We awoke around seven to a steady drizzle. P-Nut, Caveman and Fat Jim had arrive sometime after us during the night, and were tented nearby on the lawn. My entire body ached. I felt like a dog turd that had been trampled by a herd of elephants.
My feet were bruised and swollen. My legs wobbled like shredded string cheese. My left achilles tendon had tightened up so considerably I could barely walk. But hobble I did, inside, in an increasing panic to find a bathroom.
The Place was empty. There must have been two dozen open bunks. In our exhausted stupor, hadn't even looked inside to check if there was room. It was a ridiculous lapse in judgement, but I didn't care. We had just hiked forty miles in eighteen hours.
Bandito and I went to a diner for breakfast. The food was terrible. It was the best meal we would ever eat, at least until lunchtime. I had a milkshake, and we waited for his aunt and uncle to arrive. Or maybe they were his cousins. He had relatives coming to meet us, in any case.
They came. And they were wonderfully generous and accommodating. They drove us to nearby Abingdon, Virginia, and put us up in a hotel. Then we went out for lunch. Mexican food. Then we did our laundry, and I called some friends to alert them of my progress. Then we went out for dinner. And then we went back to the hotel, and slept in real beds for a change. It was glorious.
The next day we had the complimentary continental breakfast in the hotel. I had never seen such a magnificent array of foods. I decided to try a little of everything. Sometimes I had seconds. Bandito's relatives drove us back to Damascus, where we claimed bunks at the Place. If I had been capable of feeling anything besides excruciating pain and exhaustion, I might have been happy to see that Caveman, P-Nut, and Hobbes were still there.
Bandito showed his relatives around town, taking them to the Mt. Roger's Outfitter, where they stocked up on expensive freeze dried foods. I sat outside on a lawn chair, dead to the world. Braids may have walked past, or maybe it was a mirage. I may have teased her for being the overly ambitious one, yet we had caught up with her. Again. I may have told her that we had just done the Watauga Lake Challenge. She may have then questioned our sanity. And that would have meant a lot, coming from her, if it had really happened. But I can't be sure.
Bandito came out and spoke to Braids briefly, before she went on her way. She was hiking out that day, and we'd likely never see her again. My heart might have fluttered, but I could feel no real sadness or empathy. I could feel nothing. We said goodbye to Braids and waved her off. Bandito smirked, and said I looked like I was in a much better mood all of a sudden. I don't know what he was talking about.
We said goodbye to Bandito's relatives. I hope I was appropriately profuse in thanking them for their ridiculous hospitality, but I have no memory of the conversation. They plied us with snacks and fruit, and then left. They were charming and adorable, just like the rest of Bandito's family. He had relatives strategically placed all along the Eastern Seaboard. I was sorry my family lived only in New England, and couldn't be as helpful, to repay his and their kindness.
We eventually found our way to Quincey's Pizza for dinner. Our fellow hikers had seemingly shut the place down, either through guile or their elite hiker stench. We had almost the entire restaurant to ourselves. Miller Time was there, shamelessly hitting on a conspicuously intoxicated Nature. Caboose and Spark were there, splitting a six dollar pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon. And then there was the kiddie table, occupied by Hobbes, P-Nut, Lil Dipper, Redwing, Saint, Caveman, Alphabet, Sasquatch, and the Loch Ness Monster. It felt great to be back amongst friends.
I abstained from alcoholic beverages, and managed to eat an entire pizza without vomiting or having more than one bout of uncontrollable diarrhea. Nature reintroduced me to Alphabet, whom I'd previously met as Kate. The last time I'd seen her, she was dashing up Clingman's Dome in the dark, planning to camp on top. Alphabet was a raging alcoholic, and was considering starting her own brewery when she finished with the trail to expedite her inevitable liver failure. She had heard from Nature that I was a home brewer, and had been excited to read a recipe I had written for an India Pale Ale in a shelter log. I was suddenly her new best friend, and we held a long, fascinating conversation almost exclusively about beer. It was all she wanted to talk about. Which was fine with me, because beer was also one of my favorite subjects. After food. And pooping.
When the waiter brought our bills, we finally learned each other's real names. I already knew Caboose and Spark were Brian and Alyson, and that Lil Dipper and Redwing had weird and British names like Clarice and Helena. And that P-Nut was actually named P-Nut, because his parents were hippies. But I didn't know that Caveman's real name was Devin, or that Bandito's name was Josh. You'd think I'd have learned his real name, having spent so much time with him and his family, but, as far as I could remember, they had all referred to him as Bandito. Odd. I was especially surprised to find out my real name was T. Baxter Corwin Neuse-Braunlich III, Esq. Hobbes was the most upset to have his secret identity revealed, however. Those of us who were sober enough to remember his real name proceeded to torture him with it by calling him Adam exclusively from then on.
We returned to the Place and found we had a couple hours to kill. I suggested playing cards, as I had gotten a deck from a woman giving out trail magic some days earlier. Redwing eagerly accepted my challenge, and bragged about her prodigious skill at Hearts. Apparently the game was all she played with her friends as they blitzed merrily around Europe on their ubiquitous high-speed railroad system. She and Lil Dipper often went to Paris after school, just to get an espresso and a scone at Le Plaza Athenée, and spent the four hours on the train playing cards. I was going down.
I shot the moon on the first hand. As it bore on, the game increasingly resembled the American Revolution. It ultimately ended with Lil Dipper and Redwing in tears, begging for forgiveness, and swearing fealty to and unwavering respect towards American awesomeness and our universal superiority over everything. Overcome by my victory, I sang The Star-Spangled Banner in their faces, had a patriotic orgasm in my pants, and then went to bed. With apologies to my numerous past and current girlfriends, it was the best night of my life.
Except for the snoring, which drove me to sleep on the porch. In the rain. At four in the morning.