"So my shin bones are sticking up out of my kneecaps," I hear myself saying, "Is that bad?"
"... I hope you're kidding," says a woman on the other end, stern, but with a hint of genuine concern.
Of course I'm kidding. "No," I say, "There's blood everywhere. I think I'm going to pass out."
"Corwin, that's not funny. You need to come home!"
"I can't!" I say, not getting it, "At least, not yet."
"No, like, I need you to come back--"
There's something plaintive in her voice that tugs on my chest. My stomach does a somersault. My head is swimming. Damn it! I wish I weren't so drunk. But no, it's not me. It's the rest of the world that's spinning and dissolving, disappearing like water down a drain.
"--in one piece."
And she's gone. And now there's Megan, waiting for me on that mountaintop. She's smiling, and carrying a pizza. Somehow, I know that it's a large. She would bring me a large. I also know that it's still warm. I am so hungry. I want to eat that pizza right now, but I also want to throw it aside, grab Megan, and kiss her, and never let go. My competing desires threaten to split my head in two. Pizza. Megan. Megan. Pizza. Of course, Megan. It was never much of a choice. The wind billows her hair, making her seem to float like some outsized, radiant elf queen. I tremble before her, except I am not there. I am nowhere. I am nothing. I am sucked into the abyss.
A burst of static.
And then I'm awake, my crusted eyes opening to the dawn. I'm in my sleeping bag. I'm lying on my back, staring up at the icicles hanging from the eaves of the shelter. I watch my breath crystalize in the air before me. P-Nut is snoring, but it's not so bad.
Someone else is awake and moving about. It must be Alpine, trying to live up to his name by getting an early start. I wave. He smiles back, but says nothing. Neither of us wants to wake the others.
I sit up. I need to pee, as I generally do first thing in the morning. I frequently have lucid dreams about urinating, and it's always so satisfying that I usually wake up with a start, afraid I've gone to the bathroom in my sleep. It's surprisingly hard to rouse yourself to take a piss in the middle of the night, or even in the morning, especially if it's cold. You know you have to, but you really don't want to leave the warmth of your sleeping bag. The air outside is so chilly, and once you're out, that's it. There's no going back. I make the plunge.
My boots are frozen solid. As are everyone else's. That's unfortunate. I slip on my Tevas and sneak off to visit the privy. Another morning ritual. I like to get that out of the way before everybody else wakes up, not as much to have privacy as to avoid the inevitable lines.
When I return, some of the others are stirring. In a fit of inspiration, I move everyone's boots into a nearby patch of sunlight, hoping they'll thaw. I quietly gather my belongings and cram them methodically into my backpack: always first, at the bottom, my sleeping pad; then my sleeping bag, my clothes, my stove, and my tent. That leaves only my food bag, but I haven't eaten yet.
I sit down at the picnic table and review my options. Granola, or granola. Excellent! I love granola. It's got lots of fiber, a surprising amount of protein, and tons of complex carbohydrates. In short, it has everything a hiker needs! Or a normal person, for that matter.
Redwing's up, and joins me for breakfast. She asks me if I want my fleece back. Of course I do, but not yet. I am the consumate gentleman. Who says chivalry is dead?
By the time everyone else is up, we're discussing our plans for the day. I'm headed into Troutdale, Virginia, where I'm expecting a mail drop. I'm planning on staying at a church hostel in town. It's free. It has showers. P-Nut, Alphabet and Nature consider going with me. I have no idea where Redwing and Lil Dipper are headed. Caboose and Spark are going to a campground just before Dickey Gap, which is where we'll be trying to hitch into town. We all agree to stay at the Partnership Shelter tomorrow night, no matter where we end up today. Partnership is right next to a road, and Pizza Hut delivers.
I leave a note in the Wise Shelter log before we leave:
Dear Caveman, Bandito, and Hobbes:
Nature, P-Nut, Alphabet and myself are planning on going into Troutdale today, where I am expecting a mail drop. It's going to be delicious homemade brownies and probably those other food items that you love so much. I am sorry that none of you will be there to share it with me. Unfortunately, we're going to have a party and do all the fun things you wish you could be doing, and so there won't be any left when I come back to the trail. You should have came with me yesterday! The weather cleared up twenty minutes after I left! And it was an easy hike! Just catch up, already! Me and the dirty, dirty slackpackers are planning to stay at the Partnership Shelter tomorrow where we can order pizza. You should join us.
PS. Did you see any more ponies? We did. A whole herd of them walked up while we were eating breakfast. However many ponies you saw, we saw like five times as many. And ours were way cuter. Redwing and Lil Dipper were petting them! P-Nut and Caboose actually mounted a couple of them, and started jousting, using their trekking poles as lances! Nature even helped one pony give birth! The foal is beautiful. We named her Sophie. You should have been there.
PPS. I miss you guys. Especially Hobbes.Being legendary is hard work.
My boots are still frozen when I set out a few minutes later. The soles don't bend at all, and the cold numbs my feet to the point where I start to lose sensation, except for sporadic sparks of pain that send shivers through my legs. It's intensely uncomfortable. For about ten minutes anyway, then they start to loosen up. It's ultimately not so bad. I worry that my feet will get wet when the ice in the boots thaws, but it doesn't happen. For that, at least, I am thankful.
I hike alone, ahead of the others. I don't mind the solitude. It gives me time to think and reflect. I'm trying to remember a particular dream I had last night when I realize that I'm lost. About a dozen hiking trails crisscross the Grayson Highlands, and I've evidently stumbled onto the wrong one. I double back.
I see Alphabet and Nature coming up behind me, and I tell them they've made a mistake in following me. We laugh, and I lead on in a different direction. I pretend to know where I'm going, and hope that I do.
We meet Redwing and Lil Dipper at "The Scales," the remnants of an old livestock corral. People used to raise horses in the surrounding meadows, and they'd weigh them here before taking them down to market. But that was decades ago. The wild ponies that now dominate the Grayson Highlands are the descendants of those horses. A couple of them still wander around the paddock, grazing peacefully.
After a short break, I continue on with P-Nut and Alphabet. Alphabet tells us more about her plans to open a brewery after she's done with the trail. She says she's never home brewed before, but is going to start when she's done with the trail. Once she's came up with a few satisfactory recipes, she'll pay a local microbrewery near her home to make them. Then she'll sell them for millions of dollars, and the rest will be history. Or something. It sounds like a brilliant plan. I am impressed, and actually kind of intimidated.
I tell Alphabet and P-Nut about Megan. I tell them how awesome she is, how she's funny, intelligent, fierce, independent, and beautiful. P-Nut is skeptical, and tells me she sounds too good to be true. I assure them that she is real, that I'm not operating under any delusions or letting the isolation of the trail get to me. I know I'm not idealizing Megan or blowing her up in my mind just because I'm away from her. No, I'm still fully aware of just how awful a person she is, how she's a complete failure as a human being. I'm just madly in love with her anyway.
P-Nut seems down all of a sudden, and complains to Alphabet and myself about how he's suffering through an existential crisis. He says that, curiously, he doesn't even feel like the main character in his own life's story. He thinks he's more like a sidekick, or maybe the comic relief. The only thing that makes sense to him is his role as an audience surrogate: he understands that he's a blank slate onto which the reader can project his or her own feelings and personality, and he's okay with that. Also he's single, he's achingly lonely, and doesn't have a boyfriend, or girlfriend.
I harbor a suspicion that P-Nut is pink blazing Redwing or Lil Dipper. Or both. P-Nut adamantly denies it, and claims to be pink blazing me. I don't believe him, but am somewhat flattered anyway. He is a ruggedly handsome man.
Alphabet interjects to tells us about Paul Vidal, her annoyingly charming, devilishly handsome boyfriend. She remains fixated on his looks, his brilliance, his suave personality, his unique sense of humor. She can't shut up about him. I hate it when people go on and on about their significant others.
We pass the Hurricane Mountain Shelter and stop to take pictures on a bridge over Comers Creek, where there is a dazzling cascade. I think that if Paul Vidal was there, I might push him into the water. P-Nut looks at me and nods, as if reading my mind.
We arrive at the road and find Nature already trying to hitch a ride. We join her, and have no luck for about twenty minutes, then a car headed out of town pulls a u-turn and stops in front of us. It's Jerry Bartley, co-owner of Jerry's Kitchen and Goods, a diner and general in store that's renowned for its hiker friendliness.
"Someone came into my store and said they saw hitchhikers up by the trail," he explains, "So I had to jump in my truck and come pick you guys up. Come on, hop in!"
I don't know what to say! I'm flabbergasted. We were even planning on going to his store!
We get into town around five. While the others giddily resupply on candy bars and over-processed crap, I fret about making it to the Post Office before it closes. Jerry's wife Susana offers to give me a ride. These people! They're ceaselessly amazing. I love them. I accept.
We get to the Post Office. The front door is unlocked, but it seems that they've closed for the day. I groan. I hear a voice from behind a door. "Are you a hiker?"
"God?" I ask, surprised.
There's a laugh from behind the door. No, just a postal worker.
"Yes, I'm a hiker!" I say quickly, trying to hide my embarrassment, "I'm trying to pick up a mail drop?"
There is a series of clicks, then a rosy-cheeked postal employee appears in the doorway. I tell her my name, and she cheerfully retrieves my package. What a relief!
I check out what I've got as Susana drives us back to Jerry's Kitchen. It's about two pounds of homemade granola from my friend Rebecca. Granola! My favorite! She's made granola bars especially for me, but also for a cooking show she produces. She sent me a cute note along with the bars wishing me well, and instructing me not to murdered by a muscly redneck named Bubba. I am touched. I resolve to send Becca a thank you note, and then promptly forget all about it. I am a bad person.
Back at Jerry's Kitchen, the four of us promptly order dinner. Alphabet, P-Nut and I gorge ourselves on diner food, catch up on the news, check our e-mail, and relax. We learn that there's been a massive volcanic eruption that's apparently destroyed Europe, and also a heinous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that's evidently killed every living thing south of New Orleans. And New Orleans itself. Again. Feeling fat and lazy, but more connected to the rapidly deteriorating larger world, we leave to head to the hostel.
Luckily it's only a few hundred yards away. It's almost completely empty. There are only two other guests. One is an asian guy who's biking cross-country. The other is some crazy white guy who's running cross-country. P-Nut inexplicably stays outside to bond with them, while the girls and I go inside to play speed Scrabble until bed.
We all shower before we go to bed. The temperature has dropped drastically outside, making us even more secure in our decision to stay in town. I'm glad to be with my trail family. I miss Bandito, Caveman, Redwing and Lil Dipper, of course. And especially Hobbes. But I know I'll see them again. I think about Caboose and Spark, and then my thoughts turn inexorably to my friends at home, and Megan. I feel a sense of deja vu, and a familiar swooping in my stomach, but I don't know why.
And so I drift off to a peaceful sleep. Except I don't. Because P-Nut is snoring.