When they brought Little Wing into the Shelter on top of Roan Mountain where many hikers had gathered to escape the snow and razor wind, my first thought was surprise that she would be behind us when she had hiked ahead earlier in the day and we hadn’t seen her since. My second thought was to wonder how she could be so drunk out in the middle of the woods, but when my mental debris settled I finally saw that she was in the early stages of hypothermia, and the rest became clear. Eight men who had talked endlessly of sex in this nearly womanless abyss fell into wordless action, unpacking dry clothes and her sleeping bag, taking all the wet clothes off of the beautiful young girl, and quickly clothing her and wrapping her in her sleeping bag and an emergency blanket while heating water over a portable gas stove to make her some hot chocolate.
Soon she was back to her normal, brooding if thankful self, and the rest of us settled in for a very cold night, watching her closely for any signs of trouble, and wondering why this cold mountain shelter was closed in front, but open at the top, letting all the warmth from the huddled bodies seep out. By morning we had all slept poorly and with brittle, shivering bodies, prepared to start hiking and look for the sun. Squirrelfight came in from his morning movement as Jones and I were finishing breakfast “Damn it’s cold out there” he growled through his clenched teeth. “Check my butt. I can’t feel a thing down there, and I don’t know if I cleaned up ok”
“Aaaaaa” Jones recoiled. “I’m not pulling my ass out in that cold. There’s got to be a better place at the bottom of the mountain”
“Suit yourself.” Said Squirrel “If I put my pack on a full bowel I’d poop my pants.”
The bottom of the mountain, however was a parking lot with no place at all for Jones to relieve himself. He began a troubled walk up the treeless slope into the Roan highlands in a blasting wind, looking for a privy but willing to settle for a good patch of forest. I stuck with him, trying to be encouraging, having to shout and lean into the wind to keep my balance, but the slope was completely barren and seemed like it would stretch on for miles.
“One tree! I’ll take one tree to go behind!” we scanned the horizon but the only thing that stood above the grass was a spindly bush, spare of leaf and only a few feet from the worn path of the trail. “The bush! It’ll have to do!” Jones held down the curled brim of his cap against the wind, starting to unbuckle his pack and clenching his legs into the white slacks he wore in the cold. I paused to consider the absurdity of his white slacks one more time.
“Are you sure you don’t want to head down to the parking lot and back up into the woods, Jones? This really isn’t kosher, and anyone in the parking lot and pretty much anywhere on the face of this mountain can see you.”
“No time, bro. Stand guard for me.”
“Dude, there’s no guarding here. Just standing in the blasting wind while you spray crap all over that poor bush. What if the wind changes directions? I’d be the victim of this tragedy. Good luck, man. I’m catching up to Squirrel.”
I leaned into the wind up the trail to where I saw Squirrel standing oddly in the distance. Over the whipping grass and under the buffeting winds I swerved to where he was standing proudly, pointing to the ground. “It was just like that!” he grinned. “It’s a miracle!” One the ground was a Reeces Peanutbutter cup sitting on a flat rock, still in the wrapper. “Let’s cut it in thirds” he announced, descending on the candy with his knife and shielding the operation from the wind with his body. He was almost done with the over-delicate dissection when I heard Jones' body behind me catching the wind.
“Man that was tough. Coulda been a big mess” The first thing I saw when I turned was his white slacks spattered with brownish flecks and I recoiled unconsciously as he put his hand to his head and I saw a gelatinous mass clinging to the sleeve under his arm. As I weighed the joy he would feel when he saw squirrel’s bounty against the horror I would have to hand to him when I told him all had not gone as well as he thought, I knew only that the time of the white slacks had ended, and I missed them already.
But that’s not the poop I want to tell you about, and this is really a story about a moose...
About the time our hike reached Maine we were being re-introduced to the bitter cold. Ice would form inside the walls of my tent at night, and snow and hail made a re-appearance after many months of comfortable hiking weather. Maine was unlike any state before it on the trail since relatively little of the state is actually settled. On the map there is the organic, winding mesh of humanity in the south-west corner, but as it bleeds across the map it thins out and abruptly becomes a series of grid lines. Instead of a town names like Bangor, you find G-4, D-12, and so on. There's just no one there. The towns on the fringe of that wilderness are small, with frontier-minded citizens. It seemed like the same person was often the post-master, judge, sheriff, and owned the general store. The labels themselves had become an unnecessary compartmentalization of the many tasks performed by a few when settling a new land.
Because humanity was scarce, wildlife was more abundant and noticeably bolder. The animals of Maine seemed more potent and secure in their mastery of the land. One of the most beautiful things I saw on the trail occurred one morning as I was hiking alone through a new sheet of snow. I was looking into the white birch and snow-covered pine branches with only speckles of dark in patches of bark and pine needles to lend any perspective when a massive, snowy owl dropped from its perch, gliding in complete silence on a slow arc only about ten feet from me, locking eyes with me as it passed. It could easily have stayed hidden on its branch and I never would have seen it, but it clearly had something to say.
The general brazenness of the wildlife I had encountered had me especially wary of the bull moose, which seemed to be the king of the land. We had been warned to look out for moose since it was their mating season, and a bull moose doesn't like to be interrupted in any part of the courting and mating ritual. I had seen a few in the distance, and definitely didn't want to see what one looked like when it was mad. I imagined that I would turn a corner to see one courting a cow and he would look at me out of one wild, red eye, the music would start, and then he would begin the insatiable pursuit of my life's blood, knocking trees and boulders aside if they offended his vengeance.
It was under these frigid, wild conditions that Squirrelfight and I found ourselves one night on what looked like it had once been an old road or wagon track, but had clearly been left to grow over decades earlier. To the eye of anyone who didn't spend all of their time in the woods, it was just a patch of wilderness, but the unnatural flat stretch and smaller trees stood out to us like a sidewalk. Hiking in the cold doesn't get to you like you might think. One of the reasons that winter weather hits us so hard as city dwellers is that we generally walk into it from a climate controlled environment. The acclimation to the new temperature is what is so miserable and in the city you rarely finish adjusting before you are back into another controlled environment. With a few good layers on and continual heat from the hike, I was generally comfortable enough. When we made camp in the evening, though, the temperature would drop fast and our bodies would cool down faster as the heat of a day’s hike seeped away. After a hot dinner I moved as quickly as I could to get myself zipped into my sleeping bag and tent and fortified against the night.
After a few minutes of adjusting and bundling, just as I felt the swell of warmth from my sleeping bag overcoming the chill that had begun to creep into my body, I felt my bowls settle and a light pressure invaded my peace. In the summer I would have jumped up and headed for the privy if there was one nearby. Away from such conveniences, there was the trowel. I had a little orange, plastic trowel for digging toilet holes. The only etiquette about digging the holes is that you want to be as far as possible from water sources and out of sight of the trail. The squatting part isn't as bad as you might think. It's how our bodies are designed and goes very smoothly. The least elegant part of the process is filling the hole back in, especially if it turns out to have been too shallow. I sat there listening to the cold wind shake the rain fly of the tent, imagining redressing, re-booting, wandering out in the growing dark, digging, squatting, and filling. Finally I made an executive decision to put it off until morning. The pressure wasn't severe at all and come morning I'd be dressing and leaving the tent anyway. I put it to the back of my mind, focused on inner peace and let my weariness carry me off to sleep.
Eyes open. 10. Walls of the tent are bright with morning. 9. Oh no oh no oh no oh no. 8. Out of the sleeping bag, spin feet to the door of tent. 7. Slide feet into boots without lacing. 6. Unzip door and explode out of tent. 5. Run to pack and grab trowel and toilet paper from the side pouch. 4. Sprint into unknown wilderness. 3. Descend onto a clear spot of snow and find the ground too frozen to dig into. 2. Spin left, then right, dropping trowel and paper. 1. Pull down leggings and squat all in one, heroic movement. Ooooh. As steam flowed around me and final relaxation washed away my panic with the help of the cleansing cold air I looked around, wondering how I was going to deal with this un-buried mess and saw, less than ten feet away, a massive bull moose, straining into his own morning release, looking at me out of one, wide eye. There was no malice in it, though. In fact, I fancy that I saw understanding, and perhaps fellowship. A fearless, noble creature with its pants down. I squatted as small and still as I could manage and turned my head away, looking at him sidelong. He rose from his own impressive, steaming pile with a shivering kick and walked slowly away, the one appraising eye always on me.
It may be overstating my position to say we parted as friends, but I fancy we had an understanding. I certainly felt a deeper connection to the wildlife of Maine from that moment on.