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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Let the rivers clap their hands; Let the mountains sing together for joy.
Psalm 98: 8
We step back from the edge to set our backpacks on a large rock next to an underwhelming sign in the shape of an arrow that reads “Lewis Springs Falls”. I remember from researching the trip that it is 81 feet tall and the fourth largest falls in Shenandoah National Park.
I reach behind me to separate my shirt, sweat, and skin. Feels good. My shoulders are free.
A wood burned sign says we are at an elevation of 2800 feet. SunFloJo removes her shoes and socks.
Sunshine Rat’s eyes meet mine. Then Stalker C and I exchange a look. What is SunFloJo doing?
I choose to trust her. There is a cliff and deep canyon to our right. To the left is a narrow rocky path toward the waterfalls. SunFloJo navigates the damp route. I grab Ben’s old camera. I pull the wrist strap over my hand.
We follow SunFloJo. The rush of water grows louder. We sidestep with the mountain wall against our backsides.
Silence falls over our team when we turn a corner. Our bodies gently lower to sit on rocks of varying heights. I am comfortable sitting about four feet from the water flow. Mist sprays us with nature’s air conditioning.
To our left water rushes above our heads over rocks through trees and over bright green moss. One large rock causes the water to flow left or right. Then the water rejoins and skips over the cliff’s edge to our right.
On her bottom, SunFloJo crabwalks even closer to the water feet first. Her hands keep her steady. Soon I do not see her feet or most of her legs. She knows this is water with momentum, right? She knows this is a rushing waterfall with a deep drop off, correct?
Yeah, she knows, I tell myself while simultaneously considering what to tell her family if something goes wrong. She is not far from my grasp if I need to act quickly.
SunFloJo relaxes her feet into the cool water that races past us with no view of where it goes beyond the cliff. She somehow stops short of the possibility of being swept away.
We four rest and gaze at the fast water.
My mind turns to my troubles and grasps nothingness at the same time. I am double numb and it is not a bad spot to be in for a while. I soak in the beauty of each tree in my sight, noticing that they all lean toward the water.
Here you go, God, please take my anger. I do not want to carry it any longer.
I visualize throwing a big pile of stuff over the falls. Emotions, disappointment, and fear. Here you go.
Help me, Lord. I thought I answered your call. Show me what to do.
I hope that bugs do not crawl in my pants as I sit here. I tuck pant legs into my socks.
Lord, I thought creating the non-profit was what you wanted. Was I wrong? Should I walk away? What do You want? Finances are killing me and our family. Please lead us where we should go.
The water roars louder now than I remember when we first sat down.
“How’s it going, Surrender?” SunFloJo scoots backward up the rocks away from her toe dipping spot. “Water is nice and cold.”
A nod is all I offer in this serenity moment. I wonder from her serious jawline if she has been thinking of her nephew Kevin. Or maybe about what her retirement will look like soon or both.
Someone says, “Let’s take pictures.”
I push myself up to a standing position. Ouch.
We move to a safer location. Stalker C & Sunshine pose together. Then we take individual pictures with the drop off in the background. Stalker C twirls one of my trekking poles. It is a funny picture. I laugh.
We reunite with backpacks and find a fork in the trail. Our trail plan leads us to an incline. Oh no. Not yet. I do not want to go uphill. But back up a different section of the next mountain is required. Day Hikers pass us going and coming from the falls.
The rocky ascent follows the stream behind the waterfall. Following the water provides cool air.
Trees form a canopy. It is like we move through a forest tube with a thick green roof. The terrain is steep. Rocks wiggle under my feet and threaten my ankles. I give thanks for the grace of extra ankle support.
SunFloJo hangs back to check on the caboose: me. I suspect she wonders how I am doing since there are as many rocks going up on the Blue Blaze trail as there were coming down.
We read a sign that says:
FALLS CAN KILL
STAY ON THE TRAIL
Comforting. Maybe they should post that coming from the other direction too.
“1 point!” Sunshine Rat brings back the Caterpillar Game after our time at the waterfall.
“Oh, a chipmunk, 5 points!”
We build up Tap Room points again.
I feel mostly good. At least better than yesterday. The shade protects us from the heat and sun. My feet struggle with twists and turns on the rocks as we climb.
Stalker C asks with slightly strained breathing, “How long was this section supposed to be?”
Sunshine answers, “.7 miles.”
Stalker C, “And how long has it actually been so far?”
Sunshine pauses to look inside her shirt to check the boob-o-meter then announces, “1.2 miles.”
Stalker C mumbles, “The trail lies.”
Among the green and brown landscape, a random pink stuffed monkey is Velcro strapped to a tree. We each stare at the out of place bright color as we pass by and march on.
We emerge from the thick covered path. The terrain changes to less tree cover. More sunlight filters through the leaves.
We see a door in the side of a hill that seems out of place. It reminds me of a Hobbit door in the Shire from Lord of the Rings–but taller. I hear rushing water behind the door as we pass. I later learn this is Lewis Spring House and an access road is nearby. A lot of water for the national park comes from this location.
After passing the door, we arrive at a post marker. It tells us we have reached the Appalachian Trail: The White Blaze. This is where we turn right back onto the AT. What I can see of the next jaunt appears to cut across the mountain instead of ascending or descending. Yay!
But first it is time for lunch. We sit in the crossroad of the two trails and dig out food bags. Still Bag E for me. I may never finish it. I stare at my food knowing I should fuel myself even if I don’t want any of it.
Stalker C says, “My feet are killing me.” She shares that she has corns on her toes. She takes off her shoes and socks.
I do not want to look. She thinks she might need surgery.
I give in and look. Yep, that looks painful.
Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo sit on the ground on one side of the trail. Stalker C and I sit on the opposite side on fallen timbers.
As munching begins, I ask, “Is it time to read our next On the Journey question from Deb?”
“Yes!” The group says.
“Day 2: Poppy Fields. Dorothy, et al., veered from their path through the poppy fields causing them to fall asleep. What are the poppy fields in your life that cause you to slumber and delay reaching your goal(s)?”
We consider the topic.
SunFloJo says, “Taking on too much sometimes without pausing for some me time. Recently I decided to only commit to a max of three evening activity nights out per week. That’s helping me be more centered and giving me more time for meditation or down time as needed.”
I go next, “Self-discipline. The last few years I keep working on discipline, but it’s still an issue for me to stay focused and diligent each day on the most important priorities.”
Stalker C and Sunshine both giggle and say, “Procrastination.” I suspect there is an inside joke about their college days within that one word.
We did not see many people in recent hours, but now while sitting where the AT crosses Lewis Falls Trail, people appear. Most are passing through along the AT in either direction.
From the south, which is to the right of my sitting spot, a tall athletic couple probably in their late 50’s stroll into view. They wear perfectly coordinating grey and navy moisture wicking (expensive) clothing. His silver hair is neatly cut. Her medium length gray-blonde hair is pulled into a ponytail at the base of her neck. I notice their shiny trekking poles and the fancy skort she is wearing.
“Hi,” The silver haired man says as he is about to pass on by. Then the lady stops causing him to pause his stride. I think she is glad to chat with new people. Sunshine and SunFloJo engage with them.
I finally dip tortilla pieces into a mini peanut butter container. Nothing tastes good.
Stalker C sits on the ground to my left. She mouths to me I have to pee.
Across from us Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo yak it up with our visitors. The couple has “enjoyed the marvelous AT this morning”.
He points to where we are going next, “It’s not too bad, mostly level that direction.”
Stalker C’s eyes grow frustrated as her personal emergency lingers. The couple turns toward our side. Stalker C says nothing to them and does not make eye contact. I use an old office life move. I stand up and say, “Have a nice day. Nice to meet you.” Standing up usually prompts people to move along at work.
They indeed say their farewells and continue their hike.
Stalker C waits a few minutes for them to continue toward the north. Then, deciding they are far enough gone, she walks a little toward the same direction to find a safe spot to find relief.
But what do ya know? From the south another two humans appear. I shake my head. Stalker C does not get her pants down. She walks back to us. Her body language says, “Sigh….”
I mouth to Sunshine that Stalker needs to pee, but I am not sure if Sunshine catches my message.
Oh, look, it is another happy day hiker couple with small backpacks. Man, my sugar level must be low. I feel grouchy.
After taking a better look, I am not sure if the new people are a couple or mother and son. He is tall, has dark hair, a healthy pudge going on, but is not fat in my book (because you know my book is oversized from the beginning. I try not to judge, but here I am judging). I cannot tell his age. He could be 40’s. He could be 50’s with a little Just for Men hair dye going on. No clue.
The woman he is with I guess to be in her 50’s or early 60’s. She is about three quarters of his height, much shorter in comparison. Stalker C’s leg is bouncing.
SunFloJo begins to converse with them. He responds to one of her questions, “We love the outdoors. We had a lovely time hiking in Jackson Hole, Wyoming last year.”
Sunshine looks over at Stalker C and me. We are on the ground level compared to our standing guests. Stalker C and I mouth again that Stalker has immediate needs.
Sunshine nods casually. She gets it, but then asks the couple another question.
Is that a slight smirk on Sunshine Rat’s face? Perhaps she is messing with her roommate for fun.
I notice something. What is sticking out of that man’s backpack? A teddy bear face and two furry arms poke out of the top.
The woman catches my observation. She says with a smile, “Oh we got that bear on one of our trips. We take it on all our hikes ever since.”
Hmm, so they routinely hike together. I am still not sure of their relationship.
Stalker C crosses her legs and then re-crosses, but the conversation deepens with our guests.
“So, you four ladies aren’t concerned for your safety out here?” The guy asks, a bit random, a bit overzealous.
Oh great, serial killers. Just what we need.
Sunshine Rat says, “Should we be?”
The woman says to us, “Don’t worry honey. No man”, emphasis on the no man, “would ever approach 4 women.” She tosses her hand with her wrist. The Steam Team smiles at this new thought.
SunFloJo may or may not know the situation going on over here. She is a pro at active ignoring. I have seen her use that skill at school with students to help redirect behavior. Then she says, “Now what are your names?”
Are you kidding me? I see a grin on SunFloJo’s face. She knows. She may be messing with me as much as with Stalker’s bladder.
He is glib. He loves this question, “One of us is Dorian and one of us is Kendall. Can you guess who is who?”
I interject, “Well, when you put it that way, you must be Kendall.”
I ruin his game. This visit is over. Nice to meet yous are exchanged and they move north.
“Quick, go!” I say to my young friend and point south.
Stalker C crosses an access road and heads down the trail to take care of business. Meanwhile Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo are in stitches giggling.
Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed,
for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
JUNE 2, 2016
“Birds are loud in the wild,” new friend Sunshine Rat said yesterday; a fact that remains true this morning.
The smell of fresh air whispers through the tent vents. My limbs feel nearly paralyzed, but my bladder screams for attention. I begin the physical journey to get on my knees, unzip the tent, gingerly attempt to stand, stumble, stumble again, then steady my stance.
Ouch. Everything hurts. I trust my body to rebound and take steps toward the bathroom. The grass is soft and damp against my toes along the edge of my flip flops.
After splashing my face with water, I return to open the big brown bear box. The metal is cold to touch. I find the s’more remains and sit down to eat a graham cracker before dismantling my travel home.
SunFloJo crawls out of her tent. We practice telepathy for a few minutes. She wonders about my status, my plan. I nod hello. A simple good morning acknowledgement is all I have figured out so far. I am thinking over the situation.
I appreciate the silence, though it feels like we have a conversation. I am not a morning talker in the city or in the woods.
SunFloJo walks to get coffee for her and Sunshine from the Big Meadow camp store.
Upon return, she sets coffee cups with lids over the embers still warm from last night. Sunshine will be happy to find coffee when she wakes up.
SunFloJo murmurs in my direction, “How ya doing?”
Moment of truth.
Slowly I dare to say, “I think I can do it.”
“Really?!” Her face is sincere, “I am thrilled. That is great news.”
“Benadryl is a pal. Semi solid sleep made a difference. Thank you.”
SunFloJo does not skip a beat. She shares her morning research, “I learned at the camp store that they don’t have places to store things, but we can rent campsite #2 and leave stuff in the bear box. I bet that will be helpful to all of us. Now that we know what we really need, we can leave the rest behind.”
“Wonderful,” I say.
“But there is a catch. We have to put up a tent so the site appears occupied.”
She continues, “Do you think you and I could put up your tent at site #2 and then sleep together in my tent tonight?”
SunFloJo’s tent is the same size as mine, built for a party of one. I think about what a tight fit that will be for two people and how smelly we will be after another full day of hiking.
Then I think of not hiking with the weight of a tent, “Yes, I think we can do it.”
We can do anything for one night, right?
“I’m going to start unloading items into campsite #2’s bear box now,” I say.
“And we’ll switch shoes,” SunFloJo states.
I will not argue. My toe pain was out of control yesterday. I do not think I can do that again. Wide toed hiking boots? I’m in.
We get busy unpacking, re-packing and setting up campsite #2. We leave behind every ounce of weight that we can.
I debate leaving my emergency urinal but decide to keep it in my bag. It is light compared to the other items I toss. I take one change of underwear, one pair of shorts, and one pair of socks just in case I rip or mess my current Boy Scout clothes beyond the ability to wear them. I leave all but one bag of food. I can barely eat when exhausted anyway.
The girls awaken. We compare items and select any duplicates that can stay behind.
Stalker C says to me, “You’re going?”
“Good!” And then, “Thank God for Benadryl.” Sleep helped her too.
Sunshine Rat emerges wearing an emergency foil blanket wrapped around her. The foil is remarkably lightweight and only cost $1.59 at REI. I have one too, but it is on my leave behind list. Sunshine Rat smiles when she finds her coffee.
I am thankful to drop 10-15 pounds of stuff and hope I do not miss or regret leaving anything here.
A deer munches on grass next to campsite #9 in time to say good morning to Stalker C. Later a different deer eats near the bathroom. I suspect Rosemary and her representatives are expressing their solidarity with us and our adjusted plans. Sunshine Rat tries to get close to the deer for pictures.
I scan nature’s beauty across the horizon. The green is so alive in Shenandoah. Surely, I can come alive too.
Campsite #2’s ghost tent is set up. The bear box is half full.
It is time to get back on the trail.
This is another no turning back type moment. I try to visualize sleeping next to random trees tonight. By nightfall we should be somewhere between Fort Mountain and Cat Knob along Laurel Prong which is the trail after we visit historic Rapidan Camp. I hope we can find the fire ring.
As a child and then as an adult with kids, I took tours of caves like Mammoth Cave in southwest Kentucky. During the excursion Park Rangers turned off the lights and told us to look at our hand. It was so dark that you could not see your hand at all. That is the type of dark I anticipate tonight minus a Park Ranger being available to flip back on the earth’s light switch.
I am not sure our headlamps will cut through the heavy darkness that will surround us. And if the mini lights do work, I am not sure I want to see animal eyes that might watch us.
SunFloJo’s boots are laced around my ankles. I wear the red backpack and adjust the straps, remembering both YouTube videos and instructions from Dick.
“We are not afraid to pull our straps,” we say in honor of Dick’s lessons.
“Don’t be afraid,” Stalker C says with her mouth in the shape of an “o” that reminds me of a Shirley Temple facial expression. Everyone’s backpacks are in position now.
Sunshine nods, “Yep, just pull those straps. Don’t be afraid.”
Are we really doing this?
Surveying the body language of the group, I think everyone is a little nervous about tonight.
Stalker C reaches back to ring her bear bell. Her eyes widen when I look her way. SunFloJo consults her map one more time. She zips all but Flat Kevin’s head in a pocket so he can see the journey from her backpack.
We pass 30 other campsites and cross the blacktop heading toward Big Meadow Amphitheater. We look for our first route of the day: Lewis Falls Trail.
We find the sign and enter the woods.
Ten steps onto the path, day hikers pass us immediately. Something catches my eye.
Was that a gun?
Sure enough, one couple is packing heat in their matching holsters and carrying small water bottles. They are out of sight quickly. I am glad.
The trail has lots of jumbled rocks underfoot. My feet manage much better today. And SunFloJo seems to sail along in my magic boots. I say silent prayers of gratitude.
Sunshine Rat says, “Let’s play a game.”
“It’s The Centipede Game because we see so many of them along the trail.”
Sunshine continues, “Every centipede is 1 point.”
“A dead centipede is .5 points.”
“A deer is 50 points.”
“Bears are 100 points,” Sunshine says despite Stalker C’s “no” head shake in protest.
We decide a snake is -50 points.
“Chipmunks are 5 points.”
The consensus is that every time we reach 52 points then that equals 1 beer in the Tap Room at the end of the trip. I am not a beer drinker, but goals are probably a good idea.
I hang at the back of the line. SunFloJo and Sunshine Rat lead. Stalker C is just ahead of me.
Every few minutes the front of the line yells back, “1 point.”
“.5” and so forth.
Over rocks, along a mountain ridge…
Don’t twist that ankle! Whew. Caught my balance. Thanks for the help, Trekking Poles.
More rocks, and more straight down yet I still feel we are at a high elevation in the forest. I keep an eye out for the waterfall this leg is named after.
Hands fly up and a jubilation cry occurs when we hear “52!” from the front of the line.
Like an accordion we fan out and then shrink closer to one another as the front of the line either rests or slows down to allow me to catch up. I overhear new topics of conversation.
“What do you think the pattern is, SunFlo?” Sunshine Rat asks.
“Could it be distance in-between?”
Sunshine, “I don’t think so. The spacing between marks varies.”
I eventually realize they are talking about the blaze trail marks on the trees. I have been wondering about those too.
The “blaze” is a vertical rectangle painted on occasional trees that come in various colors to assure that you are on the correct trail. The White Blaze is the Appalachian Trail. We have seen yellow or blue rectangles on some of our connecting trails.
“Steep rocks,” Stalker C warns me of what is coming up.
Have they not been steep already? I grip my poles tightly.
“I think we’re almost there,” SunFloJo calls out to encourage me. We have been “almost there” about four times so far.
Down, down, down. Up and over bigger rocks that I belly crawl over. Repeat.
And then we arrive at Lewis Springs Falls. I expected us to be at the bottom of a waterfall right where the water pours into a creek or river, but we face the middle of the rushing falls. If a waterfall wore a belt, we could touch it.
Above us, we see where the water tumbles over a large rock to begin the falls.
Below us, I cannot see exactly how far the water descends.
I am careful not to step too close to the edge that is comprised of wet rocks.
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. Isaiah 40:4
Sweat drips down my jawline. I promise myself that I will not pull out the map copies that Paul helped me memorize. I like them because each part of our path is blown up in 8.5 x 11 fashion. I have twelve pages for one week’s worth of hiking.
SunFloJo has mentioned a couple times that she has the official AT hiking map—perhaps the best one made. It is an accordion style single piece of paper, laminated. She took a class about how to read the terrain markings.
I do not want to insult the best map with my wrinkled papers.
But I am a concerned about our situation.
If the backpack and I could melt into the ground, that would be ok with me. I have odd thoughts about weight such as maybe the staple holding my papers together is too heavy. Every unneeded item in the pack needs to be reassessed.
We reach a 4-way trail stop with a post marker on the AT trail near a small place in the woods called Rock Spring Cabin. There is a trail that leads down to the miniature cabin roof in the distance. There is no way we are taking extra steps to see that. We do not even discuss it. My eyes scan left, right, forward and behind me. Green and brown woods stretch as far as I can see and tall above us.
We are still new at reading the occasional four feet tall with four sides concrete markers with their slivers of metal inscriptions nailed around the top. The thin metal is stamped with minimal words and mileage that probably makes more sense to an experienced hiker.
There is no ‘you’ve got this’ or ‘yes, Idiot, go that way’ written anywhere. I could use some assurance or encouragement at this point in the day.
Six miles over rocky terrain, with steep angles, straight up hill and then straight down hill all while carrying heavy packs began to create an intense kind of tired.
Standing at the post, SunFloJo furrows her brow. She pulls out the official map.
The girls ponder the pole, touching the words as if feeling the raised letters will help somehow.
I set down my backpack to rest. Dropping it to the ground feels so good. My back can breathe.
I wait while SunFloJo continues to look puzzled.
Nervous, I ask, “Do you want me to get out the enlarged print outs of each area?”
SunFloJo says, “If you have a better map, then sure.”
“It’s not better. Just a different type.”
This is SunFloJo’s plan, it is her dream. I want to respect that. She prepared for months. I watched YouTube and huffed and puffed around my neighborhood for a few weeks.
She nods to get them out, so I retrieve the papers for each day and trail section.
SunFloJo inspects the papers for comparison, then confidently points, “This way.”
Surely, we are getting close to the end of the first day? I fantasize about setting up camp, cooking with JoAnn’s little stove. I would like to sprawl on the ground with nowhere to go until morning.
We trek on. And on. And on.
The trail becomes narrow. The path is 6-12 inches wide along a mountain’s edge. I did not anticipate walking along another mountain edge today. One slip of the foot and any of us could fall into a valley. To our right is a deep drop off. To our left, the dirt is taller than us.
Lots of rocks are under our feet. I am thinking about staying steady and not falling off this cliff. I send telepathy thoughts of thanks to Paul for insisting I take trekking poles. Wow, was he ever right about that. In challenging spots, I use the trekking poles like handrails to get me up and over rock or tree root obstacles. Was this really supposed to be a beginner course?
We turn to rest with our packs leaned on a rock. Everyone’s hair is in frayed ponytails to counter the heat. Delighted that the day could almost be over, I gain energy and decide to take off first. I lead our foursome for the first time on the trail.
No one seems to want to pass me, so I continue to lead along the narrow stretch. I try not to think about how closed in by leaves and branches we are. Or about Lyme disease. Or ticks. Don’t think about any of the bad stuff, Surrender.
Brown is the dominant color in this area. Branches reach out to scratch me. I am glad to wear long pants. We keep a decent pace while being silent as each person carefully assesses their steps so they do not fall. I can probably keep up this pace until the next time we rest.
I focus step by step until I see something slither left to right just one foot ahead of my foot.
My brain registers what it is. My body freezes and my hands shake then slam down the trekking poles by my sides onto the rocks. My heart is on fire!
Before the trip, I researched what snakes to look out for in this region and am sure that was a bad one. Of course, are there any good ones when you are out in the woods like this?
The snake crossed my path but is still on the right side of the trail at this point. Its head looks back at me.
My abrupt stop reverberates through the group.
“What is it!?” I hear Sunshine and Stalker C say.
“Sssnake,” I muster from my locked-up body.
“Ooo,” SunFloJo is interested. She passes my stiff body to take a look.
“Mmm hmm,” she affirms. I imagine the girls are wide-eyed behind me.
“Yep, that’s a rattler wiggling on its tail.” SunFloJo is calm.
I have not moved. Gripping my poles, I mentally flip through Internet pictures. With multifaceted brown shading and a rattle, I know we have encountered a poisonous Timberland Rattler.
I watch the snake. Finally, it decides not to eat us and continues toward a tree on the cliff side.
Whew. I feel like moving my rusted Tin Man body now. Dehydration helped me not pee my pants.
I am nervous to pass the Timberland’s general area, but we must pass the snake and continue the trail. There is nowhere to run. There is no way to get off this ride. I try not to think about how many other snakes are probably nearby too.
And we hike.
Then we hike some more.
I naturally slide to the back of our line, struggling to keep up with the group.
This day is taking forever. How could we be on top of a mountain, then at the bottom of a valley, back to the top of a mountain…then in another valley, only to begin climbing another mountain again? Wasn’t Day One supposed to be our short day?!
According to Sunshine Rat’s Fitbit, which I am now starting to call the boob-o-meter because she keeps it in her bra, we have walked eight miles.
Eight miles on a flat track or a road through town sounds doable. But with rocky terrain, multiple inclines and declines and a backpack that must weigh 45 pounds…well, I am about to die.
My feet swell inside my half-size-too-small magic boots. I am grateful for them, but the magic is gone.
We climb another steep hill. The path is evolved to 2 feet wide. The forest appears lush green again. I see a small stream of water flowing down the mountainside. If this was the beginning of the day I might be impressed and loving the beauty.
At the end of the day, this is hell. Hell I say! Everything hurts. Every muscle, my feet, and my toes shoot sharp pain with each step. My toes would feel better if I could cut them off.
I do not speak. Every effort must be spent on moving toward the end of this day. Dirt mixes with my sweat. My mind searches for coping mechanisms.
Please let the end be soon.
If this is how each day is going to be, then I do not think I can do it.
I am going to have to find a place to park my body for the next few days. There are campgrounds somewhere. They can come back for me Saturday.
SunFloJo is talking to me, but I do not hear her. One foot in front of the other: that is all I can do.
Sunshine Rat and Stalker C lead. After not seeing other humans for a long time, I hear them meet a couple. Sunshine asks, “What are your trail names?”
“I am Stinky-Braids,” A lady about my age says.
“I’m Other-Brother,” The man says.
Stalker C repeats, “Other-Brother?”
Stinky Braids chimes in, “His real name is Daryl.”
I catch up in time to smile at that Other Brother Daryl TV show reference while they all are laughing. I sit down to rest while they converse.
Then Stalker C & Sunshine Rat catch the next energy wave and are determined to climb what we hope is the last big hill of the day in front of us. The hill is straight up. I probably cannot do it without using both my legs and arms to hold onto rocks and trees. The girls storm ahead, soon out of sight. SunFloJo hangs back to look out for me. I hope she does not feel saddened by my lagging. I do not want to ruin her trip.
We start to see people come down the hill for an evening hike. They look fresh and free without heavy backpacks.
Strangers tell SunFloJo that our destination of Big Meadow is just at the top of the hill. In my exhausted state, I am not sure I believe them.
We join the climb while my head spins in disbelief. If I live to get to the top, I need to noodle my best plan for surviving this week. I am not sure I can do this adventure. I am more rattled than that snake’s tail earlier.
This is SunFloJo’s dream, her recon mission.
No matter what, I do not want her to quit because of me. She must keep going…even if I am the one who must call it quits.
SunFloJo scales these trails like they are nothing. She is in shape. I am not.
Hopefully, I can convince her and the girls to keep going after tonight. I will find a spot to be safe for a few days alone.
My body becomes one with the hill. I pull myself up with tree limbs and steady my poles on rocks as needed.
I wrestle to the top and practice how I will convince SunFloJo and the rest of the team to keep going. I know SunFloJo will not want to leave me behind, but I will be fine and they will do much better without me.
At the moment, I see no other solution except to quit.
The dirt path is a comfortable two and a half feet wide at first, then narrows to about one foot wide.
We pass people posing for pictures at the trailhead map post. I glance back a few times until I can no longer see the parking lot. Green leaves and underbrush close in around us. I watch the Steam Team backpacks bob forward. My mind spins.
This is like letting go of the side of the pool in the deep end for the first time. We are going to tread water or die.
We follow Lower Hawksbill Trail. Light glistens through the leaves and tall trees.
Ten minutes in, I know that my pack is too heavy. I thought I had it down to the lightest amount possible! I could have done better. I rethink the contents. It is too late to do anything about what is inside. Hiking is such a learning process!
I extend my black trekking poles and grip their handles to keep me steady. They seem awkward at first. I am not sure why people use them, but I trust those reasons will become clear eventually.
We wind through the woods. A family of jovial day hikers approach us. They are probably happy because they do not have heavy backpacks, I think.
The oldest man in the group smiles eager to share, “We saw a bear up ahead.”
And they are thrilled about this? I guess so. They are coming out of the forest. We are going in.Great.
Stalker C’s large eyes glance my way. Her lips tighten. I look toward the endless woods.
SunFloJo sets down her pack as the family walks on toward the exit.
This interaction reminds SunFloJo to take out the bear bells. She attaches a bell to my pack. It hangs from one of my zipper pulls.
Did she pick me because I am obviously going to be at the back of the group when we run for safety from the bear?
We continue back in stride.
Jingle, jingle. Step. Jingle.
I do not love the constant ringing near my ear. No wonder bears do not like bells. And while I would never say this out loud, I would not mind seeing another bear from a distance. Tricky, I know. But we are on an adventure, right?
Jingle. Jingle. I do not want to complain, but it works out well when Stalker C says, “I could carry that bell if you want.”
We rest a moment. I move my bell to hang from her bag.
We continue hiking through twists and turns. My shoulders hurt.
Every few feet, Stalker C contorts her arm behind her so that she can gently ring the bell. No bear is coming near this group. She will make sure of it.
We see the first concrete sign trail marker post that directs us to turn slightly right and uphill. Our feet lean in what looks like 70-degree angles with our bodies as we head straight up toward the top of Hawksbill Mountain: elevation 4,050 feet.
I have looked forward to seeing Hawksbill Gap, the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park since seeing pictures of it on the Internet. In my head, I cannot wait! But wait I will because walking up this trail seems longer and longer than it looked on the map. Sweat drips down my back. It is a steep climb!
Stalker C and Sunshine Rat are up ahead as the better, younger climbers.
SunFloJo and I walk slowly a bit to conserve (my) energy. I feel like I am carrying the weight of an eight-year-old on my back. How am I going to do this until the end of the week?
Somehow our conversation lands on talking softly about love and love lost, about friends and fizzled relationships. We have lived long enough to have had our share of humans stroll in and out of our lives.
“When it comes to people, I’ve gotten better at loving and letting go. People either want to be with you or they don’t,” I say.
SunFloJo offers, “I try to appreciate the moments we had and not stress about the fact that those moments were too few.”
“Perhaps we were lucky to have had those moments at all.” I say then add, “Maybe.”
We giggle at the maybe part.
I continue, “Also I am working on loving people around me without expectations.” It is easy for me to do that with friends and work acquaintances. I think about how much harder it is to let go of expectations inside a marriage. Maybe some expectations need to be there while others do not.
“Ah, letting go of expectation can be powerful,” SunFloJo says. “And tough to do.”
“Yes, there could be a lot less disappointment. I am working on detachment from what I expect and or anticipate.”
“It’s a process,” she says.
Our conversation seems profound at the time and distracts me until I recognize my struggle to breathe as the elevation changes. I lean the poles against my body while I wrap my hair into a ponytail to gain air flow around my neck. I grow quiet as my central focus becomes how to breathe my way to the top of this mountain.
Stalker C slows down to listen to the older folk conversation, but we are done with our ramblings by the time she is on par with us.
I visualize the photos we will take when we get to the top—if we ever get there!
Sunshine points out the Salamander Trail post on our left side. This shows us where we will turn on the way back down. She has a good eye. I would have missed that marker in the trees.
Then, finally, we see the Hawksbill cliff as the sun becomes brighter with less trees above us. First goal achieved. We make it to the top!
Large rocks line the edge. A gigantic valley is below with many mountains in the background. It is a clear day. You can see miles stretched beyond us.
We pause to guzzle water and take in the 180-degree view. I hope we stay on top of the world here for a while.
It is so beautiful.
We pause at the first overlook. I leave my trekking poles in a tiny shelter near the edge with a wood carved sign labeled Byrd’s Nest 2. Then I climb a short distance over rocks to the highest overlook. And by climb, in this case, I mean cling to the large, jagged rocks with my hands, arms, feet and legs so I can roll to the other side without plunging into the valley.
This is the main overlook. It is better in person than online. There is a manmade rock wall around it and a stone floor on the viewing deck. We place our packs in the overlook area.
“Shall we do lunch here?” Stalker C asks.
I say, “I think that would be great.” I do not care that the sun is shining directly on us, although it feels much hotter than it did earlier. We grab food bags and stare at the view. We munch quietly and drink more water. I start with a pack of almonds.
Other hikers come and go from the woods. I wonder if we are in their way, then decide I do not care since all of them manage to take pictures without our physical presence being an issue. Most are day hikers with small packs. We help a few with their group photos and they help us.
One older gentleman wearing a plaid short-sleeved button up shirt pulls two ceramic blue birds from a satchel. He positions them on the leading edge of the man-made wall. He takes a few pictures, most with the birds included in the landscape.
SunFloJo asks, “Are you taking those pictures for someone special?”
He says, “Yes. I have a friend with MS who cannot hike. I take pictures back to her to enjoy.”
My heart twists at the thought of him showing his friend pictures of the fragile birds and gorgeous horizon after his trip. I imagine her smile as he tells her about the experience. I think about Paul and how he probably could not hike this far these days. The incline would have been too much for him.
The man returns the ceramic birds carefully into a towel and his bag. He continues, “She is quite the lady.”
Then a set of three couples who are probably all in their sixties arrive. I read the body language that one of the ladies would like a photo of their whole group. I offer to take their picture. They are standing on the less safe natural rock area. At first, one husband grumbles about his wife, “Oh she’s got plenty of pictures!” He is overheated and cantankerous. I have seen this behavior in men from our family a few times regarding picture taking.
“We travel together a lot,” one woman says about their group while standing too close to the edge and trying to take a selfie.
“Watch your step,” I caution.
Gravel and dust fall behind her. She gasps at the near fall and steps to find better footing. I ask, “Do you have any pics of all six of you together today?”
The other two men express this would be a good spot for a photo. The grumpy bug husband gets on board reluctantly. I take a picture of them with the majestic view in the background. The wives are pleased with having a photo they can frame when they return home. They turn to walk back toward the trail.
Next, a gorgeous taupe color dog and her family arrive as we rest against the rock wall. The dog has a pink collar and leash. Her name is Annabelle. Sweetness oozes from her.
The Steam Team says a collective, “Aww.”
The dog owner says, “This is our 9,000-dollar dog. We found her starved, sick from rat poison and a snake bite a few years ago. We had no idea it would cost nine grand to get her well, but she’s been worth every penny.” Annabelle smiles and pants at her owner’s loving words.
In-between visitors, I stare at the vast view.
Is this the place where I can toss my anger off the mountain? I try to reach a peaceful state of mind but keep thinking about how some humans can be ceramic-love-birds-photo-taking-good-attitude people and some humans are habitual-complainers-exhaust-those-around-them people. The contrast sours the rest of my meal of cheese and crackers with grapes. I am too hot to eat anyway. I feel thankful for Annabelle’s visit. Dogs are along for the ride and generally happy to go with the flow. I needed her energy.
Here you go, Lord. Please take the angst from me. I surrender. And I am Surrender on this trip. Help me let go of anger. Here are my disappointments. Here are my expectations. Here are the times I try to control the fantasy of how I think life should be. Take it all please. Amen
Stalker C, SunFloJo & Sunshine quietly stare too. We all face some type of life transition. I wonder if they are working through similar thoughts. SunFloJo has been contemplating retirement soon. Stalker C and Sunshine just graduated college and are headed to grad school in different parts of the country.
I want to suggest we sleep here tonight, but I know we have more miles to walk before nightfall.
“Do you want me to read Deb’s next letter?” I ask the group.
A unanimous “Yes” ensues.
I dig out Deb’s ‘During the Journey’ envelope and read,
“‘Day 1: Munchkins: The munchkins were happy people who were industrious and well intentioned. They did whatever they could to help Dorothy and her crew to reach their goals. Who are the munchkins in your life? How do they help you reach your goals?’”
We take turns answering.
“My church youth group supported me a lot,” says Stalker C. “My family was not big into church, but I liked going. We hung out and they encouraged me. They’re one of the reasons why I got a social work degree.”
Sunshine and SunFloJo both offer that their families have been supportive of their career and life decisions.
“I am blessed with friends who encourage me,” I share. And I think about how Paul helped me plan for this week. This is not my first hair brained idea over the years.
With a mutual sigh about leaving, we load our gear, grab poles and head back down the path. We turn right onto Salamander Trail.
It looks like a deep dive through thick branches from here. The path is narrower. I squirt bug spray on my ankles, legs, arms, and neck.
I am pleased about going downhill until the steepness of the path begins to fatigue my feet. The path is filled with rocks; jagged and varied. My magic boots are not feeling so magical. Now we face 120-degree foot angles while maneuvering over rocks. My toes are on fire!
We curve along mountain edges and then encounter more downhill strain through daytime darkness. The trees are thick.
Down. Down. And still straight down. More rocks and more rocks. Oh, my goodness this hurts!
I refuse to cry, but there is no way to hide that I cannot keep up. Every step causes sharp toe pain.
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
SunFloJo checks on me. I suspect she is concerned about me having a heart attack. I do not speak. My focus is on walking through the raging fire in my shoes.
“What specifically is going on?” She asks.
I tell her. She speculates what might be the problem.
“Yes, I clipped my nails before we traveled,” I admit, embarrassed that we are trouble shooting my toe issues.
There is no solution in sight. Today is day one of full-time hiking, how on earth will I make it to Saturday?!?
My shoes are size 9. SunFloJo’s shoes are 9.5. Her shoes also are wide at the toe end. Mine are not wide. She offers to switch shoes.
But I do not want to change shoes. I like my “magic shoes”. With the amount of metaphoric fire and pain going on, I am concerned about swelling if I take off the boots. And what happens to both of us if we switch shoes mid hike? Will my shorter shoe then hurt SunFloJo?
For now, I hobble behind the group. I will not give up today even if my toes become as bloody as they feel right now. We are deep in the woods. The only way out is through.
At the bottom of Salamander, we see a white Appalachian Trail mark on a tree. This is the first time we have seen what hikers call the White Blaze. The White Blaze is a white rectangle painted every so often on a tree, so you know you are on the right path. We turn from our side entrance trails onto the official AT trail. We pause to take a picture of SunFloJo with the White AT Blaze. This is her dream! She is living it!
I am so happy for her and happy to rest for a few minutes.
After the AT turn, we meet a chunky guy. He wears blue jean shorts and a cotton blue t-shirt. This is not the hiking attire I have seen on AT YouTube videos. We ask if he is a thru hiker or day hiker.
“I’m doing the whole thing,” He says. That means he is a thru hiker. Wow. “Started in March from Georgia.”
Sunshine asks, “What is your trail name.”
He wipes his brow and says, “Endurance.”
We ask why that name and he says, “Because I’m proving to myself that I have the endurance to do this.”
He inspires me. He is not allowing extra weight to hold him back. Endurance blows by after chatting. Soon I do not see him ahead of us.
The trail becomes enchanted at this point. We are on more level land. The forest is lush with seas of ferns, soft tree branches and rocks surround us under a canopy of tall skinny trees. I think about the Hobbit and scenes from the Shire in Lord of the Rings.
The Steam Team grows weary. Occasionally we find large rocks or moss-covered tree logs next to the trail where we say, “This looks good” which means there is enough booty space for each of us to rest. We sit for a few minutes and lean our backpack weight onto a rock or tree.
Sunshine Rat has a Fitbit attached to her bra. We ask her to check the mileage because this 5.1-mile Day One hike is feeling long. We all wonder, how much longer until we stop for the night?
Sure enough we have hiked well over 6 miles already according to her Fitbit.
Could it be that the trail markers and trail plan are incorrect about how many miles we will walk today?
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
JUNE 1, 2016
It is Zero Dark Thirty.
My body stirs. I am unsure if I have slept hours or minutes.
Did I bring the flip knife into the tent with me? My hands survey the darkness.
I promised Jacob that the knife would be in my pocket, but I forgot to get it out of my bag.
My eyes open to the nothingness. I hear a creature!
Maybe two? Three creatures?!
Little snorts and sniffs graze outside the tent near my head. I guess these animals are not opposed to the scent of moth balls. I roll my eyes.
Sniff, sniff, sniff.
Leaves rustle under whatever kind of paws they have. Sniff, sniff.
My body freezes. What if it is a skunk? And it startles? What if it sprays a horrible stench?
Or, what if it is the type of animal that will run away if I make noise?
What should I do?
What if I turn on my flashlight? Maybe that will create a shadow showing me what it really is?
But–what if knowing what it is will make me feel worse? Knowing could be scary.
Nope. No shadow images. Thanks. I do not need to know!
I shiver in the cold night air. My arms cross inside Paul’s wind breaker style golf sweatshirt.
Is that a stick in my back? Ouch. No, it just hurts to sleep on the ground!
While I am five feet ten inches tall, the borrowed sleep pad is two feet five inches long. Not much padding is under this body. I visualize the much longer pad I saw at a store for $59.99. That was too much to spend when a borrowed pad was available.
While the nocturnal visitors continue to scurry near me, I think about the budget at home and how the boys wanted macaroni and snacks the week I said no to $59.99 for myself. My mind wanders on to thoughts about the timing of bills and the cash left behind that should get the guys through this week. Jacob is going to work a summer lifeguard job. That will help.
Arms tight and legs curled in an effort to find warmth, I fall back to sleep.
I awaken to chirping birds. My body hurts when I roll over inside the tent.
The birds are loud.
Anxious excitement arrives. This is it! Time to hike. It is about to be the real deal with no opportunity for escape to a nearby parked car. We are going into the woods!
I learned yesterday that Dick and SunFloJo revised the plan so that we will drive to our hiking end point today to meet Dick. That is where we will leave the car. Then Dick will drive our group to the start point for drop off. This way we will end hiking the trail back at our car.
Genius new idea? Yes, but this is not what Paul is picturing back in our family room. I think about him looking at our trail plan, probably reviewing it repeatedly. I can feel his mind visualizing our steps. He thinks our car will be at the starting point, not the end.
My phone no longer works in the national park so there is no way to update him. I trust that a search team would check both ends of the plan for our car and clues if needed. Let’s just hope we do not get lost. I am fine. Everything is fine.
When we purchased gasoline yesterday, I sent the last text to say I love him and the boys. I shared that I was putting the phone away until the end of the trip. I turned off the cell and put it in SunFloJo’s glove box.
I do not know what time it is. I recall that my backpack is in disarray. I have got to fix that. Maybe I can quietly do this before anyone else is awake.
The sound of my tent unzipping does not seem to disturb the young girls’ tent, but it turns out that JoAnn and I are unzipping in unison. We crawl out of our tents both with the same need to pee.
We do not talk. We stumble around looking for a good spot. My back is on fire from the hours spent on the ground. My legs are numb. Also, I am not a morning person. I wave her toward the direction she seems to be interested in anyway and I head the opposite direction toward the parking lot.
Urinating in the light of day is something to figure out. I wander a bit. Decisions, decisions.
I take care of business in the grass behind a dumpster. Success. Who knew that figuring out how to pee outside would feel like such an accomplishment?
The stream runs under the dumpster and out the other side toward the parking lot and road. I will pretend like I do not see that if anyone happens to walk by. Next time I will do better in the grass somewhere deeper in the woods. I am building confidence in this new skill.
I walk back to camp quietly. The girls continue to snooze. Good, I need the picnic table space to spread out supplies. I will take down my tent, hopefully sort through my backpack, and then they can have the same space to organize if needed. Keep sleeping girls. I notice SunFloJo is back inside her tent.
But first I need to peek at the fire pit.
Darn it! The broken hot dog IS present in the ash. It did not burn up.
Uh oh. We were lucky no bears came overnight. –No bears that I know of anyway. Now I feel bad for lying. And I feel relief that we survived the night. I really believed the hot dog must have burned up. I walk the dog pieces back to the road and throw the remains into the dumpster. Good riddance.
I disassemble my tent. SunFloJo’s hand emerges from her tent. She tosses out the car keys. No words. She knows what I am up to. I appreciate that. Hoping I do not disturb her too much, I am happy to soon hear her snore again. Sleep all you can, I think. No doubt we are going to need every ounce of rest we can get out here.
Grass, trees, and the lingering fire scent smell fresh in this new day. My tent is rolled to fit into its little bag. My backpack is dismantled and reassembled. Anything I might not need goes into my overflow tote bags and into the back of the CR-V.
As I work, I look down toward who I will now refer to as Shut-Up-Guy. He is up, out of his tent and packing his bag. He has an interesting look. He is thin, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, has bright white hair, and I think he may be Asian. Maybe. At one point he grabs what I recognize is a mini-shovel and heads north into the woods. He is gone a long time. Must be his poo time I suppose based on YouTube lessons. Ugh, I really hope I do not have to figure out the shovel thing on this trip.
When I put things back in the car, a park ranger in an SUV stops to ask if someone was in our spot last night. I had not thought much about it but as a matter of fact, “Yes.”
Shut-Up-Guy was in our spot. So, we were supposed to be in 1A1 by ourselves. We certainly would have had more room if he had not been there.
No idea what the ranger is going to do about it, but now I feel better regarding our first night that included minor noise and nervous energy.
Inside the car, I change into my outfit for the rest of the week: Paul’s Boy Scout pants, dri wick shirt formerly belonging to my sons, Fruit of the Loom Cool Blend underwear. Then I place the knife into my cargo pant pocket.
Back at the picnic table, I open my last Pepsi can and sit down to munch on a Pop-Tart for breakfast. I stare into the trees and listen to SunFloJo sleep.
Thank you for the beauty of nature. Please bless our trip. Keep us safe from injury and danger. Guide us and take care of our families back home. Thank you.
The girls come out of their tent as I finish breakfast. I feel organized. Ready for the day. Let’s do this. It’s almost time to meet Dick! We told him we would see him at 9am.
“Do you know what time it is?” Stalker C asks the very relaxed me.
“No idea,” I say. Isn’t it lovely? I am awake with the birds and that is all I know.
The girls observe that my stuff is packed. I whisper, “I don’t want to be late for Dick.” Sunshine and Stalker C giggle.
Shut-Up-Guy grumbles a monotone “Good morning” toward us as he gathers items and leaves camp with supplies on his back.
The girls shared that they slept off and on through the night. They had layered up for cold, but it turned out the layers made them too hot. Also, they were closest to the mystery tent guy and it occurred to them that stranger danger could be an issue.
SunFloJo comes out of her tent as the girls begin packing up. “What time is it?” I ask.
“That’s all?” Wow. I have been up a long time.
Stalker C and Sunshine Rat softly scoff at my surprised face.
We will have ourselves together in plenty of time to meet Dick.
Sunshine, Stalker C and I sit on top of the picnic table. We reflect about the trip so far. Sunshine brought a lightweight journal.
“Thank you, Sunshine. I do not want to forget the details of what we see and do along the way. In just 24 hours so much has happened already and so much is ahead,” I say as Sunshine writes notes about our adventures.
Rosemary the deer returns to camp briefly. She walks near our picnic table and nods toward Stalker C.
Everything back in the car, we drive to the camp store before leaving Loft Mountain Campground. SunFloJo and Sunshine get morning coffee. The building smells of fresh cut wood.
“Delicious,” Sunshine says about the coffee. Stalker C and I pour energy powder packets into water bottles.
The sun gently tickles the tops of our heads as we put on hiking boots for the day. The guy from the store comes outside to chat with us. We exchange where everyone is from. He is originally from Ohio. He and his wife moved here ten years ago.
My mind leaves the group conversation. I internally marvel at a quick mental list of things like: Wow I slept outside last night. I am not taking a shower today and that’s kind of weird. Today I get to hike to the highest peak in the Shenandoah Valley area. And perhaps most importantly, I hope Dick is not a serial killer.
Oh wait. What time is it? Will I ever get used to having no clock with me?
Perhaps we are too Zen hanging outside the store overlooking another mountain view. Sunshine asks, “Are we running on time to meet Dick?”
The store guy says, “It’s about 9:05am now.”
The Steam Team stands up!
Somehow with plenty of time to get ready we are late. We are supposed to meet Dick in the parking lot of Lewis Mountain Campground a few miles down the road.
On the way to Lewis we try in vain to get the girls’ cellphones to work. There is no signal. I borrow SunFloJo’s phone and send a text to Dick that says “On our way” but the screen icon spins indefinitely and I am not sure if it goes through. Calling does not work on any of the phones either.
As SunFloJo picks up speed on curvy roads, I eye Stalker C who may be getting a little nervous about going into the woods where the bears live. Me too, Sister!
“Are you worried about the bears?” I ask.
She nods yes.
“At least there are not grizzly bears here. Black bears generally will leave you alone,” SunFloJo assures us.
“Good to know,” says Stalker C.
“Generally,” repeats Sunshine.
SunFloJo shares that one time in Colorado she encountered an injured mountain lion on a trail, “He was beautiful, but dangerous to the average human.” She was able to go for help and a rescue team came and nursed him back to health.
“And there’s no mountain lions in this part of the country,” I look at Stalker C. “We’ve got this.”
We make it by 9:20AM. Dick has not left us.
“I received your text,” says the elderly and in great shape Dick.
Dick wears a pressed Hawaiian short-sleeve button up shirt and khaki shorts. Every remaining hair on his head is neatly in place. His large white truck with extended cab has plenty of seating.
Dick stands at the back of the truck as we clumsily put our backpacks and hiking poles into the truck bed. I sense he is sizing up our lack of experience.
I slip into the backseat. My bag has been packed for hours at this point. I savor the cushioned seating while it is available. It is going to be days before I have a comfortable seat again.
Outside the truck, the girls fumble with their socks and extra items. They make last minute decisions about what goes with us and what to toss back into SunFloJo’s car.
On the driver side visor there is a sticker outlined in red that reads “Hello My Name Is Dick”. I snap a picture of the sticker. I brought Ben’s old camera to take a few images of the experience. I wonder what Ben is doing this morning on his first week off from school. Probably sleeping. I bought this cheap 35mm camera for Ben when he was ten years old. That was the year he went to Boy Scout camp and lost his glasses at the bottom of the lake. I smile at the thought now while remembering how upset we were that insurance only covers glasses if the glasses are available to repair or replace. The fuzzy, hard to read 35m screen shows that I have a full battery. That should last the week.
I stifle nervous laughter while thinking, What in the world are we doing here?!
Once loaded Dick begins the drive. He points, “When you end your hike you’ll come out of the woods about here. The quickest way to get back to your car is to shortcut through those trees. Look for the steel grate on the ground and turn left. Then go through the next set of trees and you’ll arrive 30 minutes sooner than you would have if you walked along the road.”
I could not visualize or take mental note of his instructions. If I am the one in charge of that cut through at the end, then we are already lost. Hopefully, someone else caught Dick’s logic. No one asks him to repeat it.
JoAnn sits in the front seat and is in interview mode, “Tell us about your hiking experience, Dick.”
His deep voice shares, “I have hiked the whole AT once. Did it in sections. Took me 13 years to finish.”
We learn that Dick was an international traveler for work. He trained people all over the world on “something” that he would not share when we pressed. So we conclude inside our own heads that he is former CIA, FBI, etc. Don’t be vague, Dick. We’ll make stuff up to fill in the blanks!
Now retired, Dick is the president of Hiking Helpers.
We arrive at the drop off point. My heart leaps. We are really going to do this!
In Hawksbill Gap Parking Lot, I put my backpack on right away. I am confident in how to do it with the extra back support because I watched the YouTube video of how to wear it properly.
Sunshine Rat and Stalker C; however, have more questions for Dick about their packs.
And Dick has more answers than necessary while my shoulders grow weary.
But the comfort and confidence built was nice to observe as Stalker C & Sunshine learned what each strap was for, how to put the pack on securely, how to put in their Camelback water containers, thread their water tubes, and more.
I should sit down on the ground, but I am afraid I could not get back up. If I take off the pack, I risk a lecture from Dick about how to put it back on.
SunFloJo asks, “What is the number one mistake that AT hikers make?”
I am going to topple over in the sun if this conversation continues.
He replies, “Not having enough water or not drinking enough water.”
We have a way to sterilize river water so we feel prepared.
Dick instructs the girls, “Don’t be afraid to pull these straps.”
He points to both of their arm areas where the straps hang and continues, “Just pull ‘em. They will help you make the pack more compact and these straps right here will help lift the pack and make it more comfortable on your hips.”
He emphasizes again, “Don’t be afraid to pull ‘em.”
“One last thing”, he says 25 minutes later I am guessing. Dick takes our “before” picture. We pose as a foursome wearing our backpacks.
We combine our cash and leave money on his truck seat to say thanks for the lift. We are grateful to him both for transportation and advice.
Sunshine Rat says, “You are the bomb, Dick.”
Dick says, “I’ve never been called the bomb before.”
He offers to take more pictures and more poses, but we are ready to go. The highest peak of the trip is waiting for us
We take our first steps onto the trail.
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