"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.