Sunday, February 10, 2013

Chapter 146: The Final Present Tense

The days have long ago begun to bleed together.

The landmarks mentioned in my Handbook no longer bear any significance; they are merely items to be checked off a list, the last obstacles to be overcome on our long trek to Katahdin.

I read "East Branch of Pleasant River (1210') ford" and instead of thinking, "Ooh, water! Gosh, I want juice" before sobbing uncontrollably for twenty minutes, all I can see is that I have 67.5 miles left, and that I might have to get my feet wet.

"Little Boardman Mountain (1980') left 100 yards to summit" says to me that I've got 64.3 miles to go, and that I definitely won't be getting to see any rewarding views, nor gleaning any real sense of accomplishment, because there's no way, at this point, that I am going to hike that extra tenth.

"Crawford Pond (1270') sand beach." My stalwart companions. My friends. My backup singers. My partners in crime. The angels, and devils, on my shoulders. Storytellers. Jokesters. Only 62 miles to go, then we part ways forever.

"Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to (880') sleeps 6 (1956) swimming." I thought about staying there, once, before my sister's plans changed. She has to get to White House Landing early tomorrow to get a shuttle to Millinocket, where my parents are picking her up. Duty—or, more accurately, gainful employment—beckons. So we press on. 59.7 miles.

"Jo-Mary Road (655') Cooper Brook" isn't even a road, more a disheveled dirt path. Meanwhile, who's Jo-Mary? Why does she have a road named after her? And what kind of name is Jo-Mary anyway? People from Maine are weird. 56 miles.

"Antlers Campsite (500') right 300 feet, vistas." Another possibility, passed up like so much day-old garbage. In this case, I'm at least tempted to take a look, if only for the opportunity drop my pack for a while, its stays creaking with my every step, straining beneath the weight of so much dried sweat, humiliation, and uncooked oatmeal. Plus, is that a picnic table? But no, we have to press on to the Potaywadjo Spring Lean-to, leaving us with only a short, less than three mile hike into White House Landing in the morning. 51.8 miles.

"Potaywadjo Spring Lean-to (710') sleeps 8 (1995)" sounds groovy. And new! I wonder if that means it'll have running water and air conditioning. Or at least more than three walls and a fire pit. Nope. 48.3 miles to go.

"Wadleigh Stream Lean-to (685') sleeps 6," at 38.2 miles out, is where we'll stay tomorrow, after Tricia catches her ride at White House Landing, and we fill up on half-pound burgers or whatever. Beyond that, we've got the Hurd Brook Lean-to (18.6 miles), then either "The Birches" Campsite (5.2 miles) or Millinocket, and then Katahdin itself (0 miles)... And then what? Food? Sleep? Finally listening to that "Alejandro" song Fredo keeps raving about?

Tonight, I will dream of drinking a cold glass of lemonade, of an endless series of rocks and roots and trees and bugs buzzing around annoyingly, of the Peaches being trampled to death during the night by a herd of rampaging moose, and of Katahdin.

Even after all this time, the dream is still as vivid: I take the final step onto the tableland, and the summit unfolds before me. There's the sign marking the northern terminus of the Trail, and the end of my journey, and there she is beside it, waiting for me. Waiting for me with a box of pizza, a bottle of birch beer, and a smile. Ready to welcome me home.

Back in reality, I linger by the fire, staring at my Handbook, my journal, and clutching my secret treasure: a few ounces of precious metal, crystalized carbon, and aluminum oxide. A family heirloom, brought to me by my sister. How will the dream end? In fireworks? A hero's homecoming? Wrapping her in my arms. Crying, probably. And eating that damn pizza...

Friday, February 8, 2013

Chapter 145: Murder by Marshmallows

We sat atop White Cap Mountain, eating lunch and wondering just where in the heck was that supposed view of Katahdin that was promised us in the guidebook. Buckeye and Fredo had rejoined the party, and we all sat several yards away from an astonishingly large group of day hikers, so as to not disturb them with our by-now heinous standards of personal hygiene. We also tried to keep our voices to a minimum, so our normal mid-day conversation regarding our respective bowel movements wouldn't ruin their meal.

Unfortunately, our attempts to keep our true natures hidden proved futile, as a father and son duo learned to their ultimate detriment, as they overheard Buckeye brazenly offering to perform depraved sex acts on Fredo in exchange for something ridiculously inconsequential, like a spare Pop Tart.

We soon found ourselves alone atop the mountain, which wasn't bad at all. Buckeye politely reminded us that he had hiked out several pounds of S'more fixings for us, and cautioned that if we didn't help him eat them that night he was going to murder us all in our sleep. Yes, we were to feast that night on sumptuous chocolate, crispy graham crackers and toasted marshmallows, but on one condition: the Georgia Peaches would not be getting any.

Fredo was the most vociferous in his objections to the hypothetical inclusion of the Peaches. He seemed to be taking their continued existence in the world as a personal affront, as a challenge to his emotional and psychological well-being. I understood, and we all agreed to move on posthaste lest the lecherous blood-suckers catch up. Before we began our descent, we serendipitously happened upon the side trail to the viewpoint of Katahdin, clearly marked as it was with a freshly painted sign. We checked it out. Katahdin looked like a cloud. It was cloudy. We moved on.

The hike down to the East Branch Lean-to was so exhausting and fraught with danger that I must have blacked out from the stress. I remember nothing about it. Perhaps there were rocks, and maybe some trees. Anyway, it was nearly dark by the time we arrived, and there were already several older women there, a bunch of alumni thru-hikers enjoying a reunion tour of sorts. A pleasant bunch, they were of course overjoyed to see us and cheerfully cleared room for us in the shelter.

Considering a single marshmallow weighs approximately 5.66990463 grams, two pounds of marshmallows is a lot. Even for a through hiker on a 5,000 calorie diet, eating more than eight s'mores is probably pushing it. Needless to say, after stuffing ourselves sick, we found ourselves in the unenviable position of having extra. Extra marshmallows, extra chocolate, extra everything. It was all just too much. We offered s'mores to our newfound companions, but found few takers. We had already eaten too much, and were growing increasingly fearful that any left overs would undoubtedly end up in the gaping maws of our sworn enemies. Those girls were still out there, somewhere, lurking.

"Oh my God! Hey guys!" came a voice over my shoulder.

"I am so hungry!" said Sodium Chloride or Calypso, sitting down next to the fire. "I would literally do anything for some food right now."

"She's not kidding," contributed the other, disrobing. "When she says anything, she means anything! And by anything I mean sexual favors."

"And by sexual favors, she means--"

Buckeye had heard enough. "Would you like some s'mores?" he asked, cutting them off, barely able to contain his anticipatory glee.

At that point, Fredo, Hot Sauce and I decided to turn in, anything to avoid the gross spectacle that followed. Buckeye eventually worked out a deal with the girls in which he would provide them with food in exchange for absolutely nothing.

And it would be days yet, still, until we were rid of them.

Chapter 144: Only The Names Have Been Changed (To Protect The Guilty)

The sun rose, the birds came out, and I awoke to the not-so-distant sounds of the river. And the rather pressing need to urinate. Emerging groggily from my tent, I noted with some relief that both Fredo and my sister were, blessedly, still alive, their heads not caved in by some crazed man's tragically emptied cook-pot. Although Matterhorn had evidently managed to slake his insatiable European bloodlust, at least for the moment, I remained convinced he would seek vengeance for his destroyed dinner at some point, and made a mental note not to be caught alone with him in the future.

Buckeye caught up to us later that morning, before we had yet broken camp. He might have missed us had we not called him over, such was the awesomeness and subtlety of our stealth site. Evidently relieved to see us, Buckeye greeted us with his usual brand of profanity-laced exuberance. It had been almost a week since we had left him in Stratton, and he'd been chasing us ever since. It seemed that, for some reason, he had expected us to do leisurely twelve to fifteen mile days. Probably because we had told him as much, before parting ways. Unfortunately, in his absence we had decided to push harder, and had increased our pace some fifty percent. Buckeye had thus been forced to do multiple thirty-mile days just to catch up, a seemingly superhuman effort at this point of our journey. Of course, he had also been hiking so quickly so as to avoid our collective slack-packing nemesis, the notorious tour hiker Loud Mouth.

Fredo seized the opportunity to fill Buckeye in on our own week's misadventures, which had apparently involved me "stealing" several pounds of candy and trail mix from a group of unsuspecting trail maintainers, brazenly ruining another thru-hiker's dinner, and then definitively making up for all of that—and my myriad other crimes—by writing an all-encompasing mea culpa in the Bald Mountain Lean-to log, the contents of which I won't repeat here. Fredo also warned Buckeye about the Georgia Peaches. We assumed we had left them behind the day before, but Buckeye claimed not to have met them, and it was better not to take a chance...

Swift-flowing but seemingly shallow, the Pleasant River beckoned to us. Departing early with my sister, I made the seemingly prudent, time-saving decision to ford the river without first removing my boots. Ten seconds later, as I made a mad dash splashing through shin-high water, I realized I had probably made a mistake. Two minutes later, my soggy boots strapped uselessly on the outside of my pack, my feet ensconced uncomfortably in wet socks and my nearly-destroyed Tevas, we set off again into the entrancingly titled "Hermitage Preserve."

"The Hermitage" is an area of astonishing tranquility and unparalleled natural beauty that's also pretty much indistinguishable from everywhere else on the trail. However, unlike the rest of the trail, "The Hermitage" has one inviolable rule: absolutely no camping is permitted, anywhere, under any circumstances, by anyone, ever. Naturally, we almost immediately stumbled upon the Georgia Peaches, who had evidently camped right in the middle of the trail.

Damn them and their sinuous, seductive charms! How I hated them. Who could be so stupid as to attempt the Wilderness with only six packets of ramen and a handful of candy? With no tent, no cook pot, and no warm clothing. I honestly could not understand how they hadn't starved or frozen to death, or been hit by a meteorite, or mauled by rabid beavers, or otherwise struck down by a merciful God. How had they even made it this far? Neither I nor anyone else, to my knowledge, had ever even seen them actually walking; they were usually seen taking rest breaks, snacking, or while sun bathing, half-naked, on a boulder. A quick laugh, an intoxicating smile, an ingratiating politeness, feigned innocence, and an unconscionable, unforgivable amount of natural beauty, intelligence, and charisma appeared to have taken them a long way. But they weren't getting to me. Yet.

My sister, on the other hand, was far more easily deterred, and made the seemingly fatal mistake of stopping to talk with them. I stood there, impatient, wanting badly to move on for what seemed like half an hour. Probably because it was. We had left early with the sole purpose of getting a good head start, yet here we were, bogged down with Sodium Chloride and Calypso, or whatever their names were. They proceeded to ask my sister a series of at first innocent but then increasingly invasive questions.

"You're hiking with your brother? That's so sweet!" said Sodium Chloride, or the other one.

"I know," said my sister, Hot Sauce. "I'm awesome."

I hate everybody, I thought, glaring at them in what I hoped was an unsubtle way.

"Unfortunately, we've had to hike faster than either of us would like, because I have to get off-trail on the twenty third to go down to North Carolina to start work," explained my sister, unnecessarily. "Because I'm an outdoor educator."

"No kidding! I'm an outdoor educator too," exclaimed Calypso, maybe half-believably. "Where do you work?"

"At a company called Adventure Trek. It's a totally awesome company, sort of like Google only way better, and the compensation is highly lucrative. I'd strongly recommend working for them, or, failing that, being me." said my sister, helpfully.

"I was thinking that exact same thing!" cried Calypso. "Can I have your e-mail? Maybe we can meet up later, when we're both back in the South. Because you know we're from Georgia."

"Yes. We know," I said, trying to hurry things up. "Because you call yourself the Georgia Peaches."

The three girls shot me a hurt look, as if to say butt out, but in a really polite, passive-aggressive way.

"So, what's the name of your supervisor at Adventure Treks? Because I'd love to have a name or a reference I can call," Calypso asked, hastily combing her bangs to approximate my sister's appearance. "Also, what's your social security number? And do you have any relevant personal history I should be aware of?"

I want to die, I thought, over and over again. Then I remembered my purpose... That glorious sign—signaling the northern terminus of the Trail, that existed as yet only in my imagination—and maybe some other things, that could be waiting for me on top of Katahdin... It steeled my resolve, and I tore my sister out of there before the evil cousins had a chance to memorize her vocal inflections.

We were seventy two miles away. Just five more days. I had to make it.