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.

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