You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal. Isaiah 26: 3-4
Sunshine Rat says, “What if we empty the car into the bear box, lay down the back seats, and then sleep in the car?”
Body language that we barely can read in the dark seems to agree, so we get to work. First, we put on our headlamps.
As the thunder and lightning teases the atmosphere, we gather everything we can fit in our arms and take it up the small incline to the bear box.
We brush teeth quickly in the most glorious and welcomed concrete block bathroom. Then we nestle inside the CRV. The girls thrash about in the back until they make comfortable spots. SunFloJo leans back the driver’s seat, and I lean back the passenger seat.
I unfastened my bra and wonder if my legs will get a blood clot by morning in this somewhat scrunched position. I tell myself that I will wake up enough times to adjust my legs.
Into the dark car I make up a story, “Well, Sunshine. You heard him. Tank will be in Vermont by Labor Day to marry you. Your mom can rest assured you’re not going to be single forever.”
The car erupts in giggles. Of course, everyone agrees with my fiction.
The Steam Team agrees to meet in Vermont for Tank & Sunshine’s big day.
As the car occupants consider sleep, I add, “Guess who is camping next door?”
“Who?” Stalker C asks.
“What?!” SunFloJo strains to see. The car windows begin to fog up.
“No way!” Stalker C sits up.
“True story,” I say.
Sunshine Rat snorts a little, “I could NOT believe when he barreled by at the top of the mountain at our last intersection!”
I say, “Me either!”
SunFloJo says, “And now he’s here wondering why in the world he can’t shake us!”
“Oh no,” Stalker C is looking at her phone. We have slowly realized that we can connect with the outside world again. Stalker C is searching on Facebook, “I think Tank may be engaged.”
I insist, “I do not hear that.”
Sunshine says, “Aww.” I detect sarcasm and sleepiness.
“That won’t last,” I say. “The real wedding is still on. Vermont. Labor Day. Be there.”
SunFloJo cracks the windows a little to relieve some of our fog.
The youngest of us begin to fade.
SunFloJo whispers to me that she is going to unlock the doors, “This way the first one up doesn’t disturb the whole campground with the car security alarm.” This is not her first sleep-in-the-car rodeo.
I stare at stars in the sky through the sunroof until intermittent conversation, giggles and foggy windows give way to sleep one person at a time.
SunFloJo is the last to speak. She touches my left arm, “I’m so glad you came with me and that you were able to finish.”
“Me too,” I whisper. “Thank you for the invite.”
As the sound of silence outside the vehicle circles the sound of breaths drifting away inside, I notice Flat Kevin’s head poking out of SunFloJo’s bag. I move slowly to avoid disturbing others and pull him out of her bag gently.
You can watch the stars with me, Kevin. I smile at his pleasant face. I set him on the dashboard and use my shirt sleeve to de-fog a little starry night view just for Kevin. I pray for him and his family.
Sigh. My body can truly relax now.
Dear God, I surrender. I make room for Your will and the supernatural. Show me, lead me. Amen
Steady rain arrives, rocking my brain to sleep.
JUNE 4, 2016
I need to use the restroom. I quietly roll my knee opposite from the passenger door. Can I open the car door and close the door without waking up my friends?
Friends. The word hits me in my gut after a week of bonding.
I’m going to miss them.
My cell phone camera near, I manage to take a quick pic of our final night’s accommodation.
SunFloJo is curled in a ball facing the driver’s side door. Stalker C is sleeping on her tummy with her feet crossed in the air against the hatch door. Sunshine Rat is buried deep in her sleeping bag.
Ok. I can do this. I slip out the door and gently shut it back. No one stirs.
I half walk, half stumble away and around the CRV so I don’t risk making noise near the car.
Brrr, the morning air is chilly. I see mountain top clouds or fog all around me.
Deer! There are deer in all four directions. One is right next to the bathroom and doesn’t flinch as I slip by her and into the little building.
I splash water on my face and refasten my ponytail holder. When I walk back up the small hill from the bathroom, Shut-Up-Guy is walking down the path toward me. Another full circle moment.I wish the other Steam Team members were seeing this.
I tip toe beyond the CRV, into the tall grass of our would-have-been camp site. I open the bear box lifting the door carefully so that the metal doesn’t squeak.
Dew is heavy on the grass. I notice my one-person tent is sagging from the weight of the dew. I line up our bags, odds and ends on the picnic table. I take my tent apart, flicking slugs off which soar toward a nearby tree.
From the picnic table, I collect garbage and take it to a campground waste can near the showers. I repack my backpack and take a seat to watch the sun rise in its fullness until the gals wake up.
SunFloJo is next to roll out of the vehicle.
Soon the girls follow making quick work of reassembling the back seats so we can load the CRV.
I marvel how quietly we all work together with common goals today and every day this week.
With the car packed and Campsite 2 empty, we walk up to the lodge.
It looks different than when we went to the Tap Room last night. The large wood and stone building stands stoic, solid as if to say it endures the test of time beyond those who pass through it.
Today we sit in the row of upstairs rocking chairs to read Deb’s last question. I look through the large windows to the blue haze of mountains and valleys. I’m going to miss this view.
Sunshine Rat & SunFloJo sip coffee.
“Ready?” I ask.
“Yes,” all nod or speak in agreement.
I say, “This is from the envelope marked ‘Journey’s End’:
‘Dorothy & crew were in one moment both exactly who they had always been and also forever changed by their journey. How is this also true for you? Why or why not?’”
“Hmm.” The rocking chairs softly move. We ponder the question and stare out the windows silently.
Technically part of the little slip of paper from Deb had said, ‘for the car ride home’.
As we ponder, I suspect none of us are quite ready to answer. I know I’m not yet. I offer, “This is a deep question. Maybe we need some time to think about it?”
Sunshine Rat says, “Yeah, let’s think it over and talk about it on the drive back.”
Human beings ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat. Psalm 78:25
Brieanna James gives Tank a music shaker and Sunshine Rat a tambourine.
They stand on either side of Brieanna and play their instruments on the beat as she sings her version of I’m Yours by Jason Mraz.
“…I tried to be chill but you’re so hot I melted….
“I reckon it’s again my turn to win some or learn some…”
Our audience sways and sings along. Brieanna smiles at her helpers.
“We’re just one big family and it’s our godforsaken right to be loved, loved, loved…”
The room claps as Sunshine and Tank raise the instruments to add a splash of drama to the last line. They bow with a head nod and return to their seats.
Frodo jumps up to be next. He does not have a partner. I look toward a frozen Stalker C who makes no move to stand up. Brieanna gives Frodo a shaker and he moves it like one of those Shake Weight commercials. He is a puppy that could not glow more with happiness.
Pizzas and wings arrive. We dig in as Frodo returns to the table. He says, “What talent to only be 16!” Someone reminds him that Brieanna is jailbait.
As the fun continues, I ask, “Ted, how do you spell your last name? S-h-e-p…like a shepherd in the Bible or something different?”
His body language says yes, “Yep like the Bible.”
SunFloJo points away from our table, “Would you look at that; the sunset is gorgeous. Almost dark soon.”
We soak in the sunset colors through the windows and wipe sauce with napkins away from fingers and faces.
Sunshine Rat scans the table and says to the Steam Team, “Oops. I guess we should have put our tents up before we came here.”
Tank’s face turns serious, “That’s the first rule of the trail. Always put your tent up before dark.” He appears disappointed.
Oh, there are official rules? Feeling a little slap happy, I want to laugh but hold it in.
Tank continues, “And we’re supposed to have bad weather tonight. Heavy rain and possible thunderstorms.”
Frodo listens to hear what we’re going to do.
SunFloJo waves it off, “We’ll figure it out.”
Frodo offers, “One night we found a bathroom to sleep in because it was storming so bad outside.”
Tank, possibly concerned with how that admission might sound, adds, “We put down a mat, so we weren’t all the way touching the bathroom floor or anything.”
“Oh honey, no judgment here,” SunFloJo says.
We finish the food and appetizers. Delicious.
“Hey,” Stalker C says to the young guys. “We have lots of trail food left over if you want it.”
Tank’s face brightens, “Oh, that would be great!”
I offer, “It’s already bagged for the trail.”
Frodo says, “Perfect.”
Brieanna leans into the microphone and smiles, “Now I want to play a song that I wrote. It is called Whatever Happened.”
She plays soft cords and shares verses with us. The song talks about sunshine days and moonlit nights.
She sings, “There’s beauty in every direction, everyone teaches a lesson…”
I feel thoughtful about the lyrics.
My adult life has gone by so fast. Our babies are nearly grown. One is leaving.
My husband–while not ambitious beyond our home, certainly always seeks to spend time with me. Not a social butterfly, a little grumpy at times, but his love is genuine. He still wants to be with me even after all these years. How many people receive the gift of consistency in a relationship?
I reflect on the day we met in May twenty four years ago. The day we pretended not to look at one another. The day I rolled my eyes at God because I knew with all my being that life ahead involved Paul by my side. Not one day since have I ever questioned if Paul wants to be with me. I feel…blessed.
Inhale. Exhale. Pause for oxygen.
I sense he may be missing me and wondering about our progress right now.
Grabbing my phone off the charger next to the wall, I send Paul a text—I AM SAFE AND SOUND AT OUR LAST STOP. GOING TO SLEEP SOON AND DRVING HOME IN THE MORNING. HOPE YOU GUYS ARE OK. LOTS OF ADVENTURES TO SHARE IF YOU WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THEM. I LOVE YOU.
Paul returns a text immediately—I LOVE YOU TOO! CAN’T WAIT TO GET YOU HOME. AND, YES, I WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE ADVENTURES. SEE YOU TOMORROW NIGHT. BOYS AND I ARE FINE. TTYS!
Brieanna rounds out the lyrics of her song, “Put the pieces away one last time…there’s beauty in every direction, everyone teaches a lesson, which way will you choose…”
The common denominator of anything that really matters is family, friends and love. Everything else can be rearranged, sold, donated. Just because I want things a certain way does not mean that is the only way. Life can evolve, and I’ll be just fine.
The room begins to clear. Campers go to bed with the sun.
Ted smiles in a belly full kind of way. He reaches for his wallet.
“Uh, no sir,” says SunFloJo. “We’ve got this.”
In his jovial manner he says, “Thank you.”
“Ted, we appreciate you. And thanks for coming up here tonight. It was good to converse when we weren’t falling apart from exhaustion,” I say.
He smiles, shakes all our hands. Then with a quick so long, he is gone.
We girls chip in our funds, and SunFloJo finishes the bill business. Tank and Frodo say thank you.
While Brieanna is packing up with her dad, we exit. The Steam Team plus Tank and Frodo make our way up the wooden stairs and out the lodge front door. Crickets dominate the cool night air.
We carefully step through the darkness down the hill toward our car. I do not want a sprained ankle. Not even at this stage in the game. Flip flops don’t fail me now.
Lightning highlights the sky. A low thunder sound is not far away.
The guys stand as we gather gallon size bag after bag of trail food, some from the back of the CRV and some from the bear box. Frodo’s mouth drops and Tank’s eyes widen as they say, “This is a lot of food!”
We are giggly but do not want to disturb the campground. I peer around to see how many people are still outside. Some people are still awake, but most seem to be tucked away in their tents and campers.
On one of the bear box retrieval trips, I happen to notice a familiar person. You have got to be kidding me!
Shut-Up-Guy is outside of his tent next door to us in campsite 3. He shakes his head perhaps in disbelief too.
We pile plastic bag after bag into Tank and Frodo’s arms all while they marvel about the types of food inside: jerky, marshmallows, crushed pop tarts, fruit chews, pretzels, peanut butter, and more!
Tank says, “Wow, this will save like 4 days of grocery cost for us. Thank you so much.”
Frodo adds, “When this happens it’s called Trail Magic! And that means you four are Trail Angels.”
Trail Angels. I like the sound of that.
“Here,” Frodo sets down the bags for a moment. “We have to hug. Thank you so much. This was a great evening.”
Frodo and Tank take turns hugging each one of us.
My heart is full by their gratitude and admiration for their journey. How awesome is it that they are thru hikers halfway along on their full route AT adventure? Our trail magic gets to move on without us through them.
Stalker C says, “Do you mind if we follow your journey on Facebook or Instagram or something?”
Both guys say absolutely and give us their real names.
“We hope to be in Vermont by Labor Day,” Tank says.
“And finish in Maine by end of September or early October,” Frodo adds.
I say, “We’ll be cheering you on.”
SunFloJo adds with a chuckle, “Virtually.” Even her wonder woman of a body is tired now.
We smile and after one more round of hugs, the guys carry their food off into the night.
The Steam Team leans silently against the CRV bumper.
All of us look toward the dark campsite thinking how set up at this point would be difficult without light—and probably noisy.
For the Lord your God has blessed you in all that you have done; He has known your wanderings through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have not lacked a thing. Deuteronomy 2:7
It is after 5:00PM when we return dirty and depleted.
We had thought we would be done and back to Big Meadow by 3:00PM at the latest.
The Steam Team opens the Bear Box at Campsite 2 as if greeting a long-lost friend. We gather quarters and personal care products.
In tall grass a few feet from the box, my 1-person tent maintained our faux occupancy well while we were gone. I nod in thanks for its service.
I grab the attention of a stranger in front of the shower house and ask them to take our “after” picture. We force smiles through physical pain while our souls smile with ease knowing that we completed over 33 miles on foot via rocks, trees, mountains, and valleys. My legs may separate from my body at any moment. I doubt the picture will fully capture the layers of grime on our skin.
Sunshine Rat points out, “We’re running a little behind. Ted is going to be bringing his garbage up soon.”
Stalker C says, “Yeah it’s almost 6pm.”
“Ah, man. We don’t have shampoo,” Stalker C notes.
Sunshine says, “We’ll make the best of it.”
“Oh no you won’t,” my maternal instincts kick in as I dig through my “after bag”.
I continue, “We are entertaining tonight. You gals need clean hair. Here is my travel shampoo. I’ll wait and shower after you’re done.”
Wow, how fast I sound like a mom post trail!
Stalker C and Sunshine Rat laugh. Stalker says to Sunshine, “You know time is winding down. We gotta find our grooms to bring home.”
Sunshine says, “That’s right.”
I gladly sit in a white plastic chair in the laundry room. I am filthy but resting feels glorious.
A pair of hikers come in to wash a small load of clothes. I think we’ve seen them before on the trail. It is tough to tell because now they are freshly showered.
The girl goes back in the bathroom to blow dry her hair. I ask him, “Did you two come on the trail together?”
His face scrunches, “Nah. We just met up and are hiking together.”
I note the “just” in his sentence.
She returns with long blonde hair mostly dry. She looks at him with affection. He does not return that vibe. I’m bothered by the notion that he may not be as attracted to her as she is to him. Even her backpack is bigger and appears to be packed heavier than his. What the heck? He puts some of his clothes in her pack.
I remember now. They are the couple from the bobcat sighting. I recall learning their trail names. She is Murph and he is MudPuppie.
I ask her, “So why is your name Murph?”
She smiles, “Because the first few weeks out on the trail anything that could go wrong for me did, like Murphy’s Law. My name was later shortened to Murph.”
Murph tosses her hair a bit and smiles toward MudPuppie whose eyeroll reaction basically says this is only a summer thing.
I envision that she’ll be stronger because of the months long hiking. When he breaks her heart at the end in Maine, she’ll be ok and ready to move on. She doesn’t need him.
A clean Sunshine Rat and Stalker C are almost unrecognizable when they return my shampoo. I may barely feel my numb feet, but I know they carry me to the shower stalls.
I don’t bother trying to save underwear or the Ziploc bag of urine socks. Anything beyond cleaning easily or likely to smell in the heat of the car on the way home is tossed in the trash. Feels good to get rid of stuff.
Then I savor the clink of quarters into the machine that turns on the water in the shower.
I have wilderness soap which is little slips of paper that turn to suds when joined with water. My shampoo lathers like total luxury. Layers of dirt sink to the drain. Still soapy, I add quarters to rinse the rest of the me.
Oops! I forgot to bring up my sham towel.
I air dry as best I can before pulling on a clean set of clothes. It’s been a while since I’ve felt cotton on my skin. How wonderful!
I fluff my hair with a community hair dryer and use a mini pop-up travel brush to comb through my locks.
The Steam Team meets back at the car and bear box.
No one attempts or mentions putting up tents for the night. I should look to see if my 1-person tent is still clean and critter-free inside, but I don’t.
We head to the Tap Room without delay.
“I wonder how many party goers will show tonight?” Sunshine says as we walk up the hill along a thin blacktop path that leads to the lodge.
My feet remain flames of fire, but I am clean! My toes are free from boots. The air flow around my flip flops makes my heart leap with joy and appreciation. I wobble and catch myself from falling a few times.
Stalker C says, “I wonder if Ted will really be here?”
The anticipation is fun and drowns out the parts of me that hurt; shoulder, neck, back, arms, thighs…so much pain!
Will our hero, Ted, really come to take out the trash, do laundry, and hang out in the Tap Room with us?!? Will he? Will he?
We reach the lodge that sits perfectly on top of its mountain. The interior is rustic and comforting.
A stuffed bear catches our eye, so we pause to take a pic of Stalker C posing with her worst fear.
We walk into a large lounge with both broad and tall windows. I eye a row of rocking chairs.
SunFloJo says, “Let’s have morning coffee here with the view tomorrow.”
We all nod absolutely. “And we’ll read Deb’s last note here,” Sunshine Rat adds.
“Yes!” we respond.
Our sore bodies find the way to steep wooden stairs that lead down to the Tap Room. I step down the flight of stairs sideways and hold onto the rail to manage.
We are greeted by the red checkered tablecloths, a bar in the distance, wood tables and chairs, wood covered walls, and a row of wood French doors with a partial mountain view.
A band or something is setting up to play here tonight. How Fun! A man and young woman bring in a guitar, speakers, and microphone.
SunFloJo tells the server, “We need a long table because we don’t know how many people might show up to visit us here tonight.”
The group giggles as we help place four small tables together to create one long table near where the band will play.
The sun is low in the sky. Blue hues and warm yellows glow through the windows.
“Margarita, please. And a water. Thank you,” I request with just enough cash in my wallet to have one appetizer, a drink and maybe something from a fast-food dollar menu on the way home tomorrow. Plus, of course I have trail food bags that I’ve barely touched all week.
SunFloJo points to the margarita that arrives in a Mason jar, “That one is on me. This is a celebration of perseverance.” She gives me a look that says no ifs ands or buts about that.
Ok then. “Thank you.”
“We did it!” SunFloJo holds up a beer, and we all oblige to toast this great adventure. “So much fun girls!”
Our glasses clink together. Stalker C says, “And not a minute more.” Her eyes widen like they seemed often to do on the trail, but this time with wide eyed satisfaction.
Sunshine Rat offers, “Yes. A wonderful experience, and we’re all still alive!”
SunFloJo’s shoulders laugh. She texts home to say we are safe and sound.
I was happy to find my phone in SunFloJo’s car before we journeyed to the Tap Room. The girls and I take turns plugging in our phones to charge them in a nearby outlet.
“I wonder who is going to show?” I ask.
“The whole forest perhaps,” SunFloJo says. She types into Google, “Now, I’m looking up Steel-Cut. I’m still perplexed by that.”
I shake my head. It was a well-earned compliment, friend!
Sunshine Rat notes, “That bothers you a little bit, doesn’t it?”
She responds, “I’m just trying to understand it.” Then, reading out loud from the internet, “1. Ground or crushed between rolls fitted with cutting teeth, like steel-cut coffee or steel-cut oats. 2. Faceted with a steel tool, used especially of buttons, buckles and beads having allover design of facets.”
“Oh, the second definition!” Sunshine says, “You are faceted with a steel tool.”
“With many facets,” Stalker C says. “Basically, you’re a badass.”
We toast our drinks to that.
“That is awesome,” I say. Then I touch SunFloJo’s arm and add, “It was a divine moment. There was no need whatsoever for that Teste Team Leader to say anything about you. He picked up on your aura or something. You are Steel-Cut. And you led us beautifully with your badass self.”
We laugh. I add, “And we appreciate you. Thank you for including us on this journey.”
Recognizable faces begin to fill the room. I notice Sushi and a trail friend or two at the bar. I’m too tired to go invite them to the table. That would require standing up.
Whoever comes to the table is welcome. We’re not walking even another twenty-five feet unless we absolutely must!
Through the patio doors I see MudPuppie and Murphy outside. I think she wants to come inside, but he doesn’t. She is pointing to the fact that they could leave their gear outside, but he shakes his head no.
Leave him, Murph. Leave him right now. But no, she slumps her shoulders a bit and puts her pack back on. He’s already walking away. I am disappointed that she follows him.
“Ooh, we left some clothes in the dryer.” SunFloJo remembers.
“I’ll go with you,” Sunshine joins her.
Stalker C and I exchange looks and smiles as the Tap Room capacity increases. We don’t waste energy on speaking. And this margarita is gooood.
Oops, all gone.
I will work on my water and the remaining ice to increase hydration.
As we observe, we learn that the guy with the band is the father of the young woman. And the young woman with long dark hair is only 16 years old. Her name is Brieanna James. She’s going to sing tonight. We grab one of her publicity postcards and search for her on Facebook and Twitter.
“Ted!” says Stalker C.
“Look who we found!” SunFloJo calls out.
Rounding the stage area is Ted with SunFloJo & Sunshine. I point to the seat in front of me on the table end closest to the stage. “Right here. We saved this seat for you!”
I can’t let Ted go to the other end where the younger Steam Team members are. Seating might mess up the opportunity of potential suitors for the young ones!
“Well, ok.” Ted sits down.
I hear a snicker and snort from the other end as SunFloJo slips in next to me. Oh, no. He probably thinks I purposefully want him close to me! I yi yi.
With the help of my margarita I say, “We gotta keep the single ladies with open seats down there. We invited a lot of people to the Tap Room tonight.”
More stifled giggles. Ted smiles with a quick raise of both hands and says, “I completely understand.”
I smile. I knew he would.
SunFloJo says, “We’re so glad you came tonight!”
Next to him, Sunshine Rat says, “And we smell and look a little better tonight I bet.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He smiles and looks at each of us. He’s a jolly sort.
SunFloJo asks, “Now tell us all about your connection to Rapidan and this place. Did you say to us you’ve been working here like over a decade or something?”
“Oh yes,” he says. “I love being here. My normal job is in California. I work from here part of each year.”
“What brings you this far over and over again?”
“I’m originally from the east coast and my family came to the Shenandoah National Park every summer growing up. My dad was kind of like my mom and dad all in one because my mom died when I was little.”
Lots of social worker types at the table, in unison a few of us say, “I’m so sorry.”
“Eh. It was a long time ago.” Ted continues, “One of our happiest memories and my only memory of mom was when we were here one summer. I was about five. Later that year she died. Dad and I spread her ashes over BearFence Scramble the next summer. We went back every summer since in one way or another.”
We’re in listening mode. He continues, “And a few years ago Dad died. Me and my family spread his ashes up there too.” He sighs, “A couple weeks ago I went up there on a day off and was kind of surprised to find little pieces of bone still up there from dad.”
Still enjoying the view, I suppose.
Ok. Now I’m glad for new reasons that we didn’t go up there. Maybe I’d go up on a different trip with less backpack and more as a side trip stop.
Sunshine Rat changes the subject, “You know, Ted, you are the only person around here who gives accurate trail mileage information.”
We agree. She continues, “The trail said our trip today would be about 6 miles and you said 9. It was totally 9 plus a little more.”
Stalker C and I say, “Yeah. The trail lies.”
Sunshine adds, “We appreciate you not lying Ted.”
SunFloJo says, “Let’s get you a drink. We’ve ordered some food and we can order more if you want. It’s on us.” She adds with a wink, “We owe you gratitude for that which shall remain a secret!”
Stalker C says, “You saved our life.”
I point out, “It took a long time today before we got to the fire ring up on Laurel Prong.” I shake my head, “There is no way we would have found that small clearing in the woods, in the dark, in the rain. Just no way.”
Ted shrugs and tightens his lips in a way that tells me he totally knows he saved our lives and probably saved some fire and rescue resources too. Ultimately, he saved lives and tax dollars! Funeral expenses, you name it. Some rules are meant to be broken.
“Well, don’t ever put anything on social media,” Ted says.
“Absolutely. We get it!” SunFlo says. “We stayed in that Fisherman’s Camp just outside the park. That was scandalous enough. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.”
Ted smiles relieved.
“Mums the word,” Sunshine says.
My eyes see people coming our way. Look who it is!
Rounding the stage area are Tank and Frodo! I am delighted that my favorite groom candidates arrived for the girls.
SunFloJo smiles and waves them over.
Ted grins at how our obvious plan works when Tank and Frodo approach our table with the only available chairs right next to our dear Sunshine Rat and Stalker C. Ted understands. Ted is seasoned like SunFloJo and me.
The young males have showered also. They have big smiles on their faces. Perhaps they are happy that we are where we said we would be. And the idea of Tap Room food probably is exciting.
Small talk begins at the younger end of the table. I zone out to simply take in this moment.
Ted talks with SunFloJo about his interest in gemstones and about his plans to begin foster dog transport soon. Ted is an all-around good guy.
The young musician tests her guitar on stage. She smiles and strums to see if the instrument is in tune. The dad beams with pride. He also eyes the audience with a protective stare. Then he looks at his daughter with total admiration and love.
A sound crackle occurs, then becomes clear.
“Thanks for being here tonight, y’all,” Brieanna speaks into the microphone. “This is a good crowd.”
Hmm, thanks to us.
Brieanna smiles. I come out of my trance. The checkered tablecloth covered tables are full of folks and the bar has only one seat open. It’s hard to tell because so many of us now look clean, but I am fairly certain at least a quarter of the room are people we met and invited along the way.
The crowd gasps in a good way when Brieanna begins to sing Jolene.
People approve of her voice. Smiles are contagious around the room.
I notice that if Frodo had a tail, it would wag. He is very impressed by her.
Brieanna slows down the lyrics to end with, “Please don’t take him even though you can….”
Hands clap and whistles woot in the air.
“Thank you,” Brieanna says. “Thank you.”
The audience is ready for more. She says, “Now I need some volunteers.”
Hands raise fast at our table. That is, SunFloJo and my hands go up and point toward our young friends.
“Well, alright then. This group right here is ready to have some fun,” Brieanna says and waves Tank and Sunshine up to the stage.
To listen to this chapter via the Surrender On The Trail Podcast, click here.
In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out. Exodus 40:36
SunFloJo says, “I’ve got an idea!”
She announces as we eat, “Let’s start offering to meet folks at the Tap Room tonight. If they’re already going that direction, then we’ll mention it. Since Ted is meeting us anyway, let’s make a party of it.”
Absolutely. Of course. Let’s dream up a party right here in the woods. Anything is possible.
After hours of seeing no one today, we are surprised to see someone approach the trail intersection right on queue after the idea is born.
A man walks to us from the south. He is on the path we will eventually walk on the AT.
“Hi,” he says.
I wonder, What is he eating?
The man pulls plants from the side of the trail and munches on them.
Upon closer look, he is not mountain man romance material for the younger gals.
Sunshine Rat asks him, “So what is that direction like?”
“Not too bad. Up and down some, but I’ve seen worse.”
Yeah. If he’s talking about steep inclines and declines, we’ve certainly seen worse too.
He heads north.
Then we see who I assume is a man and wife couple in their sixties perhaps. “Oh,” I say to the woman. “I love your shirt!”
Her navy t-shirt has a simple AT blaze splash on the front as if someone took a paint brush stroke from a tree and painted her shirt instead. She appears to be very clean. The shirt is crisp, like brand new.
I hope these clean people don’t smell us.
My shirt and pants cling to my body. When sweat drips from my hairline, I am careful to wipe it away from my eyes.
“Thank you,” she says. “I think I got this in a gift shop at Harper’s Ferry.”
SunFloJo chews pepperoni and the last of her cheese. She asks, “Are you hiking the whole AT?”
I smell the man’s aftershave, so I guess the answer is no, but he does surprise us with a sweet story.
“We have friends in Florida who are here finishing the last of their almost 2200 AT miles. We came to walk with them for a little while.”
“Yes,” the clean woman shrills. “They are twin 80-year-olds. They’ve been walking about 200 miles each summer for 10 years. This year they will finish!”
80-years-old? Twins? –I’ve got to get in better shape.
And what-do-ya-know, here they come along the trail! Two matching ladies walk up to us from the south. They each have short white hair, trekking poles, and the biggest smiles.
The man says, “They can’t hear too well.”
SunFloJo is all over this. This moment may mirror her in 20 years. “Hi! We hear you’re finishing up the AT?”
The twins nod.
One of them hears better than the other one and tells us a little about their journey. “We started the trail in the most difficult spots like up in Maine when we were early 70’s.”
“We just like walking. Thought this would be a good retirement activity.”
They share, “Our combined trail name is Happy Trails.”
Inspiration surges through each of our hearts. What an incredible story. The fact that these sisters have walked almost 2200 miles sinks into my mind. Wow.
And how wonderful it is that their friends came to meet them in the forest to witness and celebrate the last steps?Beautiful.
After the foursome walks on to the north, SunFloJo says, “Did you see their beautiful legs? So shapely for 80!”
We continue to eat. A redhead young man and a dark-haired young girl approach, “Hello!”
Greetings are exchanged.
“What are your trail names?” SunFloJo asks.
When they speak, we recognize their British accents, “I’m Samsquatch,” He says. “And she is The Boss.”
We snicker, “Why is she The Boss?”
He answers, “Because we were dating and trying to decide what to do in our gap year before university. We’re from the U.K. and gap years are a thing where we are from. She heard about the AT and drug me over here to hike.”
“I thought it would be cool to say we did this,” The Boss adds.
The parent in me asks, “How does your family feel about it?”
The Boss answers, “My mum worries because I can only check in every few days when we find an outlet to charge our phones.”
I bet. But really, what a great way to spend 6 months of your gap year!
“I try to tell mum that we’ve met people on the trail and that everyone checks up on everyone else. There are logs along the way to sign and people look for your name.”
Samsquatch adds, “Yeah, sometimes you hang with a group for a while. When you need a rest day a bunch of us go in together to share a hotel room, or a shelter, or a shower.”
Another dark-haired young gal walks up from the south. Clearly, they know each other.
“What’s your trail name?” I ask her.
She is adorably thin and tall. Olive Oil smiles.
SunFloJo asks, “Are you alone or do you have a partner?”
With confidence she replies, “I’m kind of alone overall, but you’re never really alone out here. I hang off and on with a group of people.”
“Like us,” laughs Samsquatch and The Boss. “And sometimes we get perks because we’re British.” There’s a chuckle between the three of them due to some inside joke along the way. “Like hotel rates or restaurant rates.”
“Americans have been good to us.”
Well, put that on a billboard. I’m glad to hear that.
The Boss continues, “We’ve got to make our money last. We’ve made it to the midway point of our hike so far.”
We exchange pleasantries, “Nice to meet you! Hope you have a great second half of the trip.”
Then we see one, two, three,…NINE men approach our lunch location. This intersection is proving to be a high foot traffic area.
These men book it to our spot like a locomotive machine. Their legs move in unison and they vary in ages and athletic ability. Some sweat profusely. I imagine because they are trying to keep up.
I look them over and say, “I see some genetic similarities among you.”
They nod with testosterone pride. “We’re the dads,” three of them say. They point down the row of others, “These are our sons, he’s a cousin, and he is a son-in-law.”
“You guys were really trucking it,” I say.
“Yes, we are heading to Big Meadow.”
“Oh, yes, us too, but via Lewis Mountain first. That’s where we left our vehicle,” I say.
Noticing some of the younger ages, SunFloJo says, “Hey, we’re inviting people to the Tap Room tonight at Big Meadow. If you want to join us, then you’re invited.”
The most senior dad says, “We will keep that in mind.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Stalker C’s eyes widen. She looks at me and looks at Sunshine Rat, then tilts her head south toward the trail.
Now I see what she means.
Well, well, well.
Look who it is!
Shut-Up-Guy is heading our way.
The jaws on three of our faces drop while SunFloJo continues chatting it up with the nine man train.
Sunshine Rat, Stalker C and my eyes follow Shut-Up-Guy as he passes behind our visitors and continues at a fast speed. His eyes meet our eyes only briefly at one point.
SunFloJo is still talking, “And do you gentlemen have trail names?”
Main Leader Dad says, “No.”
He shakes his head as if none of his crew deserve the gift of a trail name. It’s starting to make sense to me why so many of his crew are an out of breath, sweaty mess. They’ve been trying to keep up with Main Leader Dad. Ah hah. That’s your trail name in my book.
Main Leader Dad takes a pepperoni stick from Sunshine Rat’s hand without asking.
Perhaps dude needs a manners life skill workshop from the non-profit back home?
Stalker C, Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo eye his behavior as he lightly fingers the length of the pepperoni.
My ballpark interpretation is that he thinks this is good packaging for meat, easy to transport. Has he not ever seen pepperoni sticks?
He nods approval and hands the stick back to Sunshine.
Then Main Leader Dad looks at SunFloJo. She is wearing her moisture wicking khaki shorts and fuchsia shirt with a black bandana around her head.
Time stops. I hear a metaphor of angels in heaven open with an ascension chorus “ah ah ahhh”.
The sunlight shifts through the trees and casts a spotlight onto SunFloJo. The man lifts his arm and points to our friend, our leader, our SunFloJo.
He says with all authority as if he is knighting her or blessing her through the air, “You are SteelCut.”
The Steam Team freezes over this announcement.
The men who we later affectionately call The Nine Testes have spoken.
And just like that, they walk off quickly in unison.
I think that name does fit as an alternative for SunFloJo.
Stalker C says to SunFloJo, “Did you see who sped by while you were knighted with a possible new name?”
“Shut-Up-Guy from our first night.”
Sunshine Rat chimes in, “What are the odds we would see him again?”
Seeing Shut-Up-Guy makes us all laugh. We replay a key event from night one.
I say, “I promise” and Stalker C says a low, “Shuuuut Uuuup!”
While we laugh, two guys approach coming from the south. They introduce themselves as a father-son team. “We’re staying at the resort.”
There’s a resort nearby? I had no idea.
“Cool Shirts,” I say referencing their neon gym workout t-shirts.
The son shares, “We work out at the same Cross Fit together.” He pauses then adds, “To get ready for hiking we added cardio.”
Something about the way he said “added cardio” makes the Steam Team stifle giggles.
Our rest and refuel window of time is closing.
I say, “Hope you have a great hike. We’re about to take off in the direction you came from.”
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
We exchange a good laugh about the Fisherman’s camp and continue walking.
I send a telepathic check-in to home base: I’m ok, Hon. You know I am a survivor no matter what. Hope you can feel my soul speaking to you.
I imagine Paul is happy to wake up this morning having had no knocks on the front door from police delivering bad news. Knowing the Steam Team’s darkest night is over may provide relief both to us on the trail and to those who care about us. I find it funny that our darkest night involved sleeping with a light on the whole time.
The terrain changes from the abundance of browns to tall, wispy lime green grass and blue sky on the horizon as we climb higher and higher. I think the bright blue is a good sign at first.
Looks like the top of the mountain is just ahead. We’re almost there.
I remember on the trail plan that at the end of Laurel Prong Trail we will turn left back onto the AT.
The top, the top of the mountain. I can see it! –or so I think.
The girls await my caboose at a trail marker post.
When they see me approach, they turn right.
Why not left!?
Sunshine points out that the trail post says Laurel Prong continues this way. To the right. There’s more Laurel Prong to hike. We are not to our official turn yet.
“Sneaky trail,” says Stalker C.
Yeah, it is!
To the right we go. SunFloJo lifts the mood, “Isn’t this beautiful?!”
From the back of the line, I quietly huff, “Breathtaking.” –which had a funny double meaning if anyone had heard it.
I look right and down over the mountain side trail we just climbed. That is an impressive view of how far we’ve come today.
To my left is the mountain ridge and a majestic crisp sky. Between me and the ridge is soft flowing grass. I mentally immerse into the beauty. We are on top of the world.
I pause to look across the sky at many mountains in the distance and contemplate how this mountain is among its friends. This is an overlook without a drive or pull off parking spot. There is no road. We’ve earned this glorious view by climbing.
While one foot follows the next, I enter a prayerful time of reflection while thinking a lot about my relationship with God.
I sense my Higher Power say:
What if you spent more time with Me? What if you stop trying to make things fit and simply give it all to Me? Give me your marriage. Give me your work, your children, your journey. You don’t have to figure it out. All you need to do is do the next step and then the next step after that. The supernatural comes from Me. Allow and invite me into your whole life, not just your heart.
I ask: But why haven’t you moved in our finances? Why are things not better in Paul’s work and body? What do we need to do to improve our situation?
Have you asked Me in faith to handle those challenges?
Verses come to mind as if I can hear the Word more clearly from this elevation.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9
Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6
And then my mind hears:
What I’m saying is make room. You chose the name Surrender for a reason. Make room and allow Me to direct your path.
I ponder the many ways I have not asked for God’s help in recent years. I think about what it would mean to make room for supernatural blessings. I think about my friends who say, “trust the process.”
My mind hushes. I seek time with God. My mind churns to a pleasant blank nothingness while feeling fully embraced by love.
We march on with heat friction between our backs and backpacks. Sweat drips down faces, necks, and arms.
The trail changes to extra narrow. We enter a path about five inches wide of dirt between billowing grass. I am unnerved by the grass brushing my calves.
Please don’t let anything climb up my leg or inside my pants leg! I make noise and swish the ground with my trekking poles.
I am torn whether to look left to the poetic mountain tops or to keep my eyes on every spec of dirt in my path.
Look! A bright orange salamander type creature ahead of my feet. That is cool.
I am careful not to squish him. I step over it and then nearly step on a fuzzy orange-yellow furry caterpillar type guy. There are some brightly colored things up here that don’t seem to have camouflage options.
I take in a deep breath and exhale. The air grows thin. I repeat the deep breathing.
Keep walking, Surrender. Keep breathing too.
Then trail changes again. We begin a rocky edge along the tip top of the mountain. We step up and over many rocks to make our way, big and small rocks.
I encourage my ankles to remain strong. The slightest slip could cause me to slide left off the cliff and down the side of the mountain. The trail is narrow with nothing but empty space to my left and a wall of rock just taller than me to my right.
The narrow footing is a challenge. If we run into anyone going the opposite direction, then we will have to cling to complete strangers to figure out how to pass one another.
The Steam Team walks close together now. Everyone wants to make sure we get through this ridge. No one talks. Concentration is high.
I think about how snakes might like to sun themselves on the rocks to my right and how much I hope they don’t choose to do that here today. I hope we make enough noise to keep such creatures away.
A large rock blocks our path. As she scales it, SunFloJo slips. My heart skips. The girls gasp.
SunFloJo falls wisely toward the rock wall side and hangs on to jagged stones until she regains footing.
Sunshine Rat asks, “Are you ok?”
“Yep. I’m good.”
“Good save,” I say.
We are a tired, dirty crew. Flies buzz around my greasy head. I notice Stalker C bats flies from her forehead too. I am kind of surprised flies hang out at this altitude.
We pause to put our sleeping buffs around our heads. That keeps flies at bay somewhat but not completely.
I step with my trekking pole and the pole sinks. I slide down with the pole face first into rocks. My belly saves me by catching on the rock I was trying to climb over.
“Surrender!” Sunshine Rat sees me go down.
I glance at the cliff to my left. “I’m ok,” I say but don’t believe.
Surely, we are near the AT intersection. Surely.
“Wanna rest a minute?” SunFloJo asks me once I crawl over the rock.
I nod. The girls hike ahead.
The two most senior of the group need a break. Tiredness is becoming a liability.
SunFloJo and I sit on a 3-foot log that somehow is stuck on this short-width trail. I try not to think about the rocks or critter holes behind or under me. My feet touch the edge of the mountain. Hopefully whatever lurks nearby stays at bay.
From our seated position we face the deep valley and mountains as far as we can see. Falling to our death is easily possible. I cannot see how far down the mountain is below my feet.
Far, very far. Steep, very steep.
Yet how beautiful is this?! When in life have I ever had the opportunity to be wedged on the side of a mountain this high up? Um, never.
Overcome, I sense dry tears could flow. I am too dehydrated for wetness to form in my eyes.
“Are you tired?” SunFlo asks.
I nod and wipe sweat with my shirt collar. The sun is intense.
“We’ll just sit a moment. We have plenty of time.”
I drink the water we purified earlier this morning. I’ve been thirsty for a while. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to make my ration of water last if the rest of our day is like Laurel Prong Trail has been.
SunFloJo hands me a dried mango slice. I eat it without hesitation. It tastes good, sweet. I need nature’s sugar.
We breathe and rest for a few minutes. We can not afford any more stumbles on this stretch.
Regaining some strength, I share, “I’ve tried to throw my anger and sadness off cliffs, over waterfalls and into fire this whole trip.”
I pause, “Not sure how many more opportunities I’ll have.”
“Do you feel better?”
“Maybe lighter emotionally.” I continue, “I’m happy for our son. He’s going to go live his dream. I would never choose the risks and lifestyle of a military career for him, but it is what he wants. I’m going to miss him.”
“You have a baby and everyone warns you that they grow fast. Man, that’s the truth…. And maybe I need to let go of the non-profit dream. Perhaps I’ve laid the foundation and someone else will rise to take on the next steps. Maybe I need to make room for others to carry on the work. I am going to be open about whatever is next. I’m giving God back the dream. We’ll see what happens. When it is time to quit, I trust He will make it clear. It is so hard to turn away from doing something you love.”
More listening. We stare at the valley and mountains.
SunFloJo is completely still. I sense that I have however long I need on this log.
I can talk with God, her, or both. It doesn’t matter to her. She could say something. That would be ok.
But she doesn’t.
“And those girls.” I point to the right although the girls are well beyond us, “They are so smart, young and have such good attitudes. Lord, please don’t let them settle for anything that holds them back or weighs down their spirit. They are encouragers. They are free from restraints. Keep them free. Keep them blessed and upbeat like they are right now.”
I wipe my face. This is a new sensation; crying without tears because my body can’t produce any.
SunFloJo asks, “That’s really more about you, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I choke on air, “It is.”
I say, “I remember being like them.”
“I hear you, sweetie. Me too.”
We stare and breathe, taking in the moment.
Guess we better get going.
I stand. SunFloJo hands me her last piece of dried mango. That should be enough fuel to get me to lunch. My legs went to sleep while sitting on our awkward perch. I fight through the sleepy muscles and get my feet moving.
Soon the rocks change back to tall grass. We are no longer on the edge of the mountain.
It takes a little while to catch up to the girls.
“We see it!” Sunshine says about the trail intersection we’ve been looking for. “Just up ahead.”
The four of us approach our last trail marker.
Sun rays filter through the trees to shine gently on the intersection spot. This is where Laurel Prong Trail dead ends into the AT making a very big T.
It is finally time to eat lunch. We have not seen another human all day so we make ourselves at home in the intersection which is perhaps the widest path we’ve seen today. SunFloJo spreads out her sleeping mat for seating. I sit on a stump with my pack on the ground next to me. Stalker C is to my left with her legs stretched straight out on the ground. She starts to munch some chips.
I go for protein from Teriyaki Beef Jerky. I tear pieces of a tortilla to eat and unwrap ginger candy to hopefully boost my body.
Sunshine sits on the mat with SunFloJo. She offers insight about the time she and Stalker C were alone, “We had a little moment.”
Stalker C rolls her eyes, “I kinda lost it. I am not going to make it much longer. My body and attitude are done.”
My head tilts.
Sunshine adds, “Her foot issue is getting worse. But maybe we won’t go up any more mountains from here. It looks pretty straight in the direction we’re going next.”
“Lies,” Stalker C says. “The trail lies. Can’t trust it.” She swats a fly, and then another. She shakes her head. “I’m losing it.”
“Oh, Honey,” SunFloJo laughs. “We just had a moment where Surrender was breaking down and then talking about how great your two girls’ attitudes are.”
Sunshine snickers, “I wasn’t having a very good attitude the last few miles. That trail marker back there saying that it was another mile before we reach the AT just about sent me over the edge. I wanted to jump off the mountain for sure.” She sighs. “Alas, but now we’ve made it.”
Stalker C says, “We couldn’t believe how positive you two were being when we had to scale those rocks!”
“Us? Positive?” I say.
SunFloJo requests half chuckling, “Tell what you were hoping for their lives, Surrender.”
We laugh through the dirt and sweat on our bodies about how I hope they’ll maintain positive attitudes like they have today and be wise about sticking with positive people, to never let negativity hold them back.
Stalker C scoffs and her shoulders go back, “But now I’ve lost it. I’ve got a bad attitude.”
Sunshine Rat offers, “Stalker, you’ve had a great attitude. This is tough. We just lost it a little for a moment. We own it. We’ve got this. We’ll work it out.”
I smile. We are all humans on a mission managing the best we can with our minds and bodies. I look south down the AT as far as I can see, “Homestretch now.”
SunFloJo says, “I think it is funny that we were having separate meltdowns at the same time while admiring the opposite two.”
Laughter cleanses us.
After our revelation, we take time to breathe. I adore how our unique foursome respects quiet time. We are our authentic selves through strain, laughter, and peace. We value reflection time unanimously.
I stretch and recline for a few minutes.
Sunshine Rat breaks our silence, “Stalker C, we haven’t hit our goal yet. We’ve only got one trail left,”
Sunshine turns to the older of us and says, “We thought we’d meet our dream mountain men this week and be swept off our feet.”
Stalker C says, “That’s right. We’ve gotta bring home our true loves from this graduation trip to our parents.”
Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.
Stalker C startles awake. She whispers, “What is it?!”
My words barely enter the air, “I. Don’t. Know.”
We are frozen, sitting up. We do not peek behind us yet.
I continue slowly, “We are going to have to turn around. I think it is in my backpack. Or outside. Or maybe both. I am hoping it is outside.”
We listen. She hears it too.
“Ok. I’m going to pull down my buff and look.”
“Ok, me too.”
We slowly tug fabric and turn. My eyes adjust. I don’t see anything moving on top of the pack. Thank God.
I gulp, then crawl closer to look. Nothing obvious is inside that I can see without putting my hand in the bag. I am too scared to place my arm inside or to widen the opening.
Then I hear something with four legs move away from the outside wall. It sounds big, bigger than a rat. I wince to stand and then look through a tall window.
I can’t see past the darkness. I hope the animal is small. However, the sound is what I imagine a curious bear might sound like.
What do I know? Maybe I am wrong. I dismiss my fears by thinking: It was probably a skunk or possum. Mostly I am glad it was not indoors with us.
My heartbeat slows down, “I am so sorry I woke you.”
“I was afraid.”
Stalker C nods.
Next door in the lights-out room our friends continue snoozing.
We try to get comfortable and go back to sleep with buffs back over our faces.
But Stalker C whispers, “Something is behind us.” And we become a fit of giggles.
When we stop giggling, the quiet somehow makes us start laughing again and again. SunFloJo and Sunshine Rat must be deep sleepers. They do not stir.
Ok. I’m going to try to sleep. My back may split in two from the hardwood floor, but morning will arrive. I need legs that are ready to climb the next mountain.
“Surrender!” Stalker C whispers.
I don’t move. Through the buff I say, “What?”
Stalker C sits higher than me. She says calmly, “There is a centipede barreling toward your head. I don’t know if you care or not, but if you do, we should do something about it.”
A centipede? Barreling?
I think it over, then pull the buff below my eyes. Sure enough the centipede scoots along a crack coming from the baseboard and heading my way. We will soon be face to face.
“Fine.” I stand up and do a short pace back and forth considering what to do. I don’t think I can kill it. It is too big for me to stomach squishing it.
I need a plastic bag. Stalker C watches my body language. The nearest available plastic bag is on the hygiene product table in the front room. If I go in there, our neighbors’ motion activated light will turn on.
Stalker C reads my mind, “Don’t worry. They won’t wake up.”
I slip past our lightly snoring friends and grab a plastic bag. No one moves when their light comes on.
Back in our room, I realize I need a pen, stick or something slender. I eye Sunshine Rat’s pen on a small table. I walk back in to grab it. Still no one wakes up.
Whew! This is good. Those two will be rested and able to go for help tomorrow when Stalker C and I are not physically able to finish.
I twirl the centipede onto the pen and deposit it into the plastic bag. I poke a tiny hole in hopes of giving oxygen to the centipede and place the bagged friend on the windowsill. “I’ll let you free in the morning, Little One. Hope you make it.”
Back to “bed”.
Stalker C whispers, “Surrender, there’s a spider.”
Oh, dear God. Where?
I roll over toward her and remove enough of my buff to expose my left eye.
“Right there.” She points high on the wall on her side of the room and above our feet.
I say, “That’s like five feet up.”
“It’s been there for a while.”
I have nothing left. “It will go away.”
Or drop right on us. I look toward the window to see if there is any sign of daybreak. Seeing nothing yet, I roll over and slip back into whatever sleep level I can.
I look at the sky through the window. That is not black. I see a little blue.
We can’t let Ted down. I’ll get my stuff together, change my pants and then wake the others.
Assembled, I try to say gently, “Good morning girls. We gotta go. Make sure you have everything.”
Stalker C mumbles, “We can’t disappoint Ted.”
Now that the party stirs, I slip outside to add the wet socks to my dirty laundry bag.
Sunshine says hopeful, “I wonder if Ted is making coffee for us.”
SunFloJo says, “Oh I hope so.”
I pee outside to start the day well–the outdoor bathroom expert that I am. I search each room making sure we haven’t forgotten a single thing or left any crumbs.
The centipede is set free on a porch rail—possibly still alive. It was hard to tell.
The last thing I grab and put on my feet are the socks from the security cameras.
Then we shut the door behind us.
We pass the fountain in the center of Rapidan Camp. Last night Ted told us how the fountain still works, but no one is sure exactly how it drains. I think the fountain looks lonely with no buildings around it anymore. I picture the bear walking by it in the mornings.
The bear isn’t here today, is it? Hopefully it will sleep in after such a stormy night. I keep an eye out just in case.
Passing The Creel house, Sunshine smells for coffee. Nothing. Ted doesn’t have to be up this early. Hopefully we get to see him tonight.
We walk across the bridge and over the river so Stalker C and Sunshine can use the outhouse. They take one step in and walk right back out.
SunFloJo asks the girls, “Smell too bad?”
The girls nod. No way they can accomplish anything in there.
SunFloJo and I stand on the bridge and look over the river that is easier to see from here today in the morning light. Wow, we crossed that yesterday?
We walk on, looking for our next trail.
It is early. Maybe 6:15am or so.
Sunshine looks at her boob-o-meter, “With any luck we’ll be back to Big Meadow by 3pm and have time to shower before Ted arrives.”
That’s a good thought ‘because we need showers. Desperately.
We walk behind Rapidan Camp now. To our left is clearly marked Fork Mountain Trail. But in front of us we have a dilemma. There is a small width trail left of a trail marker post. And about eight feet and to the right of the trail marker is a wider width trail that kind of looks like a road up the hill.
Which one do we take? Which one is Laurel Prong Trail?
We guess that the trail marker being next to the smaller width trail must be the correct answer. So we begin.
Morning sun sparkles through the trees. This trail closely follows a tiny creek that I assume is Laurel Prong Creek. I think about how this looks like where Smurfs might live. There are mushrooms and many moss covered rocks. The landscape is wet and cool from the downpour last night.
We continue half a mile and then the mossy creek trail ends. There is no right, left or forward choice. We picked the wrong trail.
Sunshine says, “Great start, Steam Team. Good thing it is so early.”
Stalker C, “Yeah, we didn’t disappoint Ted. Early start and already an excursion.”
SunFloJo, “We have plenty of time to get to the Tap Room before 6pm.”
Sunshine, “Because that’s trash and laundry time. We gotta be there by then.”
We spread out along the thicket. Sunshine says, “Hold up.” We pause to give Stalker C a moment to pee ahead of us.
Back to the trail marker post we switch gears and head up the hill on what must be the real Laurel Prong Trail.
Uphill.Ouch. My foot to shin angle feels like about 45 degrees.
Soon we enter what feels like an enclosed wet wood forest with more browns than greens. There are many twists and turns.
The tall trees intertwine their branches above our heads to form a roof of leaves. A sea of ferns gathers on the lumpy and bumpy mountainside. The ferns are not as thick as we saw in places yesterday, but their bright green waves contrast the many fallen logs and large rocks.
Occasionally the three front runners pause so I can catch up. We are a human slinky; widening and closing our gaps as we walk.
Surely, we are getting close to the top. This is supposed to be a 5.7 to 6.7-mile day, but I must remember: the trail lies.
Mentally I am prepared for and 8 to 10-mile day, but if it’s all up hill like this I am going to be in trouble. My heart rate is up as if I’m midway through a Jazzercise class or something.
When we have walked 2.5 miles according to Sunshine’s boob-o-meter, we see something.
We stop to look left. Probably 40 feet off the trail is a clearing where someone made a big circle of cut back trees and bushes.
“That must be the fire ring we were supposed to stay in last night,” SunFloJo says.
Stalker C eyes the vast forest in every direction of the burned space. She says, “Oh thank God for Ted. We would never have found that at night.”
“And the mud would have made it rough,” Sunshine Rat adds.
We shake our heads and shiver at the thought. We would have missed it. No doubt.
SunFloJo says, “Well if anyone asks, we stayed overnight at the Fisherman’s camp just outside of the national park just down from Rapidan.”
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcomes it. John 1:15
Yep. It is urine.
Dehydration and the highest level of exhaustion in my lifetime wreaks havoc on my body.
No one notice. Please no one notice. I beg the room to turn me invisible.
Silently I blame the numbness and pray no one smells this new discovery.
Ted leans against the front door frame. I remain seated in a puddle. He says, “Well. Get some rest and just shut this front door good–both tonight and in the morning.”
Sunshine assures, “Oh, we absolutely will.”
“Ok. Good night.” Ted grins, then saunters toward the porch stairs to head back to The Creel House. Rain continues pouring beyond these old walls.
For now, we leave the solid door open. A screen door allows the flow of outside air and the sounds of drenched nature. I thank God for a bit of wind outside.
I take off boots and socks. I place the socks under my bottom.
Mentally I inventory what is left in my pack that could be useful. So much stuff is back in the bear box at Big Meadow. I have a pair of shorts that will work to sleep in overnight while my pants dry. I have a change of underwear and two pair of clean socks. Oh, and “Wilderness Wipes” to clean numb girl parts.
I miss out on the bliss happening four feet from me. Three fourths of the Steam Team glow pure joy through their sweat and dirt.
SunFloJo filters water from the creek. Stalker C and Sunshine eat and smile regarding our salvation. I hear Sunshine giggle words through cracker chewing, “Remember when Surrender was totally relaxed walking along the ridge and then snapped when we thought we were lost?!”
They mock together in unison, “We shouldn’t have crossed that #*&%@%^ river!” Laughter fills the tiny cabin built for a Prime Minister.
I half smile to blend in. No one can believe how lucky we feel right now as even more thunder and lightning fill the sky. Someone says, “We get to be dry tonight!”
Well, they may soon be dry.
I am not so sure about my situation. There will be no food for me until I recover. What should be easy to clean up is excruciating. My body shoot pins through my muscles every time I move an inch.
My socks are yellow. I roll them up and manage to stand. We do not have a sink to rinse anything, so I make my way along the wall, around the girls without getting too close. Surely by now their noses are consumed by their own body smells. A girl can hope.
Flip flops are near the top of my bag. I grab them. Out on the porch, I walk to a railing near the flowing creek below–one of the creeks that empties into the now infamous river.
Thank you, God, for this rain that acts as a faucet. I hold out the socks and wash them as best I can in the rain. The rain is so heavy that this is not a bad solution. Isn’t it interesting that the very thing (rain) that was a burden minutes ago is now the exact thing I need to accomplish a task?
Oh, my. Do I need to pee again? I think so. Man, I am messed up!
After rinsing and wringing multiple times, I determine that the best place for the socks is outside the cabin tonight. I leave them stretched on a wooden bench farthest from the door. Hopefully, that does not attract animals. Or maybe my scent will keep them away?
I hold up my hands to rinse them in the rain. I take the steps down to gravel and enter a path that leads closer to the creek. I wonder if Ted is watching from a distance.
Oh well. I cannot worry about him in this moment, and I cannot risk ruining these pants. I need to wear these on the hike tomorrow. Shorts might be good for dryness overnight, but pants in the deep woods is best. I stress about not falling off balance. My legs are weak, but my determination is strong.
I ponder the power of my Boy Scout pants. I think they will dry quickly. I thank God for fabric made for outdoor living.
SunFloJo comes outside for similar reasons. I go back inside and pause to keep the screen door from slamming. I observe there are three total rooms to this building other than some doors that have locks on them which may be closets.
I move my backpack to the room adjoining the main room. I dig out a Ziplock bag of clean underwear, new socks, and my shorts. I also grab the pack of Wilderness Wipes.
Walking into the main room where they still are eating, I announce, “I’m going to the back to change.”
In the back room, I eye small cameras overhead in the corners of the room. Hmmm.
I put a clean sock over each camera—just in case. Perfect!
The white wooden windows have no curtains, but there are many evergreen branches touching the glass from the outside. I pull off clothes being careful to put dirty underwear inside a plastic bag. I read the instructions on the Wilderness package, clean up and put the used wipe in the plastic bag too. I remember “Leave no trace behind, aka leave no garbage. What you pack into the woods must come out of the woods, etc.” I do what I can with deodorant and accept the result.
Ahh, I feel a little better. My numbness may be awake again. The rest of me aches as if beaten by a baseball bat.
I return my belongings to the red backpack, thinking of Amy who allowed me to borrow it. She is among the friends and family who think we are out in the middle of the woods right now. Well, I suppose we are, just inside a building inside the woods. I wish I could tell them so they do not worry.
I stuff everything back in the pack except leave my pants out to dry. Surprisingly, the pants aren’t wafting any obvious odors. Thank God.
Finally, I can eat something.
“My Houdini needs attention,” Stalker C mentions. We giggle of course.
“Wilderness Wipes,” I offer.
“Me too,” say the other ladies. “Hygiene matters.”
We make a body cleansing station right on top a President Hoover history placard shelf. Team members take turns in the back room. Each time someone notices the socked cameras, we hear giggles. “Genius,” says SunFloJo.
Sunshine and SunFlo begin to tour the museum pictures and read signs in each room. I have been observing as well.
“Lou Henry Hoover was ahead of her time,” Sunshine says.
“Yes, she was. Looks like she graduated from Stanford with a Geology degree in 1898,” says SunFloJo.
“That’s where she met Herbert Hoover.” I chime in and read, “She was an avid outdoors person. She oversaw the design of Rapidan Camp and she spoke proficient Mandarin Chinese.”
Stalker C says, “What an amazing woman.”
“Check out some of her quotes,” SunFloJo points out. We read:
“The independent girl is truly of quite modern origin, and usually is a most bewitching little piece of humanity.”
“I majored in geology in college but have majored in Herbert Hoover ever since.”
“I was a Scout years ago, before the movement started, when my father took me fishing, camping and hunting. Then I was sorry that more girls could not have what I had. When I learned of the movement, I thought, here is what I always wanted other girls to have.”
“The independent girl is a person before whose wrath only the most rash dare stand, and, they, it must be confessed, with much fear and trembling. “
I think about how Lou Henry Hoover probably stood where we stand tonight. And how she helped lead the way for girls to earn college degrees long before the four of us in the room pursued our own education.
The lights in the three cabin rooms have motion sensors. If you sit still in the front and back rooms the lights will turn off. The small side room light where Stalker C’s and my stuff is; however, stays on no matter how still you sit.
Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo lay out their pads and sleeping bags in the front room.
“We technically should go in the back room,” I think out loud as we lay in the bright light.
Stalker C says what I also think, “Seems secluded back there, though. I’m afraid of the mice Ted hasn’t seen in a while.”
“Me too.” And I shouldn’t have added, “I’m afraid of why those mice are missing.”
Stalker C shivers, “Surrender.”
She sighs, “Darn snakes in the rafters next door. Wish Ted hadn’t mentioned those!”
“I can sleep with the lights on.”
I look toward the front room where Sunshine and SunFloJo settle in to sleep. They practically cocoon. They know how to make the most of this roof and walls. My sleeping equipment won’t allow such a full body and head wrap like them. Even with an extra-long sleeping bag I do not fit all the way inside comfortably. I eye the wide hardwood planks and decide which location I will try to place the useless small mat to meet part of my body.
We may have walls, but they are old walls. I see the cracks and holes big enough for a mouse to enter. I hear the rain smack the porch wood about three feet from me. I lay right next to what I assume is a storage type room. A padlock and a light under the door are inches from my nose.
Stalker C lays next to me. On the other side of her is the doorway to the front room. We hear SunFloJo get in rhythm with dreamland Zzz’s. Sunshine and SunFlo are physically still long enough that their room light goes out.
Stalker C and I squirm to get comfortable in the light and harsh floor. At our feet is the door to the back room. The light goes out back there. We should try to sleep in there. But I just can’t.
Stalker C and I look at each other. I suspect we share the same thoughts. Something about that room isn’t quite right. She looks toward the back room, then at me and shakes her head “no”. I agree with a nod.
My eyes dart to the storage door next to me and then at the no longer used second porch door behind my head. My backpack sits near the unused door. I pull a brown buff up over my face. If something crawls on me, it is not touching my eyes, nose, ears, or mouth.
“Good night,” I muffle.
I see light through my buff.
And I hear something.
Eek. It sounds like a small animal is walking around or inside my backpack.
Like, a mouse. Or a rat!
I wait. I listen.
Scurrying continues. Buff still on my face, I contemplate the number of inches between the top of my head and the backpack. Not many. 25 inches. Maybe.
Is the scurrying inside only? Or are there paws moving around outside too?
Lord! Help me! There is something on the outside wall. It sniffs and walks back and forth.
AND I hear the inside movement. Maybe. I am not sure if something is on the inside or just outside on the porch.
Whatever it is, is it going to get us?
US! I remember. Stalker C is still sleeping.
Stalker C told me once months ago that she cannot hear well out of one of her ears. Maybe I should not bother her. Or maybe she would want to be bothered so whatever it is does not crawl near her.
My heart pounds.
The fear takes over.
I sit straight up, buff still over my eyes.
My hand raises straight up and straight down onto Stalker C’s leg. I whisper through my buff, “Something. Is. Behind. Us.”
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope an a future. Jeremiah 29:11
I feel terrible immediately that my words slipped out the way they did. I became the person on a trip that I do not like.
Also, my mind flies to what time is it? Where are we going to stay tonight? There isn’t anywhere we can get to safely before nightfall. We are trapped out here wherever here is. At this hour, we could never walk out as far as we walked in. We are LOST?!?!
I want to say no one is to blame, and that we’ll figure it out, don’t worry. But I am certain more words won’t help after what I already blurted out.
Stalker C turns to Sunshine Rat. She holds horizontal to her chest one of my poles, “Spear me. Spear me now.”
Sunshine Rat is unfazed.
Stalker C says, “Right now.” Her jaw is clenched with determination.
I attempt to give Stalker C comfort. I try to express “don’t worry” body language. Clearly I can’t trust my words right now!
Sunshine looks at her boob-o-meter. She states calmly, “It is 6:35pm.” I look to the sky. It looks every bit of 9pm.
Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo converse over the map.
I think we might as well keep walking because, well, really, what options do we have other than that? They come to the same conclusion. We continue down the hill.
I hear Sunshine mention that she really needs to pee. I am in and out of reality in what I can hear or think. Is that the exhaustion, the stress or both?
We pause for needs and then continue our descent.
Look! There is a gravel road. We all see it, hoping it is not a figment of our imagination. We pick up our steps.
The gravel looks familiar. The whole scene looks slightly familiar—like maybe I saw this online in a photo?!
SunFloJo sees a bridge and across it is a parked white truck. She says, “We can sleep under it if we have to.”
I veer slightly right and forward motivated by our change of landscape. Then I see it! “Hey, this is like the website. I think this is Rapidan Camp!”
We see a wood sign that says Creel House. This is it! This is it!
We walk toward the building that blends in with the forest around it.
An image emerges from the wooden deck. It is a man. A guy who looks dressed for a golf outing in the middle of the woods? Is he a mirage?
“Well, hello,” he says seeming surprised to see us. Yep, he is real.
“What are you ladies doing here?” Oh, thank God. We are still recognizable as female.
SunFloJo leads with enthusiasm as if we all were not having heart attacks just .25 miles back. “We came to see Rapidan Camp. Can we still get a tour?”
“Well,” he chuckles. “This has to be the latest that I’ve ever had visitors arrive. I have already begun to have my end of the night cigar and glass of wine on the porch. I took off my park ranger clothes and put on casual clothes.”
The Steam Team snickers about our late arrival and give sideway glances at one another.
SunFloJo kids, “You can stay in your casual clothes.” He wears a white t-shirt and salmon-colored shorts. He is protected from the rain by the porch roof. We stand dripping wet on the ground below his steps.
This backpack is even more heavy now that we are standing in one spot. I hurt all over. My mind is somewhere between wondering where his wine is so I can chug it to numb the pain and fearing that I may pass out at any moment.
“Where did you come from?” He half grins, but I suspect he is wondering if we are a threat. At the same time, I wonder if he is a threat. Could we take him at this point of the day if we had to defend ourselves?
Ah, the words of Dorian comfort me from lunch time: No man would ever approach 4 women.
He continues, “Most people who come from Big Meadow are down here by 9am.”
Sunshine’s face laughs without a sound.
He is measuring if we are just this…dumb, inexperienced…? Fill in the blank. The answer is: Yes, probably.
“My name is Ted.” After asking us a few more questions, he determines we did not come the fast way from Big Meadow.
There is a fast way? Really? Shocker. We went the long way indeed.
“Sure I’ll give you a tour. Why not? You’re here,” he says and grabs his keys and an umbrella.
Yes, we are here. I am believing that this mirage continues to be the real deal.
We walk drag ourselves further into the camp property. Ted locks into the full swing of his tour guide job. He points to where small cabins used to be but have been torn down. He says, “And some mornings I see a bear walk right through here.”
He just had to mention that! I peek at Stalker C. Her face tightens.
“And this,” he points to a giant stone structure. “People tend to think this is a fireplace left from when a house was torn down, but it is not. It was designed to be an outdoor cooking area from the beginning.”
We follow Ted to a brown painted set of stairs.
“Welcome to The Brown House.” Rain changes from drizzle to pour. My hands and fingers wrinkle like I have been in a bathtub all afternoon. “Put your packs on the porch. We can’t take them inside.” No problem. The indentions in my shoulders thank you.
The Brown House is the Hoover House. President Hoover called it brown because it is somewhat an opposite name from the White House.
“Do you care if we take a quick picture in front of Hoover’s House?” I ask. Where did I muster the strength or desire? But I want to remember this.
“No, go ahead.” Ted is accommodating and pleasant.
We pose in the rain, click, and leave the packs. Ted leads our bodies to the back of the house. The wrap around deck overlooks the river. Water flowing over rocks back here sounds amazing. I picture President Hoover sitting outside to clear his thoughts.
Ted steps up the back stairs and pauses, turning to us. He points to a mounted video camera and says, “You can be watched by security at all times.”
We nod. You are not going to get any problems from us, Mister. We have enough problems. One being that it is getting dark soon and we have not figured out where we will camp tonight.
Technically we are supposed to hike another mile and a half before finding the fire ring. I look around. We are in a deep valley. It appears that the trails out of here are uphill. I do not know if any of us can make it another mile and a half uphill in the dark and then set up camp.
Dear Lord, please give us a place safe to stay tonight. I am not sure I can walk further to set up camp. If this is a safe guy, please influence him to help us find a nearby solution. Amen.
I consider that maybe if we eat something soon, then our energy will be renewed a little bit but not enough to hike much further.
So tired. Everything hurts.
We walk into the Brown House via an enclosed porch office which Ted tells us was designed by Lou Henry Hoover.
SunFloJo says, “Ooh, look at these book holders. I love those.”
Ted, “Yes, she had them specially made just for this desk.”
Me, oh my God in Heaven, how does SunFloJo have any oomph left in her to observe and admire a detail like that?
I do admire the porch office. 3 walls of windows would be exactly where I’d want to do my First Lady correspondence and planning also.
We inch into the living room with exposed log walls. It is the size of a traditional ranch home. I find it lovely. Quaint. Humble. Sturdy. I imagine it is not what a President would want these days.
There are ropes that prevent tourists from walking further into the living room or forward into the sitting room.
We stand within the ropes. Ted is talking and talking. He has many facts to share. He mentions the original pieces and the recreated period pieces. He talks about how the windows used to be open with fabric coverings, but the Hoovers had to change that due to reasons like bugs. My eyes fixate on an old rotary telephone. My knees feel weak.
My legs will not hold me up much longer if we keep standing in the same spot.
Would Ted mind if I sit on the floor?
He is still talking.
I am going down. Slowly.
To the floor.
I tuck in my knees to make myself as small as possible. Maybe he won’t notice I’m on the floor?
So far, he is not kicking us out. I am still on the floor.
Sunshine sinks to the floor.
Then Stalker C sinks to the floor.
Hard wood. Feels good. Not standing–that’s all that matters. I notice my pants and sides of the boots are a bit muddy. Hopefully Ted and the Hoover ghosts don’t mind.
SunFloJo talks it up with Ted. She is working the tour. She is totally interested I suppose, or making a new friend, or giving us time to sit, or all 3 at once.
Oh shoot. We are on the move to the back bedroom. Maybe I had enough minutes on the floor to get me through this? Or not.
The three floor friends crawl and stand in stages to our feet. We limp ten feet into the bedroom. There is an office behind the bedroom so that the President could work after hours and not disturb his bride as she slept.
“So, people go up Laurel Prong to camp for the night?” SunFlo fans an S.O.S. signal. She digs.
My ears perk up. “About how far is that,” she pauses and adds a concerned jaw line, “from here?”
Thunder rolls outside. A lightning bolt flashes. The rain pours even harder now. It looks like midnight outside with the rain, thick forest and fact that we are in a valley between mountains. I would love this scenery if I could lay down right where we are. I’d give a lot if I could sleep on this wood floor right now.
My lady parts go numb again. I have lost mental capacity to try and figure out why this keeps happening down there. I may need to pee. I’m not sure. I finished drinking almost all of my water a few miles back, but I feel thirsty. I don’t want to drink the little bit I have left because that bottle needs to last until morning. This may be what dehydration feels like. I’m messed up more than a mild headache and thirst. My whole body is shaking on the inside.
“Oh that’s pretty far,” Ted says. He continues to size us up. Are we troublemakers? Can we be trusted? Is that one (me) gonna pass out any minute now? He scans us head to toe occasionally and I am not offended. I bet he’s had CPR and First Aid training for this job. He’s must know we’re in a dangerously exhausted state.
We stand in the Hoover’s bedroom. I resist sinking back to the floor. Ted talks about how he loves caring for the place.
He says, “I try to get family or friends to come visit me down here, but they never do.”
He continues, “But there’s really only one bed big enough to fit me let alone anyone else. They’d have to bring air mattresses or something.”
One of us asks, “How long have you been working here?” Whose mouth did that come from? I don’t know. The room spins a bit. It’s good to feel safe indoors. If I pass out, I’ll be inside and dry.
“Oh, over ten years now.” He is dedicated.
Ted describes his daily schedule, “Every morning I walk through the buildings before guests arrive. Sometimes I find snakes wrapped around these rafters.” He points up.
We all peek at the ceiling and rafters above our heads. So much for feeling safe. “And sometimes I find mice at the Prime Minister’s house next door, but I haven’t found any mice in a while,” He continues.
I imagine the snakes and lack of mice are connected.
“Oh, yeah, there’s another cabin. The Prime Minister’s house? Tell us about that.” SunFloJo is keeping us dry as long as she can.
Ted smiles. His love for Rapidan is clear. He loves the history. Oh, and the wine earlier may have softened his congenial spirit.
We walk toward the back-porch door. I see through the wrap around windows that the rain is coming down in sheets. How is that possible? The sky has certainly had plenty of water to share today.
Ted nods toward the Prime Minister’s cabin. “So, in 1929 when Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and his daughter were coming to stay President Hoover had that cabin built especially for Ramsay.” We look toward the cabin a short distance away from The Brown House over a foot bridge.
We are about to step outside the back door when lightning sparks and thunder cracks. Paul is home no doubt watching the weather and wondering how we are doing. Anyone like Amy and Deb who also had a hold of our trail plan may be praying for us right now. Thanks, friends & family.
I wish I could tell Paul So far so good. We are ok, and we are going to figure this out.
I imagine us somewhere soon in the dark trying to stake tents in the mud. We, along with our gear, will be covered in mud just trying to accomplish such a task that should be easy by now. The tents may collapse around our bodies because the stakes will not hold. We will be like muddy mummies laying in the forest somewhere waiting for first light. Whew! I’ve gotta stop thinking about it!
“So, Ted, you know this area.” SunFloJo seeks more info, “We heard there is a fire ring up on Laurel Prong Trail which is where we are heading next to set up camp tonight.”
He replies, “Yeah, people tell you it’s like a mile or so up the hill, but it’s more like two miles.”
“People generally aren’t down here this time of night,” He reiterates. Yep, thank you. We established this fact a while ago.
He continues, “And you got to be careful that you don’t end up heading up the wrong hill trail. Fork Mountain Trail would be the wrong way to go.” He diverts to talk more history, “Lou Henry Hoover used to take horses and guests on horses up that trail. It is pretty steep. You want to make sure you are on Laurel Prong Trail for sure. There are 2 trails that start with the name Laurel. It can be hard to make sure you’re on the right one.”
Thunder rumbles again. More lightning and more thunder cracks and crackles. I jump at one sky whack sound.
“I normally don’t tell people this, but if you go down the access road across the bridge opposite the trails that you will eventually need…”
“Toward where we saw the white car?” SunFlo interjects.
“Yeah.” He points. “If you follow that, you actually end up at a Fisherman’s Camp that is outside of the park boundary, but much closer than if you try to walk up Laurel right now.”
Sunshine says, “Oh, a Fisherman’s Camp.” Like it is the savior information we need. And maybe it is. She nods soaking it in.
Now I have another visual for where we will lay our heads in mud tonight. Right next to a watering place that animals will visit in the morning. Great. But closer. We will take closer.
Ted says, “If you have time, I’ll show you the Prime Minister cabin.”
“Oh yes, of course. We’ve got nothing but time,” SunFloJo says avoiding the fact that it is nearly dark now.
We walk across the bridge with no rails. Ted tells us that Marines lay every stone for the bridge.
I still think I might need to pee. The numbness and dehydration has me confused. It is not like I can pee with Ted around though.
Ted says, “Yeah on this Prime Minister Cabin porch sometimes I see little critters sniffing out anything that seems odd from the day.” This is another beautiful porch wisely built with benches and plenty of places to sit and enjoy the water flowing in the creek behind the cabin which leads to the river. There is a small path that leads behind the porch to the water’s edge.
Ted adds, “I weed-eat and do all the landscaping while I’m here. Just cleared that area over there today.” He points to where I bet another cabin used to stand. At one time there were thirteen cabins. Now, just three.
“I’m not sure if the security cameras are working in this cabin,” he says.
Interesting piece of information.
He unlocks the Prime Minister door. This building is painted white.
“Where The Brown House is set up to look like it would have when Hoover used the space; this cabin is set up more like a museum.”
I note the pictures secured to the wall and plaques with descriptions throughout the first room I see.
“So, I’m thinking,” Ted says. “That maybe you four give yourselves a self-guided tour in here. You can read the museum information for yourselves.”
I pick up on a hopeful tone. We are all ears. And…?
“And if your tour takes most of the night and you are gone well before 7am then no one will probably know, and I probably won’t get fired. But this would have to be a secret. A big secret.”
Our ears and eyes are at full attention.
“You cannot post this on Facebook or social media. And I had no idea that the door here was left unlocked.”
Sunshine Rat says, “Oh Ted! You don’t even know what this means to us.”
Um, I think he knows what this means. Look at us.
This means we’ll probably live through the night…and that is what his conscience has been weighing since he met us. Should he save these wild girls or follow the rules? Oh, hallelujah, thank you Ted for choosing to keep us alive!
Stalker C says, “Oh! This is amazing. We can’t thank you enough.”
SunFloJo has worked her magic, “Ted, thank you. Would you like to eat some snacks with us? We haven’t eaten in a long time. We will snack and get the heck out of here. No one will know we were ever here.”
I pipe in with, “We will leave no trace behind. I will clean or carry out any evidence.”
Ted’s cheekbones might crack from his smile. He has faith in us. And he is literally a life saver times four.
We scoot across the bridge to The Brown House to retrieve our backpacks. We are back inside the Prime Minister Cabin within a minute. We don’t want Ted to change his mind!
Zippers are pulled and dinner snacks come out. Ted stands in the doorway making conversation as we sit in three corners of the front room. Sunshine sits on a nailed down wooden chair in the middle of the room. Smiles are everywhere. Saved, we almost forget our aching legs and backs.
“I’m sorry there is not a bathroom in here,” Ted says.
“Oh, honey,” SunfloJo says. “That is the least of our worries. We’ve got shelter in this crazy storm. We will figure the rest out. Thank you so much!”
It is a party now. Sort of.
“So where are you going to be tomorrow night?” Ted asks.
“The plan is to be at Big Meadow again. In fact, we lightened our load and right now one of our tents is set up there waiting on us. We had to make the campsite look occupied.”
“Hey,” Stalker C chimes in. I think I spotted happy tears of relief in her eyes for the last several minutes. “Tomorrow’s Friday night. Come find us and have dinner with us at the Tap Room.”
SunFloJo is all over that! “Yes! Absolutely, Ted. Our treat. That Tap Room is so much fun. Join us for sure!”
Ted replies, “Well, I should be done with guests by the afternoon.” This makes us giggle thinking about our later than normal arrival. “I have 4 dinners worth of trash to take up and I usually do laundry up there around 6pm on Friday nights.”
Well that settles it then. This is a perfect plan.
“I’ll see you there,” he nods.
“Perfect! We’ll be watching for you,” SunFlo says.
I sit on the floor by the stone fireplace. Oh no. Is that pee coming out of me? Involuntary!?!
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Stalker C does not pass out although her eyes may pop out of her head any minute. Her mouth remains slightly open.
Nightfall is near. The hours of rain bring darkness sooner than we anticipated.
SunFloJo looks at my camera and then nods toward the poo.
After waiting until Stalker C moves ahead of us, I take a picture of the bear scat.
“Thank you, sweetie,” SunFloJo says.
It is unclear if the poo pic is evidence for the search party when we go missing after a bear drags us away or for a tale to tell when we get back home. I do not ask.
We walk on through the increasingly dense trees.
Inside my head I chuckle. Turns out a bear does **** in the woods.
And with that thought, I instantly am in a squelched fit of giggles at the back of the line. I silently consider the creation of greeting cards and funny texts and who-knows-what marketing hype around the bear scat theme. Perhaps I am delirious at this point of the day?
I fall further behind, but I see the Steam Team’s colored backpacks ahead through the rain and dripping leaves. The trail leads us down, down, step over poo, down, more poo, down. Slide. Adjust footing. Down. We hear water flowing. It grows louder. Maybe there is a creek up due to the rain.
We must be getting close to Rapidan Camp. This is what I have been waiting for!
Despite the water sounds, there is still more trail and time for my mind to wander. I think about our friend Deb and feel her in spirit. I bet she is thinking about us too. Perhaps she is looking at a copy of our trail plan. She likes historical places. We share that in common. I think about how she crafted the trail questions knowing that all four of us are at crossroads in our lives.
The three ahead of me pause. I catch up with the group. I am out of breath. Maybe we will take time to rest.
What. Is. That?
The group faces a fast-paced waterfall that crashes into something much more than a creek. It is a river.
As I contemplate the beauty of the waterfall–I want to soak in all the beauty today—I am surprised that SunFloJo begins to cross the river!
Wait a minute.
Have we thought this through?
There is a big gap between the land I stand on and the land on the other side. With all the rain today, the water flows fast. The water looks deep. Much deeper than a creek anyway. We stand at the foot of the mountain we just descended and across from us is a new mountain to ascend.
My brain searches my memory of the map. I do not remember crossing a river at any point on the trail.
Is this Rapidan River?
I look down our side of the riverbank. Shouldn’t we be going that way? Along the river on this side instead of crossing it?
That may be an overgrown path to our left. It is hard to tell and just out of my reach. I can see debris and trees that are uprooted in the mud covering what may be where our trail goes. That looks like more of a trail to me. I am too tired to walk over and investigate. Every calorie burned matters at this point in the day. Also, I do not want to risk being lost from the team.
Why am I so darn slow that I catch up after decisions are made? Can we talk about this?
Nature is loud here. There is no talking.
SunFloJo is three large wet rocks into the river right along the bottom of the falls where the river is white from the rush of rapids. To the left of her looks deep and moves fast.
I squint to see a tree with a yellow blaze symbol on the other side of the river. Wow, I guess we are physically crossing the river. I was not expecting this at all.
Fearless SunFloJo looks back at us and points to the tree on the other side with a yellow blaze. I choose to trust that she knows what she is doing. That must be the blaze we are looking for to continue the trail. I must be wrong about staying on this side of the river.
Does she not know there is water underfoot that will take her away? Or is that just me being overly cautious?
Sunshine Rat is carefree with good balance. She makes it to the other side and waits for us.
Stalker C sways on a rock, then catches herself. She makes it.
One rock. Two. Step, step. Rain continues. The sky is a dark green gray. My pack is heavy. Will the pack ruin my balance? Will I fall? The water races beneath me. One slip will be trouble. Please do not fall.
I use my poles to steady myself hoping they will not slip either.
Sunshine Rat points, “Watch that one. It’s wiggly.”
That was nice of her. I step quickly right, left, into the mud and arrive at the opposite side of the river.
And then we are off on what feels like a fresh start. How can we start a new journey this late in the day? I am not sure what time it is. I wonder where in the heck is Rapidan Camp?
My concerns quickly fade because there is a new type of beauty over here. It is hard to imagine how each area could be so new to me in the woods, but this is different. My mind is all in even if my body screams. There is black earth underfoot with skinny trees and leaves stretching to a sky we cannot see. We climb up the hill, higher and higher above the river.
This takes a bit of physical effort, but thank you, Lord, this is gorgeous. Rain is heavy now and I do not care. We make it to a ridge pathway that overlooks the river to our left down below. The river looks smaller as we travel higher.
We walk and walk. I ease into meditation again. No words come to mind. I am at peace. My mind is blank.
Water drips from my eyelashes.
Higher and higher we climb. I forget the concern I felt when we crossed the river. I forget how tired my body is.
We hear the water below and feel drops from the sky. My walking poncho tent somewhat keeps my backpack dry.
I remain in the back of the line. SunFloJo turns to check on me occasionally. I nod to acknowledge her kindness.
Now the trail slopes back down the hill overlooking what I still assume is Rapidan River.
The day feels like it gets longer and longer, but the dark sky seems to think the day is already done. Hopefully, we get in and out of Rapidan Camp soon. We may only have a short visit since we have to walk another 1.5 miles after visiting in order to set up tents for the night.
Down the hill below me I see Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo pull out the official map. They consult with one another. They look serious. This barely registers in my brain because I am one with the trees.
Like me, Stalker C must have been in a Zen state. She abruptly stops her downhill inertia in order to not run over SunFloJo and Sunshine Rat.
As I approach, Stalker C’s face turns in horror to look at me. In slow motion, her mouth says, “We might be lost. We might have gone the wrong way.”
This news is a magnesium fire starter. Flames engulf my peace.
With zero thought, words fly out of my mouth, “We should not have crossed that #*&%@%^ river!”
We continue eating. Deer join us to nibble grass nearby. I appreciate their regal confidence. Rosemary and her friends have become a sporadic spiritual presence for us. I imagine them saying, “Hello there. Just checking in on you girls.”
Zippers close and last gulps of water enter our bodies. We load our backpacks. “Don’t be afraid to pull your straps,” Sunshine says.
“We’re not afraid,” Our voices tell the universe.
We turn south on the AT.
I am delighted by the immediate difference in terrain. The tall grass is soft. The path is not hilly or rocky, it is mostly just dirt beneath my thankful feet. Trees tower above forming a skinny tree version of a canopy with plenty of light rays offering warm touches along the way. This is how I envisioned the trail would be before we came.
We walk by a small graveyard without pausing to read any of the crumbling headstones. Then we enter a thicker section of the forest. Our legs walk faster than we have on any of the other sections. I remain the caboose, but I can see each team member easily in this stretch.
The tree canopy thickens. The path becomes lush, there’s so much beauty! Ferns cover the ground as if it could be a fairy playground in a child’s movie. I imagine magical creatures hopping among the fronds.
“Hold up,” I say.
I pull out Ben’s camera and take pictures of “us on the trail” in rows, in pairs, in hiking mode, and of course a group selfie. Once the moment is captured in post card worthy fashion, we carry on.
Ferns feather the ground as far as we can see on either side of the trail under the tall trees. I feel good. I sense the miracles around me.
Fallen trees decay and look wet here and there along the way. Sun rays filter through the leaves for a while, but our wooded room grows darker. There was a forecast for possible rain today. I am ok with rain if the trail keeps on like this. Dirt or mud below my feet is welcomed over rocks.
Silence blankets our group as if we enter a state of Zen walking. We are spaced about four feet between each of us. SunFloJo peeks behind her to make sure I bring up the rear ok. I truck along well.
I begin to think of a mental gratitude list. I’m grateful for each of my children. I think of their qualities, personalities, and talents. I thank God for bringing them into my life.
Jacob leaving for basic training in the Air Force will hurt this momma, but oh how awesome it is that he will go do what he longs to do. He has wanted to be in the military since middle school. If he were here, he would zoom along this trail. His body is fit and ready for his next phase of life.
Ben is going to high school. Where has the time gone? I love his humor. I wish he were hiking with me. I miss him.
I am thankful to work with children, young people, and families. How many people at my age or older have dreams that they wish they did and now regret not doing? We went for it. After eleven years and 6,433 students served in some way, how can I say that this dream was a mistake?
I think of Paul and how he helped me get ready for this trip. He could have given me a hard time, but he did not. He provides for us in unique little ways. Like the way he gathers school supplies for the boys every August, labeling each boy’s items with their name. Or the way he helps keep the laundry going or how he makes breakfast on weekends sometimes. That man makes the best scrambled eggs.
He may be wondering how I am doing right now with no cell phone and knowing that tonight is the night that we will be furthest from help. In my mind, I send him an “I’m ok” telepathy message. We’re going to get through this. We’ll be fine.
I am Surrender, and I am beginning to surrender. I feel it.
Thank you, God, for the opportunity to be fully present here.
The sky turns even darker, and I don’t care. Somewhere in my bag is raingear when I need it.
The bear bell rings. And rings again. Stalker C contorts her arm and elbow to reach it. We must be too quiet for her taste. She is not taking chances.
Sunshine Rat, SunFloJo and Stalker C lean their packs and bodies against a rock. I catch up and lean also.
“Girls,” Sunshine checks her boob-o-meter. “We have been walking at a 22-minute mile pace for the last 2 miles!”
“That’s amazing.” SunFloJo acknowledges and then wanders into a thicket to pee.
“We’ll be at Rapidan Camp before we know it,” I say.
Rapidan was built for President Hoover, his family and guests. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it since looking it up on the internet. How many times do you walk to a historic site and then walk away from a historic site without the aid of a car or other transportation?
“It’s after 2pm now. We’re making fairly good time,” Sunshine says.
Stalker C’s face says what is on her mind. She remains concerned about sleeping in the woods tonight.
Eh, we can do it. We are a team.
But this is not going to be pleasant smell wise. Sweat is building up. I am sorry for the stink in advance, SunFloJo. Two people in a one-person tent makes me nervous only to be trumped by the thought of anticipating the fear we may experience when it becomes completely dark among the trees.
Deep breath. We can do this.
Sunshine says, “I feel like I could carry on farther than I ever thought I could if the trail was like this all the time.”
We agree wholeheartedly, “Right?!”.
A gentle drizzle of rain reaches our arms. The forest protects us from getting more wet for a while.
When the drizzle increases, we each pull out our rain gear.
I wear my plastic hood on my head and then spread the rest of the jacket over my backpack. This is a perfect set up for light rain. The rest of the Steam Team dresses similarly. We journey on looking like floating jackets and ponchos.
We pass a guy who is headed quickly in the opposite direction. He pauses to tell us that he is supposed to catch up with other AT hikers who are having burgers tonight. He left one friend behind who is having foot problems. She will catch up with him and their friends soon. I can tell the idea of having burgers is a big deal to him. He does not want to miss it. I picture the group of young, attractive, dirt covered hikers including unshaven guys like him meeting up later to chow on meat with whatever condiments happen to be around and loving every moment.
The rain continues.
Then we see increased light because we arrive at a road. It is Skyline Drive. Huh. We are going to cross a perfectly good road that leads to civilization in order to continue our trail on the other side. Sigh.
So far, we are the good kind of tired. The gentle rain feels like a friend you have not gotten to spend this much time with in a while.
The road is on an incline. We turn to look both ways before crossing. When we see a beautiful person coming down the hill, we pause.
She is tan, wears navy athletic shorts, has two dark hair braids and may be limping. There is something striking about her olive skin and deep brown hair.
“Hi,” she says.
“What is your trail name?” SunFloJo asks.
She winces, “Sacagawea.”
“My foot is killing me,” Sacagawea says. “We’ve been walking since March. In the last town back, I had it checked out. I have a hairline fracture.”
“Oh!” The Steam Team all chime in making the connection to the last guy we passed.
Walking since March rattles around in my brain.
SunFloJo continues, “We passed a guy headed that way.” She points behind us. “He said you all are meeting someone for burgers tonight.”
“Yes!” She lights up.
We say farewell. Sacagawea heads into our beloved canopy trail. I say a prayer for her foot.
The Steam Team crosses the road and enters the next forest. Soon we see a trail marker post.
We depart the AT and head left down the mountain via Mill Prong Trail.
The rain is steady. I am excited because based on my memory of the map, Mill Prong is not a far stretch down to Rapidan.
I declare in my mind that Stalker C will get through this night. No bears or reptiles will get us. She is tense. I want to tell her not to worry, but I don’t think that will help.
I am so glad I decided to continue today.
I carry my water bottle and drink as we descend. I have had no urge to urinate today which by now is not a good thing. I am probably somewhat dehydrated.
As if a different picture clicks in our Viewmaster, this part of the trail is beautiful in new ways. We descend over and around mossy green rocks. There are gradual twists and turns leading into a valley of bright greens and browns.
Down, down, down.
I am not going to think about how my feet hurt from the number of hours we have been walking. Cannot be too much further.
Down, down, down. We cross over streams of water.
Hearing the rain and watching a rushing stream of water is almost too much joy for my Aquarius born soul. The sounds combine to create a forest symphony.
Almost out of drinking water, we pause to purify and refill water bottles from a creek.
Oh, this is the real thing now. We are roughing it! We will get water from the land–a gift from the earth.
Hmmm…should I trust SunFloJo’s aqua straw to purify my water or should I have her purify AND then add a purification tab that I have in my pack?
I think it over as she attaches my water bottle neck to her purifying straw. For a moment I consider how awful it would be to have diarrhea out here tonight if something fails with the purification process. Um…Exhale. Dismiss that thought.
I choose to trust her straw and leave my emergency tabs in my backpack. I brought the tabs only as a last resort if for some reason we become separated.
We do not fall into the creek as we steady ourselves on rocks to reach the water flow with our bottles. I consider not falling a big bonus.
The creek rocks are slippery. Injury right now would be terrible. At this point, we would not be able to walk out of the woods before dark. And it already feels like near dark or late dusk due to the weather.
After crossing the first stream, I attempt to get back to my gratitude thoughts like earlier. I say thanks to my Higher Power for every person I can think of…for food, for shelter, for clothing, for my life back home. I am not quite as meditative as before, but close.
I sense that some of the anger I could not shake before this trip is releasing, breaking up slowly like bad plaque in arteries. I visualize releasing tension several times.
And I picture letting go of Jacob, our first-born son. He is determined to protect and fight for our country. What a noble and brave young man. He was only ours to raise for a while. He is his own being. He is created for a purpose greater than what I can imagine or what I can offer from the home that helped mold him for this time in his life.
Down, down, down through the trees. Around. Down, down over rocks. Around. Down, down, down through an increasingly wet wood. Raindrops collect in my hair and drip onto my nose and lips. This is taking longer than I anticipated, but that is not a new feeling this week.
There is more water to cross. This stream of water is bigger, and the rocks look shiny. We pause before crossing to sit on two long tree trunks that have fallen.
“I’m kind of done,” Stalker C says.
Exhaustion sets into our bones. What we can see of the sky is grey. Drizzle continues. The stretchy buff around my head absorbs some of the rain drops before the rest slip into my eyes.
Sunshine says to her dear friend, “You can do it.”
We sit quiet with shoulders slumped.
Sitting on the log while still wearing the backpack is affecting my body. I wiggle to deal with an odd sensation. I share, “I think my lady parts are numb.”
Stalker C snorts a little laugh.
I continue, “How is that even possible? Nothing else is asleep; just my downtown area.”
SunFloJo crosses the mini river with zero slippery rock issues. She is off to scout ahead of us a bit.
Sunshine Rat chuckles, “Can you imagine that phone call? Doctor, when I sit on rocks my genitals fall asleep.”
“Yeah, then don’t sit on rocks the doc might say,” Stalker C shakes her head. I know she is tired; we are all tired.
In fact, I may be too tired to be tired right now. If we do not get swept away by this water source, this will be a good day. I cling to the meditative nature of this afternoon. I have had time to sort thoughts and cherish beauty.
Stalker C says to Sunshine, “I want you to cut off my foot. Like right now.”
SunFloJo appears at the other side of the creek. We stand up, but my girly numbness continues.
I am last across the creek, relieved that I did not stumble. The water moves quickly.
“Here,” I give one of my trekking poles to Stalker C. The pole might help her take pressure off her toes. I can manage with one now. We are still going downhill. The rocks are only about half as plentiful as when we were back on Lewis Falls Trail. How long ago Lewis seems. Was that really this morning, just earlier today?
The trail beat beats on. Mill Prong was only supposed to be 1.8 miles. We are well over that by now. Anticipating that we will see Rapidan soon, I carry the camera in my hand.
Our protectors, the trees, thicken, making our path even darker. Somehow, we still walk downhill over more rocks and turn on more twists.
We start to see piles of scat on the trail. It’s like we’ve entered nature’s public restroom.
I remember on the map that there is a horse trail somewhere around here. I know what horse poo looks like. Some of this is horse.
And some of it is not horse.
Stalker C eyes the piles.
I give her body language that says “Nah, that’s not bear. Nothing to worry about.”
But I remember the scat chart from Cub Scouts and the paw print chart too. Scanning my memory, I am fairly sure that is bear poo. And bear paw prints.
Yeah, I’m totally sure.
Stalker C quizzes me. She looks at a pile then looks at me.
I respond, “Deer.”
She looks at another.
SunFloJo is looking at certain piles with interest. She knows what I know.
Sunshine Rat is ahead of us. I see her side stepping to stay balanced down the wet hill.
Stalker C looks at what SunFlo is looking at.
I shrug my shoulders. Bear. Shh! Definitely bear.
And another pile. And another. All bear. Oh my goodness.