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.