Nature had skipped Elmer's on her 2009 thru-hike and had regretted it ever since. She was not about to miss out on it again. I had the sneaking suspicion that the only reason she decided to thru-hike again was to stay at the Sunnybank.
"The only reason I'm thru-hiking again is so I can stay at the Sunnybank," confessed Nature, as we headed towards a campsite just outside of town.
"I didn't know you were thru-hiking again," said Bandito. "I thought you were just killing time before you started a trail maintenance job up in Maine."
"Bandito!" I scolded, "Stop it! That may be true, but it's not narratively compelling! Or funny!"
"M.C.?" said Bandito cooly.
"What?" I said.
And then Bandito told me to do something very rude with my trekking pole. Nature laughed.
"I don't have the trail maintenance job yet," she corrected, "I have to interview for it, and that's one of the reasons I'm trying to get into town so early. I want to make sure I have cell phone reception when the woman from the Maine ATC calls me."
"What time is your interview?" asked Bandito.
"In the morning?" I squeaked. I couldn't believe it. "People are even awake by then?"
As my Thru-Hiker's Handbook claimed that Elmer's didn't accept reservations, Bandito and I were planning to get there as soon as they opened in the morning so as to secure ourselves a room. And the main reason I wanted a room was so that I could stay for dinner. Bandito and I knew that many people in the Party Group were planning to go to the Sunnybank as well, and we didn't want to get crowded out.
The three of us had been trying to stay ahead of the Party Group the entire day, with varying degrees of success. We stopped at the Deer Park Mountain Shelter to make dinner, then watched in horror as the advanced guard of Party Group started to trickle in. They were all talking excitedly about getting into town and procuring beers. Why bother thru-hiking if you're just going town to town drinking as much as possible? If they wanted to get drunk every night, why couldn't they have just stayed home and done it in their parents' basements like normal people? It didn't make sense to me, and never would. Nature and I decided it might be prudent to stealth camp somewhere closer to town.
I met a nice Canadian couple heading south on a section hike when I went to fill up my water. My grandmother lives in Toronto, so I was glad to finally have someone I could talk to about something other than the trail. Turns out they were from one of the other provinces, or maybe Ottawa, and that they hated, envied, and resented Toronto like most Americans hate, envy, and resent New York. No matter, they were incredibly polite and even gifted me some delicious protein drink mix that they'd brought down from Canada. I can't remember the name, but they said it was used by Canada's athlete in the summer Olympics to great success, but that it wasn't FDA approved. I figured that meant it had steroids in it. It was awesome.
We ran into Hobbes on our way out.
"What're you doing here?" I asked, taken aback.
"We've met once before, and you dare talk to me with that tone of indignation?" said Hobbes, offended.
Hobbes was always annoyingly articulate.
"So I'm a jerk, so what?" I said, "I just thought Bandito and I were making really good time. And, I don't know, I kind of didn't expect to see you or anyone else we'd left behind so soon."
"Have you ever considered that maybe you're not as special as you think you are?" asked Hobbes, pointedly.
"I'm sorry, I think I just slipped into a coma and blacked out for a second," I said. "Did you say something?"
And then Hobbes and I laughed like long lost friends. We would be as tight as a certain precocious and adventurous six year-old boy and his sardonic stuffed tiger from then on.
"So are you headed into Hot Springs?" asked Bandito, whom neither of us had noticed, so lost were we in each other's eyes.
"Yeah!" said Hobbes, snapping out of it. "I think I'll try to do work for stay at Elmer's. I've done that like three or four times before. He's cool."
"You've stayed at Elmer's before?" I wondered. How many times had Hobbes hiked the trail? Or was I monumentally confused about some fundamental fact?
"Yeah, well, you know," Hobbes scoffed, brushing it off. "No big deal."
"Well, try to catch up, ya hear?" I teased Hobbes, going in for a hug.
"What're you doing?" asked Hobbes, repulsed.
"I don't know," I covered. "I've got this itch on my back." I mumbled, and wandered off, working my shoulders around, completely mortified.
"Okay, well, Bye!" said Bandito.
"Yeah," said Hobbes, bemused. "See ya."
Nature, Bandito and I found a serviceable area to stealth came just off the trail, about a mile from the shelter. There were no great places to put our tents down, hardly any level ground, and so I proposed cowboy camping.
"Really?" asked Nature, surprised.
"Why not?" I said. "It's a nice night, we're under some trees. There are leaves and branches everywhere. What could be more comfortable?"
"Okay," she said, not sounding convinced. "If you'll do it, I'll do it too."
Twenty minutes later, I was lying on my back, staring up at a spider dangling from the branch of a pine tree over my head.
"What about the snakes?" asked Nature, a few yards away.
"What snakes?" I hadn't thought about snakes.
"Aren't you afraid they'll crawl into your sleeping bag while you're asleep? To get warm? And then when you try to get out on the morning, they'll bite you?"
"I wasn't. But I am now," I said. "Thanks a lot!"
Nature was irrationally terrified of snakes, but she had a point.
"I'm putting my tent up," I declared suddenly.
"You are?" said Nature, panicked. "Then I am too!"
And we did. And neither of us died that night. The next day, however, I would brutally murder half a dozen people, and would never be welcome in North Carolina again.