See Blue, who’d gotten ahead of us the day before we’d found Pilgrim and Sug at the Dutch Haus, had been able to hike big miles through Shenandoah and Northern Virginia without us to slow his long legs down, but had spent a couple of days off in Harper’s Ferry with his girlfriend, Roxy.
“You just missed her.” He told us in his gravelly voice over dinner that night. He sighed deeply, his blue eyes focused on something beyond my head. “I’m glad you girls are here, I don’t know how much longer I’d make it by myself.”
I caught E’s eye and she raised an eyebrow. See Blue often talked idly about leaving the trail if it got too hard to be away from Roxy, but I never saw it as a real possibility. I chalked his melancholy up to having just said goodbye, remembering how Kevin’s visit had thrown me off for a few days, too. At some point, I’d stopped thinking about leaving as an option, even though in the first month of the trail I’d fantasized constantly of quitting. I was out of shape, constantly in pain, and mentally and physically spent in a way that I didn’t know was possible. Home, laying on the couch with Kevin, was a comfortable place I’d often let my mind wander to as I cursed the trail and struggled to catch my breath; truly believing, every time, that I couldn’t take one more step. But over the last few weeks, even though I was still constantly exhausted, frequently bored, and popping Ibprofen in massive quantities to mask the hurt, I’d noticed that my daydreams were less about home and more about life after finishing the trail. I assumed it would be the same for See Blue once we got back in the woods.
It was 3:30pm before we set out the next day, and it didn’t take long to see that See Blue wasn’t the only one struggling. Even with the new knee brace, E was having a hard time walking. The first several miles out of Harpers Ferry, including the only two miles of the A.T. in West Virginia, are completely flat before the trail rises gradually in Maryland. So even with E’s hobbling, we got to the first shelter quickly and I almost suggested we kept moving until I caught the visible relief on E’s face as she took her pack off and sat down. I’d worn the same expression countless times myself, when I’d kept it together just long enough to get through the day and the notion of going any further would have shattered me. It turned out we had stopped in the exact right place, because a half hour after us, Just Ducky, Soft Serve, and Snake walked in and set down their packs on the picnic bench. Immediately, Just Ducky noticed E’s knee brace, telling her he was a physical therapist, and got right to business diagnosing her problem (patellar tendonitis).
“This brace you bought is useless.” he proclaimed, and proceeded to MacGyver a proper brace out of the one she got at the outfitter and a piece of the water tubing from her camelback; hand sewing the neoprene around the tube into a band that would sit right below her knee and apply pressure onto the patellar tendon.
“It’s a miracle!” E hugged Just Ducky after she’d taken a few steps with it on.
Just Ducky shook his head, laughing at her enthusiasm. “No, but it should help with the pain some. I assume taking a break is out of the question?”
E looked at me and I said “we can do whatever you need,” knowing there was no way either of us would really consider stopping long enough to heal her injury.
The next day the six of us set out walking together and by mid-day were bombarded by more hikers than we’d ever seen at once going the opposite direction.
“It’s the Maryland Challenge,” one of them told us. These hikers were attempting to go through Maryland on the A.T. from the Pennsylvania border to the West Virginia border, 42 miles, in one day. The trail in this section is mostly flat and smooth, making such big mileage feasible. Snake came up with a game where we had to greet each hiker differently (“hello”, “howdy”, “how’s it hanging”, “’sup?”) and if you repeated yourself, you were out. Even See Blue, who usually hiked out of our sight during the day, played along.
Kristy and Eric, two hikers we hadn’t seen since outside of Damascus, caught up to us at lunch and told us they’d seen Mike and Ben in Harper’s Ferry, but that they were taking the day off to meet up with Ben’s family. I was happy to think that since they were just a day behind, we’d probably hike with Mike again. It bothered me that we hadn’t really said goodbye after spending so much of our early days together. And I was interested to meet Ben. Pilgrim had made him sound like a great guy, had told me Ben was planning to move to Chicago with his girlfriend after the trail, so I thought we might have a lot in common. I started leaving Mike and Ben messages in the journals at each shelter we stopped at, knowing that the first thing most hikers do when they get to a shelter is to read the register. I’d tell Mike to hurry up and joke to Ben that we were going to be “best friends”, eventually shortening his name to BFB- Best Friend Ben.
By late afternoon, our group had spread out, making plans to meet at a biker bar called the Dog Patch that was right off the trail. E and I walked together. I noticed that her gait was easy, and I hoped that the new brace really was a miracle cure. We hiked down the mountain and crossed a bridge over I-70 (a bridge every time I drive under in the years since, I honk and wave, even if no one is on it). Still with only one working Walkman between us, E listened to Lauryn Hill’s Ex-Factor and sang along, and I listened to E and sang with her. We reached the turn-off for the bar and found See Blue sitting on a rock, smoking a cigarette, tears streaming down his face.
“What’s wro…” I started, before realizing that he was shaking, not from grief, but laughter.
“I could hear you all the way down the hill.” He managed, in between fits. “Jesus Christ, you’re the worst fucking singers I’ve ever heard. I thought someone was dying!”
E and I tried to look hurt. See Blue stood up, still laughing, put a lanky arm around each of us, and together we walked to the bar.
To be continued…