I skip backwards across the shelter clearing, on the fly slipping into the
unwinding spin of the discus thrower, all the while keeping my eyes firmly on
the surface level of the water in the pot, ready to abandon my grip should the container’s hazard become emboldened and try a leap for freedom.
The next night I seemed destined to have to stay at the notoriously depressing Darlington Shelter. Early on in Maine, I’d camped with a gentlemanly retired naval officer who’d annotated my AT Mileage Fact Sheet with pretty much all he’d learned from two thru-hikes—everything from the state of water supplies at iffy campsites, to rural fire stations that might welcome an overnight visitor on a rainy night, to which waitress in some small Virginia town was likely to bring a free scoop of ice cream with your dessert order. His handwritten comment beside the Darlington Shelter was short and—as it turned out in my particular case—entirely prophetic. “Shitty” was his comment in total. He was right in ways he possibly hadn’t considered.
The shelter was a rough-board disaster most likely originally created in the ninth century as a pre-execution holding pen for abjectly poor and totally broken peasants who had seriously irritated the Spanish nobility. Though I haven’t done the research to substantiate my conclusions, I’m reasonably sure it was then transported, with not much care for its structural integrity, across the stormy Atlantic in 1531 to house the original shipment of domestic pigs brought to the New World by brutish Spanish conquistadors, a group not especially known for their love of beauty for beauty’s sake. Lost in the dim back halls of history is the chain of baseborn decisions that somehow deemed appropriate its repurposing as a ignoble place of rest for noble AT hikers.
It was, of course, sited only ten feet away from a well-used jeep road, ensuring, among other unpleasantries, that its landscaping could be seamlessly crowdsourced to the party community in the area. They had chosen well and carefully, to wit: a charming array of smashed bourbon bottles, an ocean of crumbled, rotting aluminum foil, a carpet of cigarette butts, dozens of expended shotgun shells, and a partially burned, totally savaged Art Deco love seat, its leather bottom now shredded by generations of riotous possums. Or more likely by many a posse of restless Pennsylvania teens, given the dozen or so small caliber bullet holes it now displayed.
But the Darlington Shelter also sat just above and north of the dreaded Cumberland Valley road walk, and, in spite of my best planning, I reached it in the very late afternoon. So an uneasy night there seemed inevitable. At least it wasn’t a weekend. Maybe the hoot-it-up-crowd would stay at home watching Gilligan’s Island until Friday rolled around and they could resume their big times vomiting it up in the lonely, derelict pines.
Two decades later, after a thorny series of negotiations with local residents, many of whom wanted to keep hikers on the asphalt rather than risk them traipsing through the burgeoning suburban growth and thriving farms in the area, the trail was moved to a perfect route up on a ridge through the valley. Everyone now agrees that it’s a great walk and that the AT hikers who use it have mostly proven to be respectful, welcomed neighbors.
But in 1973, the walk across the Cumberland, under Interstate 81 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and on towards Maryland promised ten miles of hot, shadeless pavement pounding, mostly on rural two lanes. Everyone coming north warned me, unless I aspired to be as well done as the Christmas turkey, to do the valley crossing early in the morning, before the sun was completely awake and ready to start its daily baking. I planned to take their good advice, even if it meant another night in a roadside slum where one might acquire a slit throat if just the right adventurer decided to jeep in for a night of bloodshed and carnage.
So I laid the sleeping bag out to air, dipped my cook pot into the spring for supper water, and idled away fifteen minutes filling up a trash bag with shelter garbage while my mac and cheese gooped along on its journey to reconstitution.
Maybe some tea might be nice with the Kraft, I belatedly thought. So back to the spring for another quart of water to finish off the cooking.
Unlike the shelter, the spring was a beauty. Only a hundred feet away, it was a two-foot diameter of superb mountain refreshment, expertly stoned in at some point by some thoughtful craftsperson of taste and charm, with a nice surrounding deck of matching stone so that no careless boots could ever carelessly kick even the smallest amount of mud into its crystal treasures. It was perfect.
Well, perfect except for the large human turd bobbing with carefree, jaunty vitality at the spring’s very center, a treasure I’d somehow not discovered on my earlier water-scooping mission. I’m pretty sure it was human. I did no forensics, took no DNA. But it certainly looked human, appearing much like all the other human dumps I’ve ever seen. Too large and linear to be deer, too lumpy to be bear, too horrible to imagine in its all-too-clear relation with the water happily boiling up my supper just yards away.
I don’t know how I could have missed it on my original trip to fill the pot the first time around. The water was perfectly clear; no weeds encroached the small area of the pool; no mountain mists swirled around to limit views. I desperately sought rational explanations. Perhaps I had discovered a rare submarine-diving poop, with high-tech powers to confound hikers by sliding soundlessly down among the depths at the times when it chose to lurk unsighted? Maybe an invisible, quiet, uncharacteristically bloated Naiad with digestion issues had slipped in unnoticed while I was doing my cleaning tasks? These are, with proper and long consideration, the only logical reasons—other than trail weariness and the usual all-consuming joy at taking off the pack at the end of the day—for how I could have not noticed a poop the size of a police officer’s flashlight as I bent over an area barely larger than an average hat.
In less than a minute, my sleeping gear was corded back on the pack, the pack was restuffed with everything that had come out of it, my partially cooked macaroni and excrement was spread down the mountainside, my cook pot was wrapped in my entire, complete collection of available plastic bags and tied to the outside of my pack frame, and I was off down the trail toward the Cumberland Valley, trying to outpace the radioactive miasma that I knew had to be streaming off my aluminum kitchen utensils.
Fifty yards down the path, a burst of belated awareness—equal part disgust and conscience—pivoted me around and back toward the shelter.
I read a novel when I was a kid about Benedict Arnold’s disastrous 1775 march up through the forbidding Maine forest to try to take Quebec from the British. On about the same route across the Kennebec River and through untrodden wilderness that I had taken two months before, his troops got hopelessly lost and quickly ran out of food. As the unforgiving Maine winter closed around them, some of the soldiers felt the unfortunate need to resort to cannibalism to keep together body and what was left of their souls. One minor character was particularly attractive and vivid to the gross-out sensibilities of my teen self. I was remembering him hard and steady as I approached Darlington for the second time.
The character’s best buddy, as it turned out, died early on as the wilderness closed in, and, being dead, no longer had much need of his head and its rich stores of protein. So for chapters, my favorite character, by now completely insane with hunger, would look carefully around, pull the decaying and increasingly slimy skull from his duffel, and secretly dig in for a little tasty, precious brain snack. In the climactic scene, where all is finally set right, his saner mates discover this grotesque heart-of-darkness cafeteria and move with alacrity to place the hideous head underground.
Headed back up toward the Darlington Shelter and its hideous fresh-water spring, I now fully understood their horror. A proper burial of my own nonfictional abomination had become my first priority. The turd must be safely entombed. And, I never, ever, planned to eat from my cherished, lightweight, indestructible Sigg cookware again. Never. It must be buried too, soon and deeply, in the nearest clearing I can find far enough away from the shelter never to offend the sanctity of human decency. Off came the pack, down I go on the knees, frantically goes the walking stick into Pennsylvania earth. But, alas, mostly into Pennsylvania rocks. Ten minutes later, all sweat and cursing, I have a ragged hole, pot-wide but less than two inches deep. Defeat is acknowledged.
Off the knees, I grasp the pot with a plastic bag and step toward the spring again, perusing it from the safe distance that one might scope out a cave that one suspects might harbor a sleeping dragon. The turd still floats placidly on the surface, rocking and surfing short, graceful waves stirred by the prevailing winds.
I scoop the poo and skip backwards across the shelter clearing, on the fly slipping into the unwinding spin of the discus thrower, all the while keeping my eyes firmly on the surface level of the water in the Sigg, ready to abandon my grip should the container’s hazard become emboldened and try a leap for freedom, perhaps starting by a lunging liquid assault up against my hand.
At the edge of the clearing, I stop, pivot, and uncoil in an impressively fluid motion, hurling a quart of water and five ounces of gleaming waste into the Pennsylvania wasteland, where no human, I hope, will ever encounter it again. With a dozen or so equally desperate movements, I empty the spring, step back to watch it slowly refill, empty it again, and then tag a warning note of explanation to a nearby tree: “Please, Dear Friends, don’t drink from this spring for three centuries. Ask not why. Trust me.” Then I engulf the violated pot back into its plastic bag, slide several more bags around the heap, tie it again back to the bottom of the pack frame, and head back down toward the hellish road walk I expect from the Cumberland Valley.
But the road walk turned out not to be hellish. In fact, perhaps as cosmic pension for my good poo deed, the next few miles were some of the most pleasant of the hike. With the sun now behind the trees, I spent the next two and a half hours walking largely deserted, rural roads, with tall, proud, healthy corn dipping and waving on both sides, the universe practically breaking into song with harmonious verses from “This Land Is Your Land” ringing out across the valley. In fact, the guy who drives slowly by, the left hand resting on his outsized towing mirror breaking free to give me a friendly salute with his index finger, looks all the world like Woody Guthrie. Two kids playing in a sprinkler look up, stop, run to the road, and ask me where I’m heading. An apple tree fragrantly close to the road is tempting, but I keep walking. The air is heavily instilled with the smell of hay, though I see no stacks in the fields I walk through. A teen rumbles up from behind on a mint 1950’s-era tractor, gives me a huge smile as she passes, turns partially around to shout out a “Keep on truckin’,” and moves past into her bright future. A middle-aged couple sitting on a porch nods a “hello.” As the remaining light revolves toward dark, the distance streams out beneath my boots like unbroken time itself, and I find myself continually breaking into a rousing but tuneless whistle of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” a welcome hymnic change from the Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road,” my ear bore for the last month or so. The Pennsylvania malaise was gone. It never returned the rest of the hike.
Seven miles in and the sun completely gone, I stride into the huge, halogenic flatlands of a mega truck stop on U.S. 11 and immediately make for the cafeteria at the glowing center of its diesel-muscled empire. Like any smallish, colleged, un-tattooed middle class guy who didn’t play high school football, I approach this sanctuary of manly motor culture with humility and not a little concern. I’m not where I belong, and I know it. So I plan to enter quietly, under all radars.
Everything goes wrong almost immediately.
First, there’s the struggle with the front door, apparently too much for my atrophying arms now unaccustomed to any physicality more challenging than lifting handfuls of peanuts to the mouth. As I finally get the creaking right panel moving, the top of my pack awkwards around some unseen jut on the left, ricocheting my toxic pot against the tympanic safety glass in the door. The pot vs. glass confrontation is loud enough, I assume, to offend even the Teamster ears of Jimmy Hoffa, way off in some concrete or deep water sanctuary. Several wobbly-bearded men looked up from their coffees, and the hostess slam-gums her way over.
“That wasn’t all that smooth. Sorry. Nothing broken though.”
She looks at me, head just slightly tilted, Double Bubble doing steady, studied cycles.
“I was just checking to see how late you stay open. Wanted to see if I had time to check into the motel and clean up before I came back to eat.”
She smiles the way a mother might smile at her six year old’s first attempt to change the new baby, the one where the diaper somehow wraps up at least one hand and a foot along with the targeted bottom.
“This is a truck stop, Sugar. These guys don’t sleep much. They drive against the clock. We stay open all night, every night. Christmas, Easter, the Pope’s vasectomy, my birthday— we’re gonna be right here, eager to serve.”
The four men in the closest booth look at her, look at me, look at each other and laugh.
She says all this kindly enough that I am encouraged to get right down to what I have in mind, my secret plan, concocted across the last seven miles. I can see the kitchen steaming away through a set of swinging doors just behind her hostess stand.
“Is there any chance you’d be willing to put my pot in your dishwasher while I’m checking in?”
Just for the slightest second, this calm and capable woman seemed a bit confused.
“You brought dope in here and you want me to do what with it?”
“No, no. It’s for cooking. An aluminum pot. Well, I’m pretty sure it’s aluminum. Legal. I promise. Nothing illegal about it. All straight. Just an aluminum bowl.”
I paused, trying to save the situation, trying to conjure a most compelling, strong, and lawful case for my request.
She senses the foul, right off the bat.
“Just how dirty? And how’d it get that way?”
I don’t immediately answer.
“We don’t have a fancy machine. Our dishwasher’s named Randy. Don’t want to lose him.”
I feel a supreme test of personal integrity coming on.
“I just didn’t wash it fast enough. That’s all. A raccoon dragged
it around. Didn’t appear to have rabies or anything.” I paused,
plotting desperate ways to strengthen my case. “Seemed like a
She looks at me steadily.
“I just don’t want to take any chances. Needs really hot water. Along with an unusually long soak.”
She continues to look at me. I step a half step backward.
“I can put it in the shower, I guess. No need to bring Randy
“Hardly anybody ever succeeds when they try to put one over on a smart lady in a truck stop. Pumpkins don’t fall off the trucks around here. You know that, right? Doesn’t happen, Honey. Not part of the story.”
She doesn’t move her eyes off me. “No clue what you’re up to. You’re strange, not to mention a little dirty yourself. But we’d be glad to wash your pot. Just give your waitress a fair tip when you come in to eat. And don’t tell everyone out there that it’s part of our usual service. Don’t want to be washing a ton of hobo pots.”
I came back an hour later, completely proud that I’d bargained the motel down from ten to eight dollars, a generous concession to my late arrival.
Over the next few hours, as the mystery poop continued to molder up on South Mountain, I had a country-fried steak dinner, complete with butter beans and mashed potatoes, talked until late about my hike with a table of drivers from Florida, Minnesota, and Chicago and did, indeed, leave a good tip. The waitress came back with my pot when she brought the check. It was as gleaming as I’d seen it since it left the outfitters in its original box. It was still warm when she put it on the table—not a ghostly after-presence of the poop, I had to tell myself. Just freshly washed, professionally.
Still, I had the hardest time picking it up without wrapping a napkin around it first.
When the company I worked with for over twenty years blew up at the turn of the 21st century, we went from 120,000 employees down to less than a third of that in one year. It was shitty for all involved. The mornings I knew there were going to be layoffs were particularly brutal.
I sincerely hope that you never have to hoist this particular load. But if your turn comes, you’ll discover it is hard to push back the covers, brush your teeth, get dressed, and drive into work knowing that, say, you’re going to have to tell someone whose husband is dying of pancreatic cancer that in two weeks she’ll have no income and that they are both going to lose their health insurance.
If I had been the main character in one of the novels I liked to read as a teenager, I would have dug deep into my collected life experiences and invoked the Darlington story to find solace on mornings like this, knowing that even the nastiest beginnings can somehow transform later into a perfect day.
And, in fact, the story sometimes helped me a little when I remembered it. But never even close to enough. I always still felt like a desolate hollow on some denuded mountain every single time I sat there in the conference room with my employee, the HR person, and the ream of layoff papers that had to be signed before we could all go home and start the next part of the journey.