Mike Price waddled into camp panting. The old man had a fresh red pack that looked blown up like a balloon. It must have weighed a hundred pounds. We heard him coming from a mile away.
"Was that you tootin' off the airhorn?" I questioned, as he sat at the picnic table across from me and Jonas.
He confirmed that it had been. He had a red sweaty face and labored breathing, but I could see that something more was wrong. He was bug-eyed from more than exhaustion, and the impending drama was almost palpable from the offset.
"Have you seen a guy named Steve Pippin?"
Me and Jonas started hiking the Appalachian Trail from the start. This was the third night, and we were getting into the swing of it. We were sleeping in the shelters along the trail, and since it was off-season, we mostly had them to ourselves. The sun was getting low, and we had maybe an hour until final light. We were finishing dinner and spouting off nonsense when Mike burst in.
Mike and this guy Steve were hiking south together, and they got separated. There was a long rocky climb, and their packs were at least as heavy as Jonas's and mine combined. There were bear bells clanging, yellow walkie-talkies, and somewhere an airhorn. I got no opportunity to rifle through his gear, but I suspect the abundance of communication devices was only a hint of a far deeper absurdity.
We had not seen Steve Pippin. To an already rattled Mike Price this was grim news. This was dire indeed.
They had an agreement, he explained. As he was huffing and puffing up the mountain, Steve went ahead. He said that he would go to the top, drop off his pack, and return to help Mike with his. Simple as that. Clear and simple. When Steve failed to return, Mike could imagine only one reason: he fell off the mountain. The trail was steep, and there were places to fall. He tried the walkie talkie and the airhorn. Nothing. The only explanation was death.
I suspected from the first telling that Steve Pippin was very alive. Communication-obsessed as they seemed, wires do get crossed. Miscommunication has been known to occur. I tried to explain my theory of unknown variables, but it's hard to console a baby twice your age. It was hard to impart the value of staying calm.
A miscommunication did not register as possible. In fact, as Mike Price replayed the events endlessly, he only became more certain of doom. He added to the story, and soon Steve Pippin had been adamant: "We're a team!" Mike now remembered him proclaiming.
Likely scenarios be damned. Waiting until morning wouldn't do. Steve Pippin was dead or dying, and the time for action was now. As the light began to fade, Mike returned to the trail to retrace his steps. He looked like he wanted to see a ghost. It was hard to regard him as a simple annoyance, because he looked like he might begin to cry. He was a child who gave up when he got lost in the mall. He was afraid of being alone.
It was business as usual once he left. Read a few pages and set up for bed.
"Goddamn this man," I thought, as I handed Mike Price my phone charger. He huffed and puffed back into camp at midnight, and his panic was now in full bloom. He needed to call the authorities, but his phone was almost as dead as his friend. In all that luggage, he didn't have a battery. He needed to waste the power that I was saving for sexy texts to my future wife. But it would have been callous to refuse.
With his phone getting juice, he called cops and wives, and attempted to cast all manner of alarm as far and wide as possible. I pulled the flap of my bivy back over my head and tried to ignore the proceedings.
"Goddamn this man!" Mike Price had laid out his sleep shit barely a foot from my head, and now he was snoring like a Jake braking diesel.
The next thing I knew, it was 2 a.m. and flashlight beams were whirling in every direction as loud men marched into camp from the trail. Fire, Rescue, and Good Ol' Georgia Boys spilled into camp. Clamor be damned, they began to hatch plans. One of them threw a plastic water bottle on the coals of our fire, and it gave two of them a start when it whistled a reply. They smoked and chortled; ribbed and guffawed. There wasn't anything they could do, aside from show up. Well, there was one thing. And the taxpayers wouldn't mind.
Scarcely an hour later, a low flying chopper was combing over the mountain using heat seeking radar to find a body I felt sure wasn't there. They made many passes, but came up empty handed. To poor old Mike this confirmed the worst. The corpse of Steve Pippin was already cold.
"No." I said too weakly, "unknown variables" I failed to explain. I wanted to slap him to his senses, and implore logical thought. But it would be inappropriate to throttle an aging stranger.
The light had been rising, and now it was risen indeed. Once the sun made the path visible, I took Mike's water bottles to the creek. I used my filter to pump fresh water into his bright and shiny new Nalgene containers, enjoying the brief respite from the curtain of worry that had fallen over camp.
Good old Mike thanked me for the water, and he shuffled slowly down the path to look again for a decaying corpse.
Jonas and I got back to the program, and put some oats on the stove. Before the oats reached a boil, a new man strolled into camp. Big fresh red pack. Looked like it was stuffed with blankets.
"Mr. Steeeeeeeve Pippin!" I greeted him; a celebrity guest on the stage. I told him people were looking for him. I mentioned the helicopter, which he either didn't register or believe. I walked over and unclipped the walkie talkie from his pack. I said he should call Mike.
Steve Pippin turned on the walkie. After they got separated he'd never bothered to turn it on. His promise to turn back was either forgotten or it never happened. He continued on the trail much further than planned. He radiated an oblivious innocence.
Mike Price was on the horn immediately. The team would be back together at last.