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  • Ken Ilgunas

An AT expedition

What: A five-day, 57-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail

Where: Daleville to Big Island, Virginia When: Two weeks ago; spring break Why: The tentacles of civilization had tightened their chokehold. Drawn were we to the hills to escape the schedules, appointments, and duties that make day’s feel full, but lives empty. Who: See below

Name: Josh Pruyn Trail Name: “Trailrunner” (When morale was low, Josh would bellow “Traillllrunnner!!” from behind, get down in a three-point stance, sprint for approximately ten paces with his pack still on, then double over, wheezing asthmatically.) Born: Tonawanda, NY Current residence: Denver, CO Age: 26 Bio: My hetero-lifemate and best friend since the eighth grade, Josh had his fifteen minutes of fame when he won the World Series of Euchre and was featured on ABC National News for blowing the whistle on his evil ex-employer, Westwood College. We’ve lived together on four different occasions in four different states and have—as odd as it may sound—maintained an almost daily email correspondence for the past decade. He now has a girlfriend, two dogs, and a fairly-domesticated existence working for a non-profit in Denver.

Name: Luke Matthews

Trail Name: “Squidfingers” (Supposedly his fingers, on occasion, resemble squid tentacles when playing bass with his band, Sweet tooth.)

Born: Texas

Current residence: Columbia, S.C

Age: 26

Bio: Josh and I met Luke in Coldfoot, Alaska where he worked as a guide and cook years ago. He later conducted dog-mushing tours on a glacier near Seward, AK. Now a grad student in the engineering department at U of South Carolina, Luke bemoans how seldom he’s able to visit his beloved mountains, streams, and woods.

Name: Ken Ilgunas

Trail Name: “Highlander” (In reference to my Scottish heritage, not the cheesy sci-fi series.)

Born: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

Current residence: Durham, North Carolina

Age: 26

Bio: Vandweller, hitchhiker, voyageur, cheap-son-of-a-bitch.

Name: Rimsky

Trail Name: “Mousehunter” (Due to her abnormally small appetite, we had good reason to believe she’d been eating the mice that lived at the shelters.)

Born: Joy, Alaska

Current residence: Columbia, S.C

Age: 3

Bio: Lover of campfires, strange smells, cuddling in tents and eating snow, Rimsky—an Alaskan husky and former sled dog—impressed her trailmates with a vigor and tenacity that—if not for her compact size—would win her a spot on any Iditarod sled-dog team. Like a good ascetic, she took a vow of silence before the trip, not once—to our amazement—uttering a whimper, growl or bark for all 57 miles.

Some random observations:

– Seeing the stars for the first time in a year hit me hard. Atop a ground tarp, I laid beneath them each night, noting how out-of-the-ordinary it was to see them (and how out-of-the-ordinary that should seem.) We must be among the first generations in the great history of our species to be stripped of this natural right. Just another consequence of convenience, I thought. Fast transportation, air-conditioning, heat, bananas from Ecuador, and light switches in every room. We thoughtlessly enjoy these comforts, rarely pausing to consider the costs. But who’s left to consider the loss when so few, today, remember what a sky full of stars looks like (and how they can make us wonder and think and feel)? How can we preserve the wild when so few know its value? How can we retrieve a natural right stripped from us when no one realizes that it’s been seized?

- At scenic overlooks on the trail—at points often criss-crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway—the smog depixelated what should have been crystal-clear vistas of bucolic farms and rolling Appalachian hills. The sky looked diseased, like swarms of some prophetical pestilence augured the beginning of the end.

– Forty-five percent of our nation’s energy comes from a coal industry that shears off holy pinnacles, pollutes pristine waters, and clouds my views that now inspire hatred instead of just inspiring. Say what you will about the lack of alternatives and the “realities” of our age, but I’ve yet to visit a home whose inhabitants would be no worse off if they cut their energy consumption by forty-five percent.

– Josh, Luke, and I certainly weren’t expecting anything tough on the AT. Each of us was familiar with the unforgiving terrain of the arctic, so ten miles or so a day on a well-blazed trail in central Virginia—we thought—would be a lazy walk up and down gentle gradients. But due to some severely inept pre-trip planning on my part, we expressed surprise—and some worry—upon seeing the taller mountains ahead of us glazed with a thick snow covering.

- We began an uphill climb where the trail, soon, would be caked with over a foot and a half of snow. For the next 15 miles, we’d learn—for the first time—what it was like to lust for a pair of snowshoes. Sometimes our feet would slice through slush as if our feet were made of hot coals. Other times the snow was topped with a hard icy crust that needed the full force of our pack-laden bodies to push down. Sometimes our legs, knee deep, had to plow through drifts as if we were kicking over hillocks of dirty laundry.

- Each night we’d embrace the routine of eating, sitting around the fire, passing a bottle of rum, and laughing about old times and our day’s trials. Coyotes would howl and Rimsky would eye the walls of the shelter, eager to get her jaws on the mice we couldn’t hear.

– There’s something to be said for shared suffering. Leisurely strolls evaporate from memories like sweat stolen by a desert breeze. The miserable, though, are carried longer, like mucus helixed into a frozen beard. The price of memories can be steep, but numbed feet, slashed ankles, and wobbly knees—however discomforting the purchase may be at the time—are always worth it in the end. In suffering side-by-side, the bonds between us are pulled taut. Old memories inspire the crafting of new ones. The gifts of our suffering will goad us on to suffer more. On our next expedition the bonds will be pulled even tighter, a bottle of rum will orbit a campfire, and we’ll laugh about old times and our day’s trials.

– An honest day’s work is a natural sedative; sleep comes easy after a hard hike.

– Josh spoke of his girlfriend and home life; Luke of his new girlfriend who’s a single mom. The change of seasons seemed to wash over their lives like warm air over snow covered hills. No longer were our conversations—like the ones of old—dominated with thoughts of the future. An infusion of words like marriage, children, and careers entered the fold, as well as the creeping presence of the present. Their lives seemed like they might be on the brink of some momentous change, while mine—as far as my sight stretches—remains happily mired in the muck of an everlasting spring—a season devoid of the domestic.

– Home is less a place and more a feeling. Each time I visit my old home in New York, I’m greeted with the unsettling and starling blow of culture shock. Now, that yellow house in front of the street I daily played hockey on feels less like home and more a place where I feel I don’t belong. Stepping on this trail, rather, is like rubbing my feet on a welcome mat. While I’m barely acquainted with these Appalachian hills, each time I come back I feel what I once did as a boy walking home from school; these trees and mountains and a ceiling dotted with stars beckon me to come in and stay just how the smell of my mom’s cooking and the glow of my father’s TV set used to.

Josh bedding down in the van with me for a night.

Finest AT Shelter we've seen yet.

Josh resting his knees and ankles.

The guillotine.

Spaghetti stew with pork/chicken sausage. Yum.

The final leg: walking bridge over the James River.

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