Sunday, December 26, 2010

Chapter 41: The Watauga Lake Challenge

This is exhilarating and beautiful! No, this is awful. I'm not going to make it. Why am I doing this to myself? I'm hungry. I'm thirsty. I'm tired. Ohh, a butterfly!

These are just a few of the myriad thoughts that may have passed through my brain that day as I attempted the Watauga Lake Challenge, which involved hiking the forty miles from the Watauga Lake Shelter into Damascus, Virginia in less than twenty-four hours. As went the miles, so went my mind.

I was the first out of camp that morning, setting off just after 7:30 AM. I figured the hike would take me about fifteen hours, ten at a brisk three mile-per-hour pace, then five more at a more relaxed two miles-per-hour. I would take the uphills as I normally did, slowly, with as many breaks and as much swearing as possible, and then run downhill, so much as I could, whenever the opportunity presented itself. It was a good plan, perhaps only slightly unrealistic, and was utterly doomed to failure.

I'd been hiking for less than ten minutes when I passed where Hobbes had camped. He hadn't spent the night in the shelter with the rest of us, opting instead to tent further along the trail, next to the lake. I respectfully kept silent, hoping not to wake him. And then he emerged from behind a tree ahead of me. He was completely naked. I think I surprised him as much he surprised me. The man was hung like Lil Dipper's hammock. Which is to say poorly. Or that he was pink, loose, and floppy. I found myself staring in morbid fasciation.

"Hey, man," he said casually, as if trying to brush off his appearance. "What's going on?

"Oh, you know," I said, still bewildered. "Walking."

"Look," he said, leveling with me. "Is this going to be a problem?" He gestured down at himself.

I shook my head emphatically. "No! Not at all! My penis is tiny. I mean, it's pathetic. Really! I mean, do you want to see it?"

He winced. "No!"

"Oh, right," I mumbled, remembering that straight men don't usually show each other their junk. "It really is tiny though," I stammered. "Honest! So you have nothing to be ashamed about!"

"I'm not ashamed," shrugged Hobbes, pulling his pants on. "After all, I'm big enough for your ex-girlfriend."

He then needlessly elaborated, explaining in lurid detail how he had pleased my unsurprisingly game ex-girlfriend in ways I never could. I was almost offended. But no, I had it coming. I excused myself and quickly continued on, as much to hide my embarrassment as to make up for the delay.

The Watauga Dam is a tepid pile of useless gravel compared to Fontana Dam, with none of the latter's grandiose majesty or reassuringly solid concrete construction. It is an earth- and rock-filled dam, and gives off the impression that it could crumble or collapse at any second. Walking across it was thus only mildly disconcerting, and made me glad I was in a hurry.

The next few miles were fairly unremarkable, and passed more or less without incident. I climbed slowly but steadily through the early-morning mist, believing, rightly as it turned out, that the fog would burn off, and that we'd have good weather that day. Overall, I thought I was doing pretty well, and stopped just before the Vandeventer Shelter for a quick snack. I doffed my pack and was about to sit down when Bandito stumbled upon me, much to my dismay. He said he'd left half an hour or so after me. I didn't think that he should've caught up to me so quickly, and I scolded him for it.

"Respect your elders," I said. "By walking slower than them. Doesn't it say something like that in the Bible?"

Apparently not, as Bandito promptly pointed out. Still, I was happy to have some company. We decided to complete the rest of the challenge together.

We'd gone somewhere between seven and fourteen miles when we caught up with Fredo. The rush of adrenaline I was feeling from the challenge must have been getting to me, because I was in a singularly peppy mood. I asked Fredo how far it was to the next shelter.

He paused thoughtfully, consulting his guidebook. "Well, I think it's been about six miles since the last shelter--"

"Oh, that's no help to me!" I interrupted, "I never look back!"

And then I disappeared into the woods, leaving Fredo stunned, perplexed, and probably marveling at how much of an insensitive jerk I was. He would continue hating my guts for the next 1,400 miles, until we'd become the best of friends. He would even serve as the best man at my wedding. Except for that I'm not married. But that's another story.

My good mood continued when we arrived at the Iron Mountain Shelter for lunch. We'd gone fourteen miles, and it wasn't much past noon. At this rate, we'd reach Damascus sometime around eight o'clock at night. We were flying.

I wrote in the shelter log:
Redwing is a devastatingly beautiful, completely charming, startlingly intelligent, ultimately respectable, perfectly dignified human being, who would never do or say anything to hurt anyone. She is a true and loyal friend, has never smoked crack, and has definitely not murdered any drifters. Furthermore, if she had, I would personally assist her in disposing of the bodies. Probably by burning them. Such is my devotion to her as a friend. Major Chafage is an ass.
And then we hiked on.

Bandito and I struggled to find ways to pass the time. We had long since realized that our tastes in movies didn't overlap that much beyond some very recent blockbusters and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He knew more about obscure biblical epics and the family films of the 1950's than I thought was necessarily healthy. I probably knew more about literally everything else than he thought was healthy. We could only play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon for so long. And so I told Bandito my life story.

I was born on December 18th, 1983. Mine was a difficult birth. In the womb, my umbilical cord had somehow gotten tied in a knot; if it had been pulled tight, I might have suffocated and died. Already, it was as if the fates were aligned against me.

My earliest memory is of biting my grandfather on the ankle, before I was even old enough to crawl. He would later die. Of Parkinson's disease. And not until I was nineteen.

I was a very cute toddler and had many friends and was perfectly well-adjusted until I entered the first grade. Then, because my ears stuck out, I was ostracized and ridiculed. People derisively called me "Dumbo" pretty much all day, every day until I hit puberty. The constant abuse left me emotionally scarred and socially stunted. It would take me years to recover. That is, if I ever did.

My first crush was the girl who lived across the street. We were great friends, and used to walk to school together every day. Her name was Amber. We ended up dating for one torrid, unforgettable weekend in the eighth grade. Okay, so we never went on a single date, and I technically never saw her in the brief period of time we were actually "dating," but I was still heartbroken when it ended. It would take me two years to get over it. That is, if I ever did. Even then, the only thing that snapped me out of my depressive funk was going out with her for a second time.

We were sophomores in high school, and Amber asked me to the homecoming dance. I said yes, we went, we kissed, and I was so terrible at it that she promptly dumped me and never spoke to me again. Or I just had no idea what I was doing, inadvertently treated her like garbage, and then could never work up the courage to speak to her again. Either way, our friendship was ruined, and it was entirely my fault. However unpleasant, the experience was elucidating and formative. I quickly lost any respect I had for myself, and was filled with regret and a deep and abiding self-hatred.

In between junior and senior years of high school, I went on an eleven-day backpacking and sea kayaking trip with the Appalachian Mountain Club. That was my first experience with long-distance hiking and the Appalachian Trail. I didn't shower the entire time. Everybody loved me. It was a blast. And I never thought in a million years I'd do anything like it ever again.

It was only in my senior year of high school that I really came into my own. And by that I mean stopped being a total slobbish loser. Don't get me wrong, I was still a nerd and a total band geek, and was still mostly terrified of the popular crowd, but, all of a sudden, every girl in school wanted me. This might have had something to do with me toning down my self-deprecating humor and comporting myself with more dignity and confidence, exuding charm and charisma. And also being really, really good looking. Or, it might have had to do with the fact that I had a steady girlfriend for the first time in my life, and that made it suddenly safe to approach me. That, or it somehow validated my worth in a way that me being really, really good looking, and consistently charming, funny, and charismatic didn't. I really have no idea. I don't understand women.

Anyway, I had a real girlfriend at last. She was a musician, her name was Libby, and we were very much in love. Or at least I was. I would have stayed with her forever. I even had the opportunity to cheat on her while she was away at band camp, but I actively chose not to! Such was the measure of my devotion. Then I found out she cheated on me. While at band camp. Whoops. I was heartbroken, fell into a depressive and existential funk, became anorexic, lost thirty pounds, and developed a raging hydrocodone addiction. It would take me two years to get over it. That is, if I ever did. I have a lot of problems.

Bandito was fascinated, soaking in every detail, and very much wanted me to continue my story. But I was tired, and took a break from storytelling for the time being. It was only mid-afternoon, after all. We still had twenty-one miles to go.

We found some trail magic just before Tennessee Route 91. There was a garish metal box marked with crucifixes behind a tree, filled with useless garbage. And one bottle of Pepsi. Bandito and I looked to each other. His expression was inscrutable. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking in that moment. I know I was thinking about physically subduing him somehow, then drinking the entire soda myself. But he was a black belt in Taekwondo, and I've lost every fight I've ever been in. We shared the Pepsi, then hiked on.

I tend to think that modern civilization is hideously ugly, with its garish excesses, pervasive moral bankruptcy and vile pollution. There's something oppressive and bleak about the urban landscape; about the cold, monolithic buildings that blot out the sky; the graffitied highway overpasses; the ubiquitous strip malls, their gutters clogged with litter; the millions of miserable people moping around, toiling away at soulless, degrading jobs for the mere privilege of prolonging their own pitiable, pointless existences. Yet, at the same time, I find there's something achingly beautiful and poignant about civilization in decay.

After crossing the road, we walked through a long, wind-swept meadow, past the ruins of a long-abandoned farm house, its yard overgrown with weeds. The remains of a weathered wooden fence still stood nearby, stoic and resolute, despite years of neglect and disrepair. Wildflowers grew through the cracks in a crumbling stone foundation. It was incredibly peaceful, somehow primal but mysterious, bittersweet yet hopeful. And utterly breathtaking. I only wish we hadn't been in so much of a hurry, or I would have slowed down to more properly enjoy it.

We met a lone camper just before Low Gap. He was a young kid, around Bandito's age, and seemed startlingly sad and lonely. He mumbled a greeting, staring into the distance with vacant eyes, and then asked me if he could bum a cigarette. I honestly replied that I didn't smoke. And we hiked on. His tragic appearance stuck with me, however, and I immediately told Bandito how horrible I felt for the guy.

"He looked so sad," I moaned. "Couldn't you see it in his eyes?"

Bandito agreed with me.

"I bet he lives at home, his parents are divorced, and his step-father is a drunk and abusive," I speculated. "He probably got tired of all the constant screaming and fighting and one day just packed up and left. He hitched a ride out here, because he's always wanted to hike the trail. It's the one place he can find peace. Plus, his real daddy always wanted to do it, and if he succeeds, it'll be the greatest thing anyone in his family will have ever accomplished."

Bandito was skeptical of this assessment.

"But he's never going to make it," I lamented. "He has the wrong gear. He's not prepared. He's only been on the trail for a day, and he's already ran out of cigarettes."

"I think you're seeing things," said Bandito, sounding a little worried.

"I'm not!" I cried, "And you know what the saddest part is, Bandito?"

Bandito rolled his eyes. "What's that, M.C.?"

"He's going the wrong direction!"

Bandito didn't understand.

"If he got dropped off at Low Gap, and he probably did," I explained, "Then he went south instead of north, and he only made it half a mile!"

"You're projecting all over him," Bandito asserted. "Also, you're nuts."

"Maybe," I conceded.

We reached Low Gap, where there was a picnic table and a boxed spring. Or what might have been a boxed spring. It looked more like a concrete drainage ditch. Whatever it was, it made me glad we were treating our water. We sat down at the table to make and eat our dinners. It was getting late.

Hobbes passed us while we were eating dinner.

"Oh, hi!" I said, startled by his sudden appearance. I was glad to see he was wearing pants.

"Hey, you!" he said sardonically, winking at me.

"Are you doing the forty mile challenge?" asked Bandito.

"I wasn't planning on it, but then everybody else was doing it," shrugged Hobbes.

"Because the best things in life always come after caving to peer pressure," I snorted. "Because caving to peer pressure never has horrible, unforeseen consequences."

"Stop," Hobbes interrupted. "Just stop."

"Yeah," agreed Bandito, shaking his head. "The first joke was just okay, but the second? You overdid it."

"How dare you," I breathed, then returned to my meal, pouting in silence.

"Well, it's been charming as usual," said Hobbes, after collecting water. "I'm going to continue on. I don't want to get into town too much after dark."

"After dark?" I asked, incredulous, consulting my guidebook. "It's only fifteen more miles. What are you worried about?"

Hobbes scoffed, nodded to Bandito, then trudged away. I would have resented his speed and resilience, but it was still light out. I thought we were doing pretty good.

It was starting to get dark. Bandito asked me to continue telling him my life's story. As much to keep the bears away as to stave off boredom, I obliged him.

I went to New York University, where I studied Dramatic Writing and Post-Industrial Bovine Effluence.

"What's that?" asked Bandito.

"Never mind," I said. "It's bullshit."

I had been living in New York City for less than two weeks before 9/11. We had been going to classes for only three days. I was in the shower when it happened. When I got out, my roommate Jim was watching the news on TV. His mother had called him, frantic, and told him a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. She had just wanted to know that he was okay. Of course he was. The chances that any given college freshman would even be awake, let alone sightseeing, at nine o'clock in the morning on a school day were astronomically low.

Still, I remember wondering how stupid the pilot had to be, or how he couldn't have seen the Twin Towers looming in front of him. It was a brilliant, cloudless day. I had just sat down to watch the news with Jim when the second plane hit. It was just about then that we started having the sneaking suspicion that something fishy was going on.

Throughout the day, people trickled in and out of our dorm, most going in groups to give blood at Red Cross stations set up all over the city. Classes had been cancelled of course, and the security guards were encouraging everyone to stay inside. Probably a prudent idea, considering the amount of toxins and asbestos and ash floating around in the air that day. I probably breathed in enough of it in the next couple days to assure I'd die of lung cancer. I didn't need to be out there. It was disturbing and traumatic enough just being there, stuck inside, seeing the smoke clouds billowing outside our windows, hearing the sirens in the distance, feeling lost and helpless.

A girl came in sometime during the morning crying hysterically. The gay couple that lived across the hall from me tried in vain to calm her down, but she was inconsolable. She had been downtown, and had seen people jumping. We all understood.

Bandito knew what happened next. Everybody knows. None of us there in the city were really mature enough or had the proper perspective to grasp what had happened. We didn't know how to react. It would take days or weeks for it to set in. Lots of people in my department ended up dropping out. Some couldn't see the point in continuing at school in light of what happened, others were scared, or too emotionally conflicted to return to the city. Some were simply pulled out by their families. I stayed. I got a C+ in Psych 101 that semester, the lowest grade I would ever receive. It was 9/11's fault.

I may have glossed over a few details of the following months and years. My sophomore year in college was a blur of academic brilliance and debauchery. My junior year, I met Megan.

Megan was just like me in every conceivable way, except she was a girl, she grew up a different state, had a completely different childhood experience, and liked different things and had different priorities in life. In other words, we were sickeningly perfect for each other. But our relationship was far from perfect.

The first time we met, we crash a mixer one of our mutual friends was hosting for incoming freshman. At the end of the night, after walking her back to her dorm, I had turned to her and said, "We should do this again sometime. You know, the next time they have a dance." She had nodded and backed away slowly, probably thinking I was some kind of crazy person. And I had gone home and banged my head against the wall. Yet, somehow, I hadn't completely sabotaged myself. That was just the first and probably least objectionable of all the mistakes I made, but here we are, six years later, still together.

Bandito and I bulldozed through the Abingdon Gap Shelter area without even stopping. It was surprisingly crowded. An entire troop of Boy Scouts were making camp nearby. Bandito urged me onward, telling me we only had 10.2 miles to go.

"Did someone just say they were going ten point two miles further?" asked someone.

"Yes. Yes they did," responded another.

"They do know it's already nine o'clock, right?" asked the first.

"I have no idea," said the second. "They're probably crazy."

"I agree," said the first. "Aren't they worried about bears? And sleeping?"

Yeah, right. I laughed inwardly at their dialog, smug in my assumption that we were assuredly would not be attacked and mauled by a bear. Or would we? It was awfully dark. I started to worry.

"Did someone just ask someone else if they heard someone say they were hiking ten miles further?" asked Bandito.

"Yes," I said. "And I rather think they thought that we were rather crazy."

"But we are!" said Bandito. "I'm hallucinating badly. You smell like mexican food!"

"Rather," I said, adding "I'm saying 'rather' rather a lot, aren't I?"

"I don't know," said Bandito. "If we don't get there soon, I might start chewing on your leg."

We stopped only twice after that, once at the Tennessee-Virgina border to take pictures, and another just before Damascus to have a nervous breakdown. We heard noises in the woods. Twigs snapping, strange growlings. We started giggling uncontrollably. I may have started sobbing. But there was nothing. We never saw any animal.

We were practically carrying each other by the time we made it into town. Seeing the lights emerge out of the darkness was wonderful. We could hardly feel what must have been the truly awful, excruciating pain in our legs as we jogged or stumbled the last few hundred yards.

It was just about midnight. There was a replica of a shelter on a town green. We stopped to sit down, and take off our boots. I did not smell like mexican food. I smelled like I was tired. I wanted to go to sleep right there, but a sign said "no camping."

"Is it really camping if we don't set up a tent?" asked Bandito.

We couldn't be too sure, and there were cop cars patrolling the area. "We better not stay here, Bandito," I said. "I feel drunk." I felt drunk.

"I feel drunk too," said Bandito. "Except I've never had alcohol, because it's illegal."

"But it's delicious," I protested.

"Fine!" said Bandito. "I'll have a drink when I turn one hundred."

"You're my hero," I said.

"Stop hitting on me," said Bandito. "Wait, I didn't say that. M.C. You're an unreliable narrator!"

"N-no!" I protested, wobbly. "That was just a stylistic flourish to help put the reader in our delirious mindset."

"You're a genius," gushed Bandito.

"Who're you calling a psycho!" I yelled at a nearby telephone pole.

It took us an hour to get to the Place. Which is the name of the hostel there. In Damascus. We got into town at twelve. It took us an hour to do the last mile to the hostel. We only got lost twice trying to find the place, and almost asked a police officer if we could just sleep in the jail. When we finally did arrive at the Place, we found Hobbes tented outside. He was long asleep. We didn't even bother checking to see if there was room inside the hostel, there was, and quickly just set up our tents and passed out.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Chapter 40: April 22, 2010

I had been on the trail for one month, exactly 31 days, and had travelled 406.8 miles. Having to continually tabulate distances in my head, I was getting really good at performing simple arithmetic. For example, I could easily calculate that morning that I had been averaging 15.375 miles a day, a startling pace. Miss Janet would not have approved.

Althought Bandito and I had just met back up with Nature, Spark and Caboose at the Moreland Gap Shelter, it was destined to be a short reunion. Nature was headed to Kincora, a hiker's hostel just six miles away. Kincora was famous on the trail for being indescribably awesome, and for allowing its guests to stay in tree houses.

Kincora was run by notorious hard-ass and trail ambassador Bob Peoples, whose personal motto apparently was "If it ain't broke, fix it." Bob lived and worked uncompromisingly according to that credo. His influence was evident everywhere, from the switchbacks he had scouted up Roan Mountain to the rock bridge he and his volunteers had constructed over the Hardcore Cascade. We had passed over the bridge at Hardcore Cascade just the previous day, and, for better or worse, had hardly noticed it. Still, thanks to Bob, the sections of trail around Kincora were immaculately maintained, amongst the best anywhere in the state of Tennessee.

Nature was adamant about staying at Kincora, and would not be persuaded to deviate from her plan. Oddly, she was even considering yellow blazing from there straight to Damascus, Virginia.

"I have no intentions of climbing Pond Flats again," said Nature, shaking her head.

I had no idea what she was talking about. Pond Flats was actually a rather rugged mountain, and was neither flat nor a pond. Spark and Caboose needed to resupply, and were then planning to camp atop it. The rest of us were headed towards the Watauga Lake Shelter, which would become our jumping off point for the 40-mile dash into Damascus.

The day's hike was pleasant enough. We ran into some trail magic by a road crossing. Some trail maintainers were rebuilding a bridge nearby, and graciously shared with us their fabulous lunchtime spread of soda, cookies, candy bars, bagels, hot chocolate, coffee, Russian beluga caviar and fresh fruit. Spark, Caboose and Hobbes even snagged some miniature bottles of wine, which they ingeniously saved for later. And then there was the time, just before the Laurel Fork Shelter, when I was attacked and nearly eaten by a rather large, rampaging dog. Despite its owners vociferous claims of its harmlessness, the dog's crazy eyes and the flecks of blood mottling his spittle, foam-covered, razor sharp teeth spoke otherwise. So that was fun.

Things went pretty smoothly after that. Strider, Hobbes and P-Nut mentioned maybe stopping at the 420 mile point at 4:20 in the afternoon for some 420, but I don't know if they actually did. If they'd been there two days earlier, a wormhole might have opened up and sucked them into another dimension. Anyway, my memories of that afternoon are strangely vague.

I remember the air being heavy, and the strong smell of wood smoke, and then wondering why there were red and green glowing lines surrounding my body. Strangely, I also remember not being freaked out that there were. And I don't know why. I remember arriving at the Shook Branch Picnic Area, on the shore of Lake Watauga, and being delighted to find Lil Dipper and Redwing already there. Or maybe I arrived first. Everything was a little unclear.

The water in the lake was freezing, and I jokingly bet Bandito a dollar he couldn't stay submerged for even ten seconds. He promply took off his shirt and dove in, accomplishing the feat with shocking ease. True, he ran out of the water shrieking girlishly, and spent the next five minutes wrapped in a towel with his teeth chattering, but I still owed him a buck.

Disappointed, I impulsively bet Lil Dipper a Five Dollar Foot-long at Subway that she couldn't stay in the water for thirty seconds. To my surprise and dismay, she too managed the feat without turning into an icicle. Still, she couldn't help being affected by the cold, despite her stout English constitution. P-Nut gallantly offered to strip naked and cuddle with her inside a sleeping bag, to save her from hypothermia. Miraculously, she recovered almost immediately after that, and P-Nut mercifully kept his clothes on.

And so all of us sat on the beach, feeling oddly listless, finding everything weirdly funny. I think Bandito was freaking out about the poor quality of his last resupply, so he hitched a ride into town with a one-legged Army veteran in the sidecar of his motorcycle. And none of us were worried about this strange turn of events, because the one-legged man left his prosthetic with us as collateral. Because that makes sense. I even remember tolerating Strider, and really, really enjoying my dinner, which consisted of plain pasta mixed with about a cup and a half of Parmesan cheese.

Our euphoria slowly faded as the sun slid towards the horizon. If they had allowed camping on that beach, we might have stayed there for the night. But they didn't, so we didn't. I was the first to reluctantly pack up, and I led the group on towards the shelter. On the way, I thrilled P-Nut with a rendition of John Legend's It Don't Have To Change, which I was just then adding to my repertoire.

Caveman was at the shelter when we arrived. We told him we were doing the Watauga Lake Challenge the next day. He told us we were crazy, then immediately decided he was coming with us. Lil Dipper set up her brand new hammock, and seemingly everybody took a turn sitting in it and laughing hysterically when they sank immediately to the ground.

The shelter area was literred with pro-Christian pamphlets some hopeful proselytizer had left behind. Some still sat, neatly stacked, on the shelter floor, but most lay scattered about the forest, blown about by the wind. It was obnoxious, and insulting.

"I want to find the people who did this," Caveman lamented, "And tell 'em that the Bible says to follow the laws of the land, and this is goddamn littering!"

We decided the best, most sensible, most ecologically sound option was to use the pamphlets as a fire starter. Which we did. We sent Strider and Bandito to find firewood, and they somehow came back with an entire tree. That suspiciously resembled a telephone pole. They told us it had been cut down by trail maintainers. I marveled at their ambition even while silently doubting their sanity.

Having made peace with Strider, I dictated a note for him to write in the shelter's log:
So excited about making it into Damascus tomorrow and getting rid of the last pieces of the body of that drifter I murdered back in Hot Springs. I'll finally get my pack weight under 30 pounds! Hooray! Also looking forward to buying crack and hookers.
Redwing wasn't too pleased about my prank, and wrote her own note in the register:
Strider is a wanker. Also, so is Major Chafage.
I couldn't let it go at that, however, and continued the dialog:
How dare you! I'll have you know I haven't done that since January...
Major Chafage
I did feel terrible about being mean to her, though. In truth, I was going to attribute the offending entry to Bandito, but I didn't think he'd appreciate the humor. Redwing was ultimately a good sport, however, and harbored no hard feelings. All in all, it was clearly a rather uneventful day. Perhaps that was appropriate, considering what we had planned for the morrow...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Chapter 39: The World's Greatest Traveller

By the time we all awoke for breakfast, someone had put on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and P-Nut was unpacking as though to stay at the Mountain Harbor permanently. I felt a similar sentiment upon seeing the breakfast Mary had prepared for us: multiple kinds of french toast made with homemade breads, a giant egg soufflé, fruit salad, and a massive, mutant Bundt cake-shaped sticky bun thing that even looking at practically gave me a coronary. It was quite possibly the best meal we'd ever have on the trail, and all but guaranteed that our 18-mile aspirations that day would end in unmitigated, slothful disaster.

Leaving breakfast some four pounds heavier than when we started, however, we somehow did not let the additional weight slow us down. Nor were we significantly delayed by the inevitable bouts of profuse and extravagant pooping. No, the only thing that would hold us up that day was the pernicious and elusive nature of the trail itself.

I left before Bandito to hike with Hobbes that morning. I'm not entirely sure why I did that. Maybe I wanted to give Bandito some space, or maybe I quite reasonably assumed he would eventually catch up, or maybe I just wanted an opportunity to bond with and finally make a good impression on Hobbes, something I'd utterly failed to do up till that point. This was easier said than done, however. Hobbes was a much stronger hiker than myself, and moved effortlessly, seemingly unencumbered by his pack or the several tons of psychological and emotional baggage that I, at least, constantly carried around with me. It was all I could do to keep up with him, let alone try to hold a conversation.

I followed him up a hill to where the trail seemed to come to an abrupt halt at a gravel road. I was beginning to worry, since I hadn't seen a blaze in about five minutes, but Hobbes seemed to know where he was going. He turned right, up the gravel road. I checked my guidebook, and it did mention a road crossing, so I followed. Hobbes had long since sped out of sight by the time I saw another white blaze, this time on a tree to my right. The trail led off the road and started going downhill. I found it curious that it seemed to be leading me back to where I started.

It was. I found myself back at the bottom of the hill, several hundred yards below where I had followed Hobbes onto the road. I was confused and angry, and was about to direct my considerable frustrations onto a nearby tree when Bandito walked up.

"Whatchu doin' M.C.?" asked Bandito.

"Do not go up there," I growled or screamed, pointing to my right.

Up the hill, another hiker heard me shouting and turned around. An elderly gentleman, he called down to us, much to my surprise. I hadn't even noticed he was there. He was grateful enough when I told him he was going the wrong way, and came back down the hill to help us drag some branches across the trail, forming an arrow on the ground to hopefully direct others in the right direction.

The British girls arrived before we left, and asked what all the hullabaloo was about.

"Absolutely nothing," I asserted. "Nobody got lost. Especially not me. Whoever said I got lost and wandered in a circle for half an hour is lying!"

"The trail turns here, and it's a bit unclear, so we were just making an arrow on the ground to direct people," explained Bandito helpfully.

"You mean like that sign says?" asked Redwing, pointing to a nearby tree. Where there was a sign. With an arrow, pointing to the right. But it was faded, and not at all at eye level!

"Didn't you leave like an hour before us, M.C.?" asked Lil Dipper.

"Okay, fine! So I got lost! But I look at the ground when I walk!" I shouted, "So I don't trip over things! Don't you understand? I hate everybody."

"When are you going to stop acting like a petulant child?" asked Redwing, possibly rhetorically. "This whole blowing up at the slightest provocation thing is really getting old."

"And that means a lot coming from them," pointed out Bandito. "They've only spent three nights on the trail with you."

"And we've never hiked together, until now," added Lil Dipper.

I couldn't believe it. I said nothing and hiked on in silence, swallowing my incalculable anger and sadness.

"You're just like the imperialistic American foreign policy," adding Redwing later, rather gratuitously, "Winning over hearts and minds everywhere you go."

"Okay, now you've gone too far," I spat. "America is awesome."

And I became so consumed with patriotic rage that I blacked out and only came to when we arrived at the Moreland Gap Shelter. Either that or the hike was just boring. Pleasant, but boring.

Nature and Brian and Alyson were there. I was overjoyed to see them, especially since it had been about five days since I'd seen Brian and Alyson, and even longer since I'd seen Nature. Alyson told us she and Brian had acquired trail names in our absence.

"I'm Caboose," explained Brian, "Because I'm always bringing up the rear."

"I'm Zoom," said their dog, Zelda, "Because Zelda wasn't an awesome enough name for me already."

I tried to ignore the talking dog. Perhaps it was just a figment of my imagination.

"And I'm Spark," concluded Alyson. "Because I like starting fires."

"And not because she's marched through the south like General Sherman, burning everything in her path," joked Brian.

"William Tecumseh, eh?" I asked, impressed. "He's a personal hero of mine!"

I then whistled John Brown's Body as I went to collect water. The shelter's water source was at the bottom of a 400-foot canyon directly in front of the shelter. It was ridiculous, but I handled the challenge with dignity and calm. I didn't curse, nor did I scream incomprehensible invective into the sky, nor did I cry, throw my water filter against a tree, or break my walking stick, Dino IV, against a rock. I was done having meltdowns. It was too mentally taxing to continue getting stressed out so much over everything.

When I returned, Nature, Caboose, Spark, Redwing, Lil Dipper, P-Nut, Bandito, and Hobbes were sitting around the campfire eating dinner. There were other hikers there, of course, the most notable of which was Strider, who fancied himself a younger, sexier, more intelligent and literary Christopher McCandless. Strider was only 19 years old, and was already quite possibly the world's greatest traveller, and second best story teller.

Like Christopher McCandless, Strider came from a privileged, educated background. He had been on track to graduate as valedictorian of his elementary school, but had suddenly dropped out in the fifth grade, much to the consternation of his parents and the local PTA. In the years since, he had ran away from home several times and spent months hitchhiking and travelling the country, working small jobs here and there. Perhaps one of his most exciting adventures had come when he drove a mobile meth lab located in a VW Bus cross-country from Spokane, Washington to New York City. Discovering he was being tailed by the FBI, Strider had only evaded prosecution by driving the bus into the East River, and then by claiming to be a hostage of the other drug smugglers. Since he was a minor, he had been released into his parents' custody with no mark on his permanent record, but had then ran away again almost immediately, and for the last time. It was then, at the tender age of fifteen, that he had taken up travel writing and sword-fighting, and his dream now was to hike the Appalachian Trail for a charity called "Strider Forges Himself an Épée with which to Slay Things, Especially Dragons, and Fight Cancer," and then write a book about it.
"Nobody will want to read your stupid book," I cautioned him, "Your rebellion against the real world is meaningless, because you don't have any real world experience."

"You're just bitter," scoffed Strider. "You're just a hater. A critic. And you know who becomes critics? People who suck at actually doing the thing they're criticizing."

"How can you say it's a meaningful sacrifice if you're giving up something you don't even value? And how can you value something you don't even know?" I asked.

"Your logic is weak, old man," said Strider. "You should not have entered into this debate with me."

"It would be like if I said I was giving up eating meat," I continued, undaunted, "Nobody would care, because I'm already a vegetarian. You can't say you're giving up friends, money, or any lasting human connections, because you're already a pathetic, worthless, completely unlikable loser!"

"Your stories will never get published," I added, when Strider didn't respond. "You should just give up. At everything."

"I think you're just projecting your own failures onto me," said Strider uneasily.

"See?" I sighed, "That's the sort of insightful psychological observation I would believe, except you never even took AP Psych. Because you never even went to high school!"

And so I went to bed, thinking about how I was a failure at-- I mean, and then Strider went to bed in tears, thinking about what a gross failure he was at everything.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Chapter 38: An Unexpected Party

The Mountain Harbor is a cozy little Bed & Breakfast in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, run by a delightful older couple from California, Terry and Mary Hill. Catering primarily to newlyweds and Nascar fans drawn by the nearby Bristol Motor Speedway, the Mountain Harbor struggled initially to find consistent customers. Realizing their destiny in their close proximity to the trail, Mary and Terry decided to open a hiker hostel in a room above their barn in 2004, and have never looked back. From the impression I got, the hiker cabin is now their primary source of income.

Despite its hay loft being now taken over by the hiker hostel, the barn itself is still fully functional. Lying in one's bed at night, one could still hear and even feel the horses moving around below. Even with this seeming inconvenience, I found the place to be warm and inviting, the perfect antidote to the awful degradation I was suffering through every day on the trail. The porch even offered an idyllic view of the paddock, where the horses grazed and commingled with a pair of ornery goats. It was wonderful.

Bandito and I arrived to find we were far from the first to arrive. P-Nut, Hobbes, Redwing and Lil Dipper were there and had already claimed the uppermost bunks for themselves, leaving only a "semi-private" King size bed and a rather dumpy pull-out couch still free. Hating them with a burning intensity, I reviewed my options: hike on, share a bed with another man, or tent outside in the rain with only the goats to keep me company. I decided to share a bed with another man. Another taboo broken. First I was eating meat, now this? What insanity would be next?

"Bandito, we're taking the King bed," I ordered, leaving no room for discussion.

"Okay," he shrugged, "But we're putting a row of pillows in between us."

"What're you, eighteen years old?" I said, bristling at his immaturity.


He had me there. "But it could get cold!" I whined, "What if I want to snuggle?"

"Don't touch me!" yelped Bandito, laughing. "Why don't you go snuggle with P-Nut or Hobbes?"

I actually paused to consider this, but I doubted they would have me. P-Nut and Hobbes looked down at me from their perch and laughed, probably enjoying a little inside joke at my expense with their equally adorable and precious British friends. How I loathed and resented them. I would never be on their level. The thought was too painful to bear. I suddenly missed Fredo, and wished we had hiked on.

"So I just paid for the room," said Bandito, interrupting my reverie. Damn! "You can pay me back now, or go into town and buy my resupply for me." He smiled at me, hopeful.

"I have a better idea!" I snapped, "How about I go into town and buy your resupply for you?"

"Okay," said Bandito, puzzled. "Should I tell you what I want, or should I write it down?"

"Write. It. Down!" I said, my eyes bulging.

I don't know why I was always taking out my frustrations on Bandito. I also don't know why he put up with me. But he did, and I was grateful for it.

P-Nut and I went to barter with Terry for a ride into town. There was a nominal one dollar fee for a shuttle, but Terry magnanimously waived the charge. Or he forgot. We were soon cramming ourselves onto the bench seat of his pickup alongside Redwing, forcing Lil Dipper and Hobbes to ride in the back. They smiled cheerfully and gamely waved to us through the rear window, but I knew they must have been miserable and freezing. I secretly enjoyed their torment, then felt terribly guilty about immediately afterward, to the point that I insisted on switching places with Lil Dipper when we returned to the hostel. She was only too pleased to acquiesce to my selfless and chivalrous offer. Following my lead, P-Nut volunteered to switch places with Hobbes. And so it went.

The ride back after our resupply was soothingly brisk, like sitting in a hot tub that didn't work on the deck of a boat lost somewhere in the North Atlantic. Above the Arctic Circle. During a ferocious blizzard. Being a stout New Englander, I was used to the cold, and relished in it, even taking my shirt off to the amusement of my companions. Except for P-Nut, who unfortunately had to look at me the whole time, and watched in morbid fascination as my nipples slowly turned blue, iced over, and then fell off. In retrospect, it was a stupid thing to do. Whatever.

We returned to find the hostel filling up. Tintin had arrived with a couple others, and they had found spaces on the floor, on the couch, in a horse trailer, or had tented on the lawn. Before making myself dinner from scavenged food out of the hiker box, I was delighted to discover that the hostel had a copy of Braveheart on VHS. Everybody huddled around on the floor and gazed up at the 10-inch television in the corner, soon caught up the Oscar-winning masterpiece.

Bandito had never seen Braveheart before, and I was eager to expose him to something new that I could personally vouch for. I even did him the favor of fast-forwarding through the naughty parts. Which was a lot. We ended up finishing the movie in about fifteen minutes, but not before I forever endeared myself to my three new British friends by raucously cheering and whooping ecstatically every time an evil, ugly, despicable Englishman got his leg chopped off, his throat slit, his testicles impaled, or was viciously decapitated. I'm sure they found it charming.

Tintin lamented that the hostel didn't have copies of Apocalypse Now or Fahrenheit 9/11.

"How dare you," I said, picking out Top Gun to watch next. Because after watching a brutal two-hour evisceration of English history and its national character, the next best thing would be a shameless ninety minute infomercial for the US Navy, and perhaps the seminal cinematic exaltation of American exceptionalism in history. Top Gun is also quite possibly the most homoerotic film ever released by a major Hollywood studio, as it's all about sweaty, shirtless men playing beach volleyball, staring at each other longingly, and taking out their sexual frustrations by flying giant, gleaming phalluses around the sky and squirting missiles at each other. Awesome.

Twenty minutes in, I turned to the room and said, quite honestly, "I don't want to freak anybody out, but I've had a boner for this entire movie." Redwing was so amused she wrote it down in her journal.

A little later, Mary walked in with a birthday cake for Lil' Dipper. Redwing confessed that she'd arranged with Mary to get the cake in secret. Which wasn't really true. We were all in on it. In fact, it might have been entirely my idea. But Lil' Dipper was totally surprised and overwhelmed, until we sang her "Happy Birthday," at which point she became disgusted by our failure to maintain four-part harmony. Everybody ate a slice of cake, and even then there were leftovers. Not wanting the cake to go to waste, I let the others cajole me into eating three more pieces. A mistake, as it turned out. I would later wake everybody up during the night with a particularly unsavory visit to the bathroom.

I could scarcely believe I had regarded these same people with bitter resentment just that morning. Or had it been earlier that afternoon? They were now my truest friends, either my second or third trail family, and I knew in my heart that I would never leave them for anything.

There we were, in the converted hay loft of a barn, again, but this night we were happy. Lil' Dipper had celebrated her birthday, Redwing had successfully pulled off her secret plan, and I had repeatedly humiliated myself while offending nearly everybody. It was a good day.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Chapter 37: On to the Mountain Harbor

Helen had trouble sleeping that night, and spent many a restless hour tucked in a corner of the Overmountain Shelter staring at the ceiling, lost in thought. The screaming baby alone might have been enough to keep her awake, but she was also plagued by doubts and her own fraying nerves. There she was, a perfectly respectable, intelligent and civilized young woman from London, England, sitting in the converted hay loft of a decrepit barn in rural North Carolina, surrounded by horrifying strangers. She felt four thousand miles away from home. She was.

As midnight approached and then passed, one thing that had been bothering her came into sudden focus. It was now April twentieth, and her hiking companion Claire's birthday. Claire was her best friend from back home and her one constant in a world of continual upheaval. Helen had few expectations when she and Claire began their epic journey together. At the very least, she thought they would get to see America in a unique and breathtaking way. Perhaps she imagined they would bond over their shared adventures, or even danger. What she did not anticipate was Claire slowly slipping away from her, or becoming increasingly lost amongst a crowd of loud and boorish Americans.

Of these, the most omnipresent was P-Nut, or was it Robert? (Helen would always struggle with the peculiarities of American naming conventions. After all, the Americans insisted on calling her "Redwing" and Claire "Lil' Dipper," and she had no idea why.) A fellow traveller, young, handsome and outgoing, P-Nut had been following Helen and Claire around like a wounded puppy for over a hundred miles. Had Helen known or been able to contact the proper authorities, she might have reported him for stalking, but instead found herself slowly becoming inured to his bizarre and often baffling behavior. His ingenious methodology included hiked dozens of miles ahead of them, not seeing them for days, and then randomly reappearing at strategic intervals. Most alarmingly, P-Nut cleverly disguised his insidious and vaguely sinister intentions behind a veneer of callous indifference; he frequently seemed to be fed up with the girls, rolling his eyes and groaning with impatience, and even once went so far as to proffer the hysterical suggestion that they were following him and not the other way around.

After P-Nut, the figure of most foreboding was the dark and mysterious Hobbes. A squirrelly wisp of a man, Hobbes was usually only seen in glimpses: the tread of his shoes as he disappeared into the forest, the sliver of an eye, his face cloaked in shadow, as he skulked around the periphery of camp like an aspiring Gollum. He abhorred crowds, and very rarely ventured into daylight. He had a penchant for suddenly emerging from out of nowhere to make a bitingly sarcastic remark, or genuinely astute observation, but would then vanish just as quickly. Most intriguingly, he carried with him a small guitar, yet no one ever saw or heard him playing. Was he a mystic, some sort of Pied Piper of the forest? No one knew. No one could know.

There were others, of course: Pixie, an Amazon with ridiculous swagger, cool athleticism, and terrifying aviator shades; Little John, whom in a different setting might have been an intellectual or scholar, what with his fashionably scraggly beard and smart spectacles, but in this world gave off the impression he'd sooner eat a book than read one; Bandito, who, well, the less said about him, the better. There was also Gumbo, (or was it Gumby?) Tintin, Patch, Fredo, and Major Chafage, the last of whom may have been the rudest, most ornery but disarmingly handsome man Helen had ever met, his soulless, dazzling blue eyes betraying an unfathomable and insatiable wickedness.

Despite what she felt was a growing distance between herself and Claire, Helen could still sense a certain melancholy in her friend. Nobody else on the trail knew it was Claire's birthday, and Helen was worried the occasion might pass unnoticed. In a fit on inspiration, at a little past one in the morning, Helen decided to organize a surprise birthday celebration. All she had to do was find a venue, make a bunch of new and exciting lifelong friends to make up the guest list, and then somehow bring everybody together over birthday cake and beer. It was going to be a long and difficult day.


It was a gloomy morning. The heavens roiled, dark and ominous, threatening to open up at any time. I was headed towards the Mountain Harbor Bed & Breakfast, where I was expecting a maildrop from my friend Becca. She had promised to send me a package of homemade granola bars and a bottle of hydrocodone. I secretly hoped it would start raining, thus justifying my incredibly lazy impulse just to stay at the Mountain Harbor overnight.

I hiked that morning with young Georgian named Fredo. We had just met at the Overmountain Shelter, and so were naturally curious about each other and fell into an easy conversation. Fredo told me he had received his trail name after pranking one of his companions on April Fools Day. Apparently he had hidden a sizable rock in his friend Steve's backpack, and, completely oblivious, Steve had carried the extra weight the entire day, often complaining that his pack seemed oddly heavy. Steve was understandably furious when he finally discovered the ruse, however. When no one else would admit responsibility, Steve had approached Fredo and said, "I know it was you, Fredo." And that's how Fredo became Fredo.

I thought the genesis of Fredo's name was inarguably awesome, while mine was, well, decidedly not. So, despite Fredo's outrageous facial hair and humble personality, I began to fear he was secretly much cooler than me, and I may have acted rather aloof and standoffish towards him as a result, something I would later regret. Still, I managed not to completely alienate him; we finally bonded over our shared love of beer and recreational drugs. Aside from the aforementioned hydrocodone, I told Fredo that my favorites were Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and hash brownies. I also boasted about having gone to Oktoberfest in Munich once, and then spiralled off on a ridiculous and hate-fueled tangent in which I denigrated Munich as a city, and the Bavarian people in general.

"Bavarians are awful, awful people," I ranted, "Even worse than day hikers or south-bounders. All they do is drink beer and try to kill innocent tourists by forcing them to drink beer!"

I explained that when I had been at Oktoberfest, some locals had taken a liking to me and had repeatedly called me over to their table to refill my Maß. Needless to say, I quickly blacked out, started screaming profanity for no apparent reason, and then woke up the next day back in my hostel not knowing how I had gotten there, whose bunk I was sleeping in, or how I had received that scratch on my forehead and that bruise on the bridge of my nose. Yes, Bavarians are the worst.


Helen and Claire were hiking with P-Nut that day, to utterly no one's surprise. P-Nut was full of his usual boisterous chatter, only pausing between jokes to excoriate the girls for hiking too slowly. Helen ignored P-Nut, and innocently suggested to Claire that they head to the Mountain Harbour Bed & Breakfast. The advantages were manifold: it was only nine miles from where they started that morning, they could be done hiking by noon and might escape the seemingly imminent rain, and they'd have the entire afternoon to go into town, resupply, and relax. Claire agreed, and the first part of Helen's plan fell into place. She had cleverly managed to avoid mention of Claire's birthday. For all Claire knew, Helen had forgotten her birthday too. That they would later be having a party of epic dimensions would thus come as an incredible surprise.

With their goals set, the girls were not in any particular hurry. They and P-Nut took their time and enjoyed themselves, frequently stopping to take goofy pictures, none of which turned out well and were quickly deleted and summarily forgotten. The only drawback to their leisurely pace soon became apparent, however, as they heard the far off crashing and faint echo of profanity that could only signal the imminent arrival of Major Chafage.

Major Chafage, thought Helen, increasing her pace. What a sick, self-centered, pretentious wanker he is. I hoped he's not planning to stay at the Mountain Harbour.

Unfortunately, Major Chafage was as brash and loud as he was chiseled and gorgeous, and his voice carried through the trees in a booming and assertive basso profondo.

"Yeah, my girlfriend and I totally ate hash brownies in Amsterdam, too," he was bragging. "It was awesome."

"Was it awesome?" came another voice, sounding vaguely sarcastic. "Because it sounded awesome."

"I know," said M.C., completely full of himself. "What can I say? I'm just awesome!"

"I've never had hash brownies," lamented M.C.'s companion. "My girlfriend and I did 'shrooms once though. Actually, that's a funny st--"

"I'm also a total crack addict," interrupted M.C., his voice faltering. "Yeah I do drugs all the time, because it's cool to do drugs, and I'm cool."

Whoever M.C. was hiking with didn't sound terribly impressed.

Why am I listening to this conversation, thought Helen. Damn that Major Chafage for being so dreamy and fascinating!


I thought I heard female voices ahead of me, so I stopped to listen. I held up my hand to silence Fredo. There was nothing. I must have been imagining things. Fredo eyed me quizzically, not used my theatrics. I needed to get away from him. He was bad for my self-esteem.

Luckily, Fredo was stopping at the Apple House Shelter for lunch. I quickly decided to continue on, and wait for Bandito by the road. I said goodbye to Fredo and hurried forward, hoping to never see him again.

The trail crossed a stream before climbing abruptly to the road. The area was littered with cans and old beer bottles, apparently a favorite hangout for the tragically impoverished locals. I shook my head in disgust and sat down on the guardrail to wait.

A father and daughter from Connecticut pulled over by a sign marking the Appalachian Trail to take pictures. I mentioned, truthfully, that I was from New Haven, and tried to strike up a conversation. They were friendly enough, but something seemed to put them off. Maybe it was my disheveled appearance or repellent aroma. When I jokingly offered to let the girl wear my backpack, so that she could tell her friends back home she had hiked the trail, neither of them seemed to appreciate my humor. They quickly drove off without even offering me a soda. As if I needed more proof, here was a blatant reminder that most people were completely self-absorbed, inconsiderate jerks. I hated everybody.

Bandito finally arrived, and I told him we were going to the Mountain Harbor. That was news to him, but he dutifully followed my lead. We saw Gumbo trying to hitch across the street, and went to talk to him. He was trying to get a ride into Roan Mountain before getting back on the trail. He had big miles in mind, and told us he was planning to do the Watauga Lake Challenge.

"The what now?"

"You start at the Watauga Lake Shelter, and you hike the forty miles into Damascus, Virginia in less than twenty four hours," explained Gumbo.

He was clearly insane. Before we left, the family with the screaming baby from the night before pulled up in a minivan. They wished us luck, and handed us all sodas before they left. I was awestruck, stupefied! My faith in humanity restored, I was so happy I may have even hugged Bandito. And if I didn't, I should have. We said goodbye to Gumbo, and set off down the road.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chapter 36: Hiking For a Change

The experience of hiking up Roan Mountain will change irrevocably in the years to come, as the ATC adds several miles of switchbacks to its southern face and possibly a mechanized ski lift. Which is a shame, because it used to be one of the most unique and challenging climbs on the trail. But don't take my word for it. Go do it yourself. Right now. I'll wait.

What's that? You don't have time? But you're going to plan to do it as soon as you finish your coffee? And that scone? Well, I can't blame you. That scone looks delicious. In the meantime, allow me to tell you how your journey will unfold.

You will start off from Greasy Creek Gap, as I did, because I am your hero, and you aspire in all ways to be just like me. Don't worry, I get that all the time. Still, it's as good a place as any to begin, what with its convenient road access and... everything. So, good choice.

About an hour later, after passing the Clyde Smith Shelter, you'll probably look up to see nothing but the thrilling blue expanse of the sky ahead of you. Thinking or hoping you're near the top, you will gambol forward excitedly and finally crest the ridge, only to suddenly realize your error in judgement. You will see the real Roan Mountain still looming on the horizon, and your heart will sink with despair and self-recrimination. Alas, you have fallen victim to the oldest and cleverest of hiking scourges, the false summit.

After wasting several minutes screaming profanity and gesticulating wildly, you will probably retrieve your guidebook from the bushes where you kicked it and determine that you're on top of Little Rock Knob, which, even at 4,920 feet, here barely constitutes a foothill. Roan Mountain lies some five miles ahead of you, across a heretofore hidden and distressingly deep valley. The only thing left for you to do is make your way down the nine hundred or so vertical feet to the valley floor, snake your way across it, tackle the abrupt 2,200 foot climb to the real summit, and then you'll be there.

Reaching the top of Roan Mountain, you will feel no thrill of exhilaration or sense of accomplishment at all. Your mind will now be set on only one thing, and you will furiously wade through foot-deep snow to visit the Roan High Knob Shelter, only to find it rat-infested and without a privy. You will then realize that you should have noted that earlier. It says "no privy" right there in your guidebook, after all. What were you thinking? Cursing your stupidity once again, you will continue on in increasing desperation to find a bathroom. The snow is too deep and there are too many day hikers about for you to contemplate digging a cathole. Fortunately, you know that there's a "parking area" with "toilets" a mile and a half further, at Carver's Gap.

At this point you will have long abandoned any pretense of enjoying yourself or appreciating nature. You blithely ignore the invigorating and brisk mountain air, the crystal clear and icy cool spring water, the intoxicating smell of the pine grove around you that's subtly reminiscent of a warm night spent sitting in front of the hearth, enjoying a crackling fire, a hot chocolate, a soft fuzzy blanket, a good book, the company of friends and family, and the close proximity of indoor plumbing. No, from now on your only concern is your impending bowel movement. You have become a staggering, emotionless robot, your one mission to find a suitable place of privacy to relieve your oppressively burdened intestines and overstressed sphincter of their grotesque cargo.

You reach Carver's Gap and look around frantically for an outhouse, alarming several families with your crazed expression and inexplicable cries of anguish. The only thing you can find is a sign saying "Parking Area, Toilets - 1.5 Miles," which naturally causes you to curse ferociously in front of a group of small children. You momentarily contemplate breaking into someone's car to defecate in their back seat, but you then remember that you're a good person, and, moreover, that you don't know how to break into a car. You severely lack the time or patience to make it that mile and a half, and so are driven ever on in increasing desperation.

Unfortunately, what's ahead of you are some of the most spectacular grassy balds in North Carolina, and they are heavily trafficked by seemingly innocent, cutesy day hikers and their ever-curious dogs. No matter, by now your biological needs have outweighed your years of civilized restraint, and you dart off the trail into a small thicket of rhododendron bushes. Mid-squat, you realize that you have attempted to hide yourself next to a boulder that, unfortunately, is also right below the trail. You can hear voices approaching, and the steady crunch of gravel. You will not be able to pull your pants back up and relocate. It's too late for that. So you sit there frozen as the people pass you, hoping they don't look to their right and down, horrified by what they might see.

You will black out from the stress. When you come to, the danger has passed. Somehow, you were not discovered. Then you realize you left your toilet paper in you backpack, which you left twenty yards away, next to the trail.

But don't worry, the rest of the day will be much easier. You will eventually emerge only slightly psychologically scarred but physically unscathed from your catholing adventure. You will meet and talk to a local man hanging out atop Round Bald, and bond over your shared enthusiasm for the trail. You will be surprised to find that you actually are enthusiastic about the trail once again, now that your burden has lifted.

Finally, at the end of the day, you will head to Overmountain Shelter to make camp for the night. You will arrive to find the shelter, an old converted barn, already overrun by hikers and a local family with a small, screaming baby. Feeling ostracized somehow by the other hikers, you will decide to tent on the nearby hillside, rationalizing your choice by claiming to want an unobstructed view of the sunrise. In reality, you just want to be alone to hide your still redolent humiliation. You may begin to feel lonely, until twenty more hikers show up, and they all too camp on the hill next to you. Someone will build a campfire, stories will be told, and you will slowly begin to feel better.

You go to bed anxious to leave the next day. You will stare at the roof of your tent and wonder just what brought you out there in the first place. You vaguely remember someone once telling you to hike Roan Mountain, before it all changed for the worse. Or maybe that you read it somewhere. This, of course, is absurd, and wrong, and is just a figment of your wild imagination. There will be no one to blame but yourself.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Chapter 35: Silly Human Tricks

It's hard to remember what our ambitions were the day after we left Erwin. Perhaps we simply wanted to put as many miles between us and that miserable place as we could. This explanation may be overly reductive and more than a little misleading, however. After all, if one were to make a list of all the staggeringly pointless small towns in Tennessee that are utterly devoid of culture, local color, and appreciable human life, whose biggest industries are rafting and nuclear fuel processing, Erwin might rank as one of the best. It would definitely be in the top two.

So, for whatever reason, Bandito and I did twenty miles that day, from Curley Maple Gap Shelter to Greasy Creek Gap. We were joined there by Caveman and Hightower, a gargantuan, hairy monstrosity of a man who looked suspiciously like Dirk Nowitzki.

"Your trail name should have been Dirk Nowitzki," I joked, as Caveman and Bandito went to get water.

Hightower scowled, sighing, "Yeah, I've heard that before. People saying I look like Dirk."

"It's not that you look like Dirk Nowitzki," I laughed, half serious. "It's that you are Dirk Nowitzki!"

"W-what?" stammered Hightower, suddenly and seemingly unnecessarily defensive, "But I'm not! He's what, two hundred and thirteen centimeters--"

Don't think I didn't notice his suspicious use of the metric system.

He flushed, panicking, "I mean, seven feet tall? And I'm only six-foot-eight!"

"Sure," I said, amused. "So why did you decide to hike the trail?"

"Oh, you know," Hightower equivocated. "I love nature, and--"

"Did you suddenly realize Jason Kidd is fifty years old? Was Mark Cuban getting you down?"

"Nein," Hightower growled, irritated. "Me and the Cubes are tight."

Hightower and I stared at each other in shock.

In one motion, Hightower dropped what he was doing, grabbed me by the throat and slammed me against a tree. He got in my face, his curly blonde goatee inches from my nose. I could hardly breathe. He smelled awful, like a cocktail of sweat and ground up wienerschnitzel.

"Listen," he growled, "You tell anybody out here who I am, and I'll kill you. Understand? Einen schönen Tag allerseits!"

I nodded, my face turning purple. He let go, and I dropped to the ground, gasping.

"You're one of my girlfriend's favorite players!" I blurted. "Please don't kill me."

"Leichter gesagt als getan," Hightower spat, then added "Schlappschwanz" in a derisive mutter. He glared at me, and then went back to setting up his tent.

Bandito and Caveman returned shortly, and not a moment too soon.

"Anybody want to go down to that Greasy Creek Friendly to get ice cream?" I asked, desperate for any excuse to get away from the large, surly German. "I hear they have Ben & Jerry's!"

Ben & Jerry's was Bandito's favorite food. His eyes lit up.

"Sure," drawled Caveman. "I'll go."

We hid our packs in a furrow behind a log and set off.

We almost didn't find the hostel. It looked like every other run-down farm house, except for having a lone hiker sitting outside. His real name was Jim, and he was fat. His rather inventive trail name was Fat Jim. And he was staying at the Friendly. He directed us inside, where we found a closet-sized camp store, replete with single servings of Pop Tarts and overpriced soda. Bandito immediately grabbed a pint of Ben & Jerry's, despite its seemingly prohibitive $5 price tag.

The proprietor of the Greasy Creek Friendly was a delightfully congenial old woman named Connie. She looked to be in her mid to late sixties, she was Jewish, and she was evidently rather drunk. She carried a box of table wine around with her like a security blanket, drinking from it occasionally with a bendy straw. When I remarked sadly about the cost of the Ben & Jerry's, Connie kindly offered to make Caveman and me ice cream sundaes for $3 instead.

"How 'bout this," Connie hiccuped, "I-- What was I saying?"

"Ice cream sundaes?"

"Yes! I can make you boys some ice cream sundaes! That's a great idea!" She beamed at us and jumped up to look through her freezer. "Now, do y'all want yours to be vanilla or chocolate?"

"Both," we said, honestly.

Connie frowned, as if unable to comprehend the concept. "Oh, I know!" she exclaimed, "I can put both vanilla and chocolate and vanilla into the same cup! Now how does that sound?"

"Awesome," we said.

"Oh, and you can't-- y-you just can't leave till I show you this trick-- this-- my cat does tricks," she explained helpfully, belching. "Did I tell you about my cats?"


"I have a Maine Coon cat. Actually I have more than one cat but my Maine Coon cat is the one that does tricks. He's really amazing." she said. "Remind me to show you them-- my cat tricks, before-- You have to see my cat do tricks."

"Did I tell you about my cats?" she continued.

I had barely enough cash on me for the sundae, so I went outside to see if I could sell a back massage to any of the other guests. I thought it was an ingenious plan, not just to raise a little money but also to avoid Connie's drunken ramblings. Unfortunately, the only taker I could find was Fat Jim. Fortunately, I have no shame. Ten minutes later, I had earned five bucks and somehow retained my dignity.

When I returned inside, Connie was telling Caveman and Bandito about her nemesis, the man who lived across the street.

"Oh, he's a paranoid schizo-- schi-- He's crazy, and he absolutely hates hikers!" she was saying. "Thinks y'all are nothin' but homeless trash. Some days he'll get up at the crack of dawn and ride his lawnmower up and down the street outside with the hood open, just to wake everybody up. Other days he'll bang trash can lids together, or shout at us using a bull horn..."

"Have you ever tried gettin' back at him?" asked Caveman.

"I may have hit him with my car once," Connie said, wistful. "Or maybe threw a fryin' pan at his head, I forget. He called the police. Accused me of assault." She laughed.

Caveman laughed with her, "Naw, I meant more like eggin' his house, or maybe murderin' his wife and children and then grindin' 'em up to use as fertilizer for your garden and then makin' a salad with the veggies you grew an' then feedin' it to him."

I would never be surprised by the depths of Caveman's depravity. Bandito was a little spooked, though.

Connie laughed, and shook her head reprovingly. "Nah, I don't have the, um, the-- No, come on, now!"

At that point a small mountain lion padded into the room, about three and a half feet long and maybe a hundred pounds. It was enormous. It yawned, and I think I saw my life flash before my eyes. Connie shrieked in delight and ran to prostrate herself before the animal, smothering it with affection. Like any cat, it haughtily ignored her and began licking itself.

"This is my baby!" she screamed, tearing up. "Don't you want to see him do tricks?"

"Of course we do," said Caveman pleasantly, pulling up a chair to watch. Bandito stood on the table, freaked out, holding a butter knife to defend himself.

"Come on, it's okay," I said, coaxing him down. "It won't kill you. It might just chew on you a little."

That didn't seem to help. Connie ran out to round up Fat Jim and everyone else staying at the Friendly that night, and ushered them all into the dining room. Once we were all seated, she plopped her cat down on top of a stool in front of everybody. Surprisingly, the cat let her, and didn't immediately run away.

"Wow," I murmured, "That is one talented cat."

"Don't be rude," scolded Caveman.

"Watch this!" commanded Connie, before I could object. She held a cat treat above her cat's head. "Come on, get it, boy!"

The cat stood on its hind legs and swatted the treat out of her hands, then jumped off the stool to eat it.

Connie clapped gleefully and beamed at us all. "Isn't that just amazin'?"

It was something special, all right.

After scarfing down our sundaes, we left to return to camp. I would later regret not staying there for the night, however. Connie was wonderfully personable, even if she was a bit daffy, and getting to experience her awful neighbor would have been an undeniable treat. Still, it might have been hard to justify the expense.

Dirk was asleep by the time we got back, and it was already after dark. We threw our bear bags and then turned in. The following day we'd be tackling Roan Mountain, which at 6,285' is one of the tallest peaks on the trail. We needed our rest, and we got it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Chapter 34: Face Plants, Pizza, and Neanderthals

The following morning, Patch's father prepared for us a lovely breakfast of french toast, eggs, and leftover beer. Like everything else, it was spectacular, and we were tempted to stay there forever, but the lure of the trail was too strong. We were nearing Erwin, Tennessee, after all, a completely insignificant landmark except for that it offered us another opportunity to gorge ourselves on All-You-Can-Eat pizza.

Despite our unexpected imposition upon her hospitality, Patch's mother actually seemed quite sad that we were leaving, and even called in sick to work in order to see us off. So moved by all that she had done, that her family had done, I gave her a heartfelt hug goodbye and promptly forgot her name, her husband's name, and their address. That's assuming I ever knew them in the first place. Either way, I would not be sending them any celebratory postcards when I finished.

Then again, I wouldn't be sending anybody celebratory postcards when I finished. I'm just not that thoughtful or considerate a person. However, the trail would exact some measure of vengeance upon me for my lack of tact later in the day.

Bandito and I were following Brian and Alyson into No Business Knob Shelter, the last campsite before Erwin. It was at the end of a long if not particularly interesting day. The trail was covered in leaves, making it difficult to see the rocks and roots and other things that could occasionally trip you up. Moreover, it was badly eroded, skirting the edge of a gorge, adding an unwelcome element of danger to the equation that I overlooked at my own peril.

And Perhaps I wasn't being as careful about where I was putting my feet as I should have been. I tripped and fell, in what felt like slow motion, flat on my face. My nose met earth. My mouth was filled with dirt. And the sudden impact caused my water bottle to pop comically out of its mesh side pocket, fly in a beautiful parabolic arc through the air, bounce off a tree, and then skitter down the slope to land somewhere at the bottom of the gully.

Fifteen minutes later, and after I had stopped crying, I tried to remember the advice Nature had once given me for exactly this sort of situation.

"When you fall down, and you will," she had warned, "Just take your pack off and lie there for five minutes to collect yourself. Remember that everything is going to be okay. Because it is. Everybody falls."

Not everybody falls on their face after tripping over nothing, and then has to scramble down a fifty foot incline to retrieve their water bottle, all while one of their best friends on the trail laughs uproariously at them. No, that's a special torture apparently reserved just for me. Naturally, I was so proud of my spectacular failure that when I got into camp I promptly told everybody what had just happened, and even wrote about it in the shelter log.

We were joined in camp that night by Dubois, Hobbes, Kashmir, Pixie, Little John, a different Patch, Banana Breath, Jungle Joose, Zebra, Boardwalk, Chalupa Joe, Tofu Skin, René Descartes, Washout, the Black Knight, Wallace Shawn and Erica Rosbe, a classmate of mine from college whom I had always admired. I think she was lost. Anyway, it was crowded.

We cooked dinner, not that any of us were that hungry. My stove was broken, as it had been for a while now. At first it had just sputtered feebly while producing a very unsatisfactory flame. Then it had started dripping fuel everywhere, invariably setting fire to whatever surface I was trying to cook on. Now it was threatening to blow up in my face, if it wasn't refusing to work at all. I was tired of watching people lord over me with their homemade alcohol stoves, gloating about their infallible simplicity. I intended to replace my stove as soon as possible, perhaps the next day.


Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel and Outfitters in Erwin was a bit of a madhouse when we arrived. Overflowing with obnoxious, drunken guests, Uncle Johnny's reminded me somewhat unfavorably of the Standing Bear Farm. The deck had a low ceiling that I repeatedly banged my head into, endlessly amusing Bandito and Hobbes. Until they inevitably banged their heads on it, too. Then they stopped laughing. Jerks. Anyway, I didn't like the place. I bought a new alcohol stove, some fuel, and then dragged Bandito away, never to return. We walked into town, some two miles out of our way, to go to a Pizza Plus for an AYCE lunch, and then resupplied at the Dollar General next door.

In retrospect, Erwin was pretty terrible, probably worse than I initially thought. It was inconveniently situated, too spread out, and so laid back as to be almost comatose. I either pitied or actively hated the people there, and the longer we stayed the more difficult it became for me to suppress an acidic misanthropy rising in my throat like bile. I couldn't wait to leave. At least it wasn't as bad as Gatlinburg.

We hiked out in the middle of the afternoon, ending up not far away at the Curley Maple Gap Shelter. Pixie, Little John, the other Patch, Chef, and others were there, including an outrageously bald southerner named Caveman. It took maybe a day for me to warm up to Caveman. He quickly endeared himself to me by giggling every time I swore, gleefully encouraging me to indulge my basest and worst instincts, and by generally being as different from Bandito as possible. Not that I didn't like Bandito, too. Bandito was my brother, like a baby-faced angel sitting on my shoulder. Caveman, on the other hand, was more like a Metallica shrieking, fire-breathing, riotous spawn of Satan, sitting on my other shoulder, whispering mischievous suggestions in my ear. Were destined to become great friends.

P-Nut eventually arrived, and we teased him for missing the trail magic at Patch's.

"No, not you, the other Patch," I said to the other Patch, who looked up at me, confused at the mention of his name. "Never mind."

There was a nervous, excited energy in the air, perhaps leftover from town or from Patch's the night before. Bandito threw his bear line over the branch of a dead tree, his rope got snagged, he pulled, it didn't budge, he pulled harder, and then the entire tree came crashing down, coming within inches of crushing the shelter. The rest of us roared in laughter as Bandito ran to change his underwear. And that was the sort of night it was.

I crawled into my sleeping bag and stared at the roof of my tent, contemplating the future. We were only a couple days away the Mountain Harbor B&B, where I anticipated getting a mail drop of homemade granolla bars. All that stood in our way was the Roan High Bluffs, some magnificent bald mountains, and a 35 mile stretch of trail without a single privy. What could possibly go wrong?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Chapter 33: Analyze This

I walked with the young woman section hiker from Brooklyn for some time the next morning. Since her dog wore a muzzle, I had named him Hannibal Lecter. She, of course, had become Clarice Starling.

"I used to live in Brooklyn, too," I told Clarice. "Where's your apartment? Maybe I know the area."

"Kensington," said Clarice. "But my husband and I are moving to Lake Placid."

"Kensington? I know exactly where that is!" I said. "I used to live in Windsor Terrace. 16th Street, in between 8th Avenue and Prospect Park West! Have you ever been to--"

"Terrace Bagels?" she asked excitedly, finishing my sentence. "Yes! That was the last place I went to before I left to come down here!"

"No way!" I gushed, "Aren't they the best?"

"Yes!" she squealed.

"I could go for one right now," I mused, "An everything bagel with vegetable cream cheese."

Their bagels were always so warm and puffy, fresh out of the oven. The store always made their own cream cheese spreads, too, which made their downright awful service somewhat tolerable. On a nice sunny day, Megan and I would often get bagels to go and then have picnics in Prospect Park, just relaxing and people watching.

We hiked in silence for a moment, reminiscing.

"By the way, you stick out like a sore thumb out here," I said.

"I do?" she asked, cocking her eyebrow.

She did, and it wasn't that she was a semi-attractive girl with tattoos all over her neck and arms.

"You look like a hipster," I said, indicating her Pabst Blue Ribbon trucker hat. "PBR? Really?"

"What? This thing" she asked, incredulous. "I found it at a thrift store, it was like five dollars. I just had to have it!"

"Yeah," I said, skeptical. "Exactly."

"I bet you're a total hipster back in the real world," she said accusingly.

"How dare you," I shook my head. "I've never owned a pair of skinny jeans in my life."

We passed a man harvesting ramps alongside the trail and then headed down towards Sam's Gap.

Nature was already there when we arrived, standing beside her friend Unemployed, whom I had met back at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Unemployed was there to pick up Nature, whom she was taking into town for a few days, but she had brought with her several cases of Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper and Mountain Dew to give out to us hikers along with an assortment of fresh fruit. Bandito and I sat down with Nature, Trinket, Brian, Alyson, and Clarice to enjoy the trail magic. Only when the soda ran out did we pack up to move on.

Patch had given us very concrete directions to get to his parents' house.

"Go to Street Gap, turn right, and it'll be the second house on your right," he had said.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at Street Gap it resembled neither a gap nor a street. We were simply on a long stretch of level ground where what may have been a dirt road intersected the trail. There was no sign, nor any other indication that this is where we were supposed to be.

It was just Brian, Alyson, Bandito and myself at this point, and none of us had a map or a GPS device that might have told us where to go. We simply had to scout it out. It was just a question of who was going to do it. I volunteered.

"Take my pack," I said, "and if I'm not back in five minutes--"

"Call the cops?" asked Alyson, wary.

"Call your mother?" suggested Brian.

"Call the Pope?" asked Bandito.

"No!" I said, exasperated," Just carry my pack down for me, okay?"

Brian and Alyson exchanged looks. All I was asking them to do was to carry an extra forty pounds an unspecified distance down a creepy backwoods road. No big deal. And so I bravely set off into the unknown.

The road itself was no more than a couple of muddy ruts worn into the mountainside. A stream burbled gently to my right, running parallel to the road. It was peaceful, an actually kind of beautiful, but also disturbingly quiet, barren of any signs of actual human activity.

I passed an abandoned barn, its roof falling in, its door pockmarked with what appeared to be small caliber bullet holes. Had the world ended in the two hours since we'd left Sam's Gap? Or had I stepped off into some chaotic no man's land, beyond the influence of law and order, where the rotting vestiges of civilization were callously used for target practice by the bored and presumably dangerously inbred locals?

Things only got more discouraging the further I went. The second "building" I passed was no more than a run-down trailer home parked by the side of the road. If that was where Patch's parents lived, I was in trouble. And so were Patch's parents. The trailer was tiny, no bigger than a Jeep Grand Cherokee; it was hardly fit for a single person, let alone a family of three. Furthermore, it was clearly ancient; made out of stainless steel, its curvaceous lines echoed the sunny futurism and blind naivety of the 1950's. It was easy to imagine the trailer belonging to some terrified McCarthyite who might have packed up all his possessions and fled into the mountains to escape the Red Menace or some impending nuclear apocalypse. The trailer might have once represented all that was great about America: our mechanical ingenuity, our style, our freedom, our seemingly boundless mobility as a people and a culture. Now there it sat, a gross anachronism, lost in time, utterly alone, its iconic aura faded, its original purpose forgotten, twisted, subverted, left to rust in desolate isolation.

For some inexplicable reason, I kept going. The dirt road curved to the left, and all at once let out into what appeared to be a quiet modern suburb. There I was, standing on a paved street lined with telephone poles, looking around at impeccably manicured lawns in front of newish looking houses. It was a completely different kind of time warp, but no less jarring.

Patch was sitting on the covered porch of the second house on the right with a few buddies from the trail whose names I've long since forgotten. He called to me, and waved me over. I was very relieved to have found them.

"You just missed the pizza," said Patch, chowing down on a slice. "This was the last piece."

"Oh, well, that's too bad," I said, and immediately felt like leaving.

"Me and the guys were just going to run into town to resupply," said Patch. "Do you need anything? Did you want anything? Like a beer? Do you want to come along?"

"No," I demurred, "That's okay. I'll stay here and wait for Bandito, Brian, and Alyson."

"But I would take a soda, if you've got one," I added hopefully.

Brian and Bandito didn't seem particularly happy to see me sitting on the porch sipping a Dr. Pepper when they arrived.

"Where you going to come back?" asked Brian, dropping my backpack on the lawn.

"Why? Didn't you hear me whistling?"

"No! You whistled?"

Maybe. "I told you guys if I didn't come back just to follow me."

"Yeah, well, it occurred to us later that you might have just been murdered," said Alyson.

"You were worried about me?" I asked, touched.

"No, we just didn't want to carry your backpack all the way down here for nothing," said Brian.

"Gee, thanks," I said, sarcastic. "Tell you what, I'll carry your pack back up in the morning. How does that sound?"

"Sounds great!" said Brian, still catching his breath.

It probably would have been. Too bad I didn't actually do it.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent eating, showering, eating more, doing our laundry, and then having dinner, and generally basking in the overwhelming hospitality of Patch and his family. When his mother found out I was a vegetarian, she insisted on cooking me baked beans and some leftover Boca Burgers she had in the freezer. I ate enough for five people. There would be a long line for the bathroom that night, and the following morning.

About four hours after watching Tick Bite catch a fish in a nearby pond using only his trekking pole as a rod, things started to calm down a little. Slowed by too much alcohol, food, or both, people started to turn in, one by one. First Alyson, then Bandito, then myself. We were all staying in their guest house, which was brilliant and spacious enough. I found Alyson still awake, cuddling with Zelda, and Bandito hunched obsessively over a Harry Potter book he had found. Brian came in, and then Trinket, but the others stayed awake to drink into the wee hours of the morning.

Kept awake by snoring, I eventually moved outside onto the porch, where I fell into a deep and soothing sleep so profound I would not wake till late in the morning, despite a slow but persistant drizzle.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chapter 32: The Legend Continues

There are two road crossings just before Little Laurel Shelter. The first is a typically remote and hazy rural highway, either NC208 or TN70 depending on which direction you're facing. The second is the barely paved, mostly gravel Log Cabin Road, which is hardly identifiable as a street at all except for that there aren't any trees growing on it.

Crossing Log Cabin Road the previous day, I had discovered an old red cooler lying in the weeds, half-full of murky rain water. Empty soda cans lay about, discarded, some crushed, others not, their logos scratched and weathered, the final, tragic remains of some forgotten trail magic. While it warmed the heart to think that someone had once cared enough to haul a cooler of sodas up the road, it was just as depressing to ponder what might have prevented them from coming to collect their garbage. Perhaps they had died of old age or heartbreak. Who could know?

Still, at some point, that cooler had been filled with ice, and those sodas had glistened with beads of condensation and sparkled in the sun like flecks of gold before the eyes of thirsty hikers. But that was long ago. Any joy this trail magic had brought had long since faded, much like the labels on the soda cans that now lay about, once magical, now just so much ugly garbage. What was it now? A cruel reminder of mortality? Of the fleeting, ephemeral transience of simple, uncorrupted pleasures? The pale reflection of man's misplaced priorities, the harshness of our ignorance and collective indifference, and a gross insult to mother nature? Or was it just litter? Whatever it was, I found it achingly depressing.

On a perhaps not completely unrelated note, the next day, I may have written the following in the registry at the Little Laurel Shelter:
Dear whomever left those two six packs of beer hanging in the notch of the tree back by the road,
You are an inconsiderate jerk! That is known as "littering," and it's disgusting and illegal. I'll have you know that I poured out your "beer" and am packing out the cans to atone for your gross and callous disrespect of the laws of man and of "nature." Also, please know that none of us appreciate you ruining our "nature" hikes by leaving your refuse lying all over the place. Kindly never do it again!
Major Chafage
It's possible that this was meant as much to bait and annoy the Party Group as it was a commentary on what I had seen, but it had the unintended effect of filling everyone hiking behind me with an inexplicable hatred. Apparently several people took what I wrote at face value, and assumed I had actually thrown out two six packs of beer. Finding such a notion offensively preposterous, or preposterously offensive, they proceeded to write extremely derogatory and vulgar things about me in the register, filling it with vile invective and very naughty language. Probably unwarranted. I believe I had simply become a convenient scapegoat for other people's failings. They were bitter that they had made the disastrous decision to thru-hike, and were now displacing their overwhelming self-hatred onto me. But I was okay with that. I could carry that burden.

I often wondered how many people I united over their shared animosity towards Major Chafage. How many people came together in rooting against me? How many people became friends only after one overheard the other saying, "Man, that Major Chafage is an unbelievable jerk"? Sadly, I will never know. Such are the costs of celebrity. Anyway, it seemed I was fated to continue enraging people, forging friendships, and bridging gaps between strangers for the next 1,887 miles. My legend continued.


Bandito and I had done 19 miles on our first day out of Hot Springs, a fairly substantial effort by our standards. Perhaps a little burnt out as a result, we were now headed towards the Flint Mountain Shelter, which was only another thirteen miles or so. It would be a languid, easy, relaxing day.

The last time we had seen Nature had been in Hot Springs, and she had been worrying about possibly having to take some time off the trail because of an injury. We knew she had to see a doctor, and didn't know how long that would take or what the prognosis would be, so we certainly weren't expect her to walk up just as we were finishing lunch. Yet that's exactly what happened. Even injured, she had caught up to us in less than forty eight hours. It was downright humiliating.

Sadly, Nature informed us she wouldn't be staying with us for very long. She had plans to stay with her friends, Homeless and Unemployed, for a couple nights, and was meeting them at Sam's Gap the next day. She wasn't sure when she'd be back, but we didn't doubt that we'd see her again. Not after her latest demonstration of uncanny stamina and speed.

We found the Flint Mountain Shelter packed. In addition to Nature, Bandito, Brian, Alyson and myself, there was Q-Tip and his brother Trinket, P-Nut, Tick Bite, Patch, Kashmir, Miller Time, the young woman section hiker from Brooklyn and her unruly dog, plus a few others too boring or inconsequential to remember. Except for the startling lack of pot smoke and rock music, we might have been at Woodstock.

The mood was boisterous, aided in no small part by Miller Time graciously handing out snack food to everyone who walked in. Bandito got a Snickers bar, Kashmir some salted peanuts, and myself a package of cheddar cheese flavored crackers. I don't think Miller Time liked me that much. Patch mentioned that his parents lived nearby, just off the trail, and that he was going home the next day for a party. Caught up in the spirit of fellowship, he spontaneously invited everyone at the shelter to join him.

The next day, his parents wouldn't know what hit them.