Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Chapter 77: Turnaround

On October 24th, 2007, I was gainfully employed, living in New York with my girlfriend, our cat, and a random homeless film student we grabbed off the street to subsidize our rent. My future was looking bright. I had recently been promoted at work and was making and developing what I thought were the meaningful professional relationships that would carry me through to the next phase of my career, whatever that was. Meanwhile, all I had to look forward to were Friday nights at the Hop Devil Grill or Crocodile Lounge; an endless parade of mirthful excess, debauchery, and the occasional weekend in the Hamptons; rooftop parties; MTA fare increases; my landlord being a jerk; and falling asleep mostly every night to the dulcet tones of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, if not the unpleasant drone of hipsters drinking in the courtyard behind our building.

Twenty-four hours later, I found out that I was being laid off. That the next day, Friday the 26th, would be my last day at work. And that I would spend it training the intern who would be replacing me.

Six hours after that, I was drunk.

Instantly, the future I had once believed so certain and inevitable had evaporated. I didn't know if I could afford to pay my rent the next month, let alone make it to the end of my lease. Money had always been tight, if inconsequential; what was the point in saving money if your life was to be intolerable? But now that my income was gone, money was abruptly paramount, an all-consuming worry that would dominate my every waking moment. I quickly said goodbye to Friday nights at Hop Devil; bid a hearty farewell to those rooftop parties; and came to dread those pernicious MTA fare increases all the more, not as insignificant annoyances, but as evidence of the duplicity of our government, run as it was by a sinister corporate oligarchy, and the encroaching degradation of our civic and social values. And, all of a sudden, I was contemplating alternate career paths and lifestyles, going travelling, leaving the city, leaving my friends, completely abandoning this life I had so carefully constructed and cultivated. I was adrift, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Everything had been turned around in just a few short hours.

On May 26th, 2010, I experienced a similarly dramatic if slightly less life-altering reversal. At 10:00 that morning, I was a sweaty, smelly, dirty, hungry, uncivilized mountain man; horrifying to contemplate, even worse to behold. Four hours later, I was in Baltimore, wondering why I was waiting for their impossibly dysfunctional public transportation system to work when I could just as easily walk where I was going. Then I was buying deodorant and some industrial strength air-freshener. Four hours after that, I had showered, been reintroduced to my girlfriend's sister—"Oh my God! Look at you!" Liz had said in greeting, a deeply concerned look on her face—devoured an entire pizza to the apparent delight of some impressionable public school children, and finally found myself sitting in the upper deck at Camden Yards, watching the Oakland Athletics completely embarrass the hometown Orioles. I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, when he suddenly found himself all cleaned up and dining amongst the Bruce Ismays and Molly Browns in the first class lounge. Or, alternately, like when I lost my job, only the total opposite.

Twenty-four hours after that, I had caught up on mostly all of my favorite TV shows; showered again; done my laundry, twice; eaten almost everything I considered edible in Liz's refrigerator; discovered my achilles tendon had tightened up so much I could barely walk; and unceremoniously thrown my hiking boots out on the curb.

Twenty-four hours after that, I had enjoyed a hug-filled reunion with Megan; eaten a giant burrito at Chipotle; drank almost two liters of soda; eaten most of several small gourmet pizzas; drank a bunch of beer; and participated in a drunken sing-along of Oasis's "Wonderwall" during which Liz, her friends and I had all inexplicably screamed the lyrics in Megan's bemused and startled face.

Forty-eight hours after that, I had eaten crab dip and ground beef on chili nachos, made pizza and guacamole, drank copious amounts of beer, eaten several veggie burgers, fallen asleep in a drunken torpor, and then woke up to find Megan's arm draped over my chest and her lips brushing my neck, her face nuzzled against my cheek.

And the day after that was more of the same.

And then it was June 1st, and it was time to go back.

And I was saying goodbye to Liz and her roommate Kristie, neither of whom could have been nicer or more accommodating. And then Meg was driving me back to Harpers Ferry, where I picked up a maildrop from my sister. Which was way too big. Meg and I looked around fruitlessly for a place to get lunch. Eventually, we ended up paying the six bucks to get into the main parking lot, then found a picnic table where I heated up a package of pre-cooked Indian food my sister had sent me.

And it was over all too soon. I felt like there had been so much left unsaid, and such a gulf of experience between us that I wanted to share, that I wanted to tell her about. But couldn't. Because there wasn't enough time. Because every time I looked in her blue—or are they hazel?—eyes, all my thoughts seemed to fizzle away, and I was left with the inexplicable and uncontrollable desire just to kiss her, and never let go, and to bathe in the warmth of her affection, and to die, contented. Happy.

And then a shuttle came, taking people back down into the park. Megan and I hurriedly said our goodbyes, and then I literally had to run to catch the bus. And Megan waved, remaining rooted to the spot where I left her, until my bus turned a corner and drove out of sight.

I nearly had a nervous breakdown later that afternoon, and only made it nine miles before dark.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In Memoriam

Except from The New York Times, 30th May, 2010:

On the 26th of May 2010, writes bereavement correspondent Redwing, a small service was held at the Ed Garvey shelter in commemoration of a dear friend – Major Chafage – who so recently passed away. The funeral was followed by a wake where instant mashed potatoes, foil-packet tuna and Knorr Pasta Sides were served. John Smith, whose name has been changed in the interests of privacy, provided the entertainment. Smith, known by his trail name "Hobbes" treated guests to a performance on the acoustic guitar, performing well-known songs such as "We’ll Meet Again," "I’ll Be Missing You" by Puff Daddy, and a rare rendition of T-Pain’s "Bartender." Major Chafage, who started hiking the 2000-mile Appalachian Trail on March the 21st, was forced to leave the trail on the 25th of May, just short of the halfway mark after Harper’s Ferry, needing to take a short trip to Baltimore. He would never catch up to his friends again and was essentially dead to them. A plaque was erected in his honour. It read:
R.I.P Major Chafage
April 8th 2010 – 25th May 2010

A good, honest, witty, smart, foul-mouthed and enduring friend who, all too soon, was torn away from us by love.
Goodbye America's rose;
May you ever grow in our hearts.
You were the grace that placed itself
Where lives were torn apart.
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind:
Never fading with the sunset
When the rain set in.
And your footsteps will always fall here,
Along Appalachia's greenest hills;
Your candle's burned out long before
Your legend ever will.
No flowers please, but gift cards to Chipotle would be greatly appreciated.

Chapter 76: Harpers Ferry

Caveman, Bandito and I arrived at the David Lesser Memorial Shelter to find Nature already there. She was in a typically cheerful mood, and quickly told us her intentions to wake up early in the morning to get breakfast at Keys Gap, some three miles away. Sounded like a plan to me. If we didn't join her there, I at least hoped to get up early enough to see her off.

We wouldn't, and I did't. And we wouldn't see her in Harpers Ferry, either. And so, as with so many others before her, and since, I never got to say goodbye. Which is a shame. We had been hiking together off and on for eight hundred miles. She had been our guide, a clarion voice of wisdom and reason, and a good friend. Plus she had given me pizza. I would miss her.

Also strangely missing that night was Hobbes. I thought I remembered seeing seen him earlier in the day, but where was he now? Was he attempting the Four State Challenge, where you walk the forty-odd miles from the Virginia/West Virginia border through Maryland into Pennsylvania in less that 24 hours? If so, I hadn't heard about it. Although it wouldn't surprise me. Was he simply stealth camping elsewhere, in solitude, as was his wont? Or had he vanished completely, evaporating into the ether?

When I met Hobbes, he had been mercurial if not downright surly, but it hadn't taken me long to appreciate his intelligence, caustic sense of humor, and disturbing handsomeness. And now he was gone, as mysterious as ever. Again, I never got to say goodbye. But he wasn't the sentimental type.

In a brazen act redolent of the callous laziness that would come to define him, Caveman decided not to tent with the Bandito and me, and instead slept up at the shelter. Which was fine. Why would I want to spend any more time with that uncultured neanderthal? Just because this would be, as far as I knew, my last night on the trail with him? No. To be honest, I didn't even like Caveman. I looked forward to never seeing him again. That jerk.

Anyway, there were some lovely tent pads just below the shelter where Bandito and I set up for the night. In fact, the entire shelter area was gorgeous. Even the privy was kind of swanky. The only drawback was the 0.2 mile hike downhill to the water source. Which I deftly avoided, by asking Bandito to collect my water for me. One last bullying act as a surrogate big brother.

Bandito was the same as ever, with his eternally optimistic verve and innocently flamboyant enthusiasm for life. And I was still the same embittered, profanely cantankerous old soul that he had met all those weeks ago, despite his constant cajoling for me to be a better person. I tried to let him think it was working. And maybe it was. I could only that I was as positive an influence on him as he was on me. And that he wouldn't become an insufferable, sanctimonious brat without my steadying influence, without me around to curb his worst, most destructive impulses. Because that's exactly how our relationship worked.

And so Bandito and I settled into our tents, but stayed up perhaps later than we should have talking to each other across the campsite, much like we had almost two months earlier at Beech Gap. Just like it had been in the beginning.


I'd been to Harpers Ferry once before, with my family. I couldn't have been very old at the time. My memories of it are minimal, to say the least. Still, I remembered enough to know when we were getting close.

Our adrenaline, and the anticipation of actually making it into town, kept us at a terrific pace that morning. We hardly slowed when we reached the bridge across the Shenandoah. Okay, so we slowed a little, but only enough to take some celebratory pictures.

We soon started bumping into all sorts of younger kids and families and people out with tour groups. Many of whom glared at us with wrinkled noses, as though to say, "Who are all these homeless people marching through our historical site?" I gleefully ignored them, and led our parade down into the city itself. If I hadn't been so excited, I would have remembered to whistle or sing "John Brown's Body." Alas.

Oddly, we came into the city from the opposite direction as I had expected. At first I was puzzled that everything seemed backwards. I envisioned crossing the bridge and ending up immediately in the city proper, not on the bluffes behind it. But no matter. Once we had descended into the town itself, everything was more or less how I remembered it.

We hadn't been wandering around for too long before we saw some familiar green and blue backpacks propped by the entrance to a cafe. Peering down into the outdoor dining area, whom do we see eating breakfast? Redwing and Lil Dipper! Naturally.

It wouldn't be my last heartfelt reunion with long lost friends on my adventure, but it may have been the warmest and most serendipitous and exciting. None of us had any idea that we would see each other there in town. We had hoped to, but hadn't been foolish enough to outright expect it. Yet there we were.

Caveman, Bandito and I of course pestered Redwing and Lil Dipper for news on their various ailments, and needled them mercilessly for having skipped such a small section of the trail. They told us that they were all better, thanks, and then politely informed us that we could go to hell. C'est la vie.

Our good humor and spirit carried us to the Amtrak station, where I was to catch my train into Washington D.C., and there somehow catch another train into Baltimore, where I'd be meeting Liz, Megan's little sister. By now it was beyond any of them to chide me for or talk me out of abandoning them. They'd had their chance to lobby me to stay, but had let it pass, long ago. And so we were left with only a few short moments to say goodbye and bask in each other's company.

Except the train was late. Invariably. First ten minutes. Then twenty. Then half an hour. The others were not so keen to wait around all day with me, and I understood. Bandito had a package to pick up at the post office. Redwing and Lil Dipper were meeting P-Nut somewhere after he returned from Walmart with knee braces and compression sleeves. Oh, P-Nut. I hadn't a chance to say goodbye to him either.

Bandito mentioned that his mother might have sent him cookies or brownies in his maildrop. Which was an intriguing enough idea for the rest of us to urge him to run to pick it up before my train came. If he could, maybe we could share them. One last treat as a final hurrah. And so Bandito dashed off.

And then a whistle blew in the distance. Before we could see it, we could hear and then feel the telltale rumble of the train approaching. Panicked, I called Bandito, and tried to get him to come back, but it was too late. He was too far away, and my train was pulling into the station.

At least Caveman, Redwing, and Lil Dipper were there. I was torn between the sadness of missing them and the rest of their adventure and my own excitement about getting back into civilization, if ever so briefly. And then the Amtrak conductor was a monumental jerk to me, and almost didn't let me on the train, but I'd rather not dwell on that.

I waved to my friends, got on the train, and was off. Did I wave? Or did I hug them goodbye? Were we hugging friends? If not, why not? Maybe Redwing and Lil Dipper were recently showered, while I still smelled and resembled a rank, festering corpse. So that would explain our certain lack of intimacy. And of course Caveman and I were way too manly for hugs. Or maybe if we had hugged, we never would've escaped each other's arms. I felt confused, disappointed, and melancholy. But no matter. I put it from my mind, looked out the window, and tried only to think of tomorrow, and the next day.

I had come so far in only two months. Who knows where I would be in even the next few hours?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Chapter 75: 1,000 Miles and Rising

Imagine climbing into your car just outside of City Hall in New York City, driving north along Centre St. to Canal St., turning left, then taking the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey, getting on Interstate 80 and heading west. Seventeen hours and a thousand miles later, you'll find yourself in front of the University of Iowa College of Dentistry in Iowa City, Iowa. At this point – and I sincerely hope that you had the common sense on this hypothetical journey to at least stop a couple times for coffee, donuts, and to use the bathroom – you'll probably be exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and a smelly, horrific mess.1

The experience of walking a thousand miles is surprisingly similar. True, it takes approximately two months instead of slightly less than a day, but you'll end up in the same place. And you'll still be exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and a smelly, horrific mess.2

But Caveman, Bandito and I had quite a ways to go – exactly 16.2 miles – before we would figure all of that out. And we still had to contend with the "roller coaster," a sprawling, soggy section of pointless ups and downs that stretched from the Rod Hollow Shelter practically all the way to the West Virginia border. A rather antagonistic warning sign announced our arrival by boastfully declaring, "Beware! You are about to enter the Roller Coaster! Which last saw trail maintenance in 1967! Basically, you're gonna die. So turn back now. No, really."

And yes, it was that complicated a sign, obviously written in very small print. And we all found it hilarious. Nature cautioned us not to take it too lightly, however, and we would have done well to heed her wisdom.

Unnervingly, a large portion of the "roller coaster" had recently been burnt out in a forest fire. Where my handbook advertised "ant mounds along A.T.," we found only the ashen hulks of trees dotting a dusty, gray, almost lunar landscape devoid of vegetation or life. But then we were out of it, and descending another five hundred feet or so down the side of a perilous ravine.

And then we were climbing another six hundred feet, and finally reaching the side trail to the Bears Den Hostel. A magnificent stone building with bunks for twenty-six, a refrigerator with ice cream and soda for sale, and an overflowing hiker's box—basically a garbage bin that hiker's can raid for supplies or leave their unwanted supplies behind in for others to take—the Bears Den was a welcome respite from the morning's drudgery. I bought three sodas for myself, and then two more for Caveman and Bandito. Because I am a nice guy. I also pilfered a plastic trowel from the hiker box. All the better for digging catholes with.

Nature and Hobbes joined us outside, and we all sat around relaxing, eating lunch. I tried not to think about Redwing, Lil Dipper, or P-Nut, and how much more fun we'd all be having if they were there. I especially tried not to think about the fact that I likely wouldn't see any of them again after tomorrow. Of course, that meant I could think of little else. The pain was too great. I tried to stay in the present, to enjoy these last few moments with my remaining trail family, such as it was. Bandito, Nature, Hobbes, and Caveman. And me. Drinking sodas in the sun.

I wished we could have stayed there forever. But we were only seven miles away from the thousand mile marker. We had to move on. And, despite a particularly nasty flare-up of monkey butt3, we made pretty good time, bolstered by Caveman's seemingly bottomless supply of Excedrin and several rousing choruses of The Proclaimer's "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)."

And then we were there! One thousand miles!

Of course, we had no idea we were there, because there weren't any signs, and we were miles from the nearest landmark, but that didn't matter. Oh, and by we I mean me, because I had run ahead of Caveman and Bandito on a blistering caffeine high. But that doesn't matter, either. Anyway, I waited for them roughly around where I thought the thousand mile point was, and we had a raucous celebration.

"Caveman! Bandito!"


"One thousand miles!"

"I know!"

"I can't believe it!"

And we whooped for joy and high-fived each other. And then it sank in. And we realized we had five more miles to go.

"The Proclaimers better be giving a surprise concert in Harpers Ferry tomorrow," said Caveman bitterly as we continued on.

I agreed, but kept it to myself.

Only 1,179 miles to go.

1. And, no offense to Iowa, severely depressed. Iowa City is a far cry from the bustling happeningness of the Financial District and Chinatown, after all.4

2. And depressed, too.

3. Chafage.

4. Okay, so that's not strictly true, or fair. There are a number of Chinese, Indian, Thai, and even Vietnamese restaurants in and around Iowa City. And those are the only attractions of the Financial District and Chinatown, right?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chapter 74: Return of the Present Tense

Gravel crunches underneath my boots as I cross some railroad tracks, heading towards the road at Manassas Gap. My ass still hurts from when I slipped off the end of a bog bridge and landed on my tailbone yesterday afternoon. I wince involuntarily when I think about it. I try not to think about it.

The area I'm walking through is steeped in Civil War history. I occasionally pass the overgrown ruins of a stone redoubt, the crumbling remains of a hastily-built wall even now only partially obscured by the encroaching vegetation. I picture the soldiers crouching behind it in terror, scrambling for cover in a hail or rifle fire. Or maybe lying in wait to ambush the unsuspecting enemy. Or maybe just biding their time during an interminable stalemate for days, weeks, or months of frustration and boredom. Who knows which side used them, or to what ends. And yet, as quickly as they were built – and as useful as they may have been – here they lie, just as soon forgotten. 

But I digress. It's a beautiful day. The sun is out. The air around me is warm and thick. Dust particles dance in the sunbeams filtering down through the canopy. And I'm not even paying attention to the trail in front of me, but letting my mind wander.

And I'm floating up through the trees, above the clouds, above the mountains, and speeding off, far away.

I wonder where you are, who you're with, what you're doing. Whether you're happy. Probably not. I can only imagine your deep and intractable melancholy, and I try not to blame myself. That would be too easy and self-serving. I worry that you don't have anyone you can rely on to pick you up when you're down. And my heart aches. I wish could be there for you in so many ways, but I can't. For one thing, I might as well be on another continent. I'm lost in the woods, surrounded by a green haze and the teeming cacophony of spring. Maybe I'm selfish, too. Maybe I'm enjoying myself too much. Maybe it's a good thing that I'm not around.

And then I'm ripped from my reverie as I walk past a side trail to Dick's Dome Shelter. I giggle. And remember something.

"Highcock Knob? I thought that's what they called wherever I put my tent up for the night," I said derisively. And Caveman and Lil Dipper had laughed. But not Redwing. She was too ladylike. And not Bandito, because he disapproved of all my ribald humor, or just held me to a higher standard.

"Is that the best you can do?" I can hear him saying. "A joke about your– you know, just after all that self-indulgent rambling about some unnamed woman?"

"Shut up, Bandito," I hiss. "You're always breaking into my narrative."

"Only when it's terrible," he avows. "I mean, when it's justified."

"How dare you."

"Who were you writing about, anyway?"

"Shut up."

The rest of the day passes similarly.

I'm taking a break in an open meadow when Caveman arrives. We hike the rest of the day together. My boots get soaked when we're crossing a flooded stream. There's no bridge. It's ridiculous!

I have the temerity to jokingly tell Caveman, "This is how Maine will be, only infinitely worse."

I look forward to buying new boots, and to the hell that will be Maine. But mostly new boots. I hate my boots.

We arrive at the Rod Hollow Shelter. The shelter itself is a dump, but there are some nice tent pads nearby. Wanting to avoid the obnoxious snorers who will inevitably show up, I decide to tent. Right across from a section hiker who will snore incredibly loudly. Hobbes will laugh at me for my blunder.

Hobbes never makes any mistakes. I loathe and envy Hobbes. I am weak and pathetic, a lamentable excuse for a human being.

We eat dinner. I enjoy my first quart of unfiltered water, courtesy of the shelter's pristine spring. The water source is literally a pipe popping out of the ground. There's an older guy there at the shelter – Red Ranger or something – who's thru-hiked before, and he claims the water is safe to drink. And then he treats his with iodine tablets. But if he says it's safe, why wouldn't it be safe? So I drink it straight. And do not end up catching giardia. Although that would have been funny.

Just before nightfall we hear Bandito jubilantly singing "The Star Spangled Banner." He may or may not have finally learned the words. He stumbles up to the shelter, truly ecstatic to see us. Nature's just behind him. Apparently they have done twenty-eight miles to catch up. We congratulate them on their accomplishment, then bond over our mutual complaints about the deplorable trail conditions.

And then we go to sleep.

Tomorrow, we will cross the 1,000 mile mark.  

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 73: A Purposeful Hallucination

The 544-mile Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon – held annually from 1983 till 1991 – was, in its time, one of the most challenging if least heralded footraces in the world.

The inaugural event was won by Cliff Young, perhaps the unlikeliest competitor imaginable. A farmer by trade – and not exactly in his athletic peak, either, at the tender age of 61 – Cliff's strategy was breathtakingly simple if equally unorthodox. Instead of running for sixteen hours, sleeping for six, carbo-loading, and then doing it all again like everyone else, Cliff walked. For five days and fifteen hours. Straight. Without sleeping.

The average walking speed of a human adult is three miles per hour. Cliff Young managed a little over four. He lagged behind the leaders for nine tenths of the race, then passed them all during the final night before finishing a staggering ten full hours ahead of his nearest opponent. Has there ever been a more appropriate or literal personification of the tortoise versus the hare story in human history? Rhetorical question. This was, most assuredly, a triumph of stamina over speed.

Or maybe it was psychology. Cliff would admit later to having been motivated by lucid hallucinations that a storm was coming, and that he had to round up his sheep before it hit. He wasn't driven by the promise of prize money or athletic glory; there was no finish line to him, just his farm, imperiled.

Professional athletes – and, indeed, people in all walks of life – have long used such "purposeful hallucinations" to motivate them through tasks great and small. How many times has the phrase "nobody believed in us" been uttered in defiance in the winning team's locker room after a close, hard-fought victory? And how many times has it been true? Most athletes relish the opportunity to use any sign of disrespect – real or imagined – as fuel for their competitive fires. However, these "purposeful hallucinations" are not relevant only in the world of sports.

For instance, take the character of Fox Mulder from the TV show The X-Files. Mulder believes that aliens abducted his little sister – and that there is a sinister government conspiracy to deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate his investigation into the matter – and steadfastly refuses to believe all evidence to the contrary, even when it is presented to him by his level-headed partner, Dana Scully. Because to give up on this dream – to give up on the notion that aliens exist and that the truth is out there – would be to give up hope of ever seeing his sister again. And it is that foolish hope upon which has driven his every action in life. His every choice has been predicated upon it. To admit that aliens weren't real, and that there was no conspiracy, would be to admit that his life's work – his life – was a sham. Empty and meaningless. 

Another, more tangible and perhaps timely example of a "purposeful hallucination" could be my ambition to adapt this journal into a book, get it published, and thereby become a famous best-selling author. With a lucrative side career as a motivation speaker and underwear model. I need to believe all that is possible, or else I might lose hope and never finish.

One last concrete example without delving into the controversial or the absurd: when I rode my bike on the Farmington Canal Path in high school, I used to imagine I'd pass the girl I liked along the way, or that she'd be waiting for me at the end. Somehow, I fooled myself into believing – truly believing – that not only would she find my bike-riding talents sexy, but that, well, she'd find my bike-riding talents sexy. And also that she lived or worked nearby, and so might easily see me or hear me, and would be sorely tempted to run out to me every time I passed.

Of course, I would later find out that she lived nowhere near the trail, but in a completely different part of town. And that she wouldn't have ran out to me even if she had. No matter how many sickeningly saccharine poems I e-mailed her, or flirtatious notes I typed out to her on our graphing calculators in math class. Plus she already had a boyfriend. In college. Who presumably could drive a car, which is a much sexier skill than knowing how to ride a bike. But I digress. My point here isn't that teenagers, or teenage boys – and me, in particular – are stupid, pitiable little animals, or that vaguely stalker-ish behavior is wrong and doesn't work. No, my point here is that this blatant fantasy kept me going. 

I never would have gone so far or pushed myself as hard if not for that idea, that fleeting daydream that she'd be there, waiting for me at the end.

On the trail, we would invent silly goals for ourselves like this all the time. I often found myself thinking, I have to get to X before Y in order for Z to happen, or I need to finish by A or else B and C won't be able to drive up to meet me. Sometimes it might have been, If we make it to such and such a place, and so and so is there, we'll get trail magic! And for the most part, like for Cliff Young, this practice worked, even if our fantasies were so rarely rewarded.

But on this day, they were. After saying goodbye to Shenandoah National Park – and Nature and Bandito, who took a side trail to a hostel – Caveman, Hobbes and myself rolled into the Jim and Molly Denton Shelter to find a family already camped there, out for the weekend. And they had s'mores, which they insisted on sharing with us as we all huddled around the fire in the damp and cold of the night. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Chapter 72: Magic Brownies

We said goodbye to the girls with a minimum of fuss and fanfare the next morning, and promised to see them again in Harpers Ferry.

P-Nut ditched us immediately afterwards, to hitch back to the trail on his own. He said something vaguely justifiable about it being "easier for one person to get a ride than three." He was probably right. Besides, I could hardly begrudge him his ambitions, particularly since my own would be calling me away from the trail in just a few short days.

Caveman and I wandered around Luray for a while, searching in vain for a place to eat breakfast. The trouble was, most of the restaurants in town weren't yet open. We eventually gave up, and started trying to find a ride back to the trail.

There are many strategies involved in hitchhiking, all of which have disadvantages. If you try to be funny or show a little skin, most motorists will probably think you're a crazy rapist or serial killer, and so will avoid you like the plague. On the other hand, if you don't do anything out of the ordinary to distinguish yourself, most motorists will just think you're lazy, and also a serial rapist or murderer. And – unfortunately for everybody involved – a surprisingly high number of those who do pull over to pick up hitchhikers are also rapists and murderers. It's just a bad scene.

We ended up getting a ride back to the trail from the unlikeliest person. A section hiker, as a matter of fact. Driving a classic Mercedes-Benz. An E-Class sedan from the early 70s with 280,000 miles on it. Not exactly the type of car we'd expect to pick us up. Precisely the opposite.

The day passed in a sullen haze. Maybe we were hungover from the previous day's excitement, or maybe we were just missed our friends. However, any melancholia we were feeling was quickly abated by the sudden reappearance of Bandito, Hobbes, Nature, and the entire crew of smelly, burping, farting, snoring section hikers.

We had just settled in at Gravel Spring Hut to watch the rain when Nature arrived.

"Nature!" I waved. "Hi!"

"M.C.!" she cried, "I've been looking for you!"

Although I was overjoyed to see her, I somehow failed to get out of my sleeping bag to welcome her in.

"I brought you something from Trail Days," she said. "A treat!"

I was so taken aback, I forgot to ask her how Trail Days actually had been. "What is it?"

"A brownie," she said, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "A special brownie."

"Oh," I said, confused. Then, getting it, "Oh!"

"I thought we'd share it before Bandito got here," she said.

"Good idea!" I nodded. "I love these things."

I do. Brownies are awesome.

"Caveman?" Nature proffered a piece to him.

"I can't," he demurred, amused. "I promised my wife I wouldn't do that without her."

Poor Caveman. Whipped. Nature and I shrugged, then scarfed down the brownie.

Hobbes arrived too late to partake, but was very jealous.

"It was delicious," I told him. "I'm telling you this not to engender envy and resentment, but so you can live vicariously through me."

"Yeah, right," he scoffed, as though he found the mere suggestion offensive.

Caveman had hiked out some cans of Budweiser from town. Come to think of it, so had I. In fact, we may have had a can or two for lunch. We had more then. It was completely necessary.

The shelter was filling up with the obnoxious, farting, burping groaning section hikers with whom we'd been stuck for the past three days. Then Bandito arrived, and slid in next to me. I was extremely intoxicated by this time.

"Are you okay?" he asked me.

"Why? Am I looking at you funny? I'm sorry!" I blurted. "I mean, I'm a little drunk. Caveman had beer and he gave me some and it's all his fault."

"You're acting funny."

"I am not."

I looked over at Nature and giggled. She giggled. Poor Nature, the only woman in the shelter. The obnoxious section hikers – who were all men in case you couldn't tell – were being particularly hard on her. Not that they were bullying her, or teasing her, or even trying to talk to her much. Although they may have been. I just don't think she had the patience for them in the same way Redwing and Lil Dipper apparently had. We were very glad to be, well, whatever it was that we were.

I looked over at Caveman and Hobbes across the shelter and laughed. It was like we were privy to a joke that nobody else understood. They just shook their heads and rolled their eyes.

Bandito filled me in on all that I had missed. How he'd spent the whole day in Waynesboro reading Harry Potter. How something else and this and that. I wanted to listen to him, honest, but I found myself increasingly absorbed by the dancing yellow and blue lights in a rain puddle just outside the shelter.

People were coming and going in the night, their headlamps flashing. The wind and the rain dimpled the puddle's surface, making the reflected lights dance and twinkle, as though to a seductive melody only I could hear. I felt a tingling sensation through my arms and fingertips, down my back, to my toes. I suddenly had the urge to urinate, but found it nearly impossible to stand up straight. So I fell over.

"You're really acting weird," said Bandito, worried.

I smiled at him. "I'm fine."

He was my long lost, incredibly innocent little brother. I had to protect him from the harsh realities of the world, and myself, at least until he was mature enough to handle the— at least until he was older. But who knows how long that would take? Years, probably! And I didn't have that much time, or the patience. It wasn't worth fretting over.

And then I was peeing, and it was glorious.

"I don't believe you," said Hobbes, when I returned and explained to him what was going on. "You're really feeling all that?"

"Uh, yeah," I said, with a self-satisfied smirk.

"I hate you," said Hobbes.

"I'll write about it," I said. "Maybe then you'll believe me?"

"No. That's a stupid idea. Don't do that!"

But I did. In the shelter log. Not that I have any memory of it:
I sit here in my sleeping bag, surrounded by bothersome beasts grunting and farting and furrowing their way unwanted into my consciousness. I ignore them, but stay completely absorbed by the dancing blue and orange lights in the rain puddle before me. And then probably something alliterative, poetic, and deep, describing what I already said above. The point of all this being: don't do drugs.
-Major Chafage
PS. Thanks for the brownie, Nature!
"Yeah, that makes you sound like you're really high," said Hobbes, reading what I wrote.


"Drunk, Bandito! He meant drunk! I'm drunk! I had too much Budweiser! Never drink, Bandito. Alcohol is a poison that should never be consumed by anyone."

"Hey, I don't plan on it. Not until I turn one hundred."

"... Okay, Bandito."

"M.C.?" Nature grinned up at me. "This was the perfect night to do this."

I knew what she meant.

I never slept better.

Oh, and the secret to special brownies? The recipe, duh! Here it is:
Major Chafage's Special Brownies

3/4 cup butter
1/3 cup cocoa powder
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
Fleur de sel, for sprinkling.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

2. Put the butter in a pan. Put the pan on the stove. Light the burner you have the pan on. Melt that butter. Mix in the unsweetened chocolate. Stir that concoction until it's all melted and mixed together.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the cocoa powder and 2/3 cup water until smooth. Add the butter/unsweetened chocolate mix and whisk. Add the eggs and vanilla, and continue to whisk until combined. Add the sugar, mixing until fully incorporated. Using a spatula, fold in the flour and salt until just combined. Fold in the bittersweet chocolate chips.

4. Pour that delicious batter into the prepared pan and smooth with a spatula. Sprinkle with fleur de sel, then give yourself a smug pat on the back like the pretentious jerk that you are, because not only do you know what fleur de sel is, you own some, and you know how to use it. Which means you're either a professional chef, a self-important jerk, or you read the New York Times. Which probably means you're a self-important jerk. But try not to get too hung up about that.

5. Bake until firm, or about 15 to 30 minutes. Let that pan cool before cutting into squares. Then try not to eat them all at once.

Yield: Murder by Chocolate

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Chapter 71: Revenge of the Chafage

I didn't sleep well. A mouse inside the cabin had gotten into Roughin' It's garbage, and was scurrying around and scratching all night. Plus I had weird, paranoid dreams about the Forest Service discovering us trespassing in one of their vaunted, extra-pricey chalets. They were very, very angry. I kept hearing footsteps outside, the clunk of boots coming up the stairs. And then I awoke with a start.

It was barely past dawn. We were on the western side of the ridge, leaving the sun hidden behind the mountain. Through a sparse canopy of still-leafless branches, I could see the crimson sky above me, fading to indigo and violet towards the horizon, streaked with thin white whiffs of cloud. I collected water and then headed up towards the shelter for breakfast.

Redwing was up, and staring at something behind the shelter.

"M.C.!" she whispered, waving me over. "Come see this!"

Intrigued, I left my pack by the fire pit and joined her. Fifty feet away, through a loose tangle of trees, was an enormous brown bear. It had its back turned, but was looking over its shoulder at us mournfully, almost accusingly. We stared at it. It stared at us. Then it shot a rueful glance towards our food bags and shuffled away into the forest. Maybe I was projecting, but I empathized with the poor bear. I wish I could have fed it some of the section hikers' food. Or some of the section hikers.

Somehow, despite being the first to wake, I was not the first to hike out. P-Nut left before the rest of us, leaving Caveman and myself to hike with Roughin' It. Not that I found this to be an imposition, or his company objectionable or anything. Quite the opposite. Roughin' It was actually rather pleasant and laid-back; he took my incessant teasing of his age and appearance in stride.

Roughin' It claimed to be twenty three – and not a hipster – despite his bushy old-man beard and doofy hat. And I suspected he was probably closer to being in my parents' generation than he was to mine. No matter. He apparently had friends with whom he was trying to catch up, but found Caveman and me so entertaining that he ended up hiking with us most of the day.

Lil Dipper and Redwing, meanwhile – both still feeling the effects of their injuries – were proactively taking it easy, and bringing up the rear. Still worried about their condition, we took a break at the Pinnacles Picnic Area to wait for them. And wait.

Luckily, there were some section hikers – the good kind – having a picnic nearby. Apparently a young woman and her grandfather had just finished a week on the trail, and their entire family had come out to celebrate with them. I politely informed Caveman and Roughin' It that we would be sitting in the pavilion right next to them. I was going to yogi us up some trail magic. And not keep it all for myself.

"Because I am a team player, Caveman," I scolded, still bitter.

Of course the section hikers quickly noticed us. We were pretty hard to ignore, hovering innocently around their table, looking hungry, dehydrated, and forlorn. I soon fell into a conversation with them, telling them that, yes, I was a thru-hiker, yes, we had hiked almost a thousand miles to get there, and that my companions and I were just taking a break to wait for our friends. Two British girls, limping, crying even? Had they seen them? No.

Pretty soon the grandfather made a joke that they could be making a killing by selling us bite-sized candy bar. I laughed good naturedly and said, "Forget about the candy bars. How much for a drink?" The family matriarch gently hushed my suggestion, however, and said we would be more than welcome to just take whatever we liked. Caveman, Roughin' It and I each got funky iced teas with guarana and ginko biloba and candy. I also got a chocolate milk, because I needed the protein. Or so I was told.

But we all got something.

"And that's how you yogi trail magic," I told Caveman later.

We hung out there for almost an hour and a half. Redwing and Lil Dipper never showed up. Worried that they might've gotten hurt, lost, or even passed us unnoticed, we had little choice but to continue on.

From consulting my handbook, I quickly realized that our next task would have us climbing "The Pinnacle," which – at only 3,730 feet – is hardly the pinnacle of anything. It's certainly not the highest mountain in the Shenandoahs. We had climbed to 3,800 feet already earlier in the day. So why was it named "The Pinnacle?"

We saw a southbound day hiker, and decided to ask him.

"Hey, man," I said, catching his attention. "How was the Pinnacle?"

"The w-what?" he stuttered. "I-is that what I'm coming off of?"

We all laughed. Any information a southbounder tells you is bound to be 100% wrong. A southbound day hiker is even less reliable. If anything, a southbound day hiker might be so completely wrong that they might be inadvertently right, but then they're wrong again. They're all just dumb. Forget it.

We continued laughing and continued on, leaving the man confused.

However, his cluelessness led to rampant speculation as to what horrors awaited us.

"Maybe the Pinnacle is so high," offered Caveman, "That there's not enough oxygen on the summit, and you lose consciousness."

Naturally, the next time we crested a hill prompted us to stumble about drunkenly – or as though hit over the head with frying pans – through a chorus of laughter.

"Whoa! I think I just blacked out!" I cried, clutching my head.

"What the hell just happened?" asked Caveman.

And we all laughed. Unfortunately, there was still more mountain in front of us.

"Of course the Pinnacle would have a false summit," said Roughin' It.

"Maybe the view on the Pinnacle is so awesome, it causes you to lose bowel control," suggested Caveman.

Now our hooting and hollering and stumbling about was joined by comedic butt grabs and juvenile, uncontrollable farting noises. It was a blast. And then we found a bottle of Dr. Pepper on the trail.

"I bet it was that southbounder's."

"He probably crapped himself, and it fell out of his pocket."

"The Pinnacle giveth and the Pinnacle taketh away."

"Southbounder's loss is our gain."

"Hey, this has been opened."


And then we drank it.

A mile later we arrived at Byrds Nest #3 Shelter. Why is it #3? I have no idea. The other two – actually three, since there are four overall – aren't actually on the trail. But that's not important.

There were two food bags hanging from the bear pole.

"What do you think?" I asked the others. "Someone's garbage? Or trail magic?"

The shelter was empty.

"We should check if there's anyone camped nearby," warned Caveman.

And we did. And there was nobody around. It was a mystery.

"I guess it can't hurt to check, right?"

Roughin' It took the bags down, and we rifled through them.

"If someone left this behind, it's either garbage – in which case we're doing them and the Forest Service a favor by taking it and hiking it out – or it was meant to be found and distributed – in which case it's trail magic – and open season anyway," I speculated.

My logic seemed flawless. We divvied up what we wanted. Roughin' It took a package of Mountain House lasagne and some crackers. Caveman took some clearly homemade packages of something labeled "Sweet Pot." I took a Carnation Instant Breakfast and some Camelback® Electrolyte™ Drink Mix©. Lemon lime flavored. Fizzy. Delicious.

Then we sealed our fates by bragging about our find in the registry:
Dear Moron Who Left Their Food Bags Here,
Thanks for the food, moron! What possessed you to leave food bags here? Only an idiot would leave a food bag unattended.
-Roughin' It
PS. I took everything. 
Found some "sweet pot." Smoked it. Not feeling very good. Beginning to suspect it might have been sweet potatoes, not marijuana...
-Major Chafage
Feeling giddy and only slightly guilty, we left. We passed an older couple about ten minutes later, and could barely contain our giggling. And then we ran away.

Apparently we caused a big uproar, enraged a few section hikers – the unfortunate kind – and caused them to suddenly realize and confront the bleak, inherent darkness of humanity.

When we reached Thronton Gap, we found a note from Redwing taped to a tree. Apparently her knee had been acting up, and Lil Dipper's shin splits had proved too painful, so they had hitched out of the park and gotten a ride here. Where they had met P-Nut, and gone into town to get a motel room. Did we want to meet them at the Taco Bell, just across from the Walmart?

Caveman and I didn't take long to decide. The only question was if Roughin' It would be going with us. To our credit, he actually considered it. But then he remembered he had his own friends, and our ride together came to an end. He hiked on, and Caveman and I were left to hitch a ride from the parking lot.

We eventually got a ride into Luray with a Parks' employee. She dropped us off at the Walmart – where she was heading anyway – and we made the short jaunt across the parking lot to the Taco Bell to find our friends. Then we heard the bad news: Redwing and Lil Dipper were getting off the trail for five days, so that Dipper's shin splints could heal. We'd see them again only once after that night, and then it was goodbye, possibly forever.

I sat in the Taco Bell, shellshocked, eating my six burritos, not listening to the conversation around me. It seemed like only yesterday that Caveman and I had been hiking with Lil Dipper and Redwing, and they had both seemed so vibrant and young and indomitable. We had been taking a break at a parking lot when a married couple emerged from the woods in the midst of a heated argument.

"Why do we always have to go to the Shenandoahs," the woman was saying. "There are other places in the world, you know!"

"What, like Maryland?" asked the man wearily, clearly not getting it.

"I should go over to them," Redwing had said, "And tell her, 'I hate the Shenandoahs too, care to talk about it over dinner?'"

And we had all laughed. Bonding over our shared hatred for this stupid park. That hurt us. That injured us. That was boring. That was always foggy. Where the views sucked. Where we acted like scoundrels, broke into cabins, and stole people's food. Where we had been having so much fun, and had felt so vivacious and free just a few short moments earlier.

Caveman and I returned to Walmart and walked out with a copious amount of beer.

The British girls' motel room was an inviting place, despite the fact that I had to share a bed with P-Nut. Or maybe because of that, actually. Still, we all got drunk – or at least proper buzzed – and tried to forget the warning in our hearts. That this all would soon end.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Chapter 70: Pee-nut and the Two Bears

Registry entry, Hightop Hut Shelter:
pee-nut | pē - nət | informal
someone who such a nut for pee that they will lie down on the trail below someone else who is pissing in order to drink it
: P-Nut is definitely not a pee-nut.
Of course, P-Nut did nothing to deserve such ridicule. Except drink his own urine. But that had been almost a week ago. His behavior in the interim had been nothing if not sensible and mature.


"I really want to see a bear today, man," said P-Nut the next morning. "I'm going to see a bear today. I know it. It's going to happen."

Caveman and I exchanged wary glances.

"Well, I really hope you don't," said Caveman. "Because you'll probably try to ride it like the ponies back in the Grayson Highlands, or punch it in the nose, just to see if you can—"

"Hey! That's a good idea!" enthused P-Nut.

"—and then you'll get mauled and eaten," finished Caveman.

But P-Nut would not be deterred. He was now on a quest to find a bear, get as close to it as possible, and then punch it in the nose and run away. This was it. P-Nut's hubris would finally catch up with him. He was going to die.

P-Nut, Caveman, and I hiked out with Redwing and Lil Dipper that morning. We hadn't gone far – two or three miles at most – when it happened. No, not the bear. That would come later. We were descending a moderately steep downhill when Redwing suddenly tripped and fell smack on her face.

Caveman and I felt horrible. Having face-planted a few times myself, I knew the humiliation was almost as bad as the pain. I didn't know whether to rush to her side or pretend like it didn't happen.

"She'll be okay," assured P-Nut.

"But she's crying!"

And she was. Her knee had taken the brunt of the fall, and looked fairly mangled and bloody. Lil Dipper at least was hovering over her, trying to comfort and reassure her like a true friend would.

"Yeah, but they're always crying," said P-Nut. "They cry every day."

The tacit implication was either "I'm an incredible jerk and don't want them slowing me down," or "I respect Redwing, and want to give her some privacy, so she can at least retain her dignity." Even the optimist – and wanting to give P-Nut the benefit of the doubt – I chose to believe the latter. The three of us hiked on a little ways to a road crossing, then sat down to wait for the girls.

At least the weather had improved that day. It wasn't foggy or rainy for once, and sitting around lazily in a parking lot had its own meager charms. There was no traffic, no farting, burping section hikers nearby to disturb us. We had the warmth of the sun, the wide blue expanse of the sky, and a chorus of cheerful birdsong to keep us company.

Lil Dipper and Redwing arrived some five minutes later. Redwing was limping noticeably, but seemed to be in a much better mood. They were grateful for the excuse to take a break, and sat down with us.

"So where were we headed today?" asked Redwing.

"Well, I think the idea was to go to the Rockspring Hut, " I said, flipping through my guidebook. "That's 23.9 miles."

"Yeah, I don't know if we're going to be able to make it," said Lil Dipper uneasily. "What with Redwing's knee—"

"—and Dipper's shin splints," added Redwing.

Again, my stomach turned over. I had no idea they were struggling this much. And I had experience with shin splints. Maybe I would've been able to help! But I just didn't know.

"You should lean with your back against a tree," I advised Lil Dipper. "And lift your toes. That'll stretch out your shin muscle things. Whatever they're called."

"Really? Will that help?" asked Lil Dipper.

"Yeah, and take lots of ibuprofen."

"Or Excedrin®," offered Caveman, popping a couple pills into his mouth and – crunch – chewing them down. "What? They've got aspirin, tylenol, and as much caffeine as a cup of coffee."

Ever impatient, P-Nut left before the rest of us. Slightly more conscientious, Caveman and I decided to hike with Redwing and Lil Dipper, to make sure they made it and that they were all right. We took a lot of breaks. 

We passed one of the handful of for-rent cabins that dotted the park. We had heard or read somewhere that they cost upwards of $80 a night, and that you had to call ahead for reservations. To us, this was a mildly insulting joke. If nobody else was using them, why couldn't we? And why did we have to pay for the privilege? However, this particular cabin – the Pocosin – was currently occupied by a quiet bunch of solitude-seeking retirees. Caveman wanted to beg for soda.

"No, man, it'll be easy!" he assured me. "Watch this."

He took a dollar bill out of his wallet and crumpled it up, then actually bent down and rubbed dirt on it.

"What are you doing?" I asked, curious.

"Oldest trick in the book, M.C.," said Caveman. "You take a single, get it all crumpled and dirty so it looks old, and when people see it, they'll think it's your last dollar."

"Why? What for?"

"'Cause then when you ask if you can buy a soda, they'll refuse because they don't want to take your last dollar, and then they might just give you one for free!"

"Or they'll say yes, and then you'll be out a dollar," I pointed out.

"But I'll still have a soda," Caveman correctly asserted.

"It'll never work," I said, shaking my head. "Besides, it specifically says 'Do Not Disturb Occupants' or whatever on that sign over there."

And then Caveman called me something like "killjoy" and stuffed the dollar bill into his boot.

"What'd you do that for?" I asked.

"Second oldest trick in the book, M.C."

And we hiked on.

A little later we reached the Lewis Mountain Campground. Redwing and Lil Dipper seemed to be doing better; if they were feeling any pain, they weren't letting it show. We were all joking about yogi-ing for snacks when we passed a man firing up a grill.

"I'm doing it," said Caveman in a fit of inspiration, retrieving the wrinkled dollar bill from his shoe.

He would not be dissuaded. The rest of us could only stand by and watch in appalled horror as Caveman gingerly approached the man, haggled with him cheerfully for a moment, and then returned bearing a proud smile and a Capri-Sun. Of course, I was livid.

"First of all, I cannot believe that worked. Secondly, why didn't you get some for the rest of us?" I cried.

Caveman laughed. Which only annoyed me further. Why were people always amused by my feeble, impotent temper tantrums? Anyway, Caveman seemed to think that since he did all the work, he alone was entitled to the spoils.

"The work?" I squeaked. "But you hardly did anything!"

If I had been thinking straight, I might have taken a better tact. Like pointing out that Caveman could have just shared his Capri-Sun with the rest of us. But I wasn't thinking straight. I couldn't.

"Shut up!" I screamed, preemptively cutting off his nonexistent retort. "This is not about me ridiculing your idea, or saying it would never work, or that I didn't believe in you, or being too lazy or scared or embarrassed to do myself!"

"It's not?" asked Caveman, slurping down his juice.

My blood boiled. 

"No! This is about you not being a team player! If it had been me," I argued, "I would have brought back drinks for everybody! Because I am a—"

But whatever ridiculous thing I was about to say stuck in my throat, because a rather large black bear was standing in the middle of the trail about ten yards away, and was eyeing us warily.

"Oh look," gushed Redwing, pointing to our left.

Maybe a hundred feet away, an adorable black bear cub gazed at us from the crook of a tree. Mama remained where she was, ever vigilant, as if just waiting to see if we meant to harm her baby. Figuring I was safe with the others at my back, I glanced around for P-Nut's corpse. But there was nothing.

Mama eventually got bored with us. We weren't doing anything, just standing there watching her and taking pictures. She finally turned away and moved off towards her cub. My heart was racing.

"You know what would be awesome?" I asked the others. "If we saw a bear, and P-Nut didn't."

We quickly concocted a scheme to freak out P-Nut by marching into the shelter area covered in blood and telling him the British girls had been attacked and murdered by a rampaging bear. Unfortunately, our glaring lack of Karo syrup and red food coloring presented a critical flaw in our plan. We decided instead just to find out if he had seen the bears too, and then tease him mercilessly about it if he hadn't.

But he had. We only caught up to him at Rock Spring Hut, which once again was filled with the familiar obnoxious, farting, snoring, burping section hikers. When I asked him about the bears, P-Nut told us that he, too, had seen the mother and cub. Sadly, he had not tried to ride them around like ponies, or punch them in the face. I was bitterly disappointed. 

It was late afternoon by the time Redwing and Lil Dipper arrived. I'd say we were pleasantly surprised that they had made it that far, considering their injuries, but we weren't particularly surprised. Still, with them and P-Nut cheerfully swapping stories over dinner, it felt like a long-awaited reunion.

By the time the sun was setting, Caveman had serendipitously discovered one of those for-rent cabins just below the shelter with its door unlocked. Or at least that's the official version of events. Anyway, we offered the girls the option of sleeping in the cabin, but they declined, opting instead for open spots in the shelter. P-Nut, Caveman, Roughin' It and myself all cheerfully moved our stuff into the cabin, eager to get away from our loud, smelly, unwanted companions. The cabin was actually kind of dumpy. At least we had beds.

If we had known this would be our last night on the trail together, would we have treated the occasion with more reverence and dignity? It's impossible to say, really. We didn't know. How could we?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Chapter 69: The Whip-Poor-Will

The Thru-Hiker's Guide to Avifauna and Ornithology – the definitive compendium of all bird knowledge in the universe – has the following to say about the Whip-poor-will:
The Whip-poor-will, or Canternoctus molestus, is a medium-sized bird native to the North and Central American continents of the planet Earth. Primarily nocturnal and possessing superior natural camoflage, the Whip-poor-will is rarely seen but often heard, usually in the dead of night or just when you're about to fall asleep. It is named onomatopoeically after its unique and singularly annoying call
The Whip-poor-will's song has been described by many as haunting and etherial, and has figured prominently in American poetry, literature, and music.
Presumably all of the poets, authors, and musicians who held the Whip-poor-will in such high regard never had to endure a sleepless night stuck with one singing incessantly from an unseen perch in a tree just above their head. If they had, the Whip-poor-will might be properly regarded as the scourge that it is, and may have even been hunted into extinction. Alas, despite human intrusion into and wanton destruction of its natural habitats, the Whip-poor-will's conservation status remains that of "least concern."


I lay in my tent, swaddled in the comforting warmth of my sleeping bag, and closed my eyes. Images swam before me. A promising dream world of infinite possibility beckoned.

Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!

My eyes shot open.

Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!

It sounded as though it were coming from inside my tent. But no, it must've been perched on a branch just above my head. Or – who knows – maybe in a nearby tree, like the one Caveman was sleeping under. I could hear him cursing at it under his breath.

Or maybe he was shouting at the top of his lungs for it to shut up and go away or die quickly, only in drastically less polite language. At least that's what it devolved into. The denizens of the shelter grumbled in disapproval. Even Redwing's normally reserved voice pierced the darkness to achingly wonder, "What the bloody hell is that thing?"

And, as if in response, the bird responded.


It was a long night.

The next morning, we remaining stalwarts bonded over our shared trauma.

"Why can't they have sex during the daytime like the rest of us?" asked Caveman – possibly rhetorically – ignoring the fact that the mating rituals of Homo sapiens are also stereotypically nocturnal, or at least crepuscular.

"What if we mated like the birds do?" he continued. "What if we stood in the middle of a crowded intersection screaming 'Fuck me!' 'Fuck me!' 'Fuck me!'"

"Well, I don't know about you," I shrugged, "But that's how I met my girlfriend."

And we all laughed.

Later that day, we met Sonic – a burly, impossibly tall northbound thru-hiker in a Danny Fortson Seattle SuperSonics jersey – and caught back up with Roughin' It. Oh, and a deer walked up to us while we were eating lunch, and Lil Dipper tried – and failed – to feed it a Pop Tart. P-Nut also got lost and ended up behind us somehow. And Caveman went down a side-trail to a wayside to get a burger and a milkshake. Which he said wasn't worth it. Or something.

It was constantly foggy. Sometimes it drizzled. We walked past supposed view points and saw only clouds. Visibility was nil. Our enjoyment was considerably less so.

And we all ended up at Hightop Hut, some 21.4 miles from Blackrock Hut where we had started. It was filled with the usual all-male chorus of farting, snoring, burping section hikers. Whatever. All in all, a very productive – if relatively uneventful – day. Perhaps a necessary calm before the storm to come.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Chapter 68: Welcome to Shenandoah

Nestled in an forgotten, shadowy corner of the Shenandoah Valley, Waynesboro, Virginia is a lovely little town primarily known for being the site of a deeply humiliating Confederate defeat during the waning months of the Civil War. Its humble and good-hearted inhabitants have ever since been searching for an alternate identity, anything to set them above or apart, through which to transcend their history. Knowing Waynesboro will never be an acclaimed or noteworthy center of culture or commerce, the locals' consensus strategy seems to have been to make their home the best trail town south of the Mason-Dixon line, and quite possibly anywhere. And they may very well have accomplished that goal.

With apologies to the Green Mountain House in Manchester Center, Vermont, the ridiculously accommodating hiker hostel at the Waynesboro Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church might just be the best such facility on the entire trail. The local YMCA – conveniently located right around the corner from the hostel and across the street from the public library – offers hikers complimentary showers and a gratuitous gift bag full of swag: toothbrushes, toothpaste, and some perfunctory proselytizing pamphlets that make for rather poor privy reading but prove surprisingly useful as fire starters. The Ming Garden is the most lavish, diverse, and reasonably priced AYCE buffet in the state. That said, the town's greatest strength probably lies in its well-organized network of "trail angels" willing to drop everything at a moment's notice to schlep innumerable smelly, insufferable, ungrateful hikers about town on errands or to wherever they might wish to go.

It was with one such trail angel that Caveman, P-Nut, Redwing, Lil Dipper and I got a ride back to the trail. Bandito had decided to stay behind, mainly to finish reading Harry Potter, but also to check out a martial arts dojo he'd stumbled across on a jaunt to the laundromat the day before. I made him promise to catch up post-haste, however. We were only nine days from Harpers Ferry, and although I didn't want to acknowledge it then, our time together was fast running out.

With its omnipresent burble of traffic from Skyline Drive; the ready availability of refreshments at any number of concession stands, waysides, campgrounds and lodges; and the sheer mass and volume of clueless sightseers, the experience of hiking in the Shenandoahs is nearly indistinguishable from a rather average day in Central Park. Well, except for the conspicuous, shameful lack of any minorities. Maybe that's to do with the park's geographic inaccessibility. But no, it's only about 90 miles outside of Washington D.C. Maybe it has more to do with the latent racism of rural Virginia. Either way, it's sad, and not particularly encouraging.

For most rational Americans, hiking in Shenandoah National Park is probably considerably less appealing than driving it on Skyline Drive. However, with the price of gas skyrocketing, most rational Americans probably have better things to do than take an aimless three hour car trip. Like racking up thousands of dollars in credit card debt buying porn subscriptions and alcohol, updating their blogs, collecting belly button lint, and writing their Senators to protest the insidious influence of politicians on our political process. 

On my bucket list – the one I just made up for the sole purpose of the following joke – "hike the Shenandoahs" was preceded only by "go over Niagara Falls in a barrel," "attend Oktoberfest in Munich," and "seduce Daniel Radcliffe." So far I'm two for four. And sorely disappointed. 

Somehow I let Caveman and P-Nut convince me into hiking the whole way with the group instead of hitching to McCormack Gap, where I had gotten off the trail the day before. I thus found myself in the unenviable position of not only redoing 3.7 rather unenjoyable miles, but reliving my anguished experiences for the vicarious enjoyment of my companions. This is where I screamed for 13.786 seconds straight, freaking out Bandito. This is where I punched a tree and hurt my hand. This is where I threw my trekking pole over my shoulder and drop-kicked my guidebook. 

Even P-Nut had the gall to laugh at me. 

Two hours later we crossed a fire road at Jarman Gap and entered Shenandoah National Park proper. We were all slightly confused, since we thought we'd already been in the park for three hours. It took us a while to get over this. Imagine running a race, only the stewards keep moving the starting line back. It was like that, only more annoying and drizzly.

P-Nut eventually blazed ahead in some impertinent fit of impatience. I found myself hiking with Caveman, just behind Redwing and Lil Dipper. And then it happened. The air in front of me filled with the mysterious and unpleasant odor of methane and hydrogen sulfide.

Unfortunately – since we were going up a steep incline – my face happened to be right at the level of Redwing's ass. However, I knew it couldn't have been her; Redwing was far too dignified and stuffily British to have committed so egregious an offence.  There was only one inescapable conclusion.

I would later write the following in the registry at Blackrock Hut:
stealth fart | stel θ - färt | informal
verb [trans.]
when leading a party of three or more uphill, to fart in a way so as to make the last person in line blame the person in front of them
: Lil Dipper is a stealth farter.
By late afternoon, we had hiked 19.7 miles and crossed Skyline Drive no less than eight times. My guidebook informed me that Blackrock Hut was 0.2 miles off the trail to the right. What it didn't say was that it was also down a couple hundred feet in elevation. It was a ridiculous slog just to get there, and –when we arrived – we found the shelter packed.

Of course P-Nut was there and had already claimed the last empty spot. He was chumming it up with the interloping section hikers when we arrived, and pointedly ignored our entrance. I wasn't particularly hurt by his betrayal, however. With a few notable exceptions, section hikers are the worst sort of people – after southbounders, day hikers, day hikers who don't offer you trail magic, and Nazis – and are invariably rude, inconsiderate, and horrible snorers. I wouldn't have been able to sleep in the shelter.

But, as it turned out, I wouldn't be able to sleep in my tent, either.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Chapter 67: Waynesboro, or Where I Give Hikers a Bad Name

The Paul C. Wolfe Shelter was filled with weekenders and section hikers, seemingly all of whom were bragging about their monolithic efforts getting there from Waynesboro, where they had presumably started the day. Five miles. What an accomplishment. I hated them all instantly. Still, many of them were only out for the night, and were anticipating a short trek back into town the next morning.

Good, I thought, maybe they'll let us sleep in.


At first, I thought they might have been conspiring to keep us from sleeping at all. There was, of course, very little room left in the shelter when I arrived, forcing me to squeeze in on the floor by everybody else's feet. Occasionally, an errant raindrop or two – blown in by the wind – would splash on my face, or on the floor right next to me, inexorably soaking my sleeping bag. And by occasionally I mean constantly. Yeah. Pretty much all the time. It was bad.

Then there was the snoring. An unearthly, full-throated growl of such impressive timbre as to make me fear losing bowel control. And it was coming from a woman! It was impossible to sleep. Death seemed like a prudent if distasteful alternative.

And then I was violently woken by the sounds of people moving about, packing up, and making breakfast. P-Nut was awake too, and sat up groggily next to me. I grabbed his watch. It wasn't even six in the morning.

Boiling with barely-suppressed rage, I wrote the following in the shelter registry:
Dear Day Hikers, Overnighters, and Section Hikers,
You take our space in the shelter, and we fall back. You keep us awake with your outrageously obnoxious snoring, and we fall back. You generally act like a bunch of rude, unthinking ass holes, and we fall back. Where I draw the line is when you wake up at five in the morning and start talking in normal voices and banging pots and pans together like it's fucking Mardi Gras! Please be more considerate in the future. Some of us have literally hiked hundreds of miles to be here, and we're very tired, cranky, and desperately need our beauty sleep. Or just drop dead.
Yours forever,
Major Chafage
It was going to be a good day.

I was in a terrible mood when I hiked out, and maybe wasn't paying enough attention to where I was or where I was going. The fact that it was incredibly foggy didn't help matters. It was like walking through a marshmallow. And so I suppose it was only inevitable that I got lost.

I chose to blame The Thru-Hiker's Handbook, which says the following:
1327.9   Stream (1780') crosses A.T. ............................. w 851.2
Notice! Northbounders, go right on Blue Ridge Parkway where A.T. leaves woods, then follow blazes across bridge over Interstate 64 and US250; directions reversed for Southbounders. 
1326.0   Rockfish Gap, Interstate 64 (1900') ......... R, M, L 853.1
left 4.5m—to WAYNESBORO, VA 22980 ........... H, G, O, Lm, f
To me, that sounds like you leave the woods, cross Interstate 64, and then – 1.9 miles later – reach Rockfish Gap. Right? No! Apparently, where you cross Interstate 64 is Rockfish Gap.

And the next road crossing isn't for another 3.7 miles.

I was cursing a lot when Bandito caught up to me.

"What's up, M.C.?" asked Bandito.

I said nothing for a while, stewing in my anger. I was afraid if I opened my mouth I might scream obscenities at him, or that sparks and flames might shoot out and start a forest fire. Really.

Five minutes later, I had finally composed myself enough to spit, "This is ridiculous! We should've walked nine miles by now, not five!"

Bandito was worried, too, but didn't share my particularly acidic or profane perspective about it.

And then we emerged onto a road at last. A Forest Service SUV parked nearby. A sign by the road said McCormick Gap, and I let loose a vociferous string of vicious obscenities, threw my Leki pole over my shoulder, and then drop kicked by handbook. Or tried. I missed a couple times before finally – and feebly – connecting.

I think Bandito may have been talking to the Ranger throughout all of this. Yes, there was a Forest Ranger in the SUV. Yes, he saw my entire outburst. And yes, he promptly drove off, leaving us there.

I walked into the road and threw my hands up in disbelief.

"I think you scared him off," said Bandito helpfully.

"Well, that's just great!" I screamed. "The next car that comes along, I'm jumping out in front of it. We're not even going to bother to try to hitchhike. Okay?"

But I wasn't looking for his approval.

As it turned out, the next car that came along was the Forest Service SUV. I'm not sure what the Ranger thought of me running out in front of him and waving my arms in the air for him to stop, like some deranged, desperate lunatic. I probably wasn't helping my case any. Let's just leave it at that.

"Are you through having your temper tantrum?" asked the Ranger, rolling down his window as he pulled up.

I was grievously offended by this, and my first instinct was to punch him in the face. But the sensible part of my brain reasoned that doing so would probably lead to me being incarcerated, which certainly wouldn't help me finish my hike. On the other hand, it would get me back into town...

"We're lost," Bandito was explaining. "We're supposed to be meeting our friends in Waynesboro."

The Ranger actually proved rather helpful, although that would be hard for me to appreciate over my resentment at his rightfully treating me like a petulant child.

He first drove us to the Ranger station, where we picked up backcountry permits for the park. Shenandoah National Park, that is. Which we had already entered. By accident. Then he figured he could drive us into town, or at least as far as the Rockfish Gap Outfitters. We could walk into town from there. After all, we'd already hiked an extra four miles. What was another two or three?

I was in a terrible, pissy, awful mood when we arrived. I stocked up on chocolate and ate a lot of chocolate and bitterly raided the hiker box while Bandito fiddled about buying fuel. Then we left and walked to the Ming Garden Chinese Buffet in the rain.

Where we found P-Nut, Redwing, Lil Dipper, and some other hikers we didn't know or care about! And where I ate four or six full plates of lousy food, mostly deserts, and started to feel better about the world! And where we played a silly game where you read your fortune, and then add the words "in bed," or "on the trail."

"Grand adventures await those who are willing to turn the corner. In bed." said P-Nut.

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," said the other guy.

"On the trail," everybody chimed in, finishing it for him.

"You may accomplish more by being direct," read Bandito.

"In bed," we all chorused.

"I'm sorry, I don't get it. What does that mean, by being direct in bed?" asked Lil Dipper naively.

"Lie down," I commanded, inexplicably adopting a southern accent. "Now bend over! Now squeal like a piggy!"

Laughing, Lil Dipper blushed scarlet and then immediately started choking. And then got up and quickly staggered into the bathroom. Worried, Redwing excused herself and followed her.

They returned five minutes later to a subdued and anxious table.

Redwing shrugged, "Yeah. She threw up."

Lil Dipper chuckled sheepishly.

"I thought M.C. might have killed you," marvelled P-Nut.

"I didn't think it was that funny," said someone else. Okay, that was me. Ever humble.

From there we went to the grocery store to resupply, and then to the Y.M.C.A. to shower. I feared the showers would be prison-style. As surprising as it may seem, I had never gotten naked or showered in front of another man before. I figured, the way things were going, today would be a good day to start.

I was right. I went in first, and tried to be thorough but perfunctory about my business. Then Bandito walked in, saw my bare ass, and nearly jumped out of his skin. I ignored him, and started singing manly songs like "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Genie in a Bottle" by Christina Aguilera.

Another taboo broken.

Afterwards, we went to the hostel at the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church. It was their opening night. Our hosts were gregarious and giving. We had access to their kitchen, a full refrigerator full of juice, snacks, and frozen pizza! And to a lounge with a big-screen TV. I quickly settled in to watch "Galaxy Quest" and "The Shawshank Redemption."

Caveman and Hobbes arrived. Hobbes scolded me for mischaracterizing Mardi Gras in my log entry. Like I would know. He would, having gone to Tulane for college. Whatever.

And then Bandito had to tell everybody how we had gotten lost that day, and they all laughed at me and pointed. And I hated everybody. And then I went to bed, and cried myself to sleep. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Little Housekeeping

Some corrections and clarifications:

In Chapter 6: The Shakedown, I portrayed the employees of the Mountain Crossings Outfitter at Neel's Gap as the manipulative, parasitic shills of over-priced fantasy garb, bullying innocent hikers into buying dragon skill rain pants and anti-gravity water bottles. This was slightly inaccurate. In reality, their wares are made out of more common materials such as GoreTex® and ripstop nylon.

That said, I did feel like I was browbeaten into spending $250 there. And I did feel foolish, sore, and violated afterwards. While the Marmot PreCip jacket I bought was light, surprisingly stylish, and reliable, the matching rain pants that came with it were decidedly less useful, particularly after their weatherproofing spontaneously disintegrated about a month or so later. The Patagonia thermal bottoms I picked up were and are super-comfortable and sweet. Ditto my Minus33 merino wool top, which had the added benefit of making me look like a preening, pretentious douche. Because, unlike most other people, I actually enjoy looking like a self-satisfied jackass. Some of the time.

In fact, except for the pants, I would highly recommend everything I bought at the Walasi-Yi Center.

Wait, my lawyers are telling me that wasn't enough.

Okay, I guess I shouldn't have called the employees there "manipulative, parasitic shills." I deeply regret this insulting and wildly misleading portrayal. Even if their insidiously clever salesmanship came across as blatantly predatory, the people of the Walasi-Yi Center are indubitably knowledgeable, wise, and helpful.


In Chapter 11: North Carolina, I described one of my fellow hikers – Ziggy – as a disgusting, amoral, drug-addled lunatic, and further claimed that he punched me in the face. Rest assured, however much I may have deserved it, I was not physically assaulted at this time. I apologize for the error.


In Chapter 12: Shin Splints Happen, I portrayed myself as a self-centered buffoon who takes a sadistic pleasure in the pain and failures of others. This was completely accurate. I deeply regret being so completely honest.


In Chapter 28: Max Patch, I feuded with two members of the "Party Group," Fat Stick and Dude Nozzle. Although these characters are based on real people, their names have been changed to protect their identities. And also to protect me. I think if they knew I was speaking ill of them, they would find me and kill me, or at least write scathing things about me on the internet. Also, I'm a massive coward.


In Chapter 30: Death by Murder, I acted like a selfish jerk and provoked Spark into punching me in the face before brutally massacring several people. None of this actually happened.

... Or did it?


In Chapter 31: On a Rock, I told a fanciful story about having been attacked by a giant condor while catholing. This was an elaborate and perhaps deliberately silly fallacy concocted in a lame attempt to disguise my grossly irresponsible and generally gross behavior. In my own defense, I am a filthy, despicable human being. Wait, that didn't come out the way I wanted it to. Can I take that back? Sorry.


In Chapter 35: Silly Human Tricks, I implied that Hightower was actually Dirk Nowitzki, the German star basketball player. This was true. And I have the autograph to prove it. 


In Chapter 51: Terrible Chapter Title, I suggested that Bandito was a fan of the Twilight series of novels. This was an egregious lie. Bandito has never read the books, and never intends to. No matter how many people tell him he looks like the character of Jacob. I can only beg Bandito's forgiveness for this error.


Everything else I've written has been the absolute truth, and extremely accurate. You might think there's something off or possibly contradictory about that statement, but you're wrong. You're wrong! Let's just move on.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chapter 66: A Man Survives Night In Woods

Waynesboro, May 17, 2010 - An unidentified 26-year-old male is alive today after spending the night camping in the woods.

A National Forest Service spokesperson said the man was hiking the Appalachian Trail when inclement weather and waning sunlight forced him to stay overnight at the Paul C. Wolfe Shelter, an apparent tent city overrun by annoying tourists too cheap to spring for motel rooms, morbid thrill-seekers, and the displaced refugees of an uncaring world.

The rain started just after seven P.M., requiring many to abandon their hastily erected tents to sleep in the "shelter," which to this observer appeared to be no more than a makeshift barn. Floor space was scarce, and with the encroaching cold and billowing rain outside, many of these self-avowed strangers found themselves huddling together in a pathetic, futile attempt to conserve body heat.

"It was literally like a frightening or unpleasant dream," said a young female witness who wished to remain anonymous. "Almost as dreadful as that summer theatre version of the Noel Coward play I saw last year."

"Yeah, it was pretty outrageous," agreed another eyewitness, "I mean, I know we're outside, but I bet most of those guys hadn't showered in over a week."

"I heard one guy crack a joke about taking a dump in the woods. Or at least, I hope he was joking."

The National Forest Service further confirmed that the victim had no choice but to try to fall asleep without the dulcet and comforting tones of his favorite late-night talk show hosts to ease him into a contented slumber, forcing him to instead listen to a mixture of cacophonous snoring and the violent tempest swirling outside to lull himself into a fitful unconsciousness.

The man's horrific ordeal continued this morning, when many of his newfound and unwanted companions awoke just after dawn. According to a statement left by the victim at the scene, the others proceeded to "talk in normal voices and bang pots and pans together like it was [expletive deleted] Mardi Gras!"

Police meteorologists have determined that the shelter area – and, indeed, all of the surrounding mountains – were that morning shrouded in a thick and heavy mist. In his evidently altered and mildly psychotic mental state, it is speculated that the man completely missed the turn-off towards Waynesboro, his intended destination, and walked a further four miles before being rescued by N.F.S. personnel.

The man is reportedly recovering in the acute psychiatric wing of the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, where he is undergoing treatment for post-melodramatic stress.

"He's doing much better now than when he got here a few hours ago," said Administrative Secretary Janice Collins. "He's stopped swearing so much, has eaten an entire Toombstone pizza, and acclimating nicely to our other guests. We're planning to watch 'Galaxy Quest' and 'The Shawshank Redemption' later."

"He truly is an inspiration to us all," she added.