Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chapter 31: On a Rock

We spent that night alongside the French Broad River across from the Hot Springs Campground. Despite its name, the river wasn't that broad; we were still close enough to the campground to see individual guests moving about. I spent a few long introspective minutes watching the reflected lights from various RVs and cabins dance upon the water. Aside from the far-off rumble of passing trucks on the highway, the only sound we could hear was the omnipresent roar of the river. The endless rush of water permeated our every thought and even our dreams; Bandito had recurring nightmares that he was drowning, and awoke several times during the night convinced that the river was flooding.

We were far from alone in camping by the river. Much as I had expected, Hobbes had not secured work for stay at Elmer's, and had ended up tenting nearby. We were joined by a few anonymous section hikers and what seemed to be a local couple too cheap to spring for a sleazy motel. If I was worried about anything, it wasn't flooding; the A.T. is often used by nocturnal predators as a game trail, and we were lined up and neatly packaged like sushi on a conveyor belt.

My biggest problem would not be drowning or being devoured during the night, however. It would be the vagaries of the human digestive track. Perhaps not used to eating so much and so richly, when I awoke in the morning my need for a bathroom was intense and excruciating. I decided to try to make it back to a gas station on the road, but after having waddled fifty yards or so I realized I would never make it. To my left was the river. To my right was a sheer rock face, leading straight up. I didn't appear to have many options. Digging a cathole on the trail was unacceptable, and way too public. Although I had lost many of my inhibitions on the trail, taking a dump in full view of other people was not something I was prepared to do.

Miraculously, I found a path leading off to my right. Out of desperation or necessity, I took it. The trail ascended an almost vertical slope. A rope had been strung from a tree to help climbers pull their way up. I didn't know where it was leading me, but I didn't really care. Reaching the top, I realized my folly. Level ground was scarce, and worse, there was hardly any loose soil at all for me to dig into. Acute intestinal distress won out over sanity, however, and I soon found myself squatting on a boulder overlooking the river. If anyone nearby had happened to look up at that moment, they would have been very sorry indeed. And so would I.

Strictly adhering to the rules of Leave No Trace, I did not simply cover my waste with rhododendron leaves and then walk away as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. That would have been gross and irresponsible. The only rational, responsible thing to do was to bag up my stool in a ziplock and dispose of it back in civilization. Before I could do so, however, I was attacked by a condor the size of a small school bus! Screaming girlishly, I half-scrambled, half-fell down the cliff side back to the trail. The condor screeched and dove at me in anger, scratching my arms and face relentlessly with its vicious, razor sharp talons, until I returned to where Bandito was sitting, calmly eating breakfast. At that point, and to my great relief, the condor mysteriously took off, disappearing without a trace.

"Did you see that thing?" I panted.

"What are you talking about?" asked Bandito, looking up.

"I was just-- and then this giant condor! And-- Oh, never mind," I sighed.

I thought about returning to the rock, to be responsible and properly dispose of my effluence, but I figured I might have strayed too close to the condor's nest. And I didn't want to provoke it again. Once had been bad enough.

"I didn't know there were condors in North America," said Bandito, alarmed.

"Me neither," I said, still catching my breath. And then I went to wash my hands in the river.

I was immensely relieved when we hiked out later that morning, justifiably eager to put the pain and humiliation I had just experienced behind me. No doubt, my next horrible embarrassment would be lurking just around the corner.

The passage of time on the trail is marked by many things: sunrise and sunset; the crossing of significant landmarks; and any and all meals. On this day we would cross no significant landmarks. We ate lunch on the Rich Mountain fire tower, and by sunset had arrived at the Little Laurel Shelter to make camp. Nothing at all of significance happened, save for a conversation we had with an older section hiker we met while eating lunch. He told me that, especially as a vegetarian, I had to be careful about what I ate while on the trail. Some people will tell you that the only thing that matters is your total caloric intake. Others will tell you to only eat protein. This guy wanted to impress upon me, upon us, that the only thing that mattered were complex carbohydrates. If I learned anything that day, it was that if I didn't eat enough complex carbs, I would die. I made a mental note, determined to become an expert at not dying.

Hiking through the woods day after day can be an incredibly tedious and uninteresting thing, if you let it. It can also be the paragon of tranquility, an unending series of zen epiphanies, or the most freeing experience in the world. Much like any subjective experience, however, what you take out of it depends on what you bring into it. I like to think I found a happy medium, where I could enjoy the startling beauty of nature when it presented itself, but quickly enough retreat into my own thoughts when the going was just sheer drudgery. That day, I think, was more of the latter.

Nature had stayed behind in town. She had inexplicably developed an alarming and unexplained bruise on her thigh that had become so painful it was affecting her mobility. Elaine from Maine had been at Elmer's, and had taken a look at the bruise for her. Although Nature had been initially hesitant to visit a doctor, Elaine had been worried enough about it to convince her to do so. Bandito and I both hoped Nature would be okay, and missed her greatly. As it was, we'd end up camping with Brian, Alyson, and a young woman section hiker from Brooklyn with a very ill-behaved dog.

Seeking to diffuse any lingering tension, I immediately apologized to Brian for spilling orange juice on him the day before, and apologized to Alyson for pretty much being a failure as a human being. They may have been happy enough just to see people they knew, and forgave me readily. I wasn't about to let it go so easily, however. I still felt really bad for the way I had treated them, so I let them in on a personal secret.

"Yesterday, at dinner," I began, "Well, Elmer makes his guests answer stupid questions. It's kind of a tradition, you know?"

They nodded, listening intently as they ate their supper.

"So yesterday the question was, if you could pick anyone in the world to be your parents, other than your actual parents, who would they be? And I said Brian and Alyson," I confessed, emotional. "I said you guys. Because when I look at you, I see who I want to be. You're like the perfect couple, and--"

I couldn't go on. Zelda, their attack dog, came over and licked the tears from my cheek.

"Okay, that was the worst story ever," said Alyson.

"Yeah, I don't buy it at all," Brian laughed. "Did he really ask that, though?"

"Yes," said Bandito. "But M.C. is lying about everything else."

"I knew it!" said Alyson.

"How dare you," I muttered, betrayed.

"Who did you say, Bandito?" asked Alyson.

"Jackie Chan and Natalie Portman."

Brian wolf-whistled. Alyson laughed.

"M.C. said Bill and Melinda Gates," continued Bandito.

"How dare you," I repeated.

"You know they're giving away their fortune, right?" asked Brian. "So you wouldn't inherit anything."

No, I hadn't known that. Mortified, and as usual, I left to cry myself to sleep.

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