Tuesday, June 19, 2007

An Eccentric Encounter on the Trail: a late Sunday Scribbling

Benjamin studying a map and trail guide.

One of the suggestions for this week’s Sunday’s Scribblings was to write about someone who was eccentric. Two characters I met on the Appalachian Trail between Springer Mountain, Georgia and Fontana Dam, North Carolina immediately came to mind. I ended up writing about just one of them in this story. Maybe I’ll do another story about Cornbread, another “eccentric” guy along the trail. And I’m sure others could be writing about me. In addition to writing about “Peter,” I tried to show how life is lived along the trail.

We made Blood Mountain Shelter on our third day out, having started Amicalola Falls. I was busy fiddling with the stove and getting ready to fix dinner when another hiker stumbled into camp. He introduced himself as Peter and we chatted briefly as Benjamin set about fixing our evening appetizers (cheese and crackers) and drinks (scotch, straight up, for there were no rocks of the right variety in the Georgia mountains in July). Peter watched us carry out our tasks. Soon I had water boiling and added macaroni for the evening meal. Then I joined Benjamin, picking up my Sierra cup filled with the golden colored nectar.

“That’s a good idea,” Peter said, “I never thought about carrying apple juice on the trail.”

“We’re real health nuts,” Benjamin mumbled sarcastically as he lifted his cup in a toast.

We drank our drinks and ate a couple of cheese and crackers. Then, taking the empty cups, we added a soup package to each. When the pasta finished cooking, I drained the hot water from the pasta into each cup for soup. After draining the excess water onto the ground, I added the cheese package, a bit of butter and some powder milk to the pan and stirred it well before sitting it aside to eat the soup. After the soup course, we split the mac and cheese into our two bowls, devouring it quickly. As we ate, I turned the stove back on and placed a smaller pot of water on it for tea and cleaning. Then Benjamin headed down to the spring. There, shortly after we arrived, he’d prepared pudding. In a gallon sized freezer bag, he’d had placed the contents of a bag of instant pistachio pudding and the right amount of powder milk. He added cold spring water to the mix, squeezed it up to get the lumps out, and sat it the cool water. When he got it after the meal, the pudding had firmed up and we split the bag between us. We ate the pudding and drank a cup of hot tea for desert. Afterwards, using the remaining water and the tea bags as scrubbies, we cleaned out pots, bowls and cups. We stored it all in our packs and hung our food for the evening.

Throughout dinner, Peter watched with amazement as he fixed his own dinner. He boiled a pot of water, placing a foil bag of food in it to warm. His dinner was probably tastier than ours, it was some kind of lasagna, but was also a lot heavier to pack. Peter saved the water he’d boiled, figuring it’d been sterilized, by pouring it into his water bottle. "That’s what I’ll drink tomorrow," he informed us. We later learned it was all the water he planned to use since his filter was broken and he didn’t trust the springs nor did he have purifying tablets with him.

While Peter ate, we had our after dinner drink. Peter again remarked about our apple juice. I was about ready to give him a sip, when Benjamin spilled the beans. “This ain’t apple juice.” From the look on Peter’s face, you’d thought we were escaped convicts. He proceeded to give us a temperance lecture on the evils of liquor. I took it with amusement; Benjamin didn’t and told him to keep his opinions to himself. Somehow then conversation shifted to church. He was a Free Methodist. Benjamin, having been fortified with two drinks, told Peter he’d grown up in a Methodist Church and had yet to see one that was free.

The next morning when we set out, Peter asked where we were going to camp for the night. For us, it was going to be an easy day, even though there wasn’t anything easy about the trail in Georgia. Even though the hills aren't very tall, there was little level ground, you seemed to be either climbing or descending. Our destination was Low Gap, about 13 miles north. We said goodbye and thought that’d be the last we saw of him, but were surprised that night when he hobbled into camp.

Looking back on it all, it was amazing Peter stuck with us as long as he did. When we first met, he’d taken five or six days to cover what we’d done in two and a half. On this day, he had covered as much ground as he had in the previous three days. He was a novice at hiking, toting a pack weighing some seventy pounds, about twenty pounds heavier than ours. It was no wonder that his knees were bothering him. Somewhere along the way, someone suggested he get a walking stick. With the hatchet and folding saw he was toting on his back, he cut two sticks and began using them both to help him walk, providing relief for his knees.

That evening in Low Gap, Peter began to ask us questions about our methods and we learned more about him and his plan to hike. He wasn’t drinking enough water, especially since he was eating only one meal a day and feasting on dry trail mix the rest of the time. We gave him water purifying tablets so he could get more liquid into his system. We also gave him advice on food and then went through his pack and helped him shed about fifteen pounds. There was no need to be totting a hatchet, we assured him, for it was against the law to collect scalps. Two days later, when my girlfriend met us at the trailhead on US 76 with our supplies for our second week of hiking, we sent Peter’s extras with her to be mailed back to his home.

Peter grew on us. He stayed up with us, hiking an average of 15 miles a day. It was a stretch for him, but he seemed desperate for company so he’d always come into camp late in the afternoon, sore from a day of trying to keep up. One of the items he refused to part with, which we considered a luxury, was a portable radio. Having this, he kept us updated on the news. Coca-Cola revamping their formula was the biggest story that year, the summer of ‘85. The “New Coke” wasn’t a hit and by the time we got off the trail, everyone was drinking Classic Coke. In addition to news, Peter would stay awake in the evenings to catch Cardinal baseball games on the radio and then, whether or not we were interested (we generally weren’t), give us a play by play rundown the next morning.

You get to know people pretty well when you hike and camp with them day after day and pretty soon we knew about all Peter. He was a high school teacher from out west. He had done limited hiking prior to biting off the Appalachian Trail. His goal was to hike as much as he could that summer and then come back and finish it the next year. Peter also learned a lot about us and must have gotten a little too comfortable in our presence. On his last night camping with us, Peter told his darkest secret. He’d had an affair with a high school student some years earlier. She had just turned eighteen. For a while he’d left his wife and moved in with her, but he was forever grateful that after he came to his senses, his wife had allowed him to come back home. I felt a little strange hearing this old guy’s confession, especially since he was obviously ashamed of what he’d done. I also didn’t know what to say. Benjamin, on the other hand, was still steaming from the temperance lecture we’d received six or seven evenings earlier. He flew off at the handle, telling Peter that he should have been fired, he should have been locked up, that his wife was a fool to take him back, and then asking who gave him to right to lecture us about having a drink when he’d done something so despicable. I encouraged Benjamin to give him a break, but there was no mercy. Benjamin was out for blood. A few minutes later, Peter headed to bed and was still sleeping when we headed out the next morning. We never saw him again. A couple days later, we arrived at Fontana Dam where Benjamin’s wife met us and gave us a ride back to civilization.

I received a post card from Peter later that summer. He’d hiked a couple hundred miles on the trail before giving it up for good. He expressed his gratitude for what he’d learned from us about backpacking.


The names in this story have been changed to protect the guilty. Since both character’s have Biblical names, I chose their Biblical companions as pseudonyms.


  1. Nice story, Sage! I love the tidbits of hiking dos and don'ts, and had to laugh at the "apple juice" incident... I kinda wish you had given him a sip to try :) Benjamin's rant about the not so Free Methodists made me chuckle, hehe

  2. I don't recall Thou Shall Not Drink Scotch as being one of the Ten Commandments . . . :-) On the other hand, there was something about adultery . . . :-)

    Great story!

  3. As usual, I enjoyed reading your story. And I almost always enjoy learning more about people.

  4. What a lesson in "For all have sinned" and "cast the first stone!"

    Really enjoyed this post, especially the camping tidbits.

  5. As someone who has been on his share of long outdoor adventures, there always seems to be a "Peter". I always wonder how they survive doing such things as not having water purification or packing object better left at home. My favorite was a fellow that packed a cast iron dutch oven along with him because that was the only way he knew how to cook!

  6. NO BEER???? "judge not..." Entertaining as always!! And all of that just a few miles North of me. Think I'd rather read about it, pudding in a bag don't sound right.

  7. Hanulf, I thought he was calling it "apple juice" to be cute, not because he thought that was what it was.

    Diane, as a Presbyterian with Scottish roots, I can assure you that's not in the Commandments, :)

    Thanks Tim!

    Kontan, you and others have commented about the "tidbits"? Will you try them out?

    Ed, wait till I write about Cornbread (we named him), this guy hiked with a cast iron skilled, oil, and packets of Martha White corn bread mix--he even did his cooking over an open flame

    Pat, beer is too heavy. On trips like this, you get 3 ozs/2 shots a day. North Georgia is pretty country.

  8. Benjamin's a Biblical name? I guess I should try reading that particular book sometime, eh? :-)

  9. By the way, I know what you could've shared with Peter to make him feel better...the story of you kissing Linda while you had a girlfriend. Not quite the same as his but in the same genre. ;-)

  10. yeah Murf, Benjamin is in the Bible--in the first book no less, you don't have to get very far and my friend is named after a brother of Ben's (but since Ben had 11 brothers... you'll have to guess)

    And no Murf, a 19 year old being KISSED BY a 35 year old is a lot different than a 30-some year old (or however old he was then) moving in with an 18 year old

  11. I've only opened it three times. Once to learn the Lord's Prayer and then the other 2 times were to figure out what Kevin was talking about on his website. :-)

    That is some self control to just stand there to be kissed by a woman that you thought was hot without kissing back.

  12. Murf, open it a fourth time and read Genesis 35:23-26... Mr. Self Control

  13. As soon as I find someone that will hike with me! When we move I'll be closer to an old friend that loves the outdoors as well.

  14. You should take it as a huge compliment that I did open it a 4th time. Now I have to backtrack to find out who Rachel, Leah, et al. are. Cursed curiousity. This was a ploy of yours, wasn't it? Sneaky, Sage. Very sneaky.

  15. Would the girlfriend that you speak of in here be Paula? Gotta love my handy dandy timeline.

  16. Eccentricity is part of human nature. Just that some stands out better than others. Very interesting write Sage.