“Andy,” I said one day with an air of sadness in my voice. “Know what? I think I just realized all our crazy hiking stories and accidental adventures in the wilderness — we don’t have them anymore. We know what we are doing, we aren’t novice. That’s sort of depressing, isn’t it?”
“L,” he exhaled deeply. His voice sounded as if he was rolling his eyes so I looked up at him. “That’s not a bad thing.”
“But — ”
“Be honest with yourself — It’s you after all. I’m positive we will have more stories.”
He continued going about his work but I couldn’t get it out of my head that he was wrong — We were doomed to normalcy. No danger? No sense of hopelessness? No powering through in an effort to survive? No stories?
Where’s the fun in that?
“I suppose you’re right,” I told him. Maybe our stories would simply be different. Maybe they would be told through pictures of happy, calm trails. Change didn’t have to be bad. “Well, speaking of hiking, where are we going next?”
And that little conversation is one I would be reminded of later . . .
* * * * *
My Brit woke early — a sheer miracle — so we could drive to West Virginia for a two-day hike in Cranberry Wilderness, a name that immediately had my heart on a string. There, we were headed into Monongahela National Forest, which promised a rugged landscape with steep mountains and a dense forest filled with old-grown red spruce. Essentially, a dream. However, the trails there are not to be overlooked — The one we chose, for instance, was reputably known for being so sharply angled and rocky that it was better to climb instead of descend. It was also an unblazed trail that carried a warning: “Depending on the time of year you decide to hike, a map, compass, and GPS are highly recommended as many of the trails can be harder to navigate.” We were aware of the dangers from the start and every so often, my heart would begin to beat more intensely.
“Are you sure this wasn’t a bad idea?” I asked Andy about every thirty minutes. “Those that threw warning words at us — they are experienced hikers. If they are speaking of getting lost, we surely will be doomed.”
“Nonsense. We are more experienced,” he told me. There wasn’t even a crease of concern on his brow before he retorted, “Plus weren’t you just talking about how our crazy hiking stories were done? Your words — not mine.”
I huffed. At that time I had my bare feet on the carpet and was sitting on our puffy sofa, safely tucked inside our home. Now I was questioning why innocent selfies, boring trail-story hikes — why those weren’t viewed as acceptable earlier.
“I’m serious,” I told him. “This is the first time I feel like we are going too far.” This was rare for me — I’m the type of person that sees no bounds, the type that aims to hike the Appalachian Trail before even owning backpacking boots and a pack — so this must have proved my apprehension.
“L,” he looked me in the eyes. “We’re going to be fine. Okay? We can do this. We’re going to be fine.”
I knew he believed that so I tried to believe it too, focusing instead on the introductory bit in our directions that said “Your reward is one of the most beautiful areas on the East Coast, with moss-covered mountains, streams with pools, and exceptional solitude.” The trail to get there: Middle Fork/Big Beechy.
- About twenty-one miles (The distance is incorrect on HikingUpward)
- 2,170-foot elevation gain
- Level Three of Five difficulty
From the moment we arrived in Cranberry Wildnerness, we could tell it was a different place, a unique forest, one lost in time. Carrying the nickname The Ice Age Forest, it was a relic of that time period. Not only that, but the area was known to be “a bit of Canada gone astray” because the animals and plants that live there are normally found hundreds of miles north; however, due to the high elevation, cold weather, and earth’s structure, they exist happily here.It was late spring so most of the trees were still dormant, the ground shielded by a brittle brown. Weaving out of the deadness though, spots of red spruce stretched above as if protectors of the forest.
The road curved, taking us around both sides of the mountain, when suddenly a massive bird flew in front of the windshield — It’s speckled dark wings, strong and wide, allowing it to fly inches above our car before turning in mid-air to continue up ninety-degrees. It came to rest, nervous and shaken, on a high limb above the road.
Moments later, we spotted a large groundhog wagging its bum in the air as it scratched dirt beside the edge of the road. And our drive continued like this — hints of the otherworldly, and maybe that word came to me because we zipped by a gnome house tucked next to a line of bright yellow forsythias a couple yards from the pavement.
“Ooopsss,” I said slouching my shoulders, embarrassed. I had galloped back to the vehicle after taking pictures, not wanting to keep Andrew waiting longer, and had not looked on my seat before sitting down. I quickly pulled the now destroyed object from under my bum and hid it beside my leg so Andy couldn’t see.
“Wot was that?”
I didn’t answer.
“Lemon. Wot was that?” (Sidenote: This is the nickname Andy calls me, which ironically my family has called me since I was little. In the UK, if a person is a ‘lemon’ though, it means they are not bright and this is why people have stood up for me before when he has called me that in England; however, he calls me this because my initials — LM — which sound like ‘lemon.’ Back to story!) “Wot did you do . . . ” He knew what I did. He simply didn’t want to believe it.
“I . . . I, um . . . I’m sorry.” I had found a way to slouch so severely that I was curling up into myself.
“Lemon. Please tell me that wasn’t my glasses . . . ” He knew the answer. I knew the answer. I love his expensive Ray Bans and steal them whenever we are in the car. This time I had just, well, forgotten I left them in my seat before sitting back down. “Let me see . . . ” He braced himself.
“Well. Um . . . what part of them do you want to see first?” I asked.
“Wot do you mean ‘wot part’?!”
I was now bracing myself. “I mean. There are a couple different pieces now. What part would you like to see first?”
He huffed and puffed and rolled his eyes. “Any.”
“Um. Okay. Here you go. This is what I think was once a lens . . . ” and here I handed over well, what was once a lens.
“Lemon! How could you?! I can’t take you anywhere!” More huffing and puffing and eye rolling.
“This is the second part,” I told him before adding: “There’s good news though!”
“I doubt that . . . ”
“The good news is this is the last part . . . ” and here I handed over what had been his glasses, now a twisted and very flat pair of glasses. They looked comical — as if they had splattered thin on some sidewalk after a super tall fall. I laughed. Then regretted it.
“Lemon! Is this funny to you?!” Sure, he was unhappy that I had just squashed his costly glasses but he was in no way angry at me. I suppose after knowing me long enough, he expects this type of behavior.
Still, I did feel bad — bad for my lack of looking before I sat on the glasses and bad for my lapse in judgement laughing in the sad situation. I looked at the glasses again before handing them over. They looked dead — some fragile, thin animal. Dead. I began to cry. “I’m sorry!” I sobbed. “I’m so so sorry! I don’t know why I didn’t look! I don’t know why these things always happen! I don’t know why I’m so clumsy! I’m so sorry! I promise to buy you another pair no matter how much they cost!” and I wept and wept and wept.
“Come ‘ere,” he said pulling me to him and taking the dead whatever-it-was-now from my hands. “I know you didn’t mean to. I was just giving you a hard time. And look! The arms — fiberglass arms — They are still perfect! It’s just the joints that need fixin’! If you had to sit on them, this was the best way to sit on them!” That made us both look at the glasses again. A lens detached from a pancaked pair of glasses. I gave him a look that showed I didn’t believe him. He gave me a look through his sad pair of glasses that he awkwardly tried to fit on his face without success.
I giggled. “I’m sorry,” I told him again before he kissed me.
“So okay.You ready to go now?” Then he put the car in drive before turning back to me. “You’re a lot to ‘andle, you know that, right? A bloody lot to ‘andle” and off we drove.
So that was essentially the start of our trip. The farther we got into the mountains, the further we left behind that unfortunate-glasses situation.
Soon we approached the most clear mountain river I have yet to see. It glimmered the lightest emerald color under the sun’s rays.
“Know what would be perfect right now?” Andy asked me and I awaited a romantic moment.
“What?” I asked back.
“To be able to really see the water. With polar lenses, I mean” and he darted a smirk at me before laughing.
“I guess I deserved that,” I said, letting him have his laugh, knowing full well I did deserve it.
A couple of miles later, we arrived at a slender pebbled road and turned onto it, our packs jostling in the back of my vehicle as we dipped into holes filled with water concealing how deep they were. It had been raining for days here, a heavy rain that — even though it had stopped — made us feel soaked due to amount of the moisture left in the air. Gnats buzzed around our bodies in swarms, flying into our eyes and up our noses, in our mouths when we talked to one another; they forced us to cover as much of our faces as we dared with buffs.
The rain also made the ground brim with water. Puddles stretched for yards and inside we found floating frog spawn and darting tadpoles.
I bent to catch the inky tadpoles, a tradition that takes me back to my papa’s farm when my sister and I would crouch by the pond’s edge, our arms outstretched with hands in the water waiting to feel tickling tails against our palms as the tadpoles wiggled across.
Releasing the tadpoles and rising, we followed the tangles of tiny purple flowers along the Big Beechy Trail . . .
until we arrived at an “earthen berm,” which we gathered was this raised portion of ground topped with moss-covered rocks.
The berm seemed a gateway into the forest and ahead, our trail became a swollen stream due to the recent rains. Footprints from past hikers formed soft, thick mud for miles.
“You’re kidding me, right?” I looked to Andrew then down at my brand new backpacking boots.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m the type of girl that jumps into puddles and mud, and welcomes getting dirty on hikes. . . . I just didn’t want my new boots to be smothered in mud so early. For God’s sake, the car was still visible.
“It’s a baptism by fire,” Andrew said to me, smirking, then took off in the sludge.
Sccchhhuuuhckkk schuuuhck sccchhhuhckkk schuhck The mud gooped around our boots, swallowing them and making us fight for each step as our feet were glued to the ground.
“Arghhh!” I heard Andrew groan ahead of me as he violently struggled to free himself from the mud.
He had taken a different route than me — Knowing there was no way to escape the brown goodness, he trekked into the heart of grime while I jumped right and left over the unforgiving trail.
“I’m coming to save you!” I hollered from behind, zigzagging faster towards him.
“Don’t move!” I joked, witnessing him nearly collapse in the thick sludge in an effort to free himself. Right as I approached, he and the mud groaned loud — “AAARGGG!!!” and sccchhhuuuhhhccckkk — as his foot emerged from the mud-pit.
“Bloody ‘ell.” He was panting from his efforts and I was panting from watching him and we were both looking down at his ferocious battle-print cemented in mud.
Onward we continued, twisting and jerking, struggling against the mud as large puddles appeared by our sides again. These puddles held white glops — jellyfish-like beings — that lingered just under the water’s surface.Beside them plants, that appeared more like seaweed, dried. Their light teal color slowly disappearing under the sunlight.The forest was beautiful, supernatural — one that made me feel as if I was both underwater and above ground at the same time. But it was also a place that felt forbidden. Even before we approached the wooden kiosk, we could feel it — an eeriness in the air; something wasn’t right. It was then we saw this: A sign from the U. S. Forest Service and West Virginia State Police. “NEED YOUR HELP” it read, the title in all capital letters. The sign had been thickly lamented with four staples stuck through the wood, ensuring it did not loosen or pull away. On it, hikers were asked to be aware of their surroundings in an effort to find a missing June 2011 hiker.
According to the local paper, the sign was in reference to the disappearance of 56-year-old Michael Camellitti. The experienced hiker and caver from Standardsville, Virginia was supposed to be a four-day backpacking trip but was never seen again.
As Andy and I walked, we felt on edge, searching the forest for any sign of Camellitti. We did find two abandoned campsites, weathered and very primitive — One with a beaten tarp fallen on the ground and another with camping items strewn recklessly about the ground. We reported both, but they were so close to the trail we are thinking officials were already aware of the sites.
Trying to shake the feeling of uneasiness from us, we walked on beside a river and into a massive grouping of red spruce.
The forest floor was lined with bright green moss that seemed to glow and illuminate our trail.
Deeper into the spruce we went as the massive limbs soon blocked out the sun.“AHHHH!” I screamed, jumping back onto Andy.
“WOT! WOT!” His gaze darted all around us so fast that his body twisted in circles while I rapidly clawed at myself — my hair, my face, shoulders and arms, my chest, my body.
The next part of our conversation went on like this for several minutes:
“GETITOFFOFME!!!” “WOT WOT!!!” “ISAIDGETITOFFOFME!!!” “WOOOT!!!WOOOT!!!”
Fortunately, Andy soon determined the ‘it’ in my sentence was a spider and I had walked through a super thick spider’s web. I said ‘fortunately’ there because I was in no mindset to explain what happened for fear of the beast crawling on me so thankfully, he figured it out.
“Its not on you,” Andy said, running his fingers through my hair, over my neck and arms, my back.
“I HEARD it,” I said still shouting.
“Nooo. You heard the web break. You didn’t hear a spider. Spiders don’t — ” I gave him a look that killed his words midsentence. “Do you want me to lead now?” he asked passing me and heading in front, knowing my answer.
“Yes. Please,” I sniffled behind him, watching as he walked off trail and into the woods. “What are you doing?!”
“A SPIDER-STICK!” he exclaimed, raising a massive stick before him and waving it around as if it were a lightsaber. “VVVooooWWW vvvvvvOOOWWW!” and the saber-stick again cut into the air between us. “A spider-stick!” he said one last time. “Those bloody spiders aren’t ge’in us now!”
I nodded, appeased, and off we went again.
Our trail would change from mud to leaves to sand, and it was in the sand we found numerous animal prints. There were some that were were as large as my feet, which we think were bear prints due to their size and shape. (Bears have two sets of prints — Their front and hind feet are shaped differently.)
The presence of large animals could be felt all around. I looked to my right and left — The forest was dense; it could easily conceal a bear stalking us. I stopped taking pictures of the prints and raced behind my fiance.
“Andrew?” I asked, following him down the trail. There was no answer so I tried again. “ANDREW!”
“Wot?” His voice was calm; he didn’t turn or pause and instead kept walking.
“Do you think we will see any bears?”
“WOT?” he repeated, not slowing.
“DO YOU THINK we will SEE any BEARS!?” By this point I was shouting — shouting in the middle of a silent forest, save the occasional bird chirping, and I felt bad it had to come to this. Again. Andy claims he is deaf in one ear and normally we can avoid problems together at home but in the forest when we are walking single-file, not looking at one another, I feel as if we are the loud obnoxious hikers. Of course we aren’t and are more times than not too busy trying to breathe after a strenuous hike — never-the-less talk — but I’m always conscious of the volume of our voices.
“WOT?!” he yelled before turning to me. “YOU KNO’ I CON’T ‘EAR WELL!”
“BUT I CAN SO WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME?!”
“WELL — I DON’ BLOODY KNO’! WOT WERE YOU SAYIN’?!”
Our faces were about two feet apart and why we have to continue our conversation shouting is beyond me, it’s beyond him, but we do every time. “Nevermind,” I told him, wanting to return to the solitude, the tranquility of the woods.
“WOT!” he scuffed back.
“I SAID ‘NEVERMIND!'” I hollered with all the power in my body, causing him to turn back to the trail, grumbling something about “con’t bloody ‘ear” and “no’t me fault” and “olways talk in me bad ear.”
I felt bad. “It wasn’t a big deal — what I was saying,” I projected as a form of apology.
“WOT!” He turned — fiercely — back towards me. “WHY DO YOU OLWAYS WAIT FOR ME TO TURN BLOODY ‘ROUND?!”
“I’M SORRY! I was just SAYING it was-N’T IMPORTANT!”
“WELL I’M NOT TRYIN’ TO FALL OUT WITH YOU EITHER, YOU KNO’! I JUS’ WANTED TO KNOW WOT YOU SAID!”
Fine, I thought and went to tell him — what I hoped was — one last time. “BEARS, ANDY, BEARS! I ASKED IF YOU THOUGHT WE WOULD SEE ANY BEARS BUT HELL — I’M BEYOND POSITIVE THERE’S NO WILDLIFE REMOTELY AROUND US NOW!”
“BLOODY ‘ELL! HOW AM I S’PPOSED TO ‘NOW IF WE’LL SEE ANY BAARES! I DON’T FUCKING KNO’!” and off he turned again to carry on.
“Hey, Andy,” I called again.
“WOT!” It was longer a question — Aggravation bounded out of every syllable.
I snapped a picture — this picture, in fact — of him with his spider-stick, which I’m positive he may have been debating on beating me with at the time.
“I’m sorry,” I told him, unable to stop laughing. “You’re just so cute and British when you’re angry.”
“Bloody Bri’ish accent. I’ll give you a bloody Bri’ish accent” was all I heard him say between my laughter and his footsteps as he continued to walk away.
And this, my friends, is how our conversations go. In the woods, very seldom do we actually look and sound like we know what we are doing. What more often than not happens is we muddle through and somehow make it to where we intended to go. It’s a miracle really. But at least we have each other. True, slightly deranged and peculiar — at least we have each other. And his British accent, which has saved us many times from getting into an actual argument. Well, maybe saved me — I can’t speak for him.
Never-the-less, I followed him until the forest opened again and we could see the mountains climb up around us.
It was here we spotted what I think is a Common Ribbon Snake in the leaves . . .
Onward still, we headed downhill towards Middle Fork River, passing many old birch trees.
Without blazes, we found ourselves guessed where our trail was most of the time. That’s because it’s composition changed so drastically within one step. For instance, we would walk on top of pine needles one minute; the next, a rock-path for miles.“Is this right?” he asked, debating where our trail had disappeared. The unnerving aspect about unblazed trails is they can seem to end suddenly — and if they end, it makes you question whether you were even on a trail before . . . and if not, how far had you traveled on the non-trail to determine where to pick the real-trail back up.
I didn’t have an answer for him. “Stay here,” I called before using my internal compass for navigation (which, let’s be honest, is a laugh in and of itself). “I won’t lose sight of you, but I’m going a few yards ahead to see if I can find anything” and sure enough, our trail appeared again. “It seems this stream is our trail,” I told him after I’d walked back. Surveying the area together, we’d make a mental picture of unusual trees or rocks or low-lying plants that might help us identify where we had once stood in case the path proved to be a false one.
Luckily, our trail picked up beside the steam-turned river with quick-moving rapids, leading to a rocky shelf with miniature waterfalls.
Our trail soon came to a stop again — This time blatantly taking us over the river, and that river was now wide, strong, and deep.
“Are you serious?” Andy asked as we both stared in confusion, knowing there was little way to get across.
“Let’s try here. The trail took us here so let’s see if we can get across,” I told him, trying to seem calm.
But the river deepened the further it got from the bank. Surely it would be at least to our knees.
“Let’s try here,” he said, darting off to our right. I followed him as he climbed boulders that continued to grow larger and larger until he was on top of one at least a story tall. “I don’t see anything below me or to the right of me either,” he yelled and down he climbed again.
“Let’s try to the left,” and off I snaked through the woods in search of a trail, but the trail inclined sharply, taking us away from the river. Even if we could find a way to tumble to the water, there still didn’t appear a way to cross — again the water was too deep and strong with rapids loud, hammering against the rocks.
“We’re going to have to go here. It’s at least the flattest area to cross,” I told him, convinced that was the right decision. “But I’ve crossed first before — It’s your turn.” He knew what I was referring too — Saint Mary’s Wilderness, also an unblazed trail, where we were seeking a large waterfall; however, the river rose so high it made it unable to cross — not from lack of trying though. I had set off into the water, barefeet, with determination to get to the other side only to feel the cut of the rocks and freezing sting of the river, which numbed my feet in moments and made it practically impossible to walk back. In the end, my amount of pain put us both off from braving the water to see the falls.
“Right,” Andy said, knowing it was his turn to go first, and so he began unlacing his boots, taking off his socks. “Right,” he repeated standing at the edge of the river.
“You can do it!” I encouraged from behind. “Don’t stop like I did last time — Just go. Don’t stop.”
“Right. Mind over matter,” he said more to himself than to me and took off in the water . . . only to get about two feet from his starting point before screaming. “ARRRRRGHHHHH!!!!! It’s bloody FREEZING!!!” He took another step.
“KEEP GOING!” I could feel the pain — knew how it felt — and knew it would only be worse to stop. Which is what he was doing.
“AAAAARRRRRRGGGGHHHHH!!! I can’t! I can’t! It’s too bloody cold!”
“Andy — You HAVE to keep walking! You cannot stay in one place.” I began rapidly unlacing my boots, pulling off my socks. If he became as stuck as I was last time, he would literally need someone to pull him from what-felt-like knife-cutting rocks in arctic waters. “Andy! I’m coming in!” I screamed again, not entirely sure how I would help but willing to try.
“NOOOOOO!!!!” This yell was the loudest of all as he ambled his way back to the rock I was standing on.
“The water’s fucking baltic! It’s BALTIC!” and he flopped onto a large river rock, nurturing his feet, sliding his socks and boots back on. “There’s no fucking way. No way,” he said, more to his toes.
I inched my way back to the water’s edge, assuring myself I was stronger in spirit than my Brit, and placed my toes in the water. “Oh WOW! It IS cold!” I pulled them back. “That was freezing! Jesus — I’m so glad I didn’t try that.” He cut his eyes at me. “Okay. So what do we do? We have to get across?”
“I don’t know, L. All I can say is I cannot do it without boots. The cold — it makes the rocks feel as if they are slicing my feet. I can’t do it. It hurts too much.” I remembered that pain and wasn’t about to experience it a second time.
“Right. Then we need to find another way. Stay there — I’ll scout around” and to the right I headed again, climbing and dropping down boulders, over one so massive I was positive there was no way I’d be able return over from the other side. “ANDY!” I yelled with all my might. “THIS MIGHT BE A WAY! COME LOOK!” and a several minutes later, he appeared at my side.
“THAT?! L! NO WAY! Look at the rapids!” He was right — I don’t know what I was thinking. The rapids were strongest at that portion of the river, raging over huge river rocks and splashing down in waterfall-form.
“You’re right,” I told him dispirited. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Wait. Maybe — ” and here he paced from one side of our boulder to the other — pacing pacing, crazed. “Maybe we can jump from here to there and make it” and here he backed up, determination in his face before running full speed towards the edge.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?!?!” My shrieking, voice stopped him mid-run.
“THINK ABOUT, ANDY! YOU ARE GOING TO JUMP FROM HERE — ” and I pointed to the boulder we were on “TO THERE — !!!” and I pointed to where I assumed he was aiming, which was about four feet down, several feet wide, and over the fast-moving rapids. “You’re NOT doing that!” I try never to tell Andrew what to do — He is his own person, able to make his own decisions — but hell, he clearly was not capable of this at that moment and the last thing I was going to put up with was his splattered body is some ‘baltic’ rapid river.
“You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking either” so there we stood, staring at the waters which appeared to grow more angry.
“Let’s get down from this boulder and go back to where we were. Let’s both look at the left side again.” Here, I turned and headed down, back to our starting point but Andy remained, looking forlorn at the rocks.
Bless his heart, I thought as I battled up and down boulders. I’ll have to find a way for both of us and it was here I got to the biggest boulder of all — the one I was positive I would not be able to return over again. I looked back at Andrew. He still appeared hopeless and unmoved on his initial I’m-going-to-fling-myself-off rock. Hell, I thought, You’re just going to have to go for it and save you both so I did what any rational person would do — what I had just lectured Andy on doing — I jumped. Using all the force in my body, I leapt in the air, over a section of water, and grasped the boulder. I felt powerful, like a superhero — like Spiderman — and clung to the rock.
At first, I’m semi-proud to say it worked. I was, in fact, able to grab onto the top of the boulder. The embarrassing aspect was that I couldn’t lift myself up. Combined with my forty-pound pack (that I stupidly refused to take off) and my own body weight, I clung, dangling over the side of the enormous spherical rock. If I let go, I was going into the river and not only was that a horrible solution because I’d be wet and freezing, but there was no way to determine how deep the water below me was or the conditions — were There sharp rocks? Was it an endless abyss? No idea, so I clung and came up with my next plan of action.
Of course the only logical solution was to throw both my legs around the boulder in an attempt to hug-hump my way up because well, that’s reasonable. And it was here — as I was attempting to hug the boulder/violating it in every way possible via multiple dry humps that the weight in my pack began to pull me back. Down and back I slowly, ever so slowly glided further from the rock. It was like one of those action-packed movies where the helpless female is dangling over some frightening edge and little by little her fingers — one at a time — fall from what she is holding onto. That was me.
One finger slipped.
“ANNNNNDYYYYY!!!!” I screamed, blood-curdling. It was life or death. And I was losing. “AAAAANNNNDY!!!! HELP ME!!! HELP!!! I’M GOING DOWN! I CAN’T MAKE IT!!! HELP ME!”
Out of nowhere, true action-hero style, Andrew arrived behind me. “WOT are you DOING?!” he yelled on the boulder I had previously jumped from.
“HELP ME!!! HELP!!! I CAN’T HOLD ON MUCH LONGER!!!”
“How did you get yourself th’re in the first place?!” he shouted back.
“STOPTALKINGTOME!!!” I screamed. Another finger slipped and another. “HELPME!!! HURRY!!! I CAN’T HOLD ON MUCH LONGER!”
Finally he realized the sense of urgency. “I’M COMING!” he shouted back. “L! HOLD ON! I’M COMING!!!”
“I CAN’T! I CAN’T!” I was at a point of crying now, saying my goodbyes.
“YOU CAN!!! HOLD ON! I’M COMING FOR YOU!”
Another finger-grasp, gone. Three fingers on my left hand, two on my right — that’s all that remained holding, holding me onto the boulder and keeping me from falling back-first into the river.
“I can’t do it any — ” and suddenly — just like that — Andy swooped in as my right hand was coming off the boulder and he yanked me to the top of it with such force I almost fell over the other side.
“Bloody ‘ell, L! Wot were you doing?! Wot were you thinking?!” He was panting, red faced. I still have no idea how he was able to race or monkey-climb or fly over the boulders so quickly.
“Thank you,” I gasped. “You saved me. You really do love me. Thank you, thank you . . . ”
I wish I could say the river story ends here, but the truth is it is only starting. Essentially we returned to where we had started . . . only to walk back to the left, determine there was (again) no way to get across . . . all the way back to the right, determine there was (again) no way to get across . . . and back to the middle. Oh and somewhere in between the walking back and forth, a thin sapling whipped me across the face a few centimeters below my eyes.
“You’re BLEEDING! L! L, wot ‘appen’d to you now?!” Andy asked, appearing positively exhausted with my antics. I was worn down too; it’s hard being me.
“It was a fierce battle with a young tree,” I told him, feeling my face puff where the sting still burned. “And I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You really are a hazard to yourself,” I heard him say as I turned back — once again — to the middle of the river.
“We need to cross, Andrew. This is absurd. This should have been over in a couple minutes and we have spanned this moment to be hours. The sun is down, it’s getting dark — ”
“I agree. And we have no place to camp,” he finished for me. “Let’s go. Let’s stop dickin’ ’bout and go.” Bending to take off his socks and boots again, I stopped him. We had tried that before, I explained, I was moving on in life. I was crossing — with my socks and boots on — but I was crossing.
“Right. I agree,” he said. “This is the flattest portion of river. Let’s do this.” Standing next to one another at the water’s edge, Andrew took my hand. “On a count of three?”
“One,” I repeated. “We need to be fast about this Andrew — as if it were a race. Don’t stop.”
“Two,” he said, nodding his head in agreement.
“Two,” I said back to him.
“THREE!” we yelled before running — in a terrifying arms-and-legs-flapping sprint — across the river.
And it was colder than I thought.
And deeper. A lot deeper. My boots immediately filled with water but I kept running and running. It was getting harder to move — I was being held back, held down, pulled down by something —
“LET GO!!!!” I heard Andrew holler by my side.
“WHAT?!” I couldn’t make out his words. I was running — running in one place true, but running all the same.
“LET ME GO!!! I’m STUCK!!! LET GO!!!! SAVE YOURSELF!!!!” I released his hand and darted across.
“WE MADE IT!!!!” I shouted, elated, filled with hope once again. I honestly may have been jumping in the air I was so excited. “WE MADE — ” I looked beside me and Andrew was no where to be seen. My eyes immediately went to the water. Where was he?! Had he drowned?! What had he said?!
That’s when I saw Andrew sinking more and more into the river — past ankle deep, past knee deep, the water rising to his thighs.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!” I screamed at him. “GET OUT! COME ON!!!”
“L! I’m STUCK! I CAN’T MOVE!!!”
And I remember exactly what I though. Fuck it, I said to myself. Fuck it because now I have to go back into the water to rescue him and right as I had my boots into the water a second time, he reappeared — thrashing and twisting — his whole body galloped out of the water and towards me on the bank. Finally he made it.
“What were you doing?!” I reprimanded him. I didn’t understand how one could get stuck in a flat river.
“You were pulling me!” He could barely breathe, “and I couldn’t move. I was stuck on some damn branch. And you kept pulling me.”
“We said not to stop,” I said because that was about all I could think to say. “We said not to stop.” From there we sat in silence for a few minutes, gathering our breath and composing ourselves.
“Ahhh, look at how wet I am,” I told Andrew as I unlaced my boot and pulled out my foot. My socks were drenched so I rang them out — feet and all — until water pooled beneath my heel.
The temperature was dropping and I began to shiver. “What do we do now?” I asked.
“There’s nothing to do except keep walking until we find a campsite.” So we that’s what we did. We walked and walked, mile past mile in drenched boots sloshing with water, boots so wet they created friction in the worst way possible. It was around here my once loved new boots turned into a thing of loathing: They rubbed and rubbed at the back of my heel — forming massive blisters, popping them, and continuing to rub additional layers of skin off.
I began silently writing our trail story in my head — this trail story you are reading now — because misery can help in one way: She’s pretty damn creative when at her best. And I got pretty far mentally writing when we found this welcomed campsite.
Removing the tent — a new tent — from our packs, we set up in the dark. Not without difficulty, of course. Because only we would buy a new tent, test it once at home before taking it with us to a camp in a situation where we would have to set up in the dark.
Once that was complete, we started a fire then divided and conquered — Andy took out the food we would eat for dinner then went to hang the bear bag while I set out to get out tent ready for sleep — sleeping pads and bags out then pillows blown up and down.
I went to stoke the fire. “You ready to eat?” I asked Andy. I didn’t want to start cooking without him (sometimes it can take a few minutes to hang the bear bag) but I was impatient due to the dropping temperatures. What had started as a seventy-five degree-day (twenty-four degrees C) was turning into a fifty degrees (ten degrees C), with temperatures dropping still.
He didn’t answer so I did what any loving, supportive person would do: I took a picture of him working.
“Awkward git,” I heard him say before chucking the rope over a high limb (not pictured because it was too dark) again, only to have it miss or get stuck or — I don’t know. It was too dark to see and I was freezing so shivering, I went back to the fire to warm.
“Andy?” I called. “I’m not going to lie but I’m so cold I won’t be hungry soon. Can we at least eat then do that?”
No answer again so I hobbled back to him, pins and needles in my frozen feet which, I was sure, had blue toes by now. At least I was lucky though — I had on a pair of sandals (my pleasure item camping) while my boots and socks were drying next to the fire; Andy was still in his drenched socks and boots. If my feet were cold, his would have iced over.
“This sodding thing,” he said mumbled to himself.
“Ya want help?” I asked, knowing he didn’t. “Explain to me what you’re trying to do?”
“Stupid fucking tree’s s’what’s wrong. All I want to do is sit down and eat and now I have to fuck about with this stupid bag while me feet are wet and cold.” I hesitated unsure whether to stay or go. That didn’t really answer my question.
“Hey. Show me what to do and I’ll try?”
“‘ave at it!” he roared — more in anger towards the tree and rope than me — and handed me the rope.
“Where do you want it?”
“Over the branch!” he shouted as if it were clear which branch he was trying to get it around on a tree. So I threw and threw and threw, to no avail. The limb was too high up so it would not go over. I scanned the area for other locations and recognized the problem — There were no other limbs within throwing distance to us. The others were entirely too far up trees in comparison.
“‘ere. Let me try again” and he took the rope from my hand, launching it into the air before it tumbled back on him. “BLEEDIN’ ‘ELL! THIS BLOODY ROPE WON’T GU O’ER THIS BRANCH!!!”
I moved away — no one angry wants an audience — and went back, again, to stoke the fire while a melody of “stupid fucking tree,” “bastard thing” and “bloody freezin’ me balls off” mixed with “sodding bag” and “too knackered and soaked thru to me bones to be dealing with this shit” echoed throughout the silent forest.
Suddenly all was quiet. I held my breath. Maybe he got it! I felt hopeful! I felt happy! I was hungry again! We could sleep soon! I felt — then heard a branch snap. The sound ricocheted in the night, destroying any possibility of success. I ran to him. Up until now I thought a cussing British man was adorable; however, a cussing, angry British man in a pitch-black night is terrifying.
“Ohhhh ho-ho! You’ve fucked it now!” I heard him yell to God knows who as his headlamp light zoomed so quickly about that I felt dizzy. I decided to go back to the fire; I clearly was not wanted there. A moment later, a huffing Andrew emerged next to me.
“D’you get it?” I asked, gentle. Maybe I had misunderstood the situation.
“Fuck it,” he announced. “Tried to ge’it up higher — won’t go. Don’t gi’a shit. Let the bloody bears ‘ave it.”
And with that act of defiance, he went — finally — to take off his boots and socks and place them on the rocks around the fire. Turning his boots over, one at a time, water rushed out onto the hot stones when — I kid you not — a newt fell onto the rock.
“Wooot the — ”
“Is that a newt?!” I asked, just as perplexed as him.
“How’d ‘e . . . ?”
“HE FELL FROM THE INSIDE OF YOUR BOOT! You’ve been CARRYING him the whole time after the river?!”
And here we stared at the little creature before rushing to pick it up off the rocks.
Needless to say, we snatched the newt off the rocks but were unable to return him back to the river due to how dark it was.
We did, however, place it as close to the side of our campsite where the land slopped down towards the river in hopes the little guy could make it back.
Exhausted from the day’s surprises, we devoured our dinner then went to cuddle as close as possible in our tent to save from freezing to death.
We awoke the next day shivering. Temperatures had dropped further in the night to be around forty degrees (four degrees C). We both lay unmoving in our bags, feigning death.
“Today’s goin’ to be shit.” Andy broke the silence first, echoing my thoughts. Though I felt safe at that campsite, I had barely slept. Thoughts of putting on our cold, still wet boots filled my head. True, we had left both pairs by the fire in hopes the residual heat would dry them further, but I knew in my heart even an overnight baking wasn’t enough. I yearned to stay in the fresh, warm pair of socks I fell asleep in — the socks that would sadly meet my boots and be soaked through within seconds. Not only that but soaking feet would translate into more rubbing and cutting at my heels, and I didn’t know how much more I could handle. And our boots would surely have ice crystals in them; there was no way they would ever warm. I shivered — both from the thoughts of pain and cold.
“Today is going to be shit,” I repeated. And we both didn’t move. For awhile.
Many moments passed until Andy spoke again.
“Know what? I have an idea — Why don’t we use our dry sacks? Slide our feet into them — over our socks — and then put our feet into the boots? They’re dry sacks — They shouldn’t have water seep through so our feet will stay dry.”
Sheer brilliance. Truly. Add this as Reason 5,986 on why I love this man.
So that’s what we did — emptied our food and emergency supplies hap-hazardously in our packs and shoved our feet inside.
And our boots were baltic, as Andy would say — so cold there were times when I was convinced I couldn’t move my feet due from a lack of being able to feel them. Seriously. We both became 100% convinced we would have frostbitten toes by the time this was over but there was nothing we could do, except bundle up in as many layers and possible to hike out of the forest.
According to our directions, we had about ten miles left so we decided to pack up our site without eating breakfast. The faster we could move, the more chance we had for our feet to warm so stepping slowly and cautiously, we made it back to the trail.
There, we passed a glimpse of a waterfall before the mountain opened to us with moss-covered trees.
Closer to the river still, we saw a second small fall before arriving at the river’s banks.
“It says to cross the river,” I read to Andrew beyond glumly as we arrived at the water. As I had told him a mere minute earlier, my feet were warming a centimeter’s amount of warmth. The last action — both he and I wanted to do — was forge the river again.
“At least it doesn’t look as deep,” he said. “Let’s see” and off we walked, timidly across until the water began to rise close to the top of our boots. And we were only a couple feet from the bank.
This was my reaction, which you can barely gather was less than amused.
But it was true — We needed to cross the river. Again. There was a very steady stream of cuss words from both of us then pacing and pointing at the river, followed by more cuss words — all of which don’t need to be recorded, but you can imagine. I should add here, I thought I cussed impressively . . . that is until I met Andy. Fact: When you date an Englishman, you learn a whole range of uncharted cuss words.
“Nothin’ we can do ’bout it. Might as well cross,” Andy said, bending to take of his boots.
“Hey wait.” An idea came to me. “We have the dry sacks. Why don’t we just take off our socks and the sacks then cross in our boots. We know we won’t be able to handle the cold water barefoot and the dry sacks work — no water is getting through into my socks.”
“Bloody brill! Sterling idea!” and so that’s what we did.
We crossed with little to no problems — The water came above our ankles and filled our boots a second time, but we continued until we arrived at the other bank. Drying our feet, we put back on our socks and dry sacks before lacing our boots again.
“Right. What’s next?” I asked Andrew.
“Are you SERIOUS?!” he yelled and dropped the paper in headed frustration by his side.
“Whhhhat . . . ” I didn’t necessarily want an answer.
“We need to cross the river again!”
“What do you mean cross the river again?!” I took the directions from him.
“We only needed to cross to camp here! We aren’t camping so we didn’t need to bloody cross!”
You can imagine more cuss words, additional pacing and pointing, followed by more cuss words.
Looking across the bank from where we had come, we could barely see our thin trail steeply climb up the mountain.
“Fuck it. Let’s go,” Andrew’s voice was perturbed as he went to unlace his boots again. Cut to the end of the trail: What we did not know at the time was that we would end up crossing the river — either not mentioned in our directions or unneededly — six times. Six! At no point did our boots dry or warm.
Safely across to the bank we started on, we looked up at our trail, which was described as “rocky, narrow and has a steep drop off.” Slowly and painstakingly, over two miles later, we made it to the top out of breath.
There, the forest floor was scattered with wildflowers flowers.
Then, massive sections of dense stinging nettles could be seen beside and over the trail. Thankfully, their stinging leaves had not yet formed so we walked through with ease.
Once more moss blanketed the area, at times making the trail you see here, completely covered.Further and further still, the sun’s rays beamed down on us as our trail twisted ahead.
I tried in vain to capture the sheer beauty of the area but found the pictures taken did not compare to what we saw firsthand. There were so many moments where Andy and I stopped one another simply to look around us. I know I said it earlier, but this forest was truly different — more wild, more overgrown and maybe that’s why it seemed private and remarkable.
Saying that, our trail — which was barely the width of one boot — would disappear completely at times, leaving us to separate and scout for where it picked up. There were times when numerous fallen old trees blocked our path. I read later that the damage was due to a flood that had destroyed the area, downing hundreds of aged trees. The flood damage was evident walking though as huge sections of our trail seemed ripped from the ground, leaving us fighting off trail up the mountain for yards before finding the trail again.
To say that the trail was not maintained and that the forest appeared abandoned was an understatement, but again that added to the simplicity, the beauty of these woods. We were witnessed one of few places on earth that was considered overgrown and untamed, and I would take hunting for destroyed trails and plotting off course any day over manicured paths beside numerous hikers.
Up and up we ventured, reaching the final pinnacle of our incline here — a climb so vertical our hands more often than not touched ground.
Exhausted we continued on, aware now that our direction’s mileage was wrong. According to it, we should have been about three miles from the parking lot but we later learned we had about ten left.
It was here — with wet boots and still-frozen feet after our multiple river crossings and with beaten down sentiment after our steep incline-hike that I walked . . . into a tree.
There’s no way to describe the sound my head made as it smacked in a deep thud on the tree so hard that Andrew caught me as I fell backward.
“My word! Are you okay?! L?!”
I felt confused, dazed. At first I couldn’t feel the pain. Then red — a vibrant, thick-colored red — rushed to my head. That’s when I began to cry. I had had enough of our tiny and disappearing trail, enough of nature which not only hit me in the middle of my forehead but had slapped me in the face earlier.
“Ohhh nooo,” Andrew moaned, pulling me in for a hug as I sobbed and snotted on his shirt. “Lemon! You ‘ave to look where you ar’ wa’king! You can’t just wa’k int’trees like that!”
This made me cry harder. I knew — obviously I knew — not to walk into trees.
“Leeemon. Bless you. I don’t know how you’ve survived this far. Let me look,” and here he delicately peeled my hand from my forehead. “Owww, Lemon. It’s red. It’s right red.” He hugged me again then pulled back to look at me — a dripping mess of disgust. “Lemon. I love you. Know that? You’re hard work but I fucking love you.”
I sniffed and wiped my eyes. I know in some warped way he found me attractive enough to proclaim his love but I was not in the mood. I had just banged my head on a damn tree. “I’m not saying, ‘I don’t love you’ but I don’t hate you either,” I sobbed and again he took me in for a hug.
Well, that took several minutes for me to compose myself and mentally prepare to hike again. Which I’ll note I didn’t want to continue hiking again but Andrew took it upon himself to point out that we couldn’t live in the forest simply because I couldn’t look where I was walking. To show my amusement at his comment, I asked him to take this picture of me so that I could share with you precisely how hopeless I felt.
I’ll admit here: While I believed, only a second ago, a picture is worth a thousand words, I then put my camera away. The sad part was that I was done with the woods and I simply wanted to go home so off we marched into a section of forest (which looking back) I wish I had photographed. It was the most dense woods we had yet been in with spruce so tall and wide, they seemed supernatural. Bushy plants filled the space under tree trunks, hiding our trail from sight, making it honestly a miracle we made it back. Every couple yards we had to split ourselves — one moving ahead, but maintaining sight from the other, to scout for the vanished trail only to pick it back up before it disappeared again. It was hard work, and we aren’t the only ones who found the area nearly impassable — Someone had placed river rocks, piled on top of one another, every mile or so at critical junctions. While we were weary at first and still continued to separate-and-scout, in the end the rocks proved trustworthy.
So on. And on. And on we went, miles into the wilderness.
“I need a break,” Andrew said to me in a way that told his sense of hopelessness. “It’s a shame really that our directions didn’t have this mileage or else we could have actually enjoyed this part — It’s the most beautiful.”
I nodded and sat next to him on a rock. We needed something — a few moments, water, a snack, something to brighten our spirits.
That’s when I saw this little guy under me.
I’m not saying he gave me the energy to proudly rise and fiercely tackle the rest of the hike. He was just a snail, after all, scooting along the brush.
“Look at this,” I told Andrew. “Imagine how far he has to go — how far he has come. Where is he headed? Is it miles? Days away? His journey is endless and look at how slow he has to move. I wouldn’t even qualify that as moving it is so slow. Bless his heart. We, at least, have an ending in sight. It’s somewhere but at least it is in sight.”
And here we stared at this tiny snail while he strenuously carried his home and strained over limbs, going who knew where.
“L?” Andy said to me.
“Yeah?” I asked back.
“Let’s go home” and with that, he rose to pull me up and off the forest floor where we walked again, a little lighter this time, covering more miles but headed towards the parking area.
Finally there, we leaned into one another feeling a different type of freedom — one that comes from safety, security of what is known.We unlaced our boots for the last time that day then laughed — the first for miles. Debris, packed into our boots, coated our socks due to the large opening at the top of the dry sack.
But our feet were dry.
“You’re brilliant, know that?” I told him. “Really. You are” and I gave him a kiss because he is brilliant — brilliant for so many things but in that moment for recommending the dry sacks, for being my emotional savior, brilliant for picking me up off the forest floor when I was convinced I wanted to stay there forever to avoid hiking back.
I’m slowly learning each trail has a different story — Sometimes it’s filled with comedy; another, fear or sadness, even worry; but still more, action. There is always action. Never have I had a trail story I’ve wanted. They just happen so that I’m left looking back and wondering how on earth I was stuck in that situation. But sometimes that situation — no matter how the trail story is described — that situation is worth it in the end. It’s memorable, it’s powerful. For me, it’s love. If you’re lucky enough to have the hiking partner I do, my trail story will always have love.