A Tale of Two Boots (Part 1)

15 Jul

Culture Clash or Delicate Balance?: A Week in the Maine Woods.  Or, “A Tale of Two Boots”

This essay was written by my mother, Daniella Levine, on July 16, 2006 after a few days of hiking on the Appalachian Trail with my brother and me.  The idea was that my brother (Ted Cava) and I would through-hike southbound from Maine to Georgia following our respective graduations, Ted’s from high school and mine from college.  Our parents came along to see us off and to join us for the first week on the trail, crossing the “hundred mile wilderness” on foot.  

Daniella is a great writer and directs a wonderful organization that envisions and advocates for social justice and equality in Miami, FL, called Catalyst Miami.  Ted is now a recent college grad and aspiring actor in New York City.  My father, Rob Cava, also appears in the story.  He is a physician at a practice called Miami Medical Consultants.

A Story in Two Parts: Part One describes our family, against the backdrop of an amazing adventure and terrain. Part Two [to be posted next week] describes a shifting culture and community against a backdrop of our family’s growing relationship with the place and the times.

Part One

Our children are extraordinary. Please forgive a mother for starting this way. I could just write this as a story about them, their clarity and insights, their love for the land and nature, their sensitivity, perceptiveness, generosity, clarity and focus. However, instead, so as to not be so OBVIOUSLY a bragging mom, I will describe our experience in the Maine woods through a broader lens, putting our little hike into the context of the local people and their lives, the economical transformation of the region, the search for meaning of fellow hikers, and the importance of community as a building block for social change.

It all started with our daughter, Eliza Cava, so that would mean it really started with her parents (and their parents before them and so on), who raised her to care about the land, people, accomplishment of personal challenge and endless discovery. Eliza has just graduated from college with a degree in environmental education. She loves academic learning, but she loves experiential learning and connection to nature too, and after 15 years of formal schooling, she was ready to get outdoors. She decided that a 2000 plus mile trek on the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia was just the ticket. She persuaded her intrepid younger brother, Ted (also known as Edward or Teddy), to join her, and he met the parents’ requirements to first complete high school (hurray!), get into college, and then to request a one year deferral of admission. His university cooperated in all specifications, so the partnership was formed.

Rob (my husband, and the children’s father), was an active part of the planning team. He supported the ultra light shopping sprees (financially and spiritually), and began his own scheming about the parents’ hiking participation. Fanny (his mother and the children’s grandmother) had an important piece in this plan as well. Her health needed to stabilize so that Rob could leave Miami and get on the trail. An aortic valve replacement for her uncooperative heart was required. Rob secured the best physicians, hospitals and nursing care that a doctor could wish to find, and the surgery went without a hitch. Two weeks later, Fanny was home recovering comfortably, so the four members of the Cava Levine Clan headed north.

Arriving in Boston mid morning, we were greeted by Eliza’s lovely girlfriend Rachel. It was July 4, and we lunched on the edge of Boston’s harbor as we watched the celebratory boat procession launch, featuring the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), under a crisp blue sky. Rachel graciously relieved me of my various last minute home business correspondences, promising to mail the insurance survey, fax the banking authorization, and forward the various papers back home so we would not need to carry these few extra ounces in our packs through the 100 Mile Wilderness.

Driving through the harbor tunnel, we were excited to be missing the downtown city traffic through this new engineering miracle, having no premonition of the tunnel collapse that would occur just six days hence. We arrived at the Portland airport in no time, it seemed, to be greeted by Eliza’s charming friend Grace, spending the summer teaching sailing to young campers.

Grace drove us all the way past Millinocket, and deep into Baxter State Park. She entertained us with tales of her transformational semester abroad, and her trials and tribulations turning fellow counselors into a working team. She planned a party to break the ice, to be held the following Sunday. Make a note of that date, please, as it will prove significant to this tale.

Our ranger was nowhere to be found when we sought to prepare the proper paperwork, so we set up camp, ate our first camp meal, and went to bed in the soft rain. The children slept in their open tarp, too close to their parents’ noisy snoring tent for comfort, and with rain leaking in around their mosquito netted sleeping bags, so adjustments were in order for night two.

We awoke to dawn’s early light (what time was it? Could it really be 4:30?), but breakfasted and started on the trail up Mt. Katahdin by a respectable 7 am, after checking in with Ranger Rick. Adjusting boots, learning to suck our water tubes, cheery and a bit anxious (me), we soon discovered that Maine trailblazers did not employ the trusty “switchback” technique, that allows one to ascend without loss of balance, breath and equanimity. Straight up we went, and I soon had chance to reflect and regret that my twice weekly workouts were all for strength conditioning, not for building aerobic capacity. Rob was beginning to experience the reality of arthritic hip joints on a rocky trail. We encouraged the kids to bound ahead, and we lumbered on. Several times I was ready to abandon the effort (how long was this hike?), but felt that if I could manage to at least reach tree line (so high that trees cannot grow), I would feel a sense of accomplishment. One rain shower later, all water consumed, and we scrambled up to the “Gateway,” where we contemplated an amazing view of sister peaks, and the long valley below. Our children had been instructed to not wait on the summit for us beyond 1 pm, and it was 1 pm when we headed back down from our rocky pinnacle. Our clothing was drenched with sweat, and my feet already ached.

The trail down was easier, and my trepidations evaporated with the perspiration. This first day’s roundtrip was NOT a bad idea, an excessive push, and I WAS building up strength and endurance. Or so it seemed.

Eliza and Ted at the summit of Mount Katahdin

Mother-hennish, I searched for clues to our children’s late arrival. Other campers returning to the campground had no news or awareness of a sister-brother team in sneakers. I had a “Come to Jesus” chat with Ranger Rick (can we call out the Coast Guard?). Turns out that this mountain routinely takes 12 hours to climb, and folks often wander down well after dark. Rick himself had ascended the peak that day, taking a much steeper trail up, one which he did not advise our children to try when they asked him about it on the summit. Had they stubbornly tried it anyway?

I also asked Rick for the locations of all the logger roads crossing the trail. Eliza had learned that a boarding house in Monson (at the end of the 100 mile stretch) offered emergency shuttle service from these roads, and I wanted to know how far I would have to go before rescue was possible. Rick explained that the logging industry was very active in this stretch, employing the majority of families in the region. He was quite sympathetic to their dominance, having previously worked as an English teacher in the area; the majority of his students came from logging families. In fact the hikers are allowed access to the Appalachian Trail, although the trail itself is the property of the federal government, only by the grace and generosity of the lumber companies. He named two access points, both crossing the trail several days in the future.

Our children returned to camp at 7 pm. They had scrambled on hands and knees to reach the top. The view was unparalleled. Their feet were blistered. They were elated. They had not taken the steeper return route, the one Rick said made people agoraphobic, because it seemed that you would have to head straight down the mountain with no footholds.

A proper send off to our 100 Mile Wilderness adventure included a campfire at campsite #18 across the way. Ryan hailed from Richmond, Virginia. He had studied anthropology at a teachers’ college, but was not sure what was next. His love for civil war history was evidenced as he offered to send Ranger Rick a confederate bullet casing by earliest post. Larry also joined, a fourth southward bound through hiker (there were only 25 in total last summer heading south, while over 200 through hikers started in Georgia). Larry was a recent Rutgers grad, who taught in NYC schools through an offshoot of the Teach for America program. We chased away the squirrels who had pilfered Ryan’s cookies whole (the cookie larger than the animal). We dried bandanas by the fire. Trail names were discussed. Would Ted be “Pirate”, having been spotted on Mt. Katahdin with hat at rakish angle and one lens missing from his sunglasses? Ted added “Bunny” as a modifier, based upon his mother’s assessment of his trail prowess, and tried “Pirate Bunny” on for size.

The next morning, after making friends with chipmunks and giant hares, who thought that they were invited to be our guests at dinner and breakfast and practically sat on our laps, we loaded up the packs, for the first backpacking day. We had added duct tape as a blister prevention device to our various hot spot toes and arches. The distance was a modest 10 miles, and the walking easy, according to our map. No sooner were we out the campground gates when I felt it. In my knees. I was not going to be able to walk with this pack. I was certain, and quite disheartened. Eliza and I traded packs (hers was about 10 pounds lighter than mine), and I was relieved to see that with this adjustment I could put one foot in front of the other. Eliza had not prepared for this, and her sneakers offered inadequate support for the weight, but there was no choice. Rob swallowed his pride too, and swapped packs with Ted, so we would not hold the party back with our slow pace.

Daniella and Ted walking in Maine

We had a lovely stroll through the woods, along some lakes, fording streams that required high level trapeze act skills. All seemed promising. Yet, our progress was a disappointing 1 mile per hour. We took frequent breaks to deal with aching hips, loss of breath, and water purification. The last water purification stop at a small stream looked inviting. Rob sat down on the logs to pump, and I removed boots and two pairs of socks to wade in the clear, cool water. What was that sticking to my toes? Oh, a baby leech. Then another. And another. I decided I would wait on the logs with Rob. Why were those giant ants swarming? Had I disturbed their nest? OW! They were climbing in my clothes and biting me. Rushing to reapply socks and boots, the mosquitoes saw their opportunity to claim clean new skin. Dive bomb! Success! We scrambled to clothed, overheated safety, and wondered when this easy hike would end. Perhaps a half dozen northern bound through hikers passed us this day, with packs half our size, moving quickly.

We arrived at Abol Bridge campground (the last vestige of civilization before the 100 Mile Wilderness) feeling like we had already accomplished a great deal. My feet were now aching horribly. I gave up the $9 shower, pitched camp, and was revived by the beautiful lakeside view, as well as the store bought snacks. We raked through our packs, and Rob and I parted with a joint 15 pounds of booty, including such meaningful items as the GPS (Rob was not getting reception in any event…1.5 pounds), wet wipes (4 ounces), hairbrush handle, extra shirt and underpants, etc. The lady at the convenience store boxed it up for us for a modest fee, and we felt liberated. Hoisting my own pack this time, I chirped gleefully, “Piece of cake!”

Coconut Monkey pulled in from the trail heading north. He had been averaging 20 miles per day. We watched him chow down on two boxes of Pop Tarts and a Nutty Buddy. We learned later that such treats are the usual fare of through hikers who cannot otherwise manage to take in enough calories to replace the five to six thousand expended each day on the trail. We spoke to a couple that had only traversed the 100 Mile Wilderness. They said that the hikers’ refuge, at Whitehouse, required a one mile trek through hip high mud. I had been nurturing that spot as my emergency evacuation route. I estimated that we could get there in three more days, after traversing two large mountain peaks up the trail.

Morning three, July 6, this time a later start so as to finish the package transaction, we hit the trail at 8 am. The lady at the store refused to transact business with us at 6:45 the night before (shop closed at 7) and required us to wait for her the following morning to finish the arrangements. Do these local folks like hikers? I was beginning to wonder. I felt a bit like an alien in a strange land. We were swapping plastic bottles with her (Maine pays five cents each for recycling) to get the size and shape that would serve us best, while shipping home the heavier Nalgene bottles. We were buying sugar and aluminum foil and giving her the balance after taking the little bit we needed for our purpose. None of this seemed to interest or even amuse her. Nary a smile of welcome.

The logging trucks filled with whole stands of trees rumbled by continuously, until well into the night, and the morning too. Apparently lumber operations go on all night long. Besides the hikers, the only customers in the shop seemed to be part of the lumber business, and they were all buying beer.

Finally we were on our way. Only a modest uphill climb, per the map. My pack felt fine, but my feet were sore. I was worried about the mountain, however small, the numerous intervening ups and downs, and the fact that we needed to go 11 miles, rather than 10.  Could we increase our pace and make it before nightfall? I needed a bathroom break even before we started to climb, and I do not mean to urinate. Mosquitoes swarmed, making bare bottoms undesirable. Squatting under the best of circumstances is not conducive. I longed for my toilet back home. Robin’s Nest came towards us heading north, and “my goodness,” she was looking forward to completing the trail the next day, covering not only the 10 miles to the Mt. Katahdin campground, but summiting the mountain as well. I was beginning to feel positively inferior.

Up we went. And up and up. The woods were stunningly beautiful. The mosquitoes were voracious. All members of this group broke down and used DEET, the ingredient that dissolves some plastics and probably our skin too. We were sucking water at a rate of a quart per hour. We were drenched with sweat. The trees grew around the rocks like octopus tentacles. The rocks grew out of the forest floor like thousands of individual islands. The forest was coated with deep, bright green moss and ferns, and roots and rocks, and every step was a heavy labor with pain upon arrival.

We arrived at the top of the mountain, after stopping for breath, pack adjustment, water or bug relief, every 5 to 10 yards, and famished, descended upon our peanut butter and jam lunch. By now we were very aware of each ounce. We were eating our way from heaviest to lightest, and peanut butter and jam were both major indulgences in the weight department. Such a new way of looking at the world. We ate with gusto.

I started to shiver. My feet, out of socks and boots to air dry, were tingling with effort and exhaustion. I bundled back up, trundled forward, and now began the hardest stretch. I could only think about my feet. Each step of the way. And we were only half way there.

When we arrived at the northern terminus of Rainbow Lake, it was agreed that the children would go ahead the next three miles to establish camp at Rainbow Springs Campground. Everyone was eager for a dip in the lake (promised in the book—“good swimming”). Rob and I were left to our own devices, imagination and company. The trail was increasingly difficult. What was not a root or a rock was a deep pool of mud. Step around or through? This was the entire focus of my concentration when I could take my mind off my feet that now seemed to be separating from the rest of my being. The feet. A focus of existence. In my life back home I am trying to be more focused. Fine. I was focusing on my feet.

Two more Aleve. I had been taking a steady dose of 8 or so per day, and they had started to cause reflux and cause me to lose my appetite. Rob, whose arthritic hip was headed for surgery, was also in a rough place. We plodded on. Never have three miles seemed so interminable. Rob was now “hallucinating” about the lake swim. I was trying to hover just outside my body so I could transcend the effort of every step.

Finally we saw some movement in the woods. Other people. Had they seen our children? Oh yes, heading further up the trail. My heart and body sank. I was not going another step. If somehow they had pushed on (Ted really was eager to make a campground two miles further up the trail), we would have to be reunited the next day. I threw off my boots, headed to the lake and the spring. There they were, swimming, bathing, laughing. I started to cry. I could not go in yet. The water felt freezing, and I was spent.

Somehow I was coaxed in the water and Eliza prepared emergency rations on the shore of the lake…instant mashed potatoes with bouillon. She called it “gruel,” and said it was a tip learned in EMT training. I had never tasted anything so delicious. My spirits began to recover. There were big leeches this time, but they did not seem interested in attaching to us. Swim I finally did, then bundled in various dry warm clothes from among my family’s collection. I know they were alarmed. My children had seen me meltdown from cold before, on our various adventure trips on Alaskan rivers or sailing trips, but this was worse.

The others at this campsite were from a nearby summer camp. Eliza, on her own initiative, found out that they carried a satellite phone (there was no cell reception at any point along the trail so far). She called the boarding house in Monson as the phone battery ran dry, and arranged to have her parents evacuated six miles up the trail at 3 pm the next day. She reported on her success. I was stunned. I desperately wanted relief, but had not expected it so soon. I did not want to disappoint. I could not go on. I knew that Rob was in great pain himself, but I knew that he would not on his own choose to leave the trail. He knew we were slowing them down, and he knew that it would be better to leave them now before we interfered too much with their progress.

Relieved, we ate, slept and took our time the next morning to pack and move on. Finally at 9 am we parted camp, feeling optimistic about our short flat or downhill day.

This proved to be the hardest walk of the trip. With my feet and Rob’s hip already compromised, we were already over our pain medication ration by mid morning. The mud was interminable. The roots relentless. How could a path be so hard? Then came the Dead Water stretch. What did that mean? Apparently, it meant that people might have died there, sinking into a pool of mud. The strain was unrelenting. Lunch stop. 10 minutes was all we could spare, our progress was so slow, lest we miss the ride.

Teddy was given the lightest pack and sent ahead for the last 3 miles.The trail was stunning, along a pristine stream of magnificent drops and eddies. Eliza and Rob fantasized about paddling. I counted the steps. At 2:50 Ted came flying up to us, with the news. Fanny was in Intensive Care. Rob’s sister, Anita, had called and wanted Rob to COME HOME. Ted took my pack. Rob and I picked up speed. The trail reached a dusty road, with an SUV beckoning, a copy of Louis L’Amour short stories on the seat, that Buddy had been reading since 11:30 am.

Buddy was like a warm, enveloping hug. Everything about him exuded confidence, comfort, warmth, aid. We fell into his car, and headed back to civilization.

To reach the author, email mom@elizacava.com.  Part Two of “A Tale of Two Boots” will be posted next week.

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One Response to “A Tale of Two Boots (Part 1)”

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  1. A Tale of Two Boots (Part 2) « Eliza F. Cava - July 20, 2011

    […] after a few days of hiking on the Appalachian Trail with my brother and me. A Story in Two Parts: Part One describes our family, against the backdrop of an amazing adventure and terrain. Part Two describes […]

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