In truth I missed her greatly, and the only thing I could see in my future was her. I wasn't thinking about finding a job, or moving out of my parents' basement. Those were just a means to an end. The end was getting back to her. Of course, there was first the more physical challenge of actually getting back to her that I had to overcome. I was still 1,938.4 miles away, after all. But an overwhelming desire to see her burned in my chest, and a crazy, romantic idea began percolating in my mind. Both would drive me that day, and on to Katahdin.
I was surprised, and somewhat appalled, by how quickly Nature caught up to us that morning, and then left us in her dust. I didn't know then that she had thru-hiked in 2009, and that she was in phenomenal shape for someone her, my, or any age. Come to think of it, I didn't actually know how old she was. Then again, I couldn't be entirely sure she was completely human either. In retrospect, she was probably some sort of druid, or maybe the physical manifestation of Gaia, but I prefer to think she was a mutant alien-human hybrid with supernatural stamina and double jointed knees. It would have explained a lot.
In any case, she caught up to us fast, and asked us if we were planning to cowboy camp on Max Patch.
"Max Patch?" I asked stupidly. "Who's that?"
"It's a mountain, dummy," said Bandito. Then, turning to Nature with a trembling lip, "Right?"
Nature laughed loudly, startling me. It was rather unnerving.
She motioned for us to lean closer, so she could whisper confidentially, "I didn't want to tell the others, but cowboy camping on the summit is totally lame."
We followed her gaze to where the clearly hungover and lethargic Party Group were taking a break, savoring their mid-morning Tylenol.
"There's actually a great campsite just past the summit," she continued, hushed, "and I'm headed there, if you guys want to join me?"
Heck, yes. We nodded.
"Okay, see you guys up the trail," said Nature, flashing a mischievous smile. Then she disappeared. And I don't mean that she walked off quickly, it was more like she evaporated.
Bandito and I were stunned, bewildered. It took a few seconds for us to recover. I shook it off.
"Hey, does that guy look vaguely familiar to you?" said a voice over my shoulder.
"Bandito, come on," I urged, snapping him out of it. "Let's go."
I shot a look back towards the Party Group. They were all watching me with stupid looks on their faces, like a pack of hyenas with collective amnesia.
Bandito and I made good time to get away from them, such good time that I entertained the thought that we might catch up with Braids. She had broken camp that morning while we were barely out of bed, but had mentioned maybe waiting for us somewhere along the trail, suggesting maybe we could all eat lunch together. But we weren't planning another twenty mile day, so if we didn't catch up with her soon it would become increasingly unlikely we'd ever see her again.
Max Patch isn't actually a muscular bald guy with a wicked goatee as the name would suggest, but rather a 4,629' grassy bald, with a 360° panorama of the surrounding mountains and countryside. Although camping on top of the mountain is not strictly forbidden, it is generally discouraged, but everybody does it anyway. Cowboy camping at the summit allowed for spectacular views of the sunset and sunrise. You wouldn't even have to leave your sleeping bag.
The summit was crawling with day hikers, picnickers, and other touristy types when we arrived. Apparently there had been trail magic there that morning. Someone had been giving out pizza and beer. I was deeply sorry to have missed it, and tried to push it from my mind. We saw Nature relaxing in the sun, near where a man and his son were trying to get a kite off the ground.
She looked up as we approached, waved hello. "Do you know someone named Braids?" she asked.
Why, yes. We did.
"She was asking about a Bandito and a Major Chafage, I guessed that was you. She said she waited as long as she could, but she left like five minutes ago." Nature shrugged.
It was sad, especially to have missed her by so little, but hardly anything could dampen our spirits at that moment. It was really quite beautiful there, on top of the world. I didn't even mind the tourists so much, or resent them for belittling our achievement by only climbing the two hundred or so yards from the parking lot below. Bandito and I sat down nearby to enjoy the sun and the view, and I told Nature all about how Braids was crazy for hiking twenty miles a day. Nature seemed to agree with my assessment.
The Party Group soon made it up, and somehow they all had beer. One of them, a pudgy bald guy whose name was Fat Stick, had hiked up a couple tall boys, one for him and one for his friend.
"Hey, Dude Nozzle," said Fat Stick, shouting across to his equally insufferable friend. "I brought you a Budweiser!"
"Budweiser?" said Dude Nozzle, disgusted. "I'm not drinking that!" And he cursed, loudly.
Bandito was horribly offended by Dude Nozzle's potty mouth, but I was more sympathetic. Screaming profanity in front of children is a favorite pastime of mine.
I magnanimously and only half-jokingly offered to drink the extra Bud, if only to save Fat Stick from having to hike out the can.
"Hey, Fat Stick," I said. "I'll drink the Bud, if he doesn't want it."
Fat Stick looked at me like I'd just taken a dump on his face. Without an ounce of humor, he screamed "No!" and basically told me to go jump off a cliff, only not in so polite language.
Silently hoping he'd drop dead from an exploded urethra, I walked away, trying to be the better man.
Bandito and I set up our tents near Nature's on a stretch of flat ground underneath some trees just beyond the summit. We made a camp fire and ate dinner our before returning to watch the sunset. By nightfall, the crowd on top had thinned out considerably. Only the Party Group and a couple of section hikers remained. The mountain was big enough for all of us, however. I avoided my nemeses with ease.
Before returning to my tent, I realized I'd stupidly forgotten my MagLite in my bag. Serendipitously, I happened to have my cell phone on me, and I turned it on to use it as a light, such as I could. To my surprise I discovered I had service. I took advantage of the opportunity and called two of my most trusted friends, Giovanni and Liana, to tell them about my secret plan. That suddenly wasn't so secret anymore. Because I was telling them. For some reason, they both asked me if I was drunk. I wasn't.
And then I went to sleep, my secret plan and other machinations dancing in my head.