فصل 19

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فصل 19

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  • زمان مطالعه 38 دقیقه
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دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»

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I’ve had a brilliant idea,” said Stephen Katz. We were in the living room of my house in Hanover. It was two weeks later. We were leaving for Maine in the morning.

“Oh yeah?” I said, trying not to sound too wary, for ideas are not Katz’s strongest suit.

“You know how awful it is carrying a full pack?”

I nodded. Of course I did.

“Well, I was thinking about it the other day. In fact I’ve been thinking about it a lot because to tell you the truth, Bryson, the idea of putting that pack on again filled me with”–he lowered his voice a tone–“fucking dread.” He nodded with solemnity and repeated the two key words. “And then I had a great idea. An alternative. Close your eyes.”

“What for?”

“I want to surprise you.”

I hate having to close my eyes for a surprise, always have, but I did it.

I could hear him rooting in his army surplus duffel bag. “ ‘Who carries a lot of weight all the time?’ “ he continued. “That was the question I asked myself. ‘Who carries a lot of weight day in and day out?’ Hey, don’t look yet. And then it occurred to me.” He was silent a moment, as if making some crucial adjustment that would assure a perfect impression. “OK, now you can look.”

I uncovered my eyes. Katz, beaming immoderately, was wearing a Des Moines Register newspaper delivery bag–the kind of bright yellow pouch that paperboys traditionally sling over their shoulders before climbing on their bikes and riding off to do their rounds.

“You can’t be serious,” I said quietly.

“Never been more serious in my life, my old mountain friend. I brought you one too.”

He handed me one from his duffel bag, still pristinely folded and in a transparent wrapper.

“Stephen, you can’t walk across the Maine wilderness with a newspaper delivery bag.”

“Why not? It’s comfortable, it’s capacious, it’s waterproof–near enough–and it weighs all of about four ounces. It is the Perfect Hiking Accessory. Let me ask you this. When was the last time you saw a paperboy with a hernia?” He gave a small, smug nod, as if he had stumped me with that one.

I made some tentative, preparatory shapes with my mouth prior to saying something, but Katz raced on before I could get a thought in order.

“Now here’s the plan,” he continued. “We cut our load down to the bare minimum–no stoves, no gas bottles, no noodles, no coffee, no tents, no stuff sacks, no sleeping bags.

We hike and camp like mountain men. Did Daniel Boone have a three-season fiberfillsleeping bag? I don’t think so. All we take is cold food, water bottles, maybe one change of clothes. I figure we can get the load down to five pounds. And”–he waggled his hand delightedly in the empty newspaper bag–“we put it all in here.” His expression begged me to drape him with plaudits.

“Have you given any thought to how ridiculous you would look?”

“Yup. Don’t care.”

“Have you considered what a source of uncontained mirth you would be to every person you met between here and Katahdin?”

“Don’t give the tiniest shit.”

“Well, has it occurred to you what a ranger would say if he found you setting off into the Hundred Mile Wilderness with a newspaper delivery bag? Do you know they have the power to detain anyone they think is not mentally or physically fit?” This was actually a lie, but it brought a promising hint of frown to his brow. “Also, has it occurred to you that maybe the reason paperboys don’t get hernias is that they only carry the bag for an hour or so a day–that maybe it might not be so comfortable lugging it for ten hours at a stretch over mountains–that maybe it would bang endlessly against your legs and rub your shoulders raw? Look how it’s chafing against your neck already.”

His eyes slid stealthily down to the strap. The one positive thing about Katz and his notions was that it was never very hard to talk him out of them. He took the bag off over his head. “OK,” he agreed, “screw the bags. But we pack light.”

I was happy with that. In fact, it seemed a perfectly sensible proposal. We packed more than Katz wanted–I insisted on sleeping bags, warm clothes, and our tents on the grounds that this could be a good deal more demanding than Katz appreciated–but I agreed to leave behind the stove, gas bottles, and pots and pans. We would eat cold stuff–principally Snickers, raisins, and an indestructible type of salami product called Slim Jims. It wouldn’t kill us for a fortnight. Besides, I couldn’t face another bowl of noodles.

Altogether we saved perhaps five pounds of weight each–hardly anything really–but Katz seemed disproportionately happy. It wasn’t often he got his way, even in part.

And so the next day, my wife drove us deep into the boundless woods of northern Maine for our trek through the Hundred Mile Wilderness. Maine is deceptive. It is the twelfth smallest state, but it has more uninhabited forest–ten million acres–than any other state but Alaska. In photographs it looks serene and beckoning, parklike even, with hundreds of cool, deep lakes and hazy, tranquil miles of undulating mountains. Only Katahdin, with its rocky upper slopes and startling muscularity, offers anything that looks faintly intimidating. In fact, it is all hard.

The trail maintainers in Maine have a certain hale devotion to seeking out the rockiest climbs and most forbidding slopes, and of these Maine has a breathtaking plenitude. In its 283 miles, the Appalachian Trail in Maine presents the northbound hiker with almost 100,000 feet of climb, the equivalent of three Everests. And at the heart of it all lies the famous Hundred Mile Wilderness– 99.7 miles of boreal forest trail without a store, house, telephone, or paved road, running from the village of Monson to a public campground at Abol Bridge, a few miles below Katahdin. It is the remotest section of the entire AT. If something goes wrong in the Hundred Mile Wilderness, you are on your own. You could die of an infected blood blister out there.It takes a week to ten days for most people to cross this notorious expanse. Because we had two weeks, we had my wife drop us at Caratunk, a remote community on the Kennebec River, thirty-eight miles short of Monson and the official start of the wilderness.

We would have three days of limbering up and a chance to resupply at Monson before plunging irreversibly into the deepest woods. I had already done a little hiking to the west around Rangeley and Flagstaff Lakes, in the week before Katz came, as a kind of reconnoiter, so I felt as if I knew the terrain. Even so, it was a shock.

It was the first time in almost four months that I had hoisted a pack with a full load. I couldn’t believe the weight, couldn’t believe that there had ever been a time when I could believe the weight. The strain was immediate and discouraging. But at least I had been hiking. Katz, it was quickly evident, was starting from square one–actually, several score pancake breakfasts to the wrong side of square one. From Caratunk it was a long, gently upward haul of five miles to a big lake called Pleasant Pond, hardly taxing at all, but I noticed right away that he was moving with incredible deliberativeness, breathing very hard, and wearing a kind of shocked “Where am I?” expression. All he would utter was “Man!” in an amazed tone when I asked him how he was, and a single heartfelt “Fuhhhhhhhhck”-breathy and protracted, like the noise of a plumped cushion when someone sits on it–when he let his pack fall from his back at the first rest stop after fortyfive minutes. It was a muggy afternoon and Katz was a river of sweat. He took a water bottle and downed nearly half of it. Then he looked at me with quietly desperate eyes, put his pack back on, and wordlessly returned to his duty.

Pleasant Pond was a vacation spot–we could hear the happy shrieks of children splashing and swimming perhaps a hundred yards away–though we couldn’t see anything of the lake through the trees. Indeed without their gaiety we wouldn’t have known it was there, a sobering reminder of how suffocating the woods can be. Beyond rose Middle Mountain, just 2,500 feet high but acutely angled and an entirely different experience on a hot day with a cumbersome pack sagging down on tender shoulders. I plodded joylessly on to the top of the mountain. Katz was soon far behind and moving with shuffling slowness.

It was after six o’clock when I reached the base of the mountain on the other side and found a decent campsite beside a grassy, little-used logging road at a place called Baker Stream. I waited a few minutes for Katz, then put up my tent. When he still hadn’t come after twenty minutes, I went looking for him. He was almost an hour behind me when I finally found him, and his expression was glassy-eyed.

I took his pack from him and sighed at the not entirely unexpected discovery that it was light.

“What’s happened to your pack?”

“Aw, I threw some stuff,” he said unhappily.

“What?”

“Oh, clothes and stuff.” He seemed uncertain whether to be ashamed or belligerent. He decided to try belligerence. “That stupid sweater for one thing.” We had disputed mildly over the need for woolens.

“But it could get cold. It’s very changeable in the mountains.”

“Yeah, right. It’s August, Bryson. I don’t know if you noticed.”There didn’t seem much point in trying to reason with him. When we reached the camp and he was putting up his tent I looked into his pack. He had thrown away nearly all his spare clothes and, it appeared, a good deal of the food.

“Where’s the peanuts?” I said. “Where’s all your Slim Jims?”

“We didn’t need all that shit. It’s only three days to Monson.”

“Most of that food was for the Hundred Mile Wilderness, Stephen. We don’t know what kind of supplies there’ll be in Monson.”

“Oh.” He looked struck and contrite. “I thought it was a lot for three days.”

I looked despairingly in the pack and then looked around. “Where’s your other water bottle?”

He looked at me sheepishly. “I threw it.”

“You threw a water bottle?” This was truly staggering. If there is one thing you need on the trail in August, it is lots of water.

“It was heavy.”

“Of course it’s heavy. Water’s always heavy. But it is also kind of vital, wouldn’t you say?”

He gave me a helpless look. “I just had to get rid of some weight. I was desperate.”

“No, you were stupid.”

“Yeah, that too,” he agreed.

“Stephen, I wish you wouldn’t do these things.”

“I know,” he said and looked sincerely repentant.

While he finished putting up his tent, I went off to filter water for the morning. Baker Stream was really a river–broad, clear, and shallow–and very beautiful in the glow of a summery evening, with a backdrop of overhanging trees and the last rays of sunlight sparkling its surface. As I knelt by the water, I became curiously aware of somethingsome thing–in the woods beyond my left shoulder, which caused me to straighten up and peer through the clutter of foliage at the water’s edge. Goodness knows what impelled me to look because I couldn’t have heard anything over the musical tumult of water, but there about fifteen feet away in the dusky undergrowth, staring at me with a baleful expression, was a moose–full grown and female, or so I presumed since it had no antlers.

It had evidently been on its way to the water for a drink when it was brought up short by my presence and now clearly was undecided what to do next.

It is an extraordinary experience to find yourself face-to-face in the woods with a wild animal that is very much larger than you. You know these things are out there, of course, but you never expect at any particular moment to encounter one, certainly not up closeand this one was close enough that I could see the haze of flealike insects floating in circles about its head. We stared at each other for a good minute, neither of us sure what to do. There was a certain obvious and gratifying tang of adventure in this, but also something much more low-key and elemental–a kind of respectful mutual acknowledgment that comes with sustained eye contact. It was this that was unexpectedly thrilling–the sense that there was in some small measure a salute in our cautious mutual appraisal. I was smitten.

I had recently read to my dismay that they have started hunting moose again in New England. Goodness knows why anyone would want to shoot an animal as harmless and retiring as the moose, but thousands of people do–so many, in fact, that states now holdlotteries to decide who gets a permit. Maine in 1996 received 82,000 applications for just 1,500 permits. Over 12,000 out-of-staters happily parted with a nonrefundable $20 just to be allowed to take part in the draw.

Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old. That’s all there is to it. Without doubt, the moose is the most improbable, endearingly hopeless creature ever to live in the wilds.

Every bit of it–its spindly legs, its chronically puzzled expression, its comical oven-mitt antlers–looks like some droll evolutionary joke. It is wondrously ungainly: it runs as if its legs have never been introduced to each other. Above all, what distinguishes the moose is its almost boundless lack of intelligence. If you are driving down a highway and a moose steps from the woods ahead of you, he will stare at you for a long minute (moose are notoriously shortsighted), then abruptly try to run away from you, legs flailing in eight directions at once. Never mind that there are several thousand square miles of forest on either side of the highway. The moose does not think of this. Clueless as to what exactly is going on, he runs halfway to New Brunswick before his peculiar gait inadvertently steers him back into the woods, where he immediately stops and takes on a startled expression that says, “Hey– woods. Now how the heck did I get here?” Moose are so monumentally muddle-headed, in fact, that when they hear a car or truck approaching they will often bolt out of the woods and onto the highway in the curious hope that this will bring them to safety.

Amazingly, given the moose’s lack of cunning and peculiarly blunted survival instincts, it is one of the longest-surviving creatures in North America. Mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, wolves, caribou, wild horses, and even camels all once thrived in eastern North America alongside the moose but gradually stumbled into extinction, while the moose just plodded on. It hasn’t always been so. At the turn of this century, it was estimated that there were no more than a dozen moose in New Hampshire and probably none at all in Vermont. Today New Hampshire has an estimated 5,000 moose, Vermont 1,000, and Maine anywhere up to 30,000. It is because of these robust and growing numbers that hunting has been reintroduced as a way of keeping them from getting out of hand. There are, however, two problems with this that I can think of. First, the numbers are really just guesses. Moose clearly don’t line up for censuses. Some naturalists think the population may have been overstated by as much as 20 percent, which means that the moose aren’t being so much culled as slaughtered. No less pertinent is that there is just something deeply and unquestionably wrong about killing an animal that is so sweetly and dopily unassuming as a moose. I could have slain this one with a slingshot, with a rock or stickwith a folded newspaper, I’d almost bet– and all it wanted was a drink of water. You might as well hunt cows.

Stealthily, so as not to alarm it, I crept off to get Katz. When we returned, the moose had advanced to the water and was drinking about twenty-five feet upstream. “Wow,”

Katz breathed. He was thrilled, too, I was pleased to note. The moose looked up at us, decided we meant her no harm, and went back to drinking. We watched her for perhaps five minutes, but the mosquitoes were chewing us up, so we withdrew and returned to our camp feeling considerably elated. It seemed a confirmation–we were in the wilderness now–and a gratifying, totally commensurate reward for a day of hard toil.We ate a dinner of Slim Jims, raisins, and Snickers and retired to our tents to escape the endless assault of mosquitoes. As we lay there, Katz said, quite brightly, “Hard day today. I’m beat.” It was unlike him to be chatty at tent time.

I grunted in agreement.

“I’d forgotten how hard it is.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

“First days are always hard, though, aren’t they?”

“Yeah.”

He gave a settling-down sigh and yawned melodiously. “It’ll be better tomorrow,” he said, still yawning. By this he meant, I supposed, that he wouldn’t fling anything foolish away. “Well, good night,” he added.

I stared in surprise at the wall of my tent in the direction from which his voice had come. In all the weeks of camping together, it was the first time he had wished me a good night.

“Good night,” I said.

I rolled over on my side. He was right, of course. First days are always bad. Tomorrow would be better. We were both asleep in minutes.

Well, we were both wrong. The next day started well enough, with a sunny dawn that promised another hot day. It was the first time along the trail that we had woken to warmth, and we enjoyed the novelty of it. We packed up our tents, breakfasted on raisins and Snickers, and set off into the deep woods. By nine o’clock the sun was already high and blazing. Even on hot days, the woods are normally cool, but here the air was heavy and steamy, almost tropical. About two hours after setting off, we came to a lagoon, about two acres in size, I would guess, and filled with papery reeds, fallen trees, and the bleached torsos of dead trees that were still standing. Dragonflies danced across the surface. Beyond, waiting, rose a titanic heap called Moxie Bald Mountain. But what was of immediate note was that the trail ended, abruptly and disconcertingly, at the water’s edge. Katz and I looked at each other– something wrong here surely. For the first time since Georgia, we wondered if we had lost the trail. (God knows what Chicken John would have made of it.) We retraced our steps a considerable distance, perplexedly studied our map and trail guide, tried to find an alternative way around the pond through the dense and lacerating undergrowth, and finally concluded that we were intended to ford it. On the far shore, perhaps eighty yards away, Katz spied a continuation of trail and a white AT blaze. Clearly we had to wade across.

Katz led the way, barefoot and in boxer shorts, using a long stick like a punting pole to try to pick his way across on a jumble of submerged or half submerged logs. I followed in a similar manner but staying far enough back that I didn’t put my weight on logs he was using. They were covered in a slick moss and tended to bob or rotate alarmingly when stepped on. Twice he nearly toppled over. Finally, about twenty-five yards out, he lost it altogether and plunged with wheeling arms and an unhappy wail into the murky water.

He went completely under, came up, went under again, and came up flailing and floundering with such wildness that for a few sincerely mortifying moments I thought he was drowning. The weight of his pack was clearly dragging him backwards and keeping him from gaining an upright position or even successfully keeping his head above water. I was about to drop my pack and plunge in to help when he managed to catch hold of a logand pull himself to a standing position. The water was up to his chest. He clung to the log and heaved visibly with the effort of catching his breath and calming himself down. He had obviously had a fright.

“You all right?” I said.

“Oh, peachy,” he replied. “Just peachy. I don’t know why they couldn’t have put some crocodiles in here and made a real adventure of it.”

I crept on, and an instant later I tumbled in, too. I had a few surreal, slow-motion moments of observing the world from the unusual perspective of waterline or just below while my hand reached helplessly for a log that was just beyond my grasp–all this in a curious bubbly silence–before Katz sloshed to my assistance, firmly grabbed my shirt, and thrust me back into a world of light and noise and set me on my feet. He was surprisingly strong.

“Thank you,” I gasped.

“Don’t mention it.”

We waded heavily to the far shore, taking it in turns to stumble and help each other up, and sloshed up on to the muddy bank trailing strands of half-rotted vegetation and draining huge volumes of water from our packs. We dumped our loads and sat on the ground, bedraggled and spent, and stared at the lagoon as if it had just played a terrible practical joke on us. I could not remember feeling this tired this early in the day anywhere along the trail. As we sat there, we heard voices, and two young hikers, hippieish and very fit, emerged from the woods behind us. They nodded hellos and looked appraisingly at the water.

“Afraid you gotta wade this one,” Katz said.

One of the hikers looked at him in a not unkindly way. “This your first time hiking up here?” he said.

We nodded.

“Well, I don’t want to discourage you, but mister you’ve only just started to get wet.”

With that he and his partner hoisted their packs above their heads, wished us luck, and walked into the water. They waded skillfully across in perhaps thirty seconds–Katz and I had taken as many minutes–and stepped out on the other side, as if from a foot bath, put their dry packs back on, gave a small wave, and disappeared.

Katz took a big thoughtful breath–partly sigh, partly just experimenting with the ability to breathe again. “Bryson, I’m not trying to be negative–I swear to God I’m not–but I’m not sure I’m cut out for this. Could you lift your pack over your head like that?”

“No.”

And on that premonitory note, we strapped up and set squelchily off up Moxie Bald Mountain.

The Appalachian Trail is the hardest thing I have ever done, and the Maine portion was the hardest part of the Appalachian Trail, and by a factor I couldn’t begin to compute.

Partly it was the heat. Maine, that most moderate of states, was having a killer heat wave. In the blistering sun, the shadeless granite pavements of Moxie Bald radiated an ovenlike heat, but even in the woods the air was oppressive and close, as if the trees and foliage were breathing on us with a hot, vegetative breath. We sweated helplessly, copiously, and drank unusual quantities of water, but could never stop being thirsty.

Water was sometimes plentiful but more often nonexistent for long stretches so that wewere never sure how much we could prudently swallow without leaving ourselves short later on. Even fully stocked, we were short now thanks to Katz’s dumping a bottle. Finally, there were the relentless insects, the unsettling sense of isolation, and the ever-taxing terrain.

Katz responded to this in a way that I had never seen from him. He showed a kind of fixated resolve, as if the only way to deal with this problem was to bull through it and get it over with.

The next morning we came very early to the first of several rivers we would have to ford. It was called Bald Mountain Stream, but in fact it was a river–broad, lively, strewn with boulders. It was exceedingly fetching–it glittered with dancing spangles in the early morning sun and was gorgeously clear–but the current seemed strong and there was no telling from the shore how deep it might be in the middle. Several large streams in the area, my Appalachian Trail Guide to Maine noted blithely, “can be difficult or dangerous to cross in high water.” I decided not to share this with Katz. We took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our pants, and stepped gingerly out into the frigid water. The stones on the bottom were all shapes and sizes–flat, egg-shaped, domed–very hard on the feet, and covered with a filmy green slime that was ludicrously slippery. I hadn’t gone three steps when my feet skated and I fell painfully on my ass. I struggled halfway to my feet but slipped and fell again; struggled up, staggered sideways a yard or two, and pitched helplessly forward, breaking my fall with my hands and ending up in the water doggie style. As I landed, my pack slid forward and my boots, tied to its frame by their laces, were hurled into a kind of contained orbit; they came around the side of the pack in a long, rather pretty trajectory, and came to a halt against my head, then plunked into the water, where they dangled in the current. As I crouched there, breathing evenly and telling myself that one day this would be a memory, two young guys–clones almost of the two we had seen the day before– strode past with confident, splashing steps, packs above their heads.

“Fall down?” said one brightly.

“No, I just wanted a closer look at the water.” You moronic fit twit.

I went back to the riverbank, pulled on my soaked boots, and discovered that it was infinitely easier crossing with them on. I got a tolerable grip and the rocks didn’t hurt as they had on my bare feet. I crossed cautiously, alarmed at the force of the current in the center–each time I lifted a leg the current tried to reposition it downstream, as if it belonged to a gateleg table–but the water was never more than about three feet deep, and I reached the other side without falling.

Katz, meantime, had discovered a way across using boulders as stepping stones but ended up stranded on the edge of a noisy torrent of what looked like deep water. He stood there covered with frowns. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how he had gotten up there–his boulder seemed isolated in an expanse of dangerously streaming water from all sides, and clearly he didn’t know what, to do now. He tried to ease himself into the silvery current and wade the last ten yards to shore but was instantly whisked away like a feather. For the second time in two days I sincerely thought he was drowning-he was certainly helpless– but the current carried him to a shallow bar of gleaming pebbles twenty feet farther on, where he came up sputtering on his hands and knees,struggled up on to the bank, and continued on into the woods without a backward glance, as if this were the most normal thing in the world.

And so we pressed on to Monson, over hard trail and more rivers, collecting bruises and scratches and insect bites that turned our backs into relief maps. On the third day, forest-dazed and grubby, we stepped on to a sunny road, the first since Caratunk, and followed it on a hot ambulation into the forgotten hamlet of Monson. Near the center of town was an old clapboard house with a painted wooden cutout of a bearded hiker standing on the lawn bearing the message “Welcome at Shaw’s.”

Shaw’s is the most famous guesthouse on the AT, partly because it’s the last comfort stop for anyone going into the Hundred Mile Wilderness and the first for anyone coming out, but also because it’s very friendly and a good deal. For $28 each we got a room, dinner and breakfast, and free use of the shower, laundry, and guest lounge. The place was run by Keith and Pat Shaw, who started the business more or less by accident twenty years ago when Keith brought home a hungry hiker off the trail and the hiker passed on the word of how well he had been treated. Just a few weeks earlier, Keith told me proudly as we signed in, they had registered their 20,000th hiker.

We had an hour till dinner. Katz borrowed $5–for pop, I presumed–and vanished to his room. I had a shower, put a load of wash in the machine, and wandered out to the front lawn, where there were a couple of Adirondack chairs on which I intended to park my weary butt, smoke my pipe and savor the blissful ease of late afternoon and the pleasant anticipation of a dinner earned. From a screened window nearby came the sounds of sizzling food and the clatter of pans. It smelled good, whatever it was.

After a minute, Keith came out and sat with me. He was an old guy, comfortably into his sixties, with almost no teeth and a body that looked as if it had put up with all kinds of tough stuff in its day. He was real friendly.

“You didn’t try to pet the dog, did ya?” he said.

“No.” I had seen it out the window: an ugly, vicious mongrel that was tied up out back and got stupidly and disproportionately worked up by any noise or movement within a hundred yards.

“You don’t wanna try to pet the dog. Take it from me: you do not wanna pet that dog.

Some hiker petted him last week when I told him not to and it bit him in the balls.”

“Really?”

He nodded. “Wouldn’t let go neither. You shoulda heard that feller wail.”

“Really?”

“Had to hit the damn dog with a rake to get him to let go. Meanest damn dog I ever seen in my life. You don’t wanna get near him, believe me.”

“How was the hiker?”

“Well, it didn’t exactly make his day, I tell you that.” He scratched his neck contemplatively, as if he were thinking of having a shave one of these days. “Thru-hiker, he was. Come all the way from Georgia. Long way to come to get your balls nipped.”

Then he went off to check on dinner.

Dinner was at a big dining room table that was generously covered in platters of meat, bowls of mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, a teetering plate of bread, and a tub of butter. Katz arrived a few moments after me, looking freshly showered and very happy.He seemed unusually, almost exaggeratedly, energized, and gave me an impetuous tickle from behind as he passed, which was out of character.

“You all right?” I said.

“Never been better, my old mountain companion, never been better.”

We were joined by two others, a sweetly hesitant and wholesome-looking young couple, both tanned and fit and also very clean. Katz and I welcomed them with smiles and started to pitch in, then paused and put back the bowls when we realized the couple were mumbling grace. This seemed to go on forever. Then we pitched in again.

The food was terrific. Keith acted as waiter and was most insistent that we eat plenty.

“Dog’ll eat it if you don’t,” he said. I was happy to let the dog starve.

The young couple were thru-hikers, from Indiana. They had started at Springer on the 28th of March–a date that seemed impossibly snow-flecked and distant now in the full heat of an August evening–and had hiked continuously for 141 days. They had completed 2,045.5 miles. They had 114.9 miles to go.

“So you’ve nearly done it, huh?” I said, a trifle inanely but just trying to make conversation.

“Yes,” said the girl. She said it slowly, as two syllables, as if it hadn’t previously occurred to her. There was something serenely mindless in her manner.

“Did you ever feel like giving up?”

The girl thought for a moment. “No,” she said simply.

“Really?” I found this amazing. “Did you never think, ‘Jeez> this is too much. I don’t know that I want to go through with this’?”

She thought again, with an air of encroaching panic. These were obviously questions that had never penetrated her skull.

Her partner came to her rescue. “We had a couple of low moments in the early phases,” he said, “but we put our faith in the Lord and His will prevailed.”

“Praise Jesus,” whispered the girl, almost inaudibly.

“Ah,” I said, and made a mental note to lock my door when I went to bed.

“And God bless Allah for the mashed potatoes!” said Katz happily and reached for the bowl for the third time.

After dinner, Katz and I strolled to a general store up the road to get supplies for the Hundred Mile Wilderness, which we would start in the morning. He seemed odd in the grocery store–cheerful enough, but distracted and restless. We were supposed to be stocking up for ten days in the wilds–a fairly serious business– but he seemed unwilling to focus, and kept wandering off or picking up inappropriate things like chili sauce and can openers.

“Hey, let’s get a six-pack,” he said suddenly, in a party voice.

“Come on, Stephen, get serious,” I said. I was looking at cheeses.

“I am serious.”

“Do you want cheddar or Colby?”

“Whatever.” He wandered off to the beer cooler and came back carrying a six-pack of Budweiser.

“Hey, whaddaya say to a six-pack, bud–a six-pack of Bud, bud?” He nudged me in the ribs to emphasize the joke.I pulled away from the nudge in distraction. “Come on, Stephen, stop dicking around.”

I had moved on to the candy bars and cookies and was trying to figure out what might last us ten days without melting into a disgusting ooze or bouncing into a bag of crumbs.

“Do you want Snickers or do you want to try something different?” I asked.

“I want Budweiser.” He grinned, then, seeing this had passed me by, adopted a sudden, solemn, jokeless tone. “Please, Bryson, can I borrow”–he looked at the price”four dollars and seventy-nine cents? I’m broke.”

“Stephen, I don’t know what’s come over you. Put the beer back. Anyway, what happened to that five dollars I gave you?”

“Spent it.”

“What on?” And then it occurred to me. “You’ve been drinking already, haven’t you?”

“No,” he said robustly, as if dismissing a preposterous and possibly slanderous allegation.

But he was drunk–or at least half drunk. “You have,” I said in amazement.

He sighed and rolled his eyes slightly. “Two quarts of Michelob. Big deal.”

“You’ve been drinking.” I was appalled. “When did you start drinking again?”

“In Des Moines. Just a little. You know, a couple of beers after work. Nothing to get in a panic about.”

“Stephen, you know you can’t drink.”

He didn’t want to hear this. He looked like a fourteen-year-old who had just been told to clean his room. “I don’t need a lecture, Bryson.”

“I’m not going to buy you beer,” I said evenly.

He grinned as if I were being unaccountably priggish. “Just a six-pack. Come on.”

“No!”

I was furious, livid–more furious than I had been about anything in years. I couldn’t believe he was drinking again. It seemed such a deep, foolish betrayal of everything–of himself, me, what we were doing out here.

Katz was still wearing half a grin, but it didn’t belong to his emotions any longer. “So you’re not going to buy me a couple of lousy beers after all I’ve done for you?”

This seemed a low blow. “No.”

“Then fuck you,” he said and turned on his heel and walked out.

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