I was accosted on my way out by a gruff overweight man in a unique "Bill Bryson is a Candy Ass" t-shirt. His name was Baltimore Jack, despite the fact that he was from New Hampshire. He claimed to be working part-time at the Center, but not as a salesman or anything. His job seemed to be to discourage every aspiring thru-hiker he came across with dire predictions about their overall prospects, or humanity in general. And he was very good at his job.
"Be careful out there," he chided me, indicating the big, scary world just over his shoulder. "This is the hardest part of the trail coming up."
I wasn't about to him seriously. "Whatever you say, grandpa," I replied, high-fiving myself.
Baltimore Jack had the last laugh, though. The next 2,149 miles of the trail were the hardest.
The hike to Low Gap Shelter was extremely difficult, and literally took me the rest of the day. By the time I arrived, I was physically and emotionally exhausted, like I had just hiked forty miles in three days. I barely had enough energy to cook and eat dinner, socialize with my fellow hikers for a couple hours, and then pitch my tent before going to sleep.
To my delight, all my newfound friends were there. Shorts, Radar, Buckaroo, Trooper, Bandito, even the German couple had all made the trek. There was also an older gentleman named Silverback, so called because of his striking physical resemblance to a adult male gorilla, and a young man named Jason, who oddly bore no resemblance to either the serial killer or the Greek mythological hero. Jason wore a bright blue bandana, and somewhat resembled a buccaneer. Are there any famous pirates named Jason? I never figured out why he called himself that.
We all laughed and caroused and bonded late into the evening. There was much to discuss, from our mutual appreciation of food to our shared proclivity for daily bowel movements. We even debated the German couple's lack of a suitable trail name. I suggested the Wolfpack. They were initially reticent to adopt it lest they offend some marauding WWII veteran, but they eventually came around, and the others received it warmly.
The Wolfpack expressed interest in going into Helen, Georgia, the next day, and invited anyone who desired to join them. Helen was a tiny former logging town that had been entirely remodeled in the 1950's to look like a Bavarian alpine village. Figuring the only place worse than the real Bavaria, which I'd visited in the fall of 2008, would be a cheap facsimile run by backwoods Georgians, I politely declined. I reasonably expected everybody else to follow my lead, since it was a pretty safe assumption that Helen would be a horribly tacky tourist trap of a trail town, to be exceeded only in awfulness by Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Besides, we had just been in civilization earlier that day, so it wasn't as if people were in dire need of resupply or a shower. And as far as I knew, we were on the trail to hike, not to go town to town in search of the best German lager. At that rate, we'd never finish.
And so it was that I went to bed that night contented, convinced that I had found my trail family at last. We all had our roles to play. I was the charismatic, insanely handsome and ingenious leader, the emotional center, and the comic relief of the group, while everyone else was my adoring sidekicks/surrogate children. It was perfect. Deep down in my heart, I knew that even if we didn't hike the entire trail together, someday we'd be toasting each other atop Katahdin.
I would never see any of them ever again.
Well, except for Bandito, who I did hike half the trail with, and Jason, and Shorts, who caught up with me some 1,820 miles later.