest road. I was sipping my bourbon and waiting for my supper to cook. It was pretty quiet, some bird and bug sounds and the distant groan of Jake brakes from trucks descending the hill on RT309. The sun was down low, maybe a half hour from sunset. Not really cool yet, maybe 68 degrees. No wind.

Suddenly a small dog appears. Small and short haired. Not a poodle. Maybe it was some kind of scotch terrier. I guess. I'm not the greatest dog-breed-identifier. This dog runs right up to me and starts to sniff my food. "Shoo, dog," I say. "Get your own damn food!"

Then, a few seconds later, this young woman, late twenties, teal green sleeveless top, white shorts, white sneakers with those pink puff-balls on the heel of her socks, comes strutting by on the rocky trail. She's yakking full speed on her cell phone – something about Neil not liking Balsamic Vinaigrette – blond pony tail wagging as she yaks. Then she suddenly switches from yakking and yells, "Chelsea, come here!"

She has that vague, unfocused cell phone expression on her face. Involuntary brain mechanisms were controlling her strut. Police will tell you that it is far easier to attack someone talking on a cell phone as they lose all sense of their surroundings. I doubt the woman saw me even though I was camped not 20 feet from the trail. Of course, cell phone or not, as anyone who's hunted or played paint ball can tell you, it's hard to see a motionless animal in the woods, even when you are looking. I was frozen in incredulity. Finally, Chelsea turns away from my meal and trots off after the woman. In a minute they're gone and I'm wondering if the whole scene had just popped out of bourbon bottle and into my imagination. The sun is now setting. Where the hell could she have come from? Where is she headed? Isn't this supposed to be wilderness here?

The AT in Pennsylvania follows the corduroy lines of the ridge and valley Appalachians. For much of the state it follows a single ridge, which has various mountain names depending on where one happens to be. Blue Mountain is what it's called where I was camped when the lady walked by. The route I had taken to my campsite was about 5 trail miles and up 1000 vertical feet from the last road crossing at Eckville Shelter. The walk had taken a couple hours. To me, it seemed like I had traveled deep into the green tunnel of the AT, deep into the Heart of Darkness. But in reality I could have been less than a quarter mile from some McMansion development on the flank of the mountain. Chelsea and her master might do this walk every evening, leaving from their back yard. It might take them 10 minutes.

The same mountain ridge carries the Appalachian Trail eastward a few dozen miles to the Delaware river at Delaware Water Gap, where the river divides the ridge. The end of Blue Mountain in Pennsylvania is called Mt Minsi and and the beginning of the Kittatinny Ridge in New Jersey is called Mt Tammany. This is a glorious natural land form. It must have been remarked upon by travelers and explorers back for centuries, for millennia. Today, I suspect it's hardly noticed by millions of oblivious drivers that barrel through daily on the Interstate 80 bridge.

I'm not an extremist that thinks humans should all immediately commit suicide so as to show their love for our planet. Survival is the oldest, most basic "sustainability", and evidence of what our ancestors did to survive is everywhere. Our existence in testimony to their success in "sustaining" human life and I for one am happy that they did survive to bear me.

But I also think that human nature being what it is, to best pursue happiness humans need boundaries and those boundaries need to be stable. Without boundaries, too many oxes are gored. Good fences make for good neighbors. Boundaries protect private property, and boundaries are needed to protect public property, too.

What bugged me most about that lady and her dog Chelsea was that they had unthinkingly (and, no doubt, innocently) crossed some invisible boundary between suburban life and the illusion of wilderness that is the AT. Yes, she and her dog weren't really hurting anything. She wasn't dropping candy wrappers on the trail, or smashing beer bottles on rocks, or dumping broken household appliances into the woods like so many knuckleheads do.

But maybe she was hurting. Maybe, metaphorically at least, she was drilling in ANWR, or extending the Knox Mine under the Susquehanna, or building an ugly, concrete interstate trestle through Delaware Water Gap.

Without a doubt somebody was crossing some sort of boundary, if only the selfish, mobile, categorical imperative boundary I carry along with my life that demands everyone around me act in a way that best meshes with my personal whims at the time. I'm not sure.

In any case, after telling this story to my usual winter hiking partner Doug, he's incorrigible in using it to tease me. We might, for example, be struggling up some icy hill, spirits beaten down by freezing rain, lack of food, sore muscles, battered feet. Somehow, we gather our energy to make a push for the summit, only to be beaten back by some unforeseen problem: an unclimbable wall, a frozen waterfall across the trail. Tenacious and stubborn we find a way around the barrier and, with a great sense of triumph we gain the top. We stand there with the glorious wind ripping at us, seeing all the world below.

At moments like this, Doug will look around with a blank expression and shout "Chelsea! Chelsea!"

Posted Feb 28, 2009 at 16:26 UTC, 1033 words,  [/danPermalink