“So what’s your star sign?” said Mary Ellen.
“Cunnilingus,” Katz answered and looked profoundly unhappy.
She looked at him. “I don’t know that one.” She made an I’ll-be-darned frown and said, “I thought I knew them all. Mine’s Libra.” She turned to me. “What’s yours?”
“I don’t know.” I tried to think of something. “Necrophilia.”
“I don’t know that one either. Say, are you guys putting me on?”
It was two nights later. We were camped at a lofty spot called Indian Grave Gap, between two brooding summits-the one tiring to recollect, the other dispiriting to behold. We had hiked twenty-two miles in two days-a highly respectable distance for us-but a distinct listlessness and sense of anticlimax, a kind of midmountain lassitude, had set in. We spent our days doing precisely what we had done on previous days and would continue to do on future days, over the same sorts of hills, along the same wandering track, through the same endless woods. The trees were so thick that we hardly ever got views, and when we did get views it was of infinite hills covered in more trees. I was discouraged to note that I was grubby again already and barking for white bread. And then of course there was the constant, prattling, awesomely brainless presence of Mary Ellen.
“When’s your birthday?” she said to me.
“No, actually it’s Sagittarius.”
“Whatever.” And then abruptly: “Jeez, you guys stink.”
“Well, uh, we’ve been walking.”
“Me, I don’t sweat. Never have. Don’t dream either.”
“Everybody dreams,” Katz said.
“Well, I don’t.”
“Except people of extremely low intelligence. It’s a scientific fact.”
Mary Ellen regarded him expressionlessly for a moment, then said abruptly, to neither of us in particular: “Do you ever have that dream where you’re like at school and you look down and like you haven’t got any clothes on?” She shuddered. “I hate that one.”
“I thought you didn’t dream,” said Katz.
She stared at him for a very long moment, as if trying to remember where she had encountered him before. “And falling,” she went on, unperturbed. “I hate that one, too. Like when you fall into a hole and just fall and fall.” She gave a brief shiver and then noisily unblocked her ears.
Katz watched her with idle interest. “I know a guy who did that once,” he said, “and one of his eyes popped out.”
She looked at him doubtfully.
“It rolled right across the living room floor and his dog ate it. Isn’t that right, Bryson?”
“You’re making that up.”
“I’m not. It rolled right across the floor and before anybody could do anything, the dog gobbled it down in one bite.”
I confirmed it for her with another nod.
She considered this for a minute. “So what’d your friend do about his eye hole? Did he have to get a glass eye or something?”
“Well, he wanted to, but his family was kind of poor, you know, so what he did was he got a Ping-Pong ball and painted an eye on it and he used that.”
“Ugh,” said Mary Ellen softly.
“So I wouldn’t go blowing out your ear holes any more.”
She considered again. “Yeah, maybe you’re right,” she said at length, and blew out her ear holes.
In our few private moments, when Mary Ellen went off to tinkle in distant shrubs, Katz and I had formed a secret pact that we would hike fourteen miles on the morrow to a place called Dicks Creek Gap, where there was a highway to the town of Hiawassee, eleven miles to the north. We would hike to the gap if it killed us, and then try to hitchhike into Hiawassee for dinner and a night in a motel. Plan B was that we would kill Mary Ellen and take her Pop Tarts.
And so the next day we hiked, really hiked, startling Mary Ellen with our thrusting strides. There was a motel in Hiawassee-clean sheets! shower! color TV!-and a reputed choice of restaurants. We needed no more incentive than that to perk our step. Katz flagged in the first hour, and I felt tired too by afternoon, but we pushed determinedly on. Mary Ellen fell farther and farther off the pace, until she was behind even Katz. It was a kind of miracle in the hills.
At about four o’clock, tired and overheated and streaked about the face with rivulets of gritty sweat, I stepped from the woods onto the broad shoulder of U.S. Highway 76, an asphalt river through the woods, pleased to note that the road was wide and reasonably important looking. A half mile down the road there was a clearing in the trees and a drive-a hint of civilization-before the road curved away invitingly. Several cars passed as I stood there.
Katz tumbled from the woods a few minutes later, looking wild of hair and eye, and I hustled him across the road against his voluble protests that he needed to sit down immediately. I wanted to try to get a lift before Mary Ellen came along and screwed things up. I couldn’t think how she might, but I knew she would.
“Have you seen her?” I asked anxiously.
“Miles back, sitting on a rock with her boots off rubbing her feet. She looked real tired.”
Katz sagged onto his pack, grubby and spent, and I stood beside him on the shoulder with my thumb out, trying to project an image of wholesomeness and respectability, making private irked tutting noises at every car and pickup that passed. I had not hitchhiked in twenty-five years, and it was a vaguely humbling experience. Cars shot past very fast-unbelievably fast to us who now resided in Foot World-and gave us scarcely a glance. A very few approached more slowly, always occupied by elderly people-little white heads, just above the window line-who stared at us without sympathy or expression, as they would at a field of cows. It seemed unlikely that anyone would stop for us. I wouldn’t have stopped for us.
“We’re never going to get picked up,” Katz announced despondently after cars had forsaken us for fifteen minutes.
He was right, of course, but it always exasperated me how easily he gave up on things. “Can’t you try to be a little more positive?” I said.
“OK, I’m positive we’re never going to get picked up. I mean, look at us.” He smelled his armpits with disgust. “Jesus, I smell like Jeffrey Dahmer’s refrigerator.”
There is a phenomenon called Trail Magic, known and spoken of with reverence by everyone who hikes the trail, which holds that often when things look darkest some little piece of serendipity comes along to put you back on a heavenly plane. Ours was a baby blue Pontiac Trans Am, which flew past, then screeched to a stop on the shoulder a hundred yards or so down the road, in a cloud of gravelly dust. It was so far beyond where we stood that we didn’t think it could possibly be for us, but then it jerked into reverse and came at us, half on the shoulder and half off, moving very fast and a little wildly. I stood transfixed. The day before, we had been told by a pair of seasoned hikers that sometimes in the South drivers will swerve at AT hitchhikers, or run over their packs, for purposes of hilarity, and I supposed this was one of those moments. I was about to fly for cover, and even Katz was halfway to his feet, when it stopped just before us, with a rock and another cloud of dust, and a youthful female head popped out the passenger side window.
“Yew boys wunna rod?” she called.
“Yes, ma’am, we sure do,” we said, putting on our best behavior.
We hastened to the car with our packs and bowed down at the window to find a very handsome, very happy, very drunk young couple, who didn’t look to be more than eighteen or nineteen years old. The woman was carefully topping up two plastic cups from a three-quarters empty bottle of Wild Turkey. “Hi!” she said. “Hop in.”
We hesitated. The car was packed nearly solid with stuff-suitcases, boxes, assorted black plastic bags, hangerloads of clothes. It was a small car to begin with and there was barely room for them.
“Darren, why’nt you make some room for these gentlemen,” the young woman ordered and then added for us: “This yere’s Darren.”
Darren got out, grinned a hello, opened the trunk, and stared blankly at it while the perception slowly spread through his brain that it was also packed solid. He was so drunk that I thought for a moment he might fall asleep on his feet, but he snapped to and found some rope and quite deftly tied our packs on the roof. Then, ignoring the vigorous advice and instructions of his partner, he tossed stuff around in the back until he had somehow created a small cavity into which Katz and I climbed, puffing out apologies and expressions of the sincerest gratitude.
Her name was Donna, and they were on their way to some desperate-sounding community-Turkey Balls Falls or Coon Slick or someplace-another fifty miles up the road, but they were pleased to drop us in Hiawassee, if they didn’t kill us all first. Darren drove at 127 miles an hour with one finger on the wheel, his head bouncing to the rhythm of some internal song, while Donna twirled in her seat to talk to us. She was stunningly pretty, entrancingly pretty.
“Y’all have to excuse us. We’re celebrating.” She held up her plastic cup as if in toast.
“What’re you celebrating?” asked Katz.
“We’re gittin married tomorrah,” she announced proudly.
“No kidding,” said Katz. “Congratulations.”
“Yup. Darren yere’s gonna make a honest woman outta me.” She tousled his hair, then impulsively lunged over and gave the side of his head a kiss, which became lingering, then probing, then frankly lascivious, and concluded, as a kind of bonus, by shooting her hand into a surprising place-or at least so we surmised because Darren abruptly banged his head on the ceiling and took us on a brief but exciting detour into a lane of oncoming traffic. Then she turned to us with a dreamy, unabashed leer, as if to say, “Who’s next?” It looked, we reflected later, as if Darren might have his hands full, though we additionally concluded that it would probably be worth it.
“Hey, have a drink,” she offered suddenly, seizing the bottle round the neck and looking for spare cups on the floor.
“Oh, no thanks,” Katz said, but looked tempted.
“G’ won,” she encouraged.
Katz held up a palm. “I’m reformed.”
“Yew are? Well, good for you. Have a drink then.”
“How ’bout yew?” she said to me.
“Oh, no thanks.” I couldn’t have freed my pinned arms even if I had wanted a drink. They dangled before me like tyrannosaur limbs.
“Yernot reformed, are ya?”
“Well, kind of.” I had decided, for purposes of solidarity, to forswear alcohol for the duration.
She looked at us. “You guys like Mormons or something?”
“No, just hikers.”
She nodded thoughtfully, satisfied with that, and had a drink. Then she made Darren jump again.
They dropped us at Mull’s Motel in Hiawassee, an old-fashioned, nondescript, patently nonchain establishment on a bend in the road near the center of town. We thanked them profusely, went through a little song-and-dance of trying to give them gas money, which they stoutly refused, and watched as Darren returned to the busy road as if fired from a rocket launcher. I believe I saw him bang his head again as they disappeared over a small rise.
And then we were alone with our packs in an empty motel parking lot in a dusty, forgotten, queer-looking little town in northern Georgia. The word the clings to every hiker’s thoughts in north Georgia is Deliverance, the 1970 novel by James Dickey that was made into a Hollywood movie. It concerns, as you may recall, four middle-aged men from Atlanta who go on a weekend canoeing trip down the fictional Cahulawasee River (but based on the real, nearby chattooga) and find themselves severely out of their element. “Every family I’ve ever met up here has at least one relative in the penitentiary,” a character in the book remarks forebodingly as they drive up. “Some of them are in for making liquor or running it, but most of them are in for murder. They don’t think a whole lot about killing people up here.” And so of course it proves, as our urban foursome find themselves variously buggered, murdered, and hunted by a brace of demented backwoodsmen.
Early in the book Dickey has his characters stop for directions in some “sleepy and hookwormy and ugly” town, which for all I know could have been Hiawassee. What is certainly true is that the book was set in this part of the state, and the movie was filmed in the area. The famous banjo-plucking albino who played “Dueling Banjos” in the movie still apparently lives in Clayton, just down the road.
Dickey’s book, as you might expect, attracted heated criticism in the state when it was published (one observer called it “the most demeaning characterization of southern highlanders in modern literature,” which, if anything, was an understatement), but in fact it must be said that people have been appalled by northern Georgians for 150 years. One nineteenth-century chronicler described the region’s inhabitants as “tall, thin, cadaverous-looking animals, as melancholy and lazy as boiled cod-fish,” and others freely employed words like “depraved,” “rude,” “uncivilized,” and “backward” to describe the reclusive, underbred folk of Georgia’s deep, dark woods and desperate townships. Dickey, who was himself a Georgian and knew the area well, swore that his book was a faithful description.
Perhaps it was the lingering influence of the book, perhaps simply the time of day, or maybe nothing more than the unaccustomedness of being in a town, but Hiawassee did feel palpably weird and unsettling-the kind of place where it wouldn’t altogether surprise you to find your gasoline being pumped by a cyclops. We went into the motel reception area, which was more like a small, untidy living room than a place of business, and found an aged woman with lively white hair and a bright cotton dress sitting on a sofa by the door. She looked happy to see us.
“Hi,” I said. “We’re looking for a room.”
The woman grinned and nodded.
“Actually, two rooms if you’ve got them.”
The woman grinned and nodded again. I waited for her to get up, but she didn’t move.
“For tonight,” I said encouragingly. “You do have rooms?” Her grin became a kind of beam and she grasped my hand, and held on tight; her fingers felt cold and bony. She just looked at me intently and eagerly, as if she thought-hoped-that I would throw a stick for her to fetch.
“Tell her we come from Reality Land,” Katz whispered in my ear.
At that moment, a door swung open and a grey-haired woman swept in, wiping her hands on an apron.
“Oh, ain’t no good talking to her,” she said in a friendly manner. “She don’t know nothing, don’t say nothing. Mother, let go the man’s hand.” Her mother beamed at her. “Mother, let go the man’s hand.”
My hand was released and we booked into two rooms. We went off with our keys and agreed to meet in half an hour. My room was basic and battered-there were cigarette burns on every possible surface, including the toilet seat and door lintels, and the walls and ceiling were covered in big stains that suggested a strange fight to the death involving lots of hot coffee-but it was heaven to me. I called Katz, for the novelty of using a telephone, and learned that his room was even worse. We were very happy.
We showered, put on such clean clothes as we could muster, and eagerly repaired to a popular nearby bistro called the Georgia Mountain Restaurant. The parking lot was crowded with pickup trucks, and inside it was busy with meaty people in baseball caps. I had a feeling that if I’d said, “Phone call for you, Bubba,” every man in the room would have risen. I won’t say the Georgia Mountain had food I would travel for, even within Hiawassee, but it was certainly reasonably priced. For $5.50 each, we got “meat and three,” a trip to the salad bar, and dessert. I ordered fried chicken, black-eyed peas, roast potatoes, and “ruterbeggars,” as the menu had it-I had never had them before, and can-t say I will again. We ate noisily and with gusto, and ordered many refills of iced tea.
Dessert was of course the highlight. Everyone on the trail dreams of something, usually sweet and gooey, and my sustaining vision had been an outsized slab of pie. It had occupied my thoughts for days, and when the waitress came to take our order I asked her, with beseeching eyes and a hand on her forearm, to bring me the largest piece she could slice without losing her job. She brought me a vast, viscous, canary-yellow wedge of lemon pie. It was a monument to food technology, yellow enough to give you a headache, sweet enough to make your eyeballs roll up into your head-everything, in short, you could want in a pie so long as taste and quality didn’t enter into your requirements. I was just plunging into it when Katz broke a long silence by saying, with a strange kind of nervousness, “You know what I keep doing? I keep looking up to see if Mary Ellen’s coming through the door.”
I paused, a forkful of shimmering goo halfway to my mouth, and noticed with passing disbelief that his dessert plate was already empty. “You’re not going to tell me you miss her, Stephen?” I said dryly and pushed the food home.
“No,” he responded tartly, not taking this as a joke at all. He took on a frustrated look from trying to find words to express his complex emotions. “We did kind of ditch her, you know,” he finally blurted.
I considered the charge. “Actually, we didn’t kind of ditch her. We ditched her.” I was’t with him at all on this. “So?”
“Well, I just, I just feel kind of bad-just kind of bad-that we left her out in the woods on her own.” Then he crossed his arms as if to say: “There. I’ve said it.”
I put my fork down and considered the point. “She came into the woods on her own,” I said. “We’re not actually responsible for her, you know. I mean, it’s not as if we signed a contract to look after her.”
Even as I said these things, I realized with a kind of horrible, seeping awareness that he was right. We had ditched her, left her to the bears and wolves and chortling mountain men. I had been so completely preoccupied with my own savage lust for food and a real bed that I had not paused to consider what our abrupt departure would mean for her-a night alone among the whispering trees, swaddled in darkness, listening with involuntary keenness for the telltale crack of branch or stick under a heavy foot or paw. It wasn’t something I would wish on anyone. My gaze fell on my pie, and I realized I didn’t want it any longer. “Maybe she’ll have found somebody else to camp with,” I suggested lamely, and pushed the pie away.
“Did you see anybody today?”
He was right. We had seen hardly a soul.
“She’s probably still walking right now,” Katz said with a hint of sudden heat. “Wondering where the hell we got to. Scared out of her chubby little wits.”
“Oh, don’t,” I half pleaded, and distractedly pushed the pie a half inch farther away.
He nodded an emphatic, busy, righteous little nod, and looked at me with a strange, glowing, accusatory expression that said, “And if she dies, let it be on your conscience.” And he was right; I was the ringleader here. This was my fault.
Then he leaned closer and said in a completely different tone of voice, “If you’re not going to eat that pie, can I have it?”
In the morning we breakfasted at a Hardees across the street and paid for a taxi to take us back to the trail. We didn’t speak about Mary Ellen or much of anything else. Returning to the trail after a night’s comforts in a town always left us disinclined to talk.
We were greeted with an immediate steep climb and walked slowly, almost gingerly. I always felt terrible on the trail the first day after a break. Katz, on the other hand, just always felt terrible. Whatever restorative effects a town visit offered always vanished with astounding swiftness on the trail. Within two minutes it was as if we had never been away-actually worse, because on a normal day I would not be laboring up a steep hill with a greasy, leaden Hardees breakfast threatening at every moment to come up for air.
We had been walking for about half an hour when another hiker-a fit-looking middle-aged guy-came along from the other direction. We asked him if he had seen a girl named Mary Ellen in a red jacket with kind of a loud voice.
He made an expression of possible recognition and said: “Does she-I’m not being rude here or anything-but does she do this a lot?” and he pinched his nose and made a series of horrible honking noises.
We nodded vigorously.
“Yeah, I stayed with her and two other guys in Plumorchard Gap Shelter last night.” He gave us a dubious, sideways look. “She a friend of yours?”
“Oh, no,” we said, disavowing her entirely, as any sensible person would. “She just sort of latched on to us for a couple of days.”
He nodded in understanding, then grinned. “She’s a piece of work, isn’t she?”
We grinned, too. “Was it bad?” I said.
He made a look that showed genuine pain, then abruptly, as if putting two and two together, said, “So you must be the guys she was talking about.”
“Really?” Katz said. “What’d she say?”
“Oh, nothing,” he said, but he was suppressing a small smile in that way that makes you say: “What?”
“Nothing. It was nothing.” But he was smiling.
He wavered. “Oh, all right. She said you guys were a couple of overweight wimps who didn’t know the first thing about hiking and that she was tired of carrying you.”
“She said that?” Katz said, scandalized.
“Actually I think she called you pussies.”
“She called us pussies?” Katz said. “Now I will kill her.”
“Well, I don’t suppose you’ll have any trouble finding people to hold her down for you,” the man said absently, scanning the sky, and added: “Supposed to snow.”
I made a crestfallen noise. This was the last thing we wanted. “Really? Bad?”
He nodded. “Six to eight inches. More on the higher elevations.” He lifted his eyebrows stoically, agreeing with my dismayed expression. Snow wasn’t just discouraging, it was dangerous.
He let the prospect hang there for a moment, then said, “Well, better keep moving.” I nodded in understanding, for that was what we did in these hills. I watched him go, then turned to Katz, who was shaking his head.
“Imagine her saying that after all we did for her,” he said, then noticed me staring at him, and said in a kind of squirmy way, “What?” and then, more squirmily, “What?”
“Don’t you ever, ever, spoil a piece of pie for me again. Do you understand?”
He winced. “Yeah, all right. Jeez,” he said and trudged on, muttering.
Two days later we heard that Mary Ellen had dropped out with blisters after trying to do thirty-five miles in two days. Big mistake.