The Half Gallon Nightmare and Other Adventures
“Want to stay at a cult?”
Not a question you get asked every day, but when you are asked, there’s only one correct response: “Why not?”
And suddenly I was being picked up outside the ATC headquarters and driven thirty minutes to a Yellow Deli — an alternative religious community. I introduced myself as Shitwater to our driver, who peered at me in the rear view mirror and said “Nice to meet you, Water.” I thought he hadn’t heard me, so I spoke up louder. “SHITWATER! I GO BY SHITWATER!” He looked at me again, this time, eyebrows slightly narrowed. “Yes… Water.” My friend nudged me from the seat behind me and shook their head urgently. Whoops, I thought. “This valley is the same one you’ll be walking soon on the trail.” He gestured to the mountains outside. I took a mental note of what they looked like in case I needed to escape the cult on foot. “Unless you decide to stay with us!” He smiled. This seemed like it was going to be a stressful and covert zero.
We arrived at the community — a sweeping farmland with three little cabins for hikers and a small bathhouse on the hill. The four of us hikers, CBS (also known as consensual buttstuff), Scout, Lovechild and myself, all piled out of the truck. Our driver turned to Lovechild. “What’s your name?” “Uh, Matthew. I’m from Damascus.” Lovechild said. I started to panic. Lovechild’s name was not Matthew. And he was definitely not from Damascus. Oh god, did I have to make up my own alias? My hiker brain was barely functioning enough to process that I was trying not to be suctioned into a cult for the rest of my life. Though the free food did sound nice.
“Where are you from, Water?” Oh god. I thought. Oh god I can’t do this. I had to lie. What if they used my true hometown to brainwash me to join their cult?! I wasn’t taking any chances. “Um, Harrisburg, Virginia!” I said. I didn’t even know if that existed. “Uh… I mean Perisburg!” At least I knew that one existed. His eyebrows raised.
“What do you do?” He asked. “Um, I do photography for a backpacking brand.” I said, very vaguely. He nodded and the conversation moved past me. I breathed a sigh of relief. Later, Lovechild would tell me that he forgot our friend CBS actually was from Pennsylvania, and thought he was lying to cover his true identity from the cult — and so he started lying too. I laughed at the fear response it had triggered in me, but we were both committed to being Matthew from Damascus and Water from Harrisburg (when he remembered he was from Harrisburg.)
We were separated into men and women’s cabins. “We should’ve told them we were all married.” CBS muttered as he scuffed his feet into the men’s cabin with Lovechild. Meanwhile, Scout watched me as I rummaged through the drawers in our stifling hot ladies cabin for loaner clothes and interesting culty items. I found a bible, a darn tough sock and a full denim outfit. Score!
I stripped and went commando underneath my full denim fit and waltzed out of my cabin, announcing in my best gruff uncle-farmer voice, “I’M DENIM DAN!!!!” Lovechild and CBS erupted into laughter. I walked spread legged — as if I had twenty foot spurs on and was in a wild western. Scout helped me with an impromptu photo shoot with a flowerpot outside the cabin. It was very rural-chic, as you can see from the pictures below.
As we joined everyone for dinner, I realized not only was I adopting an entirely new alias — I was now in clothes that I was not sure if I was allowed to borrow or not and sweating profusely in all denim. As we ate beef stew, I mixed up Perisburg and Harrisburg and gave up on being a photographer for a backpacking company and was suddenly into watercolors and hoping to illustrate wildlife books someday. Eventually, I lapsed into a half-asleep food coma and decided zoning out was better than continuing my strange aliases.
The next morning, finding a ride back to town was a struggle. After we ate a breakfast of hard boiled eggs — of which I consumed six like a hungry snake (and still violently crave hard boiled eggs on trail, to the point where I’ve eaten deviled eggs from a gas station), we waited in a white van for someone to drive us. Our driver stared at the van and pushed a lawn mower around it as we sat inside. We watched him, perturbed. This strange ritual continued for thirty minutes. I started to crack up at his lackadaisical lawn mowing as we all sat in the van with the key in the ignition. His wife appeared from the house in front of us. “Are you ready to go?” She called and climbed in front. He stopped his lawn mowing ritual and climbed in. We were off, left with only some strange memories of a full denim outfit and an intense craving for hard boiled eggs.
Jenga is hard.
Then I was sitting outside the ATC headquarters again, next to Lovechild, eating strawberries and covering them in whipped cream as hikers passed by and had their halfway photos taken. An eight pound bag of charcoal sat in front of us for our friend, CBS (who was grilling himself dinner). He strapped it to the top of his pack and lugged it for about .3 of a mile before he called us an Uber to the Crossroads Hostel.
There, I played jenga on the floor for a while — and we decided to collaborate and try to get it as high as possible. As this decision happened — a bong was passed around, and I soon also became as high as possible. Every time my turn came around, I thought the jenga blocks had already collapsed. My friends had to call my name to remind me it was my turn, which always seemed to come too fast. I turned to the tower — dumbfounded. It was set up again! I thought it had just fallen. I squinted at it and pulled another block out. It seemed like ten seconds later, it was my turn again, and again, the tower I thought had collapsed was up again! A miracle tower! My stoner brain thought. It was terrifying. My turn kept coming, and the tower kept rising and so did my heart rate. Eventually I just got up and sat next to Lovechild, whispering how I couldn’t comprehend a game of Jenga anymore. He laughed and we went inside to try and make shrimp scampi, which we had gotten the ingredients for before we were both completely fried.
I stared at the recipe for a while, unable to fathom the feat of remembering the instructions while cooking — and before I could even boil a pot of water, I realized we had completely lost the pasta. Which was somewhat an important ingredient for shrimp scampi. The next hour was spent scampering around the house, looking for the sweet blue box of fettuccini. We never wound up finding it that night — but we did find some pasta in the hiker box which worked too. The next morning I stumbled upon the fettuccini — right inside a grocery bag outside the front door where we had left it. I put a hand to my forehead and laughed. Oh boy.
Tubing at 8:00 a.m.
“Want to go tubing?” One of our friends from the hostel asked over eggs. It was 8:00 a.m. “Uh… maybe?” We were planning on doing a twenty out of town buuuut… I had been wanting to tube the entire trail. I looked at Lovechild and raised my eyebrows. “We couuuuld just do a bit less miles today and tube…” “We might be able to make it work…” I called CBS over. “Hear me out…” I began.
And we were on a river. At 8:00 in the morning. Slightly drunk. Entirely happy. Our asses freezing underneath us. The wind started to blow us in the opposite way of the current. It appeared as though this was going to be a more difficult tubing trip than we thought. I began to heckle people who walked along the trail above us, yelling aggressive compliments about how I liked their outfits, and tirades about how tubing was more efficient than walking. This sent us all into bouts of laughter. We kept forgetting where we had to get off. All we knew was there was a green bridge that would appear eventually — and of course we’d wind up on the opposite side of the river where we needed to be. In the middle of our trip, CBS turned to me and asked what my reason for hiking the trail was. I realized I was living it. I had wanted to find people who accepted me for who I was — a rambunctious, extroverted, queer oddball — and I had found the people who did: on the trail walking in front of me, in shelters sleeping next to me and tubing down the river on either side of me. I smiled and told him moments like this.
Making fun on trail
After so many miles, you have to start making fun times for yourself. I’ve realized motivation comes most easily from just being a kid again. Lovechild had a brilliant idea of packing out water guns — and for the next five miles, we were in an intense battle that would make most cowboys tremble in their boots. If you think reaching around your pack for a smart water bottle is hard — wait until you try reaching around for a water gun to fend off an aggressive opponent attacking from behind. When we passed the next shelter, it was a stand off with CBS and Lovechild and myself, all in the classic triangle of death, arms out, western stand-off style, trail runners kicked out and waterguns at the ready. We erupted into fire, screaming and laughing and getting completely soaked.
The next day, while hiking alone, I came across a playground. It was a couple yards off trail and my feet were hurting, and I debated going down the slide or not. Was it worth the extra energy? I thought. Why the hell not? Was my second thought. I walked over — excited and laughing a bit to myself, and launched myself down the slide with my arms over my head, ULA pack still strapped to my back. I have a celebratory whoop at the bottom. I realized the importance of doing silly things for yourself — just to have fun on your own on trail. I forgot how much slides thrilled me — and I didn’t care if I looked like an idiot — I was having fun!! Lovechild appeared on a bench in the next couple strides, and we took turns violently spinning each other on a merry-go-round until we both almost vomited up our tuna tortilla lunches.
Half Gallon Challenge
Speaking of vomiting — I was not successful at the half gallon challenge. Lovechild demolished his half gallon in a gruesome 9 minutes and 40 seconds. I was not so victorious. Just moments before, I had walked by a bunch of my friends sitting in front of their half finished tubs of dairy hell, rolling my eyes at their distressed fugue states. Their eyes were all glazed over as they clutched at their spoons, plunging it towards their ice cream like a cry for help. I figured it couldn’t be that bad. I was wrong.
Ten minutes later, I was staring down a third of a half gallon left in front of me. My mint chip froth sloshed around in the tub in front of me menacingly. My friends, Shakira and Margaret began to sing along to party music and I danced along to motivate myself (as much as I could in my trying state.) California Girls will now evoke a slight gag reflex in me. Eventually I slammed my spoon on the table and looked up at Margaret. She looked at me with the same plaintive expression I imagined on my own face. There was no way we could eat ourselves out of this. I whispered the magic words. “We could… just quit together.” “YES!!!!” She smiled. We were free!
We clinked our defeated cardboard pints together and chucked them in the trash. I stumbled over to the water spicket, feeling lightheaded and sat underneath it. I turned it fully on and embraced my watery defeat. I might not have been able to finish a half gallon of ice cream, but I would live to see another day without it all erupting from my mouth — which I consider a victory in and of itself.
Afterwards, we all went swimming in a nearby lake and got yelled at multiple times for trying to do chicken fights (when you stack people on top of eachother to battle in the water.) It was another moment when I was surrounded by friends yet again on trail. Everyone had walked 1,000 miles to get here, had different experiences, different situations that lead them here — and yet here we all were, a bunch of hiker trash drifting around on a sunny day. I couldn’t imagine anything better, or anywhere I could’ve felt at home more. Here goes the next 1,000!
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