Dick called from a fog-shrouded ski patrol hut atop Stratton Mountain, Vermont. Not that long ago, he and RickRock were hiking in temperatures over 100 degrees. Last night, the thermometer recorded 44 degrees. It had been raining for two days. Because they hiked only seven miles today, they will have to cover fifteen tomorrow.
Even before he started this hike, Dick and I knew that the journey would transform him in some way. What neither of us anticipated was how it might transform me.
During our phone call, Dick reminded me to pack his fleece vest, heavy gloves, and wool hat with the next food shipment. The weather has turned, especially atop the mountains. The scorching days have given way to those of an early autumn, with a blue-gray fog that shrouds the valleys and speaks of frost on the horizon.
Since ski season hasn't started yet, the hikers on Stratton Mountain are allowed to sleep in the ski patrol huts. But there aren't enough huts for all the hikers. Some have claimed space in the 6x8-foot maintenance hut, snuggled right alongside the tools. Six hikers claimed the restroom. During the daylight hours, the hikers are allowed to use the ski lift gondolas to ride down the mountain to a restaurant.
Down in the town of Manchester Center are designer outlets, big beautiful inns and quaint bed and breakfasts, and a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop. Guess where Dick headed. He also went to the local outfitter, a grocery story, and the laundromat.
Several years ago, Dick and I spent a weekend at the Village Country Inn in Manchester Center. We stayed in the LaFleur suite, ate smoked pheasant, and drank fine wine. On this trip, he paid $5 to sleep on the floor of the Zion Congregational Church.
At this point on the trail, it is not at all uncommon for hikers to "hit the wall," to question whether or not they want to keep going, knowing that some of the most difficult terrain lies ahead. Dick said that, as far as he could tell, he and RickRock are the only two hikers who started out together in Georgia and who are still hiking together. I asked what he would do if Rick decided he wanted to quit. Dick's answer was quick and simple. "I wouldn't let him."
I told Dick that I had called Hartford Hospital to see if I could find out anything about Draco (John Steigerwald of Cincinnati), the hiker who had been bitten by a rattlesnake. The patient information department said they had no one by that name in the hospital. I took that to mean he had been discharged.
Now, if Dick had been bitten by the snake, Reader's Digest might have accepted the article I'd written about his journey. As it is, their rejection letter said they would require more drama in Dick's adventure -- "a bear attack, lost in the mountains in a snowstorm, a fractured leg miles from help." When I read the letter to Dick, he said he'd try to find a bear and wrestle with it. I told him I'd find another way to get published.
The second rejection letter came from Walking magazine. They liked my writing but who said the story didn't fit their demographics. Most of their readers are women. The editor concluded by saying, "Now if only =Zita= had hiked the Appalachian TrailÍ"
Several years ago, Dick won a pair of walking shoes for me. I walked a little. Not long after that he won a pair of roller blades for me, complete with helmet and pads. I tried them once. In 1996, I won a private golf lesson with national champion Donna Andrews. Gillette and the Women's Sports Foundation flew Dick and me down to Pinehurst, North Carolina. I'd never set foot on a golf course before in my life. Donna and I spent six glorious, memory-making hours together. But I haven't taken up golf. That same year, Dick won a sweepstakes in which he had nominated me to carry the Olympic torch. His winning entry said he was nominating me to carry the torch because he had carried a torch for me for years. He thought he was being funny. I thought it was sweet. As I proudly walked down the street holding the torch up high, I heard people on the sidelines mutter, "Why isn't she running?"
When my doctor told me I needed to lose weight, I nodded and said I'd try. I didn't. When I started a new job and none of my clothes fit, I simply bought new ones. For almost two years now, I've hosted a weekly television show called "Author Chat" on our local cable access channel. Did seeing myself on the screen provide the motivation to exercise? No. But the editor of Walking magazine said, "Now if only Zita had hiked the Appalachian TrailÍ"
I received that letter a week ago. Since then, I've gone walking every morning at 6 a.m. for at least thirty minutes. I know that to someone who hikes regularly, a week's worth of daily walking may sound insignificant. But for me it's a milestone. I still have no desire to thru-hike the AT. As my friends are quick to point out, where would I plug in my electric rollers? Still, I can almost say that I've come to like walking. Almost. Even that, believe me, is a transformation.