Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chapter 25: Rain, Absolutely Nothing Of Consequence Happens

It was extremely windy during the night. My tent shook violently with every gust, the rain fly flapped noisily. It was impossible to sleep. Eventually the trekking pole I was using as a stanchion jumped from its mooring and tore a hole in the roof of the tent. I was apoplectic, and could hardly refrain from screaming profanities as I ripped the tent down and stubbornly cowboy camped for the rest of the night. "Cowboy camping," incidentally, merely implies sleeping under the stars, without the cover of a tent, a bivy sack or Jake Gyllenhaal to keep you company. Still, I found cowboy camping pleasant enough, at least until it started raining.

It rains 126 days out of the year in the Smoky Mountains. That means on any given day there's a 34% chance of precipitation. So far, we'd been lucky. Mathematically speaking, the odds of it not raining for four days in a row was roughly two to the fourth over three to the fourth, or 20%, which meant that on that fourth day, there was an 80% chance of rain. And rain it did.

The weather was so bad, Caleb, Bandito and I contemplated staying at the Icewater Spring Shelter. Caleb, however, had a somewhat strict schedule to stick to, as he was being picked up the next day at Davenport Gap, some twenty eight miles away. Ideally, we would have gone thirteen miles to the Tri-Corner Knob Shelter that day, and then the fifteen miles to Davenport Gap the next. We made it eight.

We decided to stop at the Pecks Corner Shelter for lunch. I remembered BJ's words of wisdom, "Let it be." No, wait. That can't be right. She said "Never hike in the rain." And this was a near-Biblical level downpour. We could hardly see the trail thirty yards in front of us, mostly because it was rather serpentine and heavily wooded, but also because it was just raining that hard.

I ran into the shelter, doffed my pack and started stripping off my gear. I had no intentions of leaving.

"Look, guys," I leveled. "I'm staying here. It's miserable out there. I had more fun in Gatlinburg."

Bandito understood. "I'd rather stay here too, if that's okay with you?" he said, looking up at Caleb.

Caleb nodded eagerly. I don't think he was having such a great time. I immediately unpacked my sleeping bag and threw it into the loft to claim a space. I secretly hoped it would keep raining. I didn't want to regret wasting the afternoon.

There was a girl in the shelter, about my age. I'd never seen her before. She was packing up.

"You're leaving?" I asked, incredulous. The more people I could convince to stay, the better I would feel about my decision.

"Yeah," she said. "I've got twenty more miles to do today."

My head practically exploded. "Twenty more miles?" I squeaked. "What? In this slop? That's just stupid. You don't want to do that."

"Oh?" she asked, amused by my blunt rudeness. "Why not?"

"Because hiking in the rain is miserable," I expounded, echoing BJ, "and should never be attempted by anyone, ever. I hiked in the rain once, and look at me."

I indicated my grubbiness, my general harried state, my exaggerated grimace. She laughed.

"What's your name?" she asked.

"M.C." I said. "Stands for Major Chafage."

She laughed again and nodded, evidently impressed. Or not.

"What's yours?" I asked.

"Braids," she said. We shook hands. Bandito rolled his eyes.

Braids continued to pack.

"I think you'd be much happier staying here," I said. "With us. We're a lot of fun, aren't we? Bandito?"

But Bandito was gone. He might have been hiding behind a pillar.

"Well, it's too bad I'm not out here to make friends," said Braids pointedly, "I'm out here to make miles."

Ouch! Now I really wanted her to stay. But it seemed there was little I could do to convince her.

"I don't suppose we'll see you again, then" I mused resignedly. "Especially if you continue doing twenty miles a day."

"That's the plan," said Braids. "I know, it's sad. Try not to cry about it."

I shrugged, admitting defeat. I wished her luck, cautioned her not to run into any rogue bears or push herself too hard, and then she left.

"Good," said Bandito, appearing out of the ether. "I'm glad that's over with."

"What did I do?" I pleaded.

We crawled into our sleeping bags to eat lunch and watched the rain.

The shelter started to fill up. P-Nut arrived, disgruntled and soaking wet, and promptly threw his bag into the loft beside me. He definitely wasn't going anywhere.

About a dozen day-hikers showed up, all old men in their fifties or sixties. I could tell instantly that they would be awful snorers, and hoped they would move on. They didn't.

A younger kid walked in almost unnoticed, and quietly set up his sleeping bag in the corner. Someone mentioned his name was Hobbes, I don't remember who. Hobbes didn't talk much. He seemed kind of morose actually, and kept to himself, drinking whiskey out of a Fanta bottle.

"Does that help you sleep?" I asked naively, imagining a shot or two might help me sleep through the inevitable snoring.

"No," he scoffed. "It helps me get drunk."

Right. I guess I had that coming. I shouldn't have asked such a stupid question. Hobbes may have felt bad about being so snappish, so he offered me a swig. I politely declined.

Later in the afternoon, people started collecting rain water from off the roof to cook their dinners. I followed suit. I figured having a few leaves in my macaroni would be worth not getting wet.

Two girls showed up, Bandito's age. P-Nut was overjoyed to see them, and roared a greeting. He hastily pushed other people's gear aside to make room for them in the loft. They introduced themselves as Redwing and Lil Dipper, and they were gregarious and charming, quick to laugh, and very British.

Bandito and I fell into an easy conversation with Lil Dipper and P-Nut as Redwing set about trying to light the shelter on fire. A plan, incidentally, that everyone else seemed to be on board with. It was astonishingly cold. Unfortunately for Redwing, all the wood she could find was wet. I let her use some kerosene from my fuel canister, but even that didn't work. We would remain resolutely fireless.

Bandito was naturally full of questions for the newcomers, and we quickly learned that Lil Dipper was actually American but had moved to London when she was still a wee toddler, that she and Redwing were mates from secondary school, that they had first heard about the Appalachian Trail on a very influential BBC programme, that they had decided to hike the trail before starting uni, and that, no, she wasn't going to read Harry Potter to us.

"Really?" said Bandito, his hopes dashed. Lil Dipper chuckled.

"So," P-Nut asked Lil Dipper, "We're going to get up at five in the morning so we can hike twenty miles tomorrow, right?

"Of course," said Lil Dipper. "Bloody hell. Pip pip!"

"Cheerio," added Redwing, extracting a tea set from the depths of her pack.

"If you guys are going twenty miles tomorrow, so are we," I boasted, neglecting to mention that, because of circumstances beyond our control, we actually had no choice in the matter.

"Great! You can wake us up then," joked P-Nut.

"Fine!" I said. "Maybe I will!"

I didn't. And looking back, I don't know why.

There's no way anybody could have predicted then that all of us, even Hobbes, would end up hiking half the trail together, or that we would become such good friends that we'd continue keeping in touch with each other long after we'd left Katahdin. Indeed, at this point we had hiked only 215 miles. We were only one tenth of the way done with the trail. We didn't know where we'd be sleeping the following night. Even making it to Damascus wasn't a foregone conclusion.

Merf arrived after dark, carrying a bag of cookies she'd found on the trail.

"Anybody lose a bag of cookies?" she asked. I was surprised. I wouldn't have bothered asking. I would've just eaten the cookies, and then left the bag. Or eaten the cookies and taken the bag, and then asked if anyone had lost a empty bag that didn't have any cookies in it. Then again, I probably would've been murdered, so it's a good thing Merf was the better person. The bag actually belonged to one of the overnight hikers, and they were so enthused to have it back that they made room for Merf in the bunks below.

Freeman arrived even later. I didn't even see him, just heard his voice. There were twenty two people in the shelter that night. It was supposedly built for twelve.

I wished I had stayed up to talk to them. I'd see Merf again, but not until Maryland. Just like Jason, I never got to say goodbye to Freeman, and would never see him again.

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