Homo frigging sapiens

Hikers are back: laughing and snorting, singing and spraying

08 Jun 2020 | 11:42

In the early days of the pandemic, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy was peeved. Newbie hikers were slipping out of quarantine and cavorting on the trail in communicable clumps. Their uncovered noses were huffing the pine-scented air. Their germy mitts were sliming up the picnic tables. And don’t get them started on the privies.

“Hiking the AT has become, in other words, the opposite of social distancing,” the conservancy president huffed.

The ATC tried to close the trail, but knowing enforcement would be well-nigh impossible, they laid the opprobrium on thick.

The one-horse towns along the trail have meager medical resources. Have you thought of that? Old doc has only so many tongue depressors. If you were to need a ventilator, they’d have to send a bush pilot out to bag one.

The ATC’s tone has since softened. In a late May update, they posted an update. Yeah, fine, you can go hiking again. But do it right this time, please people. Don’t ruin it for everybody else.

They provided a checklist to help you ascertain whether you were ready to get back on the trail:

“Be self-sufficient.” Check. We pack enough for our day hikes to keep us alive for weeks: food, water, nail clippers (never underestimate the misery of a mid-hike hangnail), tick twisters (an ingenious invention), hand sanitizer (even before Covid), sunscreen, lip balm, rain jacket, rain pants, headband, first aid kit, all-purpose tool, headlamp, extra batteries for headlamp, walkie talkies, mosquito net, bug spray, 10-foot rope, small tarp, trail map, wildflower field guide, and extra socks.

Okay, next: “Stay small.” Roger that. It’s just me, myself, and Tom.

“Stay local.” No problemo. Trails crisscross the tristate area’s myriad state and county parks, private preserves and easements. But the ATC doesn’t want you to stop for gas on the way to or from the trailhead. I haven’t been able to crack that one.

Anything else ATC? Oh yeah, wear your face mask, and stay away from other hikers not in your group.

Fat chance. I’m here to report that, on our AT hike to Sunrise Mountain last weekend, we saw only two heedful hikers. We greeted them like fellow travelers, with knowing nods and uber expressive eyes. We are in a special club, we seemed to say. No one else seems to get what’s going down.

Some barefaced hikers looked abashed when they saw us making like Mata Hari down the trail. They jumped aside, tripping through blueberry bushes and raspberry cane, and turned their fire-breathing nostrils toward the woods. They’ll probably bring their masks next time. Maybe.

One hiker’s bandana flapped uselessly around his neck. His companion tried to lift hers as we approached, but it was stuck under her pack strap, so she covered her nose with a cupped palm. It looked dumb, but I appreciated that she tried.

All the rest of the dozens of hikers we shared the trail with that day made absolutely no effort. They laughed and snorted and sang and sprayed. We came across one extended family sprawled across a rock, all three generations of them, as if a suburban patio had tipped over and deposited them there.

You might think, with all the time Tom and I had spent sequestered, we wouldn’t mind encountering some other members of our species. But this was one of our favorite less-traveled sections of the AT. Now, its cover was blown.

The other flora and fauna we encountered made up for that. Tom pointed to a pink lady’s slipper orchid, the first I had seen in years. A shushing sound brought my attention to a black rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta, disappearing down a chipmunk hole. Surprised by our approach, it pulled itself into a coil and regarded us warily. We gazed back in fascination. Its iridescence looked, from one vantage point, deep black. From the other, it was lapis lazuli. “Their ancient, glittering eyes,” Yeats wrote in his poem of that name.

During the shutdown, the wildlife had it pretty good. I read those accounts of mountain goats roaming town centers, lions lounging on city streets.

Maybe that’s why we were treated to this rare sight. Perhaps the snake was thinking, They’re back. The homo sapiens are back. Homo frigging sapiens.

A.T. TO SUNRISE MOUNTAIN
Trailhead: Deckertown Road (Route 650), High Point State Park, Montague, N.J. From the parking lot, cross the road to head toward Sunrise Mountain
Blazes: White
Length: 6.8 miles round trip