However, I know that—at some point—the song will end, and the carousel will slow to a halt, and all those contented little kids will have to shuffle off, disappointed. Some will selfishly cling to their seats to take another spin, but they will see their friends replaced by strangers, and then the tune will change, and the world they have grown to love will seem foreign and terrifying. The few self-aware souls amongst them will look back and see the endless line of eager children waiting to displace them. But not me. Never me. I will have given up and wandered off, without a hope of ever getting on.
Caveman was gone. Merf was hiking with her friend Dietrich—whom I had dubbed Blitz earlier that morning, due to his unflagging speed and seemingly limitless energy—leaving me to continue on my own, alone with my thoughts. Which was fine by me; I found no comfort in company.
Nor, unfortunately, solace in solitude. The twist and creak of branches bending in the wind, the quiet rustle of leaves, the snap of twigs underfoot, and the incessant cheerful chirping of nearby birds thus became just the ironic soundtrack to my melancholy. My floating reverie.
I passed the Traveling Circus at a road crossing. They were in a typically cheerful mood, waiting for one of their compatriots to pick them up for the short ride back into civilization. I numbly mumbled a half-hearted goodbye, and then shuffled off, dispirited, towards the Eckville Shelter.
Little more than a glorified garage, the Eckville Shelter was just a couple hundred yards up the road, behind the first house on the right. The caretaker's house. A figure of much speculation and foreboding, the caretaker appeared at first only in fleeting glances, peering out suspiciously from behind a drawn window curtain. He would later emerge suddenly to growl at us filthy, marauding hikers to "clean up" and to "get [our crap] off [his] lawn." I didn't know whether to fear, respect, or pity the old man.
That said, I had heard from a (presumably unreliable) south-bounder that the caretaker took kindly to hikers who helped out around the shelter, and that I might even get a popsicle or something if I swept. Naturally, I had hardly dropped my pack inside before asking someone for the broom. Five minutes later, the caretaker came out to reward me with an ice-cold Pepsi. Five minutes after that, he returned with half a watermelon for the rest of us to share. Maybe he wasn't such a bad guy after all.
I ended up sleeping in a chair, leaving the last two available bunks for Merf and Blitz. The other bunks were already occupied, by an assortment of older, more sensitive and physically fragile hikers. Like the Syke Brothers, who were hiking to raise money for charity. For some reason, they reminded me strongly of Redwing and Lil Dipper. Except for that they were very much older, lewd, comically profane, almost completely unintelligible, male, and considerably less attractive. Maybe it was because they were British.
The next morning I hiked off alone once again.
I took frequent breaks in the day that followed, the better to allow Merf and Blitz time and opportunity to catch up with me. It was Blitz's last day on the trail. His girlfriend was coming to pick him up, and was bringing a picnic lunch with her to celebrate the occasion. That was something I didn't want to miss. Did I deserve it? Hadn't I been a good friend, helping Merf and Blitz get through some very difficult and demanding terrain? Or was I just being a mooch? I'm not sure. I don't really care.
Still, Blit'z girlfriend was very nice, as was the assortment of surprisingly (and perhaps disappointingly) healthy snacks she brought with her. None of which did anything to lessen the depressive funk I could feel myself slipping into. Perhaps I envied Blitz? His journey was over; he was going home, retreating into the warmth and comfort of his loved one's arms. Whereas, I was still out in the woods, with nearly a thousand miles still left to go. I definitely envied Blitz.
It hardly seems possible that Merf and I made it into Palmerton, Pennsylvania that day. Somehow, despite stopping for our trail magic snack and to say goodbye to Blitz, we made it twenty five miles, then hitched into town before sunset. I never would have made it without Merf. Unfortunately, I doubt she can say the same of me.
We managed to hitch a ride into town within five minutes. I say we, but Merf really had everything to do with that. A solitary male hitchhiker can be imposing, even scary. As a couple? People probably just assumed we were married, and therefore found us unthreatening. Whatever. I didn't question it.
We were staying the night in the Palmerton Jail. A former jail that was now just a hiker hostel and sometime hang-out for the local Boy Scout troops. Checking in did involve undergoing a background check at the local police station, though. I wouldn't recommend staying there if you have any outstanding warrants. Or maybe even unpaid parking tickets.
Everyone showed up. Little Brown. The entire Traveling Circus, drunk. A mysterious and tragically misguided southbound section hiker. I showered, soaked my feet in Epsom salts, ate my dinner in relative silence, and tried not to let my aggravations get the better of me. People gradually left to go to a nearby hotel bar, or turned in for the night, and things quieted down.
We were two days from the Delaware Water Gap, and the New Jersey border. All that remained between us and that goal was the absolute worst section of trail anywhere. I slept like a baby. Which is to say, fitfully, often waking with the urge to cry and/or urinate myself. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.