Friday, January 28, 2011

Chapter 50: Waffle House

Catering exclusively to the blacked-out drunk and/or the financially and culturally impoverished, Waffle House is quite possibly the worst restaurant in the world. If fast-food chains were cities, the vastly superior but still unspectacular IHOP would be be Providence, Rhode Island: venerable, relatively inexpensive, not too terribly unhealthy, maybe a bit boring. Waffle House, meanwhile, would be Gatlinburg, Tennessee: garish, ugly, a blight on all creation.

The menu at Waffle House consists of six different types of waffles, eggs, omelets, and various combinations of highly processed carbohydrates and extremely fatty meats. If you're a vegetarian like me, your best options would be either the waffles, the eggs, or starving to death, of which starving to death might be the most pleasant. And tastiest. The International House of Pancakes, on the other hand, serves nine different types of pancakes, at least six different types of French Toast, waffles, crepes, eggs, omelets, soups, salads, burgers, etc. Almost all of which are edible, if not exactly palatable, to a vegetarian.

At IHOP, food is prepared in the kitchen, well out of sight of paying customers. Which is probably for the best. Most sane people don't want to know what kind of rodent hairs or bug excrement might make its way into their New! CINN-A-STACK™pancakes. At Waffle House, on the other hand, they make your food more or less right in front of you. For better or mostly worse, you can see exactly which horrible ingredients will be contributing to your imminent congestive heart failure.

I admitted to Bandito that I had never been to Waffle House. Bandito naturally misinterpreted this as an impassioned plea on my behalf, and so insisted that we go there for breakfast. His grandparents had taken us to Shoney's® for an all-you-can-eat dinner the night before, and that hadn't gone too disastrously, so I agreed, and was woefully unprepared for just how truly awful Waffle House would be.

I ordered the strawberry waffles, then watched in morbid fascination as the waitress sprayed a waffle iron down with some industrial-strength aerosol lubricant, squirted batter onto it out of a tube, and then added freeze dried strawberries that may or may not have actually been made out of horses' hooves and food coloring. Out waitress was a wonderful lady, her sad eyes and droopy visage betraying a breathtaking soullessness. She looked like a stubby, discarded cigarette butt, just waiting for someone to snuff her out, and prepared our meal with all the enthusiasm and zeal of a death-row inmate heading to the gallows.

And my waffles ended up being about as appetizing as a tax audit. I was mystified. What was their appeal? They weren't exactly flavorless; in fact, they tasted strongly of wood chips and airplane glue. So strongly, actually, that not even the most copious amount of corn syrup could disguise their inherent disgustingness. But that didn't stop me from trying.

I was feeling fat and bloated by the time we finally got out of town. Which was around ten o'clock. Which was a problem, because we had very ambitious plans. Bandito's grandparents asked where we wanted to be dropped off.

"You can let us off where you picked us--" started Bandito.

"Actually," I interrupted. "We'd like the skip the road walk if we can. Just take us to the next trail head, if that's okay with you?"

"No problem," said Bandito's grandpa.

Bandito started to object, but I punched him in the mouth.

His grandmother gasped, peering at him in the rearview mirror. "My dear, you're bleeding!"

Bandito started to explain, but I stomped on his foot.

"He's okay," I said, "He just fell down a flight of stairs. He's so clumsy!"

And I laughed, pointedly glaring at Bandito. He wasn't going to ruin my yellow blazing attempt. Not this day. Not ever.

And so we yellow blazed for the second time. We might have skipped eight tenths of a mile, bringing our grand total of missed trail to just over a mile. Sue me. Considering it was almost eleven and we had twenty six more miles to go, I wasn't particularly thrilled by our meager accomplishment. Bandito and I profusely thanked his grandparents for their help and hospitality, and then set off.

Hours passed. I found myself wondering where Caveman and P-Nut were, and whether they had gotten their church group-sponsored trail magic as intended. Would they have made it out of town before we did? Could they be very far behind? Could we possibly be behind them? All of which is an elaborate way of saying the hiking itself was boring, or that I just don't remember it. I do remember that we were averaging a steady two miles an hour, which put us on pace to reach Wapiti Shelter sometime just after hell froze over.

It was nearing sunset when we emerged from the forest and came, seemingly out of the blue, upon a suspension bridge spanning Kimberling Creek. What was something of such technological complexity doing there? Was it necessary? Or were the trail architects just showing off?

Who cares? It was beautiful. A light mist hung over the water, its dimpled surface reflecting the indigo glow, speckled with flecks of red and gold, of the setting sun.

We stopped just after the bridge to eat dinner. Whatever we ate wasn't very satisfying or particularly nourishing, but at least it was better than Waffle House. Sated, we steeled ourselves for a long night hike.

My first walking stick, Dino II, had broken coming down off of Tray Mountain in Georgia. My second walking stick, Dino III, had been carelessly used as firewood by an inconsiderate Boy Scout somewhere in North Carolina. Dino IV may or may not have been smashed against a rock or a tree in a moment of acute frustration. Dino V was now tucked into the compression straps on my backpack, mostly because I needed the hand free for my trusty MagLite.

Unfortunately, Dino V stuck up over my head rather a lot, and had the tendency to snag on every branch of every tree we walked under. Bandito, hiking behind me, found himself constantly bombarded by leaves, spider webs, and other miscellaneous debris. Which he found intensely aggravating.

"M.C.," laughed Bandito, choking on a leaf, "Your hiking stick is really annoying!"

"So grab it and throw it in the bushes," I taunted, never thinking he would do exactly that.

"Hey, look over there!" Bandito shouted suddenly, "Trail magic!"

"What?" I gasped, looking around frantically. I heard a scuffle behind me, then something crash in the woods to my left. And my backpack was suddenly lighter.

"What have you done?" I bellowed, aghast.

"You told me too!" screamed Bandito.

"Yeah, but I was only half-joking!" I managed to protest before breaking down into incoherent sobs.

"You're such a baby!" scolded Bandito, incredulous.

"Be quiet!" I retorted. "You'll wake the neighbors."

"We're in the middle of the woods!"

"Don't remind me. I want to go home. I want my mommy."

"I want your mommy, too," said Harvey, the invisible bunny.

"Shut up," I said, fed up.

It was getting to be that sort of night.

After passing a side trail to Dismal Creek Falls, the landmarks go as follows: at mile marker 608.2, a stream crosses the A.T.; a tenth of a mile further, another stream; a tenth of a mile past that, another dirt road; 0.4 miles beyond that, two streams; point two beyond that, another dirt road; then in the next point eight miles, a stream, a pond, another stream, and finally the shelter. That's a lot of streams, and at least one too many dirt roads. It being dark out, and our brains being fried, Bandito and I had no idea how far we had gone, how many streams or roads we'd actually crossed, and were constantly worried that we'd somehow missed the shelter.

Oh, all of which was exacerbated by the fact that the Wapiti Shelter is the most haunted shelter on the trail. Two hikers were infamously murdered there in 1981. So what if it was decades ago, and that the killer was now dead? It was unnerving. Being unable to find the place was unnerving. Harvey the invisible rabbit was unnerving. Everything was unnerving.

It took us nearly an hour of constant second guessing and, in my case, emergency cathole digging to hike the last mile. When we finally found the shelter, it was approaching midnight. Or maybe one o'clock. I still didn't have a watch. Anyway, I was in some depraved, demented mood when we arrived, and had half a mind to sneak up on the shelter cackling softly like a homicidal maniac and making knife-drawing sound effects to freak people out. But I didn't. And I'm glad I didn't. It was only Nature, Lil Dipper, Redwing, Braids, and some other girl I didn't know in the shelter, and my little prank would have been more likely to get me killed than amuse any of them. Bandito and I barely had enough energy as it was just to pitch our tents before going to sleep.

The lesson being, of course, never eat at Waffle House.

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