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An AT trail marker

An AT trail marker

This is not necessarily an interesting picture and, maybe when I am done, not even an interesting story to anyone but my husband and I, as well as fellow hikers–but what the heck, I’m going to share it anyway.  I finally came to understand what having the “bee-jeezus” scared out of you actually means.

It all started this past Monday.  As Appalachian Trail section hikers, we choose pieces of the 2,170 mile trail to hike a section (duh) at a time.  Sometimes the best intentions are met with a change of plans–in other words, we might plan to hike 100 miles, but severe weather, hiker illness or acute injury kick you off the trail prior to you meeting your end goal.  For a thru-hiker–someone hiking the entire 2,170 miles in five to six months–a kick off the trail could mean a few days rest in a hotel followed by a return to the trail.  For the section hiker, it typically means you pack it up to return some other time.

Such were the circumstances that led us to hiking a 20 mile piece of the trail one week ago today.  Having had to come off a previous trip short of its intended completion, my husband needed those 20 miles.  This short section would sew up a very large piece from PA to TN (or NC), putting him over the half way mark for completion.  We were in the neighborhood, relatively speaking, and decided we could take the 20 miles in a day’s time.  We landed at Uncle Johnny’s hostel on Sunday evening with a few supplies packed and slept the evening in a nice, clean $23 one-room cabin.  A mansion in a hiker’s world.  We arranged for a 7 am shuttle to our beginning destination and settled in to the little cabin.  We were psyched.

The majority of the hike was uneventful–mild climbs in comparison to most hikes, and lovely, soft foot fall, contrasting the more-often-than not rockier sections that leave blisters on a tender foot.  The weather was nicely mild during the early morning hours, warming to a somewhat stifling level of humidity in the early afternoon–but nonetheless, tolerable. 

We had around five miles remaining to our hike when we heard it.  It was distinctive, loud, and incredibly unsettling.  It was a mountain lion, and it had apparently just killed…something. 

Two hikers were approaching from the opposite direction, a father and his son.  If it is possible for someone’s eyes to enlarge to the size of quarters, I swear that was the look on the father’s face.  “I think something just got killed,” he said, a slight quiver to his voice.  My reply?  “Uh-huh.  We need to move.  Now.”  My husband took a quick glance back to assure I was behind him and kicked it into high gear.  I turned around as I was leaving and encouraged the man, still staring at the hillside above us from where the unmistakeable sound eminated, to move.  Quickly.

I spent the better part of the next couple of miles looking behind me.  When we came out of the woods around 4:30, we stopped to see Uncle Johnny, who happened to be behind the desk of his small re-supply store.  Over the past several years, there have been many reports of mountain lions returning to the Appalachians, but no confirmation from any of the wildlife rangers or game commissions.   It is believed they have been quietly reintroduced, but this was the first evidence I’d experienced (thankfully).

By the time I’d reached Uncle Johnny’s, I’d began to doubt what we heard–perhaps it was a bobcat?  But no, I knew a bobcat was too small to render the kind of sound we heard.  So I asked Johnny–“any reports of mountain lions in these areas?”.  He looked at me as if I’d asked the million dollar question and hesitated before answering.  “Yes.  Indeed.”  He then told me a story of a few children, several weeks ago, who had come back to report two cubs scuttling up a tree.  They’d tried to entice them down, but gave up.  Scat in the area has also been identified.  The locals apparently keep this relatively quiet. 

They say you will likely never hear the mountain lion approaching you.  It stalks its prey, quietly, and then ambushes when the opportunity permits.  Its stealth.  And it strikes at the base of the neck, severing its prey’s spine.  Having encountered both black bear and rattlesnake, in person and on more than one occasion, I didn’t think much else, aside from a human threat, could put me at ill ease in these eastern mountains.  I was wrong.

It really is a humbling experience when you are reminded you are not at the top of the food chain anymore.

Happy trails, all.

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