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.