Friday, December 17, 2010

Chapter 37: On to the Mountain Harbor

Helen had trouble sleeping that night, and spent many a restless hour tucked in a corner of the Overmountain Shelter staring at the ceiling, lost in thought. The screaming baby alone might have been enough to keep her awake, but she was also plagued by doubts and her own fraying nerves. There she was, a perfectly respectable, intelligent and civilized young woman from London, England, sitting in the converted hay loft of a decrepit barn in rural North Carolina, surrounded by horrifying strangers. She felt four thousand miles away from home. She was.

As midnight approached and then passed, one thing that had been bothering her came into sudden focus. It was now April twentieth, and her hiking companion Claire's birthday. Claire was her best friend from back home and her one constant in a world of continual upheaval. Helen had few expectations when she and Claire began their epic journey together. At the very least, she thought they would get to see America in a unique and breathtaking way. Perhaps she imagined they would bond over their shared adventures, or even danger. What she did not anticipate was Claire slowly slipping away from her, or becoming increasingly lost amongst a crowd of loud and boorish Americans.

Of these, the most omnipresent was P-Nut, or was it Robert? (Helen would always struggle with the peculiarities of American naming conventions. After all, the Americans insisted on calling her "Redwing" and Claire "Lil' Dipper," and she had no idea why.) A fellow traveller, young, handsome and outgoing, P-Nut had been following Helen and Claire around like a wounded puppy for over a hundred miles. Had Helen known or been able to contact the proper authorities, she might have reported him for stalking, but instead found herself slowly becoming inured to his bizarre and often baffling behavior. His ingenious methodology included hiked dozens of miles ahead of them, not seeing them for days, and then randomly reappearing at strategic intervals. Most alarmingly, P-Nut cleverly disguised his insidious and vaguely sinister intentions behind a veneer of callous indifference; he frequently seemed to be fed up with the girls, rolling his eyes and groaning with impatience, and even once went so far as to proffer the hysterical suggestion that they were following him and not the other way around.

After P-Nut, the figure of most foreboding was the dark and mysterious Hobbes. A squirrelly wisp of a man, Hobbes was usually only seen in glimpses: the tread of his shoes as he disappeared into the forest, the sliver of an eye, his face cloaked in shadow, as he skulked around the periphery of camp like an aspiring Gollum. He abhorred crowds, and very rarely ventured into daylight. He had a penchant for suddenly emerging from out of nowhere to make a bitingly sarcastic remark, or genuinely astute observation, but would then vanish just as quickly. Most intriguingly, he carried with him a small guitar, yet no one ever saw or heard him playing. Was he a mystic, some sort of Pied Piper of the forest? No one knew. No one could know.

There were others, of course: Pixie, an Amazon with ridiculous swagger, cool athleticism, and terrifying aviator shades; Little John, whom in a different setting might have been an intellectual or scholar, what with his fashionably scraggly beard and smart spectacles, but in this world gave off the impression he'd sooner eat a book than read one; Bandito, who, well, the less said about him, the better. There was also Gumbo, (or was it Gumby?) Tintin, Patch, Fredo, and Major Chafage, the last of whom may have been the rudest, most ornery but disarmingly handsome man Helen had ever met, his soulless, dazzling blue eyes betraying an unfathomable and insatiable wickedness.

Despite what she felt was a growing distance between herself and Claire, Helen could still sense a certain melancholy in her friend. Nobody else on the trail knew it was Claire's birthday, and Helen was worried the occasion might pass unnoticed. In a fit on inspiration, at a little past one in the morning, Helen decided to organize a surprise birthday celebration. All she had to do was find a venue, make a bunch of new and exciting lifelong friends to make up the guest list, and then somehow bring everybody together over birthday cake and beer. It was going to be a long and difficult day.


It was a gloomy morning. The heavens roiled, dark and ominous, threatening to open up at any time. I was headed towards the Mountain Harbor Bed & Breakfast, where I was expecting a maildrop from my friend Becca. She had promised to send me a package of homemade granola bars and a bottle of hydrocodone. I secretly hoped it would start raining, thus justifying my incredibly lazy impulse just to stay at the Mountain Harbor overnight.

I hiked that morning with young Georgian named Fredo. We had just met at the Overmountain Shelter, and so were naturally curious about each other and fell into an easy conversation. Fredo told me he had received his trail name after pranking one of his companions on April Fools Day. Apparently he had hidden a sizable rock in his friend Steve's backpack, and, completely oblivious, Steve had carried the extra weight the entire day, often complaining that his pack seemed oddly heavy. Steve was understandably furious when he finally discovered the ruse, however. When no one else would admit responsibility, Steve had approached Fredo and said, "I know it was you, Fredo." And that's how Fredo became Fredo.

I thought the genesis of Fredo's name was inarguably awesome, while mine was, well, decidedly not. So, despite Fredo's outrageous facial hair and humble personality, I began to fear he was secretly much cooler than me, and I may have acted rather aloof and standoffish towards him as a result, something I would later regret. Still, I managed not to completely alienate him; we finally bonded over our shared love of beer and recreational drugs. Aside from the aforementioned hydrocodone, I told Fredo that my favorites were Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and hash brownies. I also boasted about having gone to Oktoberfest in Munich once, and then spiralled off on a ridiculous and hate-fueled tangent in which I denigrated Munich as a city, and the Bavarian people in general.

"Bavarians are awful, awful people," I ranted, "Even worse than day hikers or south-bounders. All they do is drink beer and try to kill innocent tourists by forcing them to drink beer!"

I explained that when I had been at Oktoberfest, some locals had taken a liking to me and had repeatedly called me over to their table to refill my Maß. Needless to say, I quickly blacked out, started screaming profanity for no apparent reason, and then woke up the next day back in my hostel not knowing how I had gotten there, whose bunk I was sleeping in, or how I had received that scratch on my forehead and that bruise on the bridge of my nose. Yes, Bavarians are the worst.


Helen and Claire were hiking with P-Nut that day, to utterly no one's surprise. P-Nut was full of his usual boisterous chatter, only pausing between jokes to excoriate the girls for hiking too slowly. Helen ignored P-Nut, and innocently suggested to Claire that they head to the Mountain Harbour Bed & Breakfast. The advantages were manifold: it was only nine miles from where they started that morning, they could be done hiking by noon and might escape the seemingly imminent rain, and they'd have the entire afternoon to go into town, resupply, and relax. Claire agreed, and the first part of Helen's plan fell into place. She had cleverly managed to avoid mention of Claire's birthday. For all Claire knew, Helen had forgotten her birthday too. That they would later be having a party of epic dimensions would thus come as an incredible surprise.

With their goals set, the girls were not in any particular hurry. They and P-Nut took their time and enjoyed themselves, frequently stopping to take goofy pictures, none of which turned out well and were quickly deleted and summarily forgotten. The only drawback to their leisurely pace soon became apparent, however, as they heard the far off crashing and faint echo of profanity that could only signal the imminent arrival of Major Chafage.

Major Chafage, thought Helen, increasing her pace. What a sick, self-centered, pretentious wanker he is. I hoped he's not planning to stay at the Mountain Harbour.

Unfortunately, Major Chafage was as brash and loud as he was chiseled and gorgeous, and his voice carried through the trees in a booming and assertive basso profondo.

"Yeah, my girlfriend and I totally ate hash brownies in Amsterdam, too," he was bragging. "It was awesome."

"Was it awesome?" came another voice, sounding vaguely sarcastic. "Because it sounded awesome."

"I know," said M.C., completely full of himself. "What can I say? I'm just awesome!"

"I've never had hash brownies," lamented M.C.'s companion. "My girlfriend and I did 'shrooms once though. Actually, that's a funny st--"

"I'm also a total crack addict," interrupted M.C., his voice faltering. "Yeah I do drugs all the time, because it's cool to do drugs, and I'm cool."

Whoever M.C. was hiking with didn't sound terribly impressed.

Why am I listening to this conversation, thought Helen. Damn that Major Chafage for being so dreamy and fascinating!


I thought I heard female voices ahead of me, so I stopped to listen. I held up my hand to silence Fredo. There was nothing. I must have been imagining things. Fredo eyed me quizzically, not used my theatrics. I needed to get away from him. He was bad for my self-esteem.

Luckily, Fredo was stopping at the Apple House Shelter for lunch. I quickly decided to continue on, and wait for Bandito by the road. I said goodbye to Fredo and hurried forward, hoping to never see him again.

The trail crossed a stream before climbing abruptly to the road. The area was littered with cans and old beer bottles, apparently a favorite hangout for the tragically impoverished locals. I shook my head in disgust and sat down on the guardrail to wait.

A father and daughter from Connecticut pulled over by a sign marking the Appalachian Trail to take pictures. I mentioned, truthfully, that I was from New Haven, and tried to strike up a conversation. They were friendly enough, but something seemed to put them off. Maybe it was my disheveled appearance or repellent aroma. When I jokingly offered to let the girl wear my backpack, so that she could tell her friends back home she had hiked the trail, neither of them seemed to appreciate my humor. They quickly drove off without even offering me a soda. As if I needed more proof, here was a blatant reminder that most people were completely self-absorbed, inconsiderate jerks. I hated everybody.

Bandito finally arrived, and I told him we were going to the Mountain Harbor. That was news to him, but he dutifully followed my lead. We saw Gumbo trying to hitch across the street, and went to talk to him. He was trying to get a ride into Roan Mountain before getting back on the trail. He had big miles in mind, and told us he was planning to do the Watauga Lake Challenge.

"The what now?"

"You start at the Watauga Lake Shelter, and you hike the forty miles into Damascus, Virginia in less than twenty four hours," explained Gumbo.

He was clearly insane. Before we left, the family with the screaming baby from the night before pulled up in a minivan. They wished us luck, and handed us all sodas before they left. I was awestruck, stupefied! My faith in humanity restored, I was so happy I may have even hugged Bandito. And if I didn't, I should have. We said goodbye to Gumbo, and set off down the road.

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