Friday, December 3, 2010

Chapter 23: The Highest Peak and Lowest Lows

I had trouble sleeping that night. I had a weird dream that I was at a dance party at Grand Central Terminal. I awoke with a start at around two in the morning to the sounds of people moving about outside my tent. For all their noise, loud voices, and flashing lights, I might have been at a dance party in Grand Central Terminal. But no, it was just the others gearing up for the long, predawn trek up Clingman's Dome to watch the sunrise.

I sensed it would be nearly impossible to get back to sleep, so I begrudgingly got up. If everybody else was going up Clingman's in the dark, so would I, if only to ruin the experience for them. I was in a terrible mood. I had no desire to stay at the Double Spring Gap Shelter for a split second longer, not with its adorable resident turkey or its charming "toilet area." I kicked Bandito awake and told him we were going.

Although we might have been amongst the last to leave, we were surprisingly amongst the first to arrive. Half a mile from the top of Clingman's Dome, the trail split almost imperceptibly. To the right, a path led down towards a parking lot and the road. To the left, the observation tower awaited. Bandito and I went left. It was a rather unintuitive choice; at first, I thought the trail would lead us suicidally straight over a sheer rock face, but then it straightened out, and, all of a sudden, we were there.

We found ourselves alone on the summit. We had missed the sunrise, if only by a few minutes. Bandito and I traipsed up the long ramp to the top of the observation tower to take some celebratory pictures. I felt like ripping my shirt off and screaming at the heavens. So I did. My little brother thought it was awesome and followed my lead. I was nonplussed, and tried at least to dissuade Bandito from taking pictures of us without our shirts on. I failed, and the episode remains one of the low points of my life.

We were 6,643' above sea level, it was early April, and there was still roughly three feet of snow on the ground. It was bitterly cold and windy. After smartly slipping my shirt back on, I saw Freeman poking around below, looking for a path through a tangle of fallen branches. I called out to him. He waved to us and waited besides the trail for our inevitable hug-filled reunion.

It was getting to be that time in the morning, and I was feeling a certain call of nature. I excused myself from Bandito and Freeman and went to dig the highest cathole anyone would ever dig on the Appalachian Trail. And don't think I'm not proud of that. Filled with a feeling of intense pride and accomplishment, I scampered back to where Freeman and Bandito were waiting just as Merf arrived with Brian, Alyson, P-Nut, and two members of the Rat Pack. Jason was conspicuous in his absence.

Merf explained that Brian had led the group down the wrong path, and how they had ended up at the parking lot instead of the summit. I laughed.

"Idiots," I muttered good-naturedly. "Especially you," I added to Brian.

I had been waiting for an opportunity to get back at him for humiliating me the day before. He had called me "Aunt Jemima" in front of the others, mocking the way I wore my bandana. Although he probably had no idea how deeply his words had cut me, I had made it my mission then to ruin his life. My sinister, Machiavellian plan would involve becoming good friends with him and his wife. It wasn't a very good plan. But that's another story. For now, I burned with righteous anger.

Merf decided to hike down with Freeman, Bandito and myself. We took turns telling stories about our lives off the trail as we slipped and stumbled across the hard-packed snow. Freeman told us about his work at a hotel in Minneapolis. Worried about being upstaged, I told them about my life as a dragon tamer, and of riding unicorns over rainbows and through the streets of Manhattan.

We stopped briefly at the Mt. Collins Shelter so that Bandito could use the privy, and then hiked on towards Newfound Gap. We started passing school groups and day hikers, most of whom gaped at us like we were space aliens. Extremely malodorous space aliens. I did enjoy the natural right of way that my hiker stink provided me. Everybody I encountered was only too happy to jump off the trail to let me pass, and I somehow managed to avoid being asked any stupid questions.

Merf wasn't so lucky, however. She ended up being forced to give a short, extemporaneous lecture to a group of about thirty stupefied onlookers. Could I have saved her from that indignity? She was a grown woman. She could handle herself. Rumors of trail magic at the Gap beckoned me ever onward, and I momentarily forgot such considerations as friendship, honor and chivalry.

Newfound Gap isn't really a gap at all. At above five thousand feet, it is one of the only road crossings on the trail where you actually have to climb to get to it. My load lightened by excitement and anticipation, I burst from the woods to find a couple of young alumni thru-hikers setting up a tent behind their Prius, with a fabulous spread of soda, chips, cookies, brownies, and cheeseburgers waiting.

I ordered a cheeseburger without the burger and sat down. There was a French-Canadian man there who was hiking the International Appalachian Trail. The I.A.T. apparently stretches from Key West in Florida all the way to Scotland. I had no idea how he was going to cross the Atlantic. He claimed to be a purist, so I imagined he was planning to swim.

Bandito, Freeman and Merf soon joined me, Merf having at last extricated herself from the onerous tour group. Bandito sat down beside me on the curb underneath the trail magic tent and asked for a cheeseburger, which our hosts were only too happy to prepare. Freeman and Merf were more interested in hitching a ride into Gatlinburg than they were in scarfing down cheeseburgers, however.

Merf approached the road, held out her thumb, and immediately caused a massive pile-up. Everyone driving west towards Gatlinburg pulled over simultaneously to give her a ride, and the resulting multi-vehicle collision would be the worst accident ever in the history of US Route 441, causing 372 casualties and $500 trillion in property damage. Ten miles below us, a mama bear and her cub, disturbed by one of the explosions, approached the road in curiosity, and the subsequent stampede of gawking tourists and amateur wildlife photographers would claim a further 10,382 lives and created a traffic jam that would last for the next 17 years. But Merf got her ride, as she always did, with preternatural ease. She and Freeman jumped into the back of a pickup truck and were off, leaving Bandito and me to enjoy the spoils of victory, and wait for his mother to arrive to shuttle us into town.

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