Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Night Hike

When we were in our late teens, we were occasionally guided by hubris.

Go on. Admit it to yourself. Perhaps it was the notion you had regarding your driving. "No one can handle a car like I can." Maybe it was along the lines of being popular. "She'll never be as popular as I am. Not with that fashion sense!" A certain level of arrogance seems to go hand in hand as we enter young adulthood. We've seen it all. We have all of the answers, even when we're not sure what the questions are. Such aggressive overconfidence sometimes leads to disaster.

Take the summer of 1981. Several of my friends had been up to some pretty interesting shenanigans. More interesting than, say, trying to make my old car run, even if entirely unproductive. I was completely unaware of their clandestine activities, busying myself with trying to figure out why my car (slated to become a refrigerator no later than 1985) wouldn't run. "Rob! Telephone!" came dad's voice from upstairs, breaking my concentration while memorizing the firing order of Plymouth V8 engines. (It's 1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2, so as not to keep you in suspense.)

The person on the other end was a good friend who asked, quite innocuously, if I'd like to join other mutual friends for a night hike on the Parkway. "What's a night hike?", I asked, feeling a little groggy from having scoured over fifty pages' worth of technical writing in one of those great old Motors Repair Manuals. "Well", explained my friend who aspired to become a commando one day, "We put on our camos and boonie hats, and smear on face paint I picked up at Ranger Joe's. Then we wait until nightfall when we park our car in an overlook about five miles away from the Mill Mountain Star. The goal is to make it from the car to the star and back again without anyone detecting our presence." (Yes, he actually said "detect our presence". For the record, I was impressed by that professional-sounding phrase.)

I ask you, who wouldn't want in on something like that? "I'm in" came from my mouth before my prefrontal cortex had a chance to weigh the pros and cons.

At approximately 9:00 P.M. (that's 2100 hours to all those who aren't Parkway commandos), my friends -the whole unit, that is- pulled up in a '68 AMC Ambassador, which somehow seemed appropriate. "Let's go! Move out!" was issued by a car full of Green Beret wannabes impatient to survive, evade, resist, and escape any park ranger intent on asking what the heck we nuts were doing. I got busy painting my face to look like a tree while "Operatives 7, 4, and 9" debated mission in and mission out routes. Somewhere along Route 220 someone asked a key question: "What if we get pulled over?", which prompted the driver to slow down by at least fifteen miles per hour.

In a matter of twenty minutes or so, we redefined base camp as an aging old car whose doors had to be lifted a little or else they wouldn't open or close. "Gear check!", ordered the driver in his trademark gravelly voice as we made sure our shoes were tied. (We couldn't afford real, actual equipment.) "Five meter spread. Move out!" I asked one of the guys how far five meters is. "If I fart and you can smell it, you're too close."

Definitely not a night guy.

We were, perhaps, a quarter of a mile from Fort Rust-And-Dents when our leader decreed that we'd be more covert if we weren't strolling along the roadside. With the decision made quickly, we dove over the guard rail. "Car! Down!" was issued by Gravel Voice as we hit the dirt as one unit. Not too shabby, I thought as I began to realize that I had come within a very small fraction of an inch from impaling my throat on remnants of an old sapling cum punji stake. "Clear! Move out!" preceded a less than merry jaunt through thick, brushy land approximately eight feet lower than the road's surface. Well, I thought as we tried our adolescent best not to startle any skunks in the area, we certainly aren't going to set any speed records here. I wonder if the car will have completely rusted its way back to nature before we finish this mission.

None of us spoke during the foray. Apparently, when you're walking alongside the parkway at night and you're wearing camos and face paint, it's considered apropos to exclude all unnecessary talk. Makes one feel more professional. "Let's hit the road and jog to make up lost time" came the next order and probably echoing every sentiment in the team. We traversed another three quarters of a mile when a truck barreled around a blind curve behind us.

"Ground!" was issued as a five man team of multi hued olive drab guys dove, once again, to the safety of potential punji stakes and skunks in an effort to avoid being detected by Jerry and his '68 F150.

This type of thing occurred several times, both during mission-in and mission-out, each time increasing the odds that something would go south on us. It did.

At least, it did to one of the guys. As I mentioned earlier, the goal was to make it to the star and back without being detected. I don't think that the guy in the truck noticed us. I'm certain that another guy didn't. We were all set to reach the backside of the star and fall back when some drunk staggered around the side of the star. Out of the corner of my eye I saw every other member drop to the ground as though synchronized. One of the members (and a good friend) threw himself prone between two bushes, laying halfway in and halfway out. From my vantage point he looked like a rotted old log. I'm pretty sure the drunk guy thought so, too. Unzipping his Levis, Mr. I Had One Too Many proceeded to hose my good friend down.

Talk about self control. None of us could have blamed him if he had lost his temper and attacked the drunkard. We were relieved -I know I was- when it became clear that our friend decided to endure the indignity. Drunk Guy, never realizing what had occurred, calmly zipped back up and strolled jovially back around the corner. Looking back on it now, that incident proved to me that these guys were pretty good at blending in. They had done this before. 

None of us was, in all probability, Green Beret material, but the experience must have given us some insight into what it takes not to be detected by others. For our part, we did what friends always do in this type of situation: we teased our wet friend mercilessly. "Are you PO'd?" was one of the first one-liners shared by one of us while three of us snickered and one guy sulked. All the way back to the car cracks like "We never got caught. We're golden -shower" and "urine trouble" made mission-out that much more bearable. For me, almost killing myself on a natural punji was the highlight of the whole experience, supplanted only by someone whose laundry day would move up by a day or two.

I miss those days. While I don't miss the hassle of that type of experience, the camaraderie is missed. Friends who endure become closer as a result. They have stories to tell. Our story involves a walk through the parkway on a summer Saturday night.

And it was quite a hike.


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