Plump, swollen, frustrated tears formed around the edge of my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. I sat beside the riverbed, the misty rain beginning to chill my bones, feeling utterly defeated as I held our broken water filter in my mosquito-bitten hands. I had been trying to get the pump to work for nearly twenty minutes, all to no avail. I pushed myself up, wiped the mud from my knees and headed back to our campsite.
What had already been a tough day filled with steep elevation gains, constant rain and sadistic mosquitos that could fly in the rain and bite through rain gear, was now made a whole lot worse by the realization that our primary method of water purification was broken; and the nearest road crossing was a 4 day walk from where we were. Crap.
Ale and I had been on the Appalachian Trail for 9 days, we were just beginning our 5 month journey walking on foot from Maine all the way to Georgia. Prior to this “little” adventure of ours, neither of us had really done any backpacking; we’d both done a good bit of camping before, but nothing like this. Everyday seemed to hold a new lesson about what it would take to live on the trail.
I guess you could say the mountains were “testing” us, giving us a run for our money, proving whether or not we had the wear-with-all to walk the entire 2,189 miles to Georgia. Blisters were forming on our feet and I had them appearing ominously on my collar bones, right where my 45lb overloaded backpack sat rubbing heavily. An overloaded backpack filled with everything EXCEPT a back-up water purification method…Crap.
When our water filter stopped working, we were in the middle of a remote stretch of trail called the 100 Mile Wilderness, which is essentially 100 miles of trail with zero road access; so once you go in, it’s totally up to you to get yourself out. It’s pretty much the worst place on the entire Appalachian Trail to have a critical piece of gear, like a water filter, fail.
Ale and I surveyed our options and decided to boil all of our drinking water for the next few days rather than risk a bought of giardia. We would be cutting it close, but if we took care we should have just enough fuel to get us to Monson, the first town at the end of the 100 Mile Wilderness where our first re-supply box awaited us.
The next two days were brutal. Each morning we pulled ourselves from our warm, dry sleeping bags only to be greeted by cold, damp clothing that never dried in the wet night air. The mountains battered us with steep ascents to cold, windy summits followed by slippery, knee-jarring descents. At the base of the mountains, we were met by swollen, freezing, fast-flowing rivers that had to be crossed carrying our packs overhead, soaking us to the bone. All the while the mosquitos tortured our psyche, swarming our heads and attacking any exposed flesh.
I was jolted awake on the morning of the third day sans-water filter by a terrible dream that ended with us running out of fuel. I looked around the dark and quiet lean-to, reassured that it was just a dream. We were 19 miles from Monson, about 2 days of hiking (at this point we didn’t have our “trail legs” and hiking 11 miles in one day was a pretty big deal). I pulled out our camp stove and fired it up, pouring in water to boil.
Just as the water began to boil I heard the distinct sound of the canister emptying it’s last bit of fuel and *poof* we suddenly had no way of purifying our water or cooking the rest of our food.
Once again Ale and I surveyed our options as we gulped down our half-cooked mac and cheese. After nearly a week of soaking rains the likelihood of finding any wood dry enough to start a fire was low to none. Neither of us had much drinking water left, I had maybe half a canteen and Ale had half his Camelbak. Aside from Nutri-grain bars and trail mix, the only food we had left required cooking for eating. It looked as though we would have to try to push out the last 19 miles in one day with no water.
We left camp with a sense of urgency, climbing up Mount Barren, quickly soaking in the views and moving on. The sky was finally clear and the sun was warm, a nice change from the rain, but not really helping with the thirst. We hiked onward for hours, soon running entirely out of water.
My mouth was parched as we hiked along, sweat beading up on my brow. As we came around a bend in the trail, we saw two hikers ahead of us, walking along the river. They didn’t have any backpacks, and appeared to have just hiked a short distance to check out the trail. Ale ran ahead to ask if they had any water they could spare.
Now- mind you, we are looking pretty worn and torn by now. Neither of us have had a proper shower in 12 days, we smell…simply awful. Our clothes are covered in dirt and sweat. By most accounts we probably looked a little bit crazy, suddenly emerging from the woods. However, none of that seemed to phase Jake and Gram. Without missing a beat they immediately invited us to follow them back to their campsite nearby where they had bottles of water in ice filled coolers.
Ice. Filled. Coolers. I never thought I would looks so forward to hearing those three words. But after two days drinking boiled/hot water and hours of hiking without a sip of anything, this suddenly seemed like a dream.
We followed Jake and Gram back to their campsite where we met their four other friends- Matt, Russ, Loney and Chad. All six of them had been best friends growing up, and even though they had families now and lived all over the country, once a year they had an annual guys weekend out in the woods.
Before we had even finished introductions I had an ice cold bottle of water in one hand and a double stacked cheeseburger in the other. As we guzzled our water and inhaled our cheeseburgers, they peppered us with questions about what on earth we were doing and how we’d ended up in our current situation. As I finished my burger, without missing a beat, they passed me another and replaced my empty water bottle with a beer.
Not only did the guys maintain a consistent flow of food and beverages along with their questions and endless jokes, but they offered to drop us in Greenville on their way back to civilization that afternoon. I was overwhelmed by their kindness, their unhesitating willingness to help and their genuine openheartedness.
As we jumped in the back of the truck bed and pulled away from the trail, the wind whipped my hair and I closed my eyes, smiling, relishing in the speed at which we could suddenly move. We’d moved so slowly for the past 12 days, to suddenly be cruising at 80MPH down the dirt logging road was exhilarating to say the least. I let out a belly laugh and watched as the forest zipped by with dizzying speed.
As promised, the guys drove us to Greenville where we were finally able to buy water treatment that would hold us over until we fixed our water filter. We offered them money for gas, which they refused, and instead they offered take us all the way to Monson (a good 20 minutes out of their way) so that we could resupply food. Their selfless generosity flowed like a swift moving river, and it lifted us up and carried us onward, momentarily allowing us to lay back and simply rest.
When we reached Monson, they wished us luck on the rest of our crazy adventure, shaking their heads and laughing as they piled back into their pickup trucks to head home to their families. Ale and I shouldered our heavy backpacks and walked toward the nearest hostel where we would sleep in a bed for the first time in nearly two weeks. My feet ached, my muscles ached, my blisters threatened to pop and my bug bites itched- but all I could feel was the lightness of my dancing heart, so thankful for the simple act of kindness from a few random strangers. For the next 2070 or so miles, this lightness would remain with me in many ways, carried forward by the kindness of many more strangers, and would play an essential part of my journey toward Georgia.
Our capacity to be kind to one another is truly remarkable and one of our greatest treasures. We all share this capacity, regardless of race, religion, gender or ethnicity. Throughout our lives, opportunities to offer simple acts of kindness often arise out of nowhere. Our lives intertwine unexpectedly in the most essential of moments. Each time we cross paths with someone, each time we have a conversation or share a random encounter, we have the opportunity to choose kindness. And when we do, we can only imagine how far that simple act of kindness may travel…