Beards exude wilderness confidence and the ultimate mountain man persona, a man scared of nothing. I am convinced though that behind every great beard hides an even greater fear. Now, not to toot my own horn, but I have a great mountain man beard. My beard has to be great because it hides my greatest fear: spiders. Well I am also pretty terrified of airplanes, but that’s another story. I have had quite a few experiences with spiders that have helped nurture the fear and three events stand strong in my memory, one of which – and by far the worst – happened in Maryland on the AT. But before that, let’s go back to the beginning.
The Pump Room
I do not have any childhood memories of spider encounters, but I clearly remember a moment in high school where my fear of spiders was born. I was working at a country club pool as a lifeguard and one steamy summer day I found myself in the pump-room tinkering with this and that. I finished my duties, looked up, and on the wall to my right was a giant wolf spider. Named Wolf Spiders because, undoubtedly, early on in spider evolution a spider mated with a wolf to create this large breed. It is the only explanation. My fear of arachnids was solidified at that moment. My body went numb, my mind blank, and sweat began oozing from all pores. I was transfixed and lost in a state of tunnel vision, then it moved. I returned to earth, grabbed a pole with a net attached and did what is only natural when you see a terrifying creature, whacked it good and hard, as if my life depended on it. The net didn’t exactly have the squashing effect I was going for and the spider jumped around, caught between the wall and net. I swear it was big enough that the spider was physically pushing the net away from the wall. With the spider thrashing wildly, I tried to get at a better angle for squashing and in doing so, I managed to knock over a jug of acid. My earlier tinkering had left some chlorine on the floor. The chlorine and acid joined forces, reacted, and began burning a hole in the concrete. The spider noticed my diverted attention and slipped from behind the net and bounded to the floor – every action has an opposite and equal reaction – so I bounded to the top of a pump. The beast scurried through the concrete eating acid-chlorine mix and out the door. I repeat. The spider ran through a mixture that was dissolving concrete unphased. Unphased. From then on I never returned to that pump-room and vowed a life long fear of large eight legged creatures.
The Intern House
A few years later in college I had landed in Orlando Florida for a semester long architecture internship. So why to Orlando you ask? Why a creative architecture student would go to the land of beige strip malls and awful beach side towers? Three reasons: My good friend Mike, procrastination, and a rent free intern house. Mike and I left the bleak Indiana fall / winter for the land of sunshine. Our new boss took us grocery shopping and then to our home for the next six months. We could not have been happier: free rent, a free month of groceries, and six months of fun in the sun. It was a fleeting moment for me, unfortunately, because of a note on the kitchen counter. It was from the previous interns and it spoke of coaster sized spiders in the house. Numbness, tunnel vision, sweating – it was back. Mike, his girlfriend Kelly, and I diverted our attention to a beach trip and the note quickly drowned under the waves and sand of Cocoa Beach. Returning exhausted, sun burned, and famished we bustled into the house to make some food. Kelly and I went into my bedroom to gather the groceries we left on the floor and there it was. Lurking on the ceiling above my bed was, accurately described, a coaster sized spider. Being the manly man who I am, I pushed Kelly to the ground and ran out of the room and out the front door, screaming wildly. I ventured back in and Kelly and I stood at the doorway as Mike slowly approached the spider, flip-flop in hand. Recurring theme – the best tool for exterminating large creepy crawlers is with flimsy devices. Mike smacked at the spider. Laughing its evil spider laugh, the spider leapt to the wall and then to the floor and began running towards Kelly and I. Another recurring theme – I pushed Kelly towards the scuttling spider and quickly ran out of the house and to a safe distance, three blocks away. The only logical way to last six months in this house was to drive to the local Home Depot and buy a twenty gallon jug of commercial grade insect and spider spray. Every night for six months I sprayed every crack, crevice, and even created a mote of spider killing liquid around my bed. Damned if a spider was ever going to breach my sleeping space ever again – cancer I will deal with later.
Rocky Run Shelter
Fast forward through the rest of college and a relatively spider free Chicago existence to the Appalachian Trail. Shelters along the trail pose quite the internal conflict for me. They are awesome to escape the rain at night, but are filled with creepy creatures and spider webs galore. I had made it most of the way through Virginia without letting the spiders get to me. My nerves were tested a couple of nights, but I persevered. Before we get to the ‘big one’ there is a tale of my manliness you must hear. Rain was forecasted and Lindsey and I set up in a shelter. I laid down on my pad to relax and directly above me was a giant spider staring down at me, undoubtedly waiting till my slumber so he could quietly ascend from his silky web to eat my face off. Now here is the manly part. I quickly leapt out of the shelter and screamed for Lindsey. She rushed to my side and naturally I handed over a sock to act as the murder weapon. Lindsey looked at me the way only she can, threw the sock back at me, and grabbed a trekking pole. She is a spider smashing innovator I tell you. A solid pole with dagger like points – pure genius. She jabbed at the spider with fencing like grace and… crunch. What was a second ago a face eating eight legger turned out to only be an exoskeleton of a spider. A new low for me, but a great high for the ten people hanging around the shelter witnessing a mountain man at his best. Yes, it was only an exoskeleton, but what everyone failed to realize was that the exoskeleton was huge, which only meant one thing. An even larger spider lurked in the shelter walls. I did not sleep well that night. Many shelter nights after that went by without a hitch until Rocky Run shelter in Maryland. There were massive thunderstorms threatening so we decided to set up shop in the shelter. Now Rocky Run shelter was nearly brand new and man it was nice, sealed floors and everything – oh the luxury. We had just finished a fantastic mac-n-cheese with summer sausage meal and were tearing into some extravagant chocolate from our recent food drop when I heard a pattering of feet to my left. Great a mouse already, but no it was worse – much worse. I looked up to the noise and there was the biggest spider I have ever seen. Every hair on my body stood straight. I could not even express in words to Lindsey what was happening. She peered over her shoulder to see why I had turned white and knew at once we were in serious peril. Well at least I was and she was going to have to mediate between me and the creature from the depths of hell that was in the rafters. It’s hard to describe how big this spider was – imagine a dump truck with eight legs and you get the picture. We walked closer to the spider – I must have blacked out because this move makes very little sense given my grave fear – but the spider was so big you could physically look into its huge eyes and deep into its evil soul. I was quite literally petrified. We both love everything mother nature ever made and wish no harm to the creatures of earth, but you have to understand that this spider was not from earth and mother nature had absolutely no part in its creation. Lindsey snatched our weapon of choice – trekking pole – and slowly crept in for the kill. As the point of the pole neared the spider I couldn’t take it. I had to scream and run. I took cover behind a tree and hid my eyes. I heard Lindsey scream and feared that the worst had happened – I sent Lindsey in to protect me from a spider and now she was dead. I just knew I was going to come around the side of the shelter and see her lying on the ground wrapped in his flesh dissolving web. I peered around the corner and Lindsey was calmly back at eating her chocolate. I saw no spider carcass and for the life of me couldn’t get a sincere “yes the spider is dead” out of Lindsey. Though she quickly agreed to go set up the tent and remove ourselves from the shelter, so I know the killing didn’t go as planned. The spider probably retreated to its lair of hiker bones and is still there. We have not slept in a shelter since then and if it is up to me, never will again.