You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal. Isaiah 26: 3-4
Sunshine Rat says, “What if we empty the car into the bear box, lay down the back seats, and then sleep in the car?”
Body language that we barely can read in the dark seems to agree, so we get to work. First, we put on our headlamps.
As the thunder and lightning teases the atmosphere, we gather everything we can fit in our arms and take it up the small incline to the bear box.
We brush teeth quickly in the most glorious and welcomed concrete block bathroom. Then we nestle inside the CRV. The girls thrash about in the back until they make comfortable spots. SunFloJo leans back the driver’s seat, and I lean back the passenger seat.
I unfastened my bra and wonder if my legs will get a blood clot by morning in this somewhat scrunched position. I tell myself that I will wake up enough times to adjust my legs.
Into the dark car I make up a story, “Well, Sunshine. You heard him. Tank will be in Vermont by Labor Day to marry you. Your mom can rest assured you’re not going to be single forever.”
The car erupts in giggles. Of course, everyone agrees with my fiction.
The Steam Team agrees to meet in Vermont for Tank & Sunshine’s big day.
As the car occupants consider sleep, I add, “Guess who is camping next door?”
“Who?” Stalker C asks.
“What?!” SunFloJo strains to see. The car windows begin to fog up.
“No way!” Stalker C sits up.
“True story,” I say.
Sunshine Rat snorts a little, “I could NOT believe when he barreled by at the top of the mountain at our last intersection!”
I say, “Me either!”
SunFloJo says, “And now he’s here wondering why in the world he can’t shake us!”
“Oh no,” Stalker C is looking at her phone. We have slowly realized that we can connect with the outside world again. Stalker C is searching on Facebook, “I think Tank may be engaged.”
I insist, “I do not hear that.”
Sunshine says, “Aww.” I detect sarcasm and sleepiness.
“That won’t last,” I say. “The real wedding is still on. Vermont. Labor Day. Be there.”
SunFloJo cracks the windows a little to relieve some of our fog.
The youngest of us begin to fade.
SunFloJo whispers to me that she is going to unlock the doors, “This way the first one up doesn’t disturb the whole campground with the car security alarm.” This is not her first sleep-in-the-car rodeo.
I stare at stars in the sky through the sunroof until intermittent conversation, giggles and foggy windows give way to sleep one person at a time.
SunFloJo is the last to speak. She touches my left arm, “I’m so glad you came with me and that you were able to finish.”
“Me too,” I whisper. “Thank you for the invite.”
As the sound of silence outside the vehicle circles the sound of breaths drifting away inside, I notice Flat Kevin’s head poking out of SunFloJo’s bag. I move slowly to avoid disturbing others and pull him out of her bag gently.
You can watch the stars with me, Kevin. I smile at his pleasant face. I set him on the dashboard and use my shirt sleeve to de-fog a little starry night view just for Kevin. I pray for him and his family.
Sigh. My body can truly relax now.
Dear God, I surrender. I make room for Your will and the supernatural. Show me, lead me. Amen
Steady rain arrives, rocking my brain to sleep.
JUNE 4, 2016
I need to use the restroom. I quietly roll my knee opposite from the passenger door. Can I open the car door and close the door without waking up my friends?
Friends. The word hits me in my gut after a week of bonding.
I’m going to miss them.
My cell phone camera near, I manage to take a quick pic of our final night’s accommodation.
SunFloJo is curled in a ball facing the driver’s side door. Stalker C is sleeping on her tummy with her feet crossed in the air against the hatch door. Sunshine Rat is buried deep in her sleeping bag.
Ok. I can do this. I slip out the door and gently shut it back. No one stirs.
I half walk, half stumble away and around the CRV so I don’t risk making noise near the car.
Brrr, the morning air is chilly. I see mountain top clouds or fog all around me.
Deer! There are deer in all four directions. One is right next to the bathroom and doesn’t flinch as I slip by her and into the little building.
I splash water on my face and refasten my ponytail holder. When I walk back up the small hill from the bathroom, Shut-Up-Guy is walking down the path toward me. Another full circle moment.I wish the other Steam Team members were seeing this.
I tip toe beyond the CRV, into the tall grass of our would-have-been camp site. I open the bear box lifting the door carefully so that the metal doesn’t squeak.
Dew is heavy on the grass. I notice my one-person tent is sagging from the weight of the dew. I line up our bags, odds and ends on the picnic table. I take my tent apart, flicking slugs off which soar toward a nearby tree.
From the picnic table, I collect garbage and take it to a campground waste can near the showers. I repack my backpack and take a seat to watch the sun rise in its fullness until the gals wake up.
SunFloJo is next to roll out of the vehicle.
Soon the girls follow making quick work of reassembling the back seats so we can load the CRV.
I marvel how quietly we all work together with common goals today and every day this week.
With the car packed and Campsite 2 empty, we walk up to the lodge.
It looks different than when we went to the Tap Room last night. The large wood and stone building stands stoic, solid as if to say it endures the test of time beyond those who pass through it.
Today we sit in the row of upstairs rocking chairs to read Deb’s last question. I look through the large windows to the blue haze of mountains and valleys. I’m going to miss this view.
Sunshine Rat & SunFloJo sip coffee.
“Ready?” I ask.
“Yes,” all nod or speak in agreement.
I say, “This is from the envelope marked ‘Journey’s End’:
‘Dorothy & crew were in one moment both exactly who they had always been and also forever changed by their journey. How is this also true for you? Why or why not?’”
“Hmm.” The rocking chairs softly move. We ponder the question and stare out the windows silently.
Technically part of the little slip of paper from Deb had said, ‘for the car ride home’.
As we ponder, I suspect none of us are quite ready to answer. I know I’m not yet. I offer, “This is a deep question. Maybe we need some time to think about it?”
Sunshine Rat says, “Yeah, let’s think it over and talk about it on the drive back.”
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.
Stalker C does not pass out although her eyes may pop out of her head any minute. Her mouth remains slightly open.
Nightfall is near. The hours of rain bring darkness sooner than we anticipated.
SunFloJo looks at my camera and then nods toward the poo.
After waiting until Stalker C moves ahead of us, I take a picture of the bear scat.
“Thank you, sweetie,” SunFloJo says.
It is unclear if the poo pic is evidence for the search party when we go missing after a bear drags us away or for a tale to tell when we get back home. I do not ask.
We walk on through the increasingly dense trees.
Inside my head I chuckle. Turns out a bear does **** in the woods.
And with that thought, I instantly am in a squelched fit of giggles at the back of the line. I silently consider the creation of greeting cards and funny texts and who-knows-what marketing hype around the bear scat theme. Perhaps I am delirious at this point of the day?
I fall further behind, but I see the Steam Team’s colored backpacks ahead through the rain and dripping leaves. The trail leads us down, down, step over poo, down, more poo, down. Slide. Adjust footing. Down. We hear water flowing. It grows louder. Maybe there is a creek up due to the rain.
We must be getting close to Rapidan Camp. This is what I have been waiting for!
Despite the water sounds, there is still more trail and time for my mind to wander. I think about our friend Deb and feel her in spirit. I bet she is thinking about us too. Perhaps she is looking at a copy of our trail plan. She likes historical places. We share that in common. I think about how she crafted the trail questions knowing that all four of us are at crossroads in our lives.
The three ahead of me pause. I catch up with the group. I am out of breath. Maybe we will take time to rest.
What. Is. That?
The group faces a fast-paced waterfall that crashes into something much more than a creek. It is a river.
As I contemplate the beauty of the waterfall–I want to soak in all the beauty today—I am surprised that SunFloJo begins to cross the river!
Wait a minute.
Have we thought this through?
There is a big gap between the land I stand on and the land on the other side. With all the rain today, the water flows fast. The water looks deep. Much deeper than a creek anyway. We stand at the foot of the mountain we just descended and across from us is a new mountain to ascend.
My brain searches my memory of the map. I do not remember crossing a river at any point on the trail.
Is this Rapidan River?
I look down our side of the riverbank. Shouldn’t we be going that way? Along the river on this side instead of crossing it?
That may be an overgrown path to our left. It is hard to tell and just out of my reach. I can see debris and trees that are uprooted in the mud covering what may be where our trail goes. That looks like more of a trail to me. I am too tired to walk over and investigate. Every calorie burned matters at this point in the day. Also, I do not want to risk being lost from the team.
Why am I so darn slow that I catch up after decisions are made? Can we talk about this?
Nature is loud here. There is no talking.
SunFloJo is three large wet rocks into the river right along the bottom of the falls where the river is white from the rush of rapids. To the left of her looks deep and moves fast.
I squint to see a tree with a yellow blaze symbol on the other side of the river. Wow, I guess we are physically crossing the river. I was not expecting this at all.
Fearless SunFloJo looks back at us and points to the tree on the other side with a yellow blaze. I choose to trust that she knows what she is doing. That must be the blaze we are looking for to continue the trail. I must be wrong about staying on this side of the river.
Does she not know there is water underfoot that will take her away? Or is that just me being overly cautious?
Sunshine Rat is carefree with good balance. She makes it to the other side and waits for us.
Stalker C sways on a rock, then catches herself. She makes it.
One rock. Two. Step, step. Rain continues. The sky is a dark green gray. My pack is heavy. Will the pack ruin my balance? Will I fall? The water races beneath me. One slip will be trouble. Please do not fall.
I use my poles to steady myself hoping they will not slip either.
Sunshine Rat points, “Watch that one. It’s wiggly.”
That was nice of her. I step quickly right, left, into the mud and arrive at the opposite side of the river.
And then we are off on what feels like a fresh start. How can we start a new journey this late in the day? I am not sure what time it is. I wonder where in the heck is Rapidan Camp?
My concerns quickly fade because there is a new type of beauty over here. It is hard to imagine how each area could be so new to me in the woods, but this is different. My mind is all in even if my body screams. There is black earth underfoot with skinny trees and leaves stretching to a sky we cannot see. We climb up the hill, higher and higher above the river.
This takes a bit of physical effort, but thank you, Lord, this is gorgeous. Rain is heavy now and I do not care. We make it to a ridge pathway that overlooks the river to our left down below. The river looks smaller as we travel higher.
We walk and walk. I ease into meditation again. No words come to mind. I am at peace. My mind is blank.
Water drips from my eyelashes.
Higher and higher we climb. I forget the concern I felt when we crossed the river. I forget how tired my body is.
We hear the water below and feel drops from the sky. My walking poncho tent somewhat keeps my backpack dry.
I remain in the back of the line. SunFloJo turns to check on me occasionally. I nod to acknowledge her kindness.
Now the trail slopes back down the hill overlooking what I still assume is Rapidan River.
The day feels like it gets longer and longer, but the dark sky seems to think the day is already done. Hopefully, we get in and out of Rapidan Camp soon. We may only have a short visit since we have to walk another 1.5 miles after visiting in order to set up tents for the night.
Down the hill below me I see Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo pull out the official map. They consult with one another. They look serious. This barely registers in my brain because I am one with the trees.
Like me, Stalker C must have been in a Zen state. She abruptly stops her downhill inertia in order to not run over SunFloJo and Sunshine Rat.
As I approach, Stalker C’s face turns in horror to look at me. In slow motion, her mouth says, “We might be lost. We might have gone the wrong way.”
This news is a magnesium fire starter. Flames engulf my peace.
With zero thought, words fly out of my mouth, “We should not have crossed that #*&%@%^ river!”
Let the rivers clap their hands; Let the mountains sing together for joy.
Psalm 98: 8
We step back from the edge to set our backpacks on a large rock next to an underwhelming sign in the shape of an arrow that reads “Lewis Springs Falls”. I remember from researching the trip that it is 81 feet tall and the fourth largest falls in Shenandoah National Park.
I reach behind me to separate my shirt, sweat, and skin. Feels good. My shoulders are free.
A wood burned sign says we are at an elevation of 2800 feet. SunFloJo removes her shoes and socks.
Sunshine Rat’s eyes meet mine. Then Stalker C and I exchange a look. What is SunFloJo doing?
I choose to trust her. There is a cliff and deep canyon to our right. To the left is a narrow rocky path toward the waterfalls. SunFloJo navigates the damp route. I grab Ben’s old camera. I pull the wrist strap over my hand.
We follow SunFloJo. The rush of water grows louder. We sidestep with the mountain wall against our backsides.
Silence falls over our team when we turn a corner. Our bodies gently lower to sit on rocks of varying heights. I am comfortable sitting about four feet from the water flow. Mist sprays us with nature’s air conditioning.
To our left water rushes above our heads over rocks through trees and over bright green moss. One large rock causes the water to flow left or right. Then the water rejoins and skips over the cliff’s edge to our right.
On her bottom, SunFloJo crabwalks even closer to the water feet first. Her hands keep her steady. Soon I do not see her feet or most of her legs. She knows this is water with momentum, right? She knows this is a rushing waterfall with a deep drop off, correct?
Yeah, she knows, I tell myself while simultaneously considering what to tell her family if something goes wrong. She is not far from my grasp if I need to act quickly.
SunFloJo relaxes her feet into the cool water that races past us with no view of where it goes beyond the cliff. She somehow stops short of the possibility of being swept away.
We four rest and gaze at the fast water.
My mind turns to my troubles and grasps nothingness at the same time. I am double numb and it is not a bad spot to be in for a while. I soak in the beauty of each tree in my sight, noticing that they all lean toward the water.
Here you go, God, please take my anger. I do not want to carry it any longer.
I visualize throwing a big pile of stuff over the falls. Emotions, disappointment, and fear. Here you go.
Help me, Lord. I thought I answered your call. Show me what to do.
I hope that bugs do not crawl in my pants as I sit here. I tuck pant legs into my socks.
Lord, I thought creating the non-profit was what you wanted. Was I wrong? Should I walk away? What do You want? Finances are killing me and our family. Please lead us where we should go.
The water roars louder now than I remember when we first sat down.
“How’s it going, Surrender?” SunFloJo scoots backward up the rocks away from her toe dipping spot. “Water is nice and cold.”
A nod is all I offer in this serenity moment. I wonder from her serious jawline if she has been thinking of her nephew Kevin. Or maybe about what her retirement will look like soon or both.
Someone says, “Let’s take pictures.”
I push myself up to a standing position. Ouch.
We move to a safer location. Stalker C & Sunshine pose together. Then we take individual pictures with the drop off in the background. Stalker C twirls one of my trekking poles. It is a funny picture. I laugh.
We reunite with backpacks and find a fork in the trail. Our trail plan leads us to an incline. Oh no. Not yet. I do not want to go uphill. But back up a different section of the next mountain is required. Day Hikers pass us going and coming from the falls.
The rocky ascent follows the stream behind the waterfall. Following the water provides cool air.
Trees form a canopy. It is like we move through a forest tube with a thick green roof. The terrain is steep. Rocks wiggle under my feet and threaten my ankles. I give thanks for the grace of extra ankle support.
SunFloJo hangs back to check on the caboose: me. I suspect she wonders how I am doing since there are as many rocks going up on the Blue Blaze trail as there were coming down.
We read a sign that says:
FALLS CAN KILL
STAY ON THE TRAIL
Comforting. Maybe they should post that coming from the other direction too.
“1 point!” Sunshine Rat brings back the Caterpillar Game after our time at the waterfall.
“Oh, a chipmunk, 5 points!”
We build up Tap Room points again.
I feel mostly good. At least better than yesterday. The shade protects us from the heat and sun. My feet struggle with twists and turns on the rocks as we climb.
Stalker C asks with slightly strained breathing, “How long was this section supposed to be?”
Sunshine answers, “.7 miles.”
Stalker C, “And how long has it actually been so far?”
Sunshine pauses to look inside her shirt to check the boob-o-meter then announces, “1.2 miles.”
Stalker C mumbles, “The trail lies.”
Among the green and brown landscape, a random pink stuffed monkey is Velcro strapped to a tree. We each stare at the out of place bright color as we pass by and march on.
We emerge from the thick covered path. The terrain changes to less tree cover. More sunlight filters through the leaves.
We see a door in the side of a hill that seems out of place. It reminds me of a Hobbit door in the Shire from Lord of the Rings–but taller. I hear rushing water behind the door as we pass. I later learn this is Lewis Spring House and an access road is nearby. A lot of water for the national park comes from this location.
After passing the door, we arrive at a post marker. It tells us we have reached the Appalachian Trail: The White Blaze. This is where we turn right back onto the AT. What I can see of the next jaunt appears to cut across the mountain instead of ascending or descending. Yay!
But first it is time for lunch. We sit in the crossroad of the two trails and dig out food bags. Still Bag E for me. I may never finish it. I stare at my food knowing I should fuel myself even if I don’t want any of it.
Stalker C says, “My feet are killing me.” She shares that she has corns on her toes. She takes off her shoes and socks.
I do not want to look. She thinks she might need surgery.
I give in and look. Yep, that looks painful.
Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo sit on the ground on one side of the trail. Stalker C and I sit on the opposite side on fallen timbers.
As munching begins, I ask, “Is it time to read our next On the Journey question from Deb?”
“Yes!” The group says.
“Day 2: Poppy Fields. Dorothy, et al., veered from their path through the poppy fields causing them to fall asleep. What are the poppy fields in your life that cause you to slumber and delay reaching your goal(s)?”
We consider the topic.
SunFloJo says, “Taking on too much sometimes without pausing for some me time. Recently I decided to only commit to a max of three evening activity nights out per week. That’s helping me be more centered and giving me more time for meditation or down time as needed.”
I go next, “Self-discipline. The last few years I keep working on discipline, but it’s still an issue for me to stay focused and diligent each day on the most important priorities.”
Stalker C and Sunshine both giggle and say, “Procrastination.” I suspect there is an inside joke about their college days within that one word.
We did not see many people in recent hours, but now while sitting where the AT crosses Lewis Falls Trail, people appear. Most are passing through along the AT in either direction.
From the south, which is to the right of my sitting spot, a tall athletic couple probably in their late 50’s stroll into view. They wear perfectly coordinating grey and navy moisture wicking (expensive) clothing. His silver hair is neatly cut. Her medium length gray-blonde hair is pulled into a ponytail at the base of her neck. I notice their shiny trekking poles and the fancy skort she is wearing.
“Hi,” The silver haired man says as he is about to pass on by. Then the lady stops causing him to pause his stride. I think she is glad to chat with new people. Sunshine and SunFloJo engage with them.
I finally dip tortilla pieces into a mini peanut butter container. Nothing tastes good.
Stalker C sits on the ground to my left. She mouths to me I have to pee.
Across from us Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo yak it up with our visitors. The couple has “enjoyed the marvelous AT this morning”.
He points to where we are going next, “It’s not too bad, mostly level that direction.”
Stalker C’s eyes grow frustrated as her personal emergency lingers. The couple turns toward our side. Stalker C says nothing to them and does not make eye contact. I use an old office life move. I stand up and say, “Have a nice day. Nice to meet you.” Standing up usually prompts people to move along at work.
They indeed say their farewells and continue their hike.
Stalker C waits a few minutes for them to continue toward the north. Then, deciding they are far enough gone, she walks a little toward the same direction to find a safe spot to find relief.
But what do ya know? From the south another two humans appear. I shake my head. Stalker C does not get her pants down. She walks back to us. Her body language says, “Sigh….”
I mouth to Sunshine that Stalker needs to pee, but I am not sure if Sunshine catches my message.
Oh, look, it is another happy day hiker couple with small backpacks. Man, my sugar level must be low. I feel grouchy.
After taking a better look, I am not sure if the new people are a couple or mother and son. He is tall, has dark hair, a healthy pudge going on, but is not fat in my book (because you know my book is oversized from the beginning. I try not to judge, but here I am judging). I cannot tell his age. He could be 40’s. He could be 50’s with a little Just for Men hair dye going on. No clue.
The woman he is with I guess to be in her 50’s or early 60’s. She is about three quarters of his height, much shorter in comparison. Stalker C’s leg is bouncing.
SunFloJo begins to converse with them. He responds to one of her questions, “We love the outdoors. We had a lovely time hiking in Jackson Hole, Wyoming last year.”
Sunshine looks over at Stalker C and me. We are on the ground level compared to our standing guests. Stalker C and I mouth again that Stalker has immediate needs.
Sunshine nods casually. She gets it, but then asks the couple another question.
Is that a slight smirk on Sunshine Rat’s face? Perhaps she is messing with her roommate for fun.
I notice something. What is sticking out of that man’s backpack? A teddy bear face and two furry arms poke out of the top.
The woman catches my observation. She says with a smile, “Oh we got that bear on one of our trips. We take it on all our hikes ever since.”
Hmm, so they routinely hike together. I am still not sure of their relationship.
Stalker C crosses her legs and then re-crosses, but the conversation deepens with our guests.
“So, you four ladies aren’t concerned for your safety out here?” The guy asks, a bit random, a bit overzealous.
Oh great, serial killers. Just what we need.
Sunshine Rat says, “Should we be?”
The woman says to us, “Don’t worry honey. No man”, emphasis on the no man, “would ever approach 4 women.” She tosses her hand with her wrist. The Steam Team smiles at this new thought.
SunFloJo may or may not know the situation going on over here. She is a pro at active ignoring. I have seen her use that skill at school with students to help redirect behavior. Then she says, “Now what are your names?”
Are you kidding me? I see a grin on SunFloJo’s face. She knows. She may be messing with me as much as with Stalker’s bladder.
He is glib. He loves this question, “One of us is Dorian and one of us is Kendall. Can you guess who is who?”
I interject, “Well, when you put it that way, you must be Kendall.”
I ruin his game. This visit is over. Nice to meet yous are exchanged and they move north.
“Quick, go!” I say to my young friend and point south.
Stalker C crosses an access road and heads down the trail to take care of business. Meanwhile Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo are in stitches giggling.
Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed,
for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
JUNE 2, 2016
“Birds are loud in the wild,” new friend Sunshine Rat said yesterday; a fact that remains true this morning.
The smell of fresh air whispers through the tent vents. My limbs feel nearly paralyzed, but my bladder screams for attention. I begin the physical journey to get on my knees, unzip the tent, gingerly attempt to stand, stumble, stumble again, then steady my stance.
Ouch. Everything hurts. I trust my body to rebound and take steps toward the bathroom. The grass is soft and damp against my toes along the edge of my flip flops.
After splashing my face with water, I return to open the big brown bear box. The metal is cold to touch. I find the s’more remains and sit down to eat a graham cracker before dismantling my travel home.
SunFloJo crawls out of her tent. We practice telepathy for a few minutes. She wonders about my status, my plan. I nod hello. A simple good morning acknowledgement is all I have figured out so far. I am thinking over the situation.
I appreciate the silence, though it feels like we have a conversation. I am not a morning talker in the city or in the woods.
SunFloJo walks to get coffee for her and Sunshine from the Big Meadow camp store.
Upon return, she sets coffee cups with lids over the embers still warm from last night. Sunshine will be happy to find coffee when she wakes up.
SunFloJo murmurs in my direction, “How ya doing?”
Moment of truth.
Slowly I dare to say, “I think I can do it.”
“Really?!” Her face is sincere, “I am thrilled. That is great news.”
“Benadryl is a pal. Semi solid sleep made a difference. Thank you.”
SunFloJo does not skip a beat. She shares her morning research, “I learned at the camp store that they don’t have places to store things, but we can rent campsite #2 and leave stuff in the bear box. I bet that will be helpful to all of us. Now that we know what we really need, we can leave the rest behind.”
“Wonderful,” I say.
“But there is a catch. We have to put up a tent so the site appears occupied.”
She continues, “Do you think you and I could put up your tent at site #2 and then sleep together in my tent tonight?”
SunFloJo’s tent is the same size as mine, built for a party of one. I think about what a tight fit that will be for two people and how smelly we will be after another full day of hiking.
Then I think of not hiking with the weight of a tent, “Yes, I think we can do it.”
We can do anything for one night, right?
“I’m going to start unloading items into campsite #2’s bear box now,” I say.
“And we’ll switch shoes,” SunFloJo states.
I will not argue. My toe pain was out of control yesterday. I do not think I can do that again. Wide toed hiking boots? I’m in.
We get busy unpacking, re-packing and setting up campsite #2. We leave behind every ounce of weight that we can.
I debate leaving my emergency urinal but decide to keep it in my bag. It is light compared to the other items I toss. I take one change of underwear, one pair of shorts, and one pair of socks just in case I rip or mess my current Boy Scout clothes beyond the ability to wear them. I leave all but one bag of food. I can barely eat when exhausted anyway.
The girls awaken. We compare items and select any duplicates that can stay behind.
Stalker C says to me, “You’re going?”
“Good!” And then, “Thank God for Benadryl.” Sleep helped her too.
Sunshine Rat emerges wearing an emergency foil blanket wrapped around her. The foil is remarkably lightweight and only cost $1.59 at REI. I have one too, but it is on my leave behind list. Sunshine Rat smiles when she finds her coffee.
I am thankful to drop 10-15 pounds of stuff and hope I do not miss or regret leaving anything here.
A deer munches on grass next to campsite #9 in time to say good morning to Stalker C. Later a different deer eats near the bathroom. I suspect Rosemary and her representatives are expressing their solidarity with us and our adjusted plans. Sunshine Rat tries to get close to the deer for pictures.
I scan nature’s beauty across the horizon. The green is so alive in Shenandoah. Surely, I can come alive too.
Campsite #2’s ghost tent is set up. The bear box is half full.
It is time to get back on the trail.
This is another no turning back type moment. I try to visualize sleeping next to random trees tonight. By nightfall we should be somewhere between Fort Mountain and Cat Knob along Laurel Prong which is the trail after we visit historic Rapidan Camp. I hope we can find the fire ring.
As a child and then as an adult with kids, I took tours of caves like Mammoth Cave in southwest Kentucky. During the excursion Park Rangers turned off the lights and told us to look at our hand. It was so dark that you could not see your hand at all. That is the type of dark I anticipate tonight minus a Park Ranger being available to flip back on the earth’s light switch.
I am not sure our headlamps will cut through the heavy darkness that will surround us. And if the mini lights do work, I am not sure I want to see animal eyes that might watch us.
SunFloJo’s boots are laced around my ankles. I wear the red backpack and adjust the straps, remembering both YouTube videos and instructions from Dick.
“We are not afraid to pull our straps,” we say in honor of Dick’s lessons.
“Don’t be afraid,” Stalker C says with her mouth in the shape of an “o” that reminds me of a Shirley Temple facial expression. Everyone’s backpacks are in position now.
Sunshine nods, “Yep, just pull those straps. Don’t be afraid.”
Are we really doing this?
Surveying the body language of the group, I think everyone is a little nervous about tonight.
Stalker C reaches back to ring her bear bell. Her eyes widen when I look her way. SunFloJo consults her map one more time. She zips all but Flat Kevin’s head in a pocket so he can see the journey from her backpack.
We pass 30 other campsites and cross the blacktop heading toward Big Meadow Amphitheater. We look for our first route of the day: Lewis Falls Trail.
We find the sign and enter the woods.
Ten steps onto the path, day hikers pass us immediately. Something catches my eye.
Was that a gun?
Sure enough, one couple is packing heat in their matching holsters and carrying small water bottles. They are out of sight quickly. I am glad.
The trail has lots of jumbled rocks underfoot. My feet manage much better today. And SunFloJo seems to sail along in my magic boots. I say silent prayers of gratitude.
Sunshine Rat says, “Let’s play a game.”
“It’s The Centipede Game because we see so many of them along the trail.”
Sunshine continues, “Every centipede is 1 point.”
“A dead centipede is .5 points.”
“A deer is 50 points.”
“Bears are 100 points,” Sunshine says despite Stalker C’s “no” head shake in protest.
We decide a snake is -50 points.
“Chipmunks are 5 points.”
The consensus is that every time we reach 52 points then that equals 1 beer in the Tap Room at the end of the trip. I am not a beer drinker, but goals are probably a good idea.
I hang at the back of the line. SunFloJo and Sunshine Rat lead. Stalker C is just ahead of me.
Every few minutes the front of the line yells back, “1 point.”
“.5” and so forth.
Over rocks, along a mountain ridge…
Don’t twist that ankle! Whew. Caught my balance. Thanks for the help, Trekking Poles.
More rocks, and more straight down yet I still feel we are at a high elevation in the forest. I keep an eye out for the waterfall this leg is named after.
Hands fly up and a jubilation cry occurs when we hear “52!” from the front of the line.
Like an accordion we fan out and then shrink closer to one another as the front of the line either rests or slows down to allow me to catch up. I overhear new topics of conversation.
“What do you think the pattern is, SunFlo?” Sunshine Rat asks.
“Could it be distance in-between?”
Sunshine, “I don’t think so. The spacing between marks varies.”
I eventually realize they are talking about the blaze trail marks on the trees. I have been wondering about those too.
The “blaze” is a vertical rectangle painted on occasional trees that come in various colors to assure that you are on the correct trail. The White Blaze is the Appalachian Trail. We have seen yellow or blue rectangles on some of our connecting trails.
“Steep rocks,” Stalker C warns me of what is coming up.
Have they not been steep already? I grip my poles tightly.
“I think we’re almost there,” SunFloJo calls out to encourage me. We have been “almost there” about four times so far.
Down, down, down. Up and over bigger rocks that I belly crawl over. Repeat.
And then we arrive at Lewis Springs Falls. I expected us to be at the bottom of a waterfall right where the water pours into a creek or river, but we face the middle of the rushing falls. If a waterfall wore a belt, we could touch it.
Above us, we see where the water tumbles over a large rock to begin the falls.
Below us, I cannot see exactly how far the water descends.
I am careful not to step too close to the edge that is comprised of wet rocks.
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. Isaiah 40:4
Sweat drips down my jawline. I promise myself that I will not pull out the map copies that Paul helped me memorize. I like them because each part of our path is blown up in 8.5 x 11 fashion. I have twelve pages for one week’s worth of hiking.
SunFloJo has mentioned a couple times that she has the official AT hiking map—perhaps the best one made. It is an accordion style single piece of paper, laminated. She took a class about how to read the terrain markings.
I do not want to insult the best map with my wrinkled papers.
But I am a concerned about our situation.
If the backpack and I could melt into the ground, that would be ok with me. I have odd thoughts about weight such as maybe the staple holding my papers together is too heavy. Every unneeded item in the pack needs to be reassessed.
We reach a 4-way trail stop with a post marker on the AT trail near a small place in the woods called Rock Spring Cabin. There is a trail that leads down to the miniature cabin roof in the distance. There is no way we are taking extra steps to see that. We do not even discuss it. My eyes scan left, right, forward and behind me. Green and brown woods stretch as far as I can see and tall above us.
We are still new at reading the occasional four feet tall with four sides concrete markers with their slivers of metal inscriptions nailed around the top. The thin metal is stamped with minimal words and mileage that probably makes more sense to an experienced hiker.
There is no ‘you’ve got this’ or ‘yes, Idiot, go that way’ written anywhere. I could use some assurance or encouragement at this point in the day.
Six miles over rocky terrain, with steep angles, straight up hill and then straight down hill all while carrying heavy packs began to create an intense kind of tired.
Standing at the post, SunFloJo furrows her brow. She pulls out the official map.
The girls ponder the pole, touching the words as if feeling the raised letters will help somehow.
I set down my backpack to rest. Dropping it to the ground feels so good. My back can breathe.
I wait while SunFloJo continues to look puzzled.
Nervous, I ask, “Do you want me to get out the enlarged print outs of each area?”
SunFloJo says, “If you have a better map, then sure.”
“It’s not better. Just a different type.”
This is SunFloJo’s plan, it is her dream. I want to respect that. She prepared for months. I watched YouTube and huffed and puffed around my neighborhood for a few weeks.
She nods to get them out, so I retrieve the papers for each day and trail section.
SunFloJo inspects the papers for comparison, then confidently points, “This way.”
Surely, we are getting close to the end of the first day? I fantasize about setting up camp, cooking with JoAnn’s little stove. I would like to sprawl on the ground with nowhere to go until morning.
We trek on. And on. And on.
The trail becomes narrow. The path is 6-12 inches wide along a mountain’s edge. I did not anticipate walking along another mountain edge today. One slip of the foot and any of us could fall into a valley. To our right is a deep drop off. To our left, the dirt is taller than us.
Lots of rocks are under our feet. I am thinking about staying steady and not falling off this cliff. I send telepathy thoughts of thanks to Paul for insisting I take trekking poles. Wow, was he ever right about that. In challenging spots, I use the trekking poles like handrails to get me up and over rock or tree root obstacles. Was this really supposed to be a beginner course?
We turn to rest with our packs leaned on a rock. Everyone’s hair is in frayed ponytails to counter the heat. Delighted that the day could almost be over, I gain energy and decide to take off first. I lead our foursome for the first time on the trail.
No one seems to want to pass me, so I continue to lead along the narrow stretch. I try not to think about how closed in by leaves and branches we are. Or about Lyme disease. Or ticks. Don’t think about any of the bad stuff, Surrender.
Brown is the dominant color in this area. Branches reach out to scratch me. I am glad to wear long pants. We keep a decent pace while being silent as each person carefully assesses their steps so they do not fall. I can probably keep up this pace until the next time we rest.
I focus step by step until I see something slither left to right just one foot ahead of my foot.
My brain registers what it is. My body freezes and my hands shake then slam down the trekking poles by my sides onto the rocks. My heart is on fire!
Before the trip, I researched what snakes to look out for in this region and am sure that was a bad one. Of course, are there any good ones when you are out in the woods like this?
The snake crossed my path but is still on the right side of the trail at this point. Its head looks back at me.
My abrupt stop reverberates through the group.
“What is it!?” I hear Sunshine and Stalker C say.
“Sssnake,” I muster from my locked-up body.
“Ooo,” SunFloJo is interested. She passes my stiff body to take a look.
“Mmm hmm,” she affirms. I imagine the girls are wide-eyed behind me.
“Yep, that’s a rattler wiggling on its tail.” SunFloJo is calm.
I have not moved. Gripping my poles, I mentally flip through Internet pictures. With multifaceted brown shading and a rattle, I know we have encountered a poisonous Timberland Rattler.
I watch the snake. Finally, it decides not to eat us and continues toward a tree on the cliff side.
Whew. I feel like moving my rusted Tin Man body now. Dehydration helped me not pee my pants.
I am nervous to pass the Timberland’s general area, but we must pass the snake and continue the trail. There is nowhere to run. There is no way to get off this ride. I try not to think about how many other snakes are probably nearby too.
And we hike.
Then we hike some more.
I naturally slide to the back of our line, struggling to keep up with the group.
This day is taking forever. How could we be on top of a mountain, then at the bottom of a valley, back to the top of a mountain…then in another valley, only to begin climbing another mountain again? Wasn’t Day One supposed to be our short day?!
According to Sunshine Rat’s Fitbit, which I am now starting to call the boob-o-meter because she keeps it in her bra, we have walked eight miles.
Eight miles on a flat track or a road through town sounds doable. But with rocky terrain, multiple inclines and declines and a backpack that must weigh 45 pounds…well, I am about to die.
My feet swell inside my half-size-too-small magic boots. I am grateful for them, but the magic is gone.
We climb another steep hill. The path is evolved to 2 feet wide. The forest appears lush green again. I see a small stream of water flowing down the mountainside. If this was the beginning of the day I might be impressed and loving the beauty.
At the end of the day, this is hell. Hell I say! Everything hurts. Every muscle, my feet, and my toes shoot sharp pain with each step. My toes would feel better if I could cut them off.
I do not speak. Every effort must be spent on moving toward the end of this day. Dirt mixes with my sweat. My mind searches for coping mechanisms.
Please let the end be soon.
If this is how each day is going to be, then I do not think I can do it.
I am going to have to find a place to park my body for the next few days. There are campgrounds somewhere. They can come back for me Saturday.
SunFloJo is talking to me, but I do not hear her. One foot in front of the other: that is all I can do.
Sunshine Rat and Stalker C lead. After not seeing other humans for a long time, I hear them meet a couple. Sunshine asks, “What are your trail names?”
“I am Stinky-Braids,” A lady about my age says.
“I’m Other-Brother,” The man says.
Stalker C repeats, “Other-Brother?”
Stinky Braids chimes in, “His real name is Daryl.”
I catch up in time to smile at that Other Brother Daryl TV show reference while they all are laughing. I sit down to rest while they converse.
Then Stalker C & Sunshine Rat catch the next energy wave and are determined to climb what we hope is the last big hill of the day in front of us. The hill is straight up. I probably cannot do it without using both my legs and arms to hold onto rocks and trees. The girls storm ahead, soon out of sight. SunFloJo hangs back to look out for me. I hope she does not feel saddened by my lagging. I do not want to ruin her trip.
We start to see people come down the hill for an evening hike. They look fresh and free without heavy backpacks.
Strangers tell SunFloJo that our destination of Big Meadow is just at the top of the hill. In my exhausted state, I am not sure I believe them.
We join the climb while my head spins in disbelief. If I live to get to the top, I need to noodle my best plan for surviving this week. I am not sure I can do this adventure. I am more rattled than that snake’s tail earlier.
This is SunFloJo’s dream, her recon mission.
No matter what, I do not want her to quit because of me. She must keep going…even if I am the one who must call it quits.
SunFloJo scales these trails like they are nothing. She is in shape. I am not.
Hopefully, I can convince her and the girls to keep going after tonight. I will find a spot to be safe for a few days alone.
My body becomes one with the hill. I pull myself up with tree limbs and steady my poles on rocks as needed.
I wrestle to the top and practice how I will convince SunFloJo and the rest of the team to keep going. I know SunFloJo will not want to leave me behind, but I will be fine and they will do much better without me.
At the moment, I see no other solution except to quit.
The dirt path is a comfortable two and a half feet wide at first, then narrows to about one foot wide.
We pass people posing for pictures at the trailhead map post. I glance back a few times until I can no longer see the parking lot. Green leaves and underbrush close in around us. I watch the Steam Team backpacks bob forward. My mind spins.
This is like letting go of the side of the pool in the deep end for the first time. We are going to tread water or die.
We follow Lower Hawksbill Trail. Light glistens through the leaves and tall trees.
Ten minutes in, I know that my pack is too heavy. I thought I had it down to the lightest amount possible! I could have done better. I rethink the contents. It is too late to do anything about what is inside. Hiking is such a learning process!
I extend my black trekking poles and grip their handles to keep me steady. They seem awkward at first. I am not sure why people use them, but I trust those reasons will become clear eventually.
We wind through the woods. A family of jovial day hikers approach us. They are probably happy because they do not have heavy backpacks, I think.
The oldest man in the group smiles eager to share, “We saw a bear up ahead.”
And they are thrilled about this? I guess so. They are coming out of the forest. We are going in.Great.
Stalker C’s large eyes glance my way. Her lips tighten. I look toward the endless woods.
SunFloJo sets down her pack as the family walks on toward the exit.
This interaction reminds SunFloJo to take out the bear bells. She attaches a bell to my pack. It hangs from one of my zipper pulls.
Did she pick me because I am obviously going to be at the back of the group when we run for safety from the bear?
We continue back in stride.
Jingle, jingle. Step. Jingle.
I do not love the constant ringing near my ear. No wonder bears do not like bells. And while I would never say this out loud, I would not mind seeing another bear from a distance. Tricky, I know. But we are on an adventure, right?
Jingle. Jingle. I do not want to complain, but it works out well when Stalker C says, “I could carry that bell if you want.”
We rest a moment. I move my bell to hang from her bag.
We continue hiking through twists and turns. My shoulders hurt.
Every few feet, Stalker C contorts her arm behind her so that she can gently ring the bell. No bear is coming near this group. She will make sure of it.
We see the first concrete sign trail marker post that directs us to turn slightly right and uphill. Our feet lean in what looks like 70-degree angles with our bodies as we head straight up toward the top of Hawksbill Mountain: elevation 4,050 feet.
I have looked forward to seeing Hawksbill Gap, the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park since seeing pictures of it on the Internet. In my head, I cannot wait! But wait I will because walking up this trail seems longer and longer than it looked on the map. Sweat drips down my back. It is a steep climb!
Stalker C and Sunshine Rat are up ahead as the better, younger climbers.
SunFloJo and I walk slowly a bit to conserve (my) energy. I feel like I am carrying the weight of an eight-year-old on my back. How am I going to do this until the end of the week?
Somehow our conversation lands on talking softly about love and love lost, about friends and fizzled relationships. We have lived long enough to have had our share of humans stroll in and out of our lives.
“When it comes to people, I’ve gotten better at loving and letting go. People either want to be with you or they don’t,” I say.
SunFloJo offers, “I try to appreciate the moments we had and not stress about the fact that those moments were too few.”
“Perhaps we were lucky to have had those moments at all.” I say then add, “Maybe.”
We giggle at the maybe part.
I continue, “Also I am working on loving people around me without expectations.” It is easy for me to do that with friends and work acquaintances. I think about how much harder it is to let go of expectations inside a marriage. Maybe some expectations need to be there while others do not.
“Ah, letting go of expectation can be powerful,” SunFloJo says. “And tough to do.”
“Yes, there could be a lot less disappointment. I am working on detachment from what I expect and or anticipate.”
“It’s a process,” she says.
Our conversation seems profound at the time and distracts me until I recognize my struggle to breathe as the elevation changes. I lean the poles against my body while I wrap my hair into a ponytail to gain air flow around my neck. I grow quiet as my central focus becomes how to breathe my way to the top of this mountain.
Stalker C slows down to listen to the older folk conversation, but we are done with our ramblings by the time she is on par with us.
I visualize the photos we will take when we get to the top—if we ever get there!
Sunshine points out the Salamander Trail post on our left side. This shows us where we will turn on the way back down. She has a good eye. I would have missed that marker in the trees.
Then, finally, we see the Hawksbill cliff as the sun becomes brighter with less trees above us. First goal achieved. We make it to the top!
Large rocks line the edge. A gigantic valley is below with many mountains in the background. It is a clear day. You can see miles stretched beyond us.
We pause to guzzle water and take in the 180-degree view. I hope we stay on top of the world here for a while.
It is so beautiful.
We pause at the first overlook. I leave my trekking poles in a tiny shelter near the edge with a wood carved sign labeled Byrd’s Nest 2. Then I climb a short distance over rocks to the highest overlook. And by climb, in this case, I mean cling to the large, jagged rocks with my hands, arms, feet and legs so I can roll to the other side without plunging into the valley.
This is the main overlook. It is better in person than online. There is a manmade rock wall around it and a stone floor on the viewing deck. We place our packs in the overlook area.
“Shall we do lunch here?” Stalker C asks.
I say, “I think that would be great.” I do not care that the sun is shining directly on us, although it feels much hotter than it did earlier. We grab food bags and stare at the view. We munch quietly and drink more water. I start with a pack of almonds.
Other hikers come and go from the woods. I wonder if we are in their way, then decide I do not care since all of them manage to take pictures without our physical presence being an issue. Most are day hikers with small packs. We help a few with their group photos and they help us.
One older gentleman wearing a plaid short-sleeved button up shirt pulls two ceramic blue birds from a satchel. He positions them on the leading edge of the man-made wall. He takes a few pictures, most with the birds included in the landscape.
SunFloJo asks, “Are you taking those pictures for someone special?”
He says, “Yes. I have a friend with MS who cannot hike. I take pictures back to her to enjoy.”
My heart twists at the thought of him showing his friend pictures of the fragile birds and gorgeous horizon after his trip. I imagine her smile as he tells her about the experience. I think about Paul and how he probably could not hike this far these days. The incline would have been too much for him.
The man returns the ceramic birds carefully into a towel and his bag. He continues, “She is quite the lady.”
Then a set of three couples who are probably all in their sixties arrive. I read the body language that one of the ladies would like a photo of their whole group. I offer to take their picture. They are standing on the less safe natural rock area. At first, one husband grumbles about his wife, “Oh she’s got plenty of pictures!” He is overheated and cantankerous. I have seen this behavior in men from our family a few times regarding picture taking.
“We travel together a lot,” one woman says about their group while standing too close to the edge and trying to take a selfie.
“Watch your step,” I caution.
Gravel and dust fall behind her. She gasps at the near fall and steps to find better footing. I ask, “Do you have any pics of all six of you together today?”
The other two men express this would be a good spot for a photo. The grumpy bug husband gets on board reluctantly. I take a picture of them with the majestic view in the background. The wives are pleased with having a photo they can frame when they return home. They turn to walk back toward the trail.
Next, a gorgeous taupe color dog and her family arrive as we rest against the rock wall. The dog has a pink collar and leash. Her name is Annabelle. Sweetness oozes from her.
The Steam Team says a collective, “Aww.”
The dog owner says, “This is our 9,000-dollar dog. We found her starved, sick from rat poison and a snake bite a few years ago. We had no idea it would cost nine grand to get her well, but she’s been worth every penny.” Annabelle smiles and pants at her owner’s loving words.
In-between visitors, I stare at the vast view.
Is this the place where I can toss my anger off the mountain? I try to reach a peaceful state of mind but keep thinking about how some humans can be ceramic-love-birds-photo-taking-good-attitude people and some humans are habitual-complainers-exhaust-those-around-them people. The contrast sours the rest of my meal of cheese and crackers with grapes. I am too hot to eat anyway. I feel thankful for Annabelle’s visit. Dogs are along for the ride and generally happy to go with the flow. I needed her energy.
Here you go, Lord. Please take the angst from me. I surrender. And I am Surrender on this trip. Help me let go of anger. Here are my disappointments. Here are my expectations. Here are the times I try to control the fantasy of how I think life should be. Take it all please. Amen
Stalker C, SunFloJo & Sunshine quietly stare too. We all face some type of life transition. I wonder if they are working through similar thoughts. SunFloJo has been contemplating retirement soon. Stalker C and Sunshine just graduated college and are headed to grad school in different parts of the country.
I want to suggest we sleep here tonight, but I know we have more miles to walk before nightfall.
“Do you want me to read Deb’s next letter?” I ask the group.
A unanimous “Yes” ensues.
I dig out Deb’s ‘During the Journey’ envelope and read,
“‘Day 1: Munchkins: The munchkins were happy people who were industrious and well intentioned. They did whatever they could to help Dorothy and her crew to reach their goals. Who are the munchkins in your life? How do they help you reach your goals?’”
We take turns answering.
“My church youth group supported me a lot,” says Stalker C. “My family was not big into church, but I liked going. We hung out and they encouraged me. They’re one of the reasons why I got a social work degree.”
Sunshine and SunFloJo both offer that their families have been supportive of their career and life decisions.
“I am blessed with friends who encourage me,” I share. And I think about how Paul helped me plan for this week. This is not my first hair brained idea over the years.
With a mutual sigh about leaving, we load our gear, grab poles and head back down the path. We turn right onto Salamander Trail.
It looks like a deep dive through thick branches from here. The path is narrower. I squirt bug spray on my ankles, legs, arms, and neck.
I am pleased about going downhill until the steepness of the path begins to fatigue my feet. The path is filled with rocks; jagged and varied. My magic boots are not feeling so magical. Now we face 120-degree foot angles while maneuvering over rocks. My toes are on fire!
We curve along mountain edges and then encounter more downhill strain through daytime darkness. The trees are thick.
Down. Down. And still straight down. More rocks and more rocks. Oh, my goodness this hurts!
I refuse to cry, but there is no way to hide that I cannot keep up. Every step causes sharp toe pain.
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
SunFloJo checks on me. I suspect she is concerned about me having a heart attack. I do not speak. My focus is on walking through the raging fire in my shoes.
“What specifically is going on?” She asks.
I tell her. She speculates what might be the problem.
“Yes, I clipped my nails before we traveled,” I admit, embarrassed that we are trouble shooting my toe issues.
There is no solution in sight. Today is day one of full-time hiking, how on earth will I make it to Saturday?!?
My shoes are size 9. SunFloJo’s shoes are 9.5. Her shoes also are wide at the toe end. Mine are not wide. She offers to switch shoes.
But I do not want to change shoes. I like my “magic shoes”. With the amount of metaphoric fire and pain going on, I am concerned about swelling if I take off the boots. And what happens to both of us if we switch shoes mid hike? Will my shorter shoe then hurt SunFloJo?
For now, I hobble behind the group. I will not give up today even if my toes become as bloody as they feel right now. We are deep in the woods. The only way out is through.
At the bottom of Salamander, we see a white Appalachian Trail mark on a tree. This is the first time we have seen what hikers call the White Blaze. The White Blaze is a white rectangle painted every so often on a tree, so you know you are on the right path. We turn from our side entrance trails onto the official AT trail. We pause to take a picture of SunFloJo with the White AT Blaze. This is her dream! She is living it!
I am so happy for her and happy to rest for a few minutes.
After the AT turn, we meet a chunky guy. He wears blue jean shorts and a cotton blue t-shirt. This is not the hiking attire I have seen on AT YouTube videos. We ask if he is a thru hiker or day hiker.
“I’m doing the whole thing,” He says. That means he is a thru hiker. Wow. “Started in March from Georgia.”
Sunshine asks, “What is your trail name.”
He wipes his brow and says, “Endurance.”
We ask why that name and he says, “Because I’m proving to myself that I have the endurance to do this.”
He inspires me. He is not allowing extra weight to hold him back. Endurance blows by after chatting. Soon I do not see him ahead of us.
The trail becomes enchanted at this point. We are on more level land. The forest is lush with seas of ferns, soft tree branches and rocks surround us under a canopy of tall skinny trees. I think about the Hobbit and scenes from the Shire in Lord of the Rings.
The Steam Team grows weary. Occasionally we find large rocks or moss-covered tree logs next to the trail where we say, “This looks good” which means there is enough booty space for each of us to rest. We sit for a few minutes and lean our backpack weight onto a rock or tree.
Sunshine Rat has a Fitbit attached to her bra. We ask her to check the mileage because this 5.1-mile Day One hike is feeling long. We all wonder, how much longer until we stop for the night?
Sure enough we have hiked well over 6 miles already according to her Fitbit.
Could it be that the trail markers and trail plan are incorrect about how many miles we will walk today?
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
JUNE 1, 2016
It is Zero Dark Thirty.
My body stirs. I am unsure if I have slept hours or minutes.
Did I bring the flip knife into the tent with me? My hands survey the darkness.
I promised Jacob that the knife would be in my pocket, but I forgot to get it out of my bag.
My eyes open to the nothingness. I hear a creature!
Maybe two? Three creatures?!
Little snorts and sniffs graze outside the tent near my head. I guess these animals are not opposed to the scent of moth balls. I roll my eyes.
Sniff, sniff, sniff.
Leaves rustle under whatever kind of paws they have. Sniff, sniff.
My body freezes. What if it is a skunk? And it startles? What if it sprays a horrible stench?
Or, what if it is the type of animal that will run away if I make noise?
What should I do?
What if I turn on my flashlight? Maybe that will create a shadow showing me what it really is?
But–what if knowing what it is will make me feel worse? Knowing could be scary.
Nope. No shadow images. Thanks. I do not need to know!
I shiver in the cold night air. My arms cross inside Paul’s wind breaker style golf sweatshirt.
Is that a stick in my back? Ouch. No, it just hurts to sleep on the ground!
While I am five feet ten inches tall, the borrowed sleep pad is two feet five inches long. Not much padding is under this body. I visualize the much longer pad I saw at a store for $59.99. That was too much to spend when a borrowed pad was available.
While the nocturnal visitors continue to scurry near me, I think about the budget at home and how the boys wanted macaroni and snacks the week I said no to $59.99 for myself. My mind wanders on to thoughts about the timing of bills and the cash left behind that should get the guys through this week. Jacob is going to work a summer lifeguard job. That will help.
Arms tight and legs curled in an effort to find warmth, I fall back to sleep.
I awaken to chirping birds. My body hurts when I roll over inside the tent.
The birds are loud.
Anxious excitement arrives. This is it! Time to hike. It is about to be the real deal with no opportunity for escape to a nearby parked car. We are going into the woods!
I learned yesterday that Dick and SunFloJo revised the plan so that we will drive to our hiking end point today to meet Dick. That is where we will leave the car. Then Dick will drive our group to the start point for drop off. This way we will end hiking the trail back at our car.
Genius new idea? Yes, but this is not what Paul is picturing back in our family room. I think about him looking at our trail plan, probably reviewing it repeatedly. I can feel his mind visualizing our steps. He thinks our car will be at the starting point, not the end.
My phone no longer works in the national park so there is no way to update him. I trust that a search team would check both ends of the plan for our car and clues if needed. Let’s just hope we do not get lost. I am fine. Everything is fine.
When we purchased gasoline yesterday, I sent the last text to say I love him and the boys. I shared that I was putting the phone away until the end of the trip. I turned off the cell and put it in SunFloJo’s glove box.
I do not know what time it is. I recall that my backpack is in disarray. I have got to fix that. Maybe I can quietly do this before anyone else is awake.
The sound of my tent unzipping does not seem to disturb the young girls’ tent, but it turns out that JoAnn and I are unzipping in unison. We crawl out of our tents both with the same need to pee.
We do not talk. We stumble around looking for a good spot. My back is on fire from the hours spent on the ground. My legs are numb. Also, I am not a morning person. I wave her toward the direction she seems to be interested in anyway and I head the opposite direction toward the parking lot.
Urinating in the light of day is something to figure out. I wander a bit. Decisions, decisions.
I take care of business in the grass behind a dumpster. Success. Who knew that figuring out how to pee outside would feel like such an accomplishment?
The stream runs under the dumpster and out the other side toward the parking lot and road. I will pretend like I do not see that if anyone happens to walk by. Next time I will do better in the grass somewhere deeper in the woods. I am building confidence in this new skill.
I walk back to camp quietly. The girls continue to snooze. Good, I need the picnic table space to spread out supplies. I will take down my tent, hopefully sort through my backpack, and then they can have the same space to organize if needed. Keep sleeping girls. I notice SunFloJo is back inside her tent.
But first I need to peek at the fire pit.
Darn it! The broken hot dog IS present in the ash. It did not burn up.
Uh oh. We were lucky no bears came overnight. –No bears that I know of anyway. Now I feel bad for lying. And I feel relief that we survived the night. I really believed the hot dog must have burned up. I walk the dog pieces back to the road and throw the remains into the dumpster. Good riddance.
I disassemble my tent. SunFloJo’s hand emerges from her tent. She tosses out the car keys. No words. She knows what I am up to. I appreciate that. Hoping I do not disturb her too much, I am happy to soon hear her snore again. Sleep all you can, I think. No doubt we are going to need every ounce of rest we can get out here.
Grass, trees, and the lingering fire scent smell fresh in this new day. My tent is rolled to fit into its little bag. My backpack is dismantled and reassembled. Anything I might not need goes into my overflow tote bags and into the back of the CR-V.
As I work, I look down toward who I will now refer to as Shut-Up-Guy. He is up, out of his tent and packing his bag. He has an interesting look. He is thin, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, has bright white hair, and I think he may be Asian. Maybe. At one point he grabs what I recognize is a mini-shovel and heads north into the woods. He is gone a long time. Must be his poo time I suppose based on YouTube lessons. Ugh, I really hope I do not have to figure out the shovel thing on this trip.
When I put things back in the car, a park ranger in an SUV stops to ask if someone was in our spot last night. I had not thought much about it but as a matter of fact, “Yes.”
Shut-Up-Guy was in our spot. So, we were supposed to be in 1A1 by ourselves. We certainly would have had more room if he had not been there.
No idea what the ranger is going to do about it, but now I feel better regarding our first night that included minor noise and nervous energy.
Inside the car, I change into my outfit for the rest of the week: Paul’s Boy Scout pants, dri wick shirt formerly belonging to my sons, Fruit of the Loom Cool Blend underwear. Then I place the knife into my cargo pant pocket.
Back at the picnic table, I open my last Pepsi can and sit down to munch on a Pop-Tart for breakfast. I stare into the trees and listen to SunFloJo sleep.
Thank you for the beauty of nature. Please bless our trip. Keep us safe from injury and danger. Guide us and take care of our families back home. Thank you.
The girls come out of their tent as I finish breakfast. I feel organized. Ready for the day. Let’s do this. It’s almost time to meet Dick! We told him we would see him at 9am.
“Do you know what time it is?” Stalker C asks the very relaxed me.
“No idea,” I say. Isn’t it lovely? I am awake with the birds and that is all I know.
The girls observe that my stuff is packed. I whisper, “I don’t want to be late for Dick.” Sunshine and Stalker C giggle.
Shut-Up-Guy grumbles a monotone “Good morning” toward us as he gathers items and leaves camp with supplies on his back.
The girls shared that they slept off and on through the night. They had layered up for cold, but it turned out the layers made them too hot. Also, they were closest to the mystery tent guy and it occurred to them that stranger danger could be an issue.
SunFloJo comes out of her tent as the girls begin packing up. “What time is it?” I ask.
“That’s all?” Wow. I have been up a long time.
Stalker C and Sunshine Rat softly scoff at my surprised face.
We will have ourselves together in plenty of time to meet Dick.
Sunshine, Stalker C and I sit on top of the picnic table. We reflect about the trip so far. Sunshine brought a lightweight journal.
“Thank you, Sunshine. I do not want to forget the details of what we see and do along the way. In just 24 hours so much has happened already and so much is ahead,” I say as Sunshine writes notes about our adventures.
Rosemary the deer returns to camp briefly. She walks near our picnic table and nods toward Stalker C.
Everything back in the car, we drive to the camp store before leaving Loft Mountain Campground. SunFloJo and Sunshine get morning coffee. The building smells of fresh cut wood.
“Delicious,” Sunshine says about the coffee. Stalker C and I pour energy powder packets into water bottles.
The sun gently tickles the tops of our heads as we put on hiking boots for the day. The guy from the store comes outside to chat with us. We exchange where everyone is from. He is originally from Ohio. He and his wife moved here ten years ago.
My mind leaves the group conversation. I internally marvel at a quick mental list of things like: Wow I slept outside last night. I am not taking a shower today and that’s kind of weird. Today I get to hike to the highest peak in the Shenandoah Valley area. And perhaps most importantly, I hope Dick is not a serial killer.
Oh wait. What time is it? Will I ever get used to having no clock with me?
Perhaps we are too Zen hanging outside the store overlooking another mountain view. Sunshine asks, “Are we running on time to meet Dick?”
The store guy says, “It’s about 9:05am now.”
The Steam Team stands up!
Somehow with plenty of time to get ready we are late. We are supposed to meet Dick in the parking lot of Lewis Mountain Campground a few miles down the road.
On the way to Lewis we try in vain to get the girls’ cellphones to work. There is no signal. I borrow SunFloJo’s phone and send a text to Dick that says “On our way” but the screen icon spins indefinitely and I am not sure if it goes through. Calling does not work on any of the phones either.
As SunFloJo picks up speed on curvy roads, I eye Stalker C who may be getting a little nervous about going into the woods where the bears live. Me too, Sister!
“Are you worried about the bears?” I ask.
She nods yes.
“At least there are not grizzly bears here. Black bears generally will leave you alone,” SunFloJo assures us.
“Good to know,” says Stalker C.
“Generally,” repeats Sunshine.
SunFloJo shares that one time in Colorado she encountered an injured mountain lion on a trail, “He was beautiful, but dangerous to the average human.” She was able to go for help and a rescue team came and nursed him back to health.
“And there’s no mountain lions in this part of the country,” I look at Stalker C. “We’ve got this.”
We make it by 9:20AM. Dick has not left us.
“I received your text,” says the elderly and in great shape Dick.
Dick wears a pressed Hawaiian short-sleeve button up shirt and khaki shorts. Every remaining hair on his head is neatly in place. His large white truck with extended cab has plenty of seating.
Dick stands at the back of the truck as we clumsily put our backpacks and hiking poles into the truck bed. I sense he is sizing up our lack of experience.
I slip into the backseat. My bag has been packed for hours at this point. I savor the cushioned seating while it is available. It is going to be days before I have a comfortable seat again.
Outside the truck, the girls fumble with their socks and extra items. They make last minute decisions about what goes with us and what to toss back into SunFloJo’s car.
On the driver side visor there is a sticker outlined in red that reads “Hello My Name Is Dick”. I snap a picture of the sticker. I brought Ben’s old camera to take a few images of the experience. I wonder what Ben is doing this morning on his first week off from school. Probably sleeping. I bought this cheap 35mm camera for Ben when he was ten years old. That was the year he went to Boy Scout camp and lost his glasses at the bottom of the lake. I smile at the thought now while remembering how upset we were that insurance only covers glasses if the glasses are available to repair or replace. The fuzzy, hard to read 35m screen shows that I have a full battery. That should last the week.
I stifle nervous laughter while thinking, What in the world are we doing here?!
Once loaded Dick begins the drive. He points, “When you end your hike you’ll come out of the woods about here. The quickest way to get back to your car is to shortcut through those trees. Look for the steel grate on the ground and turn left. Then go through the next set of trees and you’ll arrive 30 minutes sooner than you would have if you walked along the road.”
I could not visualize or take mental note of his instructions. If I am the one in charge of that cut through at the end, then we are already lost. Hopefully, someone else caught Dick’s logic. No one asks him to repeat it.
JoAnn sits in the front seat and is in interview mode, “Tell us about your hiking experience, Dick.”
His deep voice shares, “I have hiked the whole AT once. Did it in sections. Took me 13 years to finish.”
We learn that Dick was an international traveler for work. He trained people all over the world on “something” that he would not share when we pressed. So we conclude inside our own heads that he is former CIA, FBI, etc. Don’t be vague, Dick. We’ll make stuff up to fill in the blanks!
Now retired, Dick is the president of Hiking Helpers.
We arrive at the drop off point. My heart leaps. We are really going to do this!
In Hawksbill Gap Parking Lot, I put my backpack on right away. I am confident in how to do it with the extra back support because I watched the YouTube video of how to wear it properly.
Sunshine Rat and Stalker C; however, have more questions for Dick about their packs.
And Dick has more answers than necessary while my shoulders grow weary.
But the comfort and confidence built was nice to observe as Stalker C & Sunshine learned what each strap was for, how to put the pack on securely, how to put in their Camelback water containers, thread their water tubes, and more.
I should sit down on the ground, but I am afraid I could not get back up. If I take off the pack, I risk a lecture from Dick about how to put it back on.
SunFloJo asks, “What is the number one mistake that AT hikers make?”
I am going to topple over in the sun if this conversation continues.
He replies, “Not having enough water or not drinking enough water.”
We have a way to sterilize river water so we feel prepared.
Dick instructs the girls, “Don’t be afraid to pull these straps.”
He points to both of their arm areas where the straps hang and continues, “Just pull ‘em. They will help you make the pack more compact and these straps right here will help lift the pack and make it more comfortable on your hips.”
He emphasizes again, “Don’t be afraid to pull ‘em.”
“One last thing”, he says 25 minutes later I am guessing. Dick takes our “before” picture. We pose as a foursome wearing our backpacks.
We combine our cash and leave money on his truck seat to say thanks for the lift. We are grateful to him both for transportation and advice.
Sunshine Rat says, “You are the bomb, Dick.”
Dick says, “I’ve never been called the bomb before.”
He offers to take more pictures and more poses, but we are ready to go. The highest peak of the trip is waiting for us
We take our first steps onto the trail.
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.
Courtney takes note of multiple roadside food options, “This looks like a good exit.”
JoAnn darts off the highway. The four of us strain necks to compare restaurants along the hilly terrain.
In a JCPenney parking lot we point back and forth around us, “Maybe this one.”
“No, not that one.”
Then we all say at the same time, “Maybe Applebee’s.”
JoAnn does a 360 degree turn with the Toyota.
“Whoa!” The girls hold the backseat as we spin.
The young ladies have not driven with JoAnn before, but I have. Wild driving here and there is guaranteed.
An arm leans forward to point, “Applebee’s is over that way.”
JoAnn parks safely. She scans the console. Finding Flat Kevin, she says, “Kevin! You can come inside with us.”
As we step outside of the vehicle, we stretch legs and arms.
Inside the restaurant, JoAnn holds Kevin so that his likeness can observe the menu.
“Hmm, Flat Kevin is going to have barbeque and water,” she says then dances Flat Kevin over to lean on the table’s kiosk tablet. “Kevin will play some electronic games while we wait.”
I notice that Courtney and Rachel plan to split food. “Ok, no wings this time,” Courtney says. I admire their agreeable relationship.
Rachel says, “Tell us more about Kevin, JoAnn.”
JoAnn talks about Kevin and his wife Erin, “They chose to enjoy a large family with five children. Kevin coached their kids’ baseball and soccer teams. When Erin became more of the breadwinner, Kevin chose to stay home with their little ones. He has loved every moment of being a dad and husband. It is so hard to see him sick. And their kids are still quite young.”
Courtney turns to our guest, “Thanks for going on the trip with us, Flat Kevin.”
Food arrives. We munch with noticeable focus. No one says it, but I suspect we all consider the importance of savoring this meal before heading onto the trail. The group is relaxed with one another. Conversation is easy. Silence is acceptable.
Walking back to the vehicle, an observation slips out my mouth, “I can already tell this is gonna be a supportive group. Not a sh*thead among us.”
Rachel repeats with a smirk, “Not a sh*thead among us.”
“Seriously,” I chuckle. “I think we will work together well.”
Courtney agrees, “We’re off to a good start.”
Look, I love Jesus, but I cuss a little.
JoAnn places Flat Kevin on the dashboard so he can watch the road.
The backseat takes a nap.
I watch out the window while thinking about the prior weekend.
FLASHBACK: MAY 19
Paul says, “Are you going to the Women’s Conference at church this weekend?”
“I didn’t sign up. Originally Jacob was leaving on the 24th so I didn’t want to be gone two of the days right before he left.”
“You can go now,” he says.
Given the amount of time I am away from home each week and that I am leaving on a trip soon, it is odd that he is suggesting it.
He says, “I think it will be good for you.”
MAY 20, 2016
I know Paul is right, so I go. Best friend since birth Amy and her 14-year-old daughter Maggie are coming too. I save them two seats and send a text.
Glenna–FRONT RIGHT SIDE, 4 ROWS FROM THE STAGE.
The auditorium is packed. The crowd of ladies swell as the music builds.
So many people are here, but I feel alone. I am empty and numb. Life seems so messy. How did I let things get this difficult?
One of my favorite local singers, Ashton, steps to the microphone. She sings Hillsong’s I Surrender.
…Find me here
Lord draw me near
…Drench my soul
As mercy and grace unfold
I hunger and thirst.
…I know you hear my cry
Speak to me now
I want to know You more
I want to know You more
The church lights are dark which I appreciate when tears flow. I think about the word surrender in-between droplets.
Do I want to know God more or do I want Him to fix my problems?
A sea of worship arms raise across the room. The women are pumped for the music, an inspiring message and fun after party stations. I am standing but not praising. My head bows just trying to get through this feelings fest.
Upbeat songs play by the time Amy and Maggie scoot into the aisle. They give me a quick hug. They may not see my wet face and I am glad. I love them dearly. There is not one day in my life that I can remember without Amy in it. Our moms knew each other and went to the same church when we were little. We were born two months apart. And now two of our own children, Maggie and Ben, are just 9 months apart.
I continue to think about the word surrender. What a complicated word. What does it even mean in the spiritual sense anyway? I barely listen to the rest of the program.
After the service, we find a variety of activities, food and desserts. We play around in a photo booth and paint pottery. I make JoAnn a mug with a sunflower on it. By the time it is fired in the kiln and returned to church I can give it to her as a “thanks for the trip” gift next month.
JoAnn sees a sign, “Hershey’s ice cream!”
We hit another exit.
“Do you see where the ice cream shop is?” She asks.
The car riders are fully awake now. JoAnn drives up the hill behind a star shaped complex with several stores inside and a gas station outside. We see there are no buildings up there. JoAnn turns to speed down the hill back toward the complex.
She goes too fast. There is a curb with a sizeable drop off! She stomps the brakes just short of flying over the large empty space that could have damaged the car (or worse) and ended the trip early. Whew!
Rachel and Courtney laugh softly.
I am slightly more terrified of JoAnn’s driving than bears at the moment.
We go inside what appears to be a roadside food court to discover that the Hershey’s ice cream consists of pre-made frozen milkshake cups in a cooler.
Rachel and JoAnn purchase two cups and put them in the self-serve milk shake machine to stir. I eat a Reese’s ice cream sandwich and toss the wrapper.
We find the restroom, pass up the tourist items available for purchase like wildlife tea towels and collector spoons and mugs, then are back on the road.
We arrive at Shenandoah National Park! Excitement and nerves fill the car. Trees are lush and tall all around us.
I feel scared because within what seems like mere minutes, I must figure out how to sleep outside in a 1-person tent.
Our plan is to check in the first night at Loft Mountain campground, cook hot dogs and go to bed. I think the three gals are interested in a little beer too. Not my thing, but I bet that will help folks sleep.
The CR-V approaches the Ranger Station entrance.
Ranger Anita, according to her name tag, welcomes us with instructions. We pull over for a moment and each fill out an official Backcountry Use Permit. The form is in triplicate and has a bread wire through a hole on one end. It is from the U.S. Department of the Interior for the National Park Service.
I feel pride over such a legit document. The form number is 10-404. We write our name, home address and general hiking plan for the week.
Oh. Is this like leaving breadcrumbs for a future Search Party? Probably.
We pull off the top layer for Anita and attach the remaining individual tags to our backpacks. I try not to think that these tags could be the first item used to identify our bodies if things do not go well. I see the thick forest from here and marvel. We are going in there.
At the intersection beyond the Ranger Station, we see a male and female hiker. They look exhausted and dirty. He is limping. Maybe they are attempting to hitch hike? Not sure.
“I really need to pee,” Courtney says.
“We can pull over,” JoAnn says.
“Nah. Not quite ready to pee outside yet. I know we’re going to have to soon, though.”
Rachel and I make eye contact. We are not quite ready either.
JoAnn says, “Oh, honeys. I have perfected peeing outside.”
Of course, she has. Ah, if only we all felt the same.
Driving along Skyline Drive we see a spectacular view of mountains stretching far and wide. Our elevation is over 3,000 feet and rising. There is a blue haze everywhere with sprouts of bright green, white and purple blooms.
“Look!” I point to a groundhog scaling a small rock wall along the road edge.
“I bet we see a lot of creatures,” Rachel says.
“What’s everyone thinking their trail name is going to be?” JoAnn asks.
“I still don’t know yet,” Rachel responds. “How about you?”
JoAnn says, “I am SunFloJo because I love sunflowers, and I love how sunflowers lean toward the light.”
I offer, “Courtney, I think because of your amazing investigative skills you could be Stalker C. You impressed me at the speed you found Dick’s picture on the internet.”
Rachel says, “I like that. Court, you really can find anyone online in like 3 seconds or less. It’s a superpower of yours.”
Courtney says, “I’ll think it over, but I could lean that way. Sounds good.” Then she asks, “Glenna, how about you?”
I exhale. “Well, one of the reasons I need to go on this trip is to let go and embrace life changes coming up. Sometimes I try too hard to force things to fit.”
I add, “I’ve been thinking about the name Surrender.”
There is a group murmur and collective head nod.
We continue taking in the beauty of the mountains and valleys around us. The sun drops into a sunset position creating ribbons of soft blue and gold light everywhere.
Rachel ponders out loud, “I love how the sunshine is flowing through the leaves.”
Our jaws open and eyes widen. SunFloJo, Stalker C and Surrender all say together, “Sunshine!”
And that is how Rachel was given her trail name Sunshine.
I share randomly, “Sunshine is so much better than Rat. Before I knew Rachel’s full name, she was in my phone contacts as Rachel AT which looks like RAT if you read it too fast.”
Stalker C makes a note of that comment and will sometimes call her friend Sunshine Rat thereafter.
“Hey,” I say. “All our names begin with S.”
SunFloJo says, “Ooo. I like it!”
Stalker C says, “We can call ourselves the Steam Team.”
“Yes!” In unison we agree.
Then the dashboard begins blinking an orange light.
SunFloJo looks at me. I look at the dashboard.
We are almost out of gas! We are not quite to our campground yet.
SunFloJo has an “oops!” look on her face. She glances at me in a she might laugh kind of way. Funny, not funny.
She makes a speedy U-turn.
“How far back is the last gas station we saw?” I ask turning toward the backseat.
Sunshine says, “That exit was a while ago.”
I check my phone, “I don’t have reception.”
Stalker C is on it. “One bar.” She searches.
We are on fumes going back down Skyline Drive, back past the ranger station and down the hill toward the last town we saw. The dashboard gas light is increasingly brighter orange in my mind.
Stalker C says, “Got it. There’s a Bear Country Store & Deli with a gas pump .9 mile from here.”
“Good,” I say.
“They close at 7:30pm.”
It is 7:25pm. SunFloJo and I look at one another. She steps on the gas—what’s left of it!
We see the store! A giant faux bear is propped on top of the building.
I run inside to tell them we are there in hopes they won’t turn us away.
We made it. Whew! We didn’t even notice this place on the approach to the park the first time. JoAnn pumps the gas from the one and only pump.
Inside there is a tiny closet with one toilet and mini sink restroom. This might be our last porcelain toilet for a while.
There are two large barrels with checkerboards on top inside the store waiting for visitors to play.
Sunshine buys a bottle of local wine. I soak in the community feel of the place as the shop owner vacuums their welcome rug. There are posters and invites to summer events tacked to a bulletin board. I notice at the register a town newspaper dedicated to “The Most Wanted” people in the county. The front page is covered with many square pictures of faces, with names and a list of their alleged crimes. Watch out for those guys and gals.
Sunshine and Stalker C pose for a picture outside with the store sign. The sun is getting low now. We better get moving.
Retracing our drive back into the park, we see the hiker couple possibly still looking for a ride. We have zero space or seats in our vehicle to pick up anyone. We trek on.
Stalker C shares that she is most concerned about bears on the trail. I respond with info from YouTube about how to make noise if we see a black bear and suggest we do our best not to get in-between a momma bear and her cubs because that is the main time that a black bear might become aggressive.
“Yea, we’re lucky that there are no grizzlies here. I read they are more aggressive,” I say.
Stalker C eyes me.
We enjoy the ascension views all over again.
Then I say, “Look! A Bear!” I am serious, no joke.
SunFloJo slows and stops the CR-V. Two wee black bear cubs cross the road. Their much bigger momma follows. I know from my side of the car there is no point in trying to get a picture as the bears climb into the brush and trees left of the car. From the driver’s side SunFloJo takes a few pictures.
I am not sure if this was a good thing to happen to soften Stalker C’s fears or a bad thing to make her bear fears worse.
The vehicle hums along again. We are in a wondering state of mind thinking about the bears and the nature around us.
Stalker C says, “I really would like to see a deer.”
“Aw,” I say.
SunFloJo, “Any special reason?”
“One year ago today, my grandmother Rosemary passed away. As we left the care facility the first thing we saw was a deer. The whole family thinks of her now when we see deer.”
“It’s her spirit animal!” SunFloJo says with confidence.
“I hope we see one,” I say to Stalker C. “Especially today.”