Day Sevenish, in Which Flamingo Returns
Flamingo is back.
Though I’d never met him myself, I’d heard stories. Rumors. Legends.
Flamingo had been relegated to bed rest and meds after a strange back injury nearly paralyzed him. It happened the night before I’d joined Starfish et al., so my first day they were all still in a nervous flutter over whether he would even be able to continue the trail.
Fortunately, Flamingo recovered, fast. Then he caught up quicker. And today, he was flying.
Chasing the Flamingo
After yet another “late start” (7:15 a.m.) I managed to catch Flamingo near the top of the first hill, and spent the next five miles chasing him down the mountain. The trail was cut into the side of a steep, gravelly slope and caked with a solid half-foot of dry leaves; an errant step, a hidden rock or root, and either of us would be sent tumbling over a vertical half mile of sharp flint.
Flamingo stopped before the final climb to make a tortilla, and I, tortillaless, continued on to the ominous Dragon’s Tooth.
Navigating the Lair
Dragon’s Tooth was bitterly steep. Five miles out from the hostel, I ran out of water. And having learned nothing from my first trail crisis, I was out of snacks, too. So I choked down the only food I had left—a packet of dry instant oats. It was like gnawing on cinnamony bits of sand paper, but I needed the calories, bad.
Down from Dragon’s Tooth was slow moving, as the trail became more of a “directional suggestion,” as Classic says, over huge slanting slabs of sandy rock.
Strangers Telling Stranger Stories
Finally, at the road, I hitched a ride in the back of an old black pickup to the Catawba general store. My chauffeur, Derek, stuck around while I scarfed down three of the stores “Hunks O’ ‘Za,” and I was glad for the conversation and company.
We sat at a picnic table and talked about the trail and life and trail life, though our conversation was repeatedly politely interrupted by every single customer who walked by. Derek knew them all. They asked about his mom, his business (landscaping), his dog—and Derek answered courteously and asked of their own endeavors. It was a small-town cliche that rang too true.
One older, portly gentleman named Robert inquired as to Derek’s progress on building an in-ground pool. “Gimme a shout when you’ve got ‘er done, an’ I’ll break out my thong and come over for a dip. AH ah ah. I’ve really got one, y’know, ‘sgot hammerhead sharks on it too. I really do have that.”
“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t,” said Derek.
The Fightin’ Gorilla
Derek offered me a ride to the Four Pines Hostel, just up the road, but I had to decline. My friends were still making their way down the trail toward the store.
“Alright, one more story before I leave though. Now, this is some real backwoods shit. You remember that old guy that asked about the pool?” How could I forget?
Derek proceeded to tell me of the time when a younger Robert visited a traveling circus and decided to take a swing at the “Fightin’ Gorilla.”
“He was all whiskeyed up, they locked him in the ring, and he took one swing at that big gorilla’s nose. Socked him good, right on the cheek. Then he says the last thing he remembers is the gorilla’s face just turning plum mad, the meanest face he’d ever seen. Next thing he knows he’s waking up the next morning with half his teeth gone, lying in the bed of someone’s truck. And that there’s the story of when Robert fought the Fightin’ Gorilla.”
Delighted by the tale, I said another goodbye and a round of thank yous to Derek, who hopped in his truck and sped off, probably to finish the pool.
A few minutes later Robert walked out of the store, a six-pack of Budweiser cans hanging limp from his stubby index finger. He dropped the beers on the hood of his Jeep, pulled one off, popped the tab, and downed it in about four big gulps.
“Hahhhhhhh.” Robert said. He walked over and tossed the can in the trash can beside me. “If God made anything greater’n that he must’ve kept it to himself.” Then he too sped off down the road, probably to dig out and try on that old hammerhead garment.
I find it curious that the most memorable experiences of my hike thus far have all come while off trail. That’s not to say that my fellow hikers aren’t interesting—any pack of woods wanderers are bound to be a curious bunch themselves.
But I’ve driven past places like Pearisburg, Catawba, Bland, countless times over the years, and not once have they drawn my attention. Not once have I stopped and thought, “Damn, I bet the people there have some incredible stories to tell.” And yet they do. They absolutely do.
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