"Where the bloody hell did you come from?" asked Redwing the next morning, appropriately flummoxed by our sudden appearance during the night. "I mean, when did you get here?"
"Like nine o'clock?" I shrugged, nonchalant. "I dunno, probably right after y'all went to bed? We were quiet. Didn't want to wake you."
"It was after midnight," asserted Bandito, ever honest.
"Why do you always feel the need to show off, M.C.?" asked Redwing mirthfully, but with just the hint of genuine puzzlement.
"Probably because I have low self-esteem," I admitted.
Ashamed, I avoided Redwing's penetrating gaze by pretending to just then notice that Braids was there. Yes, Braids! I hadn't seen her since Damascus! I never imagined we'd catch up with her again.
"Oh, hi!" I said waving, barely concealing my glee.
She mumbled an inarticulate greeting, and actually looked rather flustered, like she wasn't altogether happy to see me. But I could be wrong.
Either way, it felt wonderful to finally be back amongst the company of friends, even if it was destined to be a short reunion. The six of us chatted and caught up over breakfast. So much had happened in the last two weeks. Or twenty four hours. Braids and I seemed to pick up right where we left off. It was like we never left.
Bandito and I frequently held heady conversations as we walked, if the terrain allowed. Today we spoke about theology, the perils of corporate imperialism, and fine literature. At least until Bandito brought up the Twilight series. Braids had never heard of it, having apparently spent her pre-trail life living under a rock. I envied her ignorance, then found myself thrust into the even more unenviable position of having to explain the plot to her, complete with silly voices as I reenacted key scenes and bits of dialog.
Sometime during all this, Bandito, an avowed twihard, took offense to my gleefully sarcastic if completely accurate interpretation of the story, and attacked me with his $160 carbon-fiber trekking poles. Or maybe we were just horsing around, trying to beat the other around a downed tree, and somehow his trekking pole got caught between my legs. And snapped cleanly in half.
We stopped short, staring at each other in shock. I was mortified. Bandito was breathless, aghast. Braids ran up thinking one of us had broken our leg. I might have felt better had that actually been the case. Bandito tried to brush it off, admitting it was his fault, which I knew it was, completely, but I still felt terrible.
We were thus in a somewhat subdued mood when we arrived at Sugar Run Gap, where little more than a dirt road led down half a mile to the Woods Hole Hostel. If we hadn't known that Nature, Redwing and Lil Dipper were headed there, or that the proprietors sold homemade ice cream, we might have been tempted just to press on. But we wanted to see our friends, and I was still in a daze and looking for an excuse to take a break. So down we went.
We caught up with Braids's friend On The Loose on the road. She and Braids were planning to stay at Woods Hole. Which seemed oddly out of character, at least for Braids. Only a seven mile day? Then she told us the bad news. She was running out of money. She knew and had already accepted that she wasn't going to make it. So she had decided to slow down, to better enjoy her last few weeks on the trail.
"I mean, am I out here to make friends or make miles?" she asked.
"Miles," said Bandito, without hesitation.
"It was a rhetorical question," sighed Braids.
"So, what you're really saying," I posited, "Is that you regret not staying with us, because, for one thing, we've come just as far as you have, and, for another, you would've had a much better time."
"Well, that's debatable," said Braids, rolling her eyes, glancing uneasily at On The Loose.
I disagreed, but only because I know I'm such a great guy, and so much fun to be around. Okay, and maybe a little conceited. But I let it go.
Still, I was very sorry to hear about her situation, and gave a lot of thought to how I, we, might be able to get her through to at least Harpers Ferry. Maybe by pooling resources or something? Unfortunately, that was about as far as it went. It wasn't a very good plan. I kept it to myself.
We arrived at Woods Hole to find Redwing, Lil Dipper, Hobbes and Nature already there. But we had expected that. Except for Hobbes. His appearance was a welcome surprise. As was the presence of Bulldog, a blind man hiking the trail completely unassisted except for a talking GPS unit, and Hitchcock, the gregarious karate expert and cinematographer accompanying Bulldog to shoot a documentary/long-form infomercial about his travels.
I had first heard about Bulldog as far back as Neels Gap in Georgia, and had been hoping to catch up with him ever since. I wanted to meet him just to see who he was, to see how he was doing, to find out how the technology was working for him, and maybe even to offer to hike with him for a little while. My dad is blind, after all; I know how to guide a blind man through the woods:
"Rocks. Roots. Step up. Step down. Stay right. Roots. Duck."
Bonk. As my father hits his head on the overhanging rock outcropping.
"I meant 'Duck a lot.'"
Oops. And so it usually goes.
Oops. And so it usually goes.
Bulldog proved to be amongst the most boring people I'd ever met, blind or no. After expressing my interest in talking to him, I found myself forced to sit beside him on the porch swing for an awkward twenty minutes or so, listening to him drone on about nothing in particular. Because you can't just tiptoe off and leave a blind man sitting in the lurch, talking to thin air. That's just uncouth. Only someone incredibly rude and insensitive would do that. Not me. No matter how uninteresting I found the conversation. It was disappointing, to say the least.
Fortunately, Bandito found himself getting along much better with Hitchcock. They had quickly bonded over their shared martial arts experience, and stood below us in the driveway enthusiastically demonstrating their techniques and prowess to each other. Braids, meanwhile, had volunteered to do work for stay, and the proprietors were soon enlisting everyone else about to help shovel manure in their garden. Although I take a lot of pride in my manure-shoveling skills, having done it both metaphorically and literally in my jobs in New York City and on the farm in Georgia, I wasn't so eager to volunteer.
For the next three hours I sat around glumly, thinking about little else but leaving. Redwing, Lil Dipper and the others were adamant about staying there and waiting for P-Nut and Caveman. I selfishly wanted them to hike on to one of the hostels in Pearisburg. I just wasn't ready to face the pain of separation, but I also didn't want to face the pain of having to say goodbye. I was stuck. I was terrified about losing my friends, about losing my place, my carefully carved niche in the family. But not as terrified as I was about not making it to Harpers Ferry in time to see Megan.
I don't remember if I even said goodbye when the time came. Almost everyone else was accepting a ride into town to resupply, and soon there were just a few of us left: On The Loose, Bandito, myself, Bulldog, Hitchcock, and an uninteresting married couple I didn't know, that I had no intention of knowing. I finally snapped out of my ennui long enough to interrupt Bandito's ongoing Bruce Lee impression. It was time to go. We had stayed there too long already.
I felt like crying soon after we left. Actually, I felt like crying most of the afternoon, but hiking alone in the woods, with reality of what I had chosen to do sinking in, my cool facade may have actually and finally crumbled. A complete mess, I serendipitously found I had cell phone reception, and called Elizabeth, Megan's little sister, for reassurance. Liz was the sister who lived in Baltimore at the time, whose apartment we would theoretically be staying at over the holiday. If I got there.
Anyway, I liked to think of Liz as a miniature, idealized version of what Megan might be if she were a real, functional human being. Liz has always been compassionate and understanding, and on this day she tried her best to convince me that Megan could be persuaded to stay another week if necessary, if I didn't think I'd make it in time. Of course that made me feel better, a lot better, and I hoped Liz didn't hear the tremor in my voice when I thanked her for all her help. I didn't want or need anyone else feeling sorry for me. I felt sorry enough for myself already.
Bandito and I didn't make it as far as we had wanted to that evening. I had gotten ahead of him to make my phone call, and also to sob quietly in private, but I eventually stopped to wait for him by a side trail to a campsite. The sun was going down. We decided just to stay there for the night.
I felt horrible for everything that had gone wrong that day, that I had broken Bandito's trekking pole, that I had forced him to abandon his friends. To his eternal credit, though, he genuinely didn't hold any of that against me. He was as eternally upbeat and eager as ever. He had always wanted to hike faster. Now he was getting his wish. Plus his parents were planning to meet him in Catawba in a few days, to take him into town to see Iron Man 2. Fate, plus an overwhelming desire to see friends, family, and Robert Downey Jr. movies, seemed to be keeping us together.
There was no fire circle at the campsite. So we made one. And then made dinner, hung our food bags, and went to sleep listening to the quiet burble of the stream next to us, the far-off rumble of traffic, and the not-so-distant crash of a large animal breaking through the underbrush.