Thursday, March 24, 2011

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?

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