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.
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