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Excerpt: A Wild Encounter on the Appalachian Trail

For early thru-hikers, steep hills and long distances were only part of the challenge.

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The challenges of a starting an AT thru-hike in Maine in early summer are pretty straightforward: a brick wall of relentlessly steep mountains, bitter attacks by devil-hoards of black flies and mosquitoes, and epic sloshes through soggy terrain and beaver mud. But for David Hiscoe, on his southbound journey in 1973, things got even more interesting when, just over the New Hampshire border, he found the bridge over the Androscoggin River closed off and a half-mile of fast water in front of him. As we all know though, unusual challenges on the trail often lead to the most interesting people—and memorable lessons. In this excerpt from his new book, Take the Path of Most Resistance, Hiscoe recalls how he got across the river, and came away with a lesson he carried with him for the rest of his life.

I’d made it through Maine, which would have been a joyous occasion if the rain hadn’t turned the trail into a lake. I think that I was walking at least shoulder deep in water as I crossed into New Hampshire.

Earlier in the morning, a handwritten sign near the border announced the grunty news that the bridge over the Androscoggin River was out. “If he likes you,” a helpful north bounder had added, “the foreman at the hydroelectric plant just upstream will sometimes let you cross inside the plant’s dam. You need to be nice to him. Company rules say he can’t let you in.” The alternative was a 10-mile boot-powered detour up river to another highway bridge. And a 10-mile walk back down the other side to Gorham, New Hampshire, where I planned on resupplying, getting a hot bath, and celebrating the completion of my first state on the AT.

I usually do “being nice” pretty well.

But I had several negatives in my column as I walked up to the dam to make my plea. I smelled, for instance, like last month’s road possum. My nasty, uncut hair was not likely to endear me to a crew-cut master of electricity. It had been raining off and on for a week; after the inevitable stumbles, trips, and wallows I was packing a multi-pound combo of Maine dirt, moose poop, and bodily fluids in livid and possibly permanent streaks up and down my arms and legs.

And with every step, my shredded cutoffs swung unwelcome, obscene views into the eyes of anyone unlucky enough to be looking in my direction. Like everyone else in the early 70s, I started my hike in blue jeans. But a decisive removal of everything below the knees eased the heat early on, and then daily falls slowly eroded snatches of material until my denim loin covering wouldn’t begin to pass muster any place on the planet other than among my fellow savages on the Appalachian Trail.

On the other side of the ledger, I had just spent the last few years doing construction work and had a sincere appreciation—hero worship, really—for the talents of the people who get up every day to imagine, build, and maintain the places that keep us warm, dry, and fed. That appreciation only grew when I was on the trail, usually cold, wet, and hungry. So I screwed up my courage, knocked on the metal hatch just below a huge sign mandating “no entrance, except by authorized personnel,” and was soon explaining myself to the guy who opened the door.

“Boss Man, you got a skinny Tarzan up here wanting to see you.”

A large guy in a blue twill shirt, matching pants, and well-worked boots whipped and skipped up a short set of metal stairs and gave me a quick once over. “Hi, son. Name’s Don—what can I help you with?” As he smiled his greeting, he pulled me out of the drizzle with the huge hand he stuck out to shake mine.

It was time for rhetorical strategies. One of my most long-held personal goals, I began by explaining, had always, since I was a little boy, been to see a working industrial dynamo up close.

He snorted just a bit, looked at me the way a new father looks at his baby’s first staggering experiments in walking, and cut eyes at his assistant.

“Tony, I think this young man here might be a plant. Most likely a federal inspector from DC. Maybe somebody the state sent up from Concord. It might be prudent to give him the full tour, top to bottom, show him the whole thing.”

“And I suspect he might want his educational junket to end over on the other side of the river. Right, young man? Bring him one of those hot teas, and let’s get started.”

For the next hour I learned a lifetime’s worth of lore about water flows, pluvial pressures per square foot, wildlife remediation, riverine ecology, tailrace and forebay rates, and core turbine copper wrappings, from two men who took imperial pride in sharing what they knew. The 300-yard stroll across and under the Androscoggin River was one of the high points of my AT walk.

At the far end of the plant, Don shook my hand, wished me well on the rest of the hike, and walked me out under another “No Admittance” sign, back into a steady New Hampshire rain.

“It’s a three mile trudge into Gorham,” he said at the end of the parking lot, where the plant road intersected with NH 16. “I’d drive you down, but my ride’s in the shop. Wife dropped me off today. Don’t think you’ll have much luck on the thumb. You look like you were brought up in a latrine.” He shook my hand and turned back toward the dam. “You be good, young man,” over his shoulder.

He was right. There was nobody on the road, and the first three cars that splashed by slowed a bit, took a quick sniff, and never downshifted.

Then the Mercedes pulled over.

And not just any Mercedes. A huge one, just short of the length Sir Paul McCartney might command for a languid whisk around London on a night of celebrity drinking. It was—and this is not an exaggeration—gleaming a white so magisterial that heavy New England cloud masses evaporated in its path. Its chrome pulled vigor from the hidden powers of the Universe itself and beamed heavenly energy back at the rain, banning all storm from its elegant presence. It was obviously brand new and just as obviously not meant for me.

The tinted right front window came slowly down. As I awed my way closer, I could see acres of white leather, a manor’s worth of virgin, alabaster carpeting. An intricately crocheted white pillow on the passenger seat announced that “Paula adores Stephen” sewn in white ribbon resplendent on a red satin heart. New car smell swirled out the open window.

“Hop in, my natty friend.”

The driver was in his early 20s, about my age, sporting an English driving cap, a neatly cut beard, and, if my nose was not mistaken, a marijuana cigar stabbing around precariously on his lower lip.

“You don’t want me in your car, not like this.”

“Not my car. Not at all, my mud-footed buddy. This is the boss’s automobile.” He sucked a huge pull on the cigar. “And just today I’ve officially proclaimed my fearless leader the newly crowned turdhead of this great land, the northern kingdom of New England. Dump the pack in the back (the rear door locks popped) along with this piece of embarrassment.” The Paula/Steve pillow was frisbeed toward the rear, and a long ash broke free and floated down on the wood console.

I hesitated. This didn’t seem right.

Then my eyes snapped to the creased and crumpled McDonalds’ bag that shared the backseat with the pillow, greasy ketchup and mayo streams staining their way downward into the rear upholstery. In my perpetual defense, I saw the sack at a moment of great moral weakness. Through an unfortunate misunderstanding with a temporary hiking partner, the only food I’d eaten for the last thirty-six hours had been a cup of partially cooked white rice. The fragrant Quarter Pounder wrapper defiling the car’s floor flipped the scruple switch in my brain as decisively as a needle pushing in an addict’s poppies. Whatever gripe my driver had with whatever authority, I was totally in—if the rebellion led quickly to an oleaginous meat patty.

“We were supposed to start my training today on how to grade pine and fir for the secondary market. It’s what he said he hired me for a month ago. Right out of community college. Seemed like a great opportunity for around here. Not many jobs in this bunghole. But when I got in this morning, he sent me out to wash the car again.” A long, thoughtful pull on the cigar.

“I reminded him that I’d spent most of yesterday squirting, scrubbing, and shining. Then I politely pointed out this torrent squirting out of the sky and suggested that we maybe do the wash on a nicer day.”

With surprising skill, he then metamorphosed into what I took to be the nasally voice of his boss, snarling out a condescending, high-pitched order: “I didn’t hire you to run the show. Paula likes a clean machine.”

Then effortlessly back into his own voice: “Then he handed me a lunchbox, a pink one with Karen Carpenter on both sides.”

Back into the boss’s squeaky menace: “Paula’s little bastard forgot her turkey and milk. Swing by first and drop this at the kid containment facility on your way. After lunch, we’ll try to box up something else important for you to manage.”

I could hear rocks drumming hard against the bottom of the car as we pulled back onto the highway and headed down the mountain toward Gorham.

“Don’t mind doing my share of the grunt work. But this guy’s jerkwad enough to run for senator someday. Didn’t really sign on as head driver and delivery boy [giving his joint a jaunty tip for emphasis] for the Esteemed and All Powerful Sire of Specialty Toothpicks and Other Assorted Small Wood Trinkets and Accessories for Greater New Hampshire and Surrounding Areas. I’m through. Starting over tomorrow. Just signed on as lumber and hardware buyer for my uncle’s building supply.”

It might have been the onset of effects from the oceans of second hand smoke bouncing off the warm, dry, white leather. Or maybe it was just his black chin beard, worried face, and spider eyes crinkled up under the vapors from the joint. Then again, my view of him was out the side of my eyes, focused dead forward as I was, trying by force of will and intense concentration to keep us at least partially on the mountain road as he accelerated, two fingers on the wheel, through every curve we approached. But as my driver calmly reasoned out this considered announcement of emancipation, I could see, as anyone who was present could easily have, that he bore more than a passing resemblance to President Abraham Lincoln.

A few minutes later we pulled into the McDonalds lot. Abe popped the trunk, threw in the keys, shut the lid, and told me with deep solemnity: “I hid the other pair. Shit-ass.” Head back and shoulders square, he strode out of my life, off down Gorham’s pleasant New England main street. I stepped into the land of dry linoleum and bright lights, quickly finished off five dollars of food mass (as a point of reference, a Big Mac cost sixty-five cents in 1973), and, with great class, stepped outside and threw up five dollars of food behind the post office next door.

I continued hiking, and eventually stood atop Springer Mountain at the southern terminus of the AT. For many of the years of my post-trail career I managed groups of very bright, ambitious knowledge workers for a multinational corporation. The business constantly tried to help fellow managers and me out by bringing in impressive streams of organizational theorists and human resource consultants who specialized in motivating excellence in the work place. Their degrees were usually from Wharton or the Harvard Business School, and they were often employed by the likes of McKinsey or Arthur Andersen. They migrated to us in great stately formations, dozens to a flock, during a time of unprecedented downsizing, off-shoring, and layoffs. We all needed their help.

Every one of my hardworking, passionate colleagues—and me—marched in at dawn each and every morning knowing that we could be gone by lunch if any one of the masters of industry in our executive suites could dream up a way to increase his or her bonus a nick of a percent by slipping one of our jobs out the door.

In spite of the consultants’ good intentions and great PowerPoints, none ever really added that much to what my Mercedes driver taught on the road to Gorham. If you’re clueless about respect, you’re going to end up scraping a gob of sticky mess out of your gleaming white leather, usually not that far down the road. 

David Hiscoe says that the Appalachian Trail saved him from the 60s and taught him everything he really needed to know. His memoir, Take the Path of Most Resistance, is available in stores now.

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