“Fear not thy barking dogs, brave lads, for the wild, wooly soul of nature is very freaking cool.” – Henry Winkler Thoreau
My wife is late in her pregnancy, and our lives will soon be governed by the wants and needs of an infant. Not to mention that our toddler son is already playing us like a game of Go Fish. The thought of escaping the house for a woodland stroll makes me giddy. I’m not sure what is motivating Jonny, my old college bud, to come along, but I’m touched that he wants to spend all day with the domesticated version of myself.
Located in Croatan National Forest near New Bern, North Carolina, the Neusiok Trail is Section 36 of the Mountains to the Sea Trail, a cleared ribbon that meanders thoughtfully across our fair state. Besides the section that is covered partially by a ferry ride, I figure a flat, reasonably close-to-home section is the one for me.
I’ve just driven three hours on a clear, shining Carolina morning, and now I’m sitting among scraggly pines at a picnic area near the Neusiok trailhead when Mike calls. Busted. He just got a $250 speeding ticket, and I feel that it’s my fault. I tried to tell that to the officer. I called him and convinced him he needed this.
“We’ll walk 21 miles in one day like men,” I said.
But I feel a little juvenile. He’s got mouths to feed, and I’m guessing that money would have come in handy.
We park and stash our wallets and keys, tie on our water bottles and pack the munchies that will sustain us for a day in the woods. And we’re off. The first few steps of a day hike are liberating, especially when more than 20 miles of forest lay between you and the way out. Nothing compares to the love and duty of family, but the occasional hint of raw freedom ain’t half bad either.
There’s not much to notice in this barren land, just miles and miles of pine needles underfoot and skinny, towering trees reaching toward a clear sky. But what never gets monotonous is the conversation. We manage to fill hour after with talk about our families, our jobs and constant stories from our dirtbag pasts, like a drink called a woo-woo and a countrified roommate who once said,
“I just woke up off a pass out, and I’m still whipping your ass.”
GPS and smartphone technologies are new advances in my life, and electronics have never joined me in the woods. I follow the trail blazes obediently, going from marked tree to tree, trusting whomever painted the blots on the bark. As it turns out, the middle section of the Neusiok Trail has very few mile markers, and we keep second guessing our location. Somewhere in the middle of the endless logging road portion of the trail, Jonny remembers the iPhone in his pack, and we fire up its rudimentary map to get our bearings. He also mentions that he has a device that could tell us how far we’ve traveled but that the batteries are dead. I imagine being in a lifeboat with him, and on the sixth day of being adrift he reaches into his pocket and says,
“Oh man, forgot I brought this Snickers.”
Using the phone and our expert orienteering skills, we deduce that we are, indeed, somewhere inside the Croatan National Forest, and, with any luck, somewhere along the Neusiok Trail. We even go out on a limb and say that we are obviously very near the end, at least according to the mathematical computations of two guys with English degrees, and using our intricate understanding of the Earth’s gravitational force.
Then we come upon a sign saying the parking area is more than five miles away. Alarming? No, not exactly. Disconcerting? Yes, mildly. (Spirit-crushing.) We reevaluate the reality of our walking speed, watch shadows grow and start to realize that we may not make it out before dark. We’re trying to laugh it off while picking up the pace on our barking dogs. The sun is dropping like a rock.
We encounter a family hiking in the other direction, and when we tell them where we started, the dad says, “Man, you boys have been humpin’!” When we walk away, we prove to ourselves that mortgages and life insurance policies can’t guarantee maturity as we imagine all of the things we could have said:
“Do we look that guilty? What else would we be doing? We’re just friends, we swear!”
It is getting quite dark, and each step is a blind stomp. A few miles back I changed into Keen’s to give my feet different places to hurt. I second guess this decision every time I take a step because the bottom of each sandal is a rocky nest of detritus that won’t come out unless I stop and take off my shoes, something we can’t afford to do. We could still be three miles away. Maybe? Who knows? We’re just speed walking, laughing and tripping on roots.
The problem with being a screw-up is that, with enough magical thinking, you can sometimes believe that the universe is on your side. It certainly feels that way as we come out of the dense forest to a beach and follow the last few miles of the trail at sunset along the water. The twinkling lights across the Neuse River represent the sweet comforts of civilization. We inhabit wilderness and the modern world at the same time—on a beach while on a trail—marching towards our car while sinking deep into the primal parts of our nature. The sum of a sunset plus the river as it spills into the Pamlico Sound equals a payoff we didn’t plan for, but with our blistered feet and aching backs, we feel it’s one we’ve earned. And there’s some math we can understand. At the time it just feels like a massive goddamn relief.
We walk the last 30 minutes in total darkness, but the trail markers on trees are reflected by the beam of my headlamp. Jonny redeems himself by pulling out a fully operational headlamp, like a magician, that keeps us from stumbling into gator-filled pits. Once back at Jonny’s car, we throw our packs in the back and peel off our shoes before sitting down inside the vehicle. I’m thankful that my car is the one at the other end of the trail so I can simply sit there while Jonny drives. We talk about meeting to do this once a year, each year tackling another section of North Carolina’s Mountains to Sea Trail, and we quickly realize that if we want to do it with some continuity that we’ve started at the easy end. Walking from the coast to the mountains, the trail will get tougher as we get older. I guess we didn’t really think things through, so, yeah, that seems about right.
By Jonny Kime and Mike Johnson
Jonathan Kime is a writer and international development worker who lives in North Carolina with his wife and toddler son. His writing has appeared in Bicycling, The Sun, Salon, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
Photos courtesy of the authors