Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Chapter 88: Beef

I never would have made it to the Rausch Gap Shelter without Caveman. Or, more specifically, without his handy supply of Excedrin. Right around Yellow Springs Village, the empty ruins of an abandoned mining town, I really started dragging, and badly needed a pick-me-up. I mean, I was in terrible pain! My head, back, and every muscle in my body hurt. Yeah.

Although an inconvenient 0.3 miles off the trail, the Rausch Gap Shelter was actually pretty nice. A boxed-in spring burbled up from the ground right out front, and there was a nice circular picnic table there, too. Being in good company didn't hurt the experience either. Dreamcatcher was there. Merf and Dietrich were there. Dietrich was somehow still alive after being run ragged over 25 miles of brutal terrain, and this on his first day out. He'd never even been backpacking before! And Little Brown was there! The smug, condescending bastard, casually remarking about how he'd never thought he'd catch up to any of us light-footed youngsters. It was good to see him.

I froze during the night. I'd ditched my sleeping bag in Maryland, leaving it with Megan to hold onto until I needed it again. Which apparently was now. Unfortunately for me, I wouldn't manage to get my sleeping bag back until New Hampshire. In the meantime, I made do with my snazzy liner. And by wearing my thermals and fleece to bed. And my rain gear. And by wrapping myself in my tarptent, to cut the wind. And by setting the shelter on fire. Actually, my tent proved to be a surprisingly good insulator.

Anyway, I somehow managed not to die during the night. Actually, I may have been most afraid of one of the others—probably Merf, whom I suspect always harbored a hidden violent streak—beating me to death as I slept, for all of the unintentional but annoying crinkling noises I must have made every time I rolled over. Or breathed.

So I woke up alive. No, wait, I woke up dead. My sudden and inexplicable death adds so much poignancy to this narrative, doesn't it?

"No," said Merf. "It doesn't even really make sense. It just makes you seem like a lunatic. Why is this in the past tense?"


"No, don't be sorry," continued Merf. "This is getting too meta. I'm not Bandito, you know."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Look, just because I don't swear, I'm polite, and I'm a teetotaler—"

"Hey, you're right! I never noticed that before. You two really are quite simi—"

"Shut up!" interrupted Merf. "Stay focussed! What's wrong with you? Were you in a weird mood when you woke up?"


"Then why are we doing this?"

"I don't know? Why are you attacking me?!"

"You're the narrator," pointed out Caveman.

"You stay out of this!" I screamed. "Maybe it's because—aside from that other creepy abandoned mining town we went through—I don't remember anything until we found that trail magic by the road!"

It's true. I don't.

"You're an idiot," said Caveman.

So Caveman and I were hiking with Merf and Dietrich for a change. Dreamcatcher was too full of youthful brio to be held back by us, and Little Brown was too full of cantankerous old-man crustiness to be tolerated. Actually, that's not true at all. He had just gotten out of camp earlier than we had, and was way ahead of us by then. So the four of us were approaching PA443 when we came upon a cooler full of juice boxes and crackers. Which—as any thru-hiker or six-year-old knows—is like mana from heaven. And then we maybe found another cooler, by another road, that had popsicles and sodas. Or maybe that was a different day. Doesn't matter. For once, Caveman didn't stop me from taking my deserved share. We gorged ourselves.

It soon started to rain, heavily. In an extraordinary hurry, I pulled off the rare "walk and pee," which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Actually an extraordinarily difficult move, the tricky part of the "walk and pee," alternately known as the "walking pee," is to not splash urine on yourself, your pants, or your shoes while you do it. Since it was raining, and since I was wearing waterproof clothing, my normal worries were somewhat assuaged. But I pulled it off successfully. Not a single errant drop of urine fell anywhere on my person! You might think this is weird, but it's not.

"It kind of is," said Caveman, shaking his head.

"Shut up!"

We headed towards the William Penn Shelter to escape the rain. A magnificent structure that sleeps sixteen, the shelter was otherwise empty. Well, except for a sodden, bedraggled Dreamcatcher.

"I'm staying here for the night," he announced wearily, dragging his equipment into the loft.

It was a tempting idea, except for that we had only gone fourteen miles so far that day. Kind of an anemic output for us stalwart veterans of the trail. Besides, the 501 Shelter, which had a caretaker and pizza delivery, was only four miles away.

Caveman left before the rest of us. Maybe he was worried about securing a spot in the shelter. I wasn't. It had been raining all day. We were the only northbound thru-hikers for miles. Except for Little Brown, who could be ahead of us? Nobody I knew.

Apparently a lot of people. All the bunks were full when we arrived. Merf, Dietrich and I would have to sleep on the floor. Mostly everybody else looked like they had moved in there permanently, with their stuff strewn about, and their wet clothes draped everywhere. How I hated them all. Even—or perhaps especially—this one girl, Veggie, who lorded over a small group of friends with a self-satisfied smile. Everything about her rubbed me the wrong way. Particularly the fact that she was dry.

I soon learned that everybody else there was northbound, like us, but that they had taken zeros that day because of the rain. Which only infuriated me more. I took solace in acting like a huge jerk, scowling at everyone, and basically by being a whirling dervish of passive-aggressive whining and angst. At least Caveman and Little Brown were there to comfort me.

Wait, what am I saying? They were annoying too. Or at least Little Brown was. He wrote something surprisingly well-written, funny, and stingingly accurate about me in the shelter log. That I can't remember. It may have been a criticism of my poetry skills. Unforgivable.

Merf, Caveman, Dietrich and I ordered pizza. Which was nice, but did little to calm me down or elevate my mood. Then Merf and I wrote a poem in the register, since that was becoming sort of our thing. And I had my revenge. I don't remember how the poem began, but I sure know how it ended:
something something something, and all was well
Except for Little Brown, who can still go to hell
-Major Chafage

Chapter 87: The Perils of Poison Ivy

It had been a rough couple of days, but things were starting to look better. For one thing, Caveman was back! For another, the next town wasn't for 70 miles, severely limiting my opportunities for drunken embarrassment. But then it was raining, and the trail was an absolute mess.

Brief but punishing climbs and descents sandwiched long, flat sections of vine- and pricker-encrusted rocks. To the left and right of the trail, brown earth and green undergrowth stretched out almost as far as the eye could see. Which admittedly wasn't that far on this day, considering the all-enveloping fog and steady drizzle. And the trail itself? Angular, misshapen, irregularly sized boulders jutting from the earth in random directions, like the collected pulled teeth from God's own dentistry office. There was nowhere flat to place your feet; I found myself constantly wedging my boots into the gaps between stones and just hoping that I wouldn't twist an ankle.

Why did the powers that be decide to take the trail over this terrain, when seemingly better ground appeared to surround it? Perhaps Pennsylvanians are strict environmentalists, and don't want even ideologically sympathetic hikers tramping all over their precious green stuff. Or maybe they're just sadists. There didn't appear to be any good reason.

Making matters worse were the apparently deplorable local standards of trail maintenance. Maybe Pennsylvania isn't the most trafficked section of the trail—it certainly has the worst reputation, and it is true that most prospective thru-hikers have quit long before they reach the state line—but there is no excuse for letting poison ivy, wild rose, and satanic raspberry bushes grow unchecked, so that they surround the trail on all sides and continually hound and harass all but the most agile passersby. I found maintaining forward momentum hard enough without all the thorns and pricker bushes grabbing at my pack, my arms, my clothes. My biggest fear, however, was having to stop to dig a cathole, and never making it back.

Caveman and I walked along together, for a variety of reasons. We wanted to give Merf and Dietrich some space, to do whatever it is that long-lost friends are wont to do, and also so as to not overwhelm them, to allow them time to properly catch up. Furthermore, I wanted Caveman to fill me in on all that I'd missed after leaving the trail: how Bandito had flipped out and started cursing and drinking and leaving offensive, gratuitously inflammatory notes in shelter logs and acting wantonly lecherous to random strangers without me around to act as his moral compass; how P-Nut had continued his bizarre descent into some kind of primordial madness, and had taken to boiling his shoelaces for dinner, grunting a lot, and snacking on pieces of bark and twigs and berries; how a talent scout had popped out of the woods to present Hobbes with a lucrative modeling contract; and how Redwing had shockingly revealed that she was actually Helen Mirren, and that Lil Dipper was secretly American. But the main reason I wanted to walk with Caveman was because he hiked too quickly on his own. Someone had to slow him down.

I filled Caveman in on everything that had happened to me since he'd left. How I had gotten trail magic every single day, sometimes twice. How I had met some scary southbounders, but had beaten them to death with their own trekking poles and then buried their bodies in PenMar Park. How I had met only one person trying to do the Four State Challenge—Hobbit—but had heard that he'd punked out just a scant few miles from the Pennsylvania border.

All through this I could hear Caveman struggling behind me.





Intrigued and amused, I just had to stop to find out what had happend.

Caveman rested his hands on his knees and chuckled morosely.

"One of the elastic straps on mah pack cover got caught on a pricker? And ah thought it was a good idea just to pull it free, and it snapped back and hit me—"

At which point he and I disolved into a fit of uncontrollable giggling. The stupidity of it all. The futility. The trail was trying to hurt us, maim us, kill us. It was rightly terrifying. How else were we supposed to react?

We continued laughing about it for the next five minutes, until we realized we were lost. In the middle of a vast boulder field, underneath a tree that had inexplicably grown out of the gaps in the rocks. During a lightning storm. For some reason, we found this new predicament hilarious, and only laughed harder. I may have actually sat down, just to catch my breath.

Eventually we composed ourselves and doubled back. The trail wasn't that hard to find.

And just so you don't think I'm exaggerating about the terrain, here are some of the landmarks, as listed in my Thru-Hiker's Handbook:
Fumitory Rocks (1360') ................................. 1147.8
Table Rock (1380') ........................................ 1148.0
Shickellimy Rocks (1320') on AT .................. 1152.3
Stony Mtn (1650') .......................................... 1159.0
Oh, and somehow I got poison ivy on my arm.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Chapter 86: Attack of the Bears

I love a dramatic chapter title…

What can I say about Duncannon?

The descent into town was hell. In a single mile, the trail dropped nearly a thousand feet, the last five hundred of which were down a jagged precipice that my Handbook amusingly called a "Rock slide." After tumbling unscathed from the woods onto a dusty dead-end road, I found myself momentarily lost, with not a white blaze in sight. To my right was a quarry, its chain-link fence emblazoned with scary "Do Not Enter" signs. To my left, the road led away over some railroad tracks, past a used-car dealership, across a bridge, and into unknown. I smartly went left, soon rediscovered the telltale white blazes, and slowly meandering into town.

Passing underneath a highway bridge and entering the downtown area proper, I was struck by just how foreign and seemingly unstuck in time Duncannon looked and felt. It didn't feel like the North, or like you'd think Pennsylvania should, especially just two hours outside of Philadelphia. It was more like the wild west, or worse, rural Georgia. Everything looked beaten down, dusty, oddly faded; from the buildings to the cars to the people, it was fairly evident that the town's best days were long behind it.

Merf, Ridley and Panther had all gotten out of camp ahead of me, for various reasons. Merf was running ahead to meet her friend Dietrich at the famous—or is it infamous?—Doyle Hotel. Ridley and Panther were also headed to the Doyle Hotel, because they had inexplicably decided to stay there. For the night. I figured the Doyle Hotel was the place to go. And then there it was, at the center of town, hotel and saloon, the building itself dating back to the turn of the century. Whatever century that is, I'm not sure.

However, what the town lacked in modern amenities—like a pizzeria that was actually open for lunch—it made up for in personality and charm. The proprietors of the Doyle couldn't have been happier to see another smelly hiker crossing their threshold, and I was just as glad to sit down for a surprisingly delicious veggie burger and $3 pint of PBR. Merf and Dietrich and another of their friends—Dietrich's girlfriend perhaps?—were already there, huddled in a booth, deep in conversation. Ridley and Panther were there, and already seeming to regret their decision to reserve a room.

It should have occurred to me that, since Ridley and Panther were staying behind, I might not ever see them again. We had spent so little time together, but I already felt as though I knew them so well. Maybe we didn't have enough time to really get to know each other, but they were a willing and engaging audience, and seemingly took all the right pleasures in my on-going foibles. I would miss them.

But I wasn't thinking of that, then. I was drinking beer! And cheap beer at that. With beer that cheap, you have to have two. At least. So I did. And then I checked my e-mail, and my world almost caved in.

It seems my "friends" back in New York had been busy slandering my name and intentions in my absence! Some "friends" they turned out to be. Tell someone something in confidence, and soon the whole world knows your business. And I don't even want to acknowledge that I know what I'm talking about! Suffice it to say that I was angry, freaked out, and confused, and drunk. Being drunk probably didn't help anything, including the tone of this narration. Too painful to talk about. Let's just move on.

So yes, I was drunk and angry. I just wanted to leave, to put everything behind me, to forget everything, the burning sensation in my cheeks, the twist in my stomach, my knees shaking with nerves. I needed some air.

There was a man outside the Doyle. I couldn't—what? Had I seen him before? He seemed familiar.

"Are you a hiker?" he asked.

"Why, yes I am!" I snapped.

"Here," he said, handing me a box of some kind of flavored Cheerios.

"Thanks!" I yelled, mentally subtracting "breakfast" from the list of things I had to buy at Walmart. Or whatever the nearby grocery store was called.

And then a shuttle came to take us—those of us who needed resupply, which was mainly me, two young girls out for a section hike, and some other morons I couldn't care less about—to that place to get stuff. So I folded myself into the trunk and pouted the whole way there. Childish? You bet.

And then I got my shit and left, cuz fuck it.

I was still in a daze when I started climbing on the other side of the Susquehanna River. Maybe I was still under the influence of the alcohol, or maybe I was just feeling sorry for myself and out of sorts with the world, but I wasn't really paying attention to where I was going or what was happening around me. And that's when I heard and, well, saw the bears.

There were two cubs, foraging in the bushes just to the right of the trail. About five feet away from me. They had stopped what they were doing and were staring at me, agape. Just as I was staring at them. Adorable. Terrifying. I could see mama's big fat butt right behind them. She hadn't noticed me yet, still had her back turned, and was rustling around in the bushes. I figured that was for the best. Still, it was all I could do not to soil myself as I screamed "Oh shit!" and ran off down the trail.

The two cubs immediately jumped on and scurried up the nearest trees. Mama went crashing off into the woods in the other direction. I continued screaming "Shit! Shit! Shit!" as I ran, not daring to take another look back or slow down until I saw the familiar outline of the shelter.

Merf and Dietrich were already there.

"What happened to you?" one of them may have asked.

"I almost just died!" I screamed, my heart practically jumping out of my chest.

I recounted the tale of what had happened, mostly to nervous laughter and admonishing looks.

"You know you're not supposed to do that. If you run, they think you're prey, and they chase you."

"Yeah, well," I shouted, and then was unable to come up with a proper retort.

"Is that you, M.C.?" came a voice from up ahead, as Caveman walked up to the shelter. "I thought I recognized your aggrivatin' racket."

"Caveman!" I shrieked. And we hugged, in a really manly way.

And all was right with the world. And I forgot about all about my earlier embarrassments. And I quickly introduced Caveman to Merf and vice-versa, because I'm not rude, and strictly follow all those polite social conventions. Caveman explained that he had gotten off the trail in Duncannon to take a bus home to see his wife. Four days later, he was back. Fate had brought us back together.

I would have nightmares that night. But not about what you think. Maybe.

Chapter 85: The Betrayal at Cumberland Valley

One of the perks of walking the Appalachian Trail—and let's face it, there aren't that many, so each and every one has to be savored—is that, if you're in town and you want to sample every flavor of Mountain Dew in existence, you can. It helps, of course, if you have a friend like Merf who shares your cavalier attitude towards good taste, tooth decay, and adult-onset diabetes. Anyway, it just so happened that Mountain Dew was running a promotional campaign during the summer of 2010 in which consumers were tasked with choosing a new flavor. The three candidates were called White Out, Typhoon, and Distortion. Merf and I bought all three, plus a regular Mountain Dew for comparison. Although their various peculiarities escape me, know that all four were similarly disgusting, tasting collectively like the vaguely toxic cocktail of melted Jolly Ranchers, industrial waste, and goat urine.

Still, sitting at a picnic table outside a gas station in Boiling Springs, enjoying our well-earned spoils, Merf and I felt like royalty, like we were the only two people truly alive in what otherwise was a sullen, dusty landscape, like hummingbirds flitting about, lording over everything with lightening speed, watching the rest of the world pass by in a stifling slow motion.

Or maybe that was just the caffeine kicking in.

The ATC Regional Office in town was closed, naturally. We filled our water bottles with their spigot out back and rummaged through their hiker box, but the pickings were thin. But then the day was wearing on, and we still had fourteen miles to go.

We were crossing the Cumberland Valley, the name of which had the unfortunate effect of reminding me of some long-forgotten but seemingly important point in American history, and also of Cumberland Farms, whose chocolate milk I totally could have gone for. The Valley was long, flat, and hot, and endless series of wide-open meadows only sporadically interspersed with a line of trees, a road, and old picket fence, or a swampy, water-logged section of a cattle pasture pockmarked with petrified cow patties. It was still early enough in the summer that flies and mosquitoes weren't so much of a nuisance, thankfully. Occasionally we found ourselves walking in the shade of someone's mulberry trees, and Merf made quick snacks out of whatever berries she could reach. Soon our hands were sticky and dyed a deep shade of purple. It almost felt like stealing.

We passed a Mennonite community just before crossing over Interstate 81. Again, something pulled at Merf's heartstrings, drawing her back. Whether she was reminded of home, or of some comforting pre-trail routine, I do not know, and didn't have the heart to ask.

A little later, we bumped into two older gentlemen heading in the opposite direction, who were thrilled to meet more thru-hikers. They said they had just passed another married couple a few minutes before. I smiled and nodded, thinking they must have been talking about Ridley and Panther. Then I realized that they must have assumed Merf and I were a couple. I didn't have the energy to disuade them of the notion. It wasn't worth the effort. The men might've promised to find us and give us trail magic later on before we finally managed to extricate ourselves from their company. What a total waste of forty-five seconds that was.

Soon we could see the line of mountains rising before us again, signaling the end of our valley sojourn. We still had a river to cross before we go there, however. And it was still some four or five miles to the Darlington Shelter.

For the eighteen miles between the Alec Kennedy and Darlington shelters, there are no legal campsites. The Cumberland Valley is too developed, too-often you are crossing through someone's back yard, for there to be any room for camping. So it seemed we had little choice but to press on. Plus Merf wanted to get as close to Duncannon as she could, because she was meeting a friend there the next day.

We found the Conodoguinet Creek flooded, and I suffered some momentary panic thinking we wouldn't find an adequate way around. Besides, I may have still been traumatized from falling in a creek or mud puddle the previous day. My boots were dry now. I wanted them to stay that way.

Ultimately, we found that the extent of the flooding had been slightly exaggerated. Muddy water may have seeped onto the occasional bog bridge, but otherwise the trail itself was unaffected. Still an unholy mess, bu no worse than it would have been normally. This was Pennsylvania, after all.

As the sun was dipping low in the sky, we decided to cook our dinners there, by the river, instead of waiting till we got to the shelter, by which time it would have been dark. Plus the Scout Farm Trail Center had a water tap, picnic tables, and outhouses. Everything we could possibly need for a proper dinner. Once we were fed and hydrated, we hiked on into the gloaming, the trail shrouded in red hues from the setting sun and shadow.

Crossing Sherwood Road, some three miles from the shelter, we ran into a woman walking her dog. She was calling out for someone.

"You haven't seen a white, fluffy, poodle-like thing running around, have you?" she asked breathlessly.

We hadn't. She explained that she was training her dogs to be rescue animals, but that one kept on getting away from her—not a promising sign—but that he always came back in the end. She shrugged, not overly worried about it.

"You wouldn't happen to know any strapping young men who could carry our backpacks for us, would you?" I asked.

And we all laughed. The woman said no, and asked if we were thru-hiking. Yes, ma'am.

"Well, I don't know about porters for you two, but my husband and I often take hikers in. If you want, you're welcome to stay at our house for the night. It's not far. We'd give you dinner, and pizza, and you'd be welcome to anything in our refrigerator. Take a shower? Do your laundry?"

I stood there, mouth agape, heart racing, momentarily unable to comprehend what exactly she was proposing. How often do we overlook the simple beauty of a kind gesture? How many times can we fail to see or appreciate the nearly unlimited capacity for empathy and compassion in our fellow human beings? And what if I had said nothing? My jokes have never gotten me anywhere in the world—professionally, at least—and now they were opening strangers' doors and hearts and refrigerators? I don't think I've ever been more impressed by the power of a joke, or more pleased with myself.

And then I heard Merf talking.

"—love to, but we really have to keep going. I'm meeting a friend in Duncannon tomorrow morning, so we have to keep going."

The woman's smile faltered, but she seemed understanding, if slightly skeptical. "Okay, well…"

Now, I could have done the sensible thing, and said, "That's crazy!" and ditched Merf to stay at this woman's house, to eat her food, shower, do my laundry, and sleep in a real bed. And one of my guiding principles in life, if not just on the trail, is "never turn down trail magic." Still, as sad as it would be to pass up this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime—or once-a-month—opportunity, I could not abandon my friend.

That didn't mean I was happy, and I made sure to continue complaining about what we'd given up long after we arrived at the Darlington Shelter.

"We were afraid you guys might not show up," said a groggy Panther, looking out at us from his perch in the shelter as we entered, thew our packs down, and stood around catching our breath in the firelight.

"We almost didn't!" I hissed, "A woman wanted to give us showers and laundry and give us dinner and pizza and soda and probably beer, too, and maybe give us money and maybe adopt us and leave us in her will, but Merf insisted on hiking on!"

"And M.C. never leaves a man or woman behind," sighed Merf, appreciative.

And I don't. And I knew I couldn't stay mad. And I vowed to forget about it. Right after I died.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Chapter 84: The End of a Very Long Day

Mmm, donuts...

On my way out of Pine Grove Furannce, I passed the unofficial Midpoint Marker, erected by a thru-hiker in 1985. Of course, I had passed the real Midpoint earlier that morning, just after receiving trail magic at the Toms Run Shelters. And how did it feel? Well, I might've been eating a candy bar at the time, so... That about sums that up.

I believe I was in a great mood as I approached the James Frye Shelter at Tagg Run, courtesy of stepping in a mud puddle up to my knee. I might've even cheered myself up some by calling my friends back home, to remind them that I was still alive, and that, yes, I was actually hiking the trail, and that, no, it wasn't all just an elaborate ruse designed solely to excuse myself from all my unwanted social obligations. And that, no, I wasn't losing my mind. So that was nice. Except for not at all.

The party atmosphere that had prevailed at Pine Grove Furnace followed me to the James Frye Shelter. All the familiar faces were there. Ridley and Panther. Merf. Cornpatch. Two alumni thru-hikers, with a cooler of beer. As if we hadn't been treated to enough that day. What am I saying? Of course we hadn't had enough trail magic. When you can ever have enough trail magic? Plus they had Budweiser, which is just as good as beer, and always appreciated. Ridley, Panther and I all had cold ones. Merf may have abstained. Probably wise.

The was only one beer left, and we didn't know what to do with it. Should we have saved it for Dreamcatcher, whom we knew to be on his way? Panther and I reasoned that, since he was only eighteen, we couldn't in good conscience contribute to his delinquency by giving him alcohol. So we split the last beer. Dreamcatcher was rather disappointed when we told him about it, but youngins gotta learn somewhere. Or maybe we were just being jerks.

And maybe we were drunk. It's hard to remember.

I sabotaged Merf's registry entry:
Wishing I had a little something more to add to my couscous, like some marijana! <-(Thank you, M.C.) Thinking more like raisins + onions + carrots + potatoes (+ pot) + chicken. But hey, bland is good too. And it was free. Free is good. But you know what's better? Free pot brownies! Woo! Speaking of pot... here I come privy!!
PS. I like pooping too. - M.C. <-TMI (Ridley)
And then Ridley, Merf, Panther and I collaborated on a poem, each taking turns writing a line. I started off:
Twas the night before Sunday, and all through the shelter
The packs were all strewn + thrown, helter skelter
The halfway point was crossed and pictures taken
Along the path rocks were tossed and legs shaken
Beer had been shared, and chocolate donuts eaten
And buckets hauled up w/ epsom salts to soak feet in
One hammock string strung up and many tents pitched
Food was nearby and many people hitched
Hitched? What the hell? I haven't proposed yet
Instead I've been hiking in the rain, getting wet
In the brush a move was made, and it was a rattlesnake
All hikers smelled rank, for oh heavens sake
So all pulled out clothespins to put on their noses
And then who walked up with two dozen roses?
Out of the woods with a scruffy beard appeared Osama bin Laden
He walked with Ridley, Panther, Merf, + MC to Katahdin
-Major Chafage
I remember giving Merf greif for rhyming "feet in" with "eaten," but I digress. While I wish the last line had started "To walk with" instead of "He walked with," I truly believe the Osama bin Laden reference was sublime. It pulled the whole poem together.

And while I don't recall if it had indeed rained on us while we were hiking, it was raining heavily by the time we went to bed. I pitched my tent some fifty yards behind the shelter, underneath a copse of trees that provided a modicum of cover from the storm. If I had a conscience, I might have felt bad about ribbing Merf's abuse of her poetic license, or for denying Dreamcatcher trail magic. Maybe I did feel bad. Either way, I lay awake for some time, listening to the rain pelt the fabric roof of my tent.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Chapter 83: The Half Gallon Challenge, Part 1

How does one go about eating a half-gallon of ice cream? A better question might be why one would even try, but in this context—1092.8 miles through a 2179.1 mile hike—why becomes irrelevant. Why not?

Actually, I'll tell you why.

The average thru-hiker burns about 4,000 calories a day, and needs to consume just about as many if not more in order to not suffer from famen stomachus, a horrible syndrome in which the body—already stripped of excess body fat—begins to break down muscle mass and leach urea, causing the victim to smell overwhelmingly of urine. Symptoms include grogginess, exhaustion, muscle cramps, disorientation, and nausea. If untreated, it can lead to myriad complications, including kidney failure and even death.1

Meanwhile, a half-gallon of ice cream contains 3102 calories, 439 grams of carbohydrates, 129 grams of fat—76 of which are of the delicious and highly-desirable saturated variety—and 69 grams of protein. In addition to all that tasty nutritional goodness, the half-gallon contains over 30% of your RDA of iron and Vitamins C and D, over 100% of your Vitamins A and B12, 176% of your phosphorus, and over 200% of your RDA of riboflavin and bone-strengthening calcium! Plus it's ice cream. What's not to love?

Basically, we were in the position where if we didn't eat the half-gallon, we were gonna die. And I really didn't want to die. Not then, not ever. I had come too far already. I was going to do it.

My strategy was simple: skip breakfast, hike the ten miles to Pine Grove Furnace at a brisk pace to build up my appetite, then eat the ice cream as fast as I could, so my stomach wouldn't have time to tell my brain it was full. Piece of cake, right? No, not really.

My first mistake came some 6.2 miles in, when I stopped briefly at the Toms Run Shelters. Why did I stop? Was it to leave my signature obnoxious, inflamatory note in the hiker register? Was I expecting to find a note from Caboose and Spark, whom I knew to be only a day or two ahead of me? Was I looking for news of Bandito and Caveman, Redwing and Lil Dipper, all of whom had been so nicely remembering me2 in their entries since I'd left? Or did I stop because there was a crowd of about thirty day hikers there, eating breakfast, who had too much food?

Unsurprisingly, the group—which was on its way to the opening of the Appalachian Trail Museum, same as me—was naturally curious about their disheveled, smelly newcomer. There they were, coming out to honor hikers, to honor the trail and its history, and here I was, the one person in their midst who was actually doing it. It was like they were on a safari, and I was the only lion for miles. And of course they were having a problem with their food. They had too much of it. And they knew that hikers were always hungry, and the risks of famen stomachus. So they offered me their leftovers.

And it wasn't inconsiderable. And, conditioned as I was to never turn down trail magic—nor pass up anything free, ever—I was forced to accept. And I couldn't just hoard it all, either. They expected me to be hungry, and watched and waited with eager eyes until I pried open a granola bar and devoured it. My plan for the half-gallon challenge was evaporating.

That little one taste of food was enough to stir my raging metabolism. Suddenly all I could think about was food, specifically all the food that had just been plied on me. I barely made it another mile before I broke down and ate every last single thing they'd given me. My hunger sated, I continued on with a heavy heart, knowing that my best laid plans had already gone horribly awry.

I wouldn't describe the atmosphere inside Pine Grove Furnace State Park as bedlam, if only because it's entirely unclear the residents of southern Pennsylvania have ever experienced something something so worthwhile to get excited about. There were certainly enough people there, however, although none of them came bearing extravagant gifts to give to us wayward hikers. I was actually sort of disappointed with the festivities, uninterested as I was with the actual museum itself. Most of the vendors and exhibits only had a tenuous relationship with the trail, if they had any at all.

But I didn't really care. I was there for the ice cream. The only question remaining was what flavor? Chocolate, my favorite? Or would that get boring? Certainly not vanilla. Or strawberry, which I think usually tastes too artificial to be truly palatable. But what of Neapolitan? Chocolate, strawberry and vanilla all in one! That way, I'd at least be unlikely to get bored. And so what if I didn't actually like strawberry or vanilla ice cream on their own?

The Neapolitan ice cream purchased, I sat down for my attempt. I could only watch in wonder and envy as Cornpatch demolished his own half-gallon seemingly before I had even started. Trying to glean some wisdom from his victory, I settled on a new strategy. I would eat the vanilla portion first, then the strawberry, saving my favorite, the chocolate, for last.

Ice cream—or anything, really—tends to lose its charm if not all its flavor after the third or fourth serving. After my sixth or seventh "serving," I started wondering if I was going to finish at all. After my tenth, I was no longer worried about whether I'd finish, or even really whether my digestive track would revolt against me; I was more worried about what form that uprising would take. I made quick work of the vanilla, slogged through the strawberry with some discomfort, and then hit a wall. I'd already eaten more than two pints of ice cream. Six cups worth. Two to go. I didn't feel nauseous, but I anticipated it.

Was it worth it? I was going to make myself violently ill, possibly in a deeply embarrassing way. And for what? A sense of pride and a commemorative wooden spoon that I would probably lose shortly after anyway? I didn't want to get sick. I was terrified of getting sick. So I quit.

I gave the rest of my ice cream to a section hiker, told Merf and Ridley and Panther I would see them later, and left, hanging my head in shame.

Of course, a vendor would recognize me as a thru-hiker on my way out, and would insist on giving me a box of glazed donuts before I left. Somehow—and this truly boggles my mind—I managed to eat three or four of them before I reached the trail head. Disgusted by the donuts—they were stale and well past their Sell By date, which is probably how the vendor had come by them in the first place—but more with myself, I left the rest beside the trail, hoping that someone else would find and enjoy them, or at least throw out the box.

I at least consider myself lucky that I didn't throw up or soil my pants in a sudden and debilitating bout of diarrhea. Like some other people I know.

But that's another story.

1. Schweiger, L., Scully, D., Young, A., Erving, J., & House, G. (2009) The continuing epidemic of starvation in the U.S. JAMA, 286, 1195-1200.

2. And unintentionally taunting me with their tales of receiving trail magic. Like when Nature's friend Bronco brought them sodas at the Ensign Cowall Shelter. See? I never forget. Those bastards.

Chapter 82: The State Parklands of Caledonia

For the second day in a row, we would be hiking through a state park. This time, it was Caledonia State Park, where my Thru-Hiker's Handbook promised us "rest rooms, swimming pool, [and] trail magic." That said, my Handbook also promised potable water and camping, but then prevaricated on that last point by saying, "Notice! No overnight camping permitted along A.T. inside park." So was there camping or not? It wasn't exactly clear, and I feared my Handbook couldn't be trusted. I would worry increasingly about our chances for trail magic along the way.

Still, morale was high when Merf and I arrived, just before lunchtime. It was a blisteringly hot but brilliant and cloudless June day, and the ten miles we had hiked from the Tumbling Run Shelters that morning had been altogether pleasant and easy. As our planned afternoon was even less strenuous, we decided to relax, even taking the time to soak our feet in the river. I ducked off for a moment to fill up our canteens, and dunked my head underneath the spigot, letting the cool water trickle down my back, sending shivering sparks up and down my spine. And yet... Nothing.

There was hardly anybody else there.

Nobody came by to offer us snacks or sodas. The swimming pool was empty, not yet open for the summer. The concession stands were closed and boarded up. There were no dings from active cash registers or tinkling tunes from roving ice cream trucks. We were, for all intents and purposes, alone. Abandoned, exiled, invisible, divorced from the world and the rest of kind, caring, empathetic humanity.

Well, except for the entire elementary school apparently there for an end-of-year picnic. Seemingly hundreds of screaming, running, singing, ecstatic kids only tenuously contained by a tempting, threatening, cajoling, pleading, clearly desperate faculty. But they had lunch lines! Buffet tables with platters of macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, tater tots, and little cartons of chocolate milk. The air was filled with playful shrieks and the sweet, sticky, slightly nauseating aroma of the cafeteria. And all of a sudden I was transported back in time, and was six years old again, and surrounded by laughing strangers, with nowhere to sit and no one to talk to. And now, with no one to share their food with me.

And then Merf was wrenching me out of it, dragging me forward, back to the trail, to seclusion and safety. It was impossible to stay angry around her. Like Bandito, she had that infectious spirit, this eternal and contagious sunny optimism. I think, however, that the school picnic somehow reminded her of home. Perhaps of working with kids at a sumer camp, or of some long-ago but never forgotten time of innocence, hope, and infinite possibility. She knew the words to all their songs, and sang along wistfully as we walked through their midst, and actually seemed somewhat tempted to stay behind, to join in their revelry, and not just for the promise of snacks and chocolate milk. I knew then it was my turn to urge her along, to pull her back towards the trail, to reality, to the moment, to remind her of the clarity of our purpose.

And so—defeated, but not dispirited—we made our way to the Birch Run Shelter and regrouped with Ridley and Panther to prepare for the following day. When we would pass the official halfway point of the trail, and attend the opening of the Appalachian Trail Museum at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, our third state park—and opportunity for trail magic—in as many days. Considering this day's failures, I lowered my expectations accordingly. But we had at least one thing to look forward to, above all, perhaps more important than the 1089.6 mile marker:

The Half-Gallon Challenge.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Chapter 81: A Word on Rattlesnakes

At the Rattlesnake Roundup in Claxton, Georgia, the main attraction was the snake handler, whose primary responsibility seemed to have been to scare the living bejeezus out of everybody in attendance in a shameless attempt to sell snake-proof boots.

"Ooooeeeee," he said, lifting up a six-foot Eastern Diamondback with a pair of protracted grabbers. "Looka' this girl! Ain' she a mean one?"

And then he jostled the snake a bit to wake it up, prompting it to give the crowd a desultory hiss.

"I wouldn't wanna be caught out in the woods with 'er!"

And then he showed her around, cajoling an impressed murmur from his enraptured audience.

"If you get bit by a rattlesnake, an' you don't have my personal brand a' snake-proof boots—on sale o'er yonder for only $99.95—you are gonna die!"

"Or at least rack up fifty thousand dollars in hospital bills," he'd quickly clarify, but even this startling truth was lost in the turmoil of half his terrified audience rushing off at once to buy his life-saving boots.

"So, yes! Please, buy my boots! Now on sale—in the stall right behind ya, in between the kindly gentleman selling sawed-off shotguns and the deep fried Twinkie stand—for on'y $110.50, an absolute steal!"

"Buy my boots. Seriously. Or you're gonna die."

"Seriously. You're gonna die."

"I mean, purty please? I been snake handlin' for goin' on twenty-five years, an' its a bit like dancin' naked on Interstate Sixteen durin' a lightnin' storm. Nobody will insure me! I got bills to pay, gran' kids to feed an' put through high school. An' I really want to retire. Soon! So please?"

At which point he was carried off the stage sobbing by some strange men in black suits and cowboy hats.

The point being, twofold: rattlesnakes are dangerous, ooooeee! And I did not, in fact, buy his boots.


Waking up with your head a mere few inches1 from an angry rattlesnake is exciting. Sort of like the frantic fumblings in the dark of young lovers, searching and exploring with their hands, their tongues, and their imaginations. Ever curious and inquisitive, sticky and undignified, but pure, and intoxicating, and exhilarating all at once.2 It's also horrifying, and makes one wonder why they don't make snake-proof hats, or helmets. Or underpants, for that matter. What if that thing had slithered into your sleeping bag during the night? Unlikely, but still, what if?

Anyway, I wasn't particularly affected by this snake except for that I was woken up prematurely by its incessant—and surprisingly loud—rattle. Endangered in many states, rattlesnakes are beautiful, awesome creatures,3 as efficient as predators as they are cool and cruelly primal to behold. A shelter maintainer had told us the previous day that the rattlesnakes were protected by law in Pennsylvania, so depressed were their numbers. And they really are immensely important to the local ecosystem, seemingly effortlessly controlling the rodent population that can be so pernicious and troublesome on the trail.4 And the shelter maintainer told us a story.

A Boy Scout troop had been camping nearby when one of them discovered a rattlesnake that had apparently taken up residence underneath the shelter. Thrilled by the opportunity to put his Scouting knowledge to use, the boy had eagerly rounded up his companions to kill to marauding beast. Which is when the maintainer, alarmed, had stepped in, and said in an authoritative growl,

"We don't kill snakes around here. But we do kill Boy Scouts."

And apparently all the Scouts had shit their pants and ran away. The maintainer was a scary guy. Okay, so he wasn't. He was a sweetheart.

Still, I consider it a shame that more of the shelters—unlike the Tumbling Run Shelters, where all of this went down—didn't have rattlesnake alarm clocks. If only we could breed them and train them to only kill mice and to stay away from humans. Except for southbounders, slackpackers, and day hikers who don't give out trail magic. Them they can take.

1. Or feet, or yards.

2. Too graphic? Or not enough?

3. And of course, I say that only having not been bitten by one.

4. Mice in particular have a bad tendency of destroying or eating through hikers' equipment and bags to get at their food.5

5. Wait, was that factual and actually relevant information, and not just a cheap joke? Yes! Yes it was!6

6. Footnotes on footnotes. Nice.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Chapter 80: Pennsylvania

Every state along the Appalachian Trail has its own personality, quirks and peculiarities that are often a source of pride and reverence for the locals.

Georgia is where most sensible folk start off, and so therefore doesn't really have to be all that spectacular or challenging in order for people to feel good about it.1 North Carolina and Tennessee, of course, have the Smoky Mountains, but are also the second and third states one enters, which is exciting in and of itself. Virginia has the Grayson Highlands and Shenandoah National Park, but is also famous for having the longest section of trail of any state. West Virginia, on the other hand, is notable for having the shortest. Maryland surprises all by being relatively easy and gorgeous. And then there's Pennsylvania. And it sucks.

Pennsylvania has nothing. There is literally nothing good about Pennsylvania. And that's the entire state. And the people in charge of routing the trail through Pennsylvania knew that. Whoever they were—geologists, politicians, or, more likely, deranged sociopathic lunatics—they didn't want their state to pale in comparison to their rivaling neighbors. Unfortunately, they seem to have overcompensated for their homestate's drab mediocrity by making the trail there as aggressively unpleasant as possible.

The Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania apparently runs through one massive, continuous Superfund site that stretches from the Maryland to New Jersey borders. As an added bonus, the path itself is a mess of razor sharp rocks lined with toxic raspberries, venomous snakes, cannibalistic hillbillies, and ravenous bears. If hikers don't break their ankles, suffer food poisoning, get eaten, or get eaten, they might still be bored to tears, but usually consider themselves lucky.2

Knowing that was what I had to look forward to, I took an hour and a half lunch break at PenMar Park, a scenic area just south of the Mason-Dixon line. I was very relieved to have escaped the Ensign Cowall Shelter unscathed. The atmosphere inside the shelter had been so toxic from the chain smoking, grunting, snoring, rude, inconsiderate, scary, and generally evil southbounders that I had actually packed up my things and left to tent around midnight, startling some of the others. But I didn't care. Merf had backtracked to a hostel just off the trail to pick up a mail drop that morning. Now I was dragging my feet, hoping she'd catch up. And PenMark Park seemed like the place to do it.

A group of senior citizens was having an impromptu party and elaborate alfresco meal just beside the trail.

Never one to pass up an opportunity for Yogi-ing, I made a big show of collapsing on a nearby picnic table, dramatically doffed my pack, and then lay about wheezing and coughing and trying to look as sad, hungry, and helpless as possible. Of course, the kindly old folks could hardly help but notice me writhing around in front of them, whimpering and making puppy dog eyes. It wasn't long before someone asked me if I was thru-hiking. Yes, I responded, perhaps too enthusiastically. Then they asked me if I was hungry. Score.

Iced tea. Salad. Pasta Salad. Potato Salad. Egg Salad. Fruit Salad. Soda. Cake. Soda. They had it all. And they didn't want leftovers. I told them I was writing a book about my experiences.3They teased me for going to NYU and for being a liberal, and told me just how ineffectual President Obama was being in response to the then-ongoing oil spill disaster in the Gulf. After I had composed myself—their barbs had hurt me deeply, to the point that I had ran off to cry in the bathroom—I jokingly threatened to take away their Medicare and Medicaid checks, and they, realizing their own hypocrisy, begged my forgiveness. Then we all laughed about it and continued eating. Because if there's one thing that transcends age, gender, race, religion, and political affiliation, its shared enthusiasm for pasta salad.

I kept hoping that Merf would show up before the old people left, or before I ate all their remaining food, whichever came first. Tragically, she never made it. And, eventually, I had to give up the pretense of waiting for her and move along.

Southern Pennsylvania is actually quite beautiful, and contains some of the best maintained stretches of trail anywhere. The shelters were pristine and tidy. Even the privies were ridiculously nice and accommodating, coming pre-stocked with toilet paper, and with a paucity of grime, heinous smells, and scary dark corners filled with cobwebs and beady little insect eyes peering out at you while you did your business. Of all the ways to go out—and in Pennsylvania, there are many—being bitten by a Latrodectus while taking a dump in an outhouse in the woods is probably the least dignified.

It was drizzling by the time I arrived at the Tumbling Run Shelters. Yes, plural. There are two shelters there, one for "snoring," and the other for "non-snoring." I wasn't about to take my chances, and tented. Ridley and Panther were there. A younger guy named Dreamcatcher was there. I knew him from his registry entries, and also from his nice habit of making dreamcatchers from scratch and leaving them hanging in shelters. Merf arrived later with Cubbie and Dilly Dally, whom I disliked immediately for the sole reason that they started hiking the A.T. after me. I always resented people who were faster than I was. It would continue to be a problem until I finished.

We had a nice night there, at Tumbling Run. There were no obnoxious southbounders to ruin everything this time. Dreamcatcher and I built a fire. Or someone built a fire, I forget who. Maybe Cornpatch, if he was there. We all got to talking, and it was like old times. Even though I had just met half of them. Dreamcatcher was surprised to find out I was eight years older than him. He had just graduated high school. I was flattered to think I could still pass for a teenager even with my creepy porn-mustache.4

And then we all went to sleep, doing our best to ignore the angry rattlesnake that lived under the shelter.

1. For me, Georgia may not have been all that special, but it was first, and for that reason alone I will always look back on it with fondness. In that respect, it's sort of like my first girlfriend. Sure, she may have dumped me after a three days, but she taught me so much in that time about life and love. For example, if a woman ever approaches you and says, "Can I ask you a question?" the only proper response is to run away screaming with your fingers in your years. Okay, terrible analogy. That's why this is a footnote.

2. The worst aspect of Pennsylvania, however, is that it actually makes one look forward to New Jersey, the existential ramifications of which are too horrifying to contemplate.

3. Okay, technically that wasn't true at the time. I was thinking about writing a book, however, even if I wasn't actively writing it. Anyway, they made me promise to remember them well in my memoirs, if not actually cut them a percentage of my royalties. I dutifully wrote down the name of their group inside my Thru-Hiker's Handbook. The same Thru-Hiker's Handbook I would ultimately lose somewhere in New York state. Oops. Sorry, kind old people!

4. Note: not a picture. Just an alternate account verifying its existence. There is no photographic evidence that such a 'stache ever existed. That you know of. Even if such photos were to exist, I would have had them destroyed long ago.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Chapter 79: Out From Under

Returning to the trail, I was in terrible shape. I missed Megan something awful. I missed my friends. Sure, Ridley and Panther seemed nice enough, but I didn't particularly feel like imposing myself on their company. I had asked them about my other friends, the ones I'd left behind—Merf, Freeman, Jason, and Shorts—but hadn't truly held out hope that any of them would actually catch up with me. I found out from a note in a shelter log that Caboose and Spark were somehow ahead of me, but I didn't seriously expect that I would catch up to them, either. For now, I was alone.

The day passed in a depressive stupor. I somehow managed to avoid the nervous breakdowns that had plagued me the day before, and so spent a considerably shorter amount of time crying in the bushes. Still, I didn't feel especially motivated or productive. I realized with some consternation that I didn't really have anything to hike for. Without Megan to race to, or my friends to urge me on, I was adrift, directionless, without a purpose. For a moment, I seriously contemplated quitting. And if I hadn't just bought swanky new boots and a sleeping bag liner—and if my sister hadn't just sent me such a rich plethora of delicious food in my most recent mail drop—I very well might have.

Maryland was a beautiful state to walk through. A short one, too. It left you very little time to get a bad impression. Still, knowing the dreaded horrors of Pennsylvania awaited me the next day wasn't exactly reassuring, and may have only added to my growing ennui.

I gleaned little pleasure from visiting the original Washington Monument, the shoddy architecture of which seemed to imply our beloved first president wasn't a respectable, erudite warrior/philosopher but some kind of rough-hewn troglodyte. It rather resembled a sort of primitive lighthouse, albeit one inexplicably located some sixty-five miles from the nearest ocean. I was reminded strongly of the vaguely medieval watchtowers the devious, imperialist Brits constructed all along their coastlines to instantly warn their forces occupying Scotland and Ireland of potential invasions by courageous French liberators. All that was missing was a signal fire attended to by some snaggletoothed, tea-sipping prig. But I digress.

Sometime later I passed Hobbit, a northbound thru-hiker about my age who was attempting the Four State Challenge. He had started sometime earlier that morning on the West Virginia/Virginia border, and was trying to make it through to Pennsylvania in less than twenty-four hours. Having done my own challenge, I understood what he was going through, and wished him luck. Here was another person I could envision hiking and becoming friends with, yet he clearly had other priorities.

My sense of unease and lethargy continued as I arrived at the Ensign Cowall Shelter. Who was I, if I wasn't racing to meet Megan? Who was I, if I wasn't cracking jokes with my friends? I was a class clown without a class. I was an avant garde performance artist with no audience. I was Darth Vader without Luke Skywalker to fight against. I was suddenly lacking that core essential je ne sais quoi that defined me as a person, that gave my travels depth and meaning. I had suddenly turned into just another lonely little boy, lost and scared in the woods.

And then they came.

I don't remember their names, but I do remember their faces. The woman, not at all gaunt or haggard as one might expect, full of bluster, showing no ill-effects from the cancer she claimed was ravaging her body. Her brother, as quiet and seemingly harmless as she was brash and acerbic, instantly flitting about the shelter like a moth around a lightbulb, and equally annoying. Their dogs, whom they vowed were well-behaved and not at all likely to piss or defecate all over camp, my gear, or my dinner. And their wiry, dangerous companion, who tramped around flashing his toothless smile, flexing his tattoos, flinging a hatchet into nearby trees, flaunting the blowgun he carried and used as a walking stick. The same blowgun it was illegal for him to carry through any National Park, and with which he had apparently shot someone's pet rabbit in Duncannon, Pennsylvania.

Two questions immediately sprung to mind. Who exactly were these people? And why did they exist?

They were Southbounders. The first of many. And—apparently—for no good, earthly reason.

The woman would not shut up. Her toothless companion could not stop chain-smoking, or scaring the living bejeezus out of me. And her brother could not refrain from creeping me out. I desperately wanted not to be alone with them.

And then Ridley and Panther arrived. I never loved them more than in that moment. Apollo and Cornpatch arrived, two more northbounders to further alleviate the pressure I felt building inside me. And then, most spectacularly of all, Merf!

She looked and seemed much the same as when I left her, and was in typically good spirits, despite having done twenty five miles that day. We quickly caught up, and she filled me in on the various goings on that I had missed, stuff that had been happening behind me. It truly was fascinating, to hear tell of at least some of the carnage I'd left in my wake. It was certainly an ego boost, but it also felt fantastic to reconnect with her again, some eight hundred miles later. I had missed her. I was happy to see her.

And just like that, I was back with friends. And I had a purpose. Although they may not be as admirable as love, resentment and hatred can be just as powerful as motivating factors. And as every hero needs a villain, I had found mine at last. Or, more precisely, a new one. Southbounders.

Evil, dirty Southbounders who thought they knew everything and did everything backwards. It would be a glorious crusade. And somewhat pathetic. And would somewhat sour what should have been a pristine, uplifting experience. But it was all I had, at that moment. It would be enough.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Chapter 78: The Return of the Major Chafage

"Hi," I said. "I'm Major Chafage."

"Oh, we've heard of you," said the man. I noticed a disturbing tone of amusement in his voice. I didn't like it.

"Uh oh. Is that bad?"

"No! We've just been reading all your registry entries," explained the woman.

I nodded. I understood.

"You've been upsetting a lot of people," laughed the man.

"Oh, stop," I warned. "You know that's only going to feed my ego, thus reinforcing my bad behavior."

"I mean, please, go on," I continued.

"I thought you'd be taller," said the woman, looking me over.

"Or shorter," added the man.

"Or older. Or younger. And with less..." She trailed off, at a loss for words.

"Ratty facial hair?" suggested the man.


"So basically I'm completely not what you expected, in some vaguely inarticulate way?"

They shrugged.

"Well, I'm sorry to disappoint, or not conform to your preconceptions," I offered, hesitant. It was truly a surreal experience, hearing myself talked about in such a way. Not that I didn't enjoy it.

"So what do you do, in the real world?" asked the man, unpacking.

This was a very common question. "Nothing. I'm independently wealthy. Although I do some modeling from time to time. Freelance work. Mostly underwear. No, actually. I'm a writer. Which means I'm unemployed. What do you do?"

"Well, I work for the ASPCA," said the woman. "Euthanizing kittens."

"And I'm a sleeper agent for Al-Qaeda," said the man. "But don't tell anyone."

"Do you want to shoot up some heroin?" asked the woman, retrieving a needle from her pack.

"No thanks," I said, startled. "I gave it up. Last week."

"Oh, well, don't mind us," she said.

"By the way, you might want to tent. We're planning on having raucous jungle sex later in the shelter," said the man.

"I'm a screamer," nodded the woman. "I love screaming."

"She really does," agreed the man. And then they started kissing. Open-mouthed. With lots of tongue. It was grotesque.

And that's how I met Ripley and Jaguar, the notorious serial killers, insurance lobbyists and Bush Pioneers who would later be arrested by the FBI for libel, sedition, arson, and rape. And whom—despite their striking physical resemblances—should definitely not be confused with Ridley and Panther, two extremely lovely people whom I met at the Crampton Gap Shelter. They're completely different people.

And I'm back.