Sunday, February 27, 2011

Chapter 65: Where We Go Far

Let me just resolve that cliffhanger, get that out of the way. I dug a cathole about a hundred yards from our campsite, on a side trail, right in the middle of a massive poison ivy patch. No big deal.

We were a day away from Waynesboro and the southern boundary of Shenandoah National Park. Every one was looking forward to town; to going to the Ming Garden, a famously opulent Chinese buffett; to free showers at the YMCA; to the opening night of the free hiker's hostel at the Grace Evangelical Lutheran, where they had an open kitchen and a widescreen TV. Bandito was looking forward to maybe taking a day off to read Harry Potter. It was going to be a party.

P-Nut convinced us to go the nearly twenty-five miles from the Tye River to the Paul C. Wolfe Shelter, which would leave us only five miles short of Waynesboro. The idea being that we'd only have a short hike into town the next morning, and would then have all day to resupply and relax. It was a good plan. On second thought, it must have been Redwing's idea, or – even better – maybe we came to it democratically, the American way. Because there's no way P-Nut would've come up with something so sensible by himself, that didn't run the substantial risk an almost certain and spectacular failure.


And now, because you can only talk about the inane details of hiking for so long before going stir-crazy and wanting to write a nonsensical philosophical treatise in the assumed voice of your girlfriend, here's an except from "The Ethics of Doing Nothing" by Megan Justine Iorio:
When faced with the seemingly infinite possibilities of the world, its myriad problems, distractions, and the boundless ocean of the unknown about which there is still to learn, what sort of moral implications are there – and ethical quandaries can be found – in the conscious act of doing nothing? A better, more interesting question might be, "How would your life be different if your name was Ward?" But my purpose herein isn't to ask – let alone answer – fascinating, compelling questions. My purpose – indeed, the philosopher's purpose – is to rigorously explore the mundane in such a way as to shatter minds; expound upon, subvert, and nurture misconceptions; and, for better or worse, fundamentally alter your perception of the world. 
Doing nothing can often be an act of brazen rebellion, intellectual fortitude, and steadfast courage. Think of the pacifist monk who – in refusing to take up arms against an imperialistic oppressor, or in refusing to become a pawn in someone else's power struggle – dooms himself to an ignoble and painful martyrdom. Doing nothing can also be the last refuge for the corrupt and apathetic. Think of the complacent citizenry of "democracy" who, through their inaction, callously and implicitly endorse the outrageous evils perpetrated in their name for the sake maintaining the imperialistic ambitions of their supposedly peaceful government. Doing nothing can also be the last resort of the lost and powerless, for those without hope or agenda. Think of the lonely soul who, trapped in an unjust and deeply immoral system, actively choses to do nothing, so as to not be a part of – or party to – it.
[Editor's note: The author continues in this vein for the next 417 pages]
In conclusion, I hope that these few examples that I have expounded upon over the last 418 pages have successfully impressed upon you the inherent heroism or villainy in – and the multitudinous rainbow of fascinating ethical and moral implications of – doing nothing. Perhaps you will now see the world in a different or brighter light, and no longer merely judge or blindly empathize with those you deem "lazy," "apathetic," or "unemployed." However, if I have proven anything over the course of this long and inevitably controversial (and possibly [in]famous, if not lucratively litigious) diatribe, it's that if there is anything harder and potentially more rewarding than doing nothing in a world that offers and demands constant engagement and activity, it's saying nothing. Pass the kumquats.
About the Author: Although she abhors the reductive and borderline misogynistic implication that she might be defined by her physical appearance, Megan is self-admittedly hot. She's 5'7", thin, but distractingly and sometimes problematically voluptuous, and has piercing either brown or blue eyes oft hidden behind an angry curtain of stylishly curled bangs. While she spends most of her waking life in pajamas, Megan can frequently be seen out and about town in skinny jeans, ironic t-shirts, and Chuck Taylors, but she is unequivocally not a hipster. She's been dressing like that for years.

After being rejected from all of her top choices – and being grievously disappointed to find out Hogwarts wasn't real – Megan attended New York University, where she received a double major in Film and Television Production and Classics. She later attended the University of Cambridge, where she received her PhD in Studiology. Her groundbreaking dissertation, "Foundations of Studiology: The Study of Studying Studying" not only won the Nobel Prize, Miscellaneous, but remains widely recognized as one of the most widely recognized dissertations ever written.

Now Professor Emeritus of Studiology at the University of Princeton at Monaco, Megan remains on that institution's Board of Directors and was instrumental in its recent and acclaimed relocation from southern New Jersey. The move was primarily inspired by, and in keeping with, her personal ethos and desire to always be "somewhere warm, and not in New Jersey."

A founding member of Megalomaniac Masterminds Anonymous, or NAMBLA, Megan currently resides with her cat Atilla in an awe-inspiring neo-Classical fortress – surrounded by a treacherous moat filled with man-eating sharks, its ramparts bristling with laser beams and ultrasonic pain rays – in the lush countryside of Campania, Italy. She prefers to spend her time in an undisclosed location, however, where she works ever diligently on devious and revolutionary plans for overthrowing tyrannical American corporate hegemony, and also world domination.

Her casual interests include drinking Scotch and possibly Cognac; long naps on the beach; reading Harry Potter books; watching the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; indulging on Indian food; being left alone at all times except when she wants attention; and attaining the perfect thought through which to transcend this dreary physical existence. Her goal in life is to find another planet capable of sustaining life, and then moving there. As long as it's warm. She also harbors a secret desire to exploit and develop her nascent internet celebrity by growing her social media presence through a timely and clever Twitter feed and a series of controversial YouTube videos. 

Her pet peeves include men; creepy men who talk to her at Starbucks; phonies; the pretentious; people who don't understand her; yelling; emotional neediness; and Hollywood, both for producing generally sucky movies and for so coldly rejecting the screenplay she wrote about anthropomorphized shrimp.


We made it to the Paul C. Wolfe Shelter just before it started raining. Sadly, there were precious few spaces available for tenting, and the shelter itself was full of obnoxious weekenders and section hikers, all of whom were boasting of their awesome exertions hiking the five miles out from Waynesboro. And also how they were looking forward to going home in the morning to shower and have a nice cup of coffee. I would have murdered them all immediately, except Lil Dipper was there, and I feared she might have found the level of gore and carnage psychologically disturbing. 

I curled up in a corner and tried to get some sleep. Operative word being tried. Sleeping was nearly impossible due to the horrifically loud snoring, and then the waking up early, and then the banging of all the pots and pans together and shouting like it was [expletive deleted] Mardi Gras.

But that's another story, best saved for another day.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Chapter 64: The Continuing Foibles of Robert Stacey

It was blistering hot, like a million degrees. Or maybe it was 77° with gentle north-westerly winds and 85% relative humidity. Whatever. Sweat poured down my back. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, and tried not to think about my empty water bottle.

As I neared VA826, I started hearing voices. And not because I was suffering from sunstroke and slowly going crazy. A small crowd of day hikers was coming down the trail towards me.

"Excuse me," I said, trying to sound as pathetic as possible. "Do you know how far the next water source is?"

A stocky older man in army fatigues looked to his companions, frowning thoughtfully. "What would you say, a couple miles?"

No. It was at the next shelter, just over a mile away.

"At least," said one of his companions. "Like an hour?"

"Yeah, I'd say about an hour's walk," said the fatigued man.

Wrong again. I knew it wouldn't take more than twenty or thirty minutes.

"Thanks," I said, disappointed, and made to leave.

"Are you out of water?" asked one of the others, pulling me back.

I nodded grimly. "I ran out like an hour ago."

It'd really been more like ten minutes.

The day hikers nodded solemnly. I put on a good show, grimacing resignedly, hoping they'd empathize with my plight. They shared some looks, and quickly came to a tacit consensus.

"We might have an extra bottle of water somewhere," said a teenager girl, searching through her grandfather's backpack. "You're welcome to have it."

"Do you want some Gatorade?" asked the fatigued man.

"Really?" I squeaked, suddenly ignoring the teenager and her filthy, tasteless bottled water. "Yeah!"

The man in fatigues nodded, and waved me over. He unscrewed the cap from his Camelback, and poured a little blue Gatorade into my canteen. Delicious, delicious blue Gatorade.

"Should be enough to get you where you're going, at least," said the man, recapping his Camelback.

He'd given me about three or four ounces. I was less than thrilled, but wasn't going to complain about it.

"Thank you so much," I professed, regretting not taking the girl up on her offer. "I really appreciate it."

I waited until I had hiked a ways off before taking a sip. It was gone in a couple of seconds. Still, I wasn't dehydrated. And I'd ran out of water before. I knew I was going to be okay.

Still, I arrived at The Priest Shelter in a sour mood. My pathetic yogi-ing attempt had not been my proudest moment. No, my proudest moment was probably when I told my girlfriend "We should do this again sometime, you know, the next time they have a dance," on our first date, and she hadn't broken up with me on the spot. That was a lot to live up to. Acting pathetic enough to successfully scrounge up a couple ounces of Gatorade was close, but not quite.

Aikido – an Aikido expert who used a Jō as a walking stick – was holding court at the shelter. I was mildly disinterested in his boastful demonstrations, but Bandito, of course, was enraptured. Ignoring them, I went to fill up in the languid swamp that was the shelter's water supply.

Where I found a bottle of Powerade. Someone had left it there to keep it cool. I felt like it was my birthday. Until I heard a shrill voice threatening me with severe bodily harm if I touched it. Aikido-Jō was kind of a humorless jerk.

Rehydrated, at least, I hiked on.

Despite having met over a month earlier, and camping together almost every day since, Redwing, Lil Dipper and I had spent a shockingly small amount of time actually hiking together. Perhaps I was wary of intruding on their friendship, or maybe I was just too ashamed or cowardly to admit I might prefer their company to that of the universal boys' club that seemed to surround us now that Nature and Alphabet were gone. It wasn't "cool" to hike with the girls. It was "cool" to hike with P-Nut and Hobbes – if you could keep up with them – and talk about "manly" things like sports cars, illegal drugs, and the Backstreet Boys. And I have always aspired to be "cool." Probably because I'm massively insecure and suffer from a rampant and debilitating inferiority complex. But I digress.

That afternoon, I discovered the distinct and numerous pleasures of hiking with Redwing and Lil Dipper as we came down off The Priest. They didn't seem to vehemently object to my presence, and so we fell into an easy and enjoyable conversation about pop culture and movies. Specifically, the ten best movies of the 2000's. Which would be, in no particular order: Gladiator, Moulin Rouge!, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Shrek 2, Casino Royale, Brokeback Mountain, Inglorious Basterds, and 2 Fast 2 Furious. I think. And we went on from there, ranking our favorite cinematic romances, our favorite Leonardo DiCaprio performances, and so on and so forth.

We were debating the best examples of Post-War German Expressionism when we arrived at the Tye River, where seemingly a thousand other people were enjoying what appeared to be a raucous beach party. Buoyed by the excitement in the atmosphere, we crossed the river and found a pleasant enough campsite near the water's edge. Where we settled in to wait for P-Nut.

Somehow, I let myself be talked into stripping down to my Under Armor and taking a bath in the river. The water was freezing, but was actually quite soothing once you got used to it. Bandito, Redwing, Lil Dipper and I frolicked about for a little while, until we got bored or the surprisingly strong current threatened to pull our undergarments off and expose our hideous shrinkage. Then we scampered ashore, toweled off, and threw our dirty clothes back on. Still, I felt clean. It was wonderful.

P-Nut arrived, flushed, sometime before dinner.

"You'll never guess what happened to me," he said, unusually animated.

Oh, no. We all knew this couldn't end well.

"So I decided to take a nap after lunch on top of Main Top Mountain," he said. "And when I woke up, I was nearly out of water. Or, well, I was out of water."

My worst fears confirmed, I could only sigh, shake my head and let him continue.

"So what'd you do?" prodded Redwing.

"Well, I've seen Bear Grylls do it on Man Vs. Wild, so I decided to drink my own urine."

And there it was.

"P-Nut!" gasped Lil Dipper.

"No!" cried Bandito in disbelief.

"You were like five miles away from water!" protested Redwing, aghast. "Why didn't you just hike on? You could have made it!"

"No, it's okay!" reassured P-Nut. "Anyway, you'd think drinking your own piss would be awful. And, actually, I've heard that it tastes better if it's your own?"

I don't know why this was a question.

"But no, it's awful. It was like the worst thing I ever tasted," P-Nut laughed.

Not even 24 hours after nearly being struck by lightning. One would've thought that after so close a near-death experience, he'd value his own life more. Apparently not.

"Yeah," he went on. "It's really, really bad."

At least he had a sense of humor about it.

"I can't believe you," Redwing was saying. She couldn't let this go. "You were five miles away from water!"

"He'd been talking about doing this before, though," Lil Dipper pointed out.

"What, drinking his own urine?" gaped Redwing.

It was true. I remembered him mentioning it before. He must have wanted to do it, and was just looking for an excuse.

"I think he must have wanted to do it," I said. "And was just looking for an excuse."

P-Nut shrugged, sheepish.

Somehow, the rest of the night passed without anything horrible happening.

P-Nut heard that a man had put up a sign promising hikers hot dogs and beer, and went off to find it. He came back a little later with a Gatorade. He said he couldn't find the guy giving out trail magic, but apparently had found his empty campsite, where a cooler was filled with drinks. But why hadn't he brought back Gatorades for the rest of us? P-Nut was not a team player. Bandito was, however, and darted off to retrive refreshments for the rest of us. Which we thoroughly enjoyed. And were only 50% certain weren't stolen from someone's personal supply. But we didn't tell Bandito that.

It had been a long, momentous, exhilarating, and hilariously tragicomic day. Wiped out, we all turned in, one by one. I lay awake for some time, listening to the rush of the river, the quiet murmur of Redwing and Lil Dipper talking in the tent next to mine, and the soft crackle of our dying camp fire.

My only worry was where I would dig a cathole in the morning.

Chapter 63: Race to The Dutch Haüs

P-Nut was rather blasé about his near-death experience the next morning, brushing it off as the inevitable consequence of his "outrageous" lifestyle.

"You keep using that word," said Redwing. "I'm not sure it means what you think it means."

"That's outrageous," scoffed P-Nut.

"Not really," professed Redwing. "Outrageous, adjective, shockingly bad or excessive."

"Okay, Hermione," I joked, trying to diffuse the volcanic tension between them.

And everybody laughed. Especially Redwing. Because this is my story.

"But it can also mean wildly exaggerated or improbable," recited Bandito, reading from a pocket dictionary. "Or very bold, unusual, or startling."

"Yeah, that's me," agreed P-Nut. "Very bold."

"Wait, you actually carry that thing around with you?" I gaped, unable to get over the dictionary.

"No, silly," teased Bandito, "I just found it in the privy."

"Oh," I demurred. That actually made sense.

"So everybody's cool with the plan to go to the Dutch Haüs to get their free lunch for hikers?" asked P-Nut rhetorically. "It's just twelve and a half miles away, and we only need to be there in like three hours."

"Of course we're down," said Lil Dipper. "We'd follow you anywhere, P-Nut. Your ideas are never bad or nearly fatally stupid."

Her intended sarcasm was lost on P-Nut. To be fair to him, though, he never got anyone killed – except for that one time at the keg party on Lake Apopka that he and his fraternity brothers made an oath never to talk about – or even mildly injured. The only person he ever hurt was himself.

P-Nut and I were the first to leave. Well, except for the mysterious and ornery Brit with whom we'd shared the shelter. He had gotten up at the crack of dawn, spent an hour or so filtering an inordinate amount of water, and then marched off with several large sticks inexplicably stuck beneath the straps of his backpack. Apparently it was a loaner, and too big for him?

"I don't know, man," said P-Nut. "No offense to the guy, but I can't stand people like that."

"What do you mean?" I asked, startled. "I thought you liked British people."

"No," laughed P-Nut. "I like British people just fine. It's just that, he was complaining about being weighed down and not being able to hike that fast, but then he's paranoid about running out of water, so he insists on carrying around like two gallons? That's sixteen pounds right there!"


"Yeah. You can look it up."

But I didn't need to. I trusted P-Nut would remember any bit of useless trivia if it were somehow relevant to hiking. Knowing the weight of water was just one of those things.

"And he didn't listen," I added, "He refused to take any of our advice."

"Exactly! He seemed to lack a little common sense," agreed P-Nut, without a hint of irony. "Yeah, that guy definitely was crazy."

And that meant a lot, coming from him.

Oh, and remember this conversation. It will become increasingly relevant and ironic later. When both P-Nut and I run out of water.

As continued up Cold Mountain, P-Nut walked me through the events of the previous afternoon. This is where he had been when the rain had started, yet he had chosen to keep going anyway. This is where he had been when lightning struck a nearby tree. This is where he had peed in his pants. This is where he had dove off the trail and cowered in mortal terror for fifteen minutes. This is where he had watched his life flash before his eyes, and realized he didn't really know any of those girls. Or guys. This is where he had vowed that, were he to make it, he would never do those terrible things for money ever again, and would stay off the sauce, and would always tell his mom that he loved her. This is where he had turned back.

As we soon found out, P-Nut had made it to within a couple hundred yards of the summit. And he was lucky he stopped when he had, or that he hadn't left any sooner. The summit of Cold Mountain was bald, a sprawling meadow dappled with boulders and the occasional patch of wildflower. If he had been caught out up here, he probably would have died.

"You know, you're lucky you stopped when you did," I said. "If you had been caught out up here, you definitely would have died."

"Eh, I could have made it," shrugged P-Nut.

We saw the ornery Brit a little later, standing beside the trail with his head cocked, listening.

"D'yé aär tha'?" it sounded like he said, through an almost intelligible accent. "Thaär be sommit elegtroonic goaän oothar."


"I think he said, 'There's something electronic out there,'" said P-Nut helpfully.

We listened. All I could hear was a woodpecker.

"A woodpecker?"

"Nae! Theäbe poomping tha' in tru soom o' koind o' whot, a sworn gobble gobble meedeefleedeedûm."


"I think he said, 'No! They're pumping that in through a speaker, I swear! Gobble gobble meedeefleedeedum,'" said P-Nut uneasily.

"Um," I said, after a moment. "Let's go."

And we left, never to see the old British guy again.

A little while later, we finally came upon the campsite to which we had been headed the day before. And it truly was glorious, everything P-Nut had said it would be. Ample flat ground, a beautiful open sky, and a swing hanging from the branch of a tree. We wasted some time there, swinging, taking pictures, and horsing around while waiting for the others to catch up. But they didn't.

We continued on towards Fish Hatchery Road, which was where the turnoff was to the Dutch Haüs. For some reason, we were talking about what pop music we could remember from when were were ten. For me that meant Ace of Base, Boyz II Men, Green Day, Snoop Dogg, Madonna, and TLC. For P-Nut, it meant Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Third Eye Blind, Eminem, Madonna, and TLC.

So absorbed were we in reminiscence, we almost walked straight past the road. Which was no more than a dirty path, hardly marked at all. We dropped our packs and sat down to wait for the girls and Bandito. P-Nut ran around trying to find cell phone reception. He wanted to call the Dutch Haüs to make sure we were still in time for lunch. But he had no luck.

When the girls arrived, we were still talking about music. The Backstreet Boys, specifically. Redwing and Lil Dipper were apparently huge fans. And so the four of us sat around singing "I Want It That Way" until a huge crowd of day hikers appeared out of the forest, interrupting us.

"You guys sound good," said one day hiker, surprised.

I would've preferred sandwiches or candy bars or a recording contract to compliments, but whatever. It was nice to finally have our – my – singing skills recognized. Anyway, we were all horribly embarrassed, and immediately shut up.

And then two thru-hikers emerged, coming up the road from the Dutch Haüs itself. Their names were Roughin' It and I Forget. Roughin' It wore a doofy hat and looked like he'd be equally at home at some hipster bar in Williamsburg as on the trail. And I forget what I Forget looked like. He was kind of boring. Anyway, they told us that we were too late for lunch. But that it had been awesome, and epic, and that we were titanic losers for missing it.

Normally, this would be just about when I flipped out and killed everybody, but I was getting much better at controlling my temper. Besides, it was a beautiful day, it was barely past noon, and we only had nine miles to go to the Tye River, where we intended to camp for the night. Besides, Dutch food is all fish and sausage and stinky cheese. It's terrible.

We ended up eating lunch on top of Main Top Mountain, where there was nice rock scramble to an overlook. It was nice up there, but I was running out of water, and didn't want to linger. P-Nut was feeling particularly self-satisfied for some reason, and decided to take a nap beside the trail. We questioned his wisdom, since he, too, was running out of water, but he shrugged it off.

What was the worst that could happen?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Chapter 62: Where We Don't Learn From Our Mistakes

When I was six or seven years old, I had a nightmare in which my entire family was vaporized in a nuclear explosion. We were sitting around our living room talking to my aunt when we heard this giant rumbling noise outside. Naturally, we all ran into the backyard to see what it was, looked up, and saw a comically enormous rocket flying overhead. And then I woke up in a panic. Because I had died.

I sat in my bed, clammy and breathless, and stared at the reassuring glow of the streetlight out my window. I was legitimately spooked. I had to remind myself it was just a dream, and that I would live to see another day. And face the unending horrors of the waking world. Which, for me, meant going to school and being bulled and made fun of all day. Even by my friends, who would make me play the unenviable and villainous role of Krang during our games of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at recess. In retrospect, I might have actually preferred a quick death in a horrifying thermonuclear apocalypse.

Still, running around the playground dodging fists and insults was a nice respite from the constant psychological trauma that was the rest of my youthful existence. At least I wasn't tied to a chair, metaphorically speaking, and if I ran fast enough and for so long, I could sometimes manage to escape my demons and tormentors – plus that annoying kid, Dominic – even if it was only for a little while. They would always catch up, sooner or later, and I would go home, every day, hating everyone, but mostly myself.

Yes, I believe those first fifteen years were the worst time in my life, and that if things had continued in that way, the world might have gotten the best of me. And it didn't. Or maybe it did, but that's another story.


The worst time in P-Nut's life was May 14th, 2010. 

We were headed into Buena Vista that day, mostly to get Subway for lunch, but also to resupply. Hobbes was planning to get a motel room for the night, and had somehow convinced Caveman to go along with him. The two of them spent the morning trying to convince the rest of us it was a good idea.

"I'm going to get a whole case of beer," said Hobbes, an unusual fire in his eyes, "And just sit in the bathtub all night, drinking. Naked."

"Shoot, an' I'm gonna be right there with him," laughed Caveman. "Hope ya don't mind, Hobbes."

"Hell no, Caveman," said Hobbes. "What's wrong with sitting in a bathtub drinking beer with another man, naked? Nothing. It's perfectly natural."

I have to admit, I was tempted. But only for a split second. Caveman was happily married, after all, plus I had already seen Hobbes naked, so that was nothing special, and I knew Megan was waiting for me in Harpers Ferry, and besides, it was just a bad idea. And I didn't have enough money.

Unfortunately for Caveman and Hobbes, P-Nut had grander ambitions than staying in town and drinking beer all night would allow. Lil Dipper and Redwing, meanwhile, just plain weren't interested. Bandito, on the other hand, strongly considered staying, and Caveman and Hobbes actually paid extra to get a room with a third bed just for him, but he would eventually back out at the last minute.

It was late afternoon before we made our way back to the trail. We got a ride in the back of a pickup truck. P-Nut had to shout over the roar of the wind to share with us his grand vision.

"Well, we could stay at the Cow Camp Gap Shelter tonight, but it is 0.6 miles off the trail."

He shook his head almost imperceptibly at this last point, his voice dripping with disdain. He looked up at us from his guidebook pointedly, as if expecting us all to eagerly agree with his tacit condemnation of the idea. I rolled my eyes, and let him continue.

"Or, we could hike another four to eight miles – over a four thousand foot mountain – to Hog Camp Gap or someplace, where I hear there's a really nice campsite. With a swing and everything!"

And there it was. Typical P-Nut. Expecting us all to hike a few extra miles just to avoid the smallest of inconveniences. It was ridiculous! Still, a campsite with a swing did sound enticing. And the rest of us were all comfortable pushing the pace. The rest of us were all willing to go along.

The initial climb from the Long Mountain Wayside up Bald Knob Mountain was ridiculously steep. The trail rose nearly two thousand feet in just less than three miles. That's over 700 vertical feet per mile. The climb out of the N.O.C., which I thought was insane at the time, had "only" involved a climb of 3,300 feet over eight miles, or just over 400 feet per mile. This was a lot steeper, if mercifully shorter.

As Bandito and I neared the summit, we heard the foreboding boom of thunder rolling towards us from behind. The sky darkened ominously. I felt a familiar prickly sensation on the back of my neck.

"Bandito, I have an idea!" I said, quite reasonably.

"What's that, M.C.?"

"How about we go to the Cow Camp Gap Shelter?"

"I thought P-Nut said it was six tenths off the trail!"


"Good point," conceded Bandito, mindful of the green-tinged Cumulonimbus clouds looming over his shoulder.

We increased our pace, and soon caught up with Redwing and Lil Dipper, who weren't at all startled by our sudden and dramatic reappearance.

"We thought that was you," said Redwing.

"We could hear you cursing," explained Lil Dipper.

"What's up?" asked Redwing, noting with some concern my ashen complexion.

"Change of plans!" I croaked, out of breath. "Bandito and I don't want to be electrocuted, so we're heading to the Cow Camp Gap Shelter."

The British girls were very wise, and quickly agreed with us that this was our most prudent course of action.

"We were actually thinking about that ourselves," said Redwing, eyeing the sky behind us.

"If P-Nut has any sense, he'll be there already," I said, as we ran down the trail towards the shelter.

"But P-Nut doesn't have any sense," said one of the others.

This was true, and not very encouraging.

We were a hundred yards from the shelter. Lightning flashed overhead. The instantaneous clap of thunder was deafening, and seemed to go on forever, thankfully drowning out my shrill, girlish screams. We all ran to the shelter and leaped inside, just as the heavens opened up.

We were giddy with excitement and laughter, just happy to have made it there in time. Then we noticed that P-Nut was missing. The only other person at the shelter was an older and rather eccentric British gentleman. We asked him if he'd seen P-Nut. He hadn't.

"I hope he's okay," I said to the murmured agreement of the others. We all sat down to watch the rain.

Minutes passed, that seemed like hours. We forgot about P-Nut, then remembered him again. We were talking about something completely unrelated when Lil Dipper interrupted to voice her concern.

"I hope P-Nut's okay," she repeated, and the rest of us fell silent.

Just at that moment, a pair of trekking poles flew through the air in front of me. And then a young man walked up. He was shirtless, but wearing a see-through emergency poncho. He was soaking wet, completely bedraggled, and had the haunted, hundred-yard stare of someone who'd seen death.

P-Nut stomped into the shelter and threw his pack down without saying a word.

"I just – seriously – almost died," he said a moment later, completely serious.

And we all burst into laughter.

"I'm totally serious," he swore. We believed him. "I thought I could make it over the hill before the storm came. And then lightning hit a tree like thirty feet away from me. I thought I was dead. My legs were shaking so bad, I couldn't walk. I just sat down and waited for the adrenaline to wear off. And then I realize that my trekking poles are made of metal, so they're conductors—"

We all laughed again.

"—and so I threw them away from me, as far as I could. And just sat there, with my back against a rock, for like fifteen minutes."

"And then what?" pried Bandito. We all were dying to know.

"I had to scrounge around for my poles, because I'd almost lost them in the brush, but then I ran straight back here," said P-Nut finally. "Seriously!"

I think he might have been confused or offended by our riotous laughter. But how else could we react? The whole situation was just too perfect. His foolish ambition had finally gotten the better of him.

And it would take less than twenty four hours for it to happen again.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Chapter 61: A Fresh Take

P-Nut stood beside me in the Thunder Hill Shelter, limply watching the torrential downpour outside. Lightning crackled overhead. The instantaneous boom of the thunder almost knocked us flat, leaving only a faint ringing in our ears to be heard over the overwhelming rush of the downpour pounding the roof of the shelter.

Blithely ignore the deluge outside, I stripped half-naked and dried off with my trusty pack towel. Originally intended for backpacking in Europe, Megan had ordered the pack towel for me. In an attempt to save weight, I had asked for the medium, not knowing that it would be the approximate size and have all the utility of a soggy burrito wrapper. Still, I did my best, and quickly changed into dry clothes before crawling into my sleeping bag.

I figured our best option was to wait there until morning and hope for better weather. My plan had the added benefit of leaving our friends more time to catch up with us. Ever impatient, however, P-Nut had only begrudgingly agreed to stay. We had both just settled in for the long haul when it abruptly stopped raining.

And the sun came out, and the air was filled with birdsong and the laughter of approaching thru-hikers, some of whom we just happened to know. Caveman was there, along with Redwing and Lil Dipper. Even Hobbes was there! I think. And Bandito was there, too.

Bandito had missed me most of all. I was his best friend and moral compass, after all, and without me, he had been lost in a deeply embarrassing sea of misunderstanding and untowardness. He was thus only lucky that he caught up with me, so that I could keep him on the straight and narrow.

Moonpie and Little Brown might also have been there, but I didn't begrudge their presence. Despite all our differences – mainly their good humor and general gregariousness and my egregious lack of grace of humility – we shared a common goal, and for that reason alone it was easy and perhaps inevitable for us to get along and pull for each other. Plus Moonpie mentioned the possibility his girlfriend bringing us trail magic the next day, and that was an excellent way for him to get into my good graces. I was, and remain, an extraordinarily shallow person.

The next morning, Redwing and Lil Dipper mentioned going into Glasgow or Big Island to resupply. Personally, I wasn't too keen on the idea. It was a notoriously difficult hitch, and I had more than enough food to tide me over. I selfishly tried to convince them to wait a day to resupply at Buena Vista – inexplicably pronounced Byoo-nah Vista by locals – but they weren't so sure.

"Well, I just thought maybe you wanted that Five Dollar Foot-Long I owe you," I shrugged.

"They have a Subway there?" gasped Lil Dipper, her eyes lighting up.

I nodded coyly.

"Blimey!" she exclaimed. "But that's literally my favourite sandwich shoppe! I would walk like a thousand kilometers just to eat there!"

"Subway," added Redwing, winking. "Eat Fresh!"

And so, as a group, we decided to skip Glasgow and Big Island, and to hike on to the Punchbowl Shelter. Or something.

We saw Moonpie and Little Brown at the Matts Creek Shelter, just before the James River. Moonpie reminded us in his characteristically humble fashion that his insanely hot girlfriend was picking him up at US501, just across the bridge. And that he was subsequently going home with her for a week to gluttonously revel in all that mature adults in modern civilization are so privileged to enjoy. Like hot showers and cable television. Oh, and he also told us that she was bringing trail magic.

And she was.

His girlfriend – whose name I've callously forgotten – was gracious, charming, and generally way too young, attractive and intelligent for someone so unabashedly rough-around-the-edges as Moonpie. I was at a complete loss to understand their relationship. Still, she had brought with her a glorious cornucopia of junk food, for which I am forever grateful. Nobody deigned to mention to her that people providing trail magic don't generally buy out a Walmart in order to do it. Usually just sodas and candy bars would suffice. But she had so much that we almost considered skipping Buena Vista.

"Yeah, I'm sorry Lil Dipper," I shrugged. "I may not need to go into town after all. Your Subway sandwich will have to wait."

"What?" snapped Lil Dipper, eerily reminding me of Caveman. "But how much did you take?"

"But they bake their own bread, daily! And their sandwiches are so hearty and delicious!" moaned Redwing. "And the way they don't tessellate their cheese? I was so looking forward to that."

"Oh well," I shrugged, annoyed. "Maybe there's a Blimpie in Waynesboro."

Now, at this point, I had written something about how Lil Dipper and Redwing suddenly transformed into vengeful, Valkyrie-like goddess warriors, beat me to within an inch of my life and nearly drowned me in the river. I had also written an extremely clever bit where Hobbes came along just at that moment and made fun of me for being beaten up by a couple of girls, and for also apparently soiling my pants. On this last point he would have been wrong, however, as I then would then have explained in a carefully crafted joke involving a conspicuous smudge caused by some melted Snickers bars. Which had only melted because of a lightning bolt cast by one of the angry British girls. But it all would have been very silly and stupid, and none of it really happened. So I'm not including it.

Because everything else I've written has been the unequivocal, unvarnished truth, without regard for my or anyone else's feelings, public image, or future political ambitions. And I want to keep that going. Also, because I have artistic integrity, and would never write anything that wasn't at least emotionally honest, not for shock value, not for laughs, and certainly not for any extremely generous gift card to the first and most delicious and healthy sandwich-based chain restaurant that springs to mind.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Chapter 60: Thunder Hill

On September 12th, 2001, I impulsively decided to walk downtown with one of my roommates. We were on a pilgrimage of sorts to see ground zero, or at least to see how the events of the day before had affected the surrounding neighborhoods. We wanted – or needed – to witness it for ourselves, with our own eyes, and not just see what everyone else was watching on television. In a certain way, what we were doing felt important.

We walked south on Broadway, right down the middle of the street. That in and of itself was an extremely weird experience. Except for parades or demonstrations, and before Mayor Bloomberg tried to turn it into a pedestrian thoroughfare, it was almost unheard of for Broadway to be closed to traffic. But it wasn't shut down. There just wasn't anybody left in the city.

The significance of this might be hard for an outsider to grasp. Ninety percent of the quintessential New York City experience is the ubiquity of the crowd, the sheer mass of humanity that surrounds you at any given moment. I had always, have always felt a certain safety in numbers walking the streets of New York. But on this day, we were alone.

The other ten percent of the New York City experience is the Russian roulette of dodging traffic and the tourists who clog the sidewalks to gape at all the tall buildings; laughing at people who take taxis instead of the subway; and the necessity of spending over half of your income on rent and utilities and the other half on alcohol to dull the pain of everything else. But then again, on this day, there was no traffic, no tourists, no jostling crowd. Even the bars were closed. There were no rumbling trucks, no pounding jackhammers, no cacophony of car horns, no taxis with squealing brakes and drivers cursing at you in multiple languages. Nothing. The entire quintessence of being a New Yorker was gone.

The monolithic apartment buildings lining the avenues stood silent and empty, like gaping mausoleums in a forgotten cemetery. Occasionally a face would peer out from a doorway or window, ashen, shellshocked, broken, their interest perhaps only momentarily piqued by the faint thud of helicopter blades or the far off wail of a siren. The worst part was the acrid smell that hung in the air, thick with ash and dust and probably a lot of other, more sinister things that I'd rather not contemplate.

We made it as far south as Houston Street before turning back. In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have been out there at all. It wasn't important. It was shameful, and stupid. What could we have seen had we actually gone any further? I honestly do not know. Would it have brought us any wisdom or closure? No, and of that, at least, I am sure. But what sort of toxins did we breath in, and how much danger did we expose ourselves to, even going as far as we did?

I've since come to peace with the fact that I'm probably going to die of some mysterious and horrible form of lung cancer. That is, if I'm not shot, stabbed, or blown up in an unforeseeable alien apocalypse in the meantime. Frankly, I'd rather bow out in a spectacular blaze of glory, preferably via drug overdose while I'm sitting on the toilet in a gay brothel. The point is, I know I'm going to die.

Which may explain why I'm such a vivacious and easy going person. Accepting the stark inevitability of your own mortality can be incredibly freeing. Instead of worrying about or trying to avoid one's death, one can fully embrace and enjoy life. Because, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said of life, "If you don't stop and look around once in a while – and do whatever you want all the time – you can miss it." I prefer another quote, however, from Henry David Thoreau: "Life isn't meant to be spent inside on a beautiful day like this. And stop hitting your sister!" Or was that my mother? I forget.


There was no water at the Cove Mountain Shelter. P-Nut and I had to hike three miles to Jennings Creek in the morning before we could fill up. This wasn't particularly easy. Neither of us had had anything to drink since the previous evening, yet we somehow managed the feat without drinking our own urine.

As we headed down to the river's edge with our filters, a nearby day hiker warned us that the river was contaminated. Yeah, right. I wasn't going to let some "mercury" or "arsenic" or "botulinum" come between me and a nice sip of cold water. We laughed off his feeble warnings and filled up.

We stopped a little later at the Bryant Ridge Shelter. It was magnificent, recently constructed, two stories tall, and could apparently accomodate twenty hikers in relative comfort. Someone had left behind a squeeze bottle of honey that we promptly guzzled without regard to germs, disease, or propriety. I left a note in the register:
Man! I finally catch up with P-Nut after 20 miles, and he convinces me to do another seven. It's not yet eight o'clock, though, and we're still feeling good, so we may press on to the Cornelius Creek Shelter before nightfall. A 32 mile day! I must be crazy. Caveman, Bandito, Redwing, Lil Dipper et al., catch up with us! If you can...
-Major Chafage
Anticipating the bemused and panicked looks on their faces, I had more fun at the Cornelius Creek Shelter:
Well, here we are! We finally made it in at about ten o'clock last night. I was too exhausted to write anything at the time, though. P-Nut's planning another twenty miles today. We may never see any of our friends again. Oh well. I always thought those guys were lame.
-Major Chafage
And then P-Nut wrote:
Everything M.C. just wrote in here is true.
Which prompted me to write:
Augh! You screwed up the date, P-Nut! Way to totally blow our completely hilarious practical joke! I mean, totally forget what day it is, bro! Ha ha!
And then we left. Except P-Nut decided at the last minute that he should use the privy, delaying us for some five minutes. Remember this fact, because it will become important again in about forty sentences.

P-Nut always amused me with his steadfast refusal to use privies. While I never particularly enjoyed the sanitary aspects of using a privy, I eventually got over my squeamishness. Catholing was more pleasant, generally, except for the lack of privacy, but P-Nut categorically refused to dig catholes as well. This was a little bit more puzzling. What would he do? Apparently he'd will himself into suffering through bouts of painful constipation until he could get into town and use a real toilet. Perhaps not the most pleasant way to go, but it worked for him. Sort of.

As we approached the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain, we could hear thunder rolling in to our left. Now, despite it's name, there are no apple orchards on Apple Orchard Mountain. In fact, it's summit is bald, and currently houses a rather intimidating FAA radar dome. The summit was the last place we wanted to be during a thunderstorm.

"Yeah, that's more like it!" shouted P-Nut as I started to run.

He really was crazy.

I momentarily considered seeking shelter at the FAA facility, but it was surrounded by a barb-wire fence, complete with spooky signs that read "Trespassers Will Be Killed A Lot." That wouldn't do. Besides, the appropriately named Thunder Hill Shelter was only 1.2 miles away.

I had been caught out above tree line in a storm once before. I was sixteen, and doing an eleven day backpacking and sea kayaking trip with the Appalachian Mountain Club. We were eating lunch on some mountain in Maine, and we could see the line of rain approaching us across the sky. How often do you actually get to see a storm front, or the place where the sunshine stops and the rain begins? It was mesmerizing, until it caught up to us and hail stones the size of marbles started bouncing off our heads.

I didn't want to repeat that scenario. I didn't want to stop to put my rain gear on. I didn't want to get hit by lightning, or have lightning hit a tree near me. In fact, with a growing stitch in my side, I just wanted to get to the shelter and lie down before I passed out. Since, you know, we'd been running. And our backpacks are heavy.

A wall of fog materialized suddenly on our left, moving fast towards us through the trees. It was as if the clouds themselves were sentient, and maniacally intent on attacking us. It moved quickly, completely enveloping us in less than twenty seconds. It got suddenly dark; it was as if mid-afternoon turned into twilight in the blink of an eye. You could practically feel the electricity in the air. Actually, you could feel the electricity in the air. The hairs on my arms were standing on end. This was not encouraging.

We reached the Blue Ridge Parkway and hesitated. The shelter was 0.3 miles away. It was hard to see if any traffic was coming, and even harder to hear with the rush of the wind and the sizzling static in the air. We ran across the road, which was probably a doubly stupid thing to do, but made it safely. And then, maybe a hundred yards from the shelter, the heavens opened up.

I slowed down to walk. I was soaked already, and wasn't going to get more wet by taking my time. We were back underneath the trees, and I wasn't so worried about being hit by lightning. I could hear P-Nut's girlish screams in front of me as he ran to the shelter. Which was a good thing, because I wouldn't have known where to turn otherwise. I couldn't see five feet in front of me. And, of course, if we'd gotten there five minutes earlier, and we would've missed the rain entirely. But such is life.

There were a few others in the shelter. Most of them were lazy north bound thru-hikers. Who knows where they had started the day. We had gone seventeen miles, which was atypically unambitious for us, but we weren't going any further. We settled in to wait out the rain, and wait for our friends.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Chapter 59: The Present Tense, Again

To absolutely no one's surprise, P-Nut isn't at the Fullhardt Knob Shelter. However, Bandito, Caveman and myself are hardly alone. There's an older man there named Little Brown, whom I assume works in publishing but will find out later actually works for UPS. Then there's his friend Moonpie, who I find obnoxious and instantly dislike because he quite justifiably mocks me for being a pretentious blowhard. He's also an unabashed pervert.

"Kinda looks like a tit, don'tcha think?" he says, gazing lustily at someone's tent, which admittedly does look like a breast. If breasts were blue, and four feet tall.

If there is anything I didn't need, it's a couple of elderly sidekicks who will only cramp my style by being funny all the time and by ridiculing me and deflating my ego. I already have Caveman for that. And Redwing. And literally everyone else I'm hiking with. I secretly hope that Little Brown and Moonpie drop dead. Naturally, we'll end up marking time with each other for the next 560 miles.


I tell Caveman and Bandito my intentions of running down P-Nut that day.

"Someone's gotta catch up with him and slow him down," I say, "Or we're likely never to see him again."

Bandito and Caveman exchange glances, as though they wouldn't be too sorry to let him go. I think of Alphabet, and her unheralded departure. I don't want to lose another friend. I find their indifference disgusting and unacceptable.

"No!" I cry, "This is unacceptable. I'm not going to lose another one!"

"What are you talking about?" asks Bandito, bewildered by my sudden outburst.

"M.C. always has to make things overly dramatic," says Caveman.


"Because he's afraid that if he lets things seem mundane, as they really are, people will realize how uninteresting he really is," explains Caveman.

"How dare you," I mutter, "Accurately describe the situation."

"That's the benefit of being the third-person omniscient narrator," says Caveman.

"Shut up! You're not the narrator!" I scream. "I am!"

"M.C.," laments Bandito, "You're letting things get too meta again. Have you had enough coffee? Or maybe too much?"

"Et tu, Bandito?" I growl, "I see how it is! Everyone's against me! I'll just go on alone!"

"Well, yeah. That's what you said you were gonna do," says Caveman. "To catch P-Nut."

"Right!" I sputter. "Fine! I'm going!"

And I leave.


I see Hobbes a little later. He's still in camp. It looks as though he slept directly on the trail, or perhaps right next to it. I feel like I haven't seen him in a couple days. Weird.

"Hey," says Hobbes, pulling his pants on. "What's all the screaming about?"

"Oh, you heard me shouting back there?"

"Everyone in Virginia heard that."

"I'm sorry," I shrug, annoyed. "Did I wake you?"

Hobbes scoffs. "No, I've been up since four, communing with nature. I was just having the most fascinating conversation with a squirrel."

I can't tell if he's being sarcastic or not. I've never been able to get a good read on him. I decide it's best not to find out. I nod stupidly and hike on.


Spring arrives slowly at elevation. I vividly remember the last time it snowed, just a couple weeks earlier. Now leaves are growing on the trees again, and the forest floor is a vast sea of budding flowers, mottled by lightly sashaying pools of amber sunlight. The air is alive with birdsong and the buzz of insects.

Or maybe it's overcast. I walk through a heavy mist which stills and dulls every sound and movement. I hear only faint echoes, as though in a mausoleum. A soft carpet of last year's leaves muffles my footfalls. I drift onward as if in a dream, practically swimming through the cloud around me.

I think about catching up with P-Nut. I think about Bandito, Caveman, Redwing and Lil Dipper catching up with me. I think about Hobbes catching up with me. I try not to think about Hobbes. I try not to think about Alphabet, Jason, Freeman, Merf, or Shorts either. I think about Megan. Every step I take carries me further away from the gloom of loss and separation towards a brighter future, the infinite possibility of the unknown stretching before me like the horizon.

I abruptly walk out of the woods onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, which I'll be crossing approximately twelve dozen times over the next hundred miles. Two lanes of cool, perfectly maintained asphalt, disappearing into the mist in both directions. Silent. Useless. Anachronistic. Out of time and place. What is it doing here? I hate it.

I think about all the things people have told me about the trail in Virginia. How everyone says it's "flat and easy," just like the profile in my handbook makes it seem. How wrong they are. I compose a cruel joke in my head, and vow to write it in the next shelter registry. It will amuse me to no end, but probably no one else. I have no conscience.

I think about stopping at the Bobblets Gap Shelter. I feel like taking a break, and having a snack. Besides, what if P-Nut is waiting there? Or what if he left a note? But then I remember, this is P-Nut. Bobblets Gap Shelter is two tenths of a mile off the trail. He would never waste that much time. I also don't want Caveman or Bandito or especially Hobbes to catch up with me yet. I made such a big deal about leaving before them, it would be a mark of shame and failure if they were to catch up with me so quickly. I can't let that happen. I continue on.

I sing to pass the time. Today it's the Beatles. My voice is mellifluous, clarion, and always in tune. I may not have perfect pitch, like some other people I know, but I know when I'm in tune or not. And I'm in tune. Besides, there's nobody around to disuade me of this notion. No, wait. I mean, it's too bad I don't have an audience. Because my singing is awesome.

I'm vamping on "Yesterday" in a sweet falsetto when I approach the Cove Mountain Shelter. It's four o'clock, and I've done nearly twenty miles. There's another shelter in seven miles. I could probably make it there by nightfall. But no, there's P-Nut! And he's already in his sleeping bag. We're going nowhere.

I throw my stuff into the shelter beside him.

"Hey man, how come you didn't wait for us at that first shelter out of town?" I ask.

"I got there at like four o'clock! I felt lazy! I had to keep going."

"It's four o'clock now. How come you're already in your sleeping bag?"

"It's raining," shrugs P-Nut uneasily. It's only misting, but I don't disagree with him. "And I don't like hiking in the rain."

I can't blame him. Plus I'm glad he's there. I pull out my sleeping bag to settle in for the night.

I keep expecting Bandito, Caveman, Redwing and Lil Dipper to show up. Or at least Hobbes. What happened to Hobbes? P-Nut and I keep a close watch on the trail, which is some two hundred feet to our left. We worry that our friends will pass us by without stopping.

"They'd at least check to see if we'd written a note here, right?" asks P-Nut.

I nod, then remember that I didn't check for a note at the last shelter. But Bandito isn't as lazy as I am. He would stop. I'm sure of it.

A couple families show up with screaming babies and rambunctious dogs. We ask them if they've seen anyone. They haven't. We ask them if they have soda. They don't. We hope their screaming babies don't attract predators or keep us half the night. We are half right. The dogs will scare off any predators, and the babies will sleep in relative silence. It's the parents' snoring that will keep us awake.


Shelter log entry, Cover Mountain Shelter:
Virginia is flat an easy, like my ex-girlfriend!
I'm sorry, that was uncalled for. Virginia isn't flat.
-Major Chafage

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Chapter 58: Pizza Huts in the Dark

Our hike into Daleville—or was it Troutville? Or maybe Troutdale?—was indescribably fascinating. We passed a rock entirely covered in graffiti... Do I technically need a third sentence for this to comprise a paragraph?

Our lunch options in Daletroutville were rather limited. Right next to the trail sat a Pizza Hut and a Rancho Viejo, a Mexican restaurant that Bandito and I had gone to just two days earlier with his parents. Our meal there lingered unpleasantly in my memory if not in my gut. I naturally gravitated towards the Pizza Hut along with everyone else.

Pizza Hut is quite possibly the best pizza chain on the planet Earth. Of all the pizzerias that serve heinously unhealthy, generally tasteless pies that would make any native Italian scream in terror and quite possibly soil themselves—Domino's, Papa John's, Apache Pizza, or Uno's Chicago Grill, for example—Pizza Hut is definitely up there. Certainly amongst the top five. Way better than Pizza Plus.

In retrospect, I don't know why I didn't just get a large Veggie Lover's® for $10, or a stuffed crust version of the same for $11. Instead, I got their Monday special: two medium, one topping Pizza Mias for $10. A Pizza Mia is apparently just like their normal pizza except with a thinner crust and sweeter sauce. Or something. I'll be damned if I could tell the difference. Anyway, my eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach. Also, the large root beer was probably a mistake.

I ate fifteen slices of pizza before it caught up with me. At over 200 calories a slice, that's abut 3,000 calories, 60 grams of saturated fat, 135 grams of protein, and 1,100 grams of gastrointestinal trauma. I tried giving the last slice away. Yes, there was only one slice left. Each pizza is eight slices. Did I mention I ate fifteen? Anyway, there were no takers. Not even Alphabet wanted one. She'd lost her appetite for some reason. And it wasn't from watching me eat, although, believe me, I would have understood. I wanted to die.

I also wanted to finish what I had started. Everyone else wanted me to finish too, but more out of some sick sadistic sense of schadenfreude than anything positive. I finally put my head down on the table and groaned like a stuck mule for a few minutes, then covered the last piece with a napkin so I didn't have to look at it anymore. I think the others found this amusing. I wished they had never caught up with me.

After we left, I was in no shape to hike on. Redwing and Lil Dipper were getting a motel room for the night, but staying with them wasn't an option. Nature and Saint were also getting a motel room, to wait for Nature's friend Bronco to pick them up in the morning to take them to Trail Days in Damascus. However, staying with them wasn't really a plausible option either. I compromised by collapsing on their floor like a dead fish and writhing around in agony for a couple hours while everyone else went to the outfitter and resupplied.

P-Nut was the first to leave, hiking out before the rest of us. We told him to wait for us at the first shelter out of town, but we knew it was unlikely that we'd see him again that day. P-Nut was and always would be too ambitious for his own good. Caveman, Bandito and myself eventually set off some two hours later, right after securing Redwing and Lil Dipper's assurances that they would catch up with us in the morning.

Tragically, and much to my and our disappointment, Alphabet would not be hiking on with us at all. I suppose we should have seen her departure coming. She had been in an weird, distracted mood the entire day. It seemed like the only time she had smiled was when she was showing me cute pictures of herself and her boyfriend, the annoying debonair and dashing Paul Vidal. Otherwise, she had been oddly listless and morose, almost inconsolable.

None of us really knew what was wrong, nor had we the courage to ask her. It wasn't beyond the scope of our imagination, however. She had just spent a week at home, with her family and the annoying debonair and dashing Paul Vidal. She was homesick.

"It musta been hard, seein' her family for that long, spendin' so much time Paul Vidal, and then havin' to come back out here and rough it with us?" Caveman speculated, sympathetic. "I mean, you kinda smell there, buddy. Have you showered recently?"


Our conversation continued later on at the Fullhardt Knob Shelter over shots of Southern Comfort.

"I wonder if he gave her an ultimatum," mused Caveman.

"I bet he did. His picture made him look like the kind of jerk who would do that," I said, remembering his nauseatingly handsome face.

Caveman muttered some indistinct profanity.

"He was probably jealous that she was off having the time of her life without him," I theorized, "And was all like, 'You're never gonna make it, you're just making a fool of yourself, and if you don't quit the trail and abandon all those awesome people you've met and spend the rest of my life with me forever, you're going to die miserable and alone."

"And probably soon, murder-raped by a hillbilly bear,'" I added, not projecting at all. "What a jerk."

"Paul Vidal," said Caveman, shaking his head.

"What a jerk," I repeated.

"Do you think maybe she just wasn't havin' a good time?" asked Caveman.

"What do you mean?" I said, a note of panic in my voice. "Like she realized that what we're doing is ultimately stupid and meaningless, a Quixotic pursuit, just another way to stave off the inevitability of adulthood and responsibility?"

"You think?"

We sat in silence for a moment, pondering. Then looked to each other. We shook our heads.

"What a callous, emotionally abusive jerk," said Caveman.

"God I hate him," I added, downing my fifth shot.

Yes, it was far easier to blame Paul Vidal, whom neither of us had met, than face our own insecurities. Paul Vidal would become a crucial scapegoat for us in the days, weeks, and months to come. He would eventually be responsible for everything that's wrong with the world: religious fundamentalists, south-bounders, global warming, the music of Ke$ha, etc.

It was thunder-storming. I was not drunk. Only one of the previous statements is true. I went to bed harboring the vague hope that a tree would fall on my tent during the night. Then I would have a reason to quit, and to crawl back to my own Paul Vidal.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Chapter 57: Chapter 56, Continued

I had just returned from pooping when I heard them. Their dulcet accents drifted towards me from out of the trees. My heart racing, I struck a casual pose, leaning against a boulder near my backpack to wait, flipping my hair in a rakish manner.

"Oh. My. God!" said Lil Dipper, stopping short when she saw me.

"Oh, hi," I said indifferently, pretending to examine my fingernails. "Fancy seeing you here."

"M.C.!" cried Redwing. And we laughed and ran to each other to exchange awkward hand shakes.

"We never thought we'd see you again!" said Redwing.

"Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you," I joked, and we laughed again.

I quickly filled them in on what I had been up to over the past week or so. Walked fast. Cried a lot. Went into Roanoke with Bandito and his family to see Iron Man 2. Found out that I had been being a total dumb-ass and that Memorial Day was on the 31st, not the 24th.

"So you'll have enough time to make it to Harpers Ferry!" cried Lil Dipper.

"Yes, ma'am."

"And you'll get to see your girlfriend," said Redwing, her smile faltering.

"Yes, ma'am," I replied. "Although I'm still working on getting her to come out to the trail to bring us pizza and beer."

They told me what they had been up to. Walking fast. Missing me. Going to the Home Place, a legendary All-You-Can-Eat restaurant in Catawba. Missing my smile, my quiet dignity and leadership, my ample wit, the carefree flip of my sunny blonde hair...

"Stop it, Redwing! I'm blushing," I teased.

"There's someone else who'll be glad to see you," said Lil Dipper.

"Who?" I asked, immediately thinking of Hobbes.

"M.C.!" cried Caveman, crashing out of the woods. "I thought I heard your voice!"

"Caveman!" I cried, not lurching forward for an uncomfortable hug. Because that wouldn't have been manly. Plus it would've been weird and cumbersome with our packs on. "Miss me?"

"Yeah! Only like a drownin' man misses oxygen, or like a fish in a fish tank misses the ocean, or Buzz Aldrin misses outer space, or like, someone who misses something a lot misses that thing!" said Caveman. Then he turned to shout back down the trail. "Hey, P-Nut! You'll never guess who we found!"

"Who?" came P-Nut's voice just before he emerged to find us all waiting there. "M.C.! No way!"

And we hiked on as a group.

The others continued to catch me up on their most recent adventures. They told me how Hobbes had been rudely denied service at the Home Place. How P-Nut and Caveman had cuddled in a sleeping bag together on the restaurant's lawn after the meal. How they had been thinking about me the whole time I was gone.

"Stop it, P-Nut! I'm blushing," I teased.

We caught up with Bandito on McAfee's Knob, where we all sat down to take a much-deserved break and the obligatory legs-dangling-over-the-cliff photos. I made sport of and ruined several people's shots by sneaking up on them and pretending to push them off. Then Alphabet and Nature and Saint arrived. It was like a family reunion. Plus Saint.

We easily could have sat around there all day, enjoying the views. It was beautiful. Very easy to understand how it might come to be the "most photographed place" on the Appalachian Trail.

"My family comes up here every Thanksgiving," Alphabet was saying to Caveman.

"Wait, wait, wait," I interrupted, "Your family goes hiking? Here? Every Thanksgiving?"

"Yeah," shrugged Alphabet, like it was the most natural, understandable thing in the world.

"That's ridiculous," I scoffed, unbelieving.

Caveman laughed. "Oh, how I've missed that Major Chafage charm!"

I didn't understand. Caveman pointed out that it generally wasn't polite to question or mock someone's family traditions. Which is fair enough. To my, but mostly her credit, however, Alphabet didn't see at all offended by my brusqueness.

Eventually the lot of us packed up and moved on, thinking about reaching the Lamberts Meadow Shelter, some six miles away, before nightfall. We would ultimately fall short of even that meager goal, but it was for the best. The hike itself was relatively smoo–

Lil Dipper suddenly tripped over a root and face-planted hard, skidding headfirst several yards downhill, her shoe somehow coming of in the process.

Caveman swore in alarm, jumping out of the way, then quickly stooped to help her up. "Are you okay?"

"Huh huh," chucked Lil Dipper, sounding more like a caveman than Caveman. "I fell."

I couldn't help but laugh. The rest of us were just glad she was all right.

We caught up with Hobbes on the Tinker Cliffs. He was cowboy camping amongst the trees, sitting in his sleeping bag and staring out at the horizon, almost zen-like.

"What's up Hobbes? You stayin' here for the night?"

"Yeah," he said, rousing from his meditation. He shrugged, seemingly annoyed by the intrusion. "I figured Lambert's Meadow would be too crowded."

"You're probably right. And it is really nice up here."

"And secluded," added Hobbes pointedly. "And quiet."

For some reason, I began to suspect that Hobbes wanted to be alone. Naturally, we all stayed. Five minutes later, we had surrounded his rather inconspicuous campsite with a half-dozen mismatched tents.

We built a fire, told stories, and I showed off my 2 pound, 12 ounce bag of Peanut M&M's, which was the envy of everyone. And then we all watched the sunset and went to bed, contented. Our family was whole again. If only for a day.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Chapter 56: Am I On Track for 380 Chapters Yet?

The continental breakfast—named after the continent of America—may be the United States' greatest and most lasting contribution to world cuisine. The undeniable pleasures of eating such hearty and traditional American favorites as croissants and brioche with rich, creamy butter and a sweet jam or chocolate spread are so universal that they have been subverted and stealthily co-opted by places such as France and other silly Mediterranean countries, who now claim it as their own. Pathetic and really, truly pointless historical quibbling about its origins aside, there can be no debate that the best continental breakfasts anywhere on the planet are now served, almost exclusively, in the myriad national hotel chains operating across the United States.

The particular hotel we were staying in started breakfast at seven. I was there at 6:50, and kept eating until Bandito and his parents were ready to take us back to the trail. Remember this seemingly trivial fact, because it will become relevant again in exactly seven sentences.

I have to single out Bandito's parents for praise once again. I was always and continue to be amazed and awestruck at the quite literal lengths they would go for their son. They treated me like family, and while I can never hope to repay their kindness or hospitality, I can only hope that my profuse and ongoing expressions of gratitude, however feeble they might be, will in some way suffice.

It was nearly eleven by the time the time they dropped us off at the trailhead. We said our tearful goodbyes, they wished us luck, and we went our separate ways. Bandito took the lead, and after hiking for no more than two minutes I had to stop. My bowels were about to explode.

I looked around. There was a very steep, seemingly dangerous slope to my left. To my right, an almost impenetrable thicket of vegetation. My options seemed to be rather limited.

Compounding my problems, the section of trail we were on seemed to be very well trafficked. We were approaching McAfee's Knob, which has been described by some to be "the most photographed place on the Appalachian Trail." And it may have been a weekend. Needless to say, there were a lot of day hikers about.

"Bandito," I shouted, "Wait!"

I wanted him to keep a look out, to warn me if anyone was approaching while I was doing my business. Not that I'm sure that would have done any good. I may have not been thinking that clearly. I was desperate. But Bandito continued on, not hearing me.

There was nothing for it. I ripped off my pack and crashed into the woods on my left. I found what I thought was a spot of some seclusion, gouged a hole in the ground, and squatted.

Somehow, I had chosen a spot just above another path. If anyone, say a father and his two young kids, had been hiking down to the road at that moment, I would have been right at their eye level. So it's a good thing that definitely didn't happen. Because that would have been really embarrassing.

What is proper etiquette for such a situation? Do you smile and wave? Do you jokingly say "Nothing to see here! Just a thru-hiker pooping in the woods! Move along!"? Or do you mind your own business and just hope the situation resolves itself organically?

Well, it's a good thing this absolutely didn't happen, because I have no idea what the answers are to any of those questions. But for future reference, for all of you, my dear readers? Making a joke about it is probably a bad idea.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chapter 55: Yogi This

The Thru-Hiker's Handbook defines Yogi-ing as "the good-natured art of 'letting' food be offered cheerfully by strangers without actually asking them directly (if you do, it's begging!)."

We were approaching a viewpoint near Dragon's Tooth. There were a lot of day hiker's about, but I wasn't paying them any attention. Bandito wanted to stop for a mid-morning snack, or maybe an early lunch. I didn't feel particularly inclined to join him. Maybe I was just in a pissy mood, still stung by my recent string of humiliations, or perhaps I was preoccupied with thoughts of Megan, and of how far we had yet to go. Maybe both. Or maybe I was just out of food.

"I'm all outta food, man," I lamented. "I'm just gonna keep going."

Bandito shrugged. And I turned to go.

"Hey!" came a voice over my shoulder.

It was a couple, about my age, sitting on a nearby rock.

"You outta food?" asked the man.

I nodded tentatively.

"Here," he said, going through his pack. He handed me an apple, some granolla bars, and a can of Coca Cola. "Stay. Eat with your boy."

"Really?" I asked, not believing my good fortune.

"Sure, it's no problem," grinned the man.

"Wow! Thanks a lot!" I said.

And that's how you Yogi.

"I get half," said Bandito later, as I cracked open the soda.

Yeah, right. I chugged my share and then gave it to him. "You get to pack it out."

The way down from Dragon's Tooth is a bit crazy. Fantastically steep but mercifully short, the descent is one of maybe three or four parts of the entire Appalachian Trail where the use of metal rebar handholds, while not strictly required, might be strongly suggested. I quickly came to the realization that using trekking poles here was more of a liability than a help. I stowed my Leki. My other walking stick, that I had just so recently picked out of a barrel at the Woods Hole Hostel, proved more problematic.

I looked down, and thought I saw a switchback below us. Figuring the trail looped around somewhere, I decided my best option was to drop the stick over the cliff, then pick it up later. So I did.

The trail went straight. Oops.

Bandito had his own bout with bad luck. On his way down, his sole surviving carbon-fiber trekking pole practically exploded, shattering spontaneously in his hands. Somehow, he managed not to curse. Or burst into tears. If I hadn't been sobbing in the bushes nearby, I might have applauded his reserve.

We sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" as we marched down to the parking lot, where we were greeted as conquering heroes by his awaiting parents, sprayed down by a nervous HAZMAT crew, thrown in the back of a pickup truck, shuttled to a general store in Catawba where Bandito picked up a mail drop, and then finally driven to a hotel in nearby Roanoke.

I didn't have any clean civilian clothes to change into, so Bandito's parents very thoughtfully went out to buy me some at a nearby Walmart while I showered. Then we did our laundry. Then we went out for some fantastic Indian food that Bandito was either too stubborn or xenophobic to try, his loss. Then we went shopping, and I bought a two pound, twelve ounce bag of Peanut M&Ms. Because really, why not? Then I talked to Megan on the phone and figured out that Memorial Day was on May 31st, not May 24th, and that I therefore had an extra week to make it to Harpers Ferry. And then we went to see Iron Man 2. And it was horrible. And then we returned to the hotel and promptly we went to bed.

And when I woke up the next morning, I couldn't really remember, but I had the vague feeling something important had happened.

Chapter 54: The Catawba Challenge

The Catawba Challenge consists of hiking the 53.6 miles from the Pine Swamp Branch Shelter to Catawba, Virginia. Bandito and I had decided to do it in just two and a half days. It was destined to be our most difficult test yet, filled with random encounters with south-bound section hikers, spontaneous bouts of tree hugging with the Keffer Oak—which at 300 years old and with an 18 foot circumference actually isn't that old or particularly large—nervous breakdowns, the death of yet another of my walking sticks, and some expertly wrangled trail magic.

And now, because I can't actually remember anything from that first day's hike, here's a fascinating excerpt from one of my favorite novels that I totally didn't just make up, Another, More Sordid Teenage Love Affair, by Emmanuel Asiago Tortone:
as radiant and graceful as a lotus blossom floating upon a pond dappled by moonlight. She immediately attracted the amorous attentions of all the other bees and butterflies, all of whom had shinier stripes, more muscular thoraxes, and prettier, faster wings than he did. And she became unapproachable, surrounded by an impenetrable web of admirers, drawn ever in by her intoxicating beauty.

Everything she did was effortless.

The way she seemed to glide through the party in her silky green dress, the turn of her head, the careful arch of her eyebrow as she leveled an inquisitive, slightly bemused gaze at whomever was lucky enough to amuse her.

The way her laugh carried across the air and jarred his senses.

The way playfulness and vulnerability commingled in the twinkle of her eye.

The way she could kindly and cleverly deflect anyone and everyone's meticulously constructed advances, making them seem callous, corny and clumsy in retrospect.

The way her eyes seemed to seek him out in the crowd, the way the rest of the world melted away in the heat of her attention. They way she made him feel like they were the only people in the room, in the house, the yard, the world.

Although his facile, facetious friends found fault in her gummy smile, this one flaw only made her all the more perfect for him, made him ache with longing every time he saw it, which was far too rarely. It was a continual and constant challenge to keep her entertained, to keep her from slipping into what he feared was a dangerous and all-consuming melancholy that could make the entire world fade behind it, cold and colorless. But he welcomed this challenge willingly. He lived to face it.

His only dream, his one talent, his life's purpose was to make her laugh, every moment of every day. But she didn't know it. And even if she did, there was nothing she could do about it. And neither could he.
We stayed at the Laurel Creek Shelter overnight. We'd gone 18.5 miles. We'd do 22.5 tomorrow, then the last 12.6 into Catawba by noon on the third day. So far so good.

Our second day was much more interesting than the first, if no less difficult. We walked past the aforementioned Keffer Oak, which is actually one of the bigger trees I've ever seen. A nearby plaque said something about the virgin forests of the Americas being filled with trees of similar or even surpassing majesty, before logging and agricultural needs cut them all down.

I felt a sudden surge of empathy for the stalwart tree, and felt like hugging it. So I did. My little brother thought this was awesome and insisted on taking pictures to commemorate the occasion, then asked me to take pictures of him doing the same. I was considerably nonplussed, but reluctantly acquiesced. The entire episode remains one of the low points of my life.

The day was also marked by another of my legendary nervous breakdowns. We were climbing a woods road towards the Audie Murphy Memorial, a granite marker commemorating the spot where the legendary WWII hero died in a plane crash in 1971. It was really steep, and I cried.

But you know what's more interesting than that? Pizza! Here's my favorite recipe for pizza dough:
First heat up a 1.25 cups of water so it's warm to the touch. Shouldn't take long.

In a large bowl, mix one tablespoon of sugar—preferably unrefined cane sugar or honey, or just a dab of molasses—and one tablespoon baking yeast. Add the warm water. Mix, and let stand 5 minutes.

In a measuring cup, mix together 1.5 cups of unbleached flour—organic spelt or white whole wheat works best, while white flour is too processed and thus unhealthy and plain whole heat too dry—and 1.5 teaspoons of kosher sea salt. Add this mixture to the water, which should now be bubbly or fizzing, indicating an active and viable yeast. Stir until smooth.

Add more flour in half cup increments until total flour volume is 2.5-3 cups, mixing and kneading in as necessary. Herbs like oregano, rosemary, and dill can also be added during this time for flavor. If you're feeling especially adventurous, you could try adding some diced olives.

Knead in 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. I prefer mine fair traded, sometimes even garlic infused.

Let rise for one hour, or until volume is doubled. Makes 2-3 pies.
We spent our second night at the Pickle Branch Shelter. It had been such a long, arduous, emotionally taxing but really, really interesting day. There were so many memories, so many unique and funny moments and spectacular views that I knew that day would stick with me forever. So I went to sleep.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Chapter 53: Juice

It soon became tragically apparent that my Thru-Hiker's Handbook was about as trustworthy as my ex-girlfriend. Although its profile of Central Virginia made the trail look flat and easy, also like my ex-girlfriend, the reality of it was anything but. Every listed landmark was at or near the same altitude; for example, Dickinson Gap, at 3,300 feet, was followed immediately by the Allegheny Trail, at 3,500 feet. What the book doesn't tell you is that, in between, there's an unnamed 4,000 foot mountain. It was incredibly frustrating, confounding, and infuriating.

All I knew was that we were somewhere in between Pine Swamp Branch Shelter and the campsite and spring some ten miles before it. How did I know this? Somehow, I had run out of water. I was painfully aware of how far we would have to go before I'd have another opportunity to hydrate. In the meantime, the fact that we were traipsing up and down some seventeen thousand foot mountain that wasn't even in the guidebook was just an added bonus.

My stalwart hiking companion Bandito was less than helpful in this time of crisis. I knew he usually carried two liters of water, and at this point figured he must have had at least one liter left. But instead of offering me a sip or two of his supply to tide me over, he repeatedly reprimanded me for only carrying 40 ounces at a time.

He was right, of course. It was my fault. My Klean Kanteen did only contain 40 ounces. But how was knowing that I had made a mistake going to help me? It wasn't as if I could just hop off the trail into an outfitter and buy another water bottle. We were in the middle of the woods. What could I do?

I reviewed my options. My best bet was to suck it up, stay calm, and hike on to the next water source, which was just before the shelter. The chances of becoming dangerously dehydrated, hallucinating, and walking off a cliff are generally exaggerated, after all. I could also try drinking my own urine. But that would seem to be the refuge of truly demented, the astoundingly foolhardy, and Bear Grylls. I wasn't that desperate. So I chose the third option, which was to exacerbate my problem by crying like a baby.

All I could think about was being at home, near a refrigerator filled with unlimited juice, and my mommy asking me if I was thirsty, and then me saying yes, and then her bringing me juice. And just having that source of unlimited juice nearby. And of course the more I thought about juice, the thirstier I became, which only heightened my hysteria, which only made me cry even more, which only dehydrated me further.

Bandito, bless his soul, was enormously supportive of me through this time of crisis, by laughing uproariously at me, and then having the temerity to complain about his stomach hurting because I was making him laugh so much. Why was I hiking with him, again? Maybe there's something inherently funny about a grown man sobbing and whimpering and shaking all over like wet cat, but I didn't appreciate the implication. This wasn't a joke, and I'm not that good an actor. I really was desperate.

We must have lost twenty minutes to half an hour of daylight before I was able to compose myself. Still angry at Bandito, I hiked on ahead of him, and watched Jurassic Park in my head to distract myself. I had just gotten to the part where Samuel L. Jackson is saying "Vehicle headlights are on and they're not responding, those shouldn't be running off the car batteries," when I reached the stream.

When Bandito caught up with me, I had my Katadyn Hiker Pro's out hose firmly clenched in my mouth. I waited to fill my water bottle until after I had sated my thirst. He laughed, because I looked ridiculous, I made a mental note to start planning his accidental death, and we moved on.

We ended the night at the Pine Swamp Branch Shelter. Turkey and Thrasher were there, along with an old guy who we may or may not have met before, and a few other people whom I accurately suspected would be awful snorers. Bandito might have been sociable, but I was still too cross with the world, and so kept to myself. I made dinner, then second dinner, then went to sleep.

645.7 miles down, 1533.4 to go.