It's hard to remember what our ambitions were the day after we left Erwin. Perhaps we simply wanted to put as many miles between us and that miserable place as we could. This explanation may be overly reductive and more than a little misleading, however. After all, if one were to make a list of all the staggeringly pointless small towns in Tennessee that are utterly devoid of culture, local color, and appreciable human life, whose biggest industries are rafting and nuclear fuel processing, Erwin might rank as one of the best. It would definitely be in the top two.
So, for whatever reason, Bandito and I did twenty miles that day, from Curley Maple Gap Shelter to Greasy Creek Gap. We were joined there by Caveman and Hightower, a gargantuan, hairy monstrosity of a man who looked suspiciously like Dirk Nowitzki.
"Your trail name should have been Dirk Nowitzki," I joked, as Caveman and Bandito went to get water.
Hightower scowled, sighing, "Yeah, I've heard that before. People saying I look like Dirk."
"It's not that you look like Dirk Nowitzki," I laughed, half serious. "It's that you are Dirk Nowitzki!"
"W-what?" stammered Hightower, suddenly and seemingly unnecessarily defensive, "But I'm not! He's what, two hundred and thirteen centimeters--"
Don't think I didn't notice his suspicious use of the metric system.
He flushed, panicking, "I mean, seven feet tall? And I'm only six-foot-eight!"
"Sure," I said, amused. "So why did you decide to hike the trail?"
"Oh, you know," Hightower equivocated. "I love nature, and--"
"Did you suddenly realize Jason Kidd is fifty years old? Was Mark Cuban getting you down?"
"Nein," Hightower growled, irritated. "Me and the Cubes are tight."
Hightower and I stared at each other in shock.
In one motion, Hightower dropped what he was doing, grabbed me by the throat and slammed me against a tree. He got in my face, his curly blonde goatee inches from my nose. I could hardly breathe. He smelled awful, like a cocktail of sweat and ground up wienerschnitzel.
"Listen," he growled, "You tell anybody out here who I am, and I'll kill you. Understand? Einen schönen Tag allerseits!"
I nodded, my face turning purple. He let go, and I dropped to the ground, gasping.
"You're one of my girlfriend's favorite players!" I blurted. "Please don't kill me."
"Leichter gesagt als getan," Hightower spat, then added "Schlappschwanz" in a derisive mutter. He glared at me, and then went back to setting up his tent.
Bandito and Caveman returned shortly, and not a moment too soon.
"Anybody want to go down to that Greasy Creek Friendly to get ice cream?" I asked, desperate for any excuse to get away from the large, surly German. "I hear they have Ben & Jerry's!"
Ben & Jerry's was Bandito's favorite food. His eyes lit up.
"Sure," drawled Caveman. "I'll go."
We hid our packs in a furrow behind a log and set off.
We almost didn't find the hostel. It looked like every other run-down farm house, except for having a lone hiker sitting outside. His real name was Jim, and he was fat. His rather inventive trail name was Fat Jim. And he was staying at the Friendly. He directed us inside, where we found a closet-sized camp store, replete with single servings of Pop Tarts and overpriced soda. Bandito immediately grabbed a pint of Ben & Jerry's, despite its seemingly prohibitive $5 price tag.
The proprietor of the Greasy Creek Friendly was a delightfully congenial old woman named Connie. She looked to be in her mid to late sixties, she was Jewish, and she was evidently rather drunk. She carried a box of table wine around with her like a security blanket, drinking from it occasionally with a bendy straw. When I remarked sadly about the cost of the Ben & Jerry's, Connie kindly offered to make Caveman and me ice cream sundaes for $3 instead.
"How 'bout this," Connie hiccuped, "I-- What was I saying?"
"Ice cream sundaes?"
"Yes! I can make you boys some ice cream sundaes! That's a great idea!" She beamed at us and jumped up to look through her freezer. "Now, do y'all want yours to be vanilla or chocolate?"
"Both," we said, honestly.
Connie frowned, as if unable to comprehend the concept. "Oh, I know!" she exclaimed, "I can put both vanilla and chocolate and vanilla into the same cup! Now how does that sound?"
"Awesome," we said.
"Oh, and you can't-- y-you just can't leave till I show you this trick-- this-- my cat does tricks," she explained helpfully, belching. "Did I tell you about my cats?"
"I have a Maine Coon cat. Actually I have more than one cat but my Maine Coon cat is the one that does tricks. He's really amazing." she said. "Remind me to show you them-- my cat tricks, before-- You have to see my cat do tricks."
"Did I tell you about my cats?" she continued.
I had barely enough cash on me for the sundae, so I went outside to see if I could sell a back massage to any of the other guests. I thought it was an ingenious plan, not just to raise a little money but also to avoid Connie's drunken ramblings. Unfortunately, the only taker I could find was Fat Jim. Fortunately, I have no shame. Ten minutes later, I had earned five bucks and somehow retained my dignity.
When I returned inside, Connie was telling Caveman and Bandito about her nemesis, the man who lived across the street.
"Oh, he's a paranoid schizo-- schi-- He's crazy, and he absolutely hates hikers!" she was saying. "Thinks y'all are nothin' but homeless trash. Some days he'll get up at the crack of dawn and ride his lawnmower up and down the street outside with the hood open, just to wake everybody up. Other days he'll bang trash can lids together, or shout at us using a bull horn..."
"Have you ever tried gettin' back at him?" asked Caveman.
"I may have hit him with my car once," Connie said, wistful. "Or maybe threw a fryin' pan at his head, I forget. He called the police. Accused me of assault." She laughed.
Caveman laughed with her, "Naw, I meant more like eggin' his house, or maybe murderin' his wife and children and then grindin' 'em up to use as fertilizer for your garden and then makin' a salad with the veggies you grew an' then feedin' it to him."
I would never be surprised by the depths of Caveman's depravity. Bandito was a little spooked, though.
Connie laughed, and shook her head reprovingly. "Nah, I don't have the, um, the-- No, come on, now!"
At that point a small mountain lion padded into the room, about three and a half feet long and maybe a hundred pounds. It was enormous. It yawned, and I think I saw my life flash before my eyes. Connie shrieked in delight and ran to prostrate herself before the animal, smothering it with affection. Like any cat, it haughtily ignored her and began licking itself.
"This is my baby!" she screamed, tearing up. "Don't you want to see him do tricks?"
"Of course we do," said Caveman pleasantly, pulling up a chair to watch. Bandito stood on the table, freaked out, holding a butter knife to defend himself.
"Come on, it's okay," I said, coaxing him down. "It won't kill you. It might just chew on you a little."
That didn't seem to help. Connie ran out to round up Fat Jim and everyone else staying at the Friendly that night, and ushered them all into the dining room. Once we were all seated, she plopped her cat down on top of a stool in front of everybody. Surprisingly, the cat let her, and didn't immediately run away.
"Wow," I murmured, "That is one talented cat."
"Don't be rude," scolded Caveman.
"Watch this!" commanded Connie, before I could object. She held a cat treat above her cat's head. "Come on, get it, boy!"
The cat stood on its hind legs and swatted the treat out of her hands, then jumped off the stool to eat it.
Connie clapped gleefully and beamed at us all. "Isn't that just amazin'?"
It was something special, all right.
After scarfing down our sundaes, we left to return to camp. I would later regret not staying there for the night, however. Connie was wonderfully personable, even if she was a bit daffy, and getting to experience her awful neighbor would have been an undeniable treat. Still, it might have been hard to justify the expense.
Dirk was asleep by the time we got back, and it was already after dark. We threw our bear bags and then turned in. The following day we'd be tackling Roan Mountain, which at 6,285' is one of the tallest peaks on the trail. We needed our rest, and we got it.