I walked with the young woman section hiker from Brooklyn for some time the next morning. Since her dog wore a muzzle, I had named him Hannibal Lecter. She, of course, had become Clarice Starling.
"I used to live in Brooklyn, too," I told Clarice. "Where's your apartment? Maybe I know the area."
"Kensington," said Clarice. "But my husband and I are moving to Lake Placid."
"Kensington? I know exactly where that is!" I said. "I used to live in Windsor Terrace. 16th Street, in between 8th Avenue and Prospect Park West! Have you ever been to--"
"Terrace Bagels?" she asked excitedly, finishing my sentence. "Yes! That was the last place I went to before I left to come down here!"
"No way!" I gushed, "Aren't they the best?"
"Yes!" she squealed.
"I could go for one right now," I mused, "An everything bagel with vegetable cream cheese."
Their bagels were always so warm and puffy, fresh out of the oven. The store always made their own cream cheese spreads, too, which made their downright awful service somewhat tolerable. On a nice sunny day, Megan and I would often get bagels to go and then have picnics in Prospect Park, just relaxing and people watching.
We hiked in silence for a moment, reminiscing.
"By the way, you stick out like a sore thumb out here," I said.
"I do?" she asked, cocking her eyebrow.
She did, and it wasn't that she was a semi-attractive girl with tattoos all over her neck and arms.
"You look like a hipster," I said, indicating her Pabst Blue Ribbon trucker hat. "PBR? Really?"
"What? This thing" she asked, incredulous. "I found it at a thrift store, it was like five dollars. I just had to have it!"
"Yeah," I said, skeptical. "Exactly."
"I bet you're a total hipster back in the real world," she said accusingly.
"How dare you," I shook my head. "I've never owned a pair of skinny jeans in my life."
We passed a man harvesting ramps alongside the trail and then headed down towards Sam's Gap.
Nature was already there when we arrived, standing beside her friend Unemployed, whom I had met back at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Unemployed was there to pick up Nature, whom she was taking into town for a few days, but she had brought with her several cases of Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper and Mountain Dew to give out to us hikers along with an assortment of fresh fruit. Bandito and I sat down with Nature, Trinket, Brian, Alyson, and Clarice to enjoy the trail magic. Only when the soda ran out did we pack up to move on.
Patch had given us very concrete directions to get to his parents' house.
"Go to Street Gap, turn right, and it'll be the second house on your right," he had said.
Unfortunately, when we arrived at Street Gap it resembled neither a gap nor a street. We were simply on a long stretch of level ground where what may have been a dirt road intersected the trail. There was no sign, nor any other indication that this is where we were supposed to be.
It was just Brian, Alyson, Bandito and myself at this point, and none of us had a map or a GPS device that might have told us where to go. We simply had to scout it out. It was just a question of who was going to do it. I volunteered.
"Take my pack," I said, "and if I'm not back in five minutes--"
"Call the cops?" asked Alyson, wary.
"Call your mother?" suggested Brian.
"Call the Pope?" asked Bandito.
"No!" I said, exasperated," Just carry my pack down for me, okay?"
Brian and Alyson exchanged looks. All I was asking them to do was to carry an extra forty pounds an unspecified distance down a creepy backwoods road. No big deal. And so I bravely set off into the unknown.
The road itself was no more than a couple of muddy ruts worn into the mountainside. A stream burbled gently to my right, running parallel to the road. It was peaceful, an actually kind of beautiful, but also disturbingly quiet, barren of any signs of actual human activity.
I passed an abandoned barn, its roof falling in, its door pockmarked with what appeared to be small caliber bullet holes. Had the world ended in the two hours since we'd left Sam's Gap? Or had I stepped off into some chaotic no man's land, beyond the influence of law and order, where the rotting vestiges of civilization were callously used for target practice by the bored and presumably dangerously inbred locals?
Things only got more discouraging the further I went. The second "building" I passed was no more than a run-down trailer home parked by the side of the road. If that was where Patch's parents lived, I was in trouble. And so were Patch's parents. The trailer was tiny, no bigger than a Jeep Grand Cherokee; it was hardly fit for a single person, let alone a family of three. Furthermore, it was clearly ancient; made out of stainless steel, its curvaceous lines echoed the sunny futurism and blind naivety of the 1950's. It was easy to imagine the trailer belonging to some terrified McCarthyite who might have packed up all his possessions and fled into the mountains to escape the Red Menace or some impending nuclear apocalypse. The trailer might have once represented all that was great about America: our mechanical ingenuity, our style, our freedom, our seemingly boundless mobility as a people and a culture. Now there it sat, a gross anachronism, lost in time, utterly alone, its iconic aura faded, its original purpose forgotten, twisted, subverted, left to rust in desolate isolation.
For some inexplicable reason, I kept going. The dirt road curved to the left, and all at once let out into what appeared to be a quiet modern suburb. There I was, standing on a paved street lined with telephone poles, looking around at impeccably manicured lawns in front of newish looking houses. It was a completely different kind of time warp, but no less jarring.
Patch was sitting on the covered porch of the second house on the right with a few buddies from the trail whose names I've long since forgotten. He called to me, and waved me over. I was very relieved to have found them.
"You just missed the pizza," said Patch, chowing down on a slice. "This was the last piece."
"Oh, well, that's too bad," I said, and immediately felt like leaving.
"Me and the guys were just going to run into town to resupply," said Patch. "Do you need anything? Did you want anything? Like a beer? Do you want to come along?"
"No," I demurred, "That's okay. I'll stay here and wait for Bandito, Brian, and Alyson."
"But I would take a soda, if you've got one," I added hopefully.
Brian and Bandito didn't seem particularly happy to see me sitting on the porch sipping a Dr. Pepper when they arrived.
"Where you going to come back?" asked Brian, dropping my backpack on the lawn.
"Why? Didn't you hear me whistling?"
"No! You whistled?"
Maybe. "I told you guys if I didn't come back just to follow me."
"Yeah, well, it occurred to us later that you might have just been murdered," said Alyson.
"You were worried about me?" I asked, touched.
"No, we just didn't want to carry your backpack all the way down here for nothing," said Brian.
"Gee, thanks," I said, sarcastic. "Tell you what, I'll carry your pack back up in the morning. How does that sound?"
"Sounds great!" said Brian, still catching his breath.
It probably would have been. Too bad I didn't actually do it.
The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent eating, showering, eating more, doing our laundry, and then having dinner, and generally basking in the overwhelming hospitality of Patch and his family. When his mother found out I was a vegetarian, she insisted on cooking me baked beans and some leftover Boca Burgers she had in the freezer. I ate enough for five people. There would be a long line for the bathroom that night, and the following morning.
About four hours after watching Tick Bite catch a fish in a nearby pond using only his trekking pole as a rod, things started to calm down a little. Slowed by too much alcohol, food, or both, people started to turn in, one by one. First Alyson, then Bandito, then myself. We were all staying in their guest house, which was brilliant and spacious enough. I found Alyson still awake, cuddling with Zelda, and Bandito hunched obsessively over a Harry Potter book he had found. Brian came in, and then Trinket, but the others stayed awake to drink into the wee hours of the morning.
Kept awake by snoring, I eventually moved outside onto the porch, where I fell into a deep and soothing sleep so profound I would not wake till late in the morning, despite a slow but persistant drizzle.