It was two days since I had finished the Watauga Lake Challenge, and my body was still recovering. My legs hurt bizarrely in the morning; I had aches in muscles I previously didn't even know existed. But there was nothing for it. It was time to hike on.
Breakfast was an embittering affair, as P-Nut, Redwing and Lil Dipper bragged about their plans to slackpack some twenty five miles out of town. I grumbled my disapproval, but they remained steadfast committed, and even lobbied me to join them. Despite the fact that the Place was "donation only," however, staying in Damascus was getting too expensive for my tastes. I didn't want to be further tempted by the nearby bars or liquor stores, or to go back to that infernal pizzeria. Towns were always money pits, and I knew the longer I stayed, the less enthusiastic I would be about leaving. Besides, I didn't want to get too used to the meager comforts and luxuries of civilization, such as they were. We were in Virginia. The end was in sight. There was no looking back.
The peer pressure was strong, however. Besides the aforementioned trio, Caboose and Spark were also slackpacking, along with Nature, Alphabet, and an old dude named Ranger. Only myself, Bandito, Caveman and Hobbes were actually planning to hike out. Strider, the World's Greatest Traveller, was staying in Damascus to mow people's lawns and do various other unsavory odd-jobs until he could save enough money to continue his journey. None of us expected to see him again.
Actually cheered on by that encouraging thought, I started out ahead of the others. The trail was fairly flat for about a mile out of town, as it followed a road and the Virginia Creeper Trail, an old railroad right-of-way that's been converted into a bike path. I maintained a relatively steady pace for a couple of hours, until I was suddenly forced to duck off in search of a catholing site.
To my right was a slippery slope down towards a stream, and then the Virginia Creeper Trail. Which was paved. Someone could come along on their bike at any second, and I would have little to no warning. So that was out. To my left was an unforgiving, mercilessly steep incline covered in baren saplings providing scant cover. It didn't seem like I had much of a choice.
I had bushwhacked diagonally up the slope about thirty yards when the mounting pressure inside intestines threatened to become tragically explosive. I desperately hacked away at the ground at the base of the nearest tree, dropped trou, and spun around to relieve myself. Only to realize I was still in full view of the trail and the bike path below it. I figured I had enough of a head start on Caveman, Bandito and Hobbes that none of them would catch up while I was in a compromised position. And it was still far too early for any of the southbound slackpackers to cross my path. I finished my business quickly, and went undisturbed.
Although my catholing location was unfortunate, my timing could not have been more fortuitous. It seemed like less than five minutes had elapsed before Caboose came crashing towards me through the trees. He was a man possessed, clearly relishing a return to the hearth, his dog, a pizza, a shower, and a bed. I hissed epithets at him as he whistled passed, but he was going to fast to hear me. He had already gone something like fifteen miles in the time it had taken me to do nine.
Damn him, I thought, envying his speed and dexterity, unencumbered as he was. I vowed then to never slackpack, so long as I lived. It was cheating. It was indecent. It was barbaric, and unforgivably evil. I couldn't wait to do it myself. Maybe I could make my friends slackpack me when I got closer to home.
Lil Dipper and Redwing approached, with P-Nut dutifully in tow.
"Hey traitors," I said, waving at them. "Hope you fall off a cliff and die!"
"Whatever M.C.," muttered Redwing, rolling her eyes. "You're just jealous."
"How dare you," I shouted, "accurately portray the situation!"
"You should have came with us," said Lil Dipper, giggling.
"Never!" I shrieked. "I hate all of you!"
"Hey man," said P-Nut. "How's it going?"
"Oh, you know," I shrugged. "Just took a dump in the woods."
"Right on, man" laughed P-Nut.
"Hey!" I screamed, realizing my mistake. "Don't act all chummy with me! We're sworn enemies!"
"Since when?" asked Redwing, rather levelly.
"Shut up!" I hated being backed into a corner like this. "Since 1776!"
"Oh, very witty!" said Lil Dipper, though I doubt she was that impressed.
I spat, and called them the worst name I could think of. "Slackpackers," I said, shaking my head.
Yet I felt sad and utterly alone as I watched them disappear into the woods behind me. I knew I should have gone with them. What was I thinking? No! Be strong, I thought. They're going to be in town tonight, eating pizza and drinking beer, laughing and having fun, and spending lots of money, while I'll be enjoying that instant oatmeal I picked out of the hiker box, and then crying myself to sleep in my sleeping bag in a tent in the middle of the woods. For free. Wait, no! Stop, this isn't helping! Damn it all!
"Hi M.C.!" said Alphabet, smiling cheerfully at me as she and Spark walked up.
Without thinking, I stuck out my foot and tripped tripped Alphabet. She stumbled and fell awkwardly into some pricker bushes.
"What the hell was that for?" Spark demanded. Alphabet rolled over, several thorns stuck in her hands, on the verge of tears.
I immediately felt terrible. "Sorry," I mumbled, and belatedly offered Alphabet a helping hand.
She didn't take it, and glared at me, wounded. Spark quickly helped her up, then turned to me.
"You know what's coming, don't you?" she asked.
"Yes," I sighed, and resignedly covered my face in my hands to protect myself. And then she kicked me in the balls.
Just leave me here to die, I thought as I lay on the ground weeping. But they already had. I decided to take a break to catch my breath, and to wait for the intense throbbing pain in my testicles to wain. It was going to be a long day.