Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chapter 19: Mental Instability and other Maladies

Several things were insane that day: our twenty-mile ambitions, the steep initial climb out of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and eventually my brain.

Bandito and I encountered Freeman almost as soon as we'd left the N.O.C. He told us that he had stealth camped with Merf the night before, and was now headed back to the road to get breakfast. Seemed sensible enough, although I thought backtracking under any circumstances was a tad excessive. We wished him luck and parted ways, not knowing if we'd ever see him again.

We eventually found Merf and her two companions still in camp, a little ways up the hill. We remarked approvingly at the skillful inconspicuousness of their tent sites, which were practically straddling the trail, and casually mentioned our plans for the day. Merf was duly impressed, subtly inquired as to whether she would be remembered in my will, and then asked for my preferences regarding flowers or charitable organizations. No, peonies, and Oxfam International were my answers, in case you were wondering.

The trail rises over three thousand feet in just a few miles after crossing the Nantahala River, and I was woefully unprepared for how difficult it suddenly became. I was soon exhausted and stumbling over every protruding root and pebble, and it wasn't even noon yet. And so began our epic battle of wills.

"You call yourself a mountain?" I growled. "You're nothing but an overgrown ant hill to me!"

I could hear Bandito huffing and puffing behind me as he struggled to keep up. Or maybe he was giggling. It was hard to tell.

"I've seen your brothers and sisters," I noted sagely, "and you're not so tough."

"You think you can kill me with your thirty degree inclines and lack of switchbacks, but I'm still going. You'll never defeat me!"

The mountain begged to differ. We continued going straight up.

"You think you're special, just because you're so big and hard?"

"That's what your ex-girlfriend said to me last night," said the mountain.

"Shut up!" I screamed, appalled at the mountain's startling lack of taste. "I-- I'm going to walk all over you by the time I'm done!"

I had the mountain there. It remained silent.

"You think you're tough," squealed Bandito, trying to get in on the act. "Well, have you heard of the CDT? It's tougher than you and I am so much better than you that I could go out there and hike it with ease!"

Poor Bandito. He was clearly losing it. I stopped to calm him down. "Don't," I cautioned, shaking my head. "Never taunt the mountain. And leave the psychotic rambling to me."

Bandito protested, and then explained, somewhat tangentially, that it was nearly impossible for him to hike when I was being ridiculous. Apparently I was making him laugh so hard he was having trouble breathing. I frowned, finding the insinuation mildly offensive. What was so funny, after all, about a man having an earnest if slightly abusive and one-sided discussion with a prominent geographical feature? But I forgave him, and promised to shut up for a little while. I think he was disappointed.

After what seemed like the longest four hours of my life, we finally reached the top of Cheoah Bald. That morning, I had considered camping at the summit, for it was said to offer magnificent views and would've only required an eight mile day. It was a good thing that we were moving on, then, because the place was so swamped with other hikers that there might not have been enough room for us had we wanted to stay.

Disgusted, we took a break. I sat down to contemplate death while Bandito was sociable and went around introducing himself to the others. The most memorable character there was an asian dude with dreadlocks, whose name was either Asian Dude or Asian Dreadlocks, or A.D. for short. I rolled my eyes. Anybody who used initials for their trail name was clearly an idiot.

"Hey, M.C., ready to go?" asked Bandito, wrenching me from my reverie. I was, and we left.

Five miles later we were at Stecoah Gap, sitting on a picnic table, taking another break. It had been a long day, and was already starting to get dark, but we still had a considerable ways to go. I did my best to appear as lost, forlorn and hungry as possible for the benefit of any benevolent passersby, then watched in increasing frustration as cars whizzed past on the road. Not a single person stopped to ask us if we were okay, if we wanted a sandwich, or to offer us sodas.

"Jerks!" I spat, glaring at their rapidly receding brake lights.

Another car sped by.


An elderly couple in a Buick slowed as they approached us, and then stopped. I watched them warily, waiting for them to get out of their car. They didn't, and after peering at us curiously for a few moments, hastily accelerated away.

"Jerks," I whispered, shaking my head, my rage bubbling.

Bandito laughed. He was forever amused by my foul moods. We left soon thereafter, as much as to get into camp as to lessen the possibility of me flipping out and killing someone.

We ended up night hiking for the first time. We passed a nice young couple camped below the Brown Fork Gap Shelter and told them we were headed on to Cable Gap. Sure, it was already dark, and the batteries in my old-school Mini MagLite were dying, but we'd already come this far. Why not keep going? The couple eyed us skeptically, like we were crazy people stalking the woods, stopping to talk to anyone that crossed our paths. I realized later that we probably looked like crazy people, and that we were stopping to talk to everyone that crossed our paths. I didn't find the thought particularly reassuring.

I could hardly see my feet in front of me by the time we made it into Cable Gap Shelter. My flashlight cast a feeble yellow glow that barely reached the ground, and it's pathetic appearance poking out of the dark was greeted by derisive snickers from the other campers. I let them laugh, then told them that we'd made it there from the N.O.C. in a single day. That shut them up.

I hardly remember erecting my tent on a tumble of leaf-covered roots on a rather precipitous slope overlooking a stream, but apparently I did. I do remember crawling into my sleeping bag that night and vowing to never do another twenty mile day. And vowing to never listen to Bandito again, about anything. Because all his ideas were stupid ideas that ended up with me hiking really far, which made me sad and angry and crazy.

And then I fell asleep, because the next thing I remember was wondering why that unicorn was staring at me.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Chapter 18: Walking with Freedom

Jason and I were almost as excited to meet Bandito's family as we were to take showers, do our laundry, and go out for All-You-Can-Eat pizza.

Bandito had explained the plan to us that morning: his parents were coming to meet him at the N.O.C. to take him out for dinner, and we were invited to come along. Bandito assured us that we'd be able to stay overnight at a friend of the family's. We readily accepted.

Bandito's father was reserved and respectful, while his mother was more outgoing and inquisitive; both were polite and generous to a fault. It was impossible to see how Bandito was related to such charming people. They even displayed acceptable levels of personal hygiene. I was stunned, and immediately wondered whether Bandito was adopted.

Given the thru-hiker's natural inclination towards gluttony, almost any kind of AYCE dining can prove disastrous, yet I remained ever eager for punishment. One might have reasonably expected me to take it easy this time, given my recent record of over-indulgence. Sadly, I was and remain a deeply stubborn and sometimes foolish person. As I filled yet another plate with buttery breadsticks, I realized I was doomed to repeat this tragic cycle of overconsumption and indigestion over and over again. Or at least until I left the provence of Pizza Plus and entered the domain of Pizza Hut. Then I would be totally fine, and would never overeat with drastic consequences ever again.

Surprisingly, the other diners in the pizzeria didn't seem vehemently opposed to our presence. Perhaps our exquisite stench had not yet evolved to its grotesque, ultimate potency, or maybe the people of rural Georgia just smell really bad themselves. Either way, we didn't remain in the restaurant for long, and were quickly being shuttled to Jen and Zack's house, Jen and Zack being the friends of Bandito's family who had agreed to put us up for the night.

Ever the gracious hosts, Jen and Zack provided us with spare clothes into which we could change after showering, which they insisted we do immediately. Washing away seemingly weeks worth of grime felt wonderful, as did being able to walk into a room of other people and not singeing their nose hairs. Jen was a bee keeper, Zack an amateur astronomer, and after we cleaned up they were more than happy to entertain us with their hobbies. Jen's hive was still relatively dormant from the winter, but we had spectacular views of the stars through Zack's telescope, blessedly uncorrupted by light pollution from nearby civilization.

Before going to bed, we watched a documentary about the trail called "Walking with Freedom," staring a perpetually out of shape thru-hiker named Lion King. I didn't particularly care for the film as it dealt mainly with the boring parts of the trail: the terrain, the sights, the history, nature, the actual hiking experience, etc. It completely ignored the social aspect of the trail, which for me was the most compelling and important facet of the experience. I vowed to look into the matter later, and to mention this idea to my numerous contacts in the film industry.


Bandito was so enthused by the way Jason and I had acquitted ourselves that he asked both of us to spend Easter with his family. Jason, an avowed Pastafarian, was understandably a little leery of the idea. Besides, he wasn't the type to spend that much time off the trail. He wanted to keep making miles. And that was fine with Bandito. He understood. As soon as we made it back to the N.O.C., however, Jason was invited by Olive Oil to spend the day white water rafting.

"I think I'm gonna stay," he said, dropping back suddenly. "I mean, we're out here to have fun, right? Not just make miles. See you guys later!"

And he would, although not for a few days.

There was a nice older couple giving out trail magic in the parking lot, Homeless and Unemployed. Bandito and I chatted with them for a while, and happily gorged ourselves on their orange slices before starting our hike. Bandito had the fanciful idea to make it to Fontana Dam by the following day, so as to be able to take a full day off for Easter. Fontana Dam was 28.7 miles away, over the toughest, steepest section of the trail we would ever traverse.

It seemed we had no choice but to do our first twenty mile day, over Cheoah Bald to Cable Gap Shelter. We would be pushing ourselves harder than ever before, risking our lives and definitely our sanity.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Chapter 17: We're Not Dead, We Just Smell That Way

We all chase dreams in life.

Some people dream of settling down and starting a family; others of finding a niche, no matter how small, where they can make a separate peace with the world and live without compromising their principles. An unscrupulous, unimaginative few dream of nothing but acquiring fame and fortune, caring naught for whom they might hurt in the process. Yet others dream only of good health, security, and comfort. Some people dream that their engineering degrees will make them millionaires and highly desirable sex objects, and that their fancy cars and material possessions will make up for all the years they endured being rejected in high school. Others yet still dream of the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. My dream involved a girl, a pizza, and a mountain.

I dreamt that Megan would meet me at the end, that she'd be there waiting for me atop Katahdin with open arms, a pizza and a bottle of birch beer. Now, I honestly do not know when this dream first came to me, whether it was that night in a fitful slumber, or later on in the sun-baked delirium of exhaustion and hunger. I do know that it recurred frequently over the following weeks, and that it would come to dominate my waking hours, permeating my every thought and action. Everything I did from then on would be in service of making this dream a reality. It was literally all I could think about, besides where to put my feet while I walked, when I would get my next meal, what my friends back home were doing without me, how the weather was, what TV shows I was missing, and all that other stuff.


There is a long tradition of April Fools Day mischief on the trail, only a small percentage of which has resulted in murder. People have pulled every type of prank imaginable, from hiding each other's packs to weighing down each other's packs with rocks to marking each other's packs with urine. With a great and abiding mutual respect and a healthy fear of violent consequences, Jason, Freeman and I decided to simply give each other goofy nicknames. Freeman thus became Kunta Kinte for some reason. I became Rock 'N' Roll, because I was always ready to rock 'n' roll, and Jason became Rainbow Butterscotch, because, well, really. Merf and Bandito were too mature for our silly little game, and so stayed out of it.

Ironically, we would have few opportunities to use each other's nicknames that day. Bandito, Jason and I were headed towards the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where we eagerly anticipated refreshments, some rest, and a ride back into civilization. I was particularly keen to check out the outfitter there for a replacement trekking pole, since my last walking stick, Dino III, had been so recently and unceremoniously cremated. The ingenious thought occurred to me that, since it was a weekend, there might even be trail magic waiting for us at the road. Alas, that was not to be, since it was actually only Thursday.

Fueled by adrenaline, Bandito, Jason and I raced ahead of the others. The terrain was terrifically frustrating, with a seemingly endless series of false descents. Ever time we thought we were finally on our way down, the trail would invariably climb again to mystifying new heights. This would be amongst the hardest sections of trail we would ever do.

It was about this time that I started belting out John Legend and Justin Timberlake songs, as much to ease the tedium of walking alone as to ward off bears and other hikers. "Stay With You" was a particular favorite of mine, as its poignant lyrics could easily be as much about the trail as they were a lover. Jason, hiking several miles behind me, heard my dulcet baritone ring true through the forest, and was so awestruck he may or may not have cried. When he caught up with me, he kindly told me to shut the hell up, apparently worried that my heavenly singing voice might inflame a jealous hatred in any passing angels. Being an eternally humble man, I acquiesced to his wisdom.

The N.O.C. is a sprawling hyrda of motel, outfitter, restaurant, bar and convenience store. The outfitter was geared mainly towards rafting and kayaks. Dino III would not be replaced there. Really, the only part of the complex that interested us was the convenience store. Bandito immediately bought two pints of Ben & Jerry's, Jason a PowerAde. Eternally health conscious, I passed on the ice cream and bought a carton of orange juice instead. And a four-pack of some ridiculous 12.5% alcohol, locally made India Pale Ale.

"It's not even legal for us to sell that here," said the cashier. "It's too alcoholic."

Must be good, I thought. It was.

Much to Bandito's dismay and considerable disapproval, Jason and I proceeded to get drunk down by the river. We met some other hikers there, including a dark brunette named Olive Oil who took an immediate liking to Jason. Jason, for his part, took an immediate liking to her ukulele, which she was only too happy to let him borrow. And so it came to pass that Jason and I spent a drunken afternoon singing the smelly hiker blues while watching a bunch of other smelly hikers go skinny dipping in the Nantahala River. Jason strummed and hummed along as I horribly improvised lyrics like "We're not dead, we just smell that way," "We might smell dead, but we're not dead," and "So don't bury us, okay?"

Eventually the scene mellowed, and I retreated to drunk dial my friends back home. I tend to forget whom exactly I called, but I know that the conversations were completely respectful, and that I definitely didn't say anything salacious, humiliating, mean, or that I'd later regret.

Needless to say, Jason and I had sobered up completely by the time Bandito's parents arrived.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chapter 16: Dubiousness

It was March 31st. I had been on the trail for ten days, and had travelled over a hundred miles. My current schedule had me dutifully following the group, traversing Wayah Bald on the way to the Cold Spring Shelter. It would be a svelte twelve mile day.

Bandito expressed interest in visiting the top of Siler Bald before we left. Although the nearby summit was said to offer panoramic views so breathtaking as to cause spontaneous and involuntary orgasms, it required going four tenths of a mile out of our way. I would not be going.

The Boy Scouts were in an especially chipper mood that morning, with some boasting of their intentions to do twenty miles. The Scouts apparently needed to hike twenty miles in one day in order to qualify for some hyper-exclusive and prestigious merit badge. For some, obtaining this merit badge was their only reason for even being out there. Sadly, and to their and my eternal disappointment, that day would not be their day.

Bandito, Jason and I came to a tacit, extremely unspoken agreement to meet at the Wayah Bald observation tower for lunch, and so all set out at different times. The morning hike was pleasant enough. I met an older north bounder just after Wayah Gap. He said his name was Dubois, his raspy voice and breakneck pace betraying either a wealth of backwoods experience or a lively cocaine addiction. He was in fantastic shape for a man who looked to be in his early 70's. He might have been the paragon of geriatric fitness except for the ubiquitous cigarette hanging from his mouth.

"What's your name again?" he asked me, apparently under the misapprehension that we'd met before.

"M.C.," I said, figuring Major Chafage would require too much explanation.

"Hemp Seed?" he asked, intrigued. Was he deaf? He was.

"M.C.!" I shouted, frustrated. "M.C., it stands for Major Chafage!"

"Major what?" He didn't seem to understand. I politely excused myself and hurried off before he could ask me if I was holding.

Wayah Bald is a 5,340' joke of a mountain that has continuous road access nearly to the summit. Despite that annoyance, it did have bathrooms and a nice observation tower at the top, which made it a perfect place to relax and eat lunch. I met a couple of the Boy Scouts lounging about. One was even nice enough to give me a bag of dried apples. I couldn't believe my good fortune, but quickly discovered why he was so eager to be rid of them. The flatulence was unbelievable.

Our group slowly gathered and then dispersed there on the summit. Some people would arrive just as others were leaving. Jason took an extended break to bask in the sun with his shirt off. Dubois joined him, seemingly gleeful at the prospects of some shirtless male bonding. It was a little creepy, and I worried for Jason, but ultimately decided not to intervene on his behalf. Courtesy of half a pound of dried apples, I had some severe gastrointestinal distress to worry about, and figured it was best to just move on and leave the company of other people for a while.

The Cold Spring Shelter was a hoot. It was tiny, in disrepair, and nearly overrun with mice. Someone found a desperately sleazy Harlequin Romance novel inside, apparently forgotten by some forlorn hiker. It wasn't long before the book, called The Devil's Punchbowl, was being passed from person to person, with each taking a turn to read a section aloud. Somehow, I ended up being the preferred narrator, and was pressed by the Boy Scouts and a recently arrived Jason to give exuberant readings to some particularly disgraceful and turgid love scenes. Disgusted, we turned the book into kindling shortly thereafter, along with another discarded book about trees or something. The old paperbacks made for splendid fire starters.

Only four of the Boy Scouts were brave enough to occupy the shelter that night, leaving the rest of us to camp up on the ridge-line where we would have a stunning view of the sunrise. I ate my Knorr Pasta Side by the shelter, cleaned out my cook pot, and then hiked up the hill to where we had set up our tents. I found Freeman eating some sort of homemade mexican beans and rice, with a whole, ripe avocado. I felt like crying. I had just finished stuffing my face with instant, tasteless chemicals with a side of carcinogens, and there Freeman was eating a ripe avocado. I didn't even know such things were possible on the trail.

The Boy Scouts made another fire for everybody tenting on the ridge. I enjoyed it, along with the others, until I found out that one of them had used Dino III as firewood. The loss of my second, more-beloved walking stick sent me into a spiraling homicidal rage and depression that would leave me shaking my head in mild disbelief and half-heartedly cursing the Boy Scouts for the next forty miles.

Bandito asked Jason and I if we wanted to go off trail the next night, to stay with some friends of his family. His parents were coming up to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and they were going to get all-you-can-eat pizza for dinner. Did we want to come? Had I learned nothing from my pizza misadventures earlier that day? Of course! I went to bed, and dreamt of the possibilities the new day might bring, and of pizza, and Katahdin...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chapter 15: Near-Death Experiences and Me

Our semi-successful meal out of the way, Bandito, Jason and I still needed to make it to the Three Eagles Outfitter and the Inglés to resupply before we headed back to the trail. Not knowing precisely where we were or which way we were supposed to be going, we decided our best course of action was to wander around aimlessly until someone offered to give us a ride. We didn't have to wait long. A cheerfully corpulent man in a Honda Odyssey pulled up alongside us.

"Hey! You guys need a ride?" asked the man.

We looked to each other. He didn't seem particularly respectable or trustworthy, but beggars can't be choosers. We eagerly clambered into his van, which was surprisingly filthy, and asked if he could drive us to the grocery store. Of course he would!

"I got a friend who works at a real estate agency across the street," he explained. "I can just pop over and pay him a visit while you guys are shopping."

I somehow doubted that the man had any friends, but I wasn't about to call him on it.

"You're welcome to leave your stuff in the car," he continued. "I promise I won't steal anything!"

And he laughed uproariously. I didn't find this particularly reassuring.

"I think I'll take my pack with me," said Jason. "It'll be easier to load that way."

Jason shot Bandito and me a look, imploring us to back him up. Like we had a choice.

"Are you sure?" asked the man. "It's no trouble. No trouble at all, really."

"It's fine," I reasoned. "We've been carrying them around for a hundred miles." It had been 107.7 miles, actually. "I'm sure carrying them around a grocery store isn't going to be a problem."

What might have been more of a problem was the fact that we all stank like week-old decaying carcasses, but we didn't know that at the time. Still, the one-armed man was forgiving of our stench and very accommodating. Did I mention that he only had one arm? Well, he did. It was kind of hard not to notice.

"Meet you back here in fifteen minutes?" he asked, pulling into the Inglés parking lot.

"Well," Jason cautioned, "We might take longer than that, so..."

"Oh, it's no problem," reassured the man. "I'll wait."

And he smiled at us. We all took our packs inside.

When we returned, stocked up on Knorr sides and assorted other processed garbage, the one-armed man was diligently waiting for us.

"Thank you so much," said Bandito, ever polite. "We really appreciate your help."

"Oh, the pleasure is all mine," asserted the one-armed man. I suspected he might be right.

He then took us over to the Outfitter, where I bought some replacement tent stakes and restocked on overpriced energy bars. The one-armed man was all too happy to hang around, leering at the attractive salesgirl. The three of us might have spent more time there, checking out their wares and signing their hiker's registry, except for the one-armed man increasingly creeping us out. Or maybe it was just me.

"I think it's about time we got back, don't you?" I pointedly asked the others.

"Perfect!" said the one-armed man. We were soon back in the car, fearfully clutching our packs as we rocketed up the highway at 70 mph. Worryingly, I could not recognize where we were going. Only that civilization was rapidly receding in the rear-view mirror.

"Do you guys like music?" asked the one-armed man.

"Sure," said Jason, unhelpfully.

"What kind of music?" asked the man.

"I like music in which everybody doesn't get into a car accident, and gets to where they're going safely," I said through gritted teeth. Maybe. Nobody heard me.

"The blues?" offered Jason.

"Oh, well then I got something here you might like," said the man. Driving with his knees, he used his one arm to flip through a CD case in his lap. I resisted the urge to shout at him. "It's this great band. I doubt you've heard of them. Here, give it a listen."

And he slipped the CD into his player. And as the booming voice of Dan Ackroyd shattered my ear-drums, I knew we were going to die.

"The Blues Brothers?" I asked incredulously. Who hasn't heard of the Blues Brothers?

"Who're the Blues Brothers?" asked Bandito.

"Bandito," I yelled, cutting him off. "We're gonna die!"

"What? But I don't have any pie!" protested Bandito. Or at least I think that's what he said. We were having trouble hearing each other over the music.

"No!" I bellowed, "I said we're all gonna die!"

"There's something in my eye?" screamed Bandito, confused.

It went on like that for a while, as we drove further and further away from all that was safe and familiar. I was convinced the one-armed man was trying to deafen us, to prevent us from communicating with each other our misgivings over where we were going, or plotting our escape. I got the sickening feeling in my stomach that we'd be spending the next couple weeks being systematically starved and tortured to death in the man's basement, or else locked in a cage in his backyard somewhere.

I was just about to jump out the window of a moving vehicle when we pulled into the parking lot at Winding Stair Gap. The one-armed Floridian had taken us an alternate route back to the trail. Did I mention he was from Florida? Well, he was. We all thanked him profusely for his generosity, and then stumbled off into the woods to vomit. Or maybe that was just me.

The lesson, as always, is to trust strangers. They are surprisingly helpful, and generally mean you no harm.

As we hiked on that afternoon, I was filled with a rush of empathy and goodwill towards my companions. Jason and Bandito were the best friends I had in the world, the bonds of our experience too strong to ever be broken. I was overjoyed to be on the trail again, to feel that wonderful surge of pain throughout my body, the life-affirming pangs of hunger, the beautiful ache of exhaustion.

Arriving at the Siler Bald Shelter, we greeted Merf and Freeman as life-long friends. Even the Boy Scouts were happy to see us, and us them. We stayed up late, swapping stories, discussing the infinite wonders of life, and reenacting scenes from our favorite movies.

"Remember that time you were making pancakes for breakfast? And you didn't have a frying pan?" I asked Merf.

She laughed. "Yeah, and then you encouraged me to add oatmeal to it, to try to thicken it up?"

"Right," I added, smiling, "Because what was the worst that could happen?"

"And then it congealed into this horrific mess, completely unfit for human consumption?" she continued, barely able to keep her composure. We both shared a hearty laugh.

"When was that?" I sniffed, wiping my eyes.

"This morning," she said.

Good times. I looked around at my companions, took a in a deep breath of the fresh mountain air, tinged with just the right amount of wood smoke. I watched the fire spit sparks into the night sky, dissipating before they reached the stars. It was good to be alive. All was well.

Chapter 14: Pizza Was a Mistake

The next day we would enter Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Wait, no, that can't be right. We were still days away from the Smokies. Sorry. No, the next morning we walked the four to nine miles to Winding Stair Gap, to try to catch a ride into Franklin, North Carolina, for a meal and resupply.

We left the shelter early, making a game of trying to stay ahead of the Boy Scouts, who were annoyingly swift and sure-footed hikers. Unfortunately, there was no real advantage to arriving at the road early, since Freeman or Merf, or some other responsible, intelligent adult, had already called the Franklin Motel to arrange for a free shuttle to bring us into town. We got to the road ahead of all but two of the Scouts, and, having nothing better to do but sit around and wait, doffed our packs and relaxed in the parking lot.

Fortunately, we were not left without entertainment, as the Scouts were endlessly gullible, and there was some major weirdness going on in the woods to our north. We could not have been sitting there for more than ten minutes before literally dozens of State Policemen, Forest Rangers and National Guardsmen came pouring out of the woods. Some of them were heavily armed, and none offered us any explanation as to their presence. I speculated that there was a serial killer on the loose, particularly one with a taste for twelve- to fourteen-year-old boys. Freeman apparently didn't appreciate my feeble attempts at baiting the now-terrified Boy Scouts, and so reassured them that the serial killer probably just targeted un-funny liars instead. Specifically those named Major Chafage. I honestly don't know what he was talking about. I didn't know anyone fitting that description.

The shuttle driver was very polite about showing us around town, pointing out all the local businesses we could patronize to give Ron Haven our money. Ron Haven is a luminary on the trail, widely known for organizing the Hiker Fool Bash on April 1st, saving puppies from burning buildings, and owning every cheap motel from Atlanta to Damascus. We asked the driver to drop us off wherever it was convenient, which turned out to be in front of an ATM by the Franklin Motel's cashier's office, and then made our over way to Main Street Pizza.

Jason's impossibly cool aunt and uncle were on a motorcycle tour of the eastern seaboard, and just happened to be within a couple hundred miles of us that day. They had agreed to meet up with Jason in Franklin, so we all went to the Pizzeria and waited. It didn't take long before we heard the tell-tale rumble of the chopper as Jason's relatives rolled to a stop outside. Jason was of course ecstatic about seeing some of his far-flung relatives, while Bandito and I were merely relieved to have some more civilized company for once. If you could call them that, what with their anarchic leather jackets, matching spiked dog collars, and general face-singeing awesomeness. They bought us lunch.

I opted against having a beer, deciding that it was a better idea just to try to eat an entire pizza. Normally, I'm a pizza snob. Having lived exclusively in places synonymous with excellent pizza, such as New York City and suburban Connecticut, I've grown accustomed to and generally demand a quality pie. I suppose it must have been around this time on my trip that I started telling people about Ramunto's Brick'n'Brew in Hanover, New Hampshire, and their famous Garlic Knot Pizza.

"Imagine a crust of golden braids of garlic knots, drizzled with olive oil, enough garlic to kill a clan of vampires, and tons of parmesan cheese," I would tell people. "The pizza itself? A white pie, with sliced tomato, mozzarella, basil, more garlic, and even more parmesan."

Does that sound good to you? Well, Main Street Pizza was no Ramunto's, but it was the best pizza I'd had since going to Mellow Mushroom sometime while I was in Georgia. Which admittedly isn't saying much. Sadly, it would remain the best pizza I had on the trail until I reached Damascus. And that's not saying much either.

Tragically, and despite my best efforts, which included eating the last three slices all at once, my metabolism could not keep up with my foolish ambition. As soon as we left the pizzeria, I felt the need to pull into a coffee place to use the toilet. The barista was very accommodating, the bathroom less so. There were no stalls and the only door didn't lock. No matter. My needs outweighed my inhibitions, and I was soon raucously abusing their porcelain throne.

The barista wouldn't let me escape with my dignity intact, however, politely insisting I buy something for the privilege of doing whatever it was that I had just done. I guiltily bought a couple of biscotti and slinked out the back door, resolving to never eat that much pizza ever again. Franklin was trying to kill me, I knew it. It would come even closer to bumping me off later that afternoon.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Chapter 13: Freeman, Merf & The Boy Scouts From Hell

My mood had improved considerably by morning. I awoke to find it no longer raining, and the mysterious pain in my leg mercifully abated. I was so happy and relieved to be moving around again freely that I eagerly bounded out of camp, leaving behind a bag of titanium tent stakes hanging stupidly from the limb of a tree.

Unfortunately, neither of my companions had the common sense to check my area to see if I had packed everything; they were too selfishly concerned with their own affairs. Still, the tent stakes were only about $20 and of considerable sentimental value, so it's not like I would be mourning their loss for days. Nor would I be reduced to tears later as I pathetically erected my tent using twigs and small branches. Things get lost on the trail. That's just the way it is.

Jason had gotten ahead of me that morning, as usual, but I caught up with him near Mooney Gap. I saw him up ahead, sitting in a lawn chair underneath a popup canopy next to an old pickup truck. He was relaxing, drinking a soda, and was sharing what must have been a truly awesome clove cigarette with what looked like a homeless man who said his name was Fishing Fred.

Fishing Fred invited me to take his seat, and jumped up to grab me a soda. I accepted, and threw my pack down. Jason beckoned to me.

"M.C.," he whispered, his eyes lighting up mischievously. "He's got chili."

I wasn't particularly hungry, but I supposed I could always go for some chili. I immediately ditched Jason to go claim what was rapidly becoming my favorite food. I knew, of course, that it would have meat in it. I didn't care. Maybe I could learn to like eating meat. I was breaking all sorts of taboos on the trail. What was next? Getting naked in front of other men? As it turned out, yes, but that's a different story. For now, I wanted my chili.

It was basically a watery tomato soup with a few token pinto beans and chunks of undercooked hamburger thrown in. It looked like someone had vomited blood into an already clogged toilet, and was slightly less appetizing. Out of respect for Fishing Fred, I took a short stroll and waited until I was safely out of sight before chucking it over a cliff. Now, throwing my trail magic over a cliff had a practical function, as well as being cathartic and emotionally satisfying. I was somewhat and justifiably afraid that if I merely dumped the chili in the woods, Fishing Fred's dog would find it, eat it, and instantly die of dysentery. So you see, by tossing the chili over a cliff, I was in fact heroically doing my part to combat animal cruelty. The SPCA would have been proud.

I returned to Jason and Fishing Fred, who were still smoking their ubiquitous clove cigarette. They asked me if I wanted a drag, but I declined. I only ever partake of cloves in hot cider, or on peaches marinated in red wine and cinnamon. And brownies. I never pass up a clove brownie. But on this morning, the idea of smoking a clove cigarette held no particular appeal for me.

Two more people arrived, but from the north, surprisingly. One of them was an impossibly handsome and cheerful young man named Freeman. I recognized him, or at least his voice, from the night before. He had just returned from Albert Mountain with another hiker, a woman, who had fallen and seemed to have broken her wrist. She wasn't in agonizing physical pain, but was suffering some mental and emotional anguish over having apparently knocked herself off the trail. I felt bad for her, but envied her in a way. Especially when the Forest Ranger arrived to take her back to civilization.

Feeling a little hazy from all the clove smoke, I decided to hike on. At some point both Bandito and Jason must have caught up with me, but whether that was before or after the terrific ascent up Albert Mountain, my memories are oddly unclear.

At 5,220 feet, Albert Mountain is only 48 feet shorter than Mount Katahdin. Furthermore, the final approach to Albert's summit consists of scaling 400 vertical feet in .3 miles, which makes it slightly steeper, if considerably shorter, than Katahdin itself. It wasn't that easy, but it was immensely rewarding, and would remain my favorite climb on the trail until South Kinsman in New Hampshire.

We arrived at Big Spring Shelter, or maybe it was Rock Gap Shelter, to find it full of boisterous, unruly Boy Scouts. We looked around for an ostensible authority figure, but the nearest adult was tented forty yards away. That couldn't possibly have been the Scout leader, could it? Actually, yes. But we didn't know that. From all outward appearances, the Scouts were being led by Freeman, who, to his credit, at least seemed to be enjoying playing ring master in their chaotic little circus.

There was also a girl in the shelter, older than the boys, who could have been a den mother of sorts but wasn't really trying that hard to exert her authority. Maybe that was because she didn't really have any, not being affiliated with the Scouts in any way. But how was I supposed to know that? Her name was Merf, although I would mistakenly refer to her as Murph for the next thousand miles. Merf was perfectly amiable and perpetually upbeat, and didn't deserve the particular dishonor of having her name misremembered. But, then again, I have never been accused of being an especially thoughtful or nice person.

Jason, Bandito and I camped below the shelter, disturbingly within sight of a curious backwoods road. I was indeed forced to use twigs and small branches in lieu of my misplaced tent stakes, but I managed not to cry about it. Bandito and Jason made a fire to ward off bears and unsavory rednecks, and we all cheerfully went to sleep, anticipating an easy hike the next day into Franklin, North Carolina, where Jason would be meeting some relatives. Everything was all right. We were having fun again.

Chapter 12: Shin Splints Happens

It was raining. Heavily. I had gotten little to no sleep the night before, and did not intend to even get out of my sleeping bag that day, let alone hike on to some undefined destination. Jason, on the other hand, badly wanted to leave.

"Hiking in the rain is miserable," said BJ, sitting in her sleeping bag next to me. "I hiked in the rain once, years ago. I've regretted it ever since."

I considered her thoughtfully for a moment. She did look miserable, and had the thousand-yard stare of someone haunted by some deep-rooted trauma. I believed her.

"See?" I said to Jason, as if BJ's appearance confirmed my point. "Are we out here to make miles--"

"Yes!" he said, nodding emphatically, exasperated.

"--or are we out here to have fun?" I continued, cutting him off. "Because hiking in the rain is no fun. Isn't that right?"

"That's right," said BJ. "Look at me. I hiked in the rain. And now I'm no fun. Just a burnt-out husk of a woman. I honestly don't even know why I'm alive."

"And that's because she hiked in the rain, Jason," I scolded.

Jason begrudgingly acquiesced to my demands for a unified laziness. We would be going nowhere that day. Except for that Ziggy then walked into the shelter, and lit up a cigarette.

It seemed that all the people who annoyed me, irritated me, and made me hate being on the trail had the same idea I did that day. Nobody was going anywhere. They were all going to stay and continue torturing me. Why? If ever there was definitive proof that there is no divine influence on life, this was it.

Bandito arrived. He had spent the previous night at the much cushier Plumorchard Gap Shelter. I was happy to see him. Jason was even happier, because now he had a potential hiking companion who wasn't a lazy malcontent. Bandito wanted to hike on, and Jason was eager to go with him. Never one to cave to peer pressure, I came up with a plan.

"Jason, Bandito," I confided. "I've decided. I think we should hike on."

Ziggy hardly waited for me to pack my sleeping bag before claiming my spot in the shelter. I shrugged this off, and walked out into the rain. I hadn't bought that dragon skin rain gear for nothing.

Unfortunately, I soon discovered that, although my torso and legs might have been warm and dry underneath my water-, wind-, fire- and magic-resistant clothing, my feet were anything but. My $140 Vasque boots, supposedly waterproof, had lasted all of five days on the trail before losing their one absolutely critical property. Well, they were still waterproof in a way. Like a Roach Motel, once the water got in, it did not get out. I might have been better off walking barefoot, and soon developed such painful blisters as would put even the hardiest of tough guys out of commission.

We stopped at the Standing Indian Shelter to rest. I immediately ripped off my boots and socks, hoping to dry my feet. Jason took one look at my horrific blisters and passed out cold. Bandito turned green, but managed not to throw up. Truly, they were hideous. Fortunately, Jim and Elaine from Maine just happened to be at the shelter at the time. Both alumni through hikers, Jim was also a backcountry guide, and a certified nurse.

Elaine heard about my blisters and offered to have Jim treat them. "Don't you worry, Jim and I will patch you up."

Jim and Elaine were soon hovering about me, preparing their remedies. Jim sliced open my blisters with my Swiss Army Knife, let the puss ooze out onto a strip of gauze, and then fitted me with a fancy high-tech bandaid. Everything about it was disgusting. I put on a dry pair of socks, slipped my boots back on, and thanked Jim and Elaine for their help. The blisters were actually more painful popped than they were before, but I didn't tell them that. Jason, Bandito and myself hiked on, leaving Jim and Elaine behind.

I must have started walking differently, to compensate for the blisters, because I was soon experiencing an excruciating pain along the complete length of my left shin. Every time I put weight on my foot, a sharp, stabbing sensation would shoot up my leg. I had never experienced anything like that before, and had no idea what was wrong or what to do about it. I decided the best course of action was to complain about it vociferously and cry a lot.

Bandito didn't know what was wrong with me, and simply found amusement in my unrelenting anguish. We stumbled over Standing Indian Mountain, at 5430' the highest peak we'd yet crossed on the trail, and arrived at Beech Gap, where there is tenting, despite what one's guidebook might say.

I loved my tent. It was the one piece of equipment I had that I could crawl into and sleep in that wasn't my sleeping bag that hadn't failed me yet on my trip. Bandito insensitively took pictures of me hugging my tent as I pulled it from its stuff sack. He always thought I was being ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous, ignoring the fact that very real and totally legitimate emotions underlaid everything I did.

We made camp just before it started hailing. I could hear Bandito whooping in surprise and delight, and peeked out enough to see him taking a video of the marble-sized globs of ice that began pelting our tents. I cooked supper underneath my rain fly. It was an extremely dumb and dangerous thing to do; I could have set myself or my tent on fire, but I didn't care. I was too miserable and in too much pain to give notice to such things as safety warnings or common sense.

I lay awake in my sleeping bag that night, hoping beyond hope that my tent would hold up, that the pain would ease, that I would be able to walk in the morning.

I heard a voice nearby. Someone was moving around outside, asking the others if they had seen part of a trekking pole that day. Apparently this guy had lost or broken his trekking pole.

"Sorry, Freeman," came another voice. "Haven't seen anything."

What a loser! I thought, reassured that, no matter how bad things got for me, at least there were people worse off in the world.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chapter 11: North Carolina

The Appalachian Trail in Georgia was beautifully maintained, with hardly any visible erosion, very clean shelter areas, and only a modicum of blowdowns. A small miracle, considering the thousands of hikers who trample all over the trail there each year, spewing garbage everywhere and knocking over trees. I reasonably expected the trail to remain immaculate into South Carolina. I was wrong.

Crossing our first state line was certainly exciting, but we still hadn't gone even 80 miles on the trail. I tried not to make too big a deal of it. Jason, on the other hand, sat down on a boulder overlooking the border and proceeded to call everybody he knew on his cell phone to brag about his progress. I contemplated doing the same, marveling at the fact that he even had cell phone reception there, but then I remembered that I didn't have any friends, or at least none who cared about or understood what I was attempting. Depressed, I hiked on.

The Muskat Creek Shelter was a dump at 4,600 feet. There were gaping holes in the floorboards and heaps of trash strewn about, some of it piled up under the shelter. I was amazed at what people had managed to hike up there only to throw away. There were several tarps, an old tent, a crappy sleeping bag, several beer cans, a rolling suitcase full of blood-soaked $50 bills, and what looked like a rotting corpse wrapped in garbage bags. I was horrified and disgusted, and that was before the other people started to show up.

Jason arrived, and we eagerly claimed the last two open spots in the shelter. The others there were an interesting assortment of characters. First, there was the old guy, who... Then there was a completely different old guy, who, when he snored, sounded like an asthmatic dragon trying to eat an active volcano. Then there was an older woman named Musher, who said her trail name was BJ. She was a section hiker, and I would always remember her as the one who taught me the invaluable lesson, promptly ignored, that hiking in the rain is miserable and should never be undertaken by anyone, ever. BJ was also noteworthy for having given Buckaroo his trail name. I flinched when she mentioned him, still stung by the memories.

The most interesting of the other shelter dwellers was Jib. A younger guy, maybe in his mid-thirties, Jib was trying to hike the trail for the third time. His previous, aborted attempts had all ended with him suffering some vaguely horrible injury, and he had ended up having surgery on both his knees as a result. Unfortunately, his young son had recently came down with some unspecified life-threatening disease, and was currently being treated, free of charge, at a Shriner's Hospital in Massachusetts. Jib had thus decided to try to hike the trail for charity, to raise money for the hospital. I wished him luck, but never saw him again. I hope he made it.

Others arrived in a slow trickle, gradually becoming a torrent just before nightfall. Some of the newcomers clearly had designs to squeeze themselves into the shelter with us, despite the fact that there was very evidently no more room. We pointedly did not make room for them. They got some semblance of revenge, however, by hanging out underneath the shelter's eaves chain smoking, talking loudly, making huge productions out of cooking their dinners, and by generally being grating, obnoxious, and insufferable. In retrospect, I probably should have tented somewhere between the piles of garbage to save myself the aggravation.

The worst of the lot was an inveterate pot head named Ziggy, who made a point of asking everyone if they smoked marijuana, if they had any spare marijuana on them, and if they wanted to smoke marijuana with him right then and there. He really loved marijuana. The only thing he seemed to love as much as marijuana was his dog, Lucy. She was an adorably runty little mutt, and was half-blind. Unfortunately, for all of Ziggy's affection, he couldn't seem to see that Lucy wasn't having nearly as much fun on the trail as he was. Long distance hiking is incredibly hard for even the stoutest, healthiest of dogs, and Lucy was neither healthy nor particularly stout. She seemed to be struggling mightily from the cold and from the physical toll exacted by the difficult terrain.

"What are you going to do when you get to the Smokies?" I asked. "Because they don't allow dogs on the trail there, except for service animals."

"Oh, but she is," replied Ziggy, flashing a sly smile. He produced a fake ID card card for Lucy that declared her a service animal. I was repulsed. And I wasn't the only one.

"That's disgusting," spat BJ, livid. "I train service dogs for a living, and that is no service dog."

"Hey," said Ziggy, shrugging. "Hike your own hike, lady."

"But she's not a service dog," I protested. "My father is blind, and that provision for service animals was meant to help people like him, not you. You're taking advantage of that, and that's unethical at best and criminal at worst!"

"Hey, hike your own hike" repeated Ziggy, losing patience, blowing cigarette smoke in my face.

"I mean, how exactly is she a service dog? Does she carry your pot?" I asked. "I hope you get fined. Or arrested. Or are at least forced to put her up in a kennel, like you're supposed to. So you can continue your hike. Because far be it from me to wish failure upon another hiker. That would be totally out of character, for me."

Ziggy gaped at me. He looked slightly stupid with his mouth hanging open, but then he always looked slightly stupid. "I would never leave Lucy!" he protested. "I'd rather quit the trail than put her up in a kennel!"

I shrugged, apathetic, doing nothing to discourage this notion. Fed up, Ziggy punched me in the face, flicked his cigarette ash in my dinner, and then stalked off to have forceful relations with my backpack, leaving me dazed, hurt, emotionally scarred, and violated.

I secretly congratulated myself for securing a moral victory, though, and vowed to continue always fighting for justice, no matter the personal cost.

I then cried myself to sleep, or at least tried to. The snoring was awful.

Chapter 10: An Abundance of Trail Magic

When I went down to Georgia in January, I brought with me a pair of Leki Super Makalu trekking poles that my parents had purchased some years earlier. In a fantastic miscalculation, because my tarptent needed only one pole for its operation, I decided to leave the other behind with Elliot to save weight, not thinking that I might possibly actually want or need both over the course of my long journey. So, of course, my second morning on the trail found me digging through the snow, scouring the underbrush for an appropriately sized walking stick.

Thus Dino II was born. I imagined he and I would make it to Katahdin together. Dino II was just a stick, after all, not a treacherous, untrustworthy human being. He could never disappoint me, and would always, always be there for me. Until he snapped cleanly in half on the way down Tray Mountain. I ceremonially threw half of him over a cliff in frustration, left the other half sticking out of the snow bank where he had died, and started looking for another walking stick. Thus Dino III was born.

Earlier that morning, Bandito had mentioned that he was meeting his parents at Dick's Creek Gap and going home for the night. Personally, I was aiming for The Blueberry Patch, a Christian ministry and hostel just off the trail, also at Dick's Creek Gap. Jason, who hiked faster than both of us, was presumably headed towards Plumorchard Gap Shelter, or the Muskat Creek Shelter on the other side of the North Carolina border. I imagine he might have made it all the way to Franklin, North Carolina, that day, if we hadn't been around to slow him down.

Just about at the Deep Gap Shelter, some three and a half miles before Dick's Creek Gap, I met a southbound day hiker who told me there was trail magic at the road. Some kindly folks were giving hikers chili. Intrigued, I reasoned that there was about a one hundred percent chance that said chili had ground beef in it. I had already turned down trail magic that day on the basis of being a vegetarian. Twelve seconds later I decided I wasn't going to do so again. For the first time in my life, I would pre-meditatively eat meat. I started to run.

Jason was shocked when I caught up with him, but less so when I explained why I was in such a hurry. He too seemed to find the idea of chili rather enticing, and so joined my breakneck race down the mountain. We somehow managed to not trip over ourselves and die, and arrived at the Gap just in time. There were approximately four bowls of chili left, just enough for two starving hikers. Even better, they had chips, cookies, and a cooler full of Gatorade. If ever there was proof of a divine influence in life, this was it.

The chili did, in fact, have ground beef in it. It was delicious. Jason and I discarded our packs and sat eating and talking with the trail angels until they, one-by-one, packed up and left. Eventually, only a local man named Tater remained behind. I expressed my interest in staying at the hostel or a motel, but Tater said that everything in town was booked up.

"Well," I said, throwing in a choice swear word for effect, "There go my plans for the evening."

"Well, why don't you boys come stay with me?" asked Tater.

Jason and I looked to each other, surprised. And slightly wary.

"I've got a cabin not two miles from here," Tater explained. "You can take a shower, do your laundry, then I can take you into Hiawassee for dinner, if you want."

This was sounding too good to be true. Sure, it was a little creepy to be invited to stay at an isolated cabin in the woods by a solitary old man, but as there were the two of us going, what was the worst that could happen? We accepted.

Bandito arrived as we were climbing into Tater's pickup truck. We laughed at him, bragging about what a good deal we were getting.

"Yeah, well, at least I get to stay with my family, who love me," he retorted, "And tomorrow I'm not going to end up a lampshade." Touché. Well played, Bandito, well played.

Tater's cabin was actually quite nice, and didn't look at all like the houses in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Silence of the Lambs. Evidently newly renovated, the cabin was beautiful inside and out, with a fantastic view of the mountains and a decidedly homey atmosphere, immaculately clean and with all the latest appliances. Jason and I took turns showering, did our laundry, and then went with Tater into Hiawassee for dinner, as he promised.

All-you-can-eat dining experiences in the South are usually worth avoiding, particularly if one has coronary heart disease or a functioning liver. At a blandly named place like Daniel's Steakhouse, the food was just about as bad as I expected it to be. Although still full from the chili and chips earlier, I was determined to get my money's worth, and so chowed down on multiple plates of macaroni and cheese, jello, baked beans, and overcooked vegetables. There wasn't a lot else I could actually eat. My recent deviations from strict vegetarianism notwithstanding, I wasn't about to start eating meat at every opportunity.

I finally surmised I had eaten enough after finding myself in the bathroom, dry heaving over a toilet. When I returned to the table, Jason was just finishing off his sixth plate of chocolate cake. There was nothing the man couldn't do, even as a cold ravaged his immune system and body. He was better at hiking, better at eating, and way better at looking like a pirate. I was inwardly jealous, and vowed to spend at least three hours that night sobbing into my pillow.

We returned to Tater's house and watched reruns of House late into the night. It would be the last taste of civilization we would enjoy for another three whole days. We savored it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chapter 9: Disaster Averted

The next morning I awoke with what one might charitably call a pressing need. Alas, the Cheese Factory Site, despite having ample flat ground for tenting and a crystalline water supply, was not equipped with a privy. Furthermore, unlike Shorts, I was neither physically nor mentally prepared to dig a cathole. I had so far avoided needing to do so on the trail, and found the mere idea of it disgusting and degrading, too potentially humiliating to be worth the bother. Yes, I was somehow more comfortable risking soiling my pants running the two miles to the next shelter, up and over a four thousand foot mountain, with my butt cheeks clenched together, than I was with the idea of digging a hole in the middle of the woods for the purposes of discarding my own waste.

It was foggy and misting as I neared Tray Gap, where a US Forest Service road intersected the trail. I was alarmed to see two men seemingly waiting for me there, standing as they were beside a hulking pickup truck. I had heard rumors of locals making sport of harassing hikers, and so expected the worst. I approached the men warily, trying to imagine what they could possibly want. I could only hope that, whatever their sinister intentions, they wouldn't delay me for long. My bowels were in an uproar.

To my astonishment, the men politely asked me if I wanted a hamburger, and urged me to have a seat and relax while they cooked. They had pulled a grill from the back of their truck, and seemed to be making ready to have an all-day barbecue beside the trail. I found this extremely odd and yet somehow intriguing. However, being a staunch, life-long vegetarian, the lure of hamburgers at nine o'clock in the morning was not very strong. I politely declined, and excused myself with the quite honest assertion that I was, after all, rather in a hurry to find a toilet.

I am not sure they thought much of my explanation. Jason would tell me later that when he met the two men they were still laughing about some poor guy who ran off in desperate need of a bathroom. I didn't care. They could laugh all they want, I was just relieved to make it to the next shelter.

The Tray Mountain Shelter was some ways off the trail, and many of the people there were still in camp or just rousing from their slumber when I arrived. I may have made somewhat of a spectacle of myself, waddling as fast as I could towards the privy, grunting incomprehensibly, hands firmly clamped around my buttocks. Gloriously, the privy was unoccupied, and I emerged a short time later feeling a thousand times better and in awe of the copious efficiency of my digestive tract. I brushed off my earlier humiliations. All was forgiven.

I had made it there safely. That was all that mattered.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chapter 8: Rain, Cheese, and Sadness

The second-to-last time I saw Shorts was the next morning. He broke camp fairly early, before most of the others, and I couldn't have left more than five minutes later. I caught up with him after no more than fifteen minutes. He was digging a cathole. Now, hiker etiquette normally dictates that you not only avoid eye contact with someone digging a cathole, but that you ignore their very existence until they are done, wiped, and returned to the trail. You're definitely not supposed to stare or throw acorns at them, and the last thing you should do is try to engage them in conversation. Naturally, I called out to him.

"Is that you, Shorts?" I shouted, standing next to his hastily abandoned pack.

"Chafage? Now's not really a good time," he responded, sounding somewhat anguished. This may or may not have actually happened.

"I know, I was just wondering if you were going into Helen with the Wolfpack," I asked.

"You mean the German couple? I don't know," he replied. "Now will you kindly leave me alone?"

"Sure," I said, thus reassured that he was definitely hiking on. "See you later!"

Bandito, Jason and I decided to camp at a place called the Cheese Factory Site. To our dismay, it turned out not to be a fully functional cheese factory handing out free samples. There were no majestic, moss-covered ruins, no derelict warehouses, not even a cracked, crumbling foundation. There were hardly any signs that anything of consequence had ever happened there at all, except for the vestiges of an old access road that we feared would turn into a nocturnal thoroughfare for drunken rednecks hell-bent on terrorizing sleeping hikers.

It started to rain. We pitched our tents under the cover of some rhododendron trees, scarfed down a quick supper, and then threw our bear lines. Or tried to. I failed miserably, despite having the requisite hundred feet of nylon rope that the salesman at REI insisted I have for exactly this purpose. Bandito defused my burgeoning homicidal rage by kindly letting me ride shotgun on his rope, and we hung our food bags together. It being cold, wet, and rather miserable out, we all decided to turn in with a minimum of fanfare.

I sat in my tent with the fly open, watching the rain and the trail until it got dark, waiting in vain for the others to arrive. They never did. Heartbroken, I came to the sobering realization that the people I thought loved me in fact only cared about themselves, and that trying to make or maintain any lasting human connections, on the trail or otherwise, was an inherently self-defeating and pointless enterprise. I slipped into an abyss of despair, and a vile, indiscriminate bitterness overtook me. That night changed me forever. I was no longer a human being, but a spiteful, remorseless vessel of hatred who would tear the world down around him rather than let anyone get close to him again.

From then on, I was out there to make miles, and that was it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Chapter 7: My Trail Family

It was almost noon before I left the Wasili Yi Center, but I wasn't particularly worried about getting such a late start since I knew I only had ten or eleven miles to go that day. I had taken Miss Janet's warnings to heart, and had decided to take it easy from then on. What was I out there for, after all? To make miles? Or to make new friends, enjoy nature, hopefully learn some things, and have fun?

I was accosted on my way out by a gruff overweight man in a unique "Bill Bryson is a Candy Ass" t-shirt. His name was Baltimore Jack, despite the fact that he was from New Hampshire. He claimed to be working part-time at the Center, but not as a salesman or anything. His job seemed to be to discourage every aspiring thru-hiker he came across with dire predictions about their overall prospects, or humanity in general. And he was very good at his job.

"Be careful out there," he chided me, indicating the big, scary world just over his shoulder. "This is the hardest part of the trail coming up."

I wasn't about to him seriously. "Whatever you say, grandpa," I replied, high-fiving myself.

Baltimore Jack had the last laugh, though. The next 2,149 miles of the trail were the hardest.

The hike to Low Gap Shelter was extremely difficult, and literally took me the rest of the day. By the time I arrived, I was physically and emotionally exhausted, like I had just hiked forty miles in three days. I barely had enough energy to cook and eat dinner, socialize with my fellow hikers for a couple hours, and then pitch my tent before going to sleep.

To my delight, all my newfound friends were there. Shorts, Radar, Buckaroo, Trooper, Bandito, even the German couple had all made the trek. There was also an older gentleman named Silverback, so called because of his striking physical resemblance to a adult male gorilla, and a young man named Jason, who oddly bore no resemblance to either the serial killer or the Greek mythological hero. Jason wore a bright blue bandana, and somewhat resembled a buccaneer. Are there any famous pirates named Jason? I never figured out why he called himself that.

We all laughed and caroused and bonded late into the evening. There was much to discuss, from our mutual appreciation of food to our shared proclivity for daily bowel movements. We even debated the German couple's lack of a suitable trail name. I suggested the Wolfpack. They were initially reticent to adopt it lest they offend some marauding WWII veteran, but they eventually came around, and the others received it warmly.

The Wolfpack expressed interest in going into Helen, Georgia, the next day, and invited anyone who desired to join them. Helen was a tiny former logging town that had been entirely remodeled in the 1950's to look like a Bavarian alpine village. Figuring the only place worse than the real Bavaria, which I'd visited in the fall of 2008, would be a cheap facsimile run by backwoods Georgians, I politely declined. I reasonably expected everybody else to follow my lead, since it was a pretty safe assumption that Helen would be a horribly tacky tourist trap of a trail town, to be exceeded only in awfulness by Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Besides, we had just been in civilization earlier that day, so it wasn't as if people were in dire need of resupply or a shower. And as far as I knew, we were on the trail to hike, not to go town to town in search of the best German lager. At that rate, we'd never finish.

And so it was that I went to bed that night contented, convinced that I had found my trail family at last. We all had our roles to play. I was the charismatic, insanely handsome and ingenious leader, the emotional center, and the comic relief of the group, while everyone else was my adoring sidekicks/surrogate children. It was perfect. Deep down in my heart, I knew that even if we didn't hike the entire trail together, someday we'd be toasting each other atop Katahdin.

I would never see any of them ever again.

Well, except for Bandito, who I did hike half the trail with, and Jason, and Shorts, who caught up with me some 1,820 miles later.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Chapter 6: The Shakedown

I walked confidently into the outfitter at the Walasi Yi Center, threw my pack upon the ground and issued the defiant challenge, "Shakedown this!" Then a clerk politely told me to quit blocking the aisle for the other customers, and that if I wanted to have a shakedown, I should make an appointment with one of the sales team. I meekly retrieved my pack and quietly did as told.

Things were rather hectic at the outfitter that morning. A clerk ushered me into a side room with two other hikers. We waited patiently for someone to attend to us, and watched with some unease as a janitor scrubbed the entrails from a previous shakedownee out of the carpet. Apparently they had been so ill-prepared for the hike that their brain had exploded in shock. It was quite messy. Still, I was confident I would not meet the same sticky fate. I knew what I was doing. I'd been backpacking before, after all. This wasn't my first rodeo, as the saying goes. Admittedly, it was ten years earlier, and had only lasted for eleven days, and I don't remember having to carry a tent or wearing more than one set of clothes. But I still had that experience to fall back on. I was going to be fine.

A gruff, mustachioed man came in wearing a skirt. Whenever a man wears a skirt, you know he means business. One with crazy facial hair, who stinks slightly of gunpowder and gin at nine o'clock in the morning, even more-so. Cursing impatiently under his breath, he instructed us to empty our packs out on the floor, and then to stand in the corner, pull our pants down and grab our ankles, because it was about to get ugly.

"Empty your packs out so we can get started," he said. "I'm going to go assist another customer, but I'll be back when you're done."

Slightly wary of his aggressive instructions, I began to unpack. I couldn't help but compare myself to the other two. They were brothers, part of the Foot Clan, as they called themselves, probably because they realized they all had feet. One was named Stinky Foot, the other was named Furry Foot. Or something. Whatever their names were, I couldn't help but feel like I was better off than them. They were both carrying musical instruments, guitars or possibly banjos. Please.

The man in the skirt returned. We all snapped to attention.

"Okay, let's see," he said, surveying our equipment. "Y'all have backpacks, that's the first step. If you don't have a backpack, and you try to hike the Appalachian Trail? You're gonna die."

Good, I have a backpack, I'm not going to die, I thought.

"Next thing you gonna need is a twenty degree sleeping bag, or better. If ya try to get through the Smokies with a sleeping bag that's less than twenty degrees, y'all are gonna die."

I held up my EMS 20° sleeping bag. Check. He nodded.

Athlete's Foot or whatever he was called held up his sleeping bag. A 32° Eureka bag. Oh no.

"Oh no," said the man in the skirt. "See, that's not going to work. I know that says it's thirty two degrees, but it's really more like forty. Maybe even fifty. Now I know lots of y'all think you can just go to Walmart and buy any old bleep, and you might be fine. But if you try to hike through the Smokies with that, you're gonna bleeping die."

The man had a kind of a salty vocabulary. I was so impressed, I felt a cascade of urine spraying down my leg.

"All right, y'all got stoves? You got cook pots? Whatchu doin' with that big ol' thing?"

He was talking to me. I looked down at my 1.6 L cook pot. It was too big?

"Oh, someone's joining me," I said, "On the trail. Later. Maybe."

I thought my sister might join me on the trail when her job let out at the end of May. The man in the skirt nodded.

"You got your boots. Good. You got your socks. Good. No, you got too many." He was talking to me again. "You only need three pair. Put the others aside."

Indignant, I put aside my other sixteen pairs of socks. Why would anyone try to deprive a man of his socks? It just seemed inhuman.

"Why do I--" I started to ask, but he shook his head, cutting me off.

"You're gonna die," he said, by way of explanation.

I knew he was right, and looked down at the floor, ashamed.

"Now, thermals? Check the tag. Are they any percent cotton?"

Mine were 5% cotton. So what?

"Mine are 5% cotton. So what?" I said.

"If you try to hike anywhere with cotton clothing that's even a little bit cottony, you gonna die."

There was no refuting that logic.

I ended up sending home most of my socks, along with my journal, which I hadn't written in, a pair of sneakers, my winter jacket, which wasn't water proof, and my thermals. It was rather painful.

"Now, don't you worry, we'll fix you up nice and good," said the man in the skirt, now ignoring the Foot Clan entirely. They sat in the corner, sobbing quietly over their banjos. The man in the skirt continued, ushering me into a different area of the store, "Now, I got these here Patagonia thermal bottoms, made out of unicorn hair. They weigh negative thirty pounds, they're fireproof, and I can get them to ya for the special price of $3,000."

He looked at me eagerly. I admit, I was a little hesitant. His smile faltered.

"Plus!" he said, "I can give you my personal guarantee that if you buy these, you ain't gonna die!"

"I'll take them," I said, immediately regretting my decision.

"Now, rain gear. This here jacket is made out of Mythril. By the dwarves! It's good to negative a thousand degrees, and--"

I had to cut him off. "I'm sorry, sir. Mythril? Don't you have anything in Adamantium or Dragon Scale?"

I left the Walasi Yi Center about half an hour later, eight pounds and $250 lighter, but also secure in the knowledge that at least I wasn't gonna die.

Chapter 5: Trail Magic and Gorilla Farts

I've heard it said that 85% of all thru-hikers quit before making it to the Walasi Yi Center at Neel's Gap, some thirty miles north of Springer. Written about in glowing terms in Bill Bryson's A Walk In The Woods, the outfitter and hostel is easily one of the most identifiable landmarks on the trail, and an excellent gauge of one's progress. There's Springer Mountain, there's Neel's Gap, and then there's Katahdin. Everything else in between is just mindless ups and downs. I was thus understandably eager to get there, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the promise of free baked ziti.

As soon as I arrived, I signed the register and restocked on their exorbitantly priced energy bars. I hadn't really been eating much, so I fortunately didn't yet need a full resupply. I inquired about securing a bunk in the hostel and found out there was only one left. I knew Bandito was still behind me, but asides from him I didn't know anyone else who would be arriving that day.

"Should I wait for Bandito, to see if he wants the room?" I said aloud, to no one in particular. "Because I could always pitch my tent in their backyard..."

It was an honest moral dilemma, the greatest I had yet faced on the trail, and might possibly have been the most important decision I would make in my entire life. I mulled it over for about three tenths of a second before reaching for my wallet. Half a second later I was on my way to claim my bunk, chuckling gleefully to myself and imagining a good night's sleep, warmth, and a heaping plate of delicious, delicious ziti.

I found the hostel to be a chaotic, horrifying mess. I expected there to be a lot of people there, but I didn't expect the bunk room itself to be about as big as, and to so strangely resemble, a steerage cabin on the Titanic. Third-class passengers on the Titanic probably would have been more stylishly dressed than this particular group of hikers, however, and most likely would have smelled better too, at least before they all drowned. Also, the role of Kate Winslet was now played by a stocky red-headed woman in her fifties named Miss Janet, while the role of Leonardo DiCaprio was played by nobody.

While priding myself on my ability to drive an already dubious metaphor into the ground, I claimed my bunk and surveyed the room. There was a gregarious, slightly out-of-shape miniature pants enthusiast named Trooper, a rather stuffy environmental engineer on leave from the army whose trail name was Shorts, a German couple who were then known simply as the German couple, an overambitious amateur photojournalist named Buckaroo, and a spunky, impossibly young kid taking a semester off from middle school or something named Radar. I liked them all immediately.

Everyone was super-impressed that I had made it there in only two days. Some of them had been on the trail for almost a week already. Not to mention any names. Trooper. In fact, the only person who wasn't impressed with my pace was Miss Janet, who sternly dressed me down in front of everybody for risking life and limb by hiking so fast. Trying to explain to her about the irresistible appeal of baked ziti didn't seem to help matters. She told me that if I continued to hike fifteen miles a day, I was going to injure myself and die. I believed her.

Some of the others cajoled me into taking a shower, which I was at first reluctant to do since I knew I would only get dirty again the following day. But maybe I needed it, even if my natural man-funk is milder than most. Not to brag or anything. Finally, dinner was served, and it was everything I had hoped for and more. I may not have been the only one to get up for seconds and thirds, but I certainly was the first. Even Bandito arrived to join the party. He was camped out back, for free, and yet was still entitled to dinner. This bummed me out, somehow.

I understood why later that night. The bunk room sounded and smelled like the gorilla cage at the zoo on burrito night. It was awful. I wrapped my fleece around my head to try to block out the noise, but I would've had a better chance of sleeping through the attack on Pearl Harbor. I eventually moved into the common room, where I tried to fall asleep on the couch with little to no success. It was much quieter, but it wasn't exactly comfortable.

The next morning, I was understandably a little on-edge. At least I had the adrenaline of doing one of the Center's famous shakedowns to carry me through the day.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chapter 4: Bandito

I was sitting besides a stream, bemoaning my lot in life. I hadn't even been on the trail for two full days, and everything was going wrong. My clothes were frozen solid, still, and sitting uselessly in the bottom of my pack. I still hadn't figured out how to properly use my stove My stove was stupid and broken. And now my water filter was mysteriously not working, dooming me to an ignominious death on a privy somewhere, as the giardia I would inevitably catch ravaged my fragile intestinal tract.

Fortunately, as would happen frequently during my many times of intense distress or particular need, the trail showed me mercy. Two thru-hikers appeared with easily accessible water treatment systems, and both were kind enough to offer to share. One was a lawyer from Atlanta who said his name was Brew, probably because he was a raging alcoholic. The other was a mousy little kid in a bright orange t-shirt who called himself Bandito, probably because, well, for no readily apparent reason, really. He claimed it was because his balaclava made him look like a swarthy Mexican outlaw. I said nothing to disabuse him of this obviously ridiculous notion.

Bandito exuded the boundless energy, enthusiasm and naiveté of an uncorrupted eighteen year old boy. Probably because he was exactly that. Just looking at him made me feel old and tired. I wondered whether I had the patience to put up with him, assuming of course that I could even keep up. Then again, I got the feeling he didn't particularly care for me either. I suspect he thought I was one of those delusional, ill-prepared fools who was never going to make it, what with my completely nonfunctioning everything and my general discombobulation. He, on the other hand, had all the top-of-the-line ultralight equipment, most of which I had never even heard of, and boasted an annoyingly expansive knowledge of the outdoors and survival techniques and all that other maybe kind of important stuff. He was definitely going to make it.

We hiked together for a little while, conversing. He was politely inquisitive, asking me a series of increasingly intrusive yet seemingly innocent and otherwise quite reasonable questions, just trying to get to know me, and I swore a lot and probably offended his every sensibility. Eventually I fell behind. Not because I couldn't stand him or found his insatiable curiosity irritating or anything, I just wasn't physically capable of keeping up. I didn't know if I'd see him again. I guess I wasn't really thinking about it. Certainly I couldn't have imagined from our first encounter that I'd end up spending the Easter holidays with him and his family, or that we would end up hiking half the trail together, or that we'd keep in touch even after we'd both finished the trail.

But, as it so happened, I saw him again later that day. I arrived at the Blood Mountain Shelter to find him talking to a group of guys I had met the night before, at the Gooch Mountain Shelter. They already knew me as the guy whose equipment was all broken, who could instantly turn triumph to tragedy, and made milk curdle and babies cry just by his mere presence. It was obvious they looked down on me and wanted to avoid me at all costs. It was like elementary school all over again. They were the cool kids, and I was the shrimpy nobody who had to sit with the scary guy with the pituitary disorder, the albino mute, and the Russian über-nerd who picked his nose in the cafeteria. Whatever. I didn't like them either. But I did appreciate the news they brought me.

I had originally planned to stay the night there, at Blood Mountain, despite its blustery winds, blistering cold, lack of a water source and general dumpiness. But that was before I heard there was trail magic at Neel's Gap.

"A church group is bringing baked ziti for the hikers at the hostel," said no one in particular.

"Really?" I asked. "Goodbye!"

And I was off like a shot. I could die of dehydration in the morning, but that night I was getting my baked ziti. Nothing could stop me. Nothing did.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Chapter 3: Major Chafage

I didn't make it far before I had my first face-plant. I had been following a couple of older guys, possibly in their forties or fifties, and we were all trying to figure out where we were supposed to go. The trail was almost completely buried in snow, and was constantly being crisscrossed by the intensely undesirable and presumably awful Benton MacKaye trail. Being some of the first to venture forth after a fresh snowfall had its disadvantages.

We came to a bridge, possibly over Stover Creek, not even three miles from Springer Mountain, and I stepped on a root. Maybe it was covered in ice, maybe it was just wet, but I went over sideways and landed, more or less, on my head. Embarrassed more than anything, I quickly scrambled to my feet and charged ahead, repeatedly reassuring the others that I was fine. Which I wasn't. I realized right then that I had made a tremendous mistake, that I hated hiking, that I hated nature, hated other people, especially those who were judgmental of the clumsy, and mostly, that I hated myself. I would continue to hate everyone, everything, but especially myself, for the next five months. And beyond. In fact, I still hate myself. But I digress. Literally tens of hundreds of people thru-hike the Appalachian Trail for fun every year. I was convinced I would become the first to have an absolutely horrible time, to be absolutely miserable each and every day.

Still, I made good time, and by four or maybe six or possibly eight o'clock I had made it all the way to Gooch Mountain Shelter, some fifteen miles. The day had passed more or less without incident, except that I had discovered, to my dismay, that my water filter had frozen overnight, compounding my existing problems. Worse, on top of my frozen clothes, frozen water filter, bruised ego and nascent inferiority complex, I also clearly needed a watch of some kind, as I had no idea what time it was.

Luckily, there were literally dozens of other hikers at the Gooch Mountain Shelter, and a few of them were willing to help me out to keep me on my way. One was kind enough to let me borrow his SweetWater® Purifier Solution. A woman there had the same stove as me, and she proceeded to teach me, incorrectly, how to use it. We may or may not have set fire to the picnic table. Okay, we did. But I eventually was able to cook my macaroni and cheese, and so lived to die another day.

The next morning, I got a late start, and found myself hiking near a pair of alumni thru-hikers who had stayed at Hawk Mountain Shelter the night before. They were seemingly amiable young men, Gut Hook and some other guy. Gut Hook had thru-hiked before. Truly, a God among men. He was everything I aspired to be, right down to the ruggedly handsome caveman beard. Gut Hook was taking his friend Something-or-other out for a few weeks to train for a trail run. I asked them how they got their trail names. Gut Hook got his from a fishing accident, and Something-or-other, well, I can't seem to remember where he got his name. I'm sure it was fascinating.

We stopped at Woody Gap for a snack. I was having a terrible pain in my supple inner thigh, and Whatshisname let me borrow an extra stick of Body Glide he happened to be carrying. I can't say for certain whether the Body Glide helped, or if merely taking the Swiss Army knife out of my pocket was what did the trick, but in any case, the chafage was averted... and Major Chafage was born.

Of course I thought Major Chafage was hilarious, a brilliant trail name, and naturally Gut Hook immediately tried to take it away from me.

"Too long," he said. "Most people out here can't remember more than two syllables. You should be Captain Chafe."

I thought Captain Chafe was an awful name, and the insinuation insulting. How dare he try to demote me! I correctly pegged Gut Hook and his friend as haters. They were just jealous of my creativity and youthful elan. I mentally prepared to leave them in my dust, and to never see them again. Yet they were my only friends. I would miss them terribly.

At least for a couple of hours.

Chapter 2: Springer

It was March 21st, the first day of spring. Elliot had long ago agreed to drive me from the farm, which was just outside of fantastic, exciting Statesboro, Georgia, to Amicalola Falls State Park, a 204 mile journey that would take us almost four hours. I failed to appreciate our speed at the time. It would take me 17 days to go another 204 miles.

It was drizzling when we arrived. Since it was getting on in the afternoon, Elliot offered to drop me at the top of the falls, to save me a little time and effort. I agreed, neither knowing nor caring what sights I might be missing on the section of the approach trail I skipped. With the weather being as it was, I probably didn't miss anything, and we had ascended into a cloud before he parked. We hugged. He waved. I left my sunglasses in the car. And then started off in completely the wrong direction.

Five minutes later, I realized I probably shouldn't be going downhill, and promptly turned around. An inauspicious start, to be sure, but it also felt absolutely fantastic to be out there at last, to feel the cool wind whipping through my hair, to feel the sting of the rain on my cheeks. Did I mention it was raining? Well, it was. But I wasn't worried. That was what I was out there for, to brave and conquer the elements! Maybe it started to get a little cold, however, so I did eventually stop to put on my rain gear. Not that my rain gear proved to be much of a help. Whatever weatherproof qualities they might have had when first purchased in 1986 were long gone by now. At least they were still an extremely stylish shade of florescent yellow.

After about an hour of steady climbing, I met a woman camped along the side of the trail. My first trail friend! She said she was thru-hiking, and I didn't question this despite the fact she had hadn't even made it halfway up the approach trial on her first day. She seemed to sense my skepticism and smiled ruefully, telling me her trail name was Inchworm. At least she had a sense of humor. I wished her luck and moved on. I never saw her again.

It took me only about three hours to make the 7.8 mile climb up to the terminus, to the plaque on Springer Mountain that marks the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. I was immensely pleased with myself for making the climb that quickly, until I arrived at the Springer Mountain Shelter in the midst of a rapidly escalating thunderstorm and found it absolutely packed with about eighteen other aspiring thru-hikers. Surprised and disappointed, I nonetheless folded myself into a corner and foolishly tried to get some sleep. Which I soon found was impossible.

Rain and sleet constantly blew into the shelter, soaking whatever part of me I couldn't squeeze between people's packs, their boots and the ladder to the second floor. Then, there was the booming thunderstorm outside and the even louder cacophony of snoring inside. It hadn't occurred to me to bring ear plugs. I would end up bumming them off of people for over half the trail.

Around midnight I had finally had enough. I was soaking wet, freezing, and my spine felt like a broken accordion. I packed as quickly and quietly as I could, trying not to wake the other hikers, and went to pitch my tent. At least it had stopped raining. I took the proactive step to hang my sodden clothing on a nearby tree to dry. My trusty tarptent went up easily, and actually proved fairly comfortable. Best of all, it was quiet.

And when I woke in the morning, it was covered with about two or three inches of snow. My clothes, left out overnight, were frozen solid. Luckily, I had anticipated situations such as this, and had almost managed to pack accordingly. I did have plenty of pairs of extra socks. I shoved my frozen clothes, along with my frozen rain gear, into my surprisingly pliant pack and made ready to leave.

It seemed my only companions in tenting were a bunch of obnoxious teenagers, all of whom were even less prepared for the elements than I was. One skittered about in a pair of jean shorts while his companions laughed at him, ignoring their own precarious positions. I left the teenagers to mercifully freeze to death, and went to eat breakfast in front of the shelter. I wanted to make a showing in front of the others, to show them them that I wasn't so easily defeated. Not by the wind, the rain, the ice, the cold, or them. I quickly and defiantly swallowed down a few handfuls of gorp and then hit the trail.

My long adventure had begun.