Five-Minute Memoir: A steep learning curve on the Appalachian Trail

 

It never occurred to us how far from help we were. Baldpate is a mountain in the wilds of western Maine, New England. It stands 3,780 feet tall. The Appalachian Trail runs up one side and down the other. There are no legal campsites on the mountain, but Tony and I were 23, and we didn't care about rules.

Tony's brother Philip was even younger – just a kid really. Our plan was to climb the AT and then trek to a remote clearing. The hike was gruelling, the path slippery. We made camp a mile from the road, a thousand feet up. Each of us had a separate tent.

On the first night I suffered from dark dreams: I was a soldier on a muddy, bloody battlefield; then a phone rang telling me my mother had just died. The next day, as darkness fell and mist turned to rain, I dreaded the thought of sleep. Before turning in, I decided to move my tent from under a balsam fir into the centre of the clearing.

Two hours later I was awakened by a crack of thunder. I lay on my side, listening as rain drove against the tarp, feeling the fabric shiver in the wind. Lightning flashed again and again. I tried to go back to sleep.

It all happened in an instant: the pulse of white light, the burning pain of electricity coursing through my body, the jolt of being blasted off the ground. The sound of the explosion lagged a split-second behind. For moments afterward, I lay paralysed, breathless, unbelieving.

Philip's tent was only a yard from mine. I called to him, but there was no answer. I scrambled out into the rain. That was when I heard him trying to breathe, a series of muffled gasps. Smoke smelling of ozone and burnt human hair spilt out through the tent flap. Inside, Philip struggled to sit up. His arms and legs thrashed, and his eyes, which turned toward the beam of my flashlight, were wide and empty, all pupil. I ran to fetch Tony, whose tent was 20 yards away. He'd felt only a faint jolt, like a punch to the ribs. If I hadn't sought him out, he would have gone back to sleep.

What I knew about treating shock, I could have written on an index card. I gathered all our sleeping bags and spread them over Philip's pale, shuddering body. Tony and I agreed that he should be the one to get help, having climbed the mountain before. I gave him every spare flashlight, reserving one to hang from the tent's peak. It cast a wobbly glow on our faces.

After Tony disappeared into the night, I lay beside Philip, holding him. I whispered reassurances into his unhearing ear and recited prayers the Jesuits had taught us in school. What if Tony fell along the way? The trail was a sluice of mud, loose stones, and snaking roots. Even if he made it down, would he be able to bring back help in time? A voice in my head said: Philip is going to die and you will have to tell Tony that his brother is dead.

Iwas alone with Philip for five hours before I heard shouts. Tony had returned with a paramedic, a park ranger, and two game wardens. I stood beneath the dripping trees while the paramedic regulated Philip's laboured breathing. The others assembled a litter to carry him down the mountain. The rescuers lifted Philip from his tent and cradled him in the litter.

It took us four hours to reach the bottom. Tony and I followed the ambulance to the nearest hospital, 20 minutes away. Outside the intensive care unit, a doctor told us that fluid had backed up into Philip's lungs. They feared he might yet suffer a heart attack or, more likely, pneumonia.

In the bathroom, I peeled up my shirt and discovered a starburst of broken blood vessels and burnt skin where the charge had entered my side. I searched my body for the exit wound, but never found it.

While Tony and I ate sandwiches in the cafeteria, one of the game wardens returned to our campsite. In the light of day he discovered that the lightning bolt had struck a fir tree at the edge of the clearing. The electricity travelled through the sap out into the spreading roots.

This was the tree under which I had been camped the first night. If I hadn't moved my tent, I would have been killed, if not by electrocution then by the splintered treetop which crashed down right where I'd been.

Philip spent five days in the hospital before he was released. He has recovered fully except he has no memory of that night. He tries to understand the intimacy I feel toward him, having nearly watched him die, but the night is a blank to him, less than a dream.

'The Poacher's Son' by Paul Doiron is published by C&R Crime

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