Everybody knows that there are beasts out there: the hungry bear, the sex-crazed moose, the mountain lion stalking her prey (well, maybe not on the AT). But all these, all these are nothing, not really even considerations. At least not after you’ve faced the most dangerous beast on the trail–and lived to tell about it:
“Somewhere in the nation of physical suffering that is western Maine I became certain that I was about to enjoy a cerebral hemorrhage. It didn’t help that I was already a bit weak when the head pain split into my brain—weak because I had already, early on this day, endured at least six reruns of the cruelest optical hallucination that darkens a backpacker’s vision.
You might not as yet have had the joy of experiencing this distinctive Mainiac phantom on you own. So let me give you a little context to help you understand.
Mainers are a very direct people, and their mountain trails are created in their own proud and stubborn image. Back in the beginning, back when that first plainspoken, job-doing, simplicity-loving Maine backwoodsperson out dutifully tending his flock of moose first came across a mountain in his path, his most powerful impulse was not to go motorvating sideways, diagonal, gradually, or easily up a bunch of crybaby switchbacks. He had, after all, a wilderness filled with moose to milk, and his time was too valuable to wait for Moses to put on his knee pants.
So he lined up his eye with the Bullwinkle standing up there on the hill crest, and he went there, straight there, not bothering to step aside for anything mortal, vegetable, or stone. And the AT now follows those original trails, all agonizingly straight up. And this leads to some quite severe topographical illusions.
The worst of them goes like this. Sweat spurting, legs howling, lungs jet-engine-takeoff shrieking, and head thumping, you at last spot the long-sought height of land two hundred and fifty impossibly long meters straight up the trail. You at last see sky. You pause for a second, rally your very last reservoir of strength, dig deep into your final threadbare pocket of self worth, summon patience and self-flagellation worthy of your favorite medieval saint, and topple off those last four hundred impossible steps.
And when you at last crest the holy of holiest, you break into inconsolable weeping as the grains of your foolish illusion leak away. There before you, commanding the very horizon, is the real summit, a half mile and thousand vertical feet ahead, hidden up to this point, of course, by the rude steepness of the trail you’ve just crawled. By the third or fourth time this trick eats our lunch, even the most dull of us fully understands that the “real summit” you now see might itself well be just another cruel deception, with another ever receding high point just behind it.
So I wasn’t all that surprised when my brain suddenly went into full scale, bring-out-the-guillotine, let’s-start-the-Russian Revolution, burn-the-place-down, thundering and violent rebellion. Forty or fifty strides into the precious flat area before the trail began its climb toward the once hidden peak, my skull filled with an impossibly loud, barbaric hammering, as resonant, deep, and present as the air horn from some lost train that had somehow found itself in a small, tiled restroom, a noise as dark and consuming as the space between solar systems.
Totally panicked, I dropped to my knees, intent on making sure that when the artery in my head erupted I’d collapse the least possible distance to my death. I might be quite dead when they found me some days into the future, but my quick actions could insure that my corpse, all gnawed by the beasts of the wilderness, would have no bruises from an unnecessarily long fall.
On the other hand, being twenty-three and an English major, I had not the slightest clue about the proper way to forestall sudden doom by intracranial aneurysm. So when all symptoms abruptly disappeared a few minutes later, I applied the backpacker’s universal medical solution: checking around to make sure no one had seen my abject, cowardly prostration, I pulled the pack back on and kept walking.
But two hundred yards up the trail, the terror returned, drumming violently away inside my head—an energetic pep band at the last big game of the season. Noting very rationally that my earlier prophylactic grovel hadn’t seemed to make much difference in outcome, I kept walking. The next shelter was only three miles away (over the next false peak), so I determined to die there with dignity, in my sleeping bag, with my boots off, among my own kind. By the time I came down back into low shrub after the final climb before the shelter, I was a wreck, wired as tautly as Barney Fife at a big-city traffic stop.
Without warning, the chicken attacked.
At first the bird merely staggered onto the path, looked me in the eye, and marched southbound a bit in front of me. “That’s cute,” I said out loud. “I now apparently have a partner, a fellow creature to watch over me with kindness and concern when I faceplant into the dirt and die.” Then, in perfect concert with my own mental state, it began erratic spinning, nervously completing a series of ever widening circles thirty feet in front of me, dragging a limp wing in the dirt and churtling away in deepest pain. I could relate. And then, a wild plunge into the bush and it was gone.
“That was diverting, for sure. Quite the entertainment. Sorry to see you go, old friend.”
The trail exploded wings. A cavalry charge done up in claw, beak, feather, and bird saliva half flew, half skipped down the trail, mounted my head, ravaged the territory, dismounted abruptly, and retreated back, gasping heavily, to occupy the center of the path in front of me. There was a brief truce, several tense seconds, as we both regrouped and contemplated new strategies, the only sounds a series of “Christamighty” and “Jesusgod” spit out from my guppy mouth.
Her eyes met mine again, mine quickly averting lest I give any indication that I had intent to challenge or intimidate. She raised her wings, inflating herself to twice the size any bird should ever attain, rotated slightly to fulcrum more force into her next volley, and began visibly pulsating, some avian energy force pumping in vast, untapped streams of evil potential, building toward bird thermonuclear critical mass.
I raised my hiking stick, thought better of it, and tore off into the ragged heather to the left of the path.
Ten minutes and a quarter of a mile later, I climbed a rock and triangulated a course back to the trail, carefully choosing a route with the least cover available to hide a bird in treacherous ambush. Looking back on it, I guess in the next few minutes I did not actually hike several hundred yards of the official AT treadway, my only trail cheat of the walk. But at the time there was no way I was approaching that bloodied ground again without a squad of Marines and a skilled UN negotiator.
A few minutes later, I dragged into the shelter, muttered a few “glad to meet you—I’m not feeling so hot” to the three chipper Canadian guys already boiling up their suppers. I climbed into my bag, and rolled over to face the wall and begin summoning the courage for what I assumed would be a lifelong, soul-brave road to recovery. Sliding off toward what I was sure would be bad dreams, I overheard something like this:
“Dude, that partridge party was definitely the high point of the day.”
“She reminded me of your crazy mom.”
“Not taking any crap off anybody, eh? Nobody will ever schlep around her chicks with impunity.”
“Love the little act where she lures you away from her nest by acting vulnerable and wounded.”
“Leads to brutal conclusion if you don’t go along with her act.”
“Like your sister, eh?”
“You’d know, my friend.”
“The partridge dudes were all amped up and randy out there too.”
“That’s God’s truth, for sure.”
“Feels just like the noise is boring right into your brain, right inside your head.”
With a doomed sense of what was bound to come next, I began to pay closer attention.
“My dad said they do it by rubbing their legs together really fast.”
This all led to a volley of teen snickering, some uneasy accusations about masturbation tendencies in the group, and a round of hearty, enthusiastic, but not very accurate imitations of a male bird slapping his legs about in sexual invitation.
But by then I didn’t really need to listen to their bird parodies. I already knew what they would—each and every one—sound like: a loud and dramatic cerebral hemorrhage, of course.
So while their imitations propelled them upward into paroxysms of hilarity, I climbed quietly out of the bag and started cooking up my macaroni for the night.
There’s plenty of real evil out there. Even the most sheltered of us eventually runs into it, the psychopathic monsters driven by creed, greed, anger, and certainty, an unsolicited cancer that eats away things beautiful.
But since my afternoon in Maine, I’ve always found it useful to spend a few minutes calling up the partridge test before I blow my chest out and cavalierly curse some nasty or another by slapping on the “wicked” label.
Might be something a little more understandable going on. Don’t think like a child. Dig a little deeper for motivation. Understand the context. Sniff out the history, natural and otherwise. Follow the money.
Walk a mile in the other creature’s claws. The noise in your head means that you’re trying.