By the time we all awoke for breakfast, someone had put on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and P-Nut was unpacking as though to stay at the Mountain Harbor permanently. I felt a similar sentiment upon seeing the breakfast Mary had prepared for us: multiple kinds of french toast made with homemade breads, a giant egg soufflé, fruit salad, and a massive, mutant Bundt cake-shaped sticky bun thing that even looking at practically gave me a coronary. It was quite possibly the best meal we'd ever have on the trail, and all but guaranteed that our 18-mile aspirations that day would end in unmitigated, slothful disaster.
Leaving breakfast some four pounds heavier than when we started, however, we somehow did not let the additional weight slow us down. Nor were we significantly delayed by the inevitable bouts of profuse and extravagant pooping. No, the only thing that would hold us up that day was the pernicious and elusive nature of the trail itself.
I left before Bandito to hike with Hobbes that morning. I'm not entirely sure why I did that. Maybe I wanted to give Bandito some space, or maybe I quite reasonably assumed he would eventually catch up, or maybe I just wanted an opportunity to bond with and finally make a good impression on Hobbes, something I'd utterly failed to do up till that point. This was easier said than done, however. Hobbes was a much stronger hiker than myself, and moved effortlessly, seemingly unencumbered by his pack or the several tons of psychological and emotional baggage that I, at least, constantly carried around with me. It was all I could do to keep up with him, let alone try to hold a conversation.
I followed him up a hill to where the trail seemed to come to an abrupt halt at a gravel road. I was beginning to worry, since I hadn't seen a blaze in about five minutes, but Hobbes seemed to know where he was going. He turned right, up the gravel road. I checked my guidebook, and it did mention a road crossing, so I followed. Hobbes had long since sped out of sight by the time I saw another white blaze, this time on a tree to my right. The trail led off the road and started going downhill. I found it curious that it seemed to be leading me back to where I started.
It was. I found myself back at the bottom of the hill, several hundred yards below where I had followed Hobbes onto the road. I was confused and angry, and was about to direct my considerable frustrations onto a nearby tree when Bandito walked up.
"Whatchu doin' M.C.?" asked Bandito.
"Do not go up there," I growled or screamed, pointing to my right.
Up the hill, another hiker heard me shouting and turned around. An elderly gentleman, he called down to us, much to my surprise. I hadn't even noticed he was there. He was grateful enough when I told him he was going the wrong way, and came back down the hill to help us drag some branches across the trail, forming an arrow on the ground to hopefully direct others in the right direction.
The British girls arrived before we left, and asked what all the hullabaloo was about.
"Absolutely nothing," I asserted. "Nobody got lost. Especially not me. Whoever said I got lost and wandered in a circle for half an hour is lying!"
"The trail turns here, and it's a bit unclear, so we were just making an arrow on the ground to direct people," explained Bandito helpfully.
"You mean like that sign says?" asked Redwing, pointing to a nearby tree. Where there was a sign. With an arrow, pointing to the right. But it was faded, and not at all at eye level!
"Didn't you leave like an hour before us, M.C.?" asked Lil Dipper.
"Okay, fine! So I got lost! But I look at the ground when I walk!" I shouted, "So I don't trip over things! Don't you understand? I hate everybody."
"When are you going to stop acting like a petulant child?" asked Redwing, possibly rhetorically. "This whole blowing up at the slightest provocation thing is really getting old."
"And that means a lot coming from them," pointed out Bandito. "They've only spent three nights on the trail with you."
"And we've never hiked together, until now," added Lil Dipper.
I couldn't believe it. I said nothing and hiked on in silence, swallowing my incalculable anger and sadness.
"You're just like the imperialistic American foreign policy," adding Redwing later, rather gratuitously, "Winning over hearts and minds everywhere you go."
"Okay, now you've gone too far," I spat. "America is awesome."
And I became so consumed with patriotic rage that I blacked out and only came to when we arrived at the Moreland Gap Shelter. Either that or the hike was just boring. Pleasant, but boring.
Nature and Brian and Alyson were there. I was overjoyed to see them, especially since it had been about five days since I'd seen Brian and Alyson, and even longer since I'd seen Nature. Alyson told us she and Brian had acquired trail names in our absence.
"I'm Caboose," explained Brian, "Because I'm always bringing up the rear."
"I'm Zoom," said their dog, Zelda, "Because Zelda wasn't an awesome enough name for me already."
I tried to ignore the talking dog. Perhaps it was just a figment of my imagination.
"And I'm Spark," concluded Alyson. "Because I like starting fires."
"And not because she's marched through the south like General Sherman, burning everything in her path," joked Brian.
"William Tecumseh, eh?" I asked, impressed. "He's a personal hero of mine!"
I then whistled John Brown's Body as I went to collect water. The shelter's water source was at the bottom of a 400-foot canyon directly in front of the shelter. It was ridiculous, but I handled the challenge with dignity and calm. I didn't curse, nor did I scream incomprehensible invective into the sky, nor did I cry, throw my water filter against a tree, or break my walking stick, Dino IV, against a rock. I was done having meltdowns. It was too mentally taxing to continue getting stressed out so much over everything.
When I returned, Nature, Caboose, Spark, Redwing, Lil Dipper, P-Nut, Bandito, and Hobbes were sitting around the campfire eating dinner. There were other hikers there, of course, the most notable of which was Strider, who fancied himself a younger, sexier, more intelligent and literary Christopher McCandless. Strider was only 19 years old, and was already quite possibly the world's greatest traveller, and second best story teller.
Like Christopher McCandless, Strider came from a privileged, educated background. He had been on track to graduate as valedictorian of his elementary school, but had suddenly dropped out in the fifth grade, much to the consternation of his parents and the local PTA. In the years since, he had ran away from home several times and spent months hitchhiking and travelling the country, working small jobs here and there. Perhaps one of his most exciting adventures had come when he drove a mobile meth lab located in a VW Bus cross-country from Spokane, Washington to New York City. Discovering he was being tailed by the FBI, Strider had only evaded prosecution by driving the bus into the East River, and then by claiming to be a hostage of the other drug smugglers. Since he was a minor, he had been released into his parents' custody with no mark on his permanent record, but had then ran away again almost immediately, and for the last time. It was then, at the tender age of fifteen, that he had taken up travel writing and sword-fighting, and his dream now was to hike the Appalachian Trail for a charity called "Strider Forges Himself an Épée with which to Slay Things, Especially Dragons, and Fight Cancer," and then write a book about it.
"Nobody will want to read your stupid book," I cautioned him, "Your rebellion against the real world is meaningless, because you don't have any real world experience."
"You're just bitter," scoffed Strider. "You're just a hater. A critic. And you know who becomes critics? People who suck at actually doing the thing they're criticizing."
"How can you say it's a meaningful sacrifice if you're giving up something you don't even value? And how can you value something you don't even know?" I asked.
"Your logic is weak, old man," said Strider. "You should not have entered into this debate with me."
"It would be like if I said I was giving up eating meat," I continued, undaunted, "Nobody would care, because I'm already a vegetarian. You can't say you're giving up friends, money, or any lasting human connections, because you're already a pathetic, worthless, completely unlikable loser!"
"Your stories will never get published," I added, when Strider didn't respond. "You should just give up. At everything."
"I think you're just projecting your own failures onto me," said Strider uneasily.
"See?" I sighed, "That's the sort of insightful psychological observation I would believe, except you never even took AP Psych. Because you never even went to high school!"
And so I went to bed, thinking about how I was a failure at-- I mean, and then Strider went to bed in tears, thinking about what a gross failure he was at everything.