It was around mile eight on a third-day-tired Appalachian Trail hiking trip when my brother called back at me, "Gnats or rocks? If you could pick one to disappear right now, which would it be?"
As I tripped over the billionth boulder and evicted yet another bug body from my eyeball, I considered this magical offer.
Pennsylvania is sometimes nicknamed Rocksylvania for obvious reasons. Sometimes the state's 229 miles of Appalachian Trail are smooth and easy, pine-needle-carpeted, cement bridged, or boardwalked. Often, though, instead you are tripping through a minefield of giggling geology that mocks your tender toes and requires you to lift your legs to Rockette-kicking heights to scale them. The endless sharp rocks come in every shape and any size, from tiny sliding pebbles to massive monsters. The sound of your toe snagging yet again on a rock you didn't quite clear becomes a constant syncopated percussion. You trip; you curse; you fantasize about treadmills and beaches and anything straight and/or soft. You don't see the sky or trees for miles, as every second your eyes must help you plan your dance around rocks.
My most memorable rock problem came one day when I needed to jump-climb from one invasive boulder to another, and the way the second stories-high boulder was jaggedly curved made it impossible for me to proceed without either twisting an ankle or stabbing myself in the chestical area. The only way to carry on without injury to my top or bottom was to grasp and squash my chest with one hand while jumping diagonally. It was not a balletic performance. Clearly I exceeded the upper body size limit for that part of trail, which really should be posted.
Gnats, although slighter than rocks, can be equally annoying. They never follow your kind, patient advice to shut up and go away. It's not like there are swarms of them, but just one or two may follow you all day. (I realize they probably have some kind of evil relay race system and that the same gnat is not attached to me for ten miles, but I lack the insect indentification skills to distinguish one individual from another.) They whine at your head, your ears, your nose. They bash into your face. They ping pong off your cheeks. They cause your fitbit to miscount your steps because it thinks you are swinging your arms as part of walking, not as part of trying to fight them, and this phenomenon causes you to think you are closer to the end of the hike that you really are. Often you smack yourself in the face because you wave too wildly at them. They torture your head while the rocks attack your feet.
So, rocks or gnats? If I could make one disappear, which would it be? Would my head be happy or would my feet be fancy free?
My head is filled with rocks on this one, so I don't think I can answer at this time.
Update: A friend recommended a gnat shield I can wear over my head. I can't wait until it arrives!