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.