Monday, June 21, 2010

Our Walk in the Woods: Day One (and a half)

Soon after my graduation from Guilford College, I discovered Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods and fell in love with the story of the 800 plus mile hike he took with his friend Stephen Katz on the Appalachian Trail. Like millions of Bryson's readers, after reading the book I felt empowered to at least attempt to hike portions of the trail. I thought a good long walk with a backpack in the forest would be the ideal way to celebrate my revised life as an ex smoker. Thinking of the exciting physical challege of climbing thousands of feet of mountain terrain, filling my lungs with exhilarating clean air and enjoying the return of my sense of smell, I happily filled my pack and didn't object when my dear one ordered the maps then planned a series of circuit hikes in the Shenandoah National Park near the AT, rather than a long, relatively straight hike exclusively on the famous pedestrian highway. A straight hike on the AT meant seeing lots of other hikers (I liked this idea, but dear one loves solitude), and it meant leaving our car and arranging for a ride back.
Further research revealed a shuttle service for hikers in the park but we decided against this after learning of Corbin Cabin, a century old homestead near a spring fed river that was available for PACT members to rent for $25.00 per night. To get to it, one has to hike one hour downhill from Skyline Drive. This delighted my economist/naturalist/adventure loving guy. We joined the PACT and reserved it for three nights, and looked forward to experiencing this historic sanctuary in the middle of our vacation. We would use our tent for the first and last two nights of the trip.
After taking our son to my brother in Fariborn, Ohio, we arrived at the park as the sun crept behind the mountains. In the dusky evening, I strapped on my brand new pack. Everything felt wrong. I was immediately aware of what a horse must experience when a person sits on its back. My chest felt a sharp pain of constriction as the weight pulled me backward and down. I struggled to walk with ease on flat pavement but pasted on a smile for my dear one and snapped on my head lamp. In a matter of minutes, I was walking uphill on ankle twisting rocks in the quickly fading light. Soon, I was surrounded by dense woods on a narrow trail in complete darkness.
Bugs flew at my eyes and nose, attracted to the white light of my headlamp. Annoyed, I snapped off the lamp and adjusted my eyes to the darkness. Even during the darkest nights, tiny bits of light appear. At that point on the journey, the stars were obscured by tree limbs. Worse than the absence of light were the swishy, rustling noises close to the trail. Dear one played the harmonica to alert the bear of our presence. Startled by the sound, the big swishy noisemaker suddenly stopped making noises. My legs turned to water as sweat trickled from my forehead. Maybe it was just a deer. Maybe. After a little while, the swishing sound could be heard farther away. I somehow fund a way to step forward and to keep following the man who spent months planning and saving for his long awaited vacation.
I tried to hide my fear, but frankly, hiking in the darkness on a narrow, rocky, dense trail to the top of Brown Mountain where black bears live is at the very least, nerve wracking. My heart raced, I poured sweat and prayed mightily.
The darkness deepened until at last we saw the night sky and a huge gray rock that stood out like a bright beacon of safety. The rock had a wide ledge and we happily climbed to it, resting our tired backs on its solid surface. Back country hikers are required to camp away from trails, out of sight. To my dismay it would have been against the rules to sleep on that rock.
Not wanting to give into my fears the first night, I forced myself to relax a little and enjoyed the vastness of the night sky on the mountain top, full of stars and cool air. I made myself remember that was truly rewarding to do something so challenging and extraordinary with my husband. We were more than Dick and Jane and the white picket fence. So much more. We were alive and free in the natural world.
Even though I was beginning to discover that I had the power to control the waves of fear if I tried hard enough, my nervousness and exhaustion that night left me standing rather uselessly in the woods while dear one set up our tent and hung the food. I slipped into the tent with my head on the low end (where our feet should have been), and immediately felt like a caterpillar in a flimsy cocoon.

I was too tired to turn around but too nervous to sleep. Concentrating on the wind that sounded like ocean waves above my head, I reviewed bright memories of my idyllic childhood to comfort me between a series of light naps.
The memories were full of color and bittersweet. I ached for my Michigan home with its lush green lawn and cottonwood trees. I remembered the feeling of walking barefoot to the garden and seeing my dad work on his tractor. I remembered my mom's sheets on the line and my younger brothers playing an imaginary game near the deck. Then, to my amazement, the tent walls looked white. Morning had arrived on Brown Mountain and with it the wind had died down and the birds were chattering. I had survived my first night in the back country. With a head dizzy from lack of a good sleep and a soft supportive pillow, I braved the underbrush for a ideal place to pee while dear one boiled our water. Having finished these tasks, we climbed back to the big rock and drank our coffee, exhilarated by the air, the space and the view.

After breaking camp, I managed to adjust my pack so that I could breathe. The hike down the mountain was a feast for the eyes, but it was hard. The terrain was steep and filled with rocks.
We kept up a good pace and made it to a river during the heat of the day. Having only spotted one person all day, I felt safe enough to change into my swimsuit and rest in the shallow pools betwen the slippery rocks.
It was shortly after this refreshing rest that we found ourselves at an area of the trail were we had to cross the river. Dear one had already made it to the other side when I stepped on the first big rock and looked up to see a very large black bear bottom crashing through the trees away from me. I was stunned by his/her speed, awestruck by the black glistening fur that shook in ripples while it sped away. I knew without any doubt that I would never run from a bear. Running would be completely pointless against a beast of that size and speed. My husband was on the same side of the river as the bear. The noise of the rushing river had prevented him from hearing anything. He did not know that he was so close to the bear. To alert him of this development, I whispered his name.
I'm sure he couldn't hear me whispering his name above the gurgling rushing water, but he finally turned back to check on me. I was gesturing with my arms to show him "bear! Big Bear!


Due to the fullness of my experience on the trail, I've decided to share this story in a series of installments. Please check in tomorrow for Day Two: An eleven hour hike and our arrival on the Appalachian Trail.

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