Human beings ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat. Psalm 78:25
Brieanna James gives Tank a music shaker and Sunshine Rat a tambourine.
They stand on either side of Brieanna and play their instruments on the beat as she sings her version of I’m Yours by Jason Mraz.
“…I tried to be chill but you’re so hot I melted….
“I reckon it’s again my turn to win some or learn some…”
Our audience sways and sings along. Brieanna smiles at her helpers.
“We’re just one big family and it’s our godforsaken right to be loved, loved, loved…”
The room claps as Sunshine and Tank raise the instruments to add a splash of drama to the last line. They bow with a head nod and return to their seats.
Frodo jumps up to be next. He does not have a partner. I look toward a frozen Stalker C who makes no move to stand up. Brieanna gives Frodo a shaker and he moves it like one of those Shake Weight commercials. He is a puppy that could not glow more with happiness.
Pizzas and wings arrive. We dig in as Frodo returns to the table. He says, “What talent to only be 16!” Someone reminds him that Brieanna is jailbait.
As the fun continues, I ask, “Ted, how do you spell your last name? S-h-e-p…like a shepherd in the Bible or something different?”
His body language says yes, “Yep like the Bible.”
SunFloJo points away from our table, “Would you look at that; the sunset is gorgeous. Almost dark soon.”
We soak in the sunset colors through the windows and wipe sauce with napkins away from fingers and faces.
Sunshine Rat scans the table and says to the Steam Team, “Oops. I guess we should have put our tents up before we came here.”
Tank’s face turns serious, “That’s the first rule of the trail. Always put your tent up before dark.” He appears disappointed.
Oh, there are official rules? Feeling a little slap happy, I want to laugh but hold it in.
Tank continues, “And we’re supposed to have bad weather tonight. Heavy rain and possible thunderstorms.”
Frodo listens to hear what we’re going to do.
SunFloJo waves it off, “We’ll figure it out.”
Frodo offers, “One night we found a bathroom to sleep in because it was storming so bad outside.”
Tank, possibly concerned with how that admission might sound, adds, “We put down a mat, so we weren’t all the way touching the bathroom floor or anything.”
“Oh honey, no judgment here,” SunFloJo says.
We finish the food and appetizers. Delicious.
“Hey,” Stalker C says to the young guys. “We have lots of trail food left over if you want it.”
Tank’s face brightens, “Oh, that would be great!”
I offer, “It’s already bagged for the trail.”
Frodo says, “Perfect.”
Brieanna leans into the microphone and smiles, “Now I want to play a song that I wrote. It is called Whatever Happened.”
She plays soft cords and shares verses with us. The song talks about sunshine days and moonlit nights.
She sings, “There’s beauty in every direction, everyone teaches a lesson…”
I feel thoughtful about the lyrics.
My adult life has gone by so fast. Our babies are nearly grown. One is leaving.
My husband–while not ambitious beyond our home, certainly always seeks to spend time with me. Not a social butterfly, a little grumpy at times, but his love is genuine. He still wants to be with me even after all these years. How many people receive the gift of consistency in a relationship?
I reflect on the day we met in May twenty four years ago. The day we pretended not to look at one another. The day I rolled my eyes at God because I knew with all my being that life ahead involved Paul by my side. Not one day since have I ever questioned if Paul wants to be with me. I feel…blessed.
Inhale. Exhale. Pause for oxygen.
I sense he may be missing me and wondering about our progress right now.
Grabbing my phone off the charger next to the wall, I send Paul a text—I AM SAFE AND SOUND AT OUR LAST STOP. GOING TO SLEEP SOON AND DRVING HOME IN THE MORNING. HOPE YOU GUYS ARE OK. LOTS OF ADVENTURES TO SHARE IF YOU WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THEM. I LOVE YOU.
Paul returns a text immediately—I LOVE YOU TOO! CAN’T WAIT TO GET YOU HOME. AND, YES, I WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE ADVENTURES. SEE YOU TOMORROW NIGHT. BOYS AND I ARE FINE. TTYS!
Brieanna rounds out the lyrics of her song, “Put the pieces away one last time…there’s beauty in every direction, everyone teaches a lesson, which way will you choose…”
The common denominator of anything that really matters is family, friends and love. Everything else can be rearranged, sold, donated. Just because I want things a certain way does not mean that is the only way. Life can evolve, and I’ll be just fine.
The room begins to clear. Campers go to bed with the sun.
Ted smiles in a belly full kind of way. He reaches for his wallet.
“Uh, no sir,” says SunFloJo. “We’ve got this.”
In his jovial manner he says, “Thank you.”
“Ted, we appreciate you. And thanks for coming up here tonight. It was good to converse when we weren’t falling apart from exhaustion,” I say.
He smiles, shakes all our hands. Then with a quick so long, he is gone.
We girls chip in our funds, and SunFloJo finishes the bill business. Tank and Frodo say thank you.
While Brieanna is packing up with her dad, we exit. The Steam Team plus Tank and Frodo make our way up the wooden stairs and out the lodge front door. Crickets dominate the cool night air.
We carefully step through the darkness down the hill toward our car. I do not want a sprained ankle. Not even at this stage in the game. Flip flops don’t fail me now.
Lightning highlights the sky. A low thunder sound is not far away.
The guys stand as we gather gallon size bag after bag of trail food, some from the back of the CRV and some from the bear box. Frodo’s mouth drops and Tank’s eyes widen as they say, “This is a lot of food!”
We are giggly but do not want to disturb the campground. I peer around to see how many people are still outside. Some people are still awake, but most seem to be tucked away in their tents and campers.
On one of the bear box retrieval trips, I happen to notice a familiar person. You have got to be kidding me!
Shut-Up-Guy is outside of his tent next door to us in campsite 3. He shakes his head perhaps in disbelief too.
We pile plastic bag after bag into Tank and Frodo’s arms all while they marvel about the types of food inside: jerky, marshmallows, crushed pop tarts, fruit chews, pretzels, peanut butter, and more!
Tank says, “Wow, this will save like 4 days of grocery cost for us. Thank you so much.”
Frodo adds, “When this happens it’s called Trail Magic! And that means you four are Trail Angels.”
Trail Angels. I like the sound of that.
“Here,” Frodo sets down the bags for a moment. “We have to hug. Thank you so much. This was a great evening.”
Frodo and Tank take turns hugging each one of us.
My heart is full by their gratitude and admiration for their journey. How awesome is it that they are thru hikers halfway along on their full route AT adventure? Our trail magic gets to move on without us through them.
Stalker C says, “Do you mind if we follow your journey on Facebook or Instagram or something?”
Both guys say absolutely and give us their real names.
“We hope to be in Vermont by Labor Day,” Tank says.
“And finish in Maine by end of September or early October,” Frodo adds.
I say, “We’ll be cheering you on.”
SunFloJo adds with a chuckle, “Virtually.” Even her wonder woman of a body is tired now.
We smile and after one more round of hugs, the guys carry their food off into the night.
The Steam Team leans silently against the CRV bumper.
All of us look toward the dark campsite thinking how set up at this point would be difficult without light—and probably noisy.
For the Lord your God has blessed you in all that you have done; He has known your wanderings through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have not lacked a thing. Deuteronomy 2:7
It is after 5:00PM when we return dirty and depleted.
We had thought we would be done and back to Big Meadow by 3:00PM at the latest.
The Steam Team opens the Bear Box at Campsite 2 as if greeting a long-lost friend. We gather quarters and personal care products.
In tall grass a few feet from the box, my 1-person tent maintained our faux occupancy well while we were gone. I nod in thanks for its service.
I grab the attention of a stranger in front of the shower house and ask them to take our “after” picture. We force smiles through physical pain while our souls smile with ease knowing that we completed over 33 miles on foot via rocks, trees, mountains, and valleys. My legs may separate from my body at any moment. I doubt the picture will fully capture the layers of grime on our skin.
Sunshine Rat points out, “We’re running a little behind. Ted is going to be bringing his garbage up soon.”
Stalker C says, “Yeah it’s almost 6pm.”
“Ah, man. We don’t have shampoo,” Stalker C notes.
Sunshine says, “We’ll make the best of it.”
“Oh no you won’t,” my maternal instincts kick in as I dig through my “after bag”.
I continue, “We are entertaining tonight. You gals need clean hair. Here is my travel shampoo. I’ll wait and shower after you’re done.”
Wow, how fast I sound like a mom post trail!
Stalker C and Sunshine Rat laugh. Stalker says to Sunshine, “You know time is winding down. We gotta find our grooms to bring home.”
Sunshine says, “That’s right.”
I gladly sit in a white plastic chair in the laundry room. I am filthy but resting feels glorious.
A pair of hikers come in to wash a small load of clothes. I think we’ve seen them before on the trail. It is tough to tell because now they are freshly showered.
The girl goes back in the bathroom to blow dry her hair. I ask him, “Did you two come on the trail together?”
His face scrunches, “Nah. We just met up and are hiking together.”
I note the “just” in his sentence.
She returns with long blonde hair mostly dry. She looks at him with affection. He does not return that vibe. I’m bothered by the notion that he may not be as attracted to her as she is to him. Even her backpack is bigger and appears to be packed heavier than his. What the heck? He puts some of his clothes in her pack.
I remember now. They are the couple from the bobcat sighting. I recall learning their trail names. She is Murph and he is MudPuppie.
I ask her, “So why is your name Murph?”
She smiles, “Because the first few weeks out on the trail anything that could go wrong for me did, like Murphy’s Law. My name was later shortened to Murph.”
Murph tosses her hair a bit and smiles toward MudPuppie whose eyeroll reaction basically says this is only a summer thing.
I envision that she’ll be stronger because of the months long hiking. When he breaks her heart at the end in Maine, she’ll be ok and ready to move on. She doesn’t need him.
A clean Sunshine Rat and Stalker C are almost unrecognizable when they return my shampoo. I may barely feel my numb feet, but I know they carry me to the shower stalls.
I don’t bother trying to save underwear or the Ziploc bag of urine socks. Anything beyond cleaning easily or likely to smell in the heat of the car on the way home is tossed in the trash. Feels good to get rid of stuff.
Then I savor the clink of quarters into the machine that turns on the water in the shower.
I have wilderness soap which is little slips of paper that turn to suds when joined with water. My shampoo lathers like total luxury. Layers of dirt sink to the drain. Still soapy, I add quarters to rinse the rest of the me.
Oops! I forgot to bring up my sham towel.
I air dry as best I can before pulling on a clean set of clothes. It’s been a while since I’ve felt cotton on my skin. How wonderful!
I fluff my hair with a community hair dryer and use a mini pop-up travel brush to comb through my locks.
The Steam Team meets back at the car and bear box.
No one attempts or mentions putting up tents for the night. I should look to see if my 1-person tent is still clean and critter-free inside, but I don’t.
We head to the Tap Room without delay.
“I wonder how many party goers will show tonight?” Sunshine says as we walk up the hill along a thin blacktop path that leads to the lodge.
My feet remain flames of fire, but I am clean! My toes are free from boots. The air flow around my flip flops makes my heart leap with joy and appreciation. I wobble and catch myself from falling a few times.
Stalker C says, “I wonder if Ted will really be here?”
The anticipation is fun and drowns out the parts of me that hurt; shoulder, neck, back, arms, thighs…so much pain!
Will our hero, Ted, really come to take out the trash, do laundry, and hang out in the Tap Room with us?!? Will he? Will he?
We reach the lodge that sits perfectly on top of its mountain. The interior is rustic and comforting.
A stuffed bear catches our eye, so we pause to take a pic of Stalker C posing with her worst fear.
We walk into a large lounge with both broad and tall windows. I eye a row of rocking chairs.
SunFloJo says, “Let’s have morning coffee here with the view tomorrow.”
We all nod absolutely. “And we’ll read Deb’s last note here,” Sunshine Rat adds.
“Yes!” we respond.
Our sore bodies find the way to steep wooden stairs that lead down to the Tap Room. I step down the flight of stairs sideways and hold onto the rail to manage.
We are greeted by the red checkered tablecloths, a bar in the distance, wood tables and chairs, wood covered walls, and a row of wood French doors with a partial mountain view.
A band or something is setting up to play here tonight. How Fun! A man and young woman bring in a guitar, speakers, and microphone.
SunFloJo tells the server, “We need a long table because we don’t know how many people might show up to visit us here tonight.”
The group giggles as we help place four small tables together to create one long table near where the band will play.
The sun is low in the sky. Blue hues and warm yellows glow through the windows.
“Margarita, please. And a water. Thank you,” I request with just enough cash in my wallet to have one appetizer, a drink and maybe something from a fast-food dollar menu on the way home tomorrow. Plus, of course I have trail food bags that I’ve barely touched all week.
SunFloJo points to the margarita that arrives in a Mason jar, “That one is on me. This is a celebration of perseverance.” She gives me a look that says no ifs ands or buts about that.
Ok then. “Thank you.”
“We did it!” SunFloJo holds up a beer, and we all oblige to toast this great adventure. “So much fun girls!”
Our glasses clink together. Stalker C says, “And not a minute more.” Her eyes widen like they seemed often to do on the trail, but this time with wide eyed satisfaction.
Sunshine Rat offers, “Yes. A wonderful experience, and we’re all still alive!”
SunFloJo’s shoulders laugh. She texts home to say we are safe and sound.
I was happy to find my phone in SunFloJo’s car before we journeyed to the Tap Room. The girls and I take turns plugging in our phones to charge them in a nearby outlet.
“I wonder who is going to show?” I ask.
“The whole forest perhaps,” SunFloJo says. She types into Google, “Now, I’m looking up Steel-Cut. I’m still perplexed by that.”
I shake my head. It was a well-earned compliment, friend!
Sunshine Rat notes, “That bothers you a little bit, doesn’t it?”
She responds, “I’m just trying to understand it.” Then, reading out loud from the internet, “1. Ground or crushed between rolls fitted with cutting teeth, like steel-cut coffee or steel-cut oats. 2. Faceted with a steel tool, used especially of buttons, buckles and beads having allover design of facets.”
“Oh, the second definition!” Sunshine says, “You are faceted with a steel tool.”
“With many facets,” Stalker C says. “Basically, you’re a badass.”
We toast our drinks to that.
“That is awesome,” I say. Then I touch SunFloJo’s arm and add, “It was a divine moment. There was no need whatsoever for that Teste Team Leader to say anything about you. He picked up on your aura or something. You are Steel-Cut. And you led us beautifully with your badass self.”
We laugh. I add, “And we appreciate you. Thank you for including us on this journey.”
Recognizable faces begin to fill the room. I notice Sushi and a trail friend or two at the bar. I’m too tired to go invite them to the table. That would require standing up.
Whoever comes to the table is welcome. We’re not walking even another twenty-five feet unless we absolutely must!
Through the patio doors I see MudPuppie and Murphy outside. I think she wants to come inside, but he doesn’t. She is pointing to the fact that they could leave their gear outside, but he shakes his head no.
Leave him, Murph. Leave him right now. But no, she slumps her shoulders a bit and puts her pack back on. He’s already walking away. I am disappointed that she follows him.
“Ooh, we left some clothes in the dryer.” SunFloJo remembers.
“I’ll go with you,” Sunshine joins her.
Stalker C and I exchange looks and smiles as the Tap Room capacity increases. We don’t waste energy on speaking. And this margarita is gooood.
Oops, all gone.
I will work on my water and the remaining ice to increase hydration.
As we observe, we learn that the guy with the band is the father of the young woman. And the young woman with long dark hair is only 16 years old. Her name is Brieanna James. She’s going to sing tonight. We grab one of her publicity postcards and search for her on Facebook and Twitter.
“Ted!” says Stalker C.
“Look who we found!” SunFloJo calls out.
Rounding the stage area is Ted with SunFloJo & Sunshine. I point to the seat in front of me on the table end closest to the stage. “Right here. We saved this seat for you!”
I can’t let Ted go to the other end where the younger Steam Team members are. Seating might mess up the opportunity of potential suitors for the young ones!
“Well, ok.” Ted sits down.
I hear a snicker and snort from the other end as SunFloJo slips in next to me. Oh, no. He probably thinks I purposefully want him close to me! I yi yi.
With the help of my margarita I say, “We gotta keep the single ladies with open seats down there. We invited a lot of people to the Tap Room tonight.”
More stifled giggles. Ted smiles with a quick raise of both hands and says, “I completely understand.”
I smile. I knew he would.
SunFloJo says, “We’re so glad you came tonight!”
Next to him, Sunshine Rat says, “And we smell and look a little better tonight I bet.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He smiles and looks at each of us. He’s a jolly sort.
SunFloJo asks, “Now tell us all about your connection to Rapidan and this place. Did you say to us you’ve been working here like over a decade or something?”
“Oh yes,” he says. “I love being here. My normal job is in California. I work from here part of each year.”
“What brings you this far over and over again?”
“I’m originally from the east coast and my family came to the Shenandoah National Park every summer growing up. My dad was kind of like my mom and dad all in one because my mom died when I was little.”
Lots of social worker types at the table, in unison a few of us say, “I’m so sorry.”
“Eh. It was a long time ago.” Ted continues, “One of our happiest memories and my only memory of mom was when we were here one summer. I was about five. Later that year she died. Dad and I spread her ashes over BearFence Scramble the next summer. We went back every summer since in one way or another.”
We’re in listening mode. He continues, “And a few years ago Dad died. Me and my family spread his ashes up there too.” He sighs, “A couple weeks ago I went up there on a day off and was kind of surprised to find little pieces of bone still up there from dad.”
Still enjoying the view, I suppose.
Ok. Now I’m glad for new reasons that we didn’t go up there. Maybe I’d go up on a different trip with less backpack and more as a side trip stop.
Sunshine Rat changes the subject, “You know, Ted, you are the only person around here who gives accurate trail mileage information.”
We agree. She continues, “The trail said our trip today would be about 6 miles and you said 9. It was totally 9 plus a little more.”
Stalker C and I say, “Yeah. The trail lies.”
Sunshine adds, “We appreciate you not lying Ted.”
SunFloJo says, “Let’s get you a drink. We’ve ordered some food and we can order more if you want. It’s on us.” She adds with a wink, “We owe you gratitude for that which shall remain a secret!”
Stalker C says, “You saved our life.”
I point out, “It took a long time today before we got to the fire ring up on Laurel Prong.” I shake my head, “There is no way we would have found that small clearing in the woods, in the dark, in the rain. Just no way.”
Ted shrugs and tightens his lips in a way that tells me he totally knows he saved our lives and probably saved some fire and rescue resources too. Ultimately, he saved lives and tax dollars! Funeral expenses, you name it. Some rules are meant to be broken.
“Well, don’t ever put anything on social media,” Ted says.
“Absolutely. We get it!” SunFlo says. “We stayed in that Fisherman’s Camp just outside the park. That was scandalous enough. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.”
Ted smiles relieved.
“Mums the word,” Sunshine says.
My eyes see people coming our way. Look who it is!
Rounding the stage area are Tank and Frodo! I am delighted that my favorite groom candidates arrived for the girls.
SunFloJo smiles and waves them over.
Ted grins at how our obvious plan works when Tank and Frodo approach our table with the only available chairs right next to our dear Sunshine Rat and Stalker C. Ted understands. Ted is seasoned like SunFloJo and me.
The young males have showered also. They have big smiles on their faces. Perhaps they are happy that we are where we said we would be. And the idea of Tap Room food probably is exciting.
Small talk begins at the younger end of the table. I zone out to simply take in this moment.
Ted talks with SunFloJo about his interest in gemstones and about his plans to begin foster dog transport soon. Ted is an all-around good guy.
The young musician tests her guitar on stage. She smiles and strums to see if the instrument is in tune. The dad beams with pride. He also eyes the audience with a protective stare. Then he looks at his daughter with total admiration and love.
A sound crackle occurs, then becomes clear.
“Thanks for being here tonight, y’all,” Brieanna speaks into the microphone. “This is a good crowd.”
Hmm, thanks to us.
Brieanna smiles. I come out of my trance. The checkered tablecloth covered tables are full of folks and the bar has only one seat open. It’s hard to tell because so many of us now look clean, but I am fairly certain at least a quarter of the room are people we met and invited along the way.
The crowd gasps in a good way when Brieanna begins to sing Jolene.
People approve of her voice. Smiles are contagious around the room.
I notice that if Frodo had a tail, it would wag. He is very impressed by her.
Brieanna slows down the lyrics to end with, “Please don’t take him even though you can….”
Hands clap and whistles woot in the air.
“Thank you,” Brieanna says. “Thank you.”
The audience is ready for more. She says, “Now I need some volunteers.”
Hands raise fast at our table. That is, SunFloJo and my hands go up and point toward our young friends.
“Well, alright then. This group right here is ready to have some fun,” Brieanna says and waves Tank and Sunshine up to the stage.
To listen to this chapter via the Surrender On The Trail Podcast, click here.
In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out. Exodus 40:36
SunFloJo says, “I’ve got an idea!”
She announces as we eat, “Let’s start offering to meet folks at the Tap Room tonight. If they’re already going that direction, then we’ll mention it. Since Ted is meeting us anyway, let’s make a party of it.”
Absolutely. Of course. Let’s dream up a party right here in the woods. Anything is possible.
After hours of seeing no one today, we are surprised to see someone approach the trail intersection right on queue after the idea is born.
A man walks to us from the south. He is on the path we will eventually walk on the AT.
“Hi,” he says.
I wonder, What is he eating?
The man pulls plants from the side of the trail and munches on them.
Upon closer look, he is not mountain man romance material for the younger gals.
Sunshine Rat asks him, “So what is that direction like?”
“Not too bad. Up and down some, but I’ve seen worse.”
Yeah. If he’s talking about steep inclines and declines, we’ve certainly seen worse too.
He heads north.
Then we see who I assume is a man and wife couple in their sixties perhaps. “Oh,” I say to the woman. “I love your shirt!”
Her navy t-shirt has a simple AT blaze splash on the front as if someone took a paint brush stroke from a tree and painted her shirt instead. She appears to be very clean. The shirt is crisp, like brand new.
I hope these clean people don’t smell us.
My shirt and pants cling to my body. When sweat drips from my hairline, I am careful to wipe it away from my eyes.
“Thank you,” she says. “I think I got this in a gift shop at Harper’s Ferry.”
SunFloJo chews pepperoni and the last of her cheese. She asks, “Are you hiking the whole AT?”
I smell the man’s aftershave, so I guess the answer is no, but he does surprise us with a sweet story.
“We have friends in Florida who are here finishing the last of their almost 2200 AT miles. We came to walk with them for a little while.”
“Yes,” the clean woman shrills. “They are twin 80-year-olds. They’ve been walking about 200 miles each summer for 10 years. This year they will finish!”
80-years-old? Twins? –I’ve got to get in better shape.
And what-do-ya-know, here they come along the trail! Two matching ladies walk up to us from the south. They each have short white hair, trekking poles, and the biggest smiles.
The man says, “They can’t hear too well.”
SunFloJo is all over this. This moment may mirror her in 20 years. “Hi! We hear you’re finishing up the AT?”
The twins nod.
One of them hears better than the other one and tells us a little about their journey. “We started the trail in the most difficult spots like up in Maine when we were early 70’s.”
“We just like walking. Thought this would be a good retirement activity.”
They share, “Our combined trail name is Happy Trails.”
Inspiration surges through each of our hearts. What an incredible story. The fact that these sisters have walked almost 2200 miles sinks into my mind. Wow.
And how wonderful it is that their friends came to meet them in the forest to witness and celebrate the last steps?Beautiful.
After the foursome walks on to the north, SunFloJo says, “Did you see their beautiful legs? So shapely for 80!”
We continue to eat. A redhead young man and a dark-haired young girl approach, “Hello!”
Greetings are exchanged.
“What are your trail names?” SunFloJo asks.
When they speak, we recognize their British accents, “I’m Samsquatch,” He says. “And she is The Boss.”
We snicker, “Why is she The Boss?”
He answers, “Because we were dating and trying to decide what to do in our gap year before university. We’re from the U.K. and gap years are a thing where we are from. She heard about the AT and drug me over here to hike.”
“I thought it would be cool to say we did this,” The Boss adds.
The parent in me asks, “How does your family feel about it?”
The Boss answers, “My mum worries because I can only check in every few days when we find an outlet to charge our phones.”
I bet. But really, what a great way to spend 6 months of your gap year!
“I try to tell mum that we’ve met people on the trail and that everyone checks up on everyone else. There are logs along the way to sign and people look for your name.”
Samsquatch adds, “Yeah, sometimes you hang with a group for a while. When you need a rest day a bunch of us go in together to share a hotel room, or a shelter, or a shower.”
Another dark-haired young gal walks up from the south. Clearly, they know each other.
“What’s your trail name?” I ask her.
She is adorably thin and tall. Olive Oil smiles.
SunFloJo asks, “Are you alone or do you have a partner?”
With confidence she replies, “I’m kind of alone overall, but you’re never really alone out here. I hang off and on with a group of people.”
“Like us,” laughs Samsquatch and The Boss. “And sometimes we get perks because we’re British.” There’s a chuckle between the three of them due to some inside joke along the way. “Like hotel rates or restaurant rates.”
“Americans have been good to us.”
Well, put that on a billboard. I’m glad to hear that.
The Boss continues, “We’ve got to make our money last. We’ve made it to the midway point of our hike so far.”
We exchange pleasantries, “Nice to meet you! Hope you have a great second half of the trip.”
Then we see one, two, three,…NINE men approach our lunch location. This intersection is proving to be a high foot traffic area.
These men book it to our spot like a locomotive machine. Their legs move in unison and they vary in ages and athletic ability. Some sweat profusely. I imagine because they are trying to keep up.
I look them over and say, “I see some genetic similarities among you.”
They nod with testosterone pride. “We’re the dads,” three of them say. They point down the row of others, “These are our sons, he’s a cousin, and he is a son-in-law.”
“You guys were really trucking it,” I say.
“Yes, we are heading to Big Meadow.”
“Oh, yes, us too, but via Lewis Mountain first. That’s where we left our vehicle,” I say.
Noticing some of the younger ages, SunFloJo says, “Hey, we’re inviting people to the Tap Room tonight at Big Meadow. If you want to join us, then you’re invited.”
The most senior dad says, “We will keep that in mind.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Stalker C’s eyes widen. She looks at me and looks at Sunshine Rat, then tilts her head south toward the trail.
Now I see what she means.
Well, well, well.
Look who it is!
Shut-Up-Guy is heading our way.
The jaws on three of our faces drop while SunFloJo continues chatting it up with the nine man train.
Sunshine Rat, Stalker C and my eyes follow Shut-Up-Guy as he passes behind our visitors and continues at a fast speed. His eyes meet our eyes only briefly at one point.
SunFloJo is still talking, “And do you gentlemen have trail names?”
Main Leader Dad says, “No.”
He shakes his head as if none of his crew deserve the gift of a trail name. It’s starting to make sense to me why so many of his crew are an out of breath, sweaty mess. They’ve been trying to keep up with Main Leader Dad. Ah hah. That’s your trail name in my book.
Main Leader Dad takes a pepperoni stick from Sunshine Rat’s hand without asking.
Perhaps dude needs a manners life skill workshop from the non-profit back home?
Stalker C, Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo eye his behavior as he lightly fingers the length of the pepperoni.
My ballpark interpretation is that he thinks this is good packaging for meat, easy to transport. Has he not ever seen pepperoni sticks?
He nods approval and hands the stick back to Sunshine.
Then Main Leader Dad looks at SunFloJo. She is wearing her moisture wicking khaki shorts and fuchsia shirt with a black bandana around her head.
Time stops. I hear a metaphor of angels in heaven open with an ascension chorus “ah ah ahhh”.
The sunlight shifts through the trees and casts a spotlight onto SunFloJo. The man lifts his arm and points to our friend, our leader, our SunFloJo.
He says with all authority as if he is knighting her or blessing her through the air, “You are SteelCut.”
The Steam Team freezes over this announcement.
The men who we later affectionately call The Nine Testes have spoken.
And just like that, they walk off quickly in unison.
I think that name does fit as an alternative for SunFloJo.
Stalker C says to SunFloJo, “Did you see who sped by while you were knighted with a possible new name?”
“Shut-Up-Guy from our first night.”
Sunshine Rat chimes in, “What are the odds we would see him again?”
Seeing Shut-Up-Guy makes us all laugh. We replay a key event from night one.
I say, “I promise” and Stalker C says a low, “Shuuuut Uuuup!”
While we laugh, two guys approach coming from the south. They introduce themselves as a father-son team. “We’re staying at the resort.”
There’s a resort nearby? I had no idea.
“Cool Shirts,” I say referencing their neon gym workout t-shirts.
The son shares, “We work out at the same Cross Fit together.” He pauses then adds, “To get ready for hiking we added cardio.”
Something about the way he said “added cardio” makes the Steam Team stifle giggles.
Our rest and refuel window of time is closing.
I say, “Hope you have a great hike. We’re about to take off in the direction you came from.”
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
We exchange a good laugh about the Fisherman’s camp and continue walking.
I send a telepathic check-in to home base: I’m ok, Hon. You know I am a survivor no matter what. Hope you can feel my soul speaking to you.
I imagine Paul is happy to wake up this morning having had no knocks on the front door from police delivering bad news. Knowing the Steam Team’s darkest night is over may provide relief both to us on the trail and to those who care about us. I find it funny that our darkest night involved sleeping with a light on the whole time.
The terrain changes from the abundance of browns to tall, wispy lime green grass and blue sky on the horizon as we climb higher and higher. I think the bright blue is a good sign at first.
Looks like the top of the mountain is just ahead. We’re almost there.
I remember on the trail plan that at the end of Laurel Prong Trail we will turn left back onto the AT.
The top, the top of the mountain. I can see it! –or so I think.
The girls await my caboose at a trail marker post.
When they see me approach, they turn right.
Why not left!?
Sunshine points out that the trail post says Laurel Prong continues this way. To the right. There’s more Laurel Prong to hike. We are not to our official turn yet.
“Sneaky trail,” says Stalker C.
Yeah, it is!
To the right we go. SunFloJo lifts the mood, “Isn’t this beautiful?!”
From the back of the line, I quietly huff, “Breathtaking.” –which had a funny double meaning if anyone had heard it.
I look right and down over the mountain side trail we just climbed. That is an impressive view of how far we’ve come today.
To my left is the mountain ridge and a majestic crisp sky. Between me and the ridge is soft flowing grass. I mentally immerse into the beauty. We are on top of the world.
I pause to look across the sky at many mountains in the distance and contemplate how this mountain is among its friends. This is an overlook without a drive or pull off parking spot. There is no road. We’ve earned this glorious view by climbing.
While one foot follows the next, I enter a prayerful time of reflection while thinking a lot about my relationship with God.
I sense my Higher Power say:
What if you spent more time with Me? What if you stop trying to make things fit and simply give it all to Me? Give me your marriage. Give me your work, your children, your journey. You don’t have to figure it out. All you need to do is do the next step and then the next step after that. The supernatural comes from Me. Allow and invite me into your whole life, not just your heart.
I ask: But why haven’t you moved in our finances? Why are things not better in Paul’s work and body? What do we need to do to improve our situation?
Have you asked Me in faith to handle those challenges?
Verses come to mind as if I can hear the Word more clearly from this elevation.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9
Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6
And then my mind hears:
What I’m saying is make room. You chose the name Surrender for a reason. Make room and allow Me to direct your path.
I ponder the many ways I have not asked for God’s help in recent years. I think about what it would mean to make room for supernatural blessings. I think about my friends who say, “trust the process.”
My mind hushes. I seek time with God. My mind churns to a pleasant blank nothingness while feeling fully embraced by love.
We march on with heat friction between our backs and backpacks. Sweat drips down faces, necks, and arms.
The trail changes to extra narrow. We enter a path about five inches wide of dirt between billowing grass. I am unnerved by the grass brushing my calves.
Please don’t let anything climb up my leg or inside my pants leg! I make noise and swish the ground with my trekking poles.
I am torn whether to look left to the poetic mountain tops or to keep my eyes on every spec of dirt in my path.
Look! A bright orange salamander type creature ahead of my feet. That is cool.
I am careful not to squish him. I step over it and then nearly step on a fuzzy orange-yellow furry caterpillar type guy. There are some brightly colored things up here that don’t seem to have camouflage options.
I take in a deep breath and exhale. The air grows thin. I repeat the deep breathing.
Keep walking, Surrender. Keep breathing too.
Then trail changes again. We begin a rocky edge along the tip top of the mountain. We step up and over many rocks to make our way, big and small rocks.
I encourage my ankles to remain strong. The slightest slip could cause me to slide left off the cliff and down the side of the mountain. The trail is narrow with nothing but empty space to my left and a wall of rock just taller than me to my right.
The narrow footing is a challenge. If we run into anyone going the opposite direction, then we will have to cling to complete strangers to figure out how to pass one another.
The Steam Team walks close together now. Everyone wants to make sure we get through this ridge. No one talks. Concentration is high.
I think about how snakes might like to sun themselves on the rocks to my right and how much I hope they don’t choose to do that here today. I hope we make enough noise to keep such creatures away.
A large rock blocks our path. As she scales it, SunFloJo slips. My heart skips. The girls gasp.
SunFloJo falls wisely toward the rock wall side and hangs on to jagged stones until she regains footing.
Sunshine Rat asks, “Are you ok?”
“Yep. I’m good.”
“Good save,” I say.
We are a tired, dirty crew. Flies buzz around my greasy head. I notice Stalker C bats flies from her forehead too. I am kind of surprised flies hang out at this altitude.
We pause to put our sleeping buffs around our heads. That keeps flies at bay somewhat but not completely.
I step with my trekking pole and the pole sinks. I slide down with the pole face first into rocks. My belly saves me by catching on the rock I was trying to climb over.
“Surrender!” Sunshine Rat sees me go down.
I glance at the cliff to my left. “I’m ok,” I say but don’t believe.
Surely, we are near the AT intersection. Surely.
“Wanna rest a minute?” SunFloJo asks me once I crawl over the rock.
I nod. The girls hike ahead.
The two most senior of the group need a break. Tiredness is becoming a liability.
SunFloJo and I sit on a 3-foot log that somehow is stuck on this short-width trail. I try not to think about the rocks or critter holes behind or under me. My feet touch the edge of the mountain. Hopefully whatever lurks nearby stays at bay.
From our seated position we face the deep valley and mountains as far as we can see. Falling to our death is easily possible. I cannot see how far down the mountain is below my feet.
Far, very far. Steep, very steep.
Yet how beautiful is this?! When in life have I ever had the opportunity to be wedged on the side of a mountain this high up? Um, never.
Overcome, I sense dry tears could flow. I am too dehydrated for wetness to form in my eyes.
“Are you tired?” SunFlo asks.
I nod and wipe sweat with my shirt collar. The sun is intense.
“We’ll just sit a moment. We have plenty of time.”
I drink the water we purified earlier this morning. I’ve been thirsty for a while. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to make my ration of water last if the rest of our day is like Laurel Prong Trail has been.
SunFloJo hands me a dried mango slice. I eat it without hesitation. It tastes good, sweet. I need nature’s sugar.
We breathe and rest for a few minutes. We can not afford any more stumbles on this stretch.
Regaining some strength, I share, “I’ve tried to throw my anger and sadness off cliffs, over waterfalls and into fire this whole trip.”
I pause, “Not sure how many more opportunities I’ll have.”
“Do you feel better?”
“Maybe lighter emotionally.” I continue, “I’m happy for our son. He’s going to go live his dream. I would never choose the risks and lifestyle of a military career for him, but it is what he wants. I’m going to miss him.”
“You have a baby and everyone warns you that they grow fast. Man, that’s the truth…. And maybe I need to let go of the non-profit dream. Perhaps I’ve laid the foundation and someone else will rise to take on the next steps. Maybe I need to make room for others to carry on the work. I am going to be open about whatever is next. I’m giving God back the dream. We’ll see what happens. When it is time to quit, I trust He will make it clear. It is so hard to turn away from doing something you love.”
More listening. We stare at the valley and mountains.
SunFloJo is completely still. I sense that I have however long I need on this log.
I can talk with God, her, or both. It doesn’t matter to her. She could say something. That would be ok.
But she doesn’t.
“And those girls.” I point to the right although the girls are well beyond us, “They are so smart, young and have such good attitudes. Lord, please don’t let them settle for anything that holds them back or weighs down their spirit. They are encouragers. They are free from restraints. Keep them free. Keep them blessed and upbeat like they are right now.”
I wipe my face. This is a new sensation; crying without tears because my body can’t produce any.
SunFloJo asks, “That’s really more about you, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I choke on air, “It is.”
I say, “I remember being like them.”
“I hear you, sweetie. Me too.”
We stare and breathe, taking in the moment.
Guess we better get going.
I stand. SunFloJo hands me her last piece of dried mango. That should be enough fuel to get me to lunch. My legs went to sleep while sitting on our awkward perch. I fight through the sleepy muscles and get my feet moving.
Soon the rocks change back to tall grass. We are no longer on the edge of the mountain.
It takes a little while to catch up to the girls.
“We see it!” Sunshine says about the trail intersection we’ve been looking for. “Just up ahead.”
The four of us approach our last trail marker.
Sun rays filter through the trees to shine gently on the intersection spot. This is where Laurel Prong Trail dead ends into the AT making a very big T.
It is finally time to eat lunch. We have not seen another human all day so we make ourselves at home in the intersection which is perhaps the widest path we’ve seen today. SunFloJo spreads out her sleeping mat for seating. I sit on a stump with my pack on the ground next to me. Stalker C is to my left with her legs stretched straight out on the ground. She starts to munch some chips.
I go for protein from Teriyaki Beef Jerky. I tear pieces of a tortilla to eat and unwrap ginger candy to hopefully boost my body.
Sunshine sits on the mat with SunFloJo. She offers insight about the time she and Stalker C were alone, “We had a little moment.”
Stalker C rolls her eyes, “I kinda lost it. I am not going to make it much longer. My body and attitude are done.”
My head tilts.
Sunshine adds, “Her foot issue is getting worse. But maybe we won’t go up any more mountains from here. It looks pretty straight in the direction we’re going next.”
“Lies,” Stalker C says. “The trail lies. Can’t trust it.” She swats a fly, and then another. She shakes her head. “I’m losing it.”
“Oh, Honey,” SunFloJo laughs. “We just had a moment where Surrender was breaking down and then talking about how great your two girls’ attitudes are.”
Sunshine snickers, “I wasn’t having a very good attitude the last few miles. That trail marker back there saying that it was another mile before we reach the AT just about sent me over the edge. I wanted to jump off the mountain for sure.” She sighs. “Alas, but now we’ve made it.”
Stalker C says, “We couldn’t believe how positive you two were being when we had to scale those rocks!”
“Us? Positive?” I say.
SunFloJo requests half chuckling, “Tell what you were hoping for their lives, Surrender.”
We laugh through the dirt and sweat on our bodies about how I hope they’ll maintain positive attitudes like they have today and be wise about sticking with positive people, to never let negativity hold them back.
Stalker C scoffs and her shoulders go back, “But now I’ve lost it. I’ve got a bad attitude.”
Sunshine Rat offers, “Stalker, you’ve had a great attitude. This is tough. We just lost it a little for a moment. We own it. We’ve got this. We’ll work it out.”
I smile. We are all humans on a mission managing the best we can with our minds and bodies. I look south down the AT as far as I can see, “Homestretch now.”
SunFloJo says, “I think it is funny that we were having separate meltdowns at the same time while admiring the opposite two.”
Laughter cleanses us.
After our revelation, we take time to breathe. I adore how our unique foursome respects quiet time. We are our authentic selves through strain, laughter, and peace. We value reflection time unanimously.
I stretch and recline for a few minutes.
Sunshine Rat breaks our silence, “Stalker C, we haven’t hit our goal yet. We’ve only got one trail left,”
Sunshine turns to the older of us and says, “We thought we’d meet our dream mountain men this week and be swept off our feet.”
Stalker C says, “That’s right. We’ve gotta bring home our true loves from this graduation trip to our parents.”
Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.
Stalker C startles awake. She whispers, “What is it?!”
My words barely enter the air, “I. Don’t. Know.”
We are frozen, sitting up. We do not peek behind us yet.
I continue slowly, “We are going to have to turn around. I think it is in my backpack. Or outside. Or maybe both. I am hoping it is outside.”
We listen. She hears it too.
“Ok. I’m going to pull down my buff and look.”
“Ok, me too.”
We slowly tug fabric and turn. My eyes adjust. I don’t see anything moving on top of the pack. Thank God.
I gulp, then crawl closer to look. Nothing obvious is inside that I can see without putting my hand in the bag. I am too scared to place my arm inside or to widen the opening.
Then I hear something with four legs move away from the outside wall. It sounds big, bigger than a rat. I wince to stand and then look through a tall window.
I can’t see past the darkness. I hope the animal is small. However, the sound is what I imagine a curious bear might sound like.
What do I know? Maybe I am wrong. I dismiss my fears by thinking: It was probably a skunk or possum. Mostly I am glad it was not indoors with us.
My heartbeat slows down, “I am so sorry I woke you.”
“I was afraid.”
Stalker C nods.
Next door in the lights-out room our friends continue snoozing.
We try to get comfortable and go back to sleep with buffs back over our faces.
But Stalker C whispers, “Something is behind us.” And we become a fit of giggles.
When we stop giggling, the quiet somehow makes us start laughing again and again. SunFloJo and Sunshine Rat must be deep sleepers. They do not stir.
Ok. I’m going to try to sleep. My back may split in two from the hardwood floor, but morning will arrive. I need legs that are ready to climb the next mountain.
“Surrender!” Stalker C whispers.
I don’t move. Through the buff I say, “What?”
Stalker C sits higher than me. She says calmly, “There is a centipede barreling toward your head. I don’t know if you care or not, but if you do, we should do something about it.”
A centipede? Barreling?
I think it over, then pull the buff below my eyes. Sure enough the centipede scoots along a crack coming from the baseboard and heading my way. We will soon be face to face.
“Fine.” I stand up and do a short pace back and forth considering what to do. I don’t think I can kill it. It is too big for me to stomach squishing it.
I need a plastic bag. Stalker C watches my body language. The nearest available plastic bag is on the hygiene product table in the front room. If I go in there, our neighbors’ motion activated light will turn on.
Stalker C reads my mind, “Don’t worry. They won’t wake up.”
I slip past our lightly snoring friends and grab a plastic bag. No one moves when their light comes on.
Back in our room, I realize I need a pen, stick or something slender. I eye Sunshine Rat’s pen on a small table. I walk back in to grab it. Still no one wakes up.
Whew! This is good. Those two will be rested and able to go for help tomorrow when Stalker C and I are not physically able to finish.
I twirl the centipede onto the pen and deposit it into the plastic bag. I poke a tiny hole in hopes of giving oxygen to the centipede and place the bagged friend on the windowsill. “I’ll let you free in the morning, Little One. Hope you make it.”
Back to “bed”.
Stalker C whispers, “Surrender, there’s a spider.”
Oh, dear God. Where?
I roll over toward her and remove enough of my buff to expose my left eye.
“Right there.” She points high on the wall on her side of the room and above our feet.
I say, “That’s like five feet up.”
“It’s been there for a while.”
I have nothing left. “It will go away.”
Or drop right on us. I look toward the window to see if there is any sign of daybreak. Seeing nothing yet, I roll over and slip back into whatever sleep level I can.
I look at the sky through the window. That is not black. I see a little blue.
We can’t let Ted down. I’ll get my stuff together, change my pants and then wake the others.
Assembled, I try to say gently, “Good morning girls. We gotta go. Make sure you have everything.”
Stalker C mumbles, “We can’t disappoint Ted.”
Now that the party stirs, I slip outside to add the wet socks to my dirty laundry bag.
Sunshine says hopeful, “I wonder if Ted is making coffee for us.”
SunFloJo says, “Oh I hope so.”
I pee outside to start the day well–the outdoor bathroom expert that I am. I search each room making sure we haven’t forgotten a single thing or left any crumbs.
The centipede is set free on a porch rail—possibly still alive. It was hard to tell.
The last thing I grab and put on my feet are the socks from the security cameras.
Then we shut the door behind us.
We pass the fountain in the center of Rapidan Camp. Last night Ted told us how the fountain still works, but no one is sure exactly how it drains. I think the fountain looks lonely with no buildings around it anymore. I picture the bear walking by it in the mornings.
The bear isn’t here today, is it? Hopefully it will sleep in after such a stormy night. I keep an eye out just in case.
Passing The Creel house, Sunshine smells for coffee. Nothing. Ted doesn’t have to be up this early. Hopefully we get to see him tonight.
We walk across the bridge and over the river so Stalker C and Sunshine can use the outhouse. They take one step in and walk right back out.
SunFloJo asks the girls, “Smell too bad?”
The girls nod. No way they can accomplish anything in there.
SunFloJo and I stand on the bridge and look over the river that is easier to see from here today in the morning light. Wow, we crossed that yesterday?
We walk on, looking for our next trail.
It is early. Maybe 6:15am or so.
Sunshine looks at her boob-o-meter, “With any luck we’ll be back to Big Meadow by 3pm and have time to shower before Ted arrives.”
That’s a good thought ‘because we need showers. Desperately.
We walk behind Rapidan Camp now. To our left is clearly marked Fork Mountain Trail. But in front of us we have a dilemma. There is a small width trail left of a trail marker post. And about eight feet and to the right of the trail marker is a wider width trail that kind of looks like a road up the hill.
Which one do we take? Which one is Laurel Prong Trail?
We guess that the trail marker being next to the smaller width trail must be the correct answer. So we begin.
Morning sun sparkles through the trees. This trail closely follows a tiny creek that I assume is Laurel Prong Creek. I think about how this looks like where Smurfs might live. There are mushrooms and many moss covered rocks. The landscape is wet and cool from the downpour last night.
We continue half a mile and then the mossy creek trail ends. There is no right, left or forward choice. We picked the wrong trail.
Sunshine says, “Great start, Steam Team. Good thing it is so early.”
Stalker C, “Yeah, we didn’t disappoint Ted. Early start and already an excursion.”
SunFloJo, “We have plenty of time to get to the Tap Room before 6pm.”
Sunshine, “Because that’s trash and laundry time. We gotta be there by then.”
We spread out along the thicket. Sunshine says, “Hold up.” We pause to give Stalker C a moment to pee ahead of us.
Back to the trail marker post we switch gears and head up the hill on what must be the real Laurel Prong Trail.
Uphill.Ouch. My foot to shin angle feels like about 45 degrees.
Soon we enter what feels like an enclosed wet wood forest with more browns than greens. There are many twists and turns.
The tall trees intertwine their branches above our heads to form a roof of leaves. A sea of ferns gathers on the lumpy and bumpy mountainside. The ferns are not as thick as we saw in places yesterday, but their bright green waves contrast the many fallen logs and large rocks.
Occasionally the three front runners pause so I can catch up. We are a human slinky; widening and closing our gaps as we walk.
Surely, we are getting close to the top. This is supposed to be a 5.7 to 6.7-mile day, but I must remember: the trail lies.
Mentally I am prepared for and 8 to 10-mile day, but if it’s all up hill like this I am going to be in trouble. My heart rate is up as if I’m midway through a Jazzercise class or something.
When we have walked 2.5 miles according to Sunshine’s boob-o-meter, we see something.
We stop to look left. Probably 40 feet off the trail is a clearing where someone made a big circle of cut back trees and bushes.
“That must be the fire ring we were supposed to stay in last night,” SunFloJo says.
Stalker C eyes the vast forest in every direction of the burned space. She says, “Oh thank God for Ted. We would never have found that at night.”
“And the mud would have made it rough,” Sunshine Rat adds.
We shake our heads and shiver at the thought. We would have missed it. No doubt.
SunFloJo says, “Well if anyone asks, we stayed overnight at the Fisherman’s camp just outside of the national park just down from Rapidan.”
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.
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends
of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding
no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and
increases the power of the weak.
If necessary, I can convince myself that quitting is the right choice.
Alone time and contemplation in silence could do me good.
I can accept that this adventure may happen differently than I expected, right?
Releasing anger and cleansing my heart can be accomplished in multiple ways.
A man, a woman, and their adorable black lab puppy traipse down the hill.
“Hi,” they say.
Thin and hip in fresh Lands’ End gear, they continue, “There two young ladies near the top who told us to tell you that you’re getting close to them. Keep going. They will wait for you.”
SunFloJo responds. I hear nothing of their conversation and focus my efforts on each painful step over the ascending rocks.
“Yes, Big Meadow is just up there,” they point straight up with their cute dog bouncing around them.
One foot. Next foot. Hold on. Pull. Climb. Repeat.
There they are! Sunshine and Stalker C sit on a huge rock above us. The rock is below campground level. I see the edge of a literal meadow with wispy tall grass above their shoulders.
I peel the borrowed red backpack off my shoulders and place it on the ground next to their rock. Boy, if Amy could see me now. I imagine her thinking of us this week. She survived hiking in Alaska with this backpack, but I might have to call it done here in Virginia. This is not working for me. Today was supposed to be the easy day. How could I possibly survive a day harder than this one?! Tonight we sleep in a camp with other people around. Tomorrow night we will be in the deep woods. Alone. Just the four of us.
I cannot speak yet. Exhaustion vibrates throughout my body. I feel somewhat relieved that Sunshine & Stalker C look tired too. Their packs are on the ground. We push back our sweaty hair and drink water.
We see a marked campsite not far from us. The number 52 is posted on a stake. Someone has their tent ready for the night and a hammock fastened between two trees.
If I quit, then I will miss seeing Rapidan Camp during the hike tomorrow. This thought makes me sad. I was looking forward to seeing the historic site where President Hoover used to frequent in the days before Camp David existed.
I am not; however, looking forward to sleeping in the woods in the middle of nowhere after the history tour. There is a rule on the trail map that says:
“The area within 0.5 miles of Rapidan Camp is closed to campers.
No one may set up a tent near the historic site.”
Our plan tomorrow is to hike a mile past Rapidan at day’s end and then pitch tents. SunFloJo has read about a fire ring that exists somewhere beyond Hoover’s place. Experienced hikers told her that it is easy to miss because the trees are so thick in that area. We will have to watch for it carefully.
Darn. I will miss that scary totally out in the woods all night long feeling, I think mostly with sarcasm.
And then I think, I will miss my hiking friends and worry about them if they are figuring out how to stay safe in the dark without me. How could I miss that part of the adventure?
SunFloJo sets down her pack. As chipper as ever with her pink bandana around her head she says, “You gals hang here. I am going to walk up and find the registration spot.”
The 60-year-old scales the last 30 feet of the mountain top as if it is nothing but a stroll.
Stalker C says, “I don’t know how she does it.”
“Me neither,” I muster out loud while still breathing hard.
Sunshine Rat looks toward the hammock and campsite sign then says, “I wouldn’t mind having a spot in the 50’s.”
We nod. No one wants to walk further.
A thick stone-grey colored caterpillar type insect is crawling on our rock. Stalker C and I are mesmerized by the purple goo emerging from its body. We agree not to touch it. Hopefully, it will not touch us either.
I cannot bear to move away from the goo. My body is stiffening up like the Tin Man needing an oil can.
Sunshine watches two brothers fly on bikes over the ridge above us. They ride straight down the rocks into the nearly dry creek bed. They are impressive and daring.
SunFloJo ambles down the hill to bring us news, “We’re going to campsite 9.”
9?! 9 is 43 campsites away from 52.
We wince at the number, but the short rest has helped a little. The girls stand up and head the correct direction.
I put on the backpack and whisper to SunFloJo as we scale the last climb of the day, “I might need to stay here for the rest of the week. If I do, you must promise me you three will go on. You’ve got this. I don’t think I can.”
“Oh, honey, if we don’t make it through. It’s ok. I don’t want to leave you alone.”
“I will be safe here on my own. Really. You know I can use the time to reflect even if I’m hanging out quietly at a campsite. I don’t want to be the reason you don’t finish the recon mission. You have to promise me that you’ll go on…even if I don’t.”
SunFloJo takes this in. I see her brain churn as we finally reach level ground. Right now, we have got to get across blacktop, through all the parked campers and RVs. Houses on wheels? Genius.
My feet limp along the pavement. My trekking poles are almost too heavy to carry at this point. I tell SunFloJo, “I’ll sleep on it and see how I feel in the morning, but it is a possibility that I remain. I can read or whatever. There’s more than one way for me to find my center on this trip.”
Finally, we reach Campsite 9. It is open and airy compared to the first night. Tall grass surrounds the site, but there is no narrow-weeded path to walk through. I am thankful. It feels less critter filled although as soon as I have that thought, I immediately hear a father and son next door at Campsite 8 talking about how a bear walked right by their tent last night.
Then a deer walks up to greet us. Of course. Hello, Rosemary Spirit.
I remember Sunshine’s wisdom from earlier in the trip: “We are in the Wild and the Wild is in us.”
“What’s that?” Stalker C asks about a metal box on legs next to our campsite.
“It is a bear box,” SunFloJo answers.
I’ve never seen one before. It is approximately four by three feet wide and about two feet up off the ground. Food and extras can go in there overnight. The box lightens our load and helps us have less concerns.
Then I realize there is a camp bathroom. Glorious. I leave my pack and go check it out. Running water boosts my gratitude.
Back at the campsite I look for a soft mossy area to pitch my tent. My body does not want to bend, but I manage to stake the tent and use the strings to make it more secure from wind. I place the moth ball bags at the foot and head of my tent. I place a few bags around the girls’ tent.
I free my feet and put on flip flops. The air around my toes feels so good. I reapply bug spray to my ankles, neck, and elbows.
SunFloJo also frees her feet. She is sitting on her yellow sleep pad next to a tree and sorting items in her bag. She pulls off socks and reaches for her Crocs. I notice behind her is a beautiful view of the steep valley we climbed out of today.
“SunFlo, get out Flat Kevin! This is a great picture spot.”
SunFloJo poses proudly with Flat Kevin. I snap the pic with the view in the background.
I observe, “He never complains.”
She adds, “He is wonderful to have on the trail with us. I will show him these pictures when I get back. He’ll love it.”
SunFloJo calls to the group, “I hear there’s a tap room with food up at the lodge. Do you want to go?”
Still dirty and sweaty, we are all in! She said food!
This is the first time I feel somewhat hungry today. I may not be up to eating much, but at least I feel like attempting to eat.
We walk the narrow path in our flip flops and crocs toward the lodge. It is uphill and I try not to be bothered by that fact. Ouch, my legs ache.
The Big Meadow Tap Room is in the basement of the lodge. I take the steep stairs down one foot at a time sideways. We arrive to find quaint wood walls, wood floors and red checkered tablecloths. This would be a good location for a movie scene. I pause to look through the back windows to see a wonderful view of the mountains as the sun begins to set.
I know my body needs the fuel, but I cannot manage to eat much. The heat, pain and exhaustion have gotten to me. Also, I have minimal cash to get through the week. I anticipated mostly non-spending days.
I split a personal sized margherita pizza with Sunshine. Stalker C and SunFloJo split an order of wings. We down lots of water from glass Mason Jars. No one speaks much. Maybe our bodies are still fathoming the endurance required today.
I notice lines of dirt on each person’s face and arms.
Stalker C says, “I seriously did not think we would ever get to the top of that last hill.”
We all agree. It was brutal.
When a few young male hikers walk into the tap room, Stalker C snickers at Sunshine, “Well, you may meet someone on this trip after all.”
SunFloJo and I exchange looks.
Sunshine shares that one of her relatives said the trip might be good for “meeting people” because neither of them have found a nice young man to settle down with yet during college.
“Oh my,” I chuckle.
“Well, we have something new to work on besides surviving,” SunFloJo says.
It feels good to rest and laugh.
When we pass the community laundry and bathroom building, we see a sign that says:
None of us anticipated a shower opportunity by this point in the week. We gather our hygiene items.
Sunshine giggles, “Five twenty-five for one twenty-five.”
I marvel at my less than a sandwich size Ziploc bag of bathing supplies. I stocked up on miniature items at the REI store for such an occasion. I have a floss size box of camping soap that includes soap made of tiny paper sheets inside. I have a toothbrush that folds and a tiny tube of toothpaste.
SunFloJo has even smaller versions of these items because she pre-packed everything into even smaller plastic bags. Her toothpaste is the paste alone inside a 1inch-by-1inch bag. Her soap papers are also in a tiny bag. She tossed the container before the trip. Every ounce of weight matters. I observe, and I learn. The nine months of planning she did was valuable.
I brought plenty of quarters. I shower twice because an extra rinse is required to get camping soap out of my thick hair. Now I have fewer quarters which mean less weight. And I used the two feet by two feet ultra-absorbent towel to dry my body. It reminds me of the ShamWow cloth I use to clean the stainless-steel fridge door at home.
Anything that I can justify not carrying around I am going to trash. This pains me because it will cost money to replace some items. But if I can figure out how to keep going on this trip by lightening my load, I will. For example, I toss my worn underwear in the garbage. So long, undies!
I feel somewhat better after food and a shower. Tired, but better. I sit on a picnic table contemplating my ability to hike status while my ankles and back throb.
SunFloJo asks, “Whatcha thinking?”
“I am thinking that I may be getting my second wind. If we are able to rest tonight and if I’m able to leave some stuff here, then maybe I could go on. I wonder if the lodge rents storage lockers or something?”
“Yes, lighten your pack. Good idea.”
“And maybe I’ll take you up on the shoe swap? What do you think? I don’t want your feet to suffer.”
“No, I bet I will be fine in your shoes. I think the wide toe front design of my shoe is what you need with all these hills and rocks.”
That makes sense. “Ok, let’s see how I feel in the morning.”
“Ok. Yay, girl!”
SunFloJo treats us to s’mores over the fire. A camp store the size of a closet had the fixings of chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers. I personally cannot manage to eat any. Normally I love that stuff. This fact reminds me that this is a special kind of tired. Who turns down chocolate otherwise?
At 9pm we walk to brush our teeth in the concrete block bathroom across from campsite 9. SunFlo asks if Stalker C or I would like some Benadryl. It feels like she is some type of pusher meeting us in the bathroom with her tiny bag of pink pills.
Um, yes please. The idea of sleeping whether I want to or not sounds fabulous, and I know that will help me get through the first uncomfortable hours on the ground. The three of us partake. Sunshine doesn’t need any. She can sleep anywhere which Stalker C attests is true.
I unzip and crawl into my one-person tent happily knowing that rest will come. Sleep will help me no longer feel the pain in my feet and legs. And there is a chance I might be able to continue the journey on foot tomorrow. We shall see.
Crickets sing their tune. I smell grass all around me that will be damp from dew before the night is done. I pray for the wisdom to know if I am physically and mentally able to continue the trail. I pray that God will let me know what the safest plan is. Should I carry on or should I camp right here for the next few days?
I pray for family and friends back home. I pray that Paul is ok. I don’t have a phone to tell him that I’m alright. He doesn’t expect to hear from me until Saturday. I do sense him with me, and I hope he feels my telepathy greetings. He may be pointing right now to a place on the map and saying to Ben, “Mom is here tonight.”
I fall asleep praying.
JUNE 2, 2016
Mostly it is still dark in my tent, but I peek to see that light is coming. I feel something against my cheek through the nylon. I hear and feel a slither on the outside wall next to my head. It is a different sound than the sniff and scurry I heard the night before.
%^&!@! Ineffective moth balls!
I am not unzipping the tent. No one has said it is morning. Benadryl is my friend.
Trying to be away from the outer wall, I roll over and attempt to ignore the familiar sharp pains in my back. Parts of me feel rested. I will snooze as long as possible.
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.
Thanks for reading and/or listening!
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When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. Psalm 56:3
When we arrive at our campsite, I am surprised. Beyond our parking spot, all I see is waist high grass and trees. It does not look like a camping spot to me.
Of course, what do I really know about camping?
SunFloJo points to the 1-foot-wide path that leads to a sign with our reserved spot number 1A1.
That is where we are going to sleep? In there? Inside all that green stuff? Oh dear.
I grab my 3.5 lb. tent sack; ultra-lightweight sleeping bag and the few things I may need overnight like one of the last of two Pepsi cans from the cooler. I mentally prepare to let go of life conveniences. We sleep at a campsite tonight. Tomorrow morning we begin the trail.
We walk down the narrow path. I try not to think about what is lurking in the tall weeds near my ankles.
The clearing for site 1A1 is small. We discover there is already a tent in that location. I notice that tent’s spot is on top of soft earth compared to the rest of the area.
We do not see a person. They appear to be inside for the night. We can see a lantern and the shadow of a book.
Down the path from us I see a big family size tent by the post in the ground that reads 1A3. Their tent is a big orange ball, out of place inside the soft green forest.
We set up near the fire pit and picnic table. There are many gnarly root systems and not much space for our 3 tents. We are either setting up in 1A1 with the mystery human, or the area we are in is 1A2. But I do not see a sign for that number.
Paul suggested before I left that even though I have learned to set up my own shelter, it would go faster if we ladies give each other a hand steadying the poles. Set up one tent, then the next and so forth. Seemed like a good idea.
The younger gals are already a team because they plan to share a 2-person tent. They get to work pulling out their supplies.
I notice SunFloJo has the exact same brand of 1-person tent as I do. I ask if she wants to take turns helping each other with the poles. “Oh no, I’m fine,” She says busy and very into the solo process.
Note to self: I have got to remember that part of this trip for SunFloJo is about doing things on her own.
So, I set up my tent alone while eyeing every leaf and blade of grass for potential creatures. It is a few simple steps. I stake in the ends into the ground hoping the sides do not collapse on me overnight. I consider the extra cord staking. It is not supposed to be windy tonight, so I skip it.
I look over to SunFloJo who is already done. She calls her tent “the womb”. She looks forward to getting in there. I do not feel the same. Proud of her progress, she moves on to the task of starting a fire. She goes to get a lighter from the car.
I dig out my snake and rodent repellent plan, then place bags of moth balls at the head and foot of my tent. I place a bag behind the girls’ tents because I promised Stalker C that I would. I wonder if SunFloJo would mind me messing with nature in this way, but I am not going to ask.
Stalker C and Sunshine Rat giggle at themselves. They just about have their 2-person tent together.
I turn my eyes to the deep woods side of camp wondering what is in there. Then lo and behold I see a deer climb the forest hill and walk right up to our camp. It is a large doe with zero fear of us. She looks elderly.
Not wanting to make sudden movements, I whisper toward the girls’ tent, “Stalker C! It’s Rosemary.”
Stalker C and Sunshine emerge carefully from their tent to the awe of Rosemary’s presence. Night is setting in. We could not be happier with our visitor. It is too dark to see our smiles, but I feel the shared energy.
SunFloJo makes it back just in time, “Aw, Stalker C, you got your wish. How about that. Your sweet grandmother is thinking of you.”
“She is,” Stalker C chokes up.
Rosemary the deer leaves gracefully as if to say, “Just stopping by. Have fun.” We settle into the joy of our brief visitor.
We search for sticks to roast hot dogs. From the limited supply of what we can see, we choose sticks that are a bit soft. Sunshine opens a little Rubbermaid container of onions. I like onions usually, but the smell tonight turns my stomach. No thank you.
Sunshine and I try to roast the first dog. It slips right off the stick into the fire. Yuck.
We fashion the flimsy sticks to hold the dogs better. Night is here. We are going to eat most of these hot dogs half raw. I am sure of it.
Finding our headlamps, the party continues. No one wants to wander into the woods to find better sticks. We make the best of our cooking limitations.
The smell of the fire combines with the crunch of old leaves on the ground and the smell of fresh spring leaves above us.
SunFloJo is happy with her hot dog and one beer.
I take one bite of my dog. That is good enough dinner for me.
Sunshine enjoys her dog with onion, “Mmm.”
Stalker C drizzles a ketchup packet along her bun.
Soaking in the experience, Sunshine announces, “We’re in the Wild and the Wild is in us.”
Well said. We toast to that.
A gallon size Ziploc bag is opened to collect smelly items. Any food or trash will go back into the car.
I sense this might be the birthday moment I am looking for. And I do not want to carry anything into the woods unless I absolutely need it for survival tomorrow.
The small lamp goes dim inside our 1A1 neighbor’s tent as I jog to the vehicle to grab the mini Babe Ruth cake and candles.
Stalker C knows about the flammable glue. When I return, I see acknowledgement in her eyes under the headlamp. She is ready to put out the fire or deal with an explosion if needed.
Darkness surrounds us and sleep calls to our internal clocks.
I light the candle, “SunFloJo.”
She turns my way. I say, “I didn’t get to celebrate your birthday properly this year so tonight we are celebrating you and your dream to begin hiking the AT. Happy Birthday! Many wonderful adventures await!”
SunFloJo tilts her headlamp toward the crafty cake, “Oh, I love it!”
She clasps her hands. SunFloJo makes a wish and blows out the candle. “This is so cute. Babe Ruth is my favorite candy bar. Let’s eat dessert right now.” She rips open a candy bar and puts it in her mouth. We begin to do the same.
I see SunFloJo make a yuck face. “It tastes like…”
She continues, “Glue!”
The girls laugh.
SunFloJo reaches for the garbage Ziploc bag that quickly turns into the garbage and spit bag.
I whisper, “I’m sorry!”
But we all think it is funny–even me reluctantly.
Oops. I ruined that adorable candy bar cake with glue somehow seeping to the nougat through the wrappers. Fortunately, SunFloJo has more to drink to wash out the terrible taste.
We gather the things going to the car and shove them into the hatch.
It is time. We are going to have to pee before bed.
The girls are not up for finding a spot in the weeds.
SunFloJo says, “Wanna go out on the pavement? We can turn off the headlamps.”
There is a collective sigh. That is the best option for tonight. No going back home now.
We line up about 5 feet apart along the parking lot and turn off our lights.
I think carefully about how to squat and not get my pants or feet wet. It is time to put into practice the lessons I have learned from YouTube.
Urine flows in unison. We snicker in the dark.
Then pants are pulled up.
Someone says, “Alright ladies.” Headlamps turn on. We observe 4 lines of pee streaming downhill.
Stepping over our success, we traipse down the path back to camp. Time to climb into our tents as the triumphant four that we are.
We whisper good night. I inspect the brush and leaves outside my tent near where my head will be.
I take a deep breath. I am going in. The tent opening is short. I stoop to crawl into the doorway.
Zipped inside the tent, I remember and am glad that I used unscented deodorant today. I do not want to have any curious smells in here that animals would want to investigate.
It is lonely inside the tent.
It is just my body and mere inches to the nylon material around me.
Not much space.
My body wiggles in an attempt to be comfortable. Ouch to the left. Ouch to the right. There is no avoiding the rough ground beneath me.
I turn back on my headlamp. I try to read. I attempt the same sentence several times. Not happening.
I close the book. I peek at the plastic urinal near my feet that I brought just in case.
I move the tent zipper pulls so that they are lined up at the top of the tent, not the bottom. Nothing is getting in here with me if I can help it!
Being tall there is no way to sit up well in my 1-person tent. When I attempt to sit up, then I feel like the whole thing is going to fall apart.
The girls in their 2-person tent about 8 feet to my left are talking softly. I can visualize their attempt to get settled also.
It is getting more and more quiet outside in the night air. A new sound emerges from SunFloJo’s tent about 4 feet to my right. She is sawing logs. I recall that she did a sleep study last year for snoring. No CPAP machine available out here in the wild. Good, maybe the sound will keep animals away. Or will it invite them to investigate the sound?!
The girls become silent. Good for them.
I toy with hanging the headlamp from the top of the tent, but it falls on my head.
The worn-out sleep pad is not helpful. I twist, turn, and repeat.
Cutting through the quiet I hear Stalker C call out, “Surrender?!”
I hesitate, then say, “Yeah?”
“Is there still a hot dog in the fire pit?”
I pause to consider the question.
I think about the last time I saw the fire pit. SunFloJo and I kicked the ash around to kill the fire before bed. I do not recall seeing any remains of the first slippery hot dog that fell.
A responsible big sister type person would get out of her tent and go check the ashes. That is not me tonight. There is no way I am getting out of this tent in the dark.
I send my voice in their direction, “It burned up in the fire.” It must have, right?
Silence. Through the nothingness I hear her concern.
I add, “I promise.”
Stalker C says, “Thank you.”
I really really really hope I am telling the truth. I did not see the hot dog. It must have burned. Surely.
My heart races thinking about how many videos talked about being odor and food free at camp. Our one vital task was to put everything smelly into the car tonight. One task! And now I lay here questioning everything: every crumb, every move we made setting up camp. Were we careful?
The girls softly giggle and talk again. They probably are discussing the hopefully burned up hot dog.
Then from beyond the girls’ tent I hear a new voice.
The person resting on the softest terrain in 1A1 sounds like a “he”.
Words sail out from the mystery tent that was set up before we arrived.