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A Race Against Time

A Race Against Time
Time Flies

It’s Sunday, 2 o’clock in the afternoon and I’m on an Amtrak train to Georgia. The arrival time to the Gainesville station is 7 o’clock tomorrow morning. It’s a 17-hour train ride that I ordinarily wouldn’t consider taking. A flight would have been faster, but not as convenient, due to carry-on restrictions against some of the gear I have; like my poles, a utility knife and alcohol fuel… which is definitely suspicious.

Nonetheless, I’m on a train… and so my journey begins. Though, I did have quite a time this morning getting ready. 

I set my alarm for 9 a.m., in hopes that this would give me enough time to ready my backpack and walk with it on from 91st street to 34th street, Penn Station. I guessed that this would give me the chance to break in my backpack or at least get accustomed to the weight. 

With the eagerness of a child on Christmas morning, I awakened an hour and a half before my alarm was set to go off. 

This is it! I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail! 

While sorting through my pack… for the umpteenth time, I recall that I wanted to cover my gear and clothes with Permethrin, an insect repellent that’s supposed to last up to six weeks or six washes. It’s something I should have done last night, but I somehow didn’t get around to it. My impulse to do this long-distance adventure is uncovering some flaws in my prepping.

A week ago I saw an Appalachian Trail documentary, which revealed that the number one hazard for all thru-hikers is not the wildlife, the weather or even another human being. The biggest danger is the smallest of critters, a tick carrying Lyme disease. Unfortunately, I happen to have dreadlocks that stretch down my back. I’m a tick’s dream come true.

I discovered that hundreds of ticks hang on various plants and tall grasses, waiting for animals like rodents to brush against the plants, taking with them the ticks. Those same rodents can ultimately find their way into the Appalachian Trail shelters, thus sharing their parasitic arachnid passengers with unsuspecting hikers. 

The Lyme disease issue was the first and only fact I found that caused me to doubt my decison to hike the Appalachian Trail. To some degree, it dampened my anticipation of camping or spending any time in the wilderness. To counter that, I quickly came up with a rational solution to always sleep in my tent and not in the shelters. I also purchased a merino wool buff (which is basically a tube of soft fabric about 24” long and 10” in diameter that I can pull over my head) to cover my long dreads. Turns out that merino wool stores heat in cold weather and is light and breathable in the heat. It also draws sweat away from the skin; this process is called, wicking. The beauty of it is that I can use the buff in various ways: as a headband, a facemask, a neck warmer or a headscarf. But, most importantly, I’ll use it to cover every single lock on my head. I refuse to make it easy for ticks to party on my dreadlocks. 

I layout my tent in the living room, ready to spray it down with the Permethrin. Putting the tent together took some time since I had only done it once before and I still had no idea of what I was doing. 

Darn it! It’s the twenty-first century, why can’t they make a tent that I can toss up in the air and watch it twist and turn into a pitched tent? Is that too much to ask for?

As I begin to spray, the logical side of my brain wonders how toxic will this bug repellent be to my system? Yet, as always, my carefree side is tossing caution to the wind, but how carefree am I that I’m actually shielding my gear from bugs. As much as I’d like to think that I’m a reckless cowboy… ready for anything, the cautious astronaut in me seems to take the reign more often than not.

After spraying my tent, I went over the rest of my gear and clothes, and then left it to dry for an hour. It seemed like I had time to spare, but then I looked over at the kitchen clock and saw that it read 12:30 p.m. Ok, I have an hour and a half before the train to Georgia departs. I’m not going to make it in time if I walk there. I’ll have to take the subway. That should give me enough time to get my hiking gear and myself together, right

While racing toward my departure time, it occurs to me that I was doomed to lose to this wretched clock on the wall. I go ahead and curse the inventor of those time keeping gadgets. 

I will not be defeated… I will catch a cab to Penn Station. Yes! I bought myself some more time. 

The tent was ready and all my gear was nearly in my pack. 

I got this!

I go over the apartment, making sure all the windows are locked and the dishes were washed. 

Damn, I wish I could bring this Italian percolator with me, is my thought as I rinse out the coffee maker.

I go ahead and bless the inventor of that coffee maker. He must have been a saint. I picture my mother’s holy prayer card with an image of a saint and a ray of heavenly light shining behind him. The white bearded saint is holding a cup of cappuccino that he has slightly tilted forward, just enough to reveal a creamy foam heart dusted with cocoa powder. 

It’s a beautiful vision. 

I snap out of my daydream and finish washing the dishes as the clock continues to tick.

I’m cutting it close

Not a problem, I like to think that I’m good under pressure.

The pressure is on and I feel myself cracking under it. Thirty minutes to go. I grab my backpack and I’m surprised or I should say nearly floored by the weight… literally. I brace myself on the dining room table, and then try again. As I attempt to swing the bag over my shoulder, it dawns on me… I didn’t test the weight of a full pack. I should have accustomed myself to having a thirty-pound (at least I think it’s thirty-something pounds… could be more) bag on my back before this day came.

Something else to figure out on the trail… the list keeps growing.

I’m hunched over with the awkward weight of the backpack on my back. I slowly straighten up and have a look at my image on the long, living room mirror. 

So, this is my summer fashion look for the next five to six months? 

I wonder what I’ll look like after hiking for five days? This is a perfect time to take a before picture, looking fresh and clean with my new gear and clothes on. I grab my camera then notice that I forgot to recharge the battery. I take my pack off, nearly pulling a back muscle. I find the extra battery in my pack, and with extra care not to cause myself bodily harm, I get my heavy pack back on. 

I’m now ready for a mirror selfie…whaaa…

I read a no memory card message on my camera. 

Crap! 

I take my pack off, grab a memory card and then once again struggle to put my pack back on. I haven’t even started to hike yet and I’m already sweating in clothes that will not be washed for at least a week. I take the mirror picture, and then rush out the door twenty-two minutes before my train departs. I turn to the elevator down the hall. On my first step, I sway to the left and my shoulder lands on the wall. With my face inches away from the wallpaper, I take a moment to thank it for stopping my sideways fall. I look at the trekking poles I’m holding, and thank the hiking gods that I decided to buy them the day before. I haven’t extended them for use yet, but the idea is that they will help me with the weight of my pack and keep me from falling… I hope.

I carefully step out of the elevator and into the lobby. 

“Yo, that’s a solid backpack you got there. Looks like you mean business, champ,” says Raymond the door guy. 

“I do. I’m going on a long-distance hike for several months,” I say, hurrying past him.  

“Damn, who you hiding from, Smooth Criminal?” He yells after me. 

Raymond believes in conspiracies and alien probing devices.

“From The Man, you haven’t seen me, okay?” I say, glancing back with a smile. 

“Sure thing, I got your back. Be safe, gangster. Don’t let them get you,” he shouts while scanning the street for possible secret agents. 

I get to the corner in time for a yellow taxi to pull up. 

Perfect. 

I open the back door, toss in my poles and clumsily take my pack off, failing miserably at not appearing to be a novice with this big-ass backpack. I shove it further into the back seat and climb in after it. 

I’ll make it, I assure myself. 

“Hey, Penn Station, please. I have less than twenty minutes to catch a train, thanks man,” I say out of breath. 

Without a word, he pulls into traffic. 

Traffic! 

“Can we get out of this?” I say to the driver. 

I’m normally not a back seat driver, but I can’t lose this race against time. He mumbles something about this being the fastest way and continues on his route.

“OK, I trust you,” I say, surrendering myself to the will of the Universe and to this New York City cabbie. 

He then begins to sway in and out of traffic with the skill of a NASCAR driver. 

All right, I may actually make it.

Figures pass by the cab’s window. I try to take in what I can of this remarkable city. 

I’m going to miss this place. I just returned… am I leaving way too soon? 

I look down at my hefty backpack; it contains my survival for the next half-year. I wonder how I’ll actually fare out in the wilderness? I’m torn between my love of this city and my desire to explore life. I place my hand on my new backpack and give into my desire. 

This feels right, plus New York City will always be waiting here for me

For a moment, there’s no clock to beat, time is on my side… it’s my ally. I look up and find it easier to take in what I can of my hometown. 

After an eighteen minute cab ride, I thank the driver, jump out and run through Penn Station. The weight of my pack digs into my shoulders, it begins to drain my strength and speed,and so I’m forced to walk briskly. 

Oh man, it’s 2:00. 

I look up at the large departure board and see that my train is boarding on Track 12. I turn around like an out of control top searching for the track entrance. I find it and run like dickens down the escalator. With my back hurting and my heart racing, I leap into the train. 

Aah, I made it! 

Thrilling as it was, I stand there for a while, wondering why this day had to be such a race? 

I haven’t even entered the woods… I wonder what’s in store for me there? 

What a way to start this adventure. Although, one thing is certain, I can leave behind the need to race against time out on the trail. 

Giving in to what will be, I now wish I hadn’t leaped into the train… that hurt!


If you’re interested in reading more about my wacky, yet adventurous AT experience, check out my memoir, The Unlikely Thru-Hiker.

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