Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chapter 97: A Shortcut to Ice Cream

I could not sleep. Mosquitos kept biting me through the thin muslin cloth of my liner. The heat of the night was oppressive, as were the dull snores of my fellow hikers. Sometime in the early A.M., I gave in and put up my tent, where I found it much easier to get comfortable.

Yet I still awoke a mere four or five hours later, in excruciating pain. Rest is normally the best cure for achy muscles, as it allows the acids and toxins that build up during times of physical stress to naturally flush away. Getting a good night's sleep might have really helped in that regard. It was almost imperative. But it was not to be. Too bad.

There would be no rest for the weary. I had an ambitious 24-mile day planned, one that would leave me only five more difficult days short of home. Fortunately, the terrain was mostly flat, with the trail meandering across swamps, past lakes, and through farmers' fields.

What do I remember, besides the omnipresent pain? Besides the slowly enveloping despair and hopelessness. I had been in such a hurry to make it to Harpers Ferry, and to the Delaware Water Gap; the thought of seeing Megan again had lightened my burden—made the weight seem to float off my back—lifted my spirits, and carried me through. Now I was marching away from her, and even the faint allure of home was ebbing. I knew I wouldn't be returning to a party, despite the rapidly approaching July 4th holiday. My dad was about to have surgery. Whether that went well or not, it would be a somber, subdued house, and lonely.

I do remember baking in the blazing sun; and the brilliant, cloudless sky. The shimmer of heat coming off the blacktop at any of the numerous road crossings I made that day. The first appearance of the dreaded and nasty deer fly, a blood-sucking parasite whose bite carries the unexpected punch of a bee sting. The constant grumble of my stomach, as I continuously lurched forward afraid of or unwilling to touch any of the noxious food I carried with me.

My body rebelled against the punishment my brain forced it to endure. My brain rebelled against the degradation of my body. I was at war with myself, and I was losing.

I was sitting besides a road, struggling to swallow down a few meager morsels, when Sonic emerged from the woods in front of me. He was—at least—six foot five, with a scraggly beard and perpetually sweat-soaked Danny Fortson jersey. I'd met Sonic before at some point, not that I could place where in my stupor. He stopped to chat for a bit, and we ended up hiking on together.

It helped to have someone to hike with, even if I had to take three steps for every two of his. He appeared to bound across the landscape as though weightless, jumping from rock to rock, his pack—and the laws of physics—seemingly an afterthought. Yet I somehow kept up as we skirted the edge of a huge, inexplicably placed reservoir. And when Sonic told me there was a farm store where we could buy ice cream just off of NJ94, some seven miles away, I practically started running. It was all he could do to keep up with me.

We followed a raised walkway for about a mile on either side of the surprisingly elaborate suspension bridge over Pochuck Creek. Visions of tubs of Black Raspberry ice cream and hot fudge swirled in my head as I scrambled across a last railroad embankment and saw the road in front of me. We arrived at Heaven Hill Farm about ten minutes before they were due to close, but they dutifully saw that we got our ice cream.

Miraculously, they had Black Raspberry, and something called Maine Blueberry that piqued my interest. I knew it wasn't blueberry season yet, and that the ice cream could therefore hardly be called fresh or all-natural, but I didn't care. It was everything I had been dreaming about, and more. The two of us sat outside in the dust and the sun for nearly twenty minutes as we finished up our cones. I had stupidly failed to buy anything to drink, but made do with some ice cold water from a nearby spigot.

It was almost dinnertime before we set out towards the shelter, which was just over five miles away, which included an eight hundred foot ascent. Sonic got ahead of me in the flat sections, but I caught up to and then passed him as the trail began to climb through a boulder field. And then he caught up with me again—after the trail flattened out at the height of land—as I was singing "Hey Jude" or "Let it Be" at the top of my lungs.

"What was that you were screaming?" he might've asked.

"It's called 'singing' and the Beatles," I shouted, defensively.

"Oh, I thought you were in pain or something," mumbled the clearly tone-deaf Sonic, confused.

We made it to the Wawayanda Shelter together, and in silence. The shelter was packed, but for every hiker there were about six dozen mosquitos. I angrily tossed up my tent and dove inside without bothering to eat a meal or socialize. From all the high-pitched buzzing outside, I could have been at a Formula One race. I felt like a helpless Londoner during the Battle of Britain, listening in the dark for the shrill scream of the attacking enemy, and for the far-off yelps of their unfortunate victims.

And with that delirious mixture of metaphors dancing in my brain, I drifted off to sleep, repeatedly reassuring myself—or just hoping, really—that tomorrow would be better than today...

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