Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

The Homestanders
Book Four of the Bradford Exiles
Wes Boyd
2005, 2011

Chapter 8

Friday, November 27, 1998

Considering the fact that Duane was home, Jason could have taken Friday off work – but he’d known from the beginning that Duane had plans to spend much of the weekend with Cory working out the details of the Appalachian Trail hike. Four years on the back burner, and the two kids hadn’t even seen much of each other; now with the end of college only a semester and change away, the time had come to move it back to the front. From having done a fair amount of backpacking, along with reading about the AT and talking to a few thru-hikers, Jason knew it was more than just a case of picking up a backpack and starting to walk. It was a major logistical challenge with several knotty problems that could only be solved with thorough prior planning. From last summer, this weekend had been earmarked for firming up the plans and laying down what needed to be accomplished in the next few months.

Since Duane wasn’t going to be around, there was no reason not to go to work. It would be a hectic day, Jason knew, partly catch-up from a skeleton crew the day before, and partly from the fact that the crew would still be pretty skeletal today.

It would be nice to think he’d put a lot of consideration into Mignon’s remark as they stood leaning against the kitchen counter on Tuesday, but he hadn’t – mostly because it was such an unthinkable notion that there was nothing there to think about. It was coming up on ten years since Christine died, and would be all of it shortly after the first of the year. The first several years after her death, he’d mostly been focused on Duane – which is not to say opportunities hadn’t arisen here and there, because they had, but had to be measured against Duane’s situation, too. The kid came first, and that was that, and most of the opportunities that came up would have had to involve at least some rearrangement of priorities. By the time Duane was heading off to college, he’d become used to not having a woman in his life, and wasn’t so sure he wanted to mess with it again.

In the couple years that Vicky had been back in Bradford they’d picked up their old friendship – but on much the same level as it had been, which is to say just friends. It had not escaped Jason that Vicky was again an available young woman, even though eight years had passed and a lot of water had flowed under the bridge since they’d had much to do with each other. He’d hoped she could pull herself together, make a new life, find a new guy who wasn’t a jerk; they’d talked about it lots, and he’d had fairly detailed reports on her mostly dismally unsuccessful attempts with one guy or another over the last two years. Several times, he’d helped pick her up, get herself dusted off, and started over again. That was what friends were for, after all. Mignon’s suggestion was so unthinkable that it seemed a joke, a tease, and that was that. He liked being around her, but then he’d always liked being around her, even when she’d been a tiny little girl.

Since the Varneys had planned Thanksgiving dinner late to accommodate his work schedule – along with many other families in Bradford, of course – he had hustled home after work, changed his clothes quickly, and headed across the back yard to find Duane already there. It was the first time he’d actually seen him to talk to him since he got home early that day. It turned out Duane had left on Wednesday as scheduled, but with his snowboard strapped to the top of his Jeep. For whatever reason there hadn’t been much snow in the Upper Peninsula snow belt, or at least around Marquette, but he’d heard they were making snow on the lighted slope at Boyne Mountain. After calling home to warn he’d be running late he’d stayed at Boyne until they turned the lights off, and only then had he headed south on the five-hour drive to Bradford, arriving at four o’clock early Thanksgiving morning and spending a good part of the day sleeping. Duane all over, he thought, doesn’t miss a chance.

Having been warned in the phone call the evening before that Thanksgiving dinner was going to be at the Varney’s, Duane had slept late, then got up and cut through the back yards. From what Jason figured out, Duane had spent much of the afternoon teasing Troy about surfing, skiing, rafting, climbing, the chance to do the AT, and other joys of the single life, while Troy had tried to tease him back about the joys of marriage. It was pretty clear who had won that round, and it wasn’t Troy.

Jason was happy to shake hands with his stocky, solid, dark-haired son, a handshake that morphed into a hug without any difficulty. He hadn’t seen much of the kid over the last three and a half years, mostly holidays and when he stopped off on the way through from one place to another, most of which were Indy 500 pit-stop duration. Unless a miracle happened it was likely he was going to see even less of him in the future unless he wanted to spend a lot of time visiting national parks – which he suspected would happen. They grow up and go away, he knew all too well, but here it was – in fact, it had happened when the kid drove the Jeep up the on-ramp and headed toward Northern Michigan University a few months over three years ago.

In spite of many dinners with the Varneys over the years, this one had been a little special, for having the extra kids present. He had noticed Vicky looked especially nice, in a skirt and blouse with careful makeup, most of which she didn’t often bother with since she didn’t feel like she needed to dress up much to run the register at Walmart. But it had been Thanksgiving, and he hadn’t given it any special significance.

But that was yesterday; today, as Jason came around the corner, he was just a little surprised to see Duane’s red Jeep sitting in the driveway. He hadn’t expected to see much of the kid, and figured he would be at Cory’s house, as had been planned for the day.

He headed into the living room, to find Duane sitting there quietly, a glass in his hand. “You get everything worked out with Cory?” he asked, not detecting anything wrong.

“I guess,” Duane replied dejectedly. “Cory’s not going.”

“Not going?” Jason asked, more than a little surprised. “What brought this on?”

“He’s going to go to work at that place where he’s interned the last couple summers,” Duane shook his head. “They need him to start as soon as school is out. He didn’t come out and say it, but it looks like it’s been coming down since last summer and he was trying to put off a decision. It’s a good deal for him, I guess, but damn!”

“When things like that come along, you have to make up your mind,” Jason replied philosophically, sitting down in his comfortable chair. “Sometimes it’s to change your mind.”

“Yeah, but shit, how long have we been planning this?” Duane snorted. “Over four years, now! I should have seen this coming when he dumped wildlife biology.”

“It doesn’t have to kill the hike,” Jason offered. “Don’t you have anyone else in the outdoor club up there who might be interested?”

“No, not really, at least not any I think would be willing to do the hike the way we had it planned,” he shrugged. “Actually, I’ve been sitting here thinking about soloing it.”

Soloing the trail was a perfectly reasonable alternative, Jason knew; his reading on the Appalachian Trail hadn’t been anywhere near as extensive as Duane’s, but he knew a large percentage of thru-hikers were solos. “Might not be quite as much fun as if you were with a friend,” he observed. “And maybe not quite as safe, but I guess it could be done.”“I know it can be,” he said. “You remember Scooter, down at NOC? I think I introduced you to her last summer.”

An image sprang to mind. If Scooter was who he thought she was, she was memorable. “Short, plain, around thirty, light brown hair, smokes cigars and acts pretty butch?” he smiled.

“That’s her,” Duane laughed. “The first time she tried the trail a few years ago, she went pretty hard, tore up her knees and had to drop out. The guy who had been with her finished up solo. The next year she tried it again and went solo, mostly because she knew she’d have to take it real easy. Some days she could go pretty well, and some days she could barely walk a mile. It took her almost eight months, but she made it. The last time she tried it a couple years ago she started with some other girl, but she was slowing her companion down too much so Scooter quit. The other girl made it in good time, solo again.”

“So it can be done,” Jason nodded, picking up on his son’s thinking. “Even though it’d be a little riskier for a girl, not that I think I’d care to tangle with Scooter if she was in a bad mood.”

“Right, me neither,” Duane nodded with a smile, then got serious again. “And, just between you and me, I’d been getting a little concerned about Cory, anyway. He’s put on some weight; he hasn’t been getting out and hiking like I’ve been doing. I can’t help but wonder if maybe we’d get going, maybe get a hundred miles on, and he’d burn out on me. I’d have to quit, or else go on solo.”

“So maybe it’s just as well.”

“Right,” Duane sighed. “It’s just that we’ve planned this trip for so damn long, clear back to when we were on Isle Royale years ago. So now, I’m sitting here wondering if I should just plan on going solo, or say the hell with it and start getting résumés and applications out in hopes of getting on someplace decent next spring, not some damn cannonball park or urban memorial.”

“Are you looking for my advice, or just looking to talk out your thinking?”

“Both, I think,” Duane sighed. “I’d like to hear what you think.”

“Well,” Jason sighed, gathering his thoughts. “Right off the top of my head, I’m of two minds. Look, let’s think about Troy for a second. If you were to hike across the back yard right now and ask him to go with you, what would he say?”

“He’d say, ‘not just no, hell no,’” Duane snorted. “He’s got Brittany, he’s got a kid coming along, and he’s got a pretty good job, considering. She’d rip him a new asshole if he took off on a six-month hiking trip.” He shrugged and let out a sigh. “He didn’t say anything, but I think there may be a girl involved with Cory’s not wanting to go, too. Some kid from his college, I’ve never met her.”

“There you go,” Jason smiled. “I know I haven’t been prodding you about this, but are you seeing anyone?”

“Not seriously,” Duane shrugged. “Oh, I’ve hung around with some of the girls in the outdoor club, even dated a little, but hell, I figured I’d better stay away from that kind of stuff, I’m going to have to be a seasonal on a limited-and-spotty income for too long. There’s plenty of time for that shit later.”

“One of these days some cute little shit is going to come out of the woodwork, flutter her pretty eyelashes at you, and you’re going to find yourself up to your ass in the wife-and-family thing, just like Troy.” A grin crossed Jason’s face, and he continued. “Or some plain and dumpy and butch outdoor girl like Scooter, although in the end it’ll mean the same thing, right?”

“I guess,” Duane snickered, getting his point. “She’s a little old for me, but we see eye to eye in a lot of ways. She’d drive me off with those damn cigars of hers, though.”

“OK, now I think we’re looking at this from the same viewpoint,” Jason smiled. “Now, assuming you get into the park service as a seasonal and get yourself established, that’s pretty much the end of your summers unless you do something drastic, so in that sense, and in a wife-and-family sense, you’d better do it now while you have the chance, right?”

“Yeah, it makes it seem like a no-brainer. But you’re leading up to something.”

“Right, and it’s this. Assuming you take a year off now, that’s at least another year before you could go full time, right? One year isn’t going to matter a whole hell of a lot, but if you screwed off for five years and then started working as a seasonal, by then you’re going to be thirty-five or even pushing forty before you could go full time, right? There’s a point in there where being a seasonal is going to interfere with that girl we were just talking about, fluttering eyelashes or cheap cigars or whatever else she brings with her. Worse, I don’t know how it’ll affect you on your retirement. If you wait too long, you may have to be working into your sixties before you can retire.”

“It’s not quite that bad. Time spent as a seasonal counts towards a thirty and out.”

“Yeah, but still,” Jason said. “You’re twenty-two now, so assuming you work ten years at six months a year as a seasonal, and then another twenty-five full time, you’re fifty-seven before you can hang it up at the earliest. I’ll be able to retire at fifty-two. Whether I will or not, I can’t tell you, but from my viewpoint that’s too young to quit working, since I don’t think I can just sit on my butt. I may retire from General, take the package and the benefits, and get a little more serious about the knife business. Or I may just drive a fork truck for a while. But that may be beside the point. What I’m trying to say is that delaying trying to get into the NPS now may lead you to family problems before you’re full time. On the other hand, maybe it’s better to do a long hike or something like that before those family problems arise.”

“I hadn’t looked at it from that viewpoint,” Duane nodded, seeming a little brighter than he had a few minutes ago. “But we seem to be coming out at the same place.”

“Going ahead and doing it? I’d say to go for it. You can put shit like that off for too long. You don’t know what’s going to come out of the woodwork before you get there, and I’m talking to the best example I know. Though I’ve never regretted your coming along in the slightest, it closed doors on things I’d have liked to have done, and some of them can’t be reopened. Hell, I’d like to go on the hike with you, but even with my seniority I can’t get off that long.”

“See if you can get a leave of absence, and come along anyway,” Duane suggested; Jason wasn’t sure just how serious he was. “I think it’d be neat.”

“It’d be nice to think about,” Jason smiled. “But even now I doubt like hell I’d be up for an end-to-end of the Appalachian Trail. Two weeks on Isle Royale was about all I wanted, and that was five years ago. Besides, you wouldn’t want your old man along to cramp your style if some cute young thing was to come hiking along fluttering her lashes and smoking her cigar.”

“On the other hand,” Duane snickered. “If some cute middle-aged thing were to come hiking along fluttering her lashes and smoking her cigar, the old man might think having his son along would cramp his style.”

“There is an advantage to being my age,” Jason replied. “And that is it doesn’t seem quite as damn important as it does at your age. I’ve been there and I’ve done that.”

“You know, I’ve often wondered about that,” Duane commented, changing course drastically.

“About what?”

“About why you never got married again after Mom died.” He was, of course, referring to Christine, who he considered his mother in every way possible except birth. He knew about Jody, of course – it had never been a secret – but she was either referred to by name, or as his “biological mother.” As far as he was concerned, Jody had given up the birthright title of “Mom,” and Christine had rightfully claimed it; that was the way things were.

This was really starting to get a little personal, but right now there might be a lesson there for him – an important one. “There’s no single good reason,” he admitted, trying to summarize something to his son that he really hadn’t tried to summarize for himself. “I never felt the great, screaming need to get married again. I suppose if the right woman were to come along, I wouldn’t mind it. I guess I just got comfortable with the way things are.”

“I don’t know,” Duane shrugged, realizing he wasn’t going to get a substantial answer. “It just seems to me like it might get a little lonely at times.”

“Well, it does, but I’ve pretty much gotten used to it. When I retire, I might have to think about it some, but I’m in no great rush right now.” He snickered and went on, “Besides, when you get to my age, a lot of the single women you find get a little concerned about being around a house with as many knives as there are in this one on the off-chance there might be a good reason for one of them to get used on her.”

Duane snickered and replied, “And I suppose there’s a few women who would give you the same concern the other way around.”

“Well, yeah,” he conceded ruefully as he got uncomfortable with the line of discussion and moved to change it back. “There is that. But getting back to the original question, if you feel like you want to solo the trail and think you can handle it, have fun, kid. I’ll help if I can. I assume Cory bombing out is going to change your planning considerably?”

“Well, yeah,” Duane replied, realizing he wasn’t going to get a straight answer on this one this time. “But in some ways, not that much. One of the things I picked up from Scooter a couple years ago is we have to be pretty independent. We can’t operate like we did when we did those hikes in high school, where each one of us carried a little of the community gear like a tent or first aid kit.”

“If someone bombs out, it gets complicated, right?” Jason nodded, a little relieved to be away from a touchy area that he didn’t want to consider very carefully, at least right now.

“Right, not that it’s not complicated enough already,” Duane replied. “I know there are people who buy most of their food ahead of time and have packages shipped to mail drops, but that starts to tie you to a schedule. If you get too far ahead or too far behind, then you’re screwed. Scooter said she bought ninety percent of what she ate at stops along the trail. There’s a huge stretch, central Virginia into Vermont, where there’s places to get food almost every day, and she just carried a few freeze-dry meals to get through there. She hit that at high summer, so she switched to real ultralight gear. It made things easier on her knees. She burned her knees out in central Virginia, and had to take some time off the trail. The ultralight gear was the only reason she was able to get going again, but she had to switch back to heavier stuff as it got to be fall in New England.”

“So you’re saying you’re not going to prepack lots of food, but are going to want to do some gear swapping by mail?”

“That’s it exactly. To top it off, freeze-dried meals are so expensive that there’s no cost savings against buying grocery-store stuff along the way. There’s some stretches where I’ll want to mail drop food, but not a lot of them. But before I work out what goes where and when, I’ve got another problem to work out, and that’s whether to go north to south or south to north.”

“I thought most people go south to north.”

“They do because they can get an early start down south and follow spring northward. Since I’ve always known I wouldn’t be able to start until the first of May, I’ve considered going the other way. But it’s buggy in the spring, some places get crowded about the time you get to them, some of the water holes in the middle section get dry by the time I’d be there, and it’s hunting season in Georgia when the trip is winding up. People do it, but it’s not the recommended thing. On the other hand, if I start at the south end, the first of May is considered pretty late. It’s going to be getting pretty damn hot down there by the time I can get started.”

“That’s a consideration,” Jason said. “I know in the past you’ve complained it’s pretty damn hard to go directly from still having snow on the ground in Marquette to temperature and humidity in the nineties in North Carolina. If you go north to south, Maine isn’t going to be a lot different than Marquette for snow and bugs and muddy hiking conditions, so it would be a more gradual transition.”

“I thought about that,” Duane said. “In fact, it’s one of the bigger arguments for doing it southbound. Another consideration is if I do it the regular way, most of the thru-hikers head northward. It might be a little more sociable, but I’d be at the tail end of the crowd.”

“Shit,” Jason snorted. “That settles it in my mind and it ought to settle it in yours. Neither one of us have ever been ones to follow the crowd, so why in the hell start now?”

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To be continued . . .

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