My most cringe-worthy episode on the trail

Pride goeth before the donut

Today’s AT websites, YouTube videos, trail journals, and hiker memoirs usually don’t mention Worthington’s Bakery. It’s apparently now just your typical rural roadside deli, operated under another name, shelved with the usual collection of disposable diapers, peanut butter, Snapple, overpriced laundry detergent, and, by all accounts, some pretty good deli sandwiches. And now not particularly friendly to long distance hikers. These days a quick stop there definitely doesn’t seem to rival, say, the wedding of an English prince or standing on the front row all covered in free beads during the climax of your first Mardi Gras parade. I haven’t returned to the bakery since a Sunday morning in August 1973, so if I’m misrepresenting the current experience, I hope that all current Worthington fans will graciously accept a mea culpa from me.

In fact, I earnestly hope that I’m wrong. It would be a tragically sadder world if today’s hikers should be denied the bliss of anticipation that this legendary destination engendered for early AT pilgrims. I started hearing about it in Maine, five hundred miles before I arrived. Fresh baked blueberry turnovers, hot bagels with garlic cream cheese and salmon, strawberry-filled donuts with hot, liquified sugar running free and thick off the top, orange juice that still had the peel on five minutes before you walked in, huge sandwiches made on the spot. All of it right on the trail, the front door a vision waiting when you stepped out of the woods to cross Route 206 at Culvers Gap.

I stepped out of those woods a troubled mind, however. Back where I grew up, local laws still let us Baptists and Methodists decide which stores could be open for shopping on our Sabbath, and bakeries weren’t on the approved list for Sunday mornings in Raleigh. Maybe after all this waiting, the fabled Worthington’s wouldn’t even be serving when I presented myself?  It was a fate I pondered for days as I drew closer. More immediately though, my stomach was enduring another periodic return of the dysentery curse, seething, burning, and fuming like the sun weathering an outburst of solar flares.

But there it was when I stepped out of the trees—cars in the parking lot, a crowd visible through the front window, and an “open” sign cheerfully neoning a welcome. No stomach nonsense was going to keep me from this rendezvous with gluttony, even if I did have to double over a bit as cramps and rumblings intensified when I crossed the road. Pausing a few seconds at the door, I waited somewhat nervously as a few errant farts pushed their way to freedom and then, combing my hair as best as I could with dirty fingers, I stepped inside.

An older couple at the counter was testily flip-flopping decisions over their toppings for a shared ham sandwich (I could see the bread, meat, and cheese waiting across the counter, and they looked like a million dollars to me, regardless of whether their destiny would include regular or spicy mustard, shallots or red onions). I couldn’t have cared less about the delay though—more time to mull over the choices in the glass cases in front of me, more time to build hoggish anticipation toward the climactic taking of my place at one of the tables in the bakery’s small dining area.

We’ve all had the occasional feeling that we’re being watched, the sense that someone in the nearby crowd is surreptitiously checking us out, be it with good or evil intention. I now had it so strong that I was able, with supreme, heroic willpower, to pull my own eyes off the bounty of sweets and do a quick sneak sweep around the room. A family with three small children, not paying the slightest attention to me. Another older couple with their order now on the table, waiting for their friends at the counter to join them, should they ever finish paddling their epic journey across the great ocean of ordering. A middle aged guy reading the New York Timesover a huge cinnamon bun and coffee.

Then I dead catch her eyes slying a look at me, at about waist level to be exact. She is thirty or so, brown hair, dressed nicely but casually, sitting at the table closest to the door cozily between two other women about her age. She looks away when she is caught and goes back to talking with her companions, now in a huddle of freshly washed hair and dangling, sparkly earrings.

Then it happens again. I turn quickly in her direction and she is staring. Eyes turn away. I straighten out from the slight hunch into which my stomach has bent me and look again; she’s whispering to her friends. One of them is looking towards me as they laugh a little at something that Ms. Curious is saying. The third now looks my way until I catch her eyes too and she goes back to the whisper assembly.

Never in my life had I ever been the sort that females congregate to look over. I’m average looking, at very best. And I was cursed at twenty-three to look much younger than I was. At the time, I could have—and often did—blended in seamlessly with any group of sixteen-year olds. Nothing special at all, that’s what I had learned through over two decades of uniformly depressing feedback from a largely disinterested female world.

But maybe the trail has begun to change that, I can’t help myself from thinking. Rock tight glutes, muscular calves and athletic thighs, shoulders sculpted by months of pumping a heavy pack. The dashing beginnings of a ponytail, its bold, pioneer masculinity only held in check by a rakish headband recalling the untamed manliness of the noble Plains warrior. Weathered and sturdy, a man of nature, that creature of the wilderness who strides mysteriously through your sleepy town turning heads and starting hearts to carom in uncontrolled thumping. Later in the hike, as a matter of fact, three older women in Virginia do spend the fifteen minutes it took to hitch me into town making lewd, smacking comments about my lower half, even suggesting in voices that I am meant to overhear all sorts of salacious activities that the four of us might complete, should I decide to go home with them for a night of free lodging rather than be dropped off at my seedy Waynesboro hotel of choice. I’ll admit that it probably wasn’t a legit offer; clearly part of the joy was getting to thoroughly embarrass an awkward, shy kid, trapped in the backseat as they sipped their Buds and puckered Marlboro smoke in my direction. But it was the thought that counted, at least from my angle of vision.

Maybe it’s time to reassess my appeal, I posit to myself as I look again at the most interesting table in Worthington’s Bakery on that Sunday morning. These handsome ladies are talking about me with clear interest, that’s obvious. I pull myself even taller and adjust my best James Bond pose as the counterman asks if I’m ready to order. Had my eyes not hooked Ms. Curious’s again just at that moment, I might have been tempted to answer him with just the hint of an intriguing British accent.

Before I can order though, she makes her move, standing up, slowly pushing back her chair and beginning to stride off the fifteen feet now between us.

Good manners require a trigger alert at this point.

I normally have no patience with female objectification, none at all. But just this once, I must throw myself on your mercy. I apologize in advance for any offense. In my defense though, I do plead a fierce feminism that took hold of me as a teen and that, I hope, has guided my relationships with women ever since. I plead the best of intentions. But most of all, I plead fidelity to the story as it actually transpired. What happened in the next few seconds early that Sunday transcended usual earthly mores and morals. I give here, to the best of my limited literary talents, an unbiased, detached, dispassionate description of what played out among the warm buns of Worthington’s early that morning. I strive to strictly reproduce the objective reality of the scene. The chips of the sexual politics fall where they may—this is my completely honest memory of the encounter at the counter.

The woman who was walking confidently toward me measured ten feet in height. And even at that height, it still took a parade of four and one-half centuries, with all their glories, splendors, and dignities, for her to pace off the last five yards that separated us.

With her first step, time shifted on some pivotal hinge to become thoroughly Einsteinian, measuring itself by quanti of the soul, simultaneities of grandeur, strobing spacetimes of longing and fulfillment, stringed multiverses of beauty and joy.

With the second pace, the drab and outworn physics of life disappeared entirely, no longer able to hold firm matter’s center as humankind had lived it in until this very moment of time. Molecules of the body electric pulsed across flesh and blood with energies that dwarfed the kinetics of the sun, that made petty the throbbing forces of a cosmos of fiery stars. Neutrons, protons, and electrons spun faster than the calculations of all the world’s colliders. Bosuns higged, bounced, and arched with a purpose and vital nature beyond the paltry imaginings of the endless rows of professors bowed over their instruments. Neutrinos gladly abandoned their petty neutralities for vast expanses of decisive affirmation, delighting to be charged positively for the first instant since the Big Bang. For the only time since the original defeat of Nothingness, energy was indeed both created and destroyed, many times over, in spinning bursts of mad creation and happiness. The earth’s axis shifted, and then shifted again.

With her third step, light intensified beyond any rainbow’s spectrum, and all the dark matter in all the universes surrendered its attraction to the shadows and began flooding creation with luminous clarity and scintillant luster. She wore upon her feet, I noticed as she took this last gracious step, golden sandals, purchased from Macys and worthy of Aphrodite. The nails of her toes were brightly glossed with the color of the rosy dawn.

I saw and felt, then and there—in person, right beside US Route 206 in the state of New Jersey—the very force that through the green fuse drives the flower. It would be impossible to believe, in fact, that all of us—the man with his Times, the older couples with their ham, the babies in Africa, the dads in Antarctica, and all the moms in the Middle East—did not feel that force ignite and release all the potential necessary to construct a new world of infinite potential and bliss.

That, in short, is what happened in the seconds it took for this woman to close the distance between us, look at me with tenderness, and begin to move her lips in human speech.

“I don’t mean to be rude. I hope I’m not bothering you.”

“Not at all.” My voice, I noticed, had somehow adopted just the right touch of Liverpool.

“My friends and I have been watching you since you came out of the woods and . . . .” She paused, cheeks coloring and maybe for the first time ever in her life confronting a break in her self-confidence. She was, I noticed with a touch of interest, having some trouble going through with this. A little shy, I supposed.

I moved several inches forward to help move us past this hint of hesitation. “I noticed. It’s OK. I’m flattered.”

She looked a little confused for just a nanosecond. Looks of support from the table by the window urged her to move forward.

“No. I don’t . . . .” She blushed, regrouped and started again. “My friends and I are nurses, LPNs. Well, Hermonia and I are nurses; Dione is a heart specialist.” Another pause. I nodded encouragement, cocking my head just enough so she could see she had my full attention. She moved the index and middle fingers (also tipped with the rosy dawn) of her right hand thoughtfully around her lips. Her left hand and arm came up in a very attractive version of the police officer’s “stop” pose. And she then continued, the words coming out not in a burst but in a deliberate, studied clip, spaced carefully so that I could absorb them.

“We think,” pointing to her table of friends, “that you look just awful. Horrible, actually. We think,” pointing again, “that you are probably very sick. Do you have any idea how bad?”

I stepped back against the counter.

“Really, you look incredibly bad. Our guess is digestive tract, serious and probably not transient. But Dione thinks it could be something more desperate. Are you seeing anyone?”

I tried to shuffle further back, but the counter stopped me, forcing a slight feint to the right instead.

“Well, a Special Forces guy up in New York gave me some Lotomil.”

“Good. Excellent! Lotomil. That’s a good start. But, really, you look way too bad for just that, just awful. I doubt it’s enough.”

She turned back to her table.

“Lotomil so far.” The two women smiled enthusiastically and solemnly signaled their approval in tandem nods.

“You need treatment with something much stronger. Is the diarrhea bad?  Totally liquid or at least somewhat firm?” And before I could frame an answer, “Is that throwup on your shirt?”

The spot, which I had noticed this morning but had decided to ignore, was actually some cheese wiped from last night’s macaroni. But now didn’t seem like the time for quibbles.

“The standard treatment is antibiotics. Unless there’s blood. Are your stools bloody?”

I looked at her.

“Do you see blood when you number two?”

One of the women at the ham sandwich table had paused her ginger ale in midair and was now leaning forward to tune in to the conversation.

“I’m fine, really.”

“No you’re not. That sort of thinking is probably how you got in this sorry condition. You look like death. I bet you’re dehydrated too. From the runs. Your skin has the classic, clammy look.” She pinched a pucker up on my forearm. The red drained quickly away, leaving a mass of flesh that looked like the lips on a beached trout. “This isn’t just going to go away.”

I wasn’t sure what “this” was supposed to be, but again it didn’t seem like the right time to pursue clarification.

“And probably the last thing that your stomach needs now is all that sugar and fat.” She pointed toward a tray of donuts, one I had earlier looked at with total delight.

“Thank you for everything.” I shifted hard to the left and, without much hope for success, tried to make for the door.

A movement of her hips, and she countered my escape.

“Really, I know we’re being rude. We’re sorry for staring and are embarrassed by the need to intervene. But we really did notice just how bad you looked from at least fifty yards away. The way you were dragging yourself across the road all bent and old looking was pitiful.”

She looked to her friends and raised her arms in resignation. Dione pointed in the air and made a gesture like she was writing something.

“We’re not going to let you go until you promise to see a doctor. Dione’s from Connecticut and can’t prescribe here. And everything’s closed on Sunday in town anyway. But you have to promise. You need a prescription, and you need medicating. Do you promise?” She smiled a lovely smile.

What could I do?  All was lost. I made the necessary pledges, twice before she finally stepped aside and left the exit unguarded. With her look of saintly concern at my back, I slipped out the door, heading back for the woods, trying as I left to walk as uprightly as possible.

This time it was me doing the watching, peering through the leaves a few feet down the trail until they got into their Volkswagen—all laughter, cheer, and summer dresses—and drove away. Her warning still pinching my ears, I settled for only three still-hot jelly donuts and a strawberry milkshake. My appetite wasn’t what it once was.

Ten minutes and half a mile later down the trail, I paid the price. With only three seconds notice, I barely got two feet off the path and partly out of my prized Dartmouth College gym shorts before the foul tsunami thundered in. I was bent stiffly over, holding my spent, shivering chalk-white flesh up by a small tree, when the first of the Girl Scouts walked by.

The long parade of young girls reacted quite kindly, on the whole. Most passed without comment, pretending not to look. But at least one gagged.

I decided I definitely needed some professional help.

 

 

 

 

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