We sat in the shelter on the morning of April 25th looking at the trail guides, trying to figure out our mileage for the day. The four of us, but mostly Pilgrim and E, who Sug and I deferred to when it came to mileage planning, decided to do 24 miles with a stop for dinner at mile 20 at Big Meadows- a lodge and restaurant in the national park. I felt really strong as we set out that morning. Pilgrim and I hiked ahead of E and Sug, E complaining that her knee was bothering her a little bit, something that was happening more and more frequently despite E’s insistence that nothing was seriously wrong. When E’s sister Cara had thru-hiked she’d developed a stress fracture on the top of her foot about halfway through her hike. She’d visited a doctor who told her to stay off it for a couple of weeks, then she’d laced up her boots a little tighter and kept hiking despite the pain. I couldn’t imagine E stopping for anything less. It made me think twice when I felt like complaining about my blisters that would never heal.
After a stop for lunch, the four of us set off together. I confessed to the group that sometimes when I hiked by myself I would think about what I would say in a submission tape for the Real World.
“They should do a Real World: AT.” Said Pilgrim.
I laughed. “Can you imagine anything more boring? So…they’re still walking…”
“Whatever. We’re fascinating.”
“Yeah, but we go whole days without talking to each other except at meals.” Sug pointed out.
“And I doubt anyone is as interested in poop as we are.” I said.
“Speaking off…” E said and motioned to me that she was going to take a pit stop.
Pilgrim, Sug and I walked on, hammering out the logistics of Real World: AT (“They’d have to get some super fit camera men.”). In the middle of our discussion on whether we would make more of an effort to clean ourselves if cameras were on us all the time, we came across a man with a huge walking stick, hiking in blue jeans. We chatted with him for a few minutes, discovering that he had thru-hiked years earlier. I looked over my shoulder several times, thinking E should have caught up with us by then.
“Hey, if you see a girl with red hair coming this way, will you tell her we’ll meet her at Big Meadows?” I asked the blue jeaned hiker, knowing that we weren’t far from our dinner stop and figuring she would catch up there.
Within 30 minutes we had reached Big Meadows, a complex consisting of several buildings with a bar, gift shop, restaurant and hotel rooms all in the beautiful old main lodge building. All three of us headed straight for the bank of pay phones that were located inside the building near the Tap Room. I spent twenty minutes talking to Kevin, and then went to look for E, thinking she was probably in the gift shop. I ran into Pilgrim walking back into the lodge.
“Where’s E?” He asked.
“What do you mean? I just got off the phone, you haven’t seen her?”
“No, I’m worried. She should have been here a long time ago.”
I could hear the panic in Pilgrim’s voice and I knew he was right, she shouldn’t have been more than five minutes behind us, but I wasn’t worried. E has a horrible sense of direction. Almost every time we’d come up a path from a shelter, she’d head the wrong way down the trail and I would just wait silently until she’d realize that I wasn’t behind her, then she’d yell “fuck!” and turn around. I figured that she had taken a wrong turn or ended up in the wrong building. Pilgrim said he and Sug would look around while I talked to the people in the lodge about where else she could have gone. A woman at the gift store told me that there was another store about a mile away that E could have gone to if she’d veered off the AT onto one of the many side trails that run through the park. I was feeling pretty confident that this was what happened and asked the woman to call down to the other store and ask them to look around for a red headed thru-hiker.
“Sorry, honey.” The woman said, as she hung up the phone.
“Wait? She’s not there?” I stammered and the woman shook her head apologetically, “Okay. Thank you for checking.”
I walked outside to look for the boys and a light rain started to fall. A small knot formed in my chest, worried for the first time. I didn’t really believe that anything bad had happened, still thinking that E was lost, but I knew now that we would need to go back out to look for her. It had been over an hour since we’d seen her. Pilgrim and Sug found me, having had no luck, and we hashed out a plan. Sug and I would backtrack up the trail, and Pilgrim would stay at the lodge in case E turned up there.
Pilgrim couldn’t contain his worry, “Be careful, you guys, it’s starting to get dark.”
“I’m sure she’s fine.” I reassured him, zipping up my raincoat. I felt a flash of annoyance, picturing E stubbornly walking the wrong way without me behind to redirect her.
Just then, a car stopped in front of us, and E popped out of the passenger seat carrying a six-pack of beer missing two and a gift shop bag full of half-eaten candy. The driver, an older man in a fleece jacket, opened the trunk and pulled out her pack and hiking sticks, setting them on the sidewalk. He gave E a quick wave and drove off.
“What. The. Fuck. Dude.” I yelled, feeling a mixture of relief and anger.
“Dude. You don’t even know.” She said, a smile on her face but giving me a look that shut me down immediately.
I walked over and hugged her, while Pilgrim and Sug gathered her stuff and ushered us inside. And then the story came pouring out. E had stopped to pee on the side of the trail, “and I guess I passed out, because the next thing I knew, this mother and son duo wearing matching American flag track suits were standing over me, shaking me, asking, ‘HONEY, HONEY, WHERE ARE YOU GOING?’ in like, a crazy southern accent and I thought I was hallucinating, but she kept saying “Where are you going?” and I was just like ‘I’M GOING TO MAINE!’, and that was the point when I realized I was lying on the fucking trail with my fucking pants around my ankles.”
E hadn’t known, but the site where her insulin pump connected to her body had been disconnected all day, meaning she had received no insulin, sending her blood sugar sky-rocketing. On top of that, she was super dehydrated, having run out of water earlier in the day but not wanting to take the time for a refill. When she squatted, those conditions combined to overwhelm her system and she’d passed out “MID FUCKING PEE!” “Team USA Hiking”, as E referred to them, had helped her to a road crossing and pointed her in the direction of a store, E thinking it was the one where we were supposed to meet. E had sat on the side of the road, given herself some insulin, drank some water, and then brushed herself off and walked down the road to the store.
“We called down there!” I exclaimed, not quite knowing what else to say.
“I don’t know, dude, I must have been on the phone or something. I thought I was waiting on you guys, since I walked down the road. I was just hanging out, eating Doritos and Twizzlers, drinking beer. When I came back in after using the phone, they told me you’d called down and that guy gave me a ride up here.”
When we finally stopped laughing (each time we’d stop, someone would yell “I’m going to Maine!” and we’d fall out all over again), Sug looked at E and said, “Jesus. Let’s get a drink.” He led us all towards the Tap Room.
We had just ordered food and were well on our way to getting drunk, when it finally hit me.
“You could have died!” I blurted.
“I know.” E said quietly. She broke into a big smile and raised her glass, “To Team USA Hiking!”
“Team USA Hiking!” We echoed. I smiled back at E. She was so incredibly tough that most of the time I forgot that she was diabetic, but I promised myself right then that I would never let her get behind me again.
“So…” E said with a wink, “We don’t really have to hike any more today, do we?”