The trail abides


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A section of the Appalachian Trail high above Culver Lake summons bittersweet memories of old friends who have faded from our lives. Can it be 30 years ago that Jack and Diane (not their real names) introduced us to that boot-eating length of trail?

Our days together had a rhythm. We’d meet at their place, an ancient bungalow with maybe two outlets, one dedicated to an iffy lamp whose light barely penetrated the dim interior, another to a crockpot that cooked all of their food. Then we’d cut through the woods, straight from their back door to the AT. Together we’d make the 400-foot ascent to the top of the Kittatinny Ridge and head for the Brink Road Shelter for a winter’s lunch.

Diane defied the normal laws of hiking. She was a merry woods sprite who skimmed the trail with a grace I could not fathom. Her trail uniform was 1980s goth — short black dress, black tights, black beret. Her black Mary Janes barely made contact with the ice-slicked rocks. I stumbled alongside her in my hiking boots, struggling to keep up.

We talked the whole eight miles to the shelter and back, as Tom and Jack led the way. Our conversation ranged widely — family, friends, work, books, music, movies, the world as it was and how we wished it could be. Diane always came back to Jack — how lucky she was to have him, and all her plans for making him happy. She’d ask my opinion about the special surprises she had in store for his birthday and Christmas.

Jack loved cooking lunch on the trail. In a flash he’d produce a blaze in a fire ring that only minutes earlier was covered in ice and snow. The rest of us hunted for twigs long enough to toast our lunch without toasting us. Diane would run around squealing — Here’s a good one! How about this one? Together we’d size them up: not too dry, not too green, strong enough to bear the weight of a hot dog but skinny enough to pierce it without breaking it apart.

We’d lower our skewered franks into the flames, watching until they started to bubble and sweat, then pop them into buns. After downing those we’d break the greasy end off our twigs and spear a marshmallow. Here our full attention was required: the exterior had to be golden brown, slightly crispy on the outside and all melty on the inside. You had to be quick to catch them before they slid into the fire. Getting it right made us glow. That little circle of flushed young faces alight with laughter form some of the best memories I have.

It was fun, fun, fun! But the world conspires against fun, it often seems to me, whenever good times come to an end. Our idyll on the AT ended when Diane and Jack split — with each other, with the trail, and with us.

I remember holding the phone.

“I thought he liked our little life,” Diane said before falling into a strangled silence.

We saw them only once or twice after their divorce. Diane stopped returning calls. Jack showed up with his new girlfriend, a younger version of Diane whose shyness did not match her goth exterior. She was so young, still not possessed of her full personhood. I hated her instantly and felt bad about hating her. What the hell was Jack thinking?

The Worthington Bakery, where the AT crosses Route 206 at Culver Lake, is also gone. So too is the Sunrise Appalachian Trail Deli. Two more dreams that have died. I want an explanation.

Hikers eat like desperados. You’d think a deli and a bakery hard by a long-distance trail would be a gold mine. You’d think!

Why does anything good have to change, ever? I ask as we pass the shuttered bakery. But we were thinking, as we always do on that climb, of our old friends.

Tom takes my hand. We’re still here. A lot older, a little bit wiser. Maybe stronger. But also sadder.

Diane’s incandescent face burns a hole through the early morning fog. I turn toward her apparition with relief. The laughter I hear is my own.

SNEAK PEEK

Trailhead: Culver Lake, Sandyston, N.J. The parking lot is just east of Route 206, which you’ll need to cross (carefully!)

Trail: Appalachian Trail

Blazes: White

Length: 3.8 miles from the parking lot to the Brink Road Shelter; 7.6 miles round-trip





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