We are fortunate enough to have a small forested area behind our home that provides me with ample opportunity for short hikes when we are not journeying on the Appalachian Trail. The photo above is a scene I commonly shoot, almost always in the exact same spot of the woods. I am entranced by the light shining down upon the forest beneath and the contrast it provides to the otherwise darker feel of a wooded area. I am particularly attracted to the rays illuminating the forested floor, as if a beacon was lighting a very special path, inviting me to follow it and no other.
This is what the white, six-inch blaze marking trees, bridges, fence posts and rocks beckons to the Appalachian Trail hiker. Follow me, into the woods, across the streams, over the hill, and to the campsite, where you may rest your weary head. The blazes mark the path one must take in order to find their way. Most of the trail is well-marked. There are times, however, if one is not paying attention, they can stray off the trail without even realizing it. It is usually not difficult to retrace your steps and join the trail once again.
This is not always the case. In spite of one’s best efforts, a hiker can find themselves astray, no blazes in sight to mark their direction.
And then we are lost.
I often find trail happenings to be analogous to life. If I pay attention to the signs I am given, my journey–whether smooth or rough–generally concludes at the end of the day with peace. If I ignore those markers placed in my path and take matters into my own hands, things often do not turn out in the best of ways.
More on our Appalachian Trail adventures later this week.
Have a great Sunday, everyone!
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.
There he was, cleverly disguised as mud and greenery in the pond. He sat very still for me. I’d like to think he was posing but, in reality, I’m sure he was merely hoping he would not become something I was going to sautee that evening with a little wine and butter.
“I do NOT taste like chicken, I do NOT taste like chicken…” I could feel the subconscious messages being willed my way.
I found myself a little jealous. Never a weekday passes that, at some point, I am not wishing I could blend into the woodwork, unnoticed by those around me. Oddly enough, my job finds me standing in front of some two hundred plus of my staff members, speaking at a podium to all. Being interviewed for a newspaper article, usually when something really bad has happened. Standing in front of the government officials, asking for additional allocation dollars.
And then there is that red light on my phone that never seems to extinguish, always reminding me that someone needs to speak with me. Urgently. Now. Or else. So silly and strange of a job, for someone as shy as I.
Of course, unlike the frog, being discovered in my camoflauge doesn’t usually mean something might try to devour me–not literally, anyway. Still, I had the urge for a split moment to crawl into the cool mud of the pond—but I left my amphibious little friend be to enjoy the sparkle of the sun and a few wayward flies that might stray on to his sticky tongue.
Maybe another day.
(Note: Please see previous posts for the first two days of our hike).
This was our shortest day of the hike. By miles. Not by time. I was certainly short on patience. I was in pain, and it was not improving. Two and a half days of PUDS (hiker abbreviation for Pointless Ups and Downs) does not make for a happy woman. I was eating Advil, starting my day with three and making sure that I did not go past 2.5 hours before I took my next dose. At this point of the hike, there is no turning back. You simply keep going unless you can no longer go.
By mid-day, I was ready to sell my equipment, and so proclaimed with some other obscenities to my vastly patient and also worn-down husband. He later told me he was considering the same but was afraid to say so, lest I actually try to barter with the next stranger I happened upon.
The trail, a true analogy for life’s own ups and downs, sometimes smiles upon you in the form of trail angels and trail magic. Trail angels are the individuals who provide the trail magic. They’ll often leave soda or snacks for hungry or thirsty hikers at trailheads. They leave their numbers posted in shelters, in case someone needs an emergency ride out. Trail angels are often former thru hikers, giving back the magic they found on their own 2,170+ mile journey.
And so we were smiled upon in the midst of an arduous and painful day. Several hundred yards away, as we crossed an older dirt road, sat two individuals in lawn chairs near a large white truck. We waved and continued our pace down the trail. We were not exactly making good time and, in an era where one needs to be a little extra cautious about their safety, I simply continued to walk, my husband close behind. As I trekked down the steep hillside, I heard a sweet, soft, “Excuse me, excuse me”–couched in a fairly light, although discernable, Southern accent. I stopped.
“Excuse me,” said the woman. “Are you friends of Antman?” It took us a moment to realize she was referring to our friend, Dave–who we hadn’t seen since this morning. “Yes, yes, we are–is he okay?” I responded. “Yes,” she replied, “but he wanted us to let you know he waited for you for a bit and moved on. He’ll meet you at the shelter tonight.” Antman was not one for sitting still too long. We try, however, to take a 15 minute, packs-off break every 1.5 hours. It really helps when you start to tire, and you often wear down without realizing how tired you’ve become.
“Excuse me.” Southerners are so polite. “Would you like a piece of chocolate cake?” Southerners are GREAT. In what was probably the fastest pace I’d moved in the last 48 hours, we made an about face and trudged uphill to meet our angel. My new, ultra-polite Southern friend apologized for making us come back up hill.
The angel introduced herself as Hotflash and her husband as Flash–their trail names for their 1987 thru-hike. Hotflash (Ruth) and Flash (Hal) are pictured in this post’s gallery, in a black and white photograph with my husband, telling us stories about their hike as if they had just come off the trail. “It’s my birthday month,” said Ruth. “Let me get some cake and ice tea for you.” Ruth was 64 this month, and Hal was 67.
For the next forty-five minutes, we sat and listened to our angels. It was some of the best time I have ever had on the trail. Imagine someone you know who is utterly kind and humble. People you like to be around just because they make you feel better when you are near them. If you know people like this, you’ve met Hal and Ruth. The gift of our hike.
When we realized we had to move on (lest Antman send out the rangers, as we once had to do when we lost him–another story for another day), we thanked them for their kindness and offered to donate some money for oncoming thru-hikers. They would not accept, but wished us well and thanked us for listening. Reluctantly, we moved forward and back down the trail.
I swallowed a few more Advil. I had been enjoying myself so much, I’d forgotten to take a dose. I did not realize it until the pain began to surge through my knee and up my leg. Damn. We still had quite a few miles to go, including a two mile uphill climb, followed by several short PUDS. I wanted to sell my gear again, or stab my eyes out–whichever I could achieve first.
We arrived at the Punchbowl Shelter around 6:30 or 7. Antman looked a little concerned. I understood why when he told me he’d arrived three hours before we did. Two other hikers were also at the shelter. Tom, a biologist for a local hospital and an experienced hiker–and Joe (see gallery), an attorney and not-so-experienced hiker. They would be our shelter mates for the evening. I was glad to have the additional company. We had been twice warned, both by Ruth and Hal, as well as the former day’s ridgerunner, that Punchbowl was an actively haunted shelter. A young child by the name of Ottie had died near the area in 1891. It is thought that his spirit inhabits the shelter. Rumor is that the shelter is regularly vacated by thru-hikers in the middle of the night due to Ottie’s (or whomever’s) antics. We would soon know. It was dusk.
We settled in for the night. The moon was so bright it actually never got dark that evening. What I could see at 8 pm I could see at midnight. The peepers were loud enough to scare any ghost away, and little Ottie could have walked all over me and I’d have never known. I was beat–and surrounded by four men, sleeping in various stages all around me. I was not concerned, nor did I feel spooked, as I have in other shelters on various nights. No, if Ottie was here, he was friendly.
The evening past without incident. Since we were hiking out, I gave Tom some extra water purifying pills, as he’d run low on his iodine and had several days left. We bade Joe and Tom farewell, wished them luck, and moved on for our final day.
Things were looking up.
(Please see previous post for the first day of our hike).
There were good points to the second day of our hike … and not-so-good points. I actually took no further spills for the remainder of the trip, a huge positive when you are already limping your way, up and down mountains. On the other hand, I smelled putrid. But then again, so did everyone. This is a good thing, as your own hiking odor is so pungent that you cannot actually smell anyone else–nor they you. A strange but true comfort of the woods.
We left the Priest Shelter around 7:30 am for the day’s 17 mile trek. Thankfully, the terrain was generally smooth rather than the more-often-than-not-copious-boulder-fields one finds themselves crawling over, under, and down on the Appalachian Trail. The trail itself today took us up and down mountain saddles approximately seven times. None of the climbs or descents were extensive, for which my knee and I were eternally grateful. One thru-hiker we passed in the midst of a valley said, “You know, its either uphill or downhill on this trail–no inbetween.” True, in fact, or so it seems to a backpacker’s weary legs. The nice thing about thru-hiking is that, once you arrive in VA, you have your physical conditioning pretty well intact. Section hikers, such as ourselves, are not so fortunate. You can run, you can walk with a pack on, you can go up and downhills–but there is no better preparation than several weeks of doing it. If you are only able to hike four to seven days at a stretch, you are likely going to be in some sort of pain most of the time (this goes for the middle agers–I suppose the twenty-somethings bounce back a tad more quickly).
We ran in to a ridgerunner–Mike–about half way through the day. Ridgerunners are usually volunteers, either of the local trail club or the Appalachian Trail Conference. They are harbingers of good faith, and watchful eyes for people in trouble or people making trouble. You do not see them very often, but when you do, they are a welcome sight. Mike gave us the run down of what we could expect and where the scenic views were for the rest of the day’s hike. He made sure to point our attention to a large tree growing out from a boulder, about a mile down the trail. It made for an interesting photo, which I’ve included in today’s gallery.
Our day ended at the Cow Camp Shelter. Nothing fancy, but a very decent shelter. Dave S (whose trailname, by the way, is “Antman”) had arrived well before us. In his company was an older gentleman who called himself “Statesman”. Statesman was in his late 60’s, recently retired from teaching high school and university biology. He looked like a biology professor–round spectacles, curly hair, thin and lean-bodied, and somewhat quirky–I did not take his photograph. Statesman was looking for some peace and quiet. He seemed a gentle soul, out to bother no one, and social enough–but rather private. So I respected that. He tented by the stream, even though it stormed voraciously throughout the night until nearly the time of breaking dawn.
We awoke to some owls chattering like three women in beauty shop. A beautiful alarm clock sound which I am fortunate enough to frequently fall asleep to most nights at home. It was amusing–you could almost visualize them talking to one another, somewhere up in the high foilage. We completed our morning chores, bid our goodbyes to Statesman, and trod off for what was supposed to be our shortest and easiest day of the hike.
Sometimes things don’t work out the way you visualize them.
More soon. Hike on.
Having just returned a few days ago from a long and arduous trip, I am finding little time to process photos and write. It takes time to unpack, wash, sort, and sterilize gear. It then must be packed away in an orderly fashion for easy finding before the next trip. In addition to that, I have a 120 lb frame hanging over what looked like Barney Rubble feet, swollen from the gnashing and crashing against the solid earth for four straight days. And then there is the hyper-extended, swollen knee which occurred at mile 10, leaving 50 miles to limp along on. I luckily injured it twice on the first day by promptly sliding on a wet rock and tumbling down a short cascade of water, a la Winnie the Pooh–right on my rump–a bumpity-bump-bump. (And few curse words).
Although this 60 mile soujourn is on the shorter end of section hikes we’ve done over the past eight years, it was, to be quite blunt–a bitch. We finished, but not without a few war wounds over the four day span.
This particular trip included fellow hiking partners Dave (my husband) and Dave (a colleague)–and myself (not a Dave). Over the next several posts, I will include a few pictures and a few musings from my journal on the trip’s trials and tribulations. I also photographed some of the characters we met along the way. I’ve included a few gallery pictures in this post, all taken on Day 1, a 15-or-so mile trek from Reeds Gap Va to the Priest Shelter, a section of the AT just south of the Shenandoah National Park.
One black and white photo is a glimpse of the trail early that first morning. It rained for quite a bit of the morning, sometimes rather harshly. It later cleared and we had some magnificent views thanks to a tiresome four mile climb up the Priest Mountain. This was a non-stop climb going north to south, and very difficult at the end of an already long first day. We bunked with an older gentleman, who went by the trailname of “Lovely Day” (I did not get his photo), as well as sharing the shelter area with several young men hiking the entire George to Maine length as thru-hikers. Manchester, his profile shown in the one photo with a rag over his head, came all the way from England to do the thru hike.
Finally, there is a b/w photo of a young man whose trail name I didn’t catch, as he was talking a mile a minute. (He may have been smoking some funny stuff.) Nonetheless, he said something very important to me, which carried me through the rest of the hike. Regarding his own thru hike experience thus far, he remarked, “Out here, it is either the worst day you can imagine or the best day you can imagine–its really all in how you choose to handle it.”
Pretty wise for such a young fella.
Thanks for reading. More in the next few days.
The other day, while walking in the woods, I headed toward the creek at the bottom of our ravine. I love the water and its calming effects, and this area is particularly beautiful.
On most days, you will find fisherman scouring the waters for steelhead or trout; however, because this was a Monday, there was nary a soul to be found. I was completely alone–or so I thought–until, as I approached the creek from a distance, I began to hear a very odd noise reverberating through the winding valley area. For a brief moment, as I later explained to my husband, I almost expected a velociraptor to come flying out of the nearby bushes. I could not identify the sound. It was almost deafening as I came nearer and nearer to the creek. Feeling somewhat foolish, I nevertheless turned around and made my way back home…I was already feeling ill, I did not care to be devoured by the wayward dinosaur my mind now envisioned in the rustling brush.
My husband returned home. Much braver with him by my side (and knowing I could use him as dinosaur bait, if need be), we returned to the woods in search of whatever creature was lurking behind our home. “Crickets? Cicadas?” No, not the right time of day and much too loud. He pondered. I looked for an escape route–and that’s when we noticed the frogs. Not just the two in the photo, but lining the creek shore as far as we could see. We assumed this was an annual mating ritual of some sort. Half of the frogs, in a fair amount of unison, puffed out their chins and “cheep-cheep-cheeped” away. The other remaining frogs, females I’m guessing, would swim nearer and nearer to the would-be suitors and gaze on, as if Frank Sinatra were serenading them on a moonlit night.
And so, as it turned out, I did not have to sacrifice my husband, a la Jurassic Park–and love was definitely in the air! Froggy love, anyway 🙂
Nothing makes me happier than tromping through the backcountry, leaves crinkling and crunching beneath my step–or, walking along a sandy, sunlit beach to the chorus of waves hitting the shore.
Music to my ears, peace for my soul.
I’ve mentioned (once or twice, at least) my love for the outdoors. I suspect it is evident in the images I like to capture. They are the things that represent beauty in life to me. The artwork of my Higher Power, and the places I am most likely to be when I feel closest to that presence.
This week, we celebrate Earth Day. It is a reminder for all of us that the earth beneath our feet is a gift to be cherished and nutured. Perhaps gift is the wrong term. It infers the earth belongs to us. Nothing could be further from the truth. As much as we all live on borrowed time, we walk on borrowed soil.
A lover of Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss), The Lorax was my one of my first awakenings to the thought that we might need to pay a bit more attention to how we treat our beloved earth. His poetic children’s prose are words I hope I live by so that those who follow enjoy the same beaches and forests I cherish.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not. You’re in charge of the last of the truffula seeds. And truffula trees are what everyone needs! Plant a new truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water, and feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax, and all of his friends may… come back.” —Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
Happy Earth Day.