Questioning Pride and Eating Zebra Cakes
With Sundance several yards ahead of me, and Tarzan trailing close behind me, we climbed up Brushy Mountain, reaching the 600 mile mark of the Appalachian Trail. At the mountain’s top we found our fellow goons huddled together with some other unfamiliar hikers, bearing smilies and packing up a glass pipe of marijuana to toast another milestone. Sweat dripped from my brow as they greeted us, and I offered a nod in response as I ambled over to a tree to post up against, sinking to the dirt covered earth below me. I felt mentally weary, contrary to how everyone else appeared before me. Still being our first day back on the hike since our weekend of revelry, these eleven miles had taken a toll on my disposition. It was early afternoon and I was already thinking about making camp. Muffin Man and Q tip were attempting to galvanize me and the other goons into hiking thirty miles, to which everyone appeared ambivalent, unwilling to commit to such an ambitious enterprise, yet unwilling to turn it down. You gotta be kidding me. I ran my fingers through my hair and noticed it’s ever growing length. At the beginning of the hike I harbored no more than a shaved head. Now I could firmly grip the hairs on my scalp.
“I don’t know guys, it’s our first day back,” I said, withdrawn from their ambitious attitude.
“What is he, scared?” Q tip said smiling as he threw on his pack, picking up his trekking poles to continue downhill.
I offered no response, but this snide remark embroiled me with rage. Memories of childhood bullies taunting me till I was in tears raced through my mind. The challenge of walking thirty miles ignited a fire in me as Q tip’s words echoed repeatedly in my thoughts. I looked down, trying to shake it off. He’s only trying to inspire me to push harder. Still, anger dominated my emotions. I couldn’t help but embrace his challenge. Though I offered Q tip no response, my anger fermented as I sat in silence. I will walk till my legs fold. I’ve never been one to back down or shy away from pain. I stood up, wiped more sweat from my eyes and continued on.
For the next several miles I remained in near silence, when spoken to I offered succinct responses, or sometimes said nothing at all. I was slowly committing myself to hiking as far as Q tip was. Thirty miles? So be it. The further I walked, the stronger I felt, even though I was being fueled by anger.
I don’t like myself when I’m like this.
Is this what I am? How strong of a grip do I have on my anger? Am I being manipulated by my own ego, or perhaps my pride? Just to prove something I already know. Can I walk that far? Do I really know for sure?
I stopped at Kimberling Creek to fill up my water bags, taking note of the spacious campsite to the west and the beautifully structured suspension bridge overtop the creek, which would take me further north. I contemplated my motives for continuing the day’s hike. I’ve come nineteen miles so far. However fatigued my body felt, I felt far more lively than I did atop Brushy Mountain, where my pride was challenged. Am I doing this because of pride? To prove something to Q tip? His words continued to echo in my mind and my anger was rekindled.
So am I doing this for him or for myself? If it’s for him than I’ve truly allowed his words to manipulate my actions. If it’s for me, does that mean my motivations for pushing myself are somehow more pure? At the end of the day, if I do all the miles I’m sure I’ll find satisfaction. But I’ll probably only be at peace if I know Q tip realizes I’m not one to back down. So really this whole thing comes down to protecting my pride. How shallow of me. How human of me.
I looked up to my right and saw Tarzan and Sundance making their way across the suspension bridge. I nodded at them and waved, to which they returned my acknowledgement. I drank the creek water through my filter and sat a few moments longer. My anger began to quell as my breathing slowed.
How useful is pride anyway? What makes it different from ego? It would be egotistic to think I could rise above the all too human tendency of defending my pride. Social defense mechanisms are what make me human. Reason and logic are my best tools for guiding my ego, so what’s the most reasonable thing to do here? It isn’t reasonable to be angry at Q tip, he’s my friend. I let his words fuel my actions, probably for the better, since it inspired me to hike further than I anticipated. I’m done being angry now. Peace comes with letting it go. I’m hiking for myself.
I made my way over to the suspension bridge, observing it’s wooden architecture more intimately now, feeling it sway subtly as I ambled across it.
“Turn back!” I heard the voice of Q tip call out with a laugh.
“To the campsite!” Muffin Man added.
I saw Sundance and Tarzan making their way southbound towards me, smiling now, with Q tip, Muffin Man, and Scarecrow following closely behind.
“What happened to the thirty miles?” I asked with my eyebrows raised. This time I was the one given no immediate response as they made their way towards me in a single file line, as the bridge was too narrow to allow any travelers to walk side by side. I turned, smiling in disbelief, as we made our way to the spacious campsite that lay on the southern side of the creek.
“We’re done for the day,” Muffin Man said as everyone made camp.
“After we set up camp we’re gonna walk over to Trent’s Grocery and grab a few things,” Q tip postulated another plan to me.
“How far is that?” I asked.
This time Scarecrow answered, “half mile up the road across the bridge.”
I nodded. For a moment I felt as though I had every reason to disagree on the decision to make camp, a prime opportunity to hold Q tip accountable for his challenge, but I laid that desire to rest. I would only end up looking like a pompous asshole at the end of it. Besides, the challenge to my pride was an unspoken rationalization I had made to myself in order to carry myself further up the trail. No one had known I silently harbored anger up until this point, and it now appeared that the much easier option was to simply let it go. The battle I waged was born from within, and now I chose to end it from within. On the surface my anger would look like anything but noble indignation. Spending time with my anger in silence allowed me to realize that.
With tents and hammocks set up and spaced out across the flat ground of the campsite, we all made our way back across the suspension bridge which led to a gravel rode, VA 606. Tent’s Grocery lay half a mile to the west. The rode was meandering and covered by foliage on both sides, hiding anything from view until we rounded the next bend.
I thought about what this place might look like. I did my best not to anticipate seeing a supermarket, knowing that I’d only end up disappointed. If they have Zebra Cakes I’ll be content. I had been having the strangest cravings, particularly anything that was Little Debbie. I hadn’t eaten a Zebra Cake in what had been over ten years, but for the past several weeks they captivated my hunger. We rounded the bend and there it was, a run down little gas station called Trent’s Grocery. It was sacred ground to hungry hikers. Our pace markedly quickened when it came into view, we almost broke into a jog. Backpacks and trekking poles lay outside the door, a sign that fellow hikers were on the inside. We walked in to find a modest supply of options, foods that cater to the needs of hikers: Pasta Sides, Ramen Noodles, peanut butter, and of course, Little Debbie’s. The other goons lined up at the counter reading the menu of hot sandwiches to select from as I paced up and down the aisles in search of Zebra Cakes. I wasn’t disappointed and I began to salivate as I loaded a box of the delicious treats into my basket, as well as a jar of Nutella and some packs of beef jerky. At the counter I ordered a bacon cheeseburger and cheese fries. As I waited at a table adjacent to the windows with my friends, I scarfed down half the box of Zebra Cakes between chugging a cup of coffee. Scarecrow watched in horror as I crammed the cakes down my gullet.
“You’re disgusting,” he said plainly.
I snorted with amusement, “Hey fuck you!” I exclaimed, washing down the cakes with coffee. People who don’t know us wouldn’t know that this type of exchange is entirely normal, and healthy, for Scarecrow and I. At the beginning of our friendship he accused me of being too literal, and unable to grasp his sarcasm. Which was true. I was too eager to defend myself initially. At this point in our friendship, however, I take no issue in telling him to fuck off. It’s a mere formality we share. One that breeds mutual respect.
A headache accompanied my stomach ache not long after scarfing down all the sugary sweets. Why do I do this to myself? I began to worry about my health. Diabetes will be unavoidable if I keep eating like this.
“Bacon Cheeseburger with Cheese Fries!” The woman at the counter called out as she walked my order over to me, setting it down on the table before me. It looked absolutely delectable. And loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol. What have I done?
As we all sat there gorging ourselves, I noticed Muffin Man smoking a cigarette outside while talking to some middle aged gentleman who goes by the trail name of V8. He also had a rusty old pickup truck to boot. I couldn’t make out what was being said between them, but as I reached for a napkin to wipe the ketchup off my beard I saw Muffin Man’s eyes light up. He threw his cigarette on the ground, stepped on it, and hurried back inside.
“V8’s gonna give us a ride back to the trail fellas, let’s go!”
No one stopped to ask how he had a truck, since he was ostensibly a hiker, nor did we question his sobriety before walking outside to meet him, graciously thanking him for the kind offer. We only knew that he was a friend of Muffin Man, someone whom he’d met in the chaos of Trail Days. Q tip climbed in the passenger seat, Sundance and I climbed in the back of the cab, while Muffin Man, Scarecrow, and Tarzan maneuvered around his hefty supply boxes in the bed of his truck, barely finding a place to comfortably sit.
“Throw that shit anywhere. I don’t care. As long as you’re in there!” he said to the goons in the back. Their feet were dangling off the bed of the truck when stumbled back to the driver side door and put the keys into the ignition, fired up the engine, and roared down the meandering dirt road at dangerously fast speeds. I don’t remember what him and Q tip talked about in the front seats, all I remember is looking at Sundance terrified. Our jaws simultaneously dropped, as we turned our heads to see whether or not Muffin Man, Scarecrow, and Tarzan would survive this wild ride up the road. With every turn we saw them gripping the sides of his truck, rocking back and forth, their necks whipping side to side. With every bump in the road it looked as if they would spring from the back of the truck and land on the gravel. I imagined them being launched from the truck’s bed, splitting their heads on the gravel road, skulls breaking open as easily as pumpkins. I cringed at the thought. The half a mile felt like an eternity, but we all made it there in one piece, and V8 was kind enough to give us all a beer from a cooler he kept in the back of the truck. I wondered how many he drank before showing up to Trent’s Grocery.
Back at the campsite we all set out collecting sticks, twigs, and other tinder for making a fire. We all watched nervously as Muffin Man climbed approximately fifteen feet up an oak tree to dislodge a broken branch that was coiled around another one of the tree’s more sturdy, and still attached, branches. While balancing precariously on a dense branch strong enough to support his weight, and holding onto another branch with his left hand, he lunged forward and with his free hand he prodded at the broken branch until it eventually came crashing to the ground, snapping in half with a thunderous roar. I breathed a sigh of relief when he was finally back on the ground, his life still intact.
This wasn’t the first time he pulled something impressive out of his bag of tricks. One time Sundance and I were practicing cartwheels and handstands, maybe out of boredom, or maybe for the sake of using muscles that otherwise go neglected while hiking. Our form needed work; we could barely hold a handstand for more than three seconds before tumbling to the dirt. We practiced over and over as Muffin Man looked on unimpressed. He then lit up a cigarette and then foisted his legs overhead in one fell swoop, still puffing on his cigarette while he walked more than twenty feet in the handstand position. He made it look easy, and he gracefully lowered himself to the ground when he grew tired of holding the position. Sundance and I were perplexed.
“My mom owns a gymnastics gym,” he knew he had to explain himself to us when he saw the looks on our faces. In all the years I had known him, I never suspected he had such grace.
That night around the campfire we cooked freeze dried food and plotted our next move. Woods Hole Hostel was fifteen miles away and we heard nothing but great things. A chestnut log cabin on an organic farm, they offered home cooked meals, utilizing vegetables right from their garden, and they had a bunkhouse for hikers. It would also be a nice place to shower and do laundry. And eleven miles past the hostel we’d reach the town of Pearisburg, where we’d have a myriad of fast food options to choose from. With our next two days planned out and our bellies full, we put out the fire and called it a night. I went to sleep that night content, excited to see what the trail offered next.
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