"Hit it," said Bandito.
The Thru-Hiker's Handbook told us that we'd have to climb eight hundred feet to High Top Mountain, go down a little to Black Gum Gap, go back up to an "unnamed rocky summit," then go down a lot over a long section of trail, cross a couple of streams, then there'd be a little level section, and then we'd be there at the Dam. In reality, we had to climb eight thousand feet up High Top Mountain, go way down to Black Gum Gap, then go way back up over the "unnamed rocky summit," then go down a ton over a very long section of trail, cross several streams, then go down and up, across another stream, then up again, then down, then up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start, and then one last up, a final down, and then hang-glide off an 800 foot cliff, and then we were there. Bandito couldn't handle it, and started crying.
I knew by then to expect nothing but lies from the guidebook, so I wasn't at all surprised. Still somewhat angry, I raced ahead of Bandito, knowing that the Dam must be just around the corner. Which it was. I emerged suddenly onto a road, and then found myself walking on a sidewalk past a nice couple grilling burgers for and handing out sodas to any interested hikers. I was awestruck. It was like walking into Fenway Park for the first time.
The Fontana Dam Shelter, also known as the Fontana Hilton, was quite possibly the nicest shelter on the trail I didn't stay at. It had three tiers of bunks, a full service bathroom replete with showers, a water fountain, a complimentary continental breakfast, and could accomodate up to 240 hikers a night, plus their dogs. I introduced myself around, grabbed a couple of generic citrus sodas from the trail magic cooler, plus an extra one for Bandito, and then went to the bathroom, where I was accosted by a crazy naked man named Brian.
Brian, later to be known as Caboose, kindly asked me to go outside to fetch his pants. And I did, if only to save others from the sight of his horribly pale and grotesquely hairy body. I was tempted to ask why he didn't take his pants in with him, but I try to make a point not to hold conversations with outrageously naked men. Unlike eating meat, that was a taboo yet to be broken.
I returned to the parking lot with my sodas to discover that Bandito's mother had arrived. I offered Bandito the can of Mountain Holler I had saved, but he was already chugging a can of Sunkist. His mother had apparently had brought an entire case of soda along with assorted Little Debbie Snacks to give to other hikers. Unfortunately, there weren't very many people hanging around at that time of day, and neither Bandito nor myself felt particularly inclined to try to find them. We were perfectly happy hoarding all the sodas and snacks for ourselves. Or maybe that was just me.
I must have had three or four Dr. Pepper's by the time we made it back to Bandito's house. His family lived in a beautiful home in the northwest corner of nowhere. Theirs was a sprawling property nestled somewhere on the periphery of the mountains. I had come to associate rural Georgia with the dry stench of poverty and desperation, but the atmosphere here was refreshingly cool and relaxing. That evening we feasted on salad and pasta, and I spent the rest of the night in a blissful food coma.
The next day was Easter Sunday. I politely declined Bandito's offer to attend church with him and his mother, choosing instead to stay behind and try to catch up on as much of the television I had missed as I could. I also seized the opportunity to call Elliot, to see how his farm's second anual Easter Egg Hunt had gone.
It had gone very well, apparently. So well, in fact, that the farm would soon be so profitable as to attract buyout offers from Google and Facebook. I bemoaned the fact that I couldn't be there with them for their big day, and also that they would apparently cut me in on a piece of their action. But I digress. I missed the farm. I missed eating cage-free, farm fresh eggs every morning, for lunch, and sometimes dinner. I missed being woken up at four o'clock in the morning by the incessant crowing of hungry roosters. I missed Elliot, too, of course. But I especially missed Arianne, his partner on the farm, and her wonderful, wonderful cooking.
Speaking of which, our Easter dinner that afternoon was of such epic proportions and fine quality that I promptly blacked out, and only came too after desert when it came time to play Apples to Apples. Bandito's sister and her then-boyfriend, now husband, had made the trip down from Tennessee that day, and we all gathered on the porch to play board games into the gloaming.
I went to bed that night sated, but a little melancholy. Bandito and his family were wonderful, truly, as generous and gracious hosts as one could hope for. But I missed my friends, and I missed my family, and I wished I were closer to them on the trail. I was also startled to find that, even after only one day off the trail, I was anxious to get back. I wanted to keep moving.