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.
"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?