Someone had written in the shelter log at Chestnut Knob about a church group in Bland, Virginia that picked up hikers from a nearby road crossing, took them into town, and treated them to a lavish breakfast party. But it only happened once a week. Probably on Saturdays.
"What day is it today?" asked P-Nut, intrigued.
"Friday," said Caveman. "I think."
They shared a look. They were going. The lure of free food on the trail can often overpower all other considerations, like common sense, camaraderie, or even survival.
"I don't care if it puts us behind schedule, if we never see you guys again, or if I get molested by a bunch of horny church grannies," said P-Nut. "Heck, I don't mind. I'll show those girls a good time! I'm going."
Unfortunately, the rest of us could not afford to be so lazy. Bandito was headed towards US21, some 22 miles away, where his grandparents were picking him up to take him into Bland for the night. Lil Dipper and Redwing were headed to the Helveys Mill Shelter, which was about 2 miles past US21, because, well, for some inexplicable reason. I still needed to do big miles in order to see Megan, so naturally I was going into town with Bandito. Meanwhile, I had no idea where Nature or Hobbes were going.
We started out and blah, blah, blah, whatever, it was boring.
When Bandito and I reached VA615, we saw two notices nailed to a tree: one was informing us of a trail detour due to a bridge being out because of flooding, the other was regarding the aforementioned trail magic. The church group was real, the grand hiker breakfast was happening the next day, and it was going to be legendary. I was happy for P-Nut and Caveman, but otherwise felt sorry for them. They would have to camp nearby in order to make the pickup in the morning, and there was such a heavy and overpowering stench of death in the air, you could practically see it all around you. It was like a sinister green mist of fetid, rotting bile. Imagine the most abysmal, pungent putrescence you can, and then give up, because you can't even imagine how bad this was.
Stupidly, we looked around for the source of the offensive aroma, and were dismayed to find it. A mangled, partially eaten deer carcass lay amongst the rocks at the bottom of a ditch next to the road. Right in the middle of Laurel Creek. And there may have been several more of them scattered about, in various stages of decomposition. It was nauseating to look at, and even worse to smell.
We didn't stay there for much longer, and we most certainly did not pump water from the stream. Instead, we hiked up the road, disturbed as much by what we had seen as by the unnerving thought of what wild beast, or human being, could have done tha-- There was a Jeep Cherokee parked in the road up ahead. An old man was unloading something from the back. And it wasn't a corpse. Corpses aren't usually transported in styrofoam coolers. Well, I guess they could be, but it would be rather impractical. You'd have to cut-- Anyway, my heart was racing a million miles a minute. Could it be? Trail magic on consecutive days?
Yes! It was a man from the church group, unloading ice-cold Propel Waters into a barrel just off the trail. We chatted with the man for a minute and then sat down at a nearby picnic table to enjoy the spread.
Redwing and Lil Dipper arrived shortly, and I repeated my earlier gesture of walking down to them with drinks. And it's not like I was trying to take credit for the it, or that I was insidiously trying to use Pavlovian conditioning to make them associate trail magic with my personal benevolence. I just liked seeing the looks of insane, unadulterated joy on their faces.
Caveman wasn't there to stop me, so I gleefully sampled every single flavor of Propel Water before I left. And then filled up my canteen with more Propel Water, because the stream was clearly contaminated and I didn't want to die. It was the only responsible thing to do.
Unfortunately, our luxurious break lasted a little while longer than perhaps I originally intended. Redwing and Lil Dipper left before us, and I grew increasingly concerned with how far ahead of us they might be getting. It would be a gross insult to my personal pride, and to America, for us hearty Yanks to fall so behind the wayward, hapless, hopelessly inept British. This was our country! I couldn't let them reach the road first.
Bandito trailed behind by a few yards as we ran down Redwing and Lil Dipper. I sang patriotic songs to annoy them, then realized they were out of earshot, and had to move on my less jingoistic repertoire. I had sung every song I knew the words to, and some that I didn't, by the time we caught up. I breathlessly laughed at them, and wheezed an inarticulate excoriation, denouncing their slowness, and inaudibly reasserted the supremacy of America, and heroically managed not to pass out. Our great national crisis was over.
We were approaching USFS Road 282 when I saw it. No, not the gallon jugs of stale tap water left by the side of the trail. Worst trail magic ever. There was a giant swastika spray-painted onto a tree, surrounded by cigarette butts, broken beer bottles, a ragtag gang of primitively armed neo-Nazi skinheads, and assorted other trash. Virginia. Charming.
Emerging onto the forest service road, we found ourselves momentarily adrift. There weren't any visible blazes around, nor were there any other indications of where to go. The lurking skinhead gang wasn't particularly helpful either. Bandito eventually found cellphone service and called his grandparents. They were waiting for us up ahead. All we had to do is follow the forest service road underneath some power lines, turn a corner, and we'd be there.
Bandito's grandparents were as delightful as the rest of his family, just older, fussier, and maybe a little dotty. They had been there for a while, and had already shuttled another couple of hikers to the grocery store and back. We left a bottle of Snapple by the road for Redwing and Lil Dipper, and piled into the back of their pickup truck for the ride into town.