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.
"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.