CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO 

For the Lord your God has blessed you in all that you have done; He has known your wanderings through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have not lacked a thing.  Deuteronomy 2:7 

It is after 5:00PM when we return dirty and depleted.  

We had thought we would be done and back to Big Meadow by 3:00PM at the latest. 

The Steam Team opens the Bear Box at Campsite 2 as if greeting a long-lost friend. We gather quarters and personal care products. 

In tall grass a few feet from the box, my 1-person tent maintained our faux occupancy well while we were gone. I nod in thanks for its service.  

I grab the attention of a stranger in front of the shower house and ask them to take our “after” picture. We force smiles through physical pain while our souls smile with ease knowing that we completed over 33 miles on foot via rocks, trees, mountains, and valleys. My legs may separate from my body at any moment. I doubt the picture will fully capture the layers of grime on our skin. 

Sunshine Rat points out, “We’re running a little behind. Ted is going to be bringing his garbage up soon.” 

Stalker C says, “Yeah it’s almost 6pm.” 

“Ah, man. We don’t have shampoo,” Stalker C notes. 

Sunshine says, “We’ll make the best of it.” 

“Oh no you won’t,” my maternal instincts kick in as I dig through my “after bag”.  

I continue, “We are entertaining tonight. You gals need clean hair. Here is my travel shampoo. I’ll wait and shower after you’re done.” 

Wow, how fast I sound like a mom post trail! 

Stalker C and Sunshine Rat laugh. Stalker says to Sunshine, “You know time is winding down. We gotta find our grooms to bring home.” 

Sunshine says, “That’s right.” 

I gladly sit in a white plastic chair in the laundry room. I am filthy but resting feels glorious. 

A pair of hikers come in to wash a small load of clothes. I think we’ve seen them before on the trail. It is tough to tell because now they are freshly showered. 

The girl goes back in the bathroom to blow dry her hair. I ask him, “Did you two come on the trail together?” 

His face scrunches, “Nah. We just met up and are hiking together.” 

I note the “just” in his sentence.    

She returns with long blonde hair mostly dry. She looks at him with affection. He does not return that vibe. I’m bothered by the notion that he may not be as attracted to her as she is to him. Even her backpack is bigger and appears to be packed heavier than his. What the heck? He puts some of his clothes in her pack. 

I remember now. They are the couple from the bobcat sighting. I recall learning their trail names. She is Murph and he is MudPuppie. 

I ask her, “So why is your name Murph?” 

She smiles, “Because the first few weeks out on the trail anything that could go wrong for me did, like Murphy’s Law. My name was later shortened to Murph.”   

Murph tosses her hair a bit and smiles toward MudPuppie whose eyeroll reaction basically says this is only a summer thing.   

I envision that she’ll be stronger because of the months long hiking. When he breaks her heart at the end in Maine, she’ll be ok and ready to move on. She doesn’t need him. 

A clean Sunshine Rat and Stalker C are almost unrecognizable when they return my shampoo. I may barely feel my numb feet, but I know they carry me to the shower stalls. 

I don’t bother trying to save underwear or the Ziploc bag of urine socks. Anything beyond cleaning easily or likely to smell in the heat of the car on the way home is tossed in the trash. Feels good to get rid of stuff. 

Then I savor the clink of quarters into the machine that turns on the water in the shower.   

Hallelujah.  

I have wilderness soap which is little slips of paper that turn to suds when joined with water. My shampoo lathers like total luxury. Layers of dirt sink to the drain. Still soapy, I add quarters to rinse the rest of the me. 

Oops! I forgot to bring up my sham towel. 

I air dry as best I can before pulling on a clean set of clothes. It’s been a while since I’ve felt cotton on my skin. How wonderful! 

I fluff my hair with a community hair dryer and use a mini pop-up travel brush to comb through my locks.  

The Steam Team meets back at the car and bear box. 

No one attempts or mentions putting up tents for the night. I should look to see if my 1-person tent is still clean and critter-free inside, but I don’t.  

We head to the Tap Room without delay. 

“I wonder how many party goers will show tonight?” Sunshine says as we walk up the hill along a thin blacktop path that leads to the lodge.  

My feet remain flames of fire, but I am clean! My toes are free from boots. The air flow around my flip flops makes my heart leap with joy and appreciation. I wobble and catch myself from falling a few times. 

Stalker C says, “I wonder if Ted will really be here?” 

The anticipation is fun and drowns out the parts of me that hurt; shoulder, neck, back, arms, thighs…so much pain!   

Will our hero, Ted, really come to take out the trash, do laundry, and hang out in the Tap Room with us?!? Will he? Will he? 

We reach the lodge that sits perfectly on top of its mountain. The interior is rustic and comforting.   

A stuffed bear catches our eye, so we pause to take a pic of Stalker C posing with her worst fear.  

We walk into a large lounge with both broad and tall windows. I eye a row of rocking chairs. 

SunFloJo says, “Let’s have morning coffee here with the view tomorrow.” 

We all nod absolutely. “And we’ll read Deb’s last note here,” Sunshine Rat adds. 

“Yes!” we respond. 

Our sore bodies find the way to steep wooden stairs that lead down to the Tap Room. I step down the flight of stairs sideways and hold onto the rail to manage.  

We are greeted by the red checkered tablecloths, a bar in the distance, wood tables and chairs, wood covered walls, and a row of wood French doors with a partial mountain view.   

A band or something is setting up to play here tonight. How Fun! A man and young woman bring in a guitar, speakers, and microphone. 

SunFloJo tells the server, “We need a long table because we don’t know how many people might show up to visit us here tonight.”  

The group giggles as we help place four small tables together to create one long table near where the band will play. 

The sun is low in the sky. Blue hues and warm yellows glow through the windows. 

“Margarita, please. And a water. Thank you,” I request with just enough cash in my wallet to have one appetizer, a drink and maybe something from a fast-food dollar menu on the way home tomorrow.  Plus, of course I have trail food bags that I’ve barely touched all week. 

SunFloJo points to the margarita that arrives in a Mason jar, “That one is on me. This is a celebration of perseverance.” She gives me a look that says no ifs ands or buts about that.   

Ok then. “Thank you.” 

“We did it!” SunFloJo holds up a beer, and we all oblige to toast this great adventure. “So much fun girls!” 

Our glasses clink together. Stalker C says, “And not a minute more.” Her eyes widen like they seemed often to do on the trail, but this time with wide eyed satisfaction. 

Sunshine Rat offers, “Yes. A wonderful experience, and we’re all still alive!” 

SunFloJo’s shoulders laugh. She texts home to say we are safe and sound. 

I was happy to find my phone in SunFloJo’s car before we journeyed to the Tap Room. The girls and I take turns plugging in our phones to charge them in a nearby outlet. 

“I wonder who is going to show?” I ask. 

“The whole forest perhaps,” SunFloJo says. She types into Google, “Now, I’m looking up Steel-Cut. I’m still perplexed by that.” 

I shake my head. It was a well-earned compliment, friend! 

Sunshine Rat notes, “That bothers you a little bit, doesn’t it?” 

She responds, “I’m just trying to understand it.” Then, reading out loud from the internet, “1. Ground or crushed between rolls fitted with cutting teeth, like steel-cut coffee or steel-cut oats.  2. Faceted with a steel tool, used especially of buttons, buckles and beads having allover design of facets.” 

“Oh, the second definition!” Sunshine says, “You are faceted with a steel tool.” 

“With many facets,” Stalker C says. “Basically, you’re a badass.” 

We toast our drinks to that. 

“That is awesome,” I say. Then I touch SunFloJo’s arm and add, “It was a divine moment. There was no need whatsoever for that Teste Team Leader to say anything about you. He picked up on your aura or something. You are Steel-Cut. And you led us beautifully with your badass self.” 

We laugh. I add, “And we appreciate you. Thank you for including us on this journey.” 

Recognizable faces begin to fill the room. I notice Sushi and a trail friend or two at the bar. I’m too tired to go invite them to the table. That would require standing up.   

Whoever comes to the table is welcome. We’re not walking even another twenty-five feet unless we absolutely must! 

Through the patio doors I see MudPuppie and Murphy outside. I think she wants to come inside, but he doesn’t. She is pointing to the fact that they could leave their gear outside, but he shakes his head no.  

Leave him, Murph. Leave him right now. But no, she slumps her shoulders a bit and puts her pack back on. He’s already walking away. I am disappointed that she follows him. 

“Ooh, we left some clothes in the dryer.” SunFloJo remembers. 

“I’ll go with you,” Sunshine joins her. 

Stalker C and I exchange looks and smiles as the Tap Room capacity increases. We don’t waste energy on speaking. And this margarita is gooood.   

Oops, all gone.   

I will work on my water and the remaining ice to increase hydration.   

As we observe, we learn that the guy with the band is the father of the young woman. And the young woman with long dark hair is only 16 years old. Her name is Brieanna James. She’s going to sing tonight.  We grab one of her publicity postcards and search for her on Facebook and Twitter.   

“Ted!” says Stalker C. 

“Look who we found!” SunFloJo calls out. 

Rounding the stage area is Ted with SunFloJo & Sunshine.  I point to the seat in front of me on the table end closest to the stage. “Right here. We saved this seat for you!” 

I can’t let Ted go to the other end where the younger Steam Team members are. Seating might mess up the opportunity of potential suitors for the young ones! 

“Well, ok.” Ted sits down. 

I hear a snicker and snort from the other end as SunFloJo slips in next to me. Oh, no. He probably thinks I purposefully want him close to me! I yi yi. 

With the help of my margarita I say, “We gotta keep the single ladies with open seats down there. We invited a lot of people to the Tap Room tonight.” 

More stifled giggles. Ted smiles with a quick raise of both hands and says, “I completely understand.” 

I smile. I knew he would. 

SunFloJo says, “We’re so glad you came tonight!” 

Next to him, Sunshine Rat says, “And we smell and look a little better tonight I bet.” 

“Yeah, yeah.” He smiles and looks at each of us. He’s a jolly sort. 

SunFloJo asks, “Now tell us all about your connection to Rapidan and this place. Did you say to us you’ve been working here like over a decade or something?” 

“Oh yes,” he says. “I love being here. My normal job is in California. I work from here part of each year.”   

“What brings you this far over and over again?”   

“I’m originally from the east coast and my family came to the Shenandoah National Park every summer growing up. My dad was kind of like my mom and dad all in one because my mom died when I was little.” 

Lots of social worker types at the table, in unison a few of us say, “I’m so sorry.” 

“Eh. It was a long time ago.” Ted continues, “One of our happiest memories and my only memory of mom was when we were here one summer. I was about five. Later that year she died. Dad and I spread her ashes over BearFence Scramble the next summer. We went back every summer since in one way or another.” 

BearFence. Aww.  

We’re in listening mode. He continues, “And a few years ago Dad died. Me and my family spread his ashes up there too.” He sighs, “A couple weeks ago I went up there on a day off and was kind of surprised to find little pieces of bone still up there from dad.” 

Still enjoying the view, I suppose.   

Ok. Now I’m glad for new reasons that we didn’t go up there. Maybe I’d go up on a different trip with less backpack and more as a side trip stop. 

Sunshine Rat changes the subject, “You know, Ted, you are the only person around here who gives accurate trail mileage information.”   

We agree. She continues, “The trail said our trip today would be about 6 miles and you said 9. It was totally 9 plus a little more.” 

Stalker C and I say, “Yeah. The trail lies.” 

Sunshine adds, “We appreciate you not lying Ted.” 

SunFloJo says, “Let’s get you a drink. We’ve ordered some food and we can order more if you want. It’s on us.” She adds with a wink, “We owe you gratitude for that which shall remain a secret!”   

Stalker C says, “You saved our life.” 

I point out, “It took a long time today before we got to the fire ring up on Laurel Prong.” I shake my head, “There is no way we would have found that small clearing in the woods, in the dark, in the rain. Just no way.” 

Ted shrugs and tightens his lips in a way that tells me he totally knows he saved our lives and probably saved some fire and rescue resources too. Ultimately, he saved lives and tax dollars! Funeral expenses, you name it. Some rules are meant to be broken. 

“Well, don’t ever put anything on social media,” Ted says. 

“Absolutely. We get it!” SunFlo says. “We stayed in that Fisherman’s Camp just outside the park. That was scandalous enough. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.” 

Ted smiles relieved. 

“Mums the word,” Sunshine says. 

My eyes see people coming our way. Look who it is!   

Rounding the stage area are Tank and Frodo! I am delighted that my favorite groom candidates arrived for the girls. 

SunFloJo smiles and waves them over. 

Ted grins at how our obvious plan works when Tank and Frodo approach our table with the only available chairs right next to our dear Sunshine Rat and Stalker C. Ted understands. Ted is seasoned like SunFloJo and me.   

The young males have showered also. They have big smiles on their faces. Perhaps they are happy that we are where we said we would be. And the idea of Tap Room food probably is exciting. 

Small talk begins at the younger end of the table. I zone out to simply take in this moment.   

Ted talks with SunFloJo about his interest in gemstones and about his plans to begin foster dog transport soon. Ted is an all-around good guy. 

The young musician tests her guitar on stage. She smiles and strums to see if the instrument is in tune. The dad beams with pride. He also eyes the audience with a protective stare. Then he looks at his daughter with total admiration and love. 

A sound crackle occurs, then becomes clear. 

“Thanks for being here tonight, y’all,” Brieanna speaks into the microphone. “This is a good crowd.”   

Hmm, thanks to us. 

Brieanna smiles. I come out of my trance. The checkered tablecloth covered tables are full of folks and the bar has only one seat open.  It’s hard to tell because so many of us now look clean, but I am fairly certain at least a quarter of the room are people we met and invited along the way. 

The crowd gasps in a good way when Brieanna begins to sing Jolene.  

People approve of her voice. Smiles are contagious around the room.   

I notice that if Frodo had a tail, it would wag. He is very impressed by her. 

Brieanna slows down the lyrics to end with, “Please don’t take him even though you can….” 

Hands clap and whistles woot in the air. 

“Thank you,” Brieanna says.  “Thank you.” 

The audience is ready for more. She says, “Now I need some volunteers.”   

Hands raise fast at our table. That is, SunFloJo and my hands go up and point toward our young friends. 

“Well, alright then. This group right here is ready to have some fun,” Brieanna says and waves Tank and Sunshine up to the stage.   

To listen to this chapter via the Surrender On The Trail Podcast, click here.

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