Despite our unexpected imposition upon her hospitality, Patch's mother actually seemed quite sad that we were leaving, and even called in sick to work in order to see us off. So moved by all that she had done, that her family had done, I gave her a heartfelt hug goodbye and promptly forgot her name, her husband's name, and their address. That's assuming I ever knew them in the first place. Either way, I would not be sending them any celebratory postcards when I finished.
Then again, I wouldn't be sending anybody celebratory postcards when I finished. I'm just not that thoughtful or considerate a person. However, the trail would exact some measure of vengeance upon me for my lack of tact later in the day.
Bandito and I were following Brian and Alyson into No Business Knob Shelter, the last campsite before Erwin. It was at the end of a long if not particularly interesting day. The trail was covered in leaves, making it difficult to see the rocks and roots and other things that could occasionally trip you up. Moreover, it was badly eroded, skirting the edge of a gorge, adding an unwelcome element of danger to the equation that I overlooked at my own peril.
And Perhaps I wasn't being as careful about where I was putting my feet as I should have been. I tripped and fell, in what felt like slow motion, flat on my face. My nose met earth. My mouth was filled with dirt. And the sudden impact caused my water bottle to pop comically out of its mesh side pocket, fly in a beautiful parabolic arc through the air, bounce off a tree, and then skitter down the slope to land somewhere at the bottom of the gully.
Fifteen minutes later, and after I had stopped crying, I tried to remember the advice Nature had once given me for exactly this sort of situation.
"When you fall down, and you will," she had warned, "Just take your pack off and lie there for five minutes to collect yourself. Remember that everything is going to be okay. Because it is. Everybody falls."
Not everybody falls on their face after tripping over nothing, and then has to scramble down a fifty foot incline to retrieve their water bottle, all while one of their best friends on the trail laughs uproariously at them. No, that's a special torture apparently reserved just for me. Naturally, I was so proud of my spectacular failure that when I got into camp I promptly told everybody what had just happened, and even wrote about it in the shelter log.
We were joined in camp that night by Dubois, Hobbes, Kashmir, Pixie, Little John, a different Patch, Banana Breath, Jungle Joose, Zebra, Boardwalk, Chalupa Joe, Tofu Skin, René Descartes, Washout, the Black Knight, Wallace Shawn and Erica Rosbe, a classmate of mine from college whom I had always admired. I think she was lost. Anyway, it was crowded.
We cooked dinner, not that any of us were that hungry. My stove was broken, as it had been for a while now. At first it had just sputtered feebly while producing a very unsatisfactory flame. Then it had started dripping fuel everywhere, invariably setting fire to whatever surface I was trying to cook on. Now it was threatening to blow up in my face, if it wasn't refusing to work at all. I was tired of watching people lord over me with their homemade alcohol stoves, gloating about their infallible simplicity. I intended to replace my stove as soon as possible, perhaps the next day.
Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel and Outfitters in Erwin was a bit of a madhouse when we arrived. Overflowing with obnoxious, drunken guests, Uncle Johnny's reminded me somewhat unfavorably of the Standing Bear Farm. The deck had a low ceiling that I repeatedly banged my head into, endlessly amusing Bandito and Hobbes. Until they inevitably banged their heads on it, too. Then they stopped laughing. Jerks. Anyway, I didn't like the place. I bought a new alcohol stove, some fuel, and then dragged Bandito away, never to return. We walked into town, some two miles out of our way, to go to a Pizza Plus for an AYCE lunch, and then resupplied at the Dollar General next door.
In retrospect, Erwin was pretty terrible, probably worse than I initially thought. It was inconveniently situated, too spread out, and so laid back as to be almost comatose. I either pitied or actively hated the people there, and the longer we stayed the more difficult it became for me to suppress an acidic misanthropy rising in my throat like bile. I couldn't wait to leave. At least it wasn't as bad as Gatlinburg.
We hiked out in the middle of the afternoon, ending up not far away at the Curley Maple Gap Shelter. Pixie, Little John, the other Patch, Chef, and others were there, including an outrageously bald southerner named Caveman. It took maybe a day for me to warm up to Caveman. He quickly endeared himself to me by giggling every time I swore, gleefully encouraging me to indulge my basest and worst instincts, and by generally being as different from Bandito as possible. Not that I didn't like Bandito, too. Bandito was my brother, like a baby-faced angel sitting on my shoulder. Caveman, on the other hand, was more like a Metallica shrieking, fire-breathing, riotous spawn of Satan, sitting on my other shoulder, whispering mischievous suggestions in my ear. Were destined to become great friends.
P-Nut eventually arrived, and we teased him for missing the trail magic at Patch's.
"No, not you, the other Patch," I said to the other Patch, who looked up at me, confused at the mention of his name. "Never mind."
There was a nervous, excited energy in the air, perhaps leftover from town or from Patch's the night before. Bandito threw his bear line over the branch of a dead tree, his rope got snagged, he pulled, it didn't budge, he pulled harder, and then the entire tree came crashing down, coming within inches of crushing the shelter. The rest of us roared in laughter as Bandito ran to change his underwear. And that was the sort of night it was.
I crawled into my sleeping bag and stared at the roof of my tent, contemplating the future. We were only a couple days away the Mountain Harbor B&B, where I anticipated getting a mail drop of homemade granolla bars. All that stood in our way was the Roan High Bluffs, some magnificent bald mountains, and a 35 mile stretch of trail without a single privy. What could possibly go wrong?