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.