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.