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.