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.
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...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.