Tuesday, April 19, 2011

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.

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