The whoosh of a living cloud

It was an unremarkable hike to an unglamourous destination, until it wasn’t

| 28 Dec 2023 | 11:39

The newly fallen leaves were making walking difficult. We were on the Appalachian Trail, normally an easy trail to follow, but had trouble keeping track of it. We kept walking off course, a few steps here, a few there. The leaves hid the path, and the AT’s faded white blazes melted into the dusky November light.

It had been dry for weeks, so the leaves were fluffy and buoyant. They covered the woods like a snowpack but, unlike a snowpack, did not pave over the sharp rocks and tripping roots hidden beneath.

Each leaf acted like a slip and slide. I eased my way down steep sections by walking sideways, boots crosswise to the trail, poles dug in, front advancing then back foot catching up. Sometimes I threw my poles to the bottom and crab-walked down. At one point I fell – nothing serious – but when I yelled at Tom to wait up he couldn’t hear me. The crunching of leaves underfoot was so loud, we weren’t able to hear each other even when we walked side by side. As Tom got further away, the crunching got fainter and my breathing got louder.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

I always think of the start of Kafka’s Metamorphosis when I’ve fallen with the hump that is my backpack. While moving down trail I am aware neither of its weight nor of my own exhaustion. But when I find myself prone with my backpack beneath me, or on top of me, as now, I feel quite helpless.

He was lying on his hard, as it were armour-plated, back.

I started rocking side to side, trying to build up some momentum. I couldn’t see Tom anymore. He had rounded a bend. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

However hard he threw himself onto his right, he always rolled back to where he was.

Too exhausted to rise with my backpack on, I unclipped its buckles and wiggled out of its array of belts and straps. The pack immediately slid downhill. I chased it and found my walkie-talkie. “Wait up!” I crackled over the radio waves and waited for Tom to respond.

I didn’t go into detail about my plight. I try not to carry on while on the radio, as much as I enjoy overhearing the occasional conversation by strangers in the nearby woods. “The Mortensons are coming and we don’t have enough pillows!” I heard a woman scream once. I’ve been haunted by her ever since. It’s a very hard thing to learn while on the trail that surprise guests are on their way.

“Okay,” Tom crackled back.

Once upright and reunited, we resumed course. We were headed for a swamp, a very dry swamp, from the looks of these leaves. In spring and summer this length of trail is a hellish track of mud, poison ivy and biting flies. But on a dry mid-November day, it’s pretty great, fluffy leaves and all. We were traveling along the New York/New Jersey border, roughly parallel to that straight-ruled, 30-percent-angled line that Tom as a kid thought made New Jersey’s outline look like a bellhop.

Normally we wouldn’t have chosen a swamp for our destination, but had decided not to be goal-oriented. That would have meant a hard climb up the ridge above Greenwood Lake for a high-glamour panorama. Looking up and down that gigantic lake, shimmering under the low autumn sun, would have been thrilling. But settling down under a spreading oak, with a view of cattails and the ridge rising beyond, was a relief.

Then something happened that was so beautiful as to be astonishing, even to this pair of veteran hikers. It started as we ate our lunch. Several red-winged blackbirds were swooping among the wetland’s seedy stalks and calling to one another. But then on the hike back, their presence grew to Hitchcockian levels. At first there were dozens of them, then hundreds, then thousands, flying in dense, dark masses through the trees.

We scared them up as we hiked through. First there’d be a roar, like the whoosh of a passing train. Then, the woods would fill with blackbirds. They’d settle in the tree canopy at another point down trail, keeping up a distressed colloquy. At our approach, the cycle would start again. The dirt they kicked up scented the air.

We were trying to get out of the woods before nightfall, but these avian explosions compelled us to stop and watch, spellbound. I couldn’t help but wonder, Will they remember us, the way we will always remember them?

Trail: Appalachian Trail
Blazes: White
Trailhead: Use pull-off on east side of Warwick Turnpike at Wawayanda State Park in Hewitt, N.J. Trail continues east (on the AT northbound) to Abraham Hewitt State Park.
Length: The swamp is about three miles in, the view of Greenwood Lake about four miles.