"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!Badum-ching!I'm sorry, that was uncalled for. Virginia isn't flat.Badum-ching!-Major Chafage