Attack of the Earworm on the Appalachian Trail
Back in 1996, I took a 2-week stroll south through Pennsylvania, on the Appalachian Trail. I learned a lot. And I met quite a few people who I am proud and lucky to call friends to this day. Such is the camaraderie of the Trail. However, one thing I did on my last day of hiking still haunts me to this day.
When you hike long distances, you spend a lot of time with yourself, even if you are hiking with partners. So, to occupy that time, you talk to yourself, either out loud or in your head. It sounds crazy, especially if you do it out loud, but if you have ever hiked for a long time, I know you have done it. And then, when you have run out of things to discuss with yourself, or you have just bored yourself to tears, you begin to sing, either out loud or in your head. And gradually you will have a ‘go to’ song. That’s the one where you know all the words. You think you know a lot of songs. You don’t. Maybe 3 or 4 will surface from the deep dark depths of your feeble memory. But what about all those songs played incessantly on the radio? They didn’t make you minds mental cut. Anyway, take my word for it. In my case it was one song, ‘The Loser’ by Jerry Garcia. I am humming it now. I could walk for miles doing this. I have walked for miles doing this.
Of course, now this problem is alleviated by having an MP3 player, where you can have thousands of songs at your disposal. But back in the day, all we had was what was in our heads.
So there I was walking along, near the end of my hike, with Jerry in my head, minding my own business, when all of a sudden my brain rebelled. It did not want to hear it anymore. My heart pleaded, (I am a Deadhead) but to no avail, that song was cut off. It was very hot and a lack of water might have been affecting my judgment. Whatever! I struggled to find a new song that I knew well enough. Fail. Fail. Fail. It was no use. My pace became erratic and sporadic. Song after song was rejected when I only knew snippets. And then I found the one song that I knew well enough to sing all the way through. All was good. Or so I thought.. Actually a very frightening thought, in my case.
The song was the theme from ‘Gilligan’s Island’. “Just sit right down and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip…” If you are a Boomer, you know it and if you are not, well count your blessings. Let’s just say it is short, catchy and easily memorized, especially if you‘ve heard it a thousand or more times. That is a sad commentary on my childhood. I suspect I am not alone.
The transference of songs took place in the late morning and by late afternoon I was nearly stark raving mad. I could not stand it anymore and yet it kept repeating. It was as if there was a malfunction in my head or what we now call an Earworm, which I believe to be one of the most dangerous creatures that you can encounter in the wild. I could start other songs but they would morph into Gilligan in seconds. It was maddening and yet my pace remained steady and unwavering. I suspect now that I kept my speed because I so wanted to stop for the night where I would be busy enough to keep the song off. And by keeping a good speed I would get to the shelter sooner. And that was exactly what happened.
The next morning, my last on the trail, my wife was meeting me in the late afternoon; I resolved to keep the song turned off. I also resolved to give the 3 or 4 extra dinners I had to the next thru hiker I met. There are a lot of roadside restaurants in Pennsylvania and I took full advantage of them and thus had extra food. In fact, I might have gained weight on that trip. However, within yards of leaving the shelter the song started up. Futilely I tried to stop it. The next hour or so was agony as the song looped through my brain. Just as I was about to go completely mad, I spied a thru hiker approaching from the other direction. I waited patiently; I did not want to scare him off because I had a cunning plan. He got closer and we greeted each other. He stopped and we chatted. I told him I had some extra dinners if he was interested. He was. He suspected nothing. He was mine. I remember thinking that this was going to work. It was then that I sprang the trap to dump Gilligan. I said to the thru hiker that he could have the dinners if he took something else from me. He replied in the affirmative as long as it was not heavy. “It’s not heavy, in fact it’s weightless”, I assured him. That piqued his curiosity and he agreed to the deal. I told him of my plight and that I wanted him to take Gilligan too. He hummed the tune and then sang the first verse and said “I got it. Give me the food.” And I did.
He headed north and I headed south, completely Gilligan free. I walked the rest of the day, song free. I could not get one started and then after a while I decided not to tempt fate and shut my defective brain radio off.
So what haunts me? Whatever happened to that guy? Did he make it to Maine? Did he survive? Did he go mad? That’s a bad song to have in your head. I hope he made it. Thru hikers are tough, he must have made it. I keep telling myself that. Still, I do feel a twinge of guilt.