It was a windy day, the sun flashing brilliantly from behind intermittent clouds that raced across the sky. Up on the Gap, day trippers roamed over the short-cropped grass, heaving themselves step over step up the slope, between scrubby shrubbery that clung to the steep hillside.
And ponies! There were ponies up on the ridge. The appreciated the occasional carrot or apple.
Our packs, a familiar heft, rode on bruised hips. After several days on the trail, they fit into the hollows and over the bones as if molded to us. We had made it down the rock pile of a trail from the higher peak, treacherous for the unaware foot or ankle.
Easing our way down over the gap, we took the familiar gravel fork towards the parking lot, down down to the fence line, and through the gate. The gate swung closed behind us. No ponies allowed near the road.
The green lawn spread out before us, the picnic area dotted with fantastically twisted branches mottled white and gray. We found a likely pause and eased off the packs. We swigged water and looked about us. People scattered across the park at various states of leisure or strolling progress. We hadn't planned to come out at this spot, as pretty as it was, but it was convenient, the closest outlet within a couple days hike for an emergency stop.
Who should we ask? Someone who looked friendly. Someone with a larger car. One couple nodded to us as they passed us on the way to their SUV still breathing hard from their hike. We'd passed them further up the trail. Them, I thought. I paused, letting them settle in. They took some time stowing their gear. I approached, looking as winsome and non threatening as possible.
"Excuse me, ma'am. I was wondering if you all could possibly give us a ride into Damascus. We've been on the trail all week, and our stove just broke! We need to get into town so we can get another stove at the outfitters. I was wondering if you all could you possibly help us out? We just need a ride."
The woman closed her face, unwilling to say yes or no. "Don!" She called to her husband. "What do you think? This lady says she needs a ride."
"Me and my husband, both." My husband nodded and tried to look non-threatening.
"Where are you all going?" The man squinted at me.
"Damascus," I told him. "Me and my husband" (here I nodded in DH's direction) "started from there last week. We had the bad luck of our camp stove breaking, so we need to get to the outfitters to have it fixed, but we're stuck out here without a ride. Would you happen to be heading in that direction?" I was giving him an easy out.
The man looked at us for a moment. "I think we could go that way." He eyed our packs. "Those should fit in back."
"Oh, thank you so much! We really appreciate it! I thought we'd be stuck here forever." I am miss light and easy. No pressure, no other requests. DH nods and says, "Thanks a lot." "No problem," the man says, but the woman looks as if she regrets giving her husband the final say.
We stowed the packs in silence.
"Where are you folks from? You don't sound like you are from hereabouts."
"Oh, we're from ____, North Carolina."
"North Carolina, huh?"
"Yup. We enjoy coming up here every year. Some years we just hike and camp. This year, we were more ambitious and are hiking a loop around the area."
I was still trying to be friendly. No, we are not weird people. We're just like you. Too late; we already look alien. Boots! Packs! Slightly stinky layers. And what sane person carried twenty five to forty pounds all over tarnation for the fun of it?
The drive takes a good thirty minutes on the twisty roads, the same distance it's taken us more than three days to cover on the trail. It's strange to be moving so quickly over the ground. It's a unsettled jarring of time and place. Why did we just cover all that ground on foot?
We chat about the metal roofs we see on houses, the state of the weather this Summer, our jobs. I am still trying to convince them that we are ordinary folks. But backpacking along a trail is already too strange.
"Do you all need to stop for any supplies?"
"No, we're pretty well set. We just need to get our stove fixed."
"You have everything you need in those packs, huh?"
"Yup, pretty much."
The woman picks up a Wendy's cup from the cup holder. She shakes the ice in the cup and slurps loudly. She shakes the ice again even more vigorously as if scolding us. I almost snort at her disapproving expression. Ma'am, you can keep your ice. We are not your social inferiors. Except somehow we are. Having to ask for help makes us inferior to the people who are always within easy reach of their cars.
They let us out half a block away from the outdoor outfitters store. "Do you need any help with that?" This time barely sincere. "No thanks, I've got it!" We swing the weight of the packs out easily. Once more, the packs are slung over our backs, this time for just a short jaunt up the street. We don't have any small bills to offer the couple in thanks, so I settle for a little philosophizing. "We really appreciate the ride. Thank you. It was a big help. I'll pass along the favor to someone else next time I get a chance." The woman's face is twisted into something almost a sneer. Ahh, screw it, lady. We nod at them and head straight for the store, relieved to be on the ground again.
At the outfitters, they tell us that a new part would take a week to come in, but that, amazingly, the camp stove is still under some kind of "forever" manufacturers warranty. They suggest that they give us another one just like it from their stock, and they'll return ours and get reimbursed. For the second time in one day, we are grateful of a stranger's generosity, but this time, it feels welcoming.
We are punchy with tiredness - it is now late afternoon. We devour a large pizza for dinner and head back over to our favorite backpackers haven. They'll shuttle us back to the gap later. But for now, we crash. The rooms are small cinderblock rooms with thin carpet, but they seem like luxury to us. A hot shower and we fall into bed, to return to the trail the next day.