This trip had been in the planning for months and I was finally ready to take on the Appalachian Trail. Ever since I read the book "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson I had been promising myself that I was going to do it. I used part of my savings to buy the gear and had even bypassed the spring term at the university to get a start in early April, hoping to make it to the other end by October. I'm an experienced hiker but I had never tried anything even close to this. I hugged my dad who insisted on driving me to the trailhead to see me off.
"Take care, son. Give us a call whenever you have access to a phone"
"I will, Dad. Thanks for all your help in putting this thing together. I'll see you this October in Maine."
With that, I was on my way. The first part of the trail wasn't too tough. My plan was to try to do two three-hour stretches every day until I got used to the strain on my legs and the weight on my back. I figured it would take several days to establish my pace. There were wayside rest stops all along the trail but most of my nights would be spent in my tent a few yards off the beaten path.
The first few days passed without anything of consequence to report. Occasionally, I would hook up with other hikers, very few of them out to walk the whole thing. Sometimes we would stay together for a few miles but invariably, we'd end up separating. I was close to the Tennessee-North Carolina border north of Georgia when my adventure, the subject of this story began.
I was resting on a boulder after a series of fairly steep inclines reminded me I still had some toughening up to do. The area around me was pretty rugged and I hadn't seen any sign of civilization for two days. As I was munching on some trail mix and sipping from my canteen, I thought I saw some movement in my peripheral vision. I looked around to spot it but saw nothing. There are black bears around but they usually try to keep their distance from humans. I figured it was probably some small animal or maybe a deer. I shrugged into my pack and got underway. The rest of the day promised to be a little easier because, from what I could see on my topographical map, it was mostly downhill. I hadn't walked a half a mile when I caught movement off to the side again, and this time I was sure I saw a flash of red. The only red animal I could think of in these parts was a cardinal and I was pretty sure what I saw wasn't a bird.
I'm not given to panicky reactions but I'd heard stories of rare assaults and robberies of lone hikers. I stopped and took my 9mm and holster out of my pack and strapped it onto my belt. If I were being scoped out, maybe that would discourage them. I didn't see anything else suspicious for the rest of the day so I decided that either it was nothing to start with or the person or animal no longer had any interest in me. I stopped at a wayside camp and got my tent set up before dark, then started a fire in the little grated fireplace to heat up some freeze-dried stew. Oh, yummy! Just as I started to pour some of it into a mug, someone stepped out from behind a tree about thirty feet away. I guess I spooked and put my hand where my pistol would be but of course it was in the tent. When I looked closer, I saw it was a kid, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old. He had dark, ratty looking hair that was down to his shoulders and he was dressed in old jeans and a red sweatshirt that were way too big for him. He was bare footed but had a pair of high top shoes tied together and hanging around his neck. I was pretty sure I'd just met my 'stalker'.
"Hi! Can I help you?" I asked.
"Hey! I's wonderin' if ya could use some hep." He still had a boy's voice and the accent was so heavy it took me a few seconds to figure out what he said. His head was cocked to the side and his eyes were fixed on the pot of stew. The message seemed to be that he was hungry and hoping to work for food.
"What's your name?"
"Nice to meet you, C J. My name is Dave. What kind of help did you have in mind?"
"Ah could tote stuff fer yuh. Ah'm purdy strong."
"Well, we might work something out. Would you like to have some supper with me?"
He nodded his head and walked over to the camp. I handed him the mug of stew I had poured and asked him to have a seat on the log by the campfire. He began blowing and sipping the stew like he couldn't wait for it to cool off. He was really hungry and one mug of stew wasn't going to be enough. I went to the tent and came back with a bag of gorp and tossed it over to him. I poured myself some stew and refilled his mug with the last of it.
Why wasn't this kid in school, I wondered. "Do you live around here, CJ?"
"Ah don' live no place."
"What do you mean? Don't you have family around here somewhere?"
"Ah wuz stayin' with a ol' man but Ah thank he dahed."
Again, a pause for translation, "You think he died? When did he die?"
"Two days ago. Ah got skeered 'n tuk off."
This was getting really bizarre. "OK. Let me get this straight. You were living with an old man and he might have died two days ago and then you left. Weren't there neighbors you could go to for help?" He wouldn't look me in the eye and my gut told me he was hiding something.
"The onliest folks aroun'd thar's his kin 'n Ah cain't abide 'em."
I didn't feel like I was getting anywhere so I gave it a rest. The map showed that I'd get to a small town the next day and there might be someone there who could help him. "Tell you what, CJ. We'll try you out tomorrow carrying the tent and the sleeping bag, then we'll talk about it again. Will that work for you?"
"Yessuh. Tha'd be fahn."
"Do you have a sleeping bag or anything?"
"Nah, Ah'll jes curl up heah by the fahr."
"It looks like it might rain tonight. I have an extra blanket you can wrap around you and sleep in the tent."
"Well, Ah sho do 'priciate ya n Ah'm b'holden fer the supper."
I didn't sleep all that well because I sort of half way expected him to grab my pack and make a run for it. I was wrong. He slept like a baby.
We had oatmeal with raisins and walnuts and instant coffee for breakfast. Once we got back on the trail, we made pretty good time. The sleeping bag and the tent don't weigh all that much but it's surprising how light my pack felt without them. CJ was still barefoot and I asked him why he didn't wear his shoes. He said they were too big and he only wore them when it was cold. It didn't slow him down though; he stayed right with me every step of the way. Come to think of it, he was probably a lot more used to walking up and down mountainsides than I was. When we stopped for lunch, I told him that I was going to get a room for the night if there was a motel in town. That would give both of us a chance to clean up and resupply. At first, he didn't seem too enthusiastic about the idea, but I explained to him that if he was going to share a tent with me, he needed to clean himself up because he smelled a little gamey. He grinned in response and that reminded me that we needed to get him a toothbrush.
There was a small motel that catered to hikers near the trail but they only had one room and it was a single. I took it anyway because I didn't feel like tromping all over town looking for another. The lady said there was a coin-op laundry about a block down the street and a general store the next block down. We decided to do the store first so CJ would have something to wear while we washed our clothes. Since the store catered to hikers, there was a good supply of gear. We got him some jeans, heavy socks, a sweatshirt, some underwear and basic toiletries. Oh, why not? I thought to myself, Let's add some hiking boots to that. If he bolts on me, at least he'll have some creature comforts for a little while. I hadn't paid any attention before but, when he tried on the boots, I was surprised at how small his feet were. Teenage boys are usually still catching up into their feet at his age.
He used the fitting room to change into his new clothes and we carried his dirty ones in a bag along with mine to the laundry. While he was changing I checked in with my dad to let him know I was OK. I didn't mention CJ because I knew I'd have to field a lot of questions that I didn't have answers to yet. There was a lady at the laundry who would wash and dry our stuff for five bucks a load so we left it in her hands and told her we'd pick it up in the morning. As soon as we got back to the room, I pointed CJ to the bathroom and told him not to come out until he was scrubbed clean and his teeth were flossed and brushed. I had to explain and demonstrate what flossing was. While he was still in the shower, I knocked on the door and said I had to pee. The shower was one of those glassed-in jobs where the glass was frosted; you could see shapes but they were blurry. Even so, as I was standing there doing my business, something didn't seem quite right about what I was seeing. As I watched his shape moving around in the shower, it finally sunk in that CJ had boobs.
My god, he's a girl!
I closed the bathroom door and sat on the bed wondering what in the hell I should do now. Here I was in a motel room, a single no less, with a girl who was probably underage and may in fact be a runaway. A smart person would no doubt be calling the Sheriff's Department and dumping this problem into someone else's lap; but then I have no claim to genius. I'd confront her with it and see what she had to say.
When she came out of the bathroom, looking a whole lot better I might add, I just came right out and asked, "Why didn't you tell me you were a girl?"
"Wernt no secret 'n ya ditn' ask. Ah kin do th' work so whut's th' differnce?"
.... There is more of this story ...