Hi, loves! This post will be short and sweet because I’m going to shamelessly beg for your help . . .
I wrote an essay that was accepted for submission into a contest on the Appalachian Trail! It was about that, cough cough, embarrassing Grayson Highlands hike that you may have read earlier in my blog post. This is where I need your help though: In order to win this AT contest, I have to rack up as many votes as possible so it would mean the world to me if you could vote for my essay called “The Story That Probably Shouldn’t Be Told.” The story has the below picture of Andy and me. In honesty, I’m super excited to even get accepted with the community of AT hikers (you have no idea how excited I am by this!), but getting your voting-help would make this even more incredible!
Let’s pretend it’s the beginning of April, Spring Break, because to me that meant one thing: A week-long backpacking trip inhaling as much of nature was possible, drinking from nearby springs, and enjoying the serenity only a forest can bring. For this week-long trek, there was one destination I had in mind: Mount Rogers. I have looked forward to this hike since strapping my first pack onto my back. Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia and with it came a strenuous climb, infamous wild ponies, postcard-worthy views, open balds, forests that supposedly resemble Canadian ones, clear steams — The list goes on. Truly, it does. I needed Mount Rogers.
There are a couple different Mount Rogers hikes and each have varying elevations and miles:
Mount Rogers/Wilburn Ridge (Obvious from its name, this has the above hike and more) — 21.5 mile circuit with a total 5,406 foot elevation.
Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands (This has the second hike combined with more) — 39.6 mile hike with a 6,600 foot elevation and a Level Five of Five difficulty.
I suppose because Andy and I have trouble seeing reality, it was all too apparent that the last hike was the one for us. Haven’t been out backpacking since last summer due to winter? Oh, it’s easy to jump back in and pick up where we left off on the physical activity scale. Haven’t been on more than a three-day hiking trip ever? No problem, let’s test ourselves! Haven’t done a climb more than around a 5,000 foot elevation? Got this in the bag! Only done a Level Four hike three times and a Level Five, well, never? *Psh* It’ll be a cinch to tack on another star!
We are warped, I think.
Or warped I know.
Regardless, we quieted those poor protective voices, printed off maps, and began planning!
The trip was four and a half hours away with the start of the trail at the Virginia/Tennessee border. This means that even if we left early, we would not have many hours to hike the first day. The same with the last day, when we would end our trail — We didn’t want to be driving back in moonlight and darkness for almost five hours. Therefore, we chose to break this hike into five days: Five miles the first/arriving day, ten miles the next, ten the following, ten again, then five miles our last day. Keep in mind, at this point, we were really pushing ourselves. Beyond us being dormant and foregoing exercise over the winter . . . beyond us taking on an overly hard, challenging hike . . . we hadn’t successfully cleared ten miles a day when we intended, um, anytime. In the past, we had stopped, set up camp whenever we desired and therefore ambled about doing distances we felt comfortable with a daily. Here, we were strategically saying, “Us, you are walking ten miles at least for the majority of your days. Do it. Do it now.” This may not sound too insane but look again at the Difficulty Level, look again at the elevation. Heck, the only time we push past ten miles a day on our ‘normal’ hikes was when we were lost in the wilderness with a fear of not surviving before giving life a last ditch shot . . .
And this is how my mind works: It was around here I came up with the three ten-miles-a-day plan. I mean, we had actually done over ten miles a day often . . . due to the fact that we got lost often . . . so ten miles a day was an achievable victory. And that’s how I tried to convince Andy too. Which worked in the sense that he agreed to go. But not in the sense that he agreed with my logic.
Regardless of what was going to soon be determined or not determined as an ‘achievable victory,’ we told ourselves firmly this backpacking trip was a test in numerous ways: Plan and see if we could stick to specific mileage per day. Plan and stick to a start and end date. Plan and find water sources daily. Plan and — eh, no — Stick to surviving in the forest for almost a week. That’s why this hike was different. It was concocted, calculated, and controlled. We were to end up ‘here’ on Day So-and-So, camp ‘here’ on Night So-and-So, find water ‘here’ on Day So-and-So. This all lead Andy and me to dubbing this trip our Preparation for the Appalachian Trail hike due to the fact that it was all white blaze. It, single-handedly, would determine if we could successfully plan the AT. It would determine if we could actually walk the initial Georgia portion of the trail soon. It would determine if we could continue all the way to Maine on a path no wider than two-feet. It would determine if we could actually do it, if we could become true AT hikers.
First, we started planning early on because, after all, organization is the key to success. Numerous readings of maps were done, water sources on those maps were found, various-tasting meals were purchased, and several calls were made to national park rangers and shuttle service in the area.
The calls started off with the park rangers and quickly slid to confusing. I wanted to know what to expect from temperatures, know where steams locations were, validate wild camping and fire abilities, hash out concerns, discuss life-or-death-situations — anything to make this hike successful. “Plan carefully,” the young mousey sounding female voice on the other end of the phone told me. “Plan for the unexpected.” “But what is unexpected?!” I squeaked back. I don’t know if I was trying to communicate in a tone she understood or if my fear of the unknown had me squeaking too. “Just the unexpected,” she repeated which obviously brought no further answers. That’s when my barrage of questions began. “Again. Just be prepared,” she moused back. In the end, I learned that temperatures vary from one extreme to the next. There are elusive streams with no specific locations. Wild camping can be done in the national park . . . but not the state park . . . but there is no clear way to differentiate between the two. Fires can only be made in pre-exisiting, equally elusive, locations. And as far as the last bit — survival — we simply needed to be prepared. Helpful . . . exactly as Andy and I have learned park rangers to be. “We will plead innocence,” Andy told me. “I’m not from the area. I didn’t know.” This is his solution for everything now, and in exchange I get a free ride as long as I don’t ruin the moment by opening my mouth. Somehow though, I felt his lack of Virginia knowledge was about as helpful as he was getting us out of our last hiking ticket so I pleaded with him to double-back my efforts and speak to the park ranger himself. “Please. I feel it in my bones that it will have a different result for you.” And so he did. And so I was right. The mousey woman was suddenly a wealth of knowledge, brimming with detailed information for the charming Englishman on the other end of the line. Strange how that happens . . .
I did find one helpful person on my own though. While Andy tackled the wanting-to-be-tackled park rangers, I called a shuttle service guy. Previously we had been talking of how to avoid a shuttle, but it seemed inevitable due to the fact that we didn’t have time to double-back our hike and make it an almost eighty mile one. That’s when I called Mount Rogers Outfitters Hostel (which side note, is comprised of an outdoors store and hostel across the street); they run the main shuttle service in the small town of Damascus, where our hike was. It was here I spoke to a slow-drawled mountain man that I imagined to be balding and leaning back spitting sunflower seeds with a thick scuffed brown leather belt wrapped around his potbelly to hold up too big of drawers.
Me: “Hi! I am hoping to hike Mount Rogers soon and wanted to ask about your shuttle service.”
Mountain Man: “Neh hold’n one minute! I’on’t recommend a shuttle for ya.”
Mountain Man: ” . . . How long ya lookin’ to go?”
Me: “The longest hike there is in the area. The about forty-mile one that — ”
Mountain Man: “Why ‘on’t ya instead do the 41.5 mile hike that is a big loop, huh.” It wasn’t a question. Never-the-less, I asked him to explain only to determine that hike was the 21.5 mile second-hike-I-listed loop. Maybe it was his drawl that confused me. Or maybe he was confused. That’s still to be determined.
Me: “Well, we wanted to hike a large portion of the AT — Do Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers.
Mountain Man: “I see, I see. I reckon ya need a shuttle service then.”
Me: “I agree, that’s why — ”
Mountain Man: “Now we ain’t waitin’ for ya! We ain’t waitin’! Yew say yew’ll be there at — what? What time? — and we wait for two, three hours?! Not happn’n! Nooot happn’n –”
Me: “That’s completely understandable. Actually, we were –”
Mountain Man: “We’ll wait for ya for ’bout, oh I reckon, thirty minutes. But no more! Ya hear! No more!” I felt scared, a cold feverish-sweat gripping me, despite the fact that he was envisioning it all wrong.
Me: “I, I absolutely understand, sir. We just — We wanted to be dropped off first . . . then we would walk and return to our car . . . You know — So no one would have to wait . . . ” I silently prayed for approval in the form of friendlier words from a sunflower-seed-spitting Mountain Man.
Mountain Man: ” . . . Now ya talkin! We can do that. We can def-i-nit-ah-ley dooo that!” Crisis averted.
From there, Mountain Man and I plotted our method of attack. He told me his prices for four or more people, and I sweetly got out my country drawl to say it was only me and one other person, which talked him down to a great deal. This meant awesome news: Andy and I didn’t have to pay a crazy amount to be dropped off in the middle of the woods, miles from civilization.
Mountain Man: “Fur yew? Fur yew! Fur yew? I kin do forty-five bucks.”
Me: “But what about the person I’m going with?”
Mountain Man: “Fur the both uh ya? The both UH YA! I kin do . . . I kin do forty-five dollas. But ya add on more — Now that’s gonna be more!” I quickly agreed. I was startin’ to like this Mountain Man. And he was startin’ to like me.
Me: “Now here’s a question for ya — What is the best way for me to get there?” and I told him where I was from.
Mountain Man: “AW MAN! Hot doggie! Yew from where I’m ah’from!” and we waxed poetic about city life, surrounding counties, and how there’s nothing wrong with it but it wasn’t a life we imagined.
Me: “I know, I know! I want mountains and land and country — what you have now! I don’t want to have to keep driving to these hikes — I want to live there! That’s why I have a week off and I want every second to be in those mountains.”
Mountain Man (who, by the way, was most certainly softening up and chuckling now): “I know, I know! I hear ya! Why ya think I moved awt here fa?! Get yew — GET YEW OUTTA DOGTOWN!” and I admit it — I jumped a little at the force his excited yell had.
In the end, Mr. Mountain gave me perfect directions so that we would be at his doorstep soon. “Now I’m ‘uh here Mondee through Saturdee nine ta six, and Sundee twelve ta six — Gotta let Jesus in at six.” I giggled and told him I agreed. Whatever made Mr. Mountain happy made me happy. Still, I wanted to push my luck further. We were moving forward on the most positive foot.
Me: “So . . . There are wild ponies? Can ya tell me about ‘um? That’s why we’re goin’ — I’m beyond excited to see the wild ponies!”
Mountain Man: “Oh yee-ah, ther’ah pone-ies! ‘Bout, ’bout — lots of ‘um. And they all got names.”
Me: “Stooop! Tell me one’s name!”
Mountain Man: “Fab-e-oh. Fab-e-oh. Got a long blonde mane pulled ova one side. Yep. Fab-e-oh.” Despite the fact that I’m a bajillion percent certain he meant Fabio, I continued . . .
Me: “Well, I hope I see Fab-e-oh. Hey, what is your name before I go? You’ve been so very helpful!”
Mountain Man: “People ’round here — They call me . . . Lumpeh!”
And that’s how our conversation ended — I introduced myself then told Lumpy I looked forward to seeing him real soon. “Right, L! I look’ah ford ta it too!” and I could hear him smile. I was smiling too — The reason I was going on this hike now was solely to meet this Lumpy man.
The next two weeks were spent reading and re-reading our plans, packing, and finally the day came when we could set off to meet a man named Lumpy who would drop us off in the middle of a forest.
We arrived perfectly to the sleepy town of Damascus, due to Lumpy’s amazing directions.
Then walked into his shop only to find Lumpy wasn’t lumpy at all. Tall and super-duper slender, the six-foot-seven Lumpy towered over us wearing the longest legged jeans I had ever seen, a flannel shirt and vest, stocking hat, and dark-tinted sunglasses. I glanced up at the florescent lights of his own store; they didn’t appear brighter than normal lighting. ” . . . Lumpy?” I questioned. I just had a feeling that was Lumps. “Yee-ah?” “Lumpy, I’m L — We spoke over the phone about a shuttle service to Mount Rogers.” My voice was rising with excitement. “Heck yeah, hey L. Nice ta meet ya.” I moved to hold out my right hand, provide a nice, firm handshake. He didn’t move. From there Mr. Lumps introduced us to a man named John. John, on the other hand, could have held up Lumpy’s nickname as we first saw him hunched over a cigarette on the cinder blocks outside the store. Shaved head that glistened in the florescent lighting I now understood why Lumpy needed the sunglasses when talking to him. “This guy here — John — He’ll be ya driver” and off John went to show us what car to place our packs into. I clung around the entrance of the store a bit longer than John and Andy, hoping Lumpy would strike up a conversation with me. For weeks I had imagined speaking with him in person, imagined who this Lumpy character was and how he got his nickname. Now that we were face-to-face, he had gone silent. Then again, so is the way with country folk so I turned and, before the door closed behind me, I gave a final wave goodbye to Lumpy.
That’s how our hike started. John, who shuttles more AT hikers daily than he was able to count, sped along the edge of the winding mountain. He told us stories of how he died twice and was brought back to life several minutes later after a massive Lincoln Navigator ran a red light in New York and plowed over him. “I only have one memory from the accident — Can’t remember anything else. I was reaching for a cigarette when I heard a voice screaming — a huge man running up to me, shouting, “OH SHIT! HE’S ALIVE! HE’S ALIVE!” and then I passed out. They said it took two hours to cut me from the car.” From there, John continued his surreal life, living nomadically in fourteen states but refusing to call any one place home. The longest stay in one state was for ten years, and now he lives in a hostel. “It’s great,” he said with a straight rally-car driver facial expression and beady eyes. “Someone else picks up after me, cleans my place and I only pay three hundred dollars a month to live there. No utilities or anything. Of course I had to give up some things in life — a wife, a marriage — because my life is unstable. But it’s worth it.” Past stories of him, John told us about the AT hikers he had rescued when they called it quits. “They stop for any number of reasons. Wasn’t for them — Some greatly underestimated it, some got hurt, some got sick. The norovirus, for instance — Now that’s something you don’t want to have. It can kill a fully-grown adult. Can you imagine how much damage it can do to a child?” Andy and I pondered this much longer than we should have, imagining a life worse than death, while John continued and gave us the first bit of advice. “If it doesn’t keep you warm or you can’t eat it, don’t bring it.” I began to list all in my pack that I couldn’t cuddle with or eat — a hairbrush, rubberbands, pillow, spare fuel canister, suddenly what seemed like enough flashlights to light an entire home — I had the desire to empty my pack and was about to beg John to take my extra items back with him when our forty-five minute ride was over, and we pulled into the Foxcreek parking lot. John got out and opened the hatch of his Subaru so that we could drag out our forty-two and thirty-eight pound packs. Then he lit a cigarette while we tied our boots, strapped in, and prepared for setting off. Taking one last drag he nodded a goodbye our way, saying over his shoulder, “You guys have hiked in Shenandoah — I don’t need to worry about you because of the bears there.”
And he left.
And we were alone.
In the middle of a small parking lot . . .
forty-some miles from my car . . .
five hours from home.
“You ready?” I asked Andy and he nodded so we set off.
I would soon learn the AT is similar to a scavenger hunt, one built around notes and quick scrawled messages to other hikers. Notes of advice, warnings, and plans like this one found in the middle of the notice board to a guy named Chris, telling him to push south to Damascus which was over forty-miles from where Fellow Chris would find himself by the time he read the message pasted quickly up with a wide roll of duct tape.
Trail registers are used to track hikers. In them, hikers often write their trail names instead of birth names though. Trail names are nicknames given by other hikers mostly on long distance trails, such as the AT which is most common for giving trail names. This Nose Flute character stayed consistently in front of us throughout our hike but we never were able to find him.
The temperature was in the seventies and we quickly felt warm, shedding layers of clothing before we were even a mile in.
The warm weather also welcomed spring, sending green shoots pushing through leaves towards the sunlight. Oddly enough, even as temperatures pushed in the eighties, there were still patches of snow on the ground from the previous day’s snowstorm.
Heading south towards the Old Orchard Shelter, we approached areas of balds bordered by fences, showing signs that ponies strayed through the area, despite the fact that none were seen yet.
This greatly disappointed me because I had packed a heaving bag of carrots for these ponies, a bag in which weighed an additional over one pound weight. And let me tell you, if you’re hiking long distances, you may become the people Andy and I originally scoffed at but now are — The ones that pull out a scale to weigh e.v.e.r.y item in our pack in an effort to drop the overall weight. Our goal is to get to at least thirty-five pounds, one we aren’t too far from actually, mainly given the fact that our first backpack had us lugging fifty pounds each over the mountain. However, I digress — I say all of this to illustrate why we were snapping the handles off of toothbrushes and putting aside sunscreen because liquid weight is heavier than all others. And here I am, choosing to pack an over pound bag of carrots . . . for horses . . . not even for myself . . . but for horses to eat . . . and they were nowhere in sight.
Please notice the heavy bag of carrots
It was at this first horsegate that I walked through, fine and happy, followed by Andy who turned and suddenly screamed in pain then dropped to his knee. “Oh my gosh! What happened?! What happened?!” I asked him, scared, confused, worried. “Aghhh, my knee,” he huffed in terrible pain. I learned then he apparently has a bad knee that gives him problems if he turns the wrong way, as in the precise way he turned through the horsegate. So here we were, not even three miles in, a good trek from civilization, no cellphone reception, Andy unable to walk. “What do I do?!?!” I pleaded with him, hoping to get some small task to help. “Just give me a second,” and he curled his knee up, wincing in pain, uncurled it then winced more. That incident definitely put me back. So far, we have been injury-free on our hikes and that is the one thing I am most scared of happening. If Andy hurt himself, there is no way I could carry him and his pack back. If I couldn’t get his pack, we lose essential items we may need, mainly if I couldn’t get him back within that day. It felt a lose-lose situation. Luckily, he stretched his knee a bit more, inhaled as much air as he could muster, then set off through the gate once again. “Do you want my knee brace? Do you want to stop? To rest? To go home?” Answers. I simply needed something. “No, I’m okay. I just need a moment” so I hushed once more, keeping a watchful eye on him the entire time.
Regardless, he kept inching forward gingerly, then more keenly until he was back to his normal stride. From there, we kept going on the blaze . . .
and once we had passed Old Orchard, we continued following the AT to Scales Campground.
It was here we finally found our first two ponies.
The next problem was the ponies weren’t interested in carrots. And by “weren’t interested” I mean they acted as if they absolutely despised the orange vegetable. I tried to feed them . . .
Andy tried to feed them . . .
and each time the suckers either ignored us or galloped away to the point that we worried we were harassing them. Side note: We read later that you aren’t supposed to feed the ponies or harass them. At that point in time I felt like the world’s worst hiker . . .
In the end though, we let them be — munching on the short, dry winter grass which is, without a doubt, not better than carrots . . . not that I’m keeping track . . .
and we settled on this amazing view before continuing on.
At the base of the highlands was another trail registry. Have I said already I absolutely look forward to reading trail registries? I can imagine walking in the forest for months, passing a few hikers but for the most part, continuing alone with trail registries providing the only bit of information as to how many hikers are in front of you, how many you may catch up to, exactly who it is. It’s like forming a sort of bond with those you do not know, and I found myself wondering if we would catch up to Nose Flute, get to say hello after following him for who knows how long. And take a look too — While Nose Flute is there again, what is surprising is that for whatever reason the four hikers between us and him or her on the last trail registry have disappeared, three of which intended to stay on the trail for another few days and two desiring to finish Thursday, the same day as us.
Next, our trail took us higher . . .
and it was parts, like this, that were new to me. True, we had recently hiked in areas with balds, but this — well, this was in the open for about miles. Forest had disappeared entirely, leaving us following posts stripped with white on land so clear we could see distances far ahead.
Even more incredible — once we got to the top, there were more ponies.
The horses were scattered throughout the highlands and we saw traces of them miles ahead when we continued onward too. I was told by Lumpy they are Shetland ponies, which are native to England. However, the more I research, the more contradictions I get — Anywhere from the ponies are from the Shetland Isles in Scotland to the ponies resemble Shetlands but aren’t actually Shetlands at all. Regardless, they are stunning and the ones here were far friendlier than those before. For example, this agreeable chap walked right up to us! Look at how cordial he was too, actually smiling when I took his picture!
We obviously knew he should be the one to feed so undone came the carrot bag and out came the carrots, which excited him so much his eyes opened wider and his pupils enlarged. This, of course, made us want to feed him even more carrots.
“Bless him, the hairy lad!” Andy said as the pony munched loudly on carrots. “His mane is so long he cannot see well!” And that’s when my super sweet boyfriend moved his mane from his eye so that he could see better.
And that’s actually when his smiling picture was taken, which shows he was thoroughly appreciative and happy, and that made me even more excited so I smooched my face as close as his as possible.
“Hiiiii, buddy!!!” I cooed to Lad as he lovingly flirted with me, averting those big brown eyes of his while nuzzling his nose toward mine. “I love you! I just love you! You’re the handsomest pony in the world! Oh, you are! The most handsomest pony in the whole wide world! Look at you! Just look at you! Being the handsomest — SHIT, ANDY!” I was suddenly filled with terror and leaped back from Lad. “JESUS, ANDY! I’m HORRIBLY ALLERGIC TO PONIES!!! WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING?!” “WOT!!! Are you an idiot?! How did you not think of this in the first place?! How can you be ALLERGIC TO THEM when you were just KISSING one!!!” “JESUS! I was ABOUT to KISS HIM!” I agreed, “But I’m ALLERGIC! I’m seriously allergic — Like if he touches my face or I touch my face after touching him, I’m going to swell into a gigantic purple grape and not be able to breathe! HOLY CRAP! I ALMOST KISSED HIM!!! WHAT AM I DOING?! What are we DOING HERE?! I’M ALLERGIC TO HORSES!!!” At that point, I was freaking out, my childhood flashing before my eyes — Me at petting zoos, being so eager to see my favorite animals, the horses; petting and kissing their soft noses only to have my mother carry me from the pin as I gasped like a fish for air, my throat closing. Or me about to go on a family horseback riding trip, in the stables before we set off and the itching, itchingitchingitching then my mother pulling my hand to whisk me away while finding medicine to pop in my mouth until she could get me to a better location. Horses. I adored them so much I cried when I saw them because I knew later I couldn’t get too close, and here I was — yet again — forgetting those childhood memories. I looked down at Lad, apologetic, with pitiful eyes. He mirrored my pitiful eyes, apologizing in his own way but clearly not understanding why our almost move-to-first-base had him heading back to the dugout. “PONY!!! I’m sooo sorry! But I’m allergic to you! Like for real allergic!” I turned to Andy. “JESUS! What are we doing here, what am I DOING here?! This has Death Zone written all over it for me! WHY IN THE HELL DID I PICK THIS HIKE?! I must have come here to die!!! What if I had KISSED HIM!? What if I had touched him?! Sweet boy, I cannot even give you carrots . . . ” and I looked at Lad again, who was trying to nudge my arm. “Lad, I almost kissed you. I almost died for you, buddy. But you’re so handsome, such a handsome Lad — Hey Andy, get his hair again for me. I cannot touch him and his hair is in his eyes because he wants to look at me and can’t.” And just like that, I forgot again how deathly allergic I was to horses in an effort to be sure sweet Lad could see.
“What do we do?!” I complained moments later, after Lad had eaten about seven carrots himself. “We can’t feed him them all to him” and I spreading my arms wide to motion to the other ponies that were surely as starved as Lad. “Lad. You have to share, buddy, okay? Be a nice pony and share,” I suggested to him. As if on cue, Lad nibbled the grass, which was dry, almost dying, and dirt-filled. “Bless him. I wouldn’t want to eat that either,” Andy said. “Let’s try the others,” I suggested but each time we walked close to the fellas, they quick-paced away. Meanwhile, our little guy was now following us, more a trained dog heeling, so I snapped more pictures of his cute face as he literally galloped towards us in an effort to stay by our side.
In the end, none of the other horses wanted carrots and leaving Lad was the hardest part about the trail thus far. Andy re-positioned his mane out of his eyes again and we said our goodbyes, speeding down the path in an effort to lose Lad, who continued to quick-gallop our way until the distance between us became too much.
With Lad and broken hearts behind us, we set off towards Virginia’s blue mountains, passing more ponies as we continued on the well-worn Appalachian Trail.
With the sun setting and night about to envelope us, we scanned the area for a place to camp, and that’s when we saw this feisty fellow, swiftly jumping through the brush.
I should mention here that for a moment, we had a repetition of the ponies — I tried to get close to the rabbit, cooing over him as he darted away, only to remember that the one other animal I am severely allergic to is (drum roll) bunnies. This, of course, didn’t go well with Andy, who seemed to have renewed vigor repeating the question, “How could you not have thought about these things in the first place?” Even though I tried many times to reassure him that this was not a warped suicide attempt, he wasn’t having it and ended up sulking off, grumbling while testing his knew food-hanging skills.
I will say, Andy’s two-pulley system, using a couple carabiners and a cord, worked wonderfully. And these food bags were awesome as well — They are Osprey’s dry sacks, which are waterproof.
Content with how our day turned out, we set up camp a few miles from the forest, seeking shelter from the harsh wind among brush and trees. We had planned to hike five miles the first day and ended completing almost one over due to the more flat and open highlands. Therefore, Day One ended knowing we were ahead of our target mileage-per-day but also realizing it would get harder, and that’s when we would need any extra-stored miles because, for the three upcoming days, we had planned ten miles each . . .
But that was another time to worry — for tomorrow, a new day with new challenges. And so, under the full moon, so bright it resembled more a sun, we chose to applaud ourselves and relish in our accomplishments because this, after all, was the farthest hike we had planned thus far.
Day Two: We woke early, had a cup of coffee and tea then ate a breakfast of oatmeal (or porridge for those that are English). We had slept peacefully and full and so we were ready for the next day’s adventures. It was an odd experience to see the trail you are following weave and disappear into mountains far ahead, knowing you must continue on that path, walking — one step after another — up and over those massive looming mountains. It was here we found ourselves again talking and planning our AT trip — the AT in its entirety — and wondering what it felt like to continue, grueling steps one at a time, over thirteen states.
Briefly taken back into the forest, we listened for Big Wilson Creek where our first water refill would come. On the way, we saw enormous pine trees, the oldest we had found so far on a hike.
Luckily, the water was fast moving and easily heard as we passed by.
Therefore, it was a welcomed sight for water refill areas, and this one was heavenly. Andy immediately went to topping off our bladders and bottles.
From there, we found our first shelter, the Wise Shelter.
Inside, we found many treats, including a list of detailed landmarks . . .
and scribbled notes and carved words on the shelter boards. This one stood out the most as it is what Andy and I want to live by and want the foundation of our relationship to be built upon . . .
and, of course, there was another trail registry, filled with odd comments and funny remarks.
After we quickly signed the registry, the AT took us back out to the Grayson Highlands, where we read this area has some of the best views in Virginia.
And it didn’t disappoint. We stopped here for several minutes, taking deep breaths of the cool mountain air and enjoying the reward of our hard work.
Walking on, we passed ponies that were yards away from us . . .
and on further still into the highlands when suddenly, out from the bushes, this bright white and auburn baby lass came right up to us!
So friendly and hungry for carrots, we took some from my pack to feed her.
Excitingly (for Andy at least because he could touch her), she loved being petted as much as she loved carrots!
Not seeing other ponies, we fed her two carrots, apologizing profusely for holding onto one in case another sweet love appeared. Then, we said our goodbyes to Lass, who seemed quite content for a quick meet-and-greet because she resumed munching on grass before throwing us an affectionate goodbye look over her shoulder.
Onward we went on the dry mud-trail, reinvigorated by Lass and how magical this place was when this large fellow appeared!
Eager for love, he nudged Andy’s arms, persuading him to use both hands to pet him.
This blonde-maned pony adored Andy, and Andy loved him. The pony walked as close as he could next to his new-found admirer, keeping his head practically under Andy’s arm. “We have to give him our last carrot, L! We have to!” Andy pleaded and so I gave Andy the last carrot to feed to his new best friend. And that’s when Lass squeaked out from the bushes again, startling us both!
Lass immediately came trotting up to me, which broke my heart because I could neither pet her and we didn’t have any more carrots. We ended up staying close to half an hour with these two though, which was tear-jerking when we had to leave them. And boy did they test us! When they bent to nibble on grass, we practically jogged away, hoping to make a discreet out, but they galloped after us!
“We should take them home!” Andy said as Fellow nudged Andy’s arm around his neck again. “L, pleeease! We should take them home!” Can I say here Andrew is the worst — I am the type of person who walks into a pet store and comes out with a cat, despite the fact that I never wanted a cat but was so upset to leave him that I brought on an MS attack simply knowing the kitten’s brothers had been adopted and he was still left alone. I’m the type of person that had to be pulled from that same pet store months later because I was sobbing — massive, hysterical sobs in public — over another cat, seventeen-year-old Chichi whose owner was forced into a nursing home and couldn’t take her. I’m the type of person who still hasn’t turned on the news after hearing an absolutely horrible dog abuse story years ago; that story made me call the animal shelter that took the dog every other week, just to check on how she was doing and if it was adoptable yet because I was sure as hell going to drive several states down south for the opportunity to give her a loving home even though I didn’t plan to ever have another dog. And it doesn’t stop there — It’s any animal, even insects, that I try to save, care for, or adopt . . . and here, of all people I am with, someone who begs me to take two ponies home! At that moment, with Andy’s green eyes and two pairs of perfect-brown pony eyes looking at me, I was secretly thinking, “I thought that was the deal — You were supposed to be the logical one when it came to animals because I clearly lack the capacity to do it.” “Fine,” I said, sighing and almost petting my Lass. “You know I cannot say no. Even if I am allergic. Even if I will die if I touch you, Lass. But come on, ponies. Come on, Andy. Let’s go home” and I meant it, I did, which he knew too so he smiled this amazing You’re-So-Incredible-And-The-Best-Girlfriend-Ever smile.
I mean look at him! And the ponies were even happier at the news — They pranced, actually pranced, after us, elated to call our tiny apartment in the city home. So as we walked towards that home, pony on each side of us, Andy and I discussed — in absolute honesty — about how we needed to break our lease the second we returned to purchase a house with acres of land for these two roaming ponies that found us on a hike.
Luckily . . .
right when we were telling the ponies details of how they would have to put up with our apartment at least for one day, a family of four out for a day hike, stumbled along our trail and the children shrieked over our ponies, which caused Fellow and Lass to turn and the kids to coo over them. And so, fine Fellow and little Lass were deceived, left behind in (what I’m going to tell myself) were equally happy hands and equally happy love while Andy and I slipped silently away, carrying with us only a tale of how we were going to smuggle two Shetland ponies from the highlands because we felt, truly in our hearts, they would be happier with us.
From there, (I’m not going to lie to you) this story goes downhill and downhill quickly, as does every broken heart story, I suppose.
We did see some absolutely breath-taking panoramic views, by far the most beautiful ones we have ever seen hiking.
However, all the walking and additional weight of sadness caught up to me. “Andy, I’m sorry, but I need to rest. My feet are killing me.” It was true — In an unseen instance, my feet were in the worst pain I have ever felt. It was as if I had been walking barefoot over sharp rocks for the entirety of our trip . . . so much so that, as we continued towards a massive rock on the trail to rest upon, I was almost in tears and barely able to step anymore. “Listen, I’m going to ask you something that is — I’ll just put it out there — gross, really really gross. And I know it is the biggest favor I can ask, but I honestly don’t know if I can keep going. I’m in so much pain.” “You’re going to ask me to rub your mingy feet, aren’t you?” Andy didn’t look pleased, not one bit. “I mean . . . yes, yes I am. Please, Andy. I honestly don’t think I can continue and you know me! I’ve never complained of pain in my feet before or stopped or not wanted to keep going but I honestly don’t think I can do it. My feet hurt so much.” There was a pause then one heavy, unhappy sigh then, “Alright then. Give them here.” That’s when you know you’re with someone that really loves you — when, after walking for miles in the same hot, sweaty, disgusting shoes and socks, your boyfriend massages your feet. And it was heaven, pure bliss. True, it hurt like hell because my feet were beyond sore — they just went straight from perfect to deeply bruised — but that massage felt so so so good. “Ahhhhhh,” I loudly exclaimed, unable to hold in my pants of appreciation. “That feels soooo amazing! Don’t stop, don’t stop!!! Right there! It feels sooooo good riiight there!” I’m a little embarrassed to say there were the most hikers we had bumped into around these parts and all of them were extremely confused (and dare I say intrigued) by what we were doing. But it was, after all, just a boy and a girl. On a rock.
Andy, bless his heart, massaged my feet for a long and pleasurable half an hour until falling back on the warm rock to relax.
Seeing our path turn rocky on the last bit of the high mountain, we soaked up the sun and view a bit longer before continuing on.
Our trail took us over more harsh rocks (which livened the pain in my feet again) before we slipped through tiny cool caves that provided reprieve from the warm sun.Onward still, we continued towards the Thomas Knob Shelter, not because we intended to stop there, but because we needed that little landmark to know we were in fact succeeding at our targeted mileage.
The trouble was my feet were beyond stinging. By now, I felt as if they were ground bits of bloody flesh, a messy pulp really, and with each step, open nerve-endings were hit, sending shooting pain coursing up my legs. “Hey, Andy,” I was huffing in agony. “I’m so sorry, but I have to sit down again.” This was the second pause we’d made after sitting on the rock for half an hour. It had been less than three miles. “Hey no problem. It’s okay. I want a drink anyway,” and he went to sit on another large rock beside the trail, patting the top of it in an effort to get me to sit next to him. I hobbled, slowly and painstakingly towards it, taking a seat on top of the grey slab minutes after had sat down. “I don’t know if I can do it,” I told him and began to cry. “I honestly don’t know if I can do it.” “Hey, hey, it’s okay!” and he moved closer to me, wrapping his arm around my side. “We’ve done great so far! And remember, we did about an extra mile the other day?! We are doing awesome! It’s okay. Do you want me to massage your feet again?” But I was lost, lost in my own mind, counting how many more days we had, how much mileage we still had to cover, and calculating how many more miles that meant we had to complete daily. “I cannot do it,” I choked, crying harder. I hated that I was the weak link, the reason he had to keep stopping, the reason we risked quitting the trail. I hated that I couldn’t be like him — not appear to be in pain, not feel pain but to continue walking, plodding on endlessly and not succumb to the perils of the trail. “I’m so sorry. I know you could continue. I know you could go — I’m not a good hiking partner for you anymore. I’m sorry I’m holding you up. I’m so so sorry.” I was sliding deeper into despair, one that has no end on a trail due to the thought that the only way to end a hike is to continue walking, which is the one thing I did not want to do. I had lost that desire, the power, will — the hope — to keep going . . . all I could do was cry.
Andy comforted me as best he could: He gave me the last bit of Gatorade; he offered me all food in his pack; he scanned the area for a place to set up camp for the day; he asked what he could me get from my own pack to make me feel better; he even opened my pack and took at least fifteen pounds from me. “We can stay on this rock for as long as we need,” he told me encouragingly, lightly but all made me cry harder because the last place I wanted to be in that moment was on that damned rock in the middle of the Appalachian Trail. And it was getting hotter — Not a boiling heat but a heat that clung to my skin, and I felt I was being cooked under the sun. “Andy? Am I burnt?” I asked him, feeling the tears boil on my skin as they fell. “Oh geez, you are,” he whispered. “Maybe you should put on sunscreen. I know it’s probably too late, but it will protect you from getting more sun at least.” It is here I revert back to my original comment in the beginning about packing . . . about weight . . . about liquid weight. “I dropped it,” I told him. ” . . . Wot do you mean you ‘dropped it’? Did it fall out? Where is it?” He began glancing around our feet, down the trail we had just walked. “No, no,” I sheepishly looked down at my shoes. “I, um, didn’t pack it. I dropped it — the weight, I mean.” The look he gave me was equivalent to me saying I threw all of our food and water but thought we could still survive on AT dust. “ARE YOU CRAZY?!” His arms flew into the air. “WOT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!” “Liquid weight is the most — you know that! I didn’t want to carry it! I thought we would be more protected, that there would be more shade than there has been. I haven’t been here before! How was I to know?!” We sat in silence next to each other, my despair escalating as the sun launched its heatwaves onto us, knowing we had no where to seek shade. “I’m sorry,” I told him. Not because I was sorry for forgetting sunscreen but because I was apologizing in advance for my next comment. “But I would like a foot massage again, please.” And so his anger was put aside to help my non-salvageable feet. “Thank you,” I whispered when he was done and we both leaned back on the rock. I may feel refreshed enough to continue, I thought. I feel revitalized, maybe even approaching happy. I may be able to keep going yet. “I need to pee,” I said after awhile, prepared to start over. Prepared to let my misery pass and grab ahold of a new opportunity to walk the AT. “Yep, I just need to pee.”
Let’s sidestep for a moment and talk about something happy. Let’s talk about the best hiking purchase I’ve made yet, the one I would have gladly paid a heck-of-a lot more money for, the one that has truly revolutionized hiking as a female. It is, what I refer to as, my appendage. This guy, the Freshette:
I’m not exaggerating when I say it has revolutionized my hiking trips. Instead of pacing and surveying for hidden pop-a-squat locations for hours . . . instead of becoming increasingly nasty due to the fact that I need to pee . . . and instead of having to take my entire pack off, do my business, lug it back on, then readjust and go through the pains readjusting, I now can stand — as liberated as a male — to pee anywhere I want. I can choose to stand in one place and pee to the right or pee to the left or pee to the front of my shoes or aim between them. Let me say the gravity of situation again: I can pee anywhere I want whenever I want, leaving my pack on the entire time. The brilliance of this device! The pain, heartache, and time that no longer exist because of my new appendage — It’s nothing short of brilliance. I’m so in love with my plastic-penis-like appendage that I tell Andy often I may even use it regularly at home just because I can!
“Alright, I’m going,” I announced again to Andy, feeling a bit happier at seeing my appendage. “Right,” he told me, searching for a small snack for lunch. “Where are you going?” “I think I’ll go . . . ” I scanned the area, more refreshed, hope returning. “Right there beside those bushes. Right where everyone can see me. But I don’t care. Nope, I don’t care at all. I’ve got this!” and I flicked my appendage in a showing-off fashion in front of his face. “UGH! WOT IS YOUR PROBLEM!!! DON’T PUT YOUR PENIS IN FRONT OF ME NOSE, ME FACE! WOT IS WRONG WITH YOU!!!” “Whatever, Andrew. I don’t have time to hear it. I don’t have time for it because I need to pee. The power is mine to harness! With my appendage!” and off I stumbled, resembling more a ninety-five year-old woman hobbling, before coming to rest a few feet from him to relieve myself . . .
And that’s when it happened. The worst of the worst. There was no relief, oh none at all. Only a mistake. One big ultra-horrible mistake.
It was around this time I became a full-on body of misery. If I had thought moments before when sitting on the rock in tears that life couldn’t get worse, well, life just got worse. Much worse. “I just pissed my pants,” I told him as I limped back to the grey stone. “Wot? Wot did you say?” He sat up straighter. He wasn’t necessarily asking me repeat my statement; instead, he didn’t believe me. At least my urine smell didn’t give me away. “I saaaid,” I told him nastily, “I. Just. Pissed. My. Pants. I’m not even joking. Do you want to smell? Wanna feel? They’re soaking — Everything. My shorts. My underwear. Soaking with pee because I just peed myself.” “How do you manage — ” “BECAUSE I DIDN’T PUT MY APPENDAGE ALL THE WAY AGAINST MY SKIN, OKAY?! I DIDN’T AND NOW I SMELL LIKE PISS AND I HAVE TO WALK TWENTY-FIVE OR MORE MILES IN PISS PANTS!” “Jesus.” He shook his head in disbelief — not because I had peed myself but because only I would pee myself and now he was left with me, Girlfriend Who Peed Herself. “Jesus,” he repeated, “this is going to be hell. You’re going to be a nightmare” and up he stood, pulling on his pack before turning and walking down the trail. Off he went, no glancing back, leaving me behind.
So I did what only I could do: Follow him. Hobbling on pulverized feet in my soaking pee pants, deep in thoughts of what I would do first if offered on the trail: amputate my own feet or attack an oncoming hiker to steal their dirty underwear and wear it proudly. Truth be told, I couldn’t decide. Both were equally appealing and heck, even needed. I guess I became so consumed with these two thoughts — weighing which I should chose so that I wouldn’t have to hesitate when the time to decide came — that I didn’t notice we passed the Thomas Knob Shelter, the shelter we had aimed to stop near for the day. “Hey,” Andy said, finally pausing. “How are you doing?” The answer was that I was convinced my feet were a bloody pulp with toenails dangling from portions of mushy flesh but — good news — the hot sun had now cooked the urine in my pants so they were dry. Hurray for me. “Okay, well. I think we should find a place to camp for the night,” Andy suggested and in that moment I could have jumped on him — giving him the most gigantic hug I could muster. “That would be great,” I responded and followed after him again, limps more pronounced with each step.
Day Two ended with us accomplishing almost ten miles, a total of 9.63. We found a spot at the base of the mountain, covered in thick leaves with little flowers barely popping their heads above ground.
There was a fire pit already made and even large limbs to sit on. “Listen. Maybe tomorrow I will want to keep going, okay?” I told Andy. “Maybe tomorrow I will feel better. I just don’t feel good now.” “Do you want to make a fire?” Andy asked as night was setting in, knowing one of few comforts on the trail is a fire. But I was ready to decline all comforts to start anew the next day. “A fire? I’m burnt. I’m hot. My feet hurt. I pissed my pants. I’m miserable. I just want to go to sleep and wake up and have it be a new day.” And with that, poor Andy was left outside as I hobbled into our tent and passed out . . .
until, in the middle of the night, we were awoken. It was pitched black, silent, when I heard a shoving sound, as if something large and mighty were trying to force a tree over. We could hear the tree being hit and a massive rocking back and forth, extreme effort to push a huge amount of weight into the tree. “Andy,” I whispered terrified because that sound — I knew that sound, I remembered that sound and only one very large substantial animal could make those heaving puffs, have that energy. “Andy, are you awake? Do you hear that?” “I’m awake, L. I hear it,” I heard him whisper back. From the clarity of his voice, he had been awake for several minutes too, listening. “Andy, I think it’s . . . ” I was too scared to finish. “I know. I think it is too,” he told me and my heart began to pound, pulses so deep until I could hear it, feel it in my ears. “I think it’s at our food,” I told him. “It is. It has to be. That’s definitely where the sound is coming from.” And that sound didn’t let up — It was a continuous huffing push, a sound that came only when an entire being’s weight was being forced against an unmovable object. “Andy? It’s a bear. I know it but what if it isn’t — What if it’s like before?” and I knew he understood I was talking about Three Falls when we were terrorized by what we are going down on record as saying were ghosts. “I know,” he told me back, moving slowly, methodically towards the corner where he put his head torch and flashlight. Slowly, he unzipped the tent as the zipper moved almost silently down the track. We had to see — we had to. We could not live another night petrified by the unknown. Slowly, slowly, the zipper kept traveling down and with each small pull, the sound continued outside until finally, when the opening was wide enough for him to fit his head through, the sound stopped. Andy didn’t hesitate — On went his head torch and on went the flashlights he held in his hand. I saw the spray of light moving quickly over the ground, sweeping over trees, over our hung food bags. But . . . there was nothing in sight. “Our food is still there,” he said after awhile, coming back into the tent following his scan of our area. “There’s nothing out there, L. Nothing.” The rest of the night, our bodies were tense, unmoving, listening for what we knew was a bear to approach again.
Day Three began with us wide awake and hearing another animal walk very close to our heads. “Andy? Do you hear that?” I whispered to him again. “I hear it,” he said. “Shhh.” That “shhh” to me means only one thing — There is no threat. If there were a threat, say a bear, he wouldn’t tell me to “shhh” and instead would have several other words — or no words — to explain the situation. This “shhh” meant he too heard the animal but that we were okay and so we held our breath as the leaves crunched underfoot, guessing what it could be. Once it had cleared our area and we could hear its footsteps further away so we hopped from the tent to find this guy, a white-tailed deer.
Combined with the day before and the bear-noise-filled night, we decided it was better to leave the hike than continue on for three more days. The fact was that I still only had one pair of shorts covered in pee (though, thankfully, clean underwear), my feet were almost unwalkable, and upon examination in the morning, I had one of the worst sunburns ever. “I’m just miserable,” I told Andy as he examined my skin which wasn’t even red but more plum. “I’m sorry. I know you could easily keep going, but I just want to go home. I think I truly could force my feet to keep going, but I don’t know how much more sun I will get and I’m already in pain. We have no idea what the trail is like ahead — if it is harder or easier. And we have to do ten mile days for the next two days or we won’t get back in time. I just can’t do it. Even if we get a little behind — We can’t. I just want to go home.” “I know,” Andy said, not hesitating as we packed our tent. “I know. I was going to tell you this morning — I already decided. Let’s go home.”
They say never end the AT on a bad day, and this — unequivocally — was a bad day. Or a bad set of days.
They say you will have regrets if you don’t keep walking, keep going because it will get better — The pain will numb, the concerns will go away, and soon enough you’ll cross trail magic.
They say you should end it on a high note.
And in the end, that’s what we did. We did end on a bad day. We do have regrets about not pushing on. But . . . we ended on a high note.
We plodded, slowly, taking our time because we knew time was our friend now. We stepped from the forest back into the last bits of the Grayson Highlands, enjoying our final view from the AT this time. Then we stepped down a hill to cross a road . . .
coming to rest in Elk Garden parking lot, where behind the sign and pavement, re-entry into a forest that was rumored to look more like traveling through Canada.
But we didn’t go in. Exhausted, burnt, content with our decision, we waited under the Elk Garden sign, sitting on Andy’s foam pad and trying (more like praying) to get a signal for Lumpy to send a driver to rescue us.
“It’ll be about an hour. ‘N forty-five dollars. That okay?” Lumpy asked when we finally reached him a good thirty minutes later. “That’s fine, Lumpy,” I told him. Because it was.
In that moment, I was sitting exactly where I wanted to be — beside a road that would take us home; beside my boyfriend who never says no to an adventure with me and puts up with quite a lot but is the first to offer support, the first to know when to stop and when to keep going, the first to offer love.
I don’t know where I hoped to be or imagined being at the end of this hike, the end meaning an actual physical location. I know that answer: Elk Garden, 17.32 miles in on the Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands AT trail. But it felt we were somewhere else too, somewhere more significant.
While this trip was hard and grueling and painful, it was also special, well worth it. That’s why no matter what anyone says, I know we did end it on a high note. I left the AT in the back seat of a minivan wearing my pee pants, windows down, hair blowing in the cool breeze, Andy’s hand in mine. I left feeling happy, hopeful, free. So no matter what anyone says, we knew we set a goal far beyond what we may have been able to accomplish. But in the end, we did better than we expected.
And so when the van parked and we got out, we strolled up and down the sidewalk of Damascus, population 900, pointing out the different bricks that were removed and replaced with various AT stones, messages immortalized from other hikers.
And when we were done, we walked hand-in-hand to our car then retold our tale to each other the entire drive back. It was our hike, our laughter I heard, our smiles and our love I saw. So I’m grateful — Extraordinarily grateful we found each other, grateful we went, grateful we have this story. Because, of all advice they tell you, this is the top one: Hike your own hike. And that’s exactly what we did.
Guys. I went camping. Yep, me. The Virginia girl who, just a couple months ago, bought an expensive pair of hiking boots to set out on a journey to find herself in the wilderness. A girl who had every intent to go camping but didn’t actually know anything about camping or even hiking for that matter. Now look at me. I went wild camping. And, get this, I absolutely loved it.
So. My first wild camping experience was supposed to be Triple Crown. I feel the need to bullet information:
Triple meaning three main hikes in Jefferson National Forest: Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee’s Knob, and Tinker Cliffs. We voted to start with Dragon’s Tooth first because it was the shortest of the three and (more importantly) the most challenging.
All three though are very close to each other and located in Roanoke so camping is ideal because it is three and a half hours from home and we wanted to enjoy the multiple peaks, setting up camp on one of them.
In total, Triple Crown is a thirty-seven mile loop from start to finish
There’s an about 5,600 foot elevation
Because of the length, other hikers that went suggested going for three days. Luckily, there was a holiday approaching which meant a three-day weekend and that seemed the perfect time to venture out . . . with . . . (drum roll because yes, it does deserve one . . . ) my boyfriend. Guys, meet Andy. Well, in truth, you’ve already met him — He went to Emerald Pond with Usua and me, and he was the one sweet enough to take me to my last MRI. Somewhere in between those two events, I managed to convince him to become my hiking partner . . . annnd well, date me (which, let’s be honest, shows how fearless he must be because we all know now how date-able I am by my Grocery Store Getaway post).
Anyway, Andy and I packed our packs and headed toward Roanoke for a three-day hike slash camp. I was extremely excited about this trip. Not only was it going to be my first wild camping experience, but it would prepare me — er uh, us — to hike the Appalachian Trail! That’s right — Enter surprise Number Two: I may have successfully brainwashed him into thinking hiking the AT with me is a great idea! So while this hike is no where near the 2,100 mile AT, it was a tiny tiny step that would prepare us.
Back to Triple Crown: Our hike started with this text message from Andy:
“Have a band aid ready please . . . just saying.”
This came before we even stepped a foot near the car.
Shortly after that, I got another text saying that his bladder (stores water in pack) had a hole in it and he couldn’t take it as planned. I tried to ignored the doomed sensation I felt tingling throughout my body.
And it gets better: Once he got here, I had the desire to weigh our packs. This, after all, was the first time I was taking my new Osprey Sixty-Five pack out and I was radiating excitement.
The world’s most amazing pack. Or at least my most amazing pack. Ever. Ever-ever.
(Side note: To say I have been obsessed with this pack is a dramatic understatement. I want to be in a relationship with this pack. I want to marry this pack. I beyond-adore this pack. So, HUGE thank you to Andy for finding it for me for . . . I’m not going to say exactly how much, but let’s just say he has connections and those connections scored me a brand new Aura pack for half the marked price. H-a-l-f. There’s no way I will ever be as excited about a deal as I was this one. It was love at first sight. For the pack, I mean. . . . Just bants, Andy, my sweet . . . )
Back to what I was saying: I had the desire to weigh our packs. I read on a website from another hiker that did the Triple Crown to pack light. Here’s exactly he said:
Warning you say? Bold you use? Italics? Red font you type in? Wow. This must be important so I figured his advice needed to be heeded.
“Andy,” I told him earlier. “We need to pack light. Do you think our packs will weigh thirty to forty pounds?”
Andy: “I certainly hope not. I’m not carrying that weight.”
Me: “So we can definitely get our packs to below thirty pounds . . . right?”
Andy: “*Psh* Of course. We can get it down to twenty-five. Easy.”
I must have gone to sleep that night reassured that I would wake up the next day, hike day . . . with a pack so miraculous that it would learn to diet . . . because when we weighted it . . . it weighed a whopping forty-five pounds. And Andy’s? Also forty-five pounds. So what did we do? Discuss how to reduce our pack weight? No. Take items out? Nope. Pack ninety pounds worth of hiking and camping gear in the car to leave? Yep. Brilliant we are.
Three and a half hours later, we arrive at the parking lot. . . which was so packed with cars that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find a spot. There was a man in a huge minivan in front of us, too, who apparently had the same concerns because he was trying to squeeze into what appeared to be a motorcycle space before darting out of his van, sprinting back in, and reversing again . . . then repeating the whole process . . . until we arrive. That’s when the guy jumps out of his van and starts literally jumping up and down a few yards in front of us, pointing at the same spot he was trying to get into . . . which confused Andy and me because it seemed he wanted us to take it . . . yet, when we moved forward, he would jump back into his van and move closer. We thought, “Okay. He is claiming that, saying ‘No, don’t take it!'” but that wasn’t it either because the moment we moved away and reversed, he ran from his van and waved us back, re-jumping and re-pointing. This part of the story ends with Andy beckoning him to the window, asking him if he could run around the parking lot and look for empty spaces then run back and tell us if any were free. Insanely enough, this stranger-man agrees to do exactly as Andy wants while Andy leans back in the seat and turns the AC on higher. I looked at him with bewilderment, asking, “Did you really tell this man to do what you should be doing right now? Did you really just get a stranger to run around a parking lot for you? To find you a space? Then report back to you?” Andy just smiled; his feet may even have been on the dash and his arms behind his head, leaning back. I think that was my first experience learning if you have a British accent, people will do anything for you. Cheers to dating someone British.
Okay, so the stranger slash exhausted-parking-lot-runner makes it back and tells us where to park. We listen, or course, because hell, it would be rude not to after he ran for us. Then we get out to put on our packs.
This is when hopes are high and dreams could be accomplished and we knew that we would live to tell the tale.
It was right around here that I realized exactly how heavy my pack was. “Have a walk around the car park to see if you want to take anything out,” Andy says to me but I knew instantly, yes, let’s take things out so I immediately take it off and start going through it. What doesn’t dawn on me at the time is I don’t need three pairs of pants, five pairs on underwear, three sports bras, deodorant, and more absurdities that I don’t even remember because clearly I wasn’t thinking of packing properly at the time. What I do know is that of all things I proudly pulled out my lotion and exclaim, “THIS! I don’t need lotion! I’ll leave it here!” and put it in the trunk then put my pack back on. Andy thought this was crazy because, as he pointed out, my lotion maybe weighed an entire ounce and did nothing for my pack weight . . . which was true because after he pointed that out, I felt my pack fill with invisible rocks and pull me down. Placebo effect destroyed.
It didn’t matter though, I tried to tell myself! A forty-five pound pack isn’t the worst thing in life! It will only make me stronger! I’ll soon be the best hiker the world has ever known! and all these other radical ideas were spiraling around my head as we set off, me smiling.
Our first peak: Dragon’s Tooth, which by the way, here is some information on it.
A short almost six miles total from start to finish
There’s a 1,505 foot elevation
Rated a Level Four of Five difficulty (notice I’m taking on harder hikes!)
As I said above, we chose Dragon’s Tooth as our first peak because it was expected to be harder in comparison to the other two in Triple Crown. I’ll admit, I saw it as a challenge because the others, such as McAfee Knob (our second peak), were advertised as “a walk in the park compared to this [Dragon’s Tooth] tough short hike.” What that meant for us was intense rock trails . . .
extremely narrow paths on the edge — and I mean absolute edge — of the mountain . . . and parts that made you question where the line was between hiking and climbing . . .
This picture doesn’t show it but the trail at times was so step, thin iron bar steps that had been embedded into the rocks to help people clamber up.
However, given all of that, the trail did at least start off pleasant. We crossed a stream . . .
and even saw a snake . . .
which looked identical to the one we saw at Emerald Pond so I was able to confirm the following: One, it did not have a rattle so it was not a rattlesnake and two, it was definitely a copperhead. (Yay! My internet friends, you guys rock for voting and confirming that!) Speaking of seeing a snake, rest assured — Andy didn’t feel the need to beam a rock at this one. Thank God. Peace and safety restored.
Back to our trek up the mountain: The way the path changes suddenly was pretty cool; it kept you constantly on your toes.
It was supposed to be a short hike; however, it took us a good few hours to get to the peak because the trail got tougher. So tough that I actually put my camera away because picture-taking was not an option then. My desire was focused on scaling the rocks and not falling to my death after slipping off the side of a cliff. Not only that, but let’s be honest, our forty-five pounds worth of mess didn’t help because at this point, it had now settled into place in our packs and seemed to weigh more. It was only when we reached the top of and were looking over our directions that we found this tidbit for the first time, which seemed to be laughing and mocking our efforts up the mountain.
As Andy would say though, “We bossed it.” I mean, in the end, we made it to the top and were rewarded by a few good vistas. This made me feel empowered, strong, alive — so alive that I immediately thought, “What type of wuss carries a twenty-five to thirty-five pound pack?! *Pfff*” Clearly, I had left my brain at the base of the mountain because a liberating feeling should not come from ignoring suggestions on keeping an almost fifty-pound pack at home. Regardless, this hike gave my pack a name — Baby because damned if I would leave it or any of its “essential” materials behind. Baby was mine and I was going to care for it lovingly and affectionately and take Baby to see amazing sites like this one.
Check out that perfectly captured shot with the butterfly!
I love this picture because it shows the various shades of blue our Blue Ridge Mountains are!
Overall, Andy and I were proud of ourselves; we were doing great — We didn’t get lost (that alone is huge given our hiking-directionally-challenged skill set), we were still alive to tell the tale after hauling forty-five pounds up the mountain (we are incredible heathens). And we had time to spare so we decided to extend our hike to get a step forward on the next day’s trail. This became Rule Three in our Hike Rules: If you can keep hiking, keep hiking.
(Want to check out our other rules? They were formed after past hikes where, let’s be honest, we basically f’ed up but learned from our mistakes to correct our errors!
Rule One: Every decision is a joint decision.
Rule Two: Do not deviate from your blaze.)
Our payoff? Dragon’s Tooth.
Not only did Dragon’s Tooth have a great view, but it gets its name from the rocks which resemble dragon’s teeth (above right rock). There are also massive quartz rocks that were really beautiful and had an almost white-washed color (above left rock). Here’s a closer look . . .
The gorgeous quartz rock
Here are some of the views closer from the edge
While the peak of Dragon’s Tooth was incredible, we had other peaks to tackle and needed to step up our game because we lost time scaling such a hard mountain. Looking at our directions, we set off on the AT for our second peak, McAfee’s Knob . . .
While we weren’t expecting to scale McAfee’s Knob that same day, we wanted to get as close as possible so that we would be more on track for our ten-miles a day average. This meant that even though we were beaten from the climb up Dragon’s Tooth, we needed to keep going while we had light and some small fraction of energy. Off we go, onto what we thought was the AT . . . only to determine two miles later that it wasn’t the path we wanted at all. That was a bit frustrating but — good news! — we had passed an amazing place to wild camp so we turned back around, ready to call this spot “home” for the night.
Incredible fire. Don’t ask Andy who started it. He will lie to you.
Another reason I loved this camp site was because we saw a fawn a few yards from our tent!
Around this time, we were cuddling on a blanket by the fire, whispering of how beautiful the area was when we suddenly heard dry heaving. Like retching. Like a lot. A couple seconds later, we hear a boy crying and geez do I mean crying — sobbing as if every joy had been taken from his world. Soon, a family appeared down the trail. “I CAAAN’TTT!!!” this young boy, maybe eleven, screamed between a strong effort to vomit mid-walk. “I CANNN’TTTT!!! I CAAAN’T DO IT ANYMORE!!!” owah oooowahhh (the sound of regurgitation) “PLEEEASSSEEE!!!” “Holy shit,” I thought. “This kid is dying, visibly dying in the most painful, torturous way.” Kid: “I NEED TO STOP!!! I HAVE TO STOP!!!” ooowahhhooowahhh “I CAN’T!!! I JUST WANNA GO HOOOME!!!” More crying and retching. “I CAN’T DOOO IIIT!!!” Andy and I watched, more alert and scared than confused. The family walked closer to us. The mom was walking beside the boy; the dad, a few paces ahead but both were absolutely unphased by the boy; no one talked to him. No one stopped. Until they saw us.
“Hey there! This spot looks amazing!” The dad waved at us. “Yeah, we were pretty –” ooowahhh ooowaaahooowaahhh “– um, lucky . . . to have –” ooowwwaaahhhooowwaaahhh “– found it . . . ” “Most definitely! How long have you been here?” (sobbing sounds sometimes muffling his words) “We just got in actually. First day.” OOOWAHHH OOOWAHHH “Awesome. How long ya staying?” “Um, we aren’t sure –” (more sobbing) “Hey, is he okay?” I couldn’t ignore the poor boy any longer who, at this time, I was convinced had somehow thrown up his own intestines through his mouth and nose due to the incredible force at which he was heaving. I had never heard dry heaving sound so painful. Or loud. Or long. “What?” The dad truly looked confused. “Um,” OOOWWWAAAHHH OOOWWWAAAHHH “him” and I pointed, which I felt bad doing because I know my face was scrunched up in disgust, alienating this pitiful boy further but another truth to be told is that I was trying hard at resisting my own vomit from rising with each of his dry heaves. “Him? Oh yeah!” owahowahowah “He’s just not used to hiking that’s all!” Then he turns to his son: “Come on, son! Only a few more miles to go! You can do it!” At that, the boy mentally collapsed and I mean had a breakdown. He began screaming “ICAN’TIDON’TWANTTOIWANTTOGOHOME”s so loud I think the leaves were quivering. I might have hid behind Andy. “Come on, son!” The man repeated, smiling, and I was so scared someone would kill someone — the boy attack his father or his father kill his son. Mom simply stood there, looking at us. “I SAAAIIIDDD I–” ooowwwwahhhowww “–CAN’T AND I WON’T AND I CAN’T AND III WWWAAANNNTTT TO GO HHHOOOMMMEEE!” “Great!” dad replied, energized watching his warped torture-plan, “THAT is EXACTLY where we are headed!” Then to us: “Have a great night! Sorry about my son. Just ignore him!” and off dad turns, occasionally throwing some words of not-confidence-for-the-boy over his shoulders. “Just six more miles, son!” This triggered more sobs and retching and screams until — and I’m being serious — about half an hour later we didn’t hear them anymore. “Bless him, the poor lad,” Andy said, shaking his head. “Six more miles? You reckon he’ll make it?” I, on the other hand, was worried I wouldn’t make it. I had lost my appetite for food. For water. For cuddles. And nature. And life. I wanted to run into the trees and throw up for him.
This poor boy’s less-than hiking ability, made me question my own and it was around this time I asked Andy a crucial question, one that (in truth) had been on my mind for awhile now, one that truly mattered to me: “Andy. Am I a good hiking partner? As in if you could have anyone in the world — Bear Grylls, anyone — where would I rank percentage-wise?” He thought for a moment longer than I feel comfortable admitting then answered: “Maybe you’d score a twenty-five percent. But that’s because you cannot read maps.”
So on that reassuring note, we stayed silent by the fire until it got dark and then slipped into our tent for sleep. And that’s when we heard it.
The best way I can describe it was a deep, gutteral, gunt-ish MOOOOOOOOOOAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH sound.
It sounded like a gigantic scary man-eating monster. Not lying. We turned to each other, frozen. MMMMOOOOOOAAAAARRRRGHHHHHHH!!!! The sound again just echoing and amplified because it was so quiet. “Bear?” Andy asked. “BEAR!” I whispered as loud as a whisper could be without it becoming an excited scream. “BBBEEEAARRR!!!” I said again while Andy plunged his face into the side of the tent to see if he could notice anything.
My protector, snuggled in his sleeping bag . . .
Let me add here that the number one thing I have been yearning to see is a bear. Since I got into hiking, I’ve mention wanting to see one more than I mention food . . . which I am realizing right now is the absolute best comparison because it is insanely true. I mean, I wanted to see a bear more than cage diving with great whites. I wanted to see a bear more than being under the northern lights. Guys, I wanted to see a bear more than scuba diving with a whale shark. Andy called it a crazy obsession, and he was right (don’t tell him, sh) but I could not imagine being at an absolute 50/50 of fear and excitement at seeing one in the wild. “BEAR!” I yelled, and hopped out of the tent, flashlight in hand, turned instantly on. Prepared. I felt I had practiced for this moment, I felt all my life had built up to this where I would be able to see a bear approach my tent! Where Andy and I would be petrified and have to scream to each other about what to do because we had no idea what to do because neither one of us had been smart enough to read up on black bears even though this was bear season. It didn’t matter though! What mattered is MY BEAR was coming! MOOOOOOOAAAARRRRRRGHHHHHHH!!! it gunt-yelled again, taunting me because as I swooshed from left to right, front to back there was no bear in sight. And I stayed outside that daggon tent for what felt like hours waiting for this bear to come. I even YouTubed “Bear noises” to determine, one-hundred percent accuracy, this was the monster we were dealt with. I mean, from the sounds of it, it was either Bigfoot or a bear. A bear just seemed more logical. Sure enough, YouTube confirmed it and I crawled back in the tent to play the noise for Andy . . . who looked like I told him I wanted to go make out with a bear. He was wide-eyed and maybe even panting from fear. “It’s COOOMMMINNNG!!!” I giggled, literally shaking with excitement. “Shut up,” he said doing the complete opposite of giggling and shaking with eagerness. “OOOOWWW!!! We may see a BEARRRRR!!!” and I tickled his side. I cannot remember what he told me — It was a cross between “Have you lost your bloody mind?!” and “You seriously have a problem!” because that was it. The end of my bear excitement as he nestled into his sleeping bag and turned his back on me. “A beeeearrrrr,” I whispered again, sitting up in the tent soon listening to the sound of Andy’s breath, asleep.
Hours must have passed because I don’t remember lying down, I don’t remember falling asleep but I do remember being awoken by a strange sound. WOOOOOO WOOWOOO WOOOOO, the sound felt light, as if it were bouncing in the trees above. My adrenaline began pumping again, I was alert as ever. WOOOO WOOWOO WOOOOO “Andy? What’s that noise?” “WOT?!” Immediately he woke up, on edge. “No, no. Shhh, it’s not a bad noise. It’s a sweet animal — I just want to know what type it is. Listen,” and we waited in silence. “Wooot?” He was impatient. There was no sound. “Shhh, just wait — There!” and the animal wooooo woowoo-ed again. “What type of animal is that!” I worded each syllable sweet, quiet, hoping to coax him out of sleep. What I was realizing the more I heard him ask “What” was that I was both wide awake and cared less about the animal ID than having a conversation with him. “It’s an owl,” he mumbled. “An ooowl!” I whispered. I couldn’t remember ever hearing an owl. It was silent for a few minutes as I listened to it. “Andy? . . . Andy?” “Wot?” “What type of owl is it!” In my mind, I was imagining him going fishing in Scotland, lying in his tent alone, listening to the night animals there. He was my expert, my animal identifier, and I wanted to learn. “Wot.” It was no longer a question; he didn’t want an answer. It was a statement that said he didn’t care about the owl and only wanted me to stop saying his name in reference to it. I waited, nervous. I didn’t want my new camping-partner boyfriend to hate camping with me. ” . . . but Andy . . . what type of owl is it . . . ?” “WOT?!” This seemed a rhetorical question because what was not lost in translation were the words, “Are you crazy?” His head raised when he said this too so that his words became more clear. I tried again. I was a go-getter, I wanted answers! “What tyyype of owl is it?” I tried to talk slower. Maybe I had misjudged him; maybe he just couldn’t understand me after being awoken suddenly. “How should I bloody know what type of owl it is?!” he asked, resting his head back down on the pillow. “But you go camping and hiking and hear animals all the time!” “Seriously?! I told you I don’t go often.” I wasn’t giving up though. I wanted to know the owl species. I wanted to talk to him. I felt excited, I was ready to party! “Please,” I said again as if knowledge was a thing that could be forgotten and suddenly remembered. “It’s a rare spotted brown (mumble mumble) owl . . . ” He was falling back to sleep but I knew he knew what type it was! I was overjoyed! “Wait, just wait — The what owl? Why is it rare? Because of its spots?” “Yea. Most owls have no spots so the smaller the spots, the more rare” and just like that, he fell asleep again. “Wooooow,” I whispered, eyes wide open, no longer interested in having a conversation with him but intrigued with our rare spotted owl. How lucky were we? How could he even sleep at a time like this? Imagine how few people in the world actually get to hear this owl! I listened until I don’t remember falling asleep.
It was only the next morning when I confessed to staying awake for as long as I could to hear the owl that he laughed and admitted he made up the name. “What do you mean you made up the name?” I asked, agitated. “You’re serious?” he said through laughs. “L. I called it a rare spotted brown idiot owl to shut you up because you wouldn’t let me sleep.”
And that’s the first moment I realized exactly what camping partner-boyfriend I had picked.
So. Day Two, which luckily, he redeemed himself and I was able to immediately realized a major plus of dating someone British. Three letters: T-e-a.
Yuuum. I could take tea any day of the week and at any time so the aspect of having my bloke (I’m so proud of myself right now for using that word correctly . . . at least I think correct . . . oh geez, now I’m second-guessing and may delete it . . . ) . . . my bloke ask, first thing, if I wanted a “brew” in the morning. It was marvelous. While Andy took to making us an a.m. drink, I stoked the fire — even though we were supposed to be leaving soon (I’m a bit of a pyro) and within moments, it was roaring again.
Even in the summer, there’s something special about a nice warm fire so we settled down on a blanket and discussed plans for Day Two.
I loved the way the smoke was moving. It made things seem mystical.
Here’s what we determined: We were going to stay. Yep, Triple Crown off just like that. We were gonna stay put at our site. This was determined for variety of reasons. First, the coming ones offered campgrounds, which meant no wild camping because the trail passed through national forest land to state forest land. This meant more rules, like no fires. I love fire. Not only this, but we determined that my ambitious beginner goal of hiking at least ten miles every day was well, too ambitious. We had a minimum of sixteen miles in front of us that day and if we couldn’t hack that, then either we would turn out like the boy from last night . . . or we would be stuck in the middle of our hike somewhere near mile twenty with the knowledge that we would need an extra day to get back . . . and we weren’t off work Tuesday. Simply put, continuing seemed too risky because we were down days and up in miles-to-come. Dragon’s Tooth and our ridiculous forty-five pound packs took more out of us than we expected.
There was one problem that needed to be solved though and that was water. We had depleted ours: I alone carried a three-liter bladder and two liters Gatorades, and Andy had roughly the same amount. Now, the issue wasn’t that we were down water. We knew we would be and because of that, Andy bought a water filter where we could pump water from a stream and it would be filtered immediately, allowing it to be drinkable right away. Our problem was where to go for water. Our maps proved not helpful as they were all peaks separately without a clear understanding of how they related to one another. Without that, we lacked the knowledge of all water options. We knew there was a stream at the bottom of Dragon’s Tooth, but both of us didn’t want to have to hike down and back up that mountain any time soon.
It was around this time that we were discussing water when early morning hikers began to travel past on the AT. “Water could wait,” I decided, interested in talking to the people that passed. I wanted to hear stories of the Appalachian Trail and every hiker that walked by stopped to say hi. It was an incredible experience. We talked to two men that were friends — one was from Virginia, the other Colorado. The Virginia man had hiked the AT before and now he convinced his friend to leave the gorgeous mountains in the west to check out our peaks in the east. I was surprised to know the Colorado guy found Virginia breathtaking. He said back at home, the area was beautiful but here, “every direction you turn looks like a different postcard.” He talked of how the mountains were more nestled together instead of stretched out and how that offered numerous different views, which blew his mind. The way he talked made me realize something, something I had been starting to realize since my divorce: Virginia is a pretty amazing state. We have equally long four seasons, a coast, numerous stunning rivers, and astounding forests on mountains. Since I was small, I had been focused on getting out of Virginia, moving to a different country, starting a new life . . . and that kept me from taking in exactly how lucky I am to have grown up here, to be living here.
Other hikers we talked to were equally impressed by Virginia, though most were from this side of the country and hiking the AT in sections because they couldn’t get the time off of work and didn’t want to quit work in order to do the entire thing in one fat chunk. Oh! There was one guy though that was walking with the intent of crossing paths with his friend who was hiking the AT. More on him soon . . . but others that stopped to chat included an older man who told us he had hiked this section of the AT a few times. “Where’s water?” Andy and I both asked together. “Oh, you have tons of water options,” and the man walked closer, pulling out his map. “There two streams here” (pointing the way we came) and there’s a great water source here (pointing the other direction, the way we had started to walk when we thought we were headed to our next peak). “Brilliant. How far to this one?” and Andy points to the one that didn’t have the threat of Dragon’s Tooth looming over it. “Oh, about three or four miles away. Pretty close! And there’s a few different places to pick it up. Definitely much better than the small stream when you first head up Dragon’s Tooth” and he turns to go. “Thank you!” we holler to him as he headed off.
Our minds made up on which way to head for water, we began our first water search! In our moment of intelligence, we decided to take one empty pack because why make two people carry packs when we could fit the water in one? And off we went! This part of the trek was really nice, too. I cannot properly word how refreshing it was to have a pack that did not weigh forty-five pounds. I felt like God, I felt like flying, I felt like walking on water. I had such an amazing time that we stopped to enjoy more vistas.
Three miles later, we were still hopeful and laughing, flirting, looking forward to some delicious cold water. Three and a half miles later, we are excited because surely we would be stumbling onto some type of water any moment. Four miles later though, a different story. “Maybe we missed it somehow?” “But the man did clearly said multiple water sources and made it sound like there would be a pretty good full stream.” “Maybe he was lying?” “Why would he lie?” “Maybe he was a mean, not-to-be-trusted man.” But the scariest realization was “Maybe he had his mileage off” in which case who knew how far we would have to go for water. And that brought us back to the thought before, mainly if he was lying. “Let’s go fifteen minutes and check and see” so onward we continued, thirsty, irritable, untrusting. Fifteen minutes later and we were still heading downhill, not on flat ground where a stream could slide through. “What do we do?” At this point we were half wanting to turn back around the little-over four miles, go the almost six miles back down Dragon’s Tooth to find some type of water that we knew actually existed. “But I’m going to kill myself if the water is literally right around the bend,” said Andy, and he was right; there was a bend in the trail, and we were almost on flat ground. “Fifteen minutes and check and see?” And again, we stepped forward, joint decision to continue for this unknown location where mirage water was said to be found. Fifteen minutes later, Andy was cussing and giving probably too detailed descriptions of how he would murder the old man if he saw him again and I was too delirious to cheer or correct him . . . until . . . we saw this:
Yep, a shelter. Not water but a stupid **** shelter.
Read this handwritten message a little more closely. It was definitely a creepy stopping place that we, well, didn’t stop long at.
“What. The. Hell.” Doom and dehydration and death loomed in front of us, clear as the message on the shelter wall. “I really am going to kill that old man,” Andy kept muttering to himself as we circled the shelter oh, a hundred and one times before determining there was no pump and no sign telling us where this mystical not-tested-water could be found. “I know you’re going to hate me, but let’s go fifteen minutes more and check and see.” I didn’t hate him. It was our only option. So around mile five, we went on, trucking into the unknown . . . until . . . finally . . . I heard the sound of rushing water.
This was us saying, “HOLY ****-ing **** **** W-A-T-E-R” because, sorry mom, but we were honestly about to die and as I said then, that deserves a million cuss words.
Side note: This is where we were guessing the bear was last night. He was probably filling his belly with some water and a safe (unfortunately) five miles from us.
Andy took to pumping the water the second it glimmered in his eyes.
He also took to drinking the water immediately, too. “This is supposed to filter it so that we don’t have to boil it. But if I die –” and down the water went. I mean, hell. If he died, I wouldn’t know what to tell his family. “I’m so sorry. He, he just didn’t finish his sentence,” is what I’d have to say.
Our water filter was incredible. I’m hoping to start a gear review page. If I do that, I’m definitely recommending this filter.
I don’t want to keep you on the edge of your seat. In conclusion, Andy didn’t die. In fact, he gulped down so much water that he ended up drinking straight from the hose from the filter. Once he got his fill, he began filling the bottles and boy, was that water ah-may-zing. I’m talking super cold and super clean and super delicious. We both agreed we’d never had water that tasted as good as it.
Once we resembled more water balloons than humans, we made the journey back to our tent. Oh, and that’s when we saw this little guy who was about half a foot long and as thin as my pinkie finger.
Eastern garter snake
No sooner had we moved past the snake, we began to realize why having one pack was a completely ridiculous decision. “What. the. hell. were. we. thinking?!” we both asked after we switched the pack halfway. Let’s breakdown our stupidity: We ultimately decided one person would carry ten liters of water. One liter weighs two pounds which means water alone made this pack twenty pounds, which doesn’t sound like that much but after you have walked several miles, are exhausted, and have additional weight (such as your actual pack weight, first aid materials, toiletries, etc), the twenty pounds feels more like forty-five . . . which is what we started with . . . and not what we wanted to repeat on what was supposed to be a relaxing day to water.
Luckily, we had a diversion from our solo-twenty-liter-of-water thoughts. This came in the form of other hikers. It was around the time we ran into the guy who had no pack, no water, only earbuds blasting some serious rock music. This is the man I mentioned earlier, who set off for a quick day hike to provide a bit of day inspiration for a friend. This friend, was who I was interested in, was hiking the AT and had started all the way in Maine and was working down to Georgia; apparently, this guy was a serious hiker. The man we met told us his friend had hiked it before and had the fastest time ever going from Maine to Georgia but something about the person that went from Georgia to Maine beat him so he couldn’t claim the record. He was adamant that there should be two AT record categories: going north to south and then traveling south to north. He pointed out the hike is completely different depending on which direction of travel and that wears on your body differently. I tend to agree after listening to him. Speaking of records though, I learned about the person that held the AT fastest thru-hiking record. For the past four years, a woman named Jennifer Pharr Davis (who by the way is only thirty-three) hiked the 2,100 miles, fourteen state AT in an absolutely insane forty-six days, clocking about forty-seven miles a day. A day. What’s another word for insane?! Her record was only recently beaten (recent as in July 2015) by a man named Scott Jurek (he’s forty-three) who finished only three hours and twelve minutes faster than Davis. Props to a woman for hammering this trail though! I secretly think she could take down Jurek, too, if she hiked it again.
Anyway, talking about hiking made me think of something I read where I learned it is common for other AT hikers to give each other nicknames so I asked the man we were talking to if he had a hiking nickname. He did: Bells. I then asked what his friend’s name was: Speed Goat, he said, and laughed. Bells ended up waving goodbye to us, saying he was going to stay put in the middle of the trail, leaning against a tree, waiting for his friend Speed Goat. I promised to ask the coming hikers if they were Speed Goat, which greatly amused Bells. “He’d like that! It’d give him hope that I’m close!” Then, as we were walking away, we heard, “AND HEY! TELL HIM I’M DRINKING A MARGARITA WHILE WAITING FOR HIM!” “PROMISE!” I screamed back, laughing while thinking, “Really really cool. I want this to be my life where strangers with funny nicknames stop each other and talk as if they were close, and where nature wraps people into a embrace that feels of safety and curiosity and passion, an embrace that makes them keep pressing on for something that isn’t a material possession but a mental reward. This is what I want,” as I looked at Andy who was smiling too, and soon, we were back at our tent, bringing our fire back to life.
Day Two Night had no crazy bear stories or rare spotted brown idiot owl tales to tell. However, it does have what I will call The Torch-Watching Incident.
Here goes: It’s the middle of the night, we’re in the woods, no light from vistas so blackness all around our little tent. We are exhausted after going to sleep early so we are passed out . . . when suddenly a light shines on our tent. And who knows how long the light shines on the tent because I don’t wake up to the light but I become aware of it when Andy whispers, in a commanding voice, “Sh.” I sit up. “What do you mean ‘sh?'” I was sleeping, we were cuddling, I was warm. “SH,” he repeats again. “BEAR?!” I ask excited. He gives me a look that says, “Really?! Why is it impossible for you to listen to what I am telling you?!” then shakes his head, very defined shakes I’ll add, and says again, “S-H.” So I sit and wait. And wait. But in my head, I’m thinking, “I’ll show you! I can follow instructions! I can wait!” and I wait and wait and wait some more. I cannot tell you how many minutes went by — five? ten? — with him leaning over me, frozen with wide eyes, listening for . . . what? “What are we listening for?” I ask, no longer bothered to show I can be patient. Again, I had been sleeping, we were cuddling, I was warm. “Come back. Just stop. I don’t caaare,” I complained, trying to get him to lie back down but he wouldn’t move. “SSSSS-HHHH” and he gives me a very furious look. I grumble and puff and flop back down on my pillow. We wait more. “I don’t get it. What is the MATTER?!” and that’s when he tells me: “Someone is watching us.” “WHAT DO YOU MEAN SOME-ONE?!” I didn’t know whether to be scared or doubtful. “Someone. Is. Watching. Us” he tells me again, as if repeating it with a more defined pronunciation will help me understand. “WHO?!” “How the bloody hell should I know?! Someone is out there. Do you see the torch?” He’s whispering in my ear now about there is a torch shining on us (which PS–A British torch is not like an American torch where we have a super strong flame on the end of some serious wood. What he meant was there was a flashlight that was on and pointed at us. I know, it sounds less impressive and scary now but ’tis true.) “WHAT?!” I now noticed the light. Before I was so dazed that it didn’t dawn on me. “What do we doooo?” I whisper in his ear. “I don’t know. I don’t know how long they’ve been watching us” and he hesitates “or why . . . or exactly where they are . . . ” which makes him slowly creep over me towards the opening of my side of the tent. I’m thinking he’s going to go out and approach this creepy stranger . . . in the forest . . . whose been watching us . . . with a “torch” . . . when suddenly the light shifts and darts away. I gasp as the person must have gone running when they saw Andy’s silhouette sitting up and moving towards the tent door! But at the same time I inhale, Andy exhales and then I hear, “LLLLL!!! It’s a TORCH!” And he’s talking normally now, eyes less wide; he, less on edge. I’m confused. Of course it’s a damn torch; he made that clear several minutes ago, but hell, if he wants to argue over whether it is a torch or a flashlight, I’ll have at it so I open my mouth, prepared to define both when he dips down to my feet, jabs his hand at my toes, and pulls up a “torch.” IT’S YOOOURRR TORCH! YOU LEFT IT ON! JESUS! I THOUGHT SOMEONE WAS WATCHING US!!!” This story ends with me hysterically laughing at how tense he was and begging him to tell me what he would have done if there was actually a person that had been watching us all night. He though didn’t want to play that game and instead tucked himself back into his sleeping bag, rolled over, and fell asleep.
We woke up early, but we took our time eating breakfast, getting ready, and watching the fire die. It was probably around noon when we started to pack and come to the conclusion that, again, we had truly carried too much. This made me become determined that I would not take forty-five pounds worth of material back down the mountain with me. And that made me re-examine all I put into my pack. Until I saw these comfy bad boys. I know, I know. They look disgusting but let me just tell you these flip flops have been around since my freshman year of college. I hear ya, entering jokes about how you can tell, but these flip flops are soft and light and thin and more comfortable than any pair of flip flops I’ve ever owned. These flip flops are my world, and I love them. But in that moment of panic, realizing I was going to trek down a steep and arduous mountain again, I decided the flip flops must be an item to cut . . .
. . . so I stepped forth, flip flops in hand . . . and dropped them delicately into the fire . . .
I almost cried. These flip flops have been through college, getting my puppy, buying a house, getting married, moving into an apartment with a man, a separation, a divorce, and now a rebuild of my life. These flip flops have been there, they’ve seen me at my worst. They’ve carried me through the worst. And now, they were slowly curling up like some dying, drying insect.
Then I smelt death . . . in the form of rubber. I felt like I could hear them screaming. And just couldn’t do it. I dove my hands into the fire — into the building flames of Mordor — and dug them out. They were curled and the rubber soles melted.
For the most part, my flip flops were still alive. I beamed at Andy, who looked at me like I had lost my mind as I tucked them back into my pack. “A guy I work with says you should allow one luxury item when you camp. Mine is going to be my flip flops,” and off I set onto the trail, not looking back at his judgement, feeling both relieved and heroic at the same time.
We had about six miles down the mountain and around mile two, we see two signs. “Dragon’s Tooth Parking,” they clearly read and clearly point in the direction of a trail that seems off the main trail. “This must be the trail those guys talked about that would take us an alternate route to the parking lot,” Andy replies. What guys? When did they say this? Do you all remember because I sure as hell didn’t. I think he made it up, but that didn’t matter because off Andy goes down this side trail. And I follow. It didn’t dawn on me that we were leaving the main trail at that time. Andy was going down the trail. I was hiking with Andy. I needed to go down the trail. So I did.
And this trail equaled death.
I’m not even joking. And I can say that but the amount of seriousness I am trying to portray right now will never be conveyed adequately so just trust: This trail equaled death.
It was so steep. It was as if we were scaling down the edge of a cliff. Not in the way Dragon’s Tooth had been where there were neat ring-steps, or rock cutouts to tuck your feet into and hoist yourself up. Ohhh nooo. This was honest to God simply scaling down the edge of a cliff. It became so steep that we were sliding at times straight down an about 80-degree cliff side. It became so steep that the top portion of my pack was actually flying over my head because gravity, in that moment, was just as confused as we were. It became so steep that I butt-skidded down the trail at some portions because if I stood up fully, I would fall headfirst over the side of the cliff. It was so steep that we were literally throwing our arms out to the side to catch onto any limb or sapling so that our fall, or uh I mean descend, was less treacherous. It was so steep that we began laughing in this I-cannot-believe-we-are-doing-this type of nervous way before saying, “Thank EVERYTHING mighty that we do not have to hike back up this mountain using the same path,” and here we would pause every now-and-again to peek up the cliff at our walking slash tumbling-down-the-mountain trail.
That’s when we saw a couple falling down the mountain with us, and when I say falling, I mean just that: rocks being loosened as they slipped, skidded, and literally fell down the mountain. “Hurry,” I told Andy. “We have to beat them. We cannot let them pass us,” and we began throwing ourselves down these rocks and boulders and cliff edges so carelessly that I’m amazed, looking back, that we did not break our necks and paralyze ourselves. In my mind it was for a purpose — an important purpose though. This was the most insane trail I could ever imagine and if we let them pass us, then we would be stuck here, alone, with this death-trail. I wanted company and the only way to ensure I had it was to make sure they didn’t pass us on the white blaze trail . . . wait. White blaze trail. W-h-i-t-e b-l-a-z-e and I frantically began searching for a blaze color, any blaze color — one approaching, one we passed, anything . . . but nothing, not one partial brush-stroke of paint in sight. “Andy.” I had stopped walking, terrified, full of fear. “Andy. Stop. Stop. This isn’t right.” He stopped, back still to me. “When was the last time you saw a blaze.” His head rose then slowly moved from left to right, up and down, all the while getting faster, more nervous. “L. I’m going to be honest. The last time I saw a blaze was when we were on the main trail, before we took this one.” “Fuuuck,” I said because pure and simply the answer I told him was “Me too.”
This meant a couple different things. Number One: There was absolutely no blaze where we were. Nothing. Number Two: No blaze means no trail. Number Three: No trail means lost-in-the-middle-of-the-mountains. Number Four: Lost-in-the-middle-of-the-mountains can mean death . . . or lighting a flare for an emergency crew to find you . . . but we had no flares. And how lost were we? About two miles off track. “Fuuuck,” I said again. And it was around this time the couple caught up to us and stopped at my side.
“Hey!” they said, smiling. I wanted to slap them. Hell, I wanted to slap me. How could I have been so stupid?! Usua and I always follow our blaze! How could I have followed Andy, why did I follow Andy? Hiking Rule One should, forevermore, be Follow your blaze.
“Hi!” the young bubbly blonde said and my urge to slap her became so intense that I clasped my hands together. Andy could do the talking. “Do you know where you’re headed?” he asked. I don’t think either of us every said hi; I know we didn’t greet them warmly. “Huh? Do we? No. We were following you. We thought you did.” Their answers bounced from his mouth to her mouth as their smiles started to fade. “Well then, we’re all fucked because we are all lost.” “Fuck! Fuck!” the guy said to his not-so-bubbly-blonde girlfriend. Her eyes grew wide, so wide I held out my hands to catch her eyeballs when they fell out of their sockets. I think she thought I was shaking her hand. “Sooo, what do we do?” “What do you mean, ‘What do we do?!’ ‘What do we do?!’ Find a way off this mountain!!!” I wanted to scream at her then decided communicating with them was clearly not something I was ready for yet. “Well, we have to find a way off to the parking lot,” Andy said, calm, patient, sweet. Or maybe it was just the British accent, which another thing I’ve learned: With a British accent, the world seems quite peaceful, full of butterflies and bunnies. I pulled out my phone, hoping for a pin of where the parking lot was. Hoping for the right trail, close enough that we could just suffer off path for a bit but pick it up again. My phone turned on. Fifty-three percent battery. “Good,” I thought . . . and then in a second the battery plummeted to red and had seven-percent left. Andy’s phones were dead. “Do you have phones?” I asked Blonde and Guy. The first words I’d said to them. “No,” they said in unison. They did, but theirs had died too. “Fuuuck,” I thought again.
The blonde and her guy turn to each other and start whispering, a secret meeting. I looked at Andy, annoyed. I may have even rolled my eyes. He darted away, calling over his shoulder something about how he was “just going to pop up to the top of this cliff to get a look out and see if he could find anything.” He returned soon after. Nothing. No parking lot. No open area. Nothing. “Holy shit,” I thought. “We are lost. We are truly lost, in the middle of the wilderness.” That’s when Andy and I turned to each other, same thought in mind. We are lost. And the only way to have any hope was to go back up the cliffs.
“What are you guys doing?” Andy interrupted their pow wow. “He wants to continue down, but I think we should turn back,” Blonde said. “We should turn back,” I confirmed. “So turn back? Everyone in 100% agreement?” Andy asked. This was our confirmed earlier Hiking Rule One. “Yes,” we all nodded. And that’s what we did. We turned back, up the cliffs.
We learned Blonde’s name was Lauren and Guy’s name was Jacob. And only Jacob had on a pack, an ity-bity type that I don’t even know could be considered an actual pack. Lauren had nothing. Quickly they began rock climbing up the cliffs, leaving Andy and I farther behind. We were struggling too. Forty-five pound packs made it hard to come down these cliffs but going up, truly it was one millimeter from impossible. “Andy,” I whispered to him, gasping for breath, for life, for hope. “I can’t do it. I really can’t. I’m not just saying that joking around or wanting attention or saying it because I can, but I really can’t. I can’t keep doing this.” We had gone a few yards and I was about to collapse. “Com’on. You have to, L. Keep going,” and he shoved my pack forward. A couple more yards to go and I’d turn to him again, tears in my eyes. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I really really can’t. I don’t know what to do. I just can’t,” and I looked up the mountain at Lauren and Jacob, yards ahead, waiting on the next cliff divot. “Tell them to go on? I don’t even have the energy to yell. But they need to make it. It’s not fair to keep them waiting,” and I turned around, tears falling from my eyes. “Heyya, you go on without us,” he hollered. “Are you sure?” they shouted back. “Yea,” he said, “Go on. It will be getting dark soon,” which was another sad truth. It was around 5:50 p.m. and the sun was heading down. “Oh . . . kay . . . ” they yelled, unsure. “Hey! Lauren, Jacob!” I screamed up. “Yell when you reach the top, okay? Yell so I know about how far we still have. Can you do that? Please. Just yell when you reach the top.” “Yeah,” they called back, disappearing behind trees, rocks. “We’ll yell,” and soon, they were gone.
I turned back to Andy. I didn’t say anything. I think my expression showed exactly how upset, lost, worried, frantic, anxious, everything-equaling-doom-and-death I felt. “Hey,” he came closer. “We’re going to make it, okay? We’re going to make it out. Just take it a little bit at a time.”
So we did. We walked what should have been one normal footstep in three steps because we had to fight the steepness from pulling us backwards with our heavy packs. The truth was I couldn’t carry my pack anymore. I was beginning to think I needed to leave Baby so I began begging Andy to let me tie a cord around my pack, leave it on the ground, throw the cord up the cliffs, climb up, then pull my pack to me. “No, L. We can’t. It would harm the pack and everything inside and it would be probably just as hard and time-consuming to do that than to actually hike up,” and he would set off again, slow-stepping up the cliff.
We hiked and hiked, rock climbed and rock climbed; me, stopping every few feet to just look at him and cry. And he’d keep pushing me on, up and up and up the cliffs. It was getting darker so dark that it would soon be dangerous to continue and that’s when I turned to him one final time: “Andy. I am going to use the seven-percent to text my mom and say, ‘Tell work I won’t make it Tuesday. We are okay. Just lost but on track for tomorrow.’ We need to find some type of small camping spot and save energy to get back home. Safely.” This is what I was going to say. I turned to him, mouth opened and in the middle of forming his name, I happened to look up the cliff and that’s when I saw Lauren and Jacob. Standing at the top. Looking down at us. Waiting for us.
I laughed. I cried. I screamed. I cheered. I yelled, “I’m running up the mountain to both of you to give you the biggest hug and kiss ever!” I announced they were my angels and saved me when I was sure I couldn’t do it anymore. They laughed and laughed, too, at my response, at my flying up the mountain as if with wings. “We were worried about you!” they said. “How the hell you made up with those heavy packs — We wouldn’t have been able to do it! We were so worried you wouldn’t make it with those packs” and Andy and I just laughed more.
When we reached the top, I hugged them. I may have even kissed them. Heck, I could have made-out with them. I loved them. What I do know is I took this picture:
What was scary, frightening really was that while Lauren and Jacob waited for us, they told us how they saved five more people from following the exact same signs that we saw that led us all down that very trail. Five more people in an hour. That trail had been well established too, showing its wear from hikers that had taken a wrong turn just like us.
But in the end, we made it out alive. The sun threw its last rays of light onto the trail and we were able to scale down the correct path in no time. To give you an idea of how quickly we were traveling to our car, it normally takes us about thirty minutes to walk one mile. Here, we finished at least two miles in about one hour. (When we were lost and moving down the wrong trail, it took about an hour for one mile.) Eventually Jacob and Lauren continued ahead; we called out a goodbye and they left, for real this time.
But we made it. We made it home, true around 9:30 at night. But we made it.
And never once did we lose faith in each other.
Never once did we argue. Or blame the other person. Or do anything but help encourage that person to continue. Never once did we turn against each other. Or attack the other person for a decision.
In fact, as we walked back to our car on the trail, we held hands the entire way. We were happy together.
What I learned from my first wild camp is priceless. It’s more than just experience in the wilderness or a bit of understanding in pitching a tent and living outside, roughin’ it. It was more.
I learned life keeps going. I’ve struggled, how I’ve struggled — MS, my divorce, we all struggle. But I learned life surprises you. This time, not in a negative way either. Life surprised me that day by introducing me to two amazing people. Those two people didn’t have to wait for Andy and me, they didn’t have to confirm if we were alive or confirm if we made it back up the mountain. They didn’t have to wait . . . but they did. Strangers, strangers that cared about strangers.
More importantly though, I learned life doesn’t end at something traumatic. Life doesn’t end when the person you thought you’d be with forever is no longer by your side. Life keeps going . . . and as it twists down various paths, as you have to rock climb up cliffs, sometimes — if you’re lucky — you’ll meet someone else. And sometimes that stranger, that new person in your life defines and reshapes your mind, challenges you to think about life and love and everything differently. And that’s the most important aspect I learned.
That there may be such a thing as love. There may be such a thing as a second chance. And crazily enough, this second chance may be with another person, living a life that I could have only dreamed of before.