Today I’m hiking with Professor Smith.
I’m on my way to southwestern Craig County, to day-hike the Appalachian Trail. After the brutal winter we’ve had, the ground is dishrag wet and an overnight rainfall has left streams of water surging across Mount Tabor Road out of Blacksburg. My immediate destination is the trailhead at Millers Cove. From there, my plan is to hike northbound on the Trail, although in reality, this hike, along Cove Mountain, angles mostly southward.
I park the Honda Accord in a small, unpaved parking lot where the back end of the car overhangs a 4-inch deep rivulet of water. I throw my mountain parka, my bagel, my water bottle, and by other hiking accoutrements into my pack. I lace my hiking boots and grab my trusty hiking poles, and set off.
Under overcast skies and in cool temperatures, I make my way over the rickety wooden footbridge spanning swollen Trout Creek and begin the ascent of Cove Mountain. The trail makes its way gently uphill through a mixed pine and deciduous forest, with mostly small trees, often broken. At one point, I cross a raging stream of water a yard wide, an intermittent watercourse that has been dry every other time I have walked here. Sunbeams penetrate the clouds, and I remove my fiber-pile jacket and stash it in my pack. It is perhaps 48F, but it is warm enough with my exertion to be comfortable in a T-shirt.
As my body adjusts to the rigors of climbing this mountain, I think of Professor Smith. Professor Smith is not actually physically with me this day, although she has hiked with me in the past. Today she is with me only in spirit.
My wife and I had hosted her to dinner two nights earlier. She does not have the strength to hike with me now. Professor Smith has cancer and the drugs she is taking make her body too weak and sore to engage in activity as strenuous as hiking.
I reach the crest of Cove Mountain where a rugged granite outcropping allows a terrific view to the northwest over the Craig Creek Valley and to the distant ridges beyond. Most of these mountains are shaded by clouds and are dark and foreboding. I guess that the clouds are only perhaps a thousand feet above these ridgelines. That proximity lends greater grandeur to the mountains.
The Appalachian Trail stays close to the crest of Cove Mountain as it makes its grand fishhook sweep to the east and then south, punctuated by the dramatic rock outcropping at Dragon's Tooth at the extreme southern end. Ostensibly, walking this ridgeline would seem easier than ascending or descending the mountain. But in reality, the ridge is seldom flat and often rocky, making the effort every bit as great. However, this effort is rewarded in several places where expansive views open to the northeast down the long valley towards New Castle, to the east and the humpbacked ridge of North Mountain, and finally to the southeast and the scenic Catawba Valley, bracketed by Catawba Mountain, McAfee's Knob, and Tinker Mountain. Far on the eastern horizon are the dramatic Peaks of Otter, the pyramidal Sharp Top to the right and the more rounded Flat Top to the left. The trees have not yet sprouted leaves, so the views are more open. The mountains are shades of brown and purple, brighter when lit by sunbeams. White grain silos stand like phallic symbols over the green Catawba Valley.
Nobody is on the trail except me. The air is fresh and crisp, and it smells good.
I seldom carry a cellular telephone while hiking, but on this day for an inexplicable reason, I have mine with me. I am surprised when it rings. On the other end of the line is a friend in Seattle catching me up on the events of the day on the other end of the continent. We truly live in an amazing world.
I begin to tire with exertion towards late morning. Although I remain an enthusiastic hiker, I have never been particularly strong and have always struggled to keep up with fellow hikers. So I’m happy to be alone where I can walk my own pace. Because my toes are short and misshapen and my feet are flat, I have never found a pair of boots that don't hurt after several miles of strenuous walking. My calves are tight and my thighs ache. The movement of my arms with my trekking poles strains my upper arms. My neck and shoulders hurt, too. However, I decide this is a perfect day for hiking. The humidity is low, the temperature is comfortable, the insect pests that plague summer hiking are absent, and the views are splendid. The pains I have are good, and are minor compared to what Professor Smith is going through.
Professor Smith's cancer is being treated aggressively. Her hair has grown back now and is an attractive grey. She lost every strand of it a year ago while undergoing chemotherapy and at one point was as bald as Michael Jordan. She has had a double mastectomy, and she is as thin and flat-chested as a Cub Scout. She explains to us that her current cocktail of drugs impedes the production of estrogen because the type of cancer she has feeds on estrogen. She tells us that without breasts and without estrogen, she is practically devoid of everything that makes her a woman. In a constant state of weariness and pain, she lives only to continue teaching her beloved students and trying to set right a troublesome late-teen daughter with a predilection for bad decisions.
I stop for lunch near the junction where a short spur trail leads to Dragon's Tooth itself. I choose not to go this short final distance because this landmark often draws crowds of people, sometimes loud and typically bothersome to me. so I sit on a large flat rock and soak in a rare moment of sunshine. Then I retrace my steps along the mountain, carefully rationing the quart of water I carry.
I see a white-tailed deer romping across the trail ahead of me and wonder by what evolutionary misfortune could this species has evolved with this white flag of a tail, flashing to predators, both human and animal, its movement.
I think back to my recently deceased friend who shot himself in the head after being diagnosed with fatal pancreatic cancer. I think about all the obituaries I’ve read which have the phrase, “she lost a courageous battle against cancer,” and wonder what courage it takes to endure constant pain with the knowledge that the effort might prove futile anyway.
At the rock outcropping on the crest of Cove Mountain, I take my last extended break. I watch a red tailed hawk soar above the Craig Creek Valley. I eat a banana, re-tie my shoes, and prepare for the final descent back to my car. I amble downhill slowly, savoring the last moments on the trail. I reach my car tired, hungry, and thirsty. But I am exhilarated and pleased that my health has remained good enough for me to continue to enjoy climbing mountains well into geezerhood.
I remove my hiking boots and gently massage my painful toes. I think again about Professor Smith and wish her a rapid recovery and many more years of improving health.