Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Walking without thinking

J. comes tumbling down the Appalachian Trail just above High Breeze Farm. The path is muddy, strewn with rocks, washed out near the road. Wet boots, wet socks, wet pants below the knee. It'd be easy to slip and fall on the scree. He comes to a stop on Barrett Road, looks northwest, out across Vernon Valley, still much of it under water, even the black dirt fields over in Pine Island. The sky is pale and cloudless. Buzzards hang in the trees waiting for the day to warm up. J. feels lightheaded -- it takes concentration and a few deep breaths to stay upright.

After the dizziness clears, he takes a swig from his water bottle and wipes his forehead with a cool, damp hand. His armpits are wet and he feels a little chill at the small of his back. He needs to urinate. He leaves the road and heads into the woods. The path runs flat for about a hundred feet along the edge of a cornfield, then enters the woods. He pisses behind a cluster of stunted maples, the breeze drifting by him like an animal presence. Empty, he turns and heads back to the road.

There is iron in these hills. For more than a century, furnace fires ran hot throughout northwestern Jersey, making shot for troops, from the revolution through the civil war. J. hiked past the ruined forges in Hewitt and Wawayanda, those long-abandoned settlements where men mined the ore, chopped down the trees, and fouled the streams. These days it's no longer even spooky in there, where the tangled second and third growth vegetation has gone and reclaimed its hold on the soil, and the well-worn paths are maintained by members of the Appalachian Mountain Club. It's not wilderness but it's as near to wild as you can get this close to the city. Men like J. can lose themselves for a few days and take a measure of liberty out here.

He has left behind politics and religion. He's got no use for that shite. And he's free of his wife and kids. Let them fend for themselves. He's even chased his dog away. He carries little with him -- apples and jerky, a couple of ounces of weed, a bear horn, a poncho, water, and a 9 mm pistol made in the USA. He looks strong with his pipe fitter's forearms, but his back is bad and it hurts like hell to hike over these rocks and roots. He'll deal with the pain. His buddies are waiting for him in the Union Cemetery and they're not going to wait forever. It's time to get going.

He looks down at the valley again, this time with a clearer head. Ribbons of mist rise above the watershed. Christ the river did some damage. He looks for a good place to cross the flooded Wallkill. He smooths his shirt over a cast-iron gut and blows the snot out of his nostrils, one at a time. This walking without thinking is a good deal, it gets rid of the poison. I still got a ways to go.

He heads downhill, parallel to the road. There's no turning back on the trek to Edenville.

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