Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
September 25, 1971
Dear Dad and Sarah,
Iím sorry I havenít written to you for a few days, but weíve been busy.
We had planned to stop at Spearfish Lake when we came through the Midwest, but we got busy at a couple of places, and time sort of slipped by us, and all of a sudden we had to rush to get to Stellafane, which is a big star party up in Vermont. Itís a lot like the Texas Star Party, only itís sort of different, too. Mark bought the glass to make the mirror for a bigger telescope, although thatís a project that will have to wait until we get home, probably.
It was cold in Vermont! Winter is coming, and weíve been heading south, trying to stay in front of it. Itís been warmer here than it was up there.
Weíre back to playing tourist again. I had thought that Gettysburg was going to be boring with a capital B, but it turned out to be pretty interesting. I really didnít know too much about the place, other than a big battle was fought here, but Mark and I wandered all over the battlefield, and itís really interesting. Cemetery Ridge hardly qualifies as a hill, but when you go walking down it, itís just wall to wall monuments. Monuments wherever you stand, saying that this company or that regiment fought here. The monument companies a hundred years ago must have made out like bandits. The whole field must have been really crowded. Mark just walked around, shaking his head a lot. "What a field of fire! A modern-day company could have held this line, maybe," he said. "A modern battalion could have shot the hell out of Pickettís Division before they even got halfway across the field." I cannot imagine what it must have been like for those poor men back then. Hell on earth, I guess.
I donít know how we managed to spend three days here, but we did, and it was an interesting three days, at that. Weíre going to head on out of here in the morning and fly south a ways, down into North Carolina, and spend a few days hiking the Appalachian Trail. Mark said that was one thing he had thought of doing instead of taking this trip, but Iím glad he decided to take this trip instead. He says this will probably be our last backpacking trip this year, and that makes me a little sorry, since weíve had a lot of good times on our pack trips.
Anyway, since we didnít pick up our mail in Spearfish Lake after all, why donít you send it to us at General Delivery, Boone, North Carolina? I donít know the zip code; youíll have to look it up. Weíll make a point of being there in a week or so.
* * *
There was a little bite in the Pennsylvania air on the morning they left Gettysburg. Fall was certainly coming and bringing an end to the nice camping weather they had been experiencing since April. Now, with the oncoming winter pushing them southward, it was clearly going to be a race to stay ahead of cold weather, until they reached some place where they could spend the winter.
But, with Rocinanteís speed, they could win any race with the climate, and there were plenty of things to see and do before they reached a place where they might expect to winter over, and, in that part of the country there were plenty of things to see and do.
In spite of their aversion to cities, and their inability to penetrate restricted areas due to Rocinanteís limited radio, they spent a few days in Washington D.C., mostly at the Smithsonian. Theyíd not been much on visiting museums, but this one was special. When they tired of that, they had to take a very expensive taxi ride out to Suburban Airport, north of Washington and outside the Terminal Control Area.
After Washington, they killed a couple of days waiting for their mail to arrive by flying to Luray, visited the caverns there, and spent a couple of days doing brief hikes in Shenandoah National Park. They day-hiked on the Appalachian Trail some there, but it only made them want to do a bigger trip, staying out for a week or more.
They flew on southwest to Boone, North Carolina. Their mail wasnít there yet, and North Carolina seemed like it was far enough south that they could expect to have a week or so of fairly decent weather, so they got back in Rocinante and flew a few miles west to Elizabethton, which was closer to the Appalachian Trail.
As it was October 1st, they were pretty sure that this would be their last pack trip of the summer, and it was with a degree of sorrow that they sorted their gear out and loaded their packs from Rocinanteís luggage compartment one last time. Still, it had become a practiced routine for them by now, and they had a good idea of what to take and where to pack it.
The Appalachian Trail in this area generally follows the ridge tops of the Bald Mountains, and as the name indicates, itís pretty exposed. The views are often grand, and they spent days hiking along the trail. They rarely had to use the tent, as they could often find shelters available for their use in this off-season along this well-developed trail.
They were heading southwest along the trail, toward the Smokies, with the idea of going for a few days until they were ready to quit, then leaving the trail at a convenient road crossing and hitchhiking back to Rocinante. Their days were pretty much like any other hiking days theyíd had. They got up early and fought off the chill of the early morning air with a cup or two of coffee, then got on the trail. They would hike along steadily in the crisp fall air of an Appalachian morning, take a long lunch break, and shoot to arrive at one of the shelters well before dark, which was coming earlier and earlier with each passing day.
There really was not much notable happening from one day to the next, but five days out, as they approached Hot Springs, they hit a bad spot, and their hiking slowed. It looked like some sort of windstorm, perhaps a tornado, had come along and laid down trees over a wide-spread area, making the trail all but impassable. Their hiking rate slowed to half what it had been as they had to clamber over trees and fight to stay on, even find, the trail. "Somebody ought to clean this mess up," Jackie commented.
"Somebody is, probably a group of volunteers," Mark told her. "Getting volunteers out to work on trail maintenance like this can be tough."
Their rate of progress had slowed enough that they came nowhere near making the shelter that night, and they camped at a waterless spot in the middle of the blow-down area.
The next morning dawned clear, with a distinct chill in the air. Winter was still chasing them. "Weíll be out to 208 in the morning," Mark said as their morning coffee heated. "Thatís probably a good route to get back up to Greenville, and that would get us back up to 11 and give us a good shot back up to Elizabethton. Besides, weíre running out of food. I think Iíve had enough of the Appalachian Trail."
"Iím just as glad," Jackie said. "I think Iíve had enough backpacking this summer to hold me for a while."
"You know, I think Iím just as glad that I didnít decide to end-to-end this thing," Mark told her. "Weíve had some good times on this trip, and thereís been plenty of things weíd have never done if weíd done nothing but hike."
Their packs were getting light when they shouldered them not too much later. They figured it had to be four or five miles out to the road Ė a couple hoursí hike at their normal pace, but probably much longer if the blow down continued.
The going was even worse that morning than it had been the afternoon before. Mark estimated that it took them an hour to go the first mile.
They were just beginning to think about stopping some place to have lunch when they heard a chain saw roaring up ahead of them. "Iíll bet someone is cleaning this mess up," Mark speculated. "If thatís the case, the going ought to be easier once we get past them. What do you say we put off lunch, and have a real meal someplace like Greenville?"
It took them half an hour or more to reach the spot where the chain saw was working, where they found three people working at the blow down: a thin, wiry, wizened man who had to be well into his seventies, and a couple about their age. Mark and Jackieís arrival made a good excuse for the little group to take a break. "You wouldnít happen to be Chris and Barb Monahan, would you?" the old man asked.
"Afraid not," Jackie told them.
"I was kind of hoping that you would be," he said. "They said they might hike in from 212, to see what weíre up against, and I thought they might be a couple of days early."
"Youíve got several miles of it," Mark told them. "Iím not real sure about the distance, but youíve got five or six miles just like this. Weíve been going through this stuff since this time yesterday."
"I know," the man said. "I went over it both ways last week to see for myself. Thereís a lot of work here, and I donít know if weíre going to get it done in two weeks. Weíre from the Huron Valley Chapter of the Sierra Club, and weíre down here from Michigan to help out with this storm cleanup."
"Youíre a long way from home," Jackie commented.
"Well, the work needed to be done, and someone had to do it," the man said. "I had a call from a friend in the Appalachian Trail Conference right after this happened, and he told me if Iíd like to lead another work trip, this work was waiting."
"We had a week of vacation time coming," the young man said, "And Vince talked us into coming with him."
"You do this kind of thing often?" Jackie asked.
"Well, since I retired, Iíve probably led a dozen work trips a year," Vince told them. "Not all on the Appalachian Trail, of course. In the winter, I go down and help out on the Florida trail. I go out west sometimes, too."
"Thatís dedication," Mark said.
"It beats sitting home and watching the TV, waiting to die," he said.
They stood and talked for a few minutes more, until Mark said, "I suppose weíd better be getting a move on."
"Yeah," the young man said, getting up and picking up the chain saw. "I suppose weíd better be getting back to work."
"You two have a good trip, now," Vince told Mark and Jackie as they shouldered their packs.
They started down the trail, which smelled of fresh-cut wood and fresh dirt. It had been nicely manicured, and they made good time. In less than an hour, they reached the road that crossed the trail.
"I suppose itís time to get our thumbs out," Jackie said. "They did a nice job on that trail."
"That they did," Mark agreed. "Are you feeling as guilty as I am?"
"I think so," Jackie said. "Weíve been hiking trails all summer, and the work is done by volunteers on a lot of them. Iíve been thinking that weíve got the time, we ought to put something back."
"My feeling exactly," Mark said, stepping to the side of the road and sticking out his thumb as he heard a car approaching. "The only thing is, we need to go into Greenville and stock up on food, first."
It was mid-afternoon before they got back to the trail work party, their packs bulging with a weekís worth of food. Mark had stopped at a hardware store and bought an axe and a spade, as well, although he wasnít sure where he was going to stow them when they finally got back to Rocinante.
"The more, the merrier," Vince said, acting as if he wasnít surprised at their return. Mark and Jackie set down their packs and set to work at clearing away the fallen timber along with the others.
The young couple turned out to be Tom and Beverly Jeskey, also from Michigan. Theyíd planned a fall hike in the area, and Vince had known about it and roped them into helping. It was just as well, because Tom turned out to be a wizard with the chain saw. Mostly, he led the way, clearing out the major obstacles, while Mark lopped branches to make the pieces easier to handle. The others dragged the cut wood and limbs far away from the trail and scattered them and worked at cleaning up the treadway and repairing minor erosion.
They pressed on for a couple of hours and decided to call it a day as the sun was getting low. It turned out that the other three had made camp off the trail a ways, half a mile back, and it was a good spot to camp. Soon, several stoves were roaring under dinners.
Shortly after, the five of them were sitting around a roaring fire, working on their meals. "Iím usually not too much on campfires," Vince admitted, "But weíve cut enough downed wood, we might as well burn some of it."
"Iím glad you two showed up," Tom said. "Thereís no way that the two of us could keep up with Vince. With four of us, we might be able to wear him down."
"I donít know," Mark said. "You swing that chain saw like you know what youíre doing with it. Jackie and I come from timber country, and we know what itís like."
"Iíve picked it up here and there," Tom admitted. "Normally, I work in an electronics store."
"Iím a secretary, for U of M," Bev said. "Vince here wonít admit it, but heís a retired math professor."
"How does a math professor become a lumberjack?" Mark asked.
"Oh, itís just something I got interested in," Vince told him. "It gives me an excuse to get out in the woods and get some exercise."
"Heíll just about exercise you to death, if you half let him," Bev said. "Weíve been on trail crews with him before. Are you folks on vacation, too?"
"Well, sorta," Jackie admitted, and explained their trip flying around the country in Rocinante.
"It sounds like youíve had a wonderful summer," Tom admitted. "I kind of wanted to do something like that, back before Bev and I got married, but then we got married, and got a mortgage, and bills, and jobs, and all that happy stuff, and now itís a miracle when we get out for more than a few days."
"You two were smart to grab the chance while you still can," Vince said. "I like to get around and see the country, too, but Iím getting too old to keep up with you young folks."
"Says the man who wears out everybody a third his age," Bev smirked.
The evening soon became one of shared stories around the fire. Mark and Jackie, of course, had some good ones to tell from their experiences of the summer, and the others had some good ones, too. By the time the fire burned low, Mark and Jackie had discovered that they had found some new friends.
The next morning, Mark and Jackie were heating coffee while Vince was frying bacon and eggs in a large pan. "Is coffee all you two are going to have?" he asked.
"Itís about all we ever have, unless weíre near a restaurant," Mark told him.
"You canít work all day on just that," Vince said. "Iíll just throw on some more bacon and a few eggs for you."
"You donít have to," Mark said, but later was glad that Vince insisted, because by lunchtime, they were hungry again. They rapidly destroyed the normal lunch they were used to eating, and Mark thought about hiking back down to the camp to bring more back, but he and Jackie decided that they could just suffer until quitting time.
By the time they knocked off for the day, they had cleared out another half-mile or so of the trail, and were sore and blistered from the unaccustomed work. At least, the Jeskeys looked as tired as they did, but there was no hint of fatigue visible on Vince, who appeared as chipper as he had in the morning. "Thatís really sickening," Bev commented.
"Let me tell you," Tom said. "Thereís this hiking club back home that organizes a hundred-mile hike each summer. They have a sag wagon involved, so they donít have to carry all their gear. This hike is really popular with the retirees in the club. Theyíve got these folks in their sixties and seventies who do these twenty-mile days, day after day, and theyíll flat walk your hind end off if you half let them. The younger people in the club know enough to stay away from that little event."
"I donít know," Vince said. "I find they go kind of slow to suit me."
"That figures," Mark said in disgust, hoping that when he was Vinceís age, heíd have half his energy.
They worked all through the next day, Friday, ending up a little less tired and blistered than the day before, but another half mile of trail had been fixed up and reblazed. That evening, Vince told them, "Iím halfway expecting the Monahans to show up this evening. They donít live very far from here. Iíve never met them, but Iíve heard that theyíre good trail workers."
Sure enough, as they sat around the fire along about dark, a couple carrying immense packs showed up, asking about the trail crew. "This is it," Vince told them. "What there are of us." He made introductions all around. Chris Monahan was a short, heavy-set man, with long hair and a beard halfway down his chest. Barb had long, straight hair, and both of them wore overalls. Mark and Jackie got a vague air of "hippie" about the two, although they were both a little too old to qualify.
"Sorry we couldnít make it earlier," Chris said. "Barbís brother was supposed to come and take care of the animals for a few days, but he kind of a date with a jail cell."
"Anything serious?" Vince asked.
"Got into a fight in a bar, and the cops sort of hauled his ass off for a while," Barb said. "Heís kind of a jerk, anyway. Weíve got a neighbor whoís going to look after them, but one or the other of us is going to have to go home every two or three days to make sure everythingís all right."
Vince explained that they were working about a mile and a half from the camp. "Tom and Bev, here, are going to have to leave sometime during the day tomorrow," he said. "Theyíve got to drive back to Michigan and clean up before they can go to work Monday, so I think tomorrow afternoon, weíll move the camp up ahead about two miles, and save ourselves some time getting to work."
"Working regular hours is a bummer," Chris said. "Iíve been around that block often enough, but itís what Barb and I had to do if we wanted our farm."
"Is it a very big farm?" Jackie asked, remembering the operation that Roger and Kathy Griswold had to deal with.
"No, just a little thing," Chris said. "Just enough for Barb and me to raise our food, and run some sheep for shearing, and have a milk cow. We donít eat meat, but we decided that it was all right to use animals, so long as we didnít use their bodies."
"I take it you two werenít always farmers, then," Vince observed.
"No," Barb said. "Weíve only had the place a couple of years, now. After Chris got back from Vietnam, we realized just how much we hated living in the city and working at regular jobs, so we went looking and found our little place up at Elk Hill, not too far from where I grew up."
"You were in Vietnam?" Vince asked. Mark kept quiet; he had learned to be careful about volunteering that he had been there, since there were a lot of people around who didnít appreciate it. Let someone else take point, for once.
"I was there with the bloody X," Chris said, and explained, "The Red Cross. Spent two years there, mostly saving money, but I left there in a real bad mood. When I got back, I just about didnít want to have anything to do with anybody, and then I met Barb, who Iíd known in college. Her husband had left her with two kids, and I guess she sorta didnít want to have anything to do with anybody, either. So we wound up at Elk Hill."
"How big is your place?" Mark asked, confirming his decision to not say anything about Vietnam. Chris was the only person there that might understand him, and perhaps not even he would.
"Weíve got fifty-one acres," Chris said, "But a lot of it is wooded hillside that isnít even much good for grazing. Only about fifteen acres are worth a damn."
"We use a few acres of it to raise grain," Barb added, "And graze some of it. Mostly we have a big vegetable garden, so we donít have to spend a lot of money on food. We donít really have a cash crop, so we both have to work a little now and then to bring in some money. Weíve had to learn how to get along on less than we used to, but thatís all right."
"Well, if you like what youíre doing, I suppose thatís the important part," Jackie commented.
After a while, Chris and Barb set up their tent. The fire burned low, and soon everyone was in their sleeping bags. As Mark and Jackie held each other tight in their doubled sleeping bag, they whispered back and forth.
"Somehow I get the feeling that these two are playing at it," Mark said. "I mean, itís not how they have to live."
"It seems pretty good to me," Jackie said.
"Seems dull as hell to me," Mark said. "Itís not that I mind working. Hell, I like working, and I donít know how to sit around worth a damn. Want to bet theyíre waiting at the mailbox when their welfare check comes?"
"Yeah, maybe," Jackie responded. "But I do like the idea of a place out in the country, maybe with some animals around, and a big garden. Not from any high-minded principles or anything, but just because it would be a nice way to live."
"That thought has crossed my mind on occasion," he replied. "Maybe have a place big enough to have our own airstrip. I suppose thatís something weíll want to think about when this trip is over, and weíre looking for a place to live."
The next morning, the seven of them worked on the trail for a few hours in the morning, then went back to the camp. Tom and Bev tore down their camp, said their goodbyes, and began to pack out to the road. The rest of them loaded their packs and moved to a new site, farther up the trail, at a place beyond where they had been working.
After theyíd set up camp in the new place, the afternoon was getting along. "We could go back to work, I suppose," Vince said. "But Iíve been thinking. Weíve been working hard all week. Letís take the rest of the day off."
"Got anything in mind that you want to do?" Mark asked.
"Thereís a place down off the ridge a ways that looks like it has the makings of a good swimming hole," Vince said, "Although itís getting a little cool for swimming, it probably wouldnít hurt to rinse off a little. Then, maybe we could hike out to the road and go into town for a beer and a dinner."
"We didnít bring swimsuits," Chris said.
Vince shook his head. "I donít mind if no one else does," he said.
They all walked down the mountain and stripped off their clothes to go swimming in the ice-cold pool. No one was very crazy about staying in for long, but it was good to clean off some of the sweat and stink from the past few days.
They hiked on out from there to Vinceís car and went to town to find a good place for dinner. Trying to find something that would suit the vegetarian diet of the Monahans was not easy, but they finally settled for a dinner in a small restaurant they found along the road. It was barely light enough to see by the time they got back to camp.
The next day, they worked. The Monahans proved to be good trail workers, a little to Markís surprise. With Tom gone, Mark more or less inherited the chain saw, and they made fair progress. By the end of the day, they had developed into a new team.
The next several days slid by rapidly. It was the end of the week before they had finally worked their way down to the end of the storm-damaged section of trail. In that time, they had moved their trail camp ahead again, and now it was going to be a half-dayís walk out to the road and the cars, so they settled into camp for one last night around the campfire, before picking up in the morning.
"Iím sure glad you two showed up," Vince told Mark and Jackie. "I think Iíd have been up here working by myself for at least another week to get this done, if you hadnít."
"Well, we were glad to help out," Jackie told him. "Weíve been doing a lot of hiking this summer, and it only seemed right to give something back."
After all the time theyíd spent in the woods, it was good to get back out to the road and Vinceís car and the Monahanís pickup truck. The Monahans offered to drop Mark and Jackie off at Elizabethton, which was not too far out of their way. Even though there wasnít enough room in the cab for the four of them, and Mark and Jackie offered to ride in the back, they were glad to have the ride. They stopped in Greenville so Mark and Jackie could resupply their groceries, and rode through the crisp fall air up the road to Elizabethton. It was cold in the back of the truck, and they huddled together for warmth. "I suppose thereís no need to hang around this part of the country much longer," Mark said, observing the turning leaves.
"Itís going to be getting cold soon," Jackie agreed. "The weather has been nice to us, but I think that itís time to be moving south. Do you have anything else you want to do in North Carolina?"
"Just one thing," Mark told her. "I think we ought to visit Kitty Hawk. Call it a pilgrimage, I guess."
They were happy to see Rocinante again. They hadnít seen it for two and a half weeks, and at times Mark had worried about how the plane was making out. They unloaded their gear from the pickup truck, and said goodbye and thanks to Chris and Barb.
After they were ready to go, Jackie suggested, "What do you say we fly up over the ridge where weíve been working? Itíd be fun to see it from the air."
"Fine with me," Mark told her.
Rocinante started right away, and soon they were in the air over the ridge. The trail was down in the woods, and it wasnít easy to see.
What dismayed Jackie the most was how quickly they flew over it. It only took three or four minutes to fly over the trail that they had toiled on so hard for days. "It doesnít seem fair," she said.
"It does give you a different perspective," Mark agreed, shaking his head and turning east.
"Those were good people," Jackie said, "But somehow, did you get the feeling that we never got to know them?"
"I think youíre right," Mark agreed. "I canít put my finger on it, but I think youíre right. Thereís something unreal about them. But then, maybe thereís something unreal about us, too."
"I donít follow you," Jackie said.
"Iím not sure I follow myself," Mark told her. "Iím starting to get the feeling that Iíve had enough of this trip. If we donít find a good place to hole up in the next few weeks, I think itís time to go home and get a job."