Each word hangs forever, suspended in the small distance between the flip phone and my ear. Bobby recites the entire nursery rhyme. It’s exasperatingly long and his voice cuts in and out due to the poor reception. A cloud thins out into tatters of white and gray, and for a moment Rainbow Lake comes into view. From atop the ledges it is a cobalt jewel set against the fall-colored Maine hills.
Finally the beep comes. “Bobby, it’s me. We hear that you… ran into some difficulty yesterday.” A bit of an understatement, considering he collapsed on the trail and was carried out by a rescue team, but it’s what comes from my mouth. “We didn’t find out until dark. Sorry we got ahead of you.” We were nine miles north of where he’d gone down when we received word.
My watch says 11:30. The metal band, too big for months, easily twists around my wrist. “We should be at Abol Bridge by three o’clock,” I say. “That’s where we’re camping tonight. Meet us there and we’ll polish this thing off on Sunday.” Today is Friday. I catch Trolley Stop’s nod and see that we at last agree on something today. This thing we are polishing off is the Appalachian Trail (AT). We have walked 2,160 miles of it to be here. Twenty-one more will finish the journey. “Please give us a call back. I’m leaving my phone on for the next fifteen minutes.”
My fingers unzip the top pocket of my backpack and find the thin edge of the trail guidebook. Not much of it is left, because I tear out pages as I go. Looking at the open book now is like staring down into the face of amnesia. The past is gone. The blank, inside cover and few dog-eared, yet-to-be-hiked pages are all that is left. On one of these, a map for the town of Millenocket is laid out in black and white lines. A regional hospital is shown as a cross inside of a tiny box. There is a phone number.
The receptionist has difficulty hearing me and puts me on hold. A string version of “Born Free” stutters while I wait. Getting up and moving to a higher spot gives me another bar of signal and smooths out the music only slightly. Climbing atop a rock does nothing.
“Hello?” It’s a new voice. A nurse identifies herself.
“Yes, hi.” I repeat my request. “I’m trying to find out the condition of a hiker who was brought in last night. His name is Buffalo Bobby.”
“Are you immediate family?”
“Uh…no. I’m one of his hiking partners.”
“I’m sorry,” says the nurse. “I can only give out information to immediate family.”
“Can you transfer me to his room, then, if he’s been admitted, please?”
There is a pause. “He is not here at the hospital,” she says, carefully. “You should contact one of his family members.”
Thanking her, I hang up but leave the phone on in case Bobby does call. The logical conclusion is that he’s been released or transported to a larger hospital. Four faces stare up at me with the same question. Natty, Shotgun, and Roadie are friends we’ve hiked with off and on over the past week. They were among the first to find Bobby lying on the trail, and they brought us the news last night, at the lean-to we shared.
“He’s either been discharged or he’s dead,” I tell them. “He’s not in the hospital.” Nobody laughs at the joke. Trolley Stop, my other hiking partner this past month, has hiked with Bobby since March. Today is the last day of September.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” I say quickly, realizing that maybe he’s not. “He probably took advantage of the free ride into town. I can see him eating a cheeseburger right now and telling the ‘jackass joke’ to some poor, unsuspecting waitress.” Trolley and I cringe whenever Bobby launches into the joke. Crowded restaurants are favorite spots.
“Every woman wants three things,” Bobby announces at his one volume level—New Jersey loud. “Do you know what they are?”
His target, usually it’s our waitress, shakes her head and shoots Trolley or I a deer-in-the-headlights stare. I am half-looking for a table to crawl under, because there is absolutely no stopping him at this point. If still seated, Bobby stands and looks around to make sure he has everyone’s attention. He’s not a big man, though his sometimes aggravating, often generous, and always lovable character is just plain huge.
“The three things every woman wants are: a nice car, a diamond, and a donkey,” he explains, grinning broadly beneath his American flag head buff.
He holds up a finger. “A nice car to drive around…”
Two fingers wiggle in the air. “A diamond ring for her finger…”
His eyes shine as the third finger goes up. “And the third thing every woman wants is—a jackass to give it all to her!” He then jams both thumbs into his ears and brays, “Ee-haw… Ee-haw…Ee-haw!”
Bobby usually spends the next thirty minutes smoothing over ruffled feathers without apologizing. He seems to only step deeper into his mess, and yet by the time we leave he’s somehow endeared himself to every woman there. They not only forgive, but love his blundering, good-natured, feigned ignorance over the social missteps. He comes off like a human teddy-bear. The awful joke works every time.
Trolley looks unflappable, sitting there on a bare slab of rock, eating lunch. We can’t change whatever has or hasn’t happened to Bobby, and I know this is what he’s thinking. I’m thinking that I should have gone back to look for him the day before. I’m angry with myself and at the world. I want Bobby to be alright.
“You’re not a betting man, are you?”
“I can be.” Trolley’s eyes cut toward me in a wary side-glance. I’ve been cross with him all morning. “Why?”
“I think Bobby’s fine,” I say. The words ring hollow, but I keep going. “He probably checked out of the hospital and is on the way to meet us. I’ll bet you one dollar he’s there at the bridge with a six pack yelling, ‘Hey! What’s the hold-up?’ when we get there.” This gets a laugh. Bobby shouts these same words, loud enough to startle everyone around, every time he finds Trolley struggling with a tough climb or descent.
“You’re on,” Trolley says. “One dollar.” We shake hands on it like middle-school boys.
The next section of trail is a long descent into a wet, boulder-strewn region made even more dismal by the overcast afternoon. Clouds of mosquitoes drive us onward. The terrain gets easier, and we push ourselves until we are racing. Trolley is twelve years older. He runs marathons, though, and soon outpaces me. This irritates me, too.
The trail abruptly veers off an old logging road. Muttering to myself and steeped in a dark mood, I nearly miss the turnoff. We usually wait for each other at tricky spots like this one. Calling out in the direction the road goes doesn’t get an answer, so I gather that Trolley did see the turn and has put me into a much deserved “time-out.” I turn up the trail in search of my hiking partner and a better attitude.
Trolley is waiting for me at a weathered sign. We have reached the northern end of Maine’s “Hundred-Mile Wilderness.” This is a big deal. We’re emerging from the most remote and rugged 100-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. A twelve mile victory march and one, final climb are all that remain of half a year’s trek. We slap hands and take pictures. Already I have a feeling that the trail behind me is a beautiful dream I am waking up from. I’m jubilant as we walk the few hundred yards to The Golden Road.
The road is paved with asphalt instead of the whimsical picture of bullion I’d imagined, but the sun reappears at that very moment, and to me scene is golden. Abol Bridge carries The Golden Road and the trail over the Penobscot River’s west branch. The AT here is a walkway made of rubberized matting, and dampened vibrations come through my boot soles with each passing pick-up truck. We both stop mid-way across to stare up the river.
“There it is.” Trolley’s voice softens to a reverent, near-whisper. “The end of our journey.”
This is my first good look at the mountain. In the tongue of the Penobscot People, its name translates to, “the greatest mountain.” It’s often called Mount Katahdin, but technically the name is redundant. The massive, flat-topped behemoth rises up from the river basin and stands alone like a quiet sentinel guarding over the surrounding state park. Katahdin’s sheer granite cliffs are spotlighted in the afternoon sun—thrilling, awing, and intimidating me all at once. In front of the mountain, the Penobscot River reflects the now clear sky like a blue ribbon thrown haphazardly across the floodplain. The picture is perfect—almost. Neither of us mentions the elephant not in the room.
We cross the bridge and head straight for the campground office. It’s also a store, a grille, and a game inspection station. I grab postcards and ice cream, and then we pay for a campsite on the riverbank. The site turns out to be nearly under the bridge, but it is on the river and it does have a picnic table and a fire ring. We automatically begin setting up our tents. Our friend Shotgun starts over the bridge toward us, and I wave. He’s tall and like most men at this stage of the hike, also bearded and thin. He crosses and turns to scramble down the rock embankment to our campsite.
“Hey, you made it,” I say to him as I clip my tent to the arched skeleton of assembled poles. “There’s ice cream at the store.”
“Pizza, too,” Trolley adds. “And a grille. They make all kinds of sandwiches.” Food is the central theme of all hiker conversations—it always goes there. Shotgun doesn’t say anything, so Trolley and I both stop what we’re doing and turn to look. On the far side of the river, Roadie, Natty and a few other hikers stand together in a small knot. Everyone watches.
Shotgun breaks eye contact. “I wanted to reach you guys before you heard it from some local,” he says. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this.” He pauses a moment and glances at the ground. When he looks back up, his eyes are wet. “Buffalo Bobby died last night at the hospital in Millenocket.”
Trolley is speaking to me, but I don’t understand what he’s saying. The world retracts to a tight circle around his face. I start unclipping my tent and notice Shotgun heading back across the bridge.
“We should go into town,” I say. Trolley nods. We both have family arriving in Millenocket today. Thoughts begin to form and just dissolve—it’s the strangest feeling. I don’t know what to do next and consider turning around and following the trail back to Georgia. Instead, we pack up our gear there on the bank of the Penobscot and climb back up to the office.
Trolley goes inside and returns a moment later with our refunded campsite fee. He hands me my half as a young man in a uniform approaches. He’s a Maine Appalachian Trail Club ridge-runner come to give us information and rules on camping inside the park. Trolley does the talking and the man stops the next outbound pick-up truck for us.
We toss our packs into the bed and squeeze in between an outboard motor, tackle boxes, and gas cans. The truck lurches forward and we grab for things to hold onto. I pull off my hat and shove it under a knee before the wind can take it. A trailer holding a bass boat rattles behind, bouncing over the washboard road. The truck bed is a bruising ride, but it is good to feel something.
“Hey!” Trolley says. He kicks my boot and I look up. He is pressed into a corner, holding a lapful of fishing-rod tips in one hand and the side of the truck with the other.
Trolley started the hike six months before, at age 67, with absolutely no backpacking experience. He learned enough, mostly the hard way, was lucky enough, and was determined enough to make it to the end. What I admire most and envy about him is his calm, even-keeled approach to problems. Nothing bothers him. He is the one person I know of who falls more often than I do. Always, he picks himself up and continues on with a mild self-scolding—even after the bad ones.
Trolley once told me about a Vietnam tragedy and how it changed him. He lived; others died, all strictly by chance. He accepted this and decided to live life from that moment on. He asked his girlfriend to marry him the day he came home. She did. They had lots of children. He landed a good job and grabbed his piece of the American Dream. I see that working for him. He is at peace with himself, even now. I want that, too.
His voice vibrates with the truck as he shouts, “You owe me a dollar!”
I take it from my wallet, fat with credit cards and ATM receipts, and hand it over. Later I will cry, but, right now, we both laugh. Bobby would have loved it.