You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal. Isaiah 26: 3-4
Sunshine Rat says, “What if we empty the car into the bear box, lay down the back seats, and then sleep in the car?”
Body language that we barely can read in the dark seems to agree, so we get to work. First, we put on our headlamps.
As the thunder and lightning teases the atmosphere, we gather everything we can fit in our arms and take it up the small incline to the bear box.
We brush teeth quickly in the most glorious and welcomed concrete block bathroom. Then we nestle inside the CRV. The girls thrash about in the back until they make comfortable spots. SunFloJo leans back the driver’s seat, and I lean back the passenger seat.
I unfastened my bra and wonder if my legs will get a blood clot by morning in this somewhat scrunched position. I tell myself that I will wake up enough times to adjust my legs.
Into the dark car I make up a story, “Well, Sunshine. You heard him. Tank will be in Vermont by Labor Day to marry you. Your mom can rest assured you’re not going to be single forever.”
The car erupts in giggles. Of course, everyone agrees with my fiction.
The Steam Team agrees to meet in Vermont for Tank & Sunshine’s big day.
As the car occupants consider sleep, I add, “Guess who is camping next door?”
“Who?” Stalker C asks.
“What?!” SunFloJo strains to see. The car windows begin to fog up.
“No way!” Stalker C sits up.
“True story,” I say.
Sunshine Rat snorts a little, “I could NOT believe when he barreled by at the top of the mountain at our last intersection!”
I say, “Me either!”
SunFloJo says, “And now he’s here wondering why in the world he can’t shake us!”
“Oh no,” Stalker C is looking at her phone. We have slowly realized that we can connect with the outside world again. Stalker C is searching on Facebook, “I think Tank may be engaged.”
I insist, “I do not hear that.”
Sunshine says, “Aww.” I detect sarcasm and sleepiness.
“That won’t last,” I say. “The real wedding is still on. Vermont. Labor Day. Be there.”
SunFloJo cracks the windows a little to relieve some of our fog.
The youngest of us begin to fade.
SunFloJo whispers to me that she is going to unlock the doors, “This way the first one up doesn’t disturb the whole campground with the car security alarm.” This is not her first sleep-in-the-car rodeo.
I stare at stars in the sky through the sunroof until intermittent conversation, giggles and foggy windows give way to sleep one person at a time.
SunFloJo is the last to speak. She touches my left arm, “I’m so glad you came with me and that you were able to finish.”
“Me too,” I whisper. “Thank you for the invite.”
As the sound of silence outside the vehicle circles the sound of breaths drifting away inside, I notice Flat Kevin’s head poking out of SunFloJo’s bag. I move slowly to avoid disturbing others and pull him out of her bag gently.
You can watch the stars with me, Kevin. I smile at his pleasant face. I set him on the dashboard and use my shirt sleeve to de-fog a little starry night view just for Kevin. I pray for him and his family.
Sigh. My body can truly relax now.
Dear God, I surrender. I make room for Your will and the supernatural. Show me, lead me. Amen
Steady rain arrives, rocking my brain to sleep.
JUNE 4, 2016
I need to use the restroom. I quietly roll my knee opposite from the passenger door. Can I open the car door and close the door without waking up my friends?
Friends. The word hits me in my gut after a week of bonding.
I’m going to miss them.
My cell phone camera near, I manage to take a quick pic of our final night’s accommodation.
SunFloJo is curled in a ball facing the driver’s side door. Stalker C is sleeping on her tummy with her feet crossed in the air against the hatch door. Sunshine Rat is buried deep in her sleeping bag.
Ok. I can do this. I slip out the door and gently shut it back. No one stirs.
I half walk, half stumble away and around the CRV so I don’t risk making noise near the car.
Brrr, the morning air is chilly. I see mountain top clouds or fog all around me.
Deer! There are deer in all four directions. One is right next to the bathroom and doesn’t flinch as I slip by her and into the little building.
I splash water on my face and refasten my ponytail holder. When I walk back up the small hill from the bathroom, Shut-Up-Guy is walking down the path toward me. Another full circle moment.I wish the other Steam Team members were seeing this.
I tip toe beyond the CRV, into the tall grass of our would-have-been camp site. I open the bear box lifting the door carefully so that the metal doesn’t squeak.
Dew is heavy on the grass. I notice my one-person tent is sagging from the weight of the dew. I line up our bags, odds and ends on the picnic table. I take my tent apart, flicking slugs off which soar toward a nearby tree.
From the picnic table, I collect garbage and take it to a campground waste can near the showers. I repack my backpack and take a seat to watch the sun rise in its fullness until the gals wake up.
SunFloJo is next to roll out of the vehicle.
Soon the girls follow making quick work of reassembling the back seats so we can load the CRV.
I marvel how quietly we all work together with common goals today and every day this week.
With the car packed and Campsite 2 empty, we walk up to the lodge.
It looks different than when we went to the Tap Room last night. The large wood and stone building stands stoic, solid as if to say it endures the test of time beyond those who pass through it.
Today we sit in the row of upstairs rocking chairs to read Deb’s last question. I look through the large windows to the blue haze of mountains and valleys. I’m going to miss this view.
Sunshine Rat & SunFloJo sip coffee.
“Ready?” I ask.
“Yes,” all nod or speak in agreement.
I say, “This is from the envelope marked ‘Journey’s End’:
‘Dorothy & crew were in one moment both exactly who they had always been and also forever changed by their journey. How is this also true for you? Why or why not?’”
“Hmm.” The rocking chairs softly move. We ponder the question and stare out the windows silently.
Technically part of the little slip of paper from Deb had said, ‘for the car ride home’.
As we ponder, I suspect none of us are quite ready to answer. I know I’m not yet. I offer, “This is a deep question. Maybe we need some time to think about it?”
Sunshine Rat says, “Yeah, let’s think it over and talk about it on the drive back.”
Human beings ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat. Psalm 78:25
Brieanna James gives Tank a music shaker and Sunshine Rat a tambourine.
They stand on either side of Brieanna and play their instruments on the beat as she sings her version of I’m Yours by Jason Mraz.
“…I tried to be chill but you’re so hot I melted….
“I reckon it’s again my turn to win some or learn some…”
Our audience sways and sings along. Brieanna smiles at her helpers.
“We’re just one big family and it’s our godforsaken right to be loved, loved, loved…”
The room claps as Sunshine and Tank raise the instruments to add a splash of drama to the last line. They bow with a head nod and return to their seats.
Frodo jumps up to be next. He does not have a partner. I look toward a frozen Stalker C who makes no move to stand up. Brieanna gives Frodo a shaker and he moves it like one of those Shake Weight commercials. He is a puppy that could not glow more with happiness.
Pizzas and wings arrive. We dig in as Frodo returns to the table. He says, “What talent to only be 16!” Someone reminds him that Brieanna is jailbait.
As the fun continues, I ask, “Ted, how do you spell your last name? S-h-e-p…like a shepherd in the Bible or something different?”
His body language says yes, “Yep like the Bible.”
SunFloJo points away from our table, “Would you look at that; the sunset is gorgeous. Almost dark soon.”
We soak in the sunset colors through the windows and wipe sauce with napkins away from fingers and faces.
Sunshine Rat scans the table and says to the Steam Team, “Oops. I guess we should have put our tents up before we came here.”
Tank’s face turns serious, “That’s the first rule of the trail. Always put your tent up before dark.” He appears disappointed.
Oh, there are official rules? Feeling a little slap happy, I want to laugh but hold it in.
Tank continues, “And we’re supposed to have bad weather tonight. Heavy rain and possible thunderstorms.”
Frodo listens to hear what we’re going to do.
SunFloJo waves it off, “We’ll figure it out.”
Frodo offers, “One night we found a bathroom to sleep in because it was storming so bad outside.”
Tank, possibly concerned with how that admission might sound, adds, “We put down a mat, so we weren’t all the way touching the bathroom floor or anything.”
“Oh honey, no judgment here,” SunFloJo says.
We finish the food and appetizers. Delicious.
“Hey,” Stalker C says to the young guys. “We have lots of trail food left over if you want it.”
Tank’s face brightens, “Oh, that would be great!”
I offer, “It’s already bagged for the trail.”
Frodo says, “Perfect.”
Brieanna leans into the microphone and smiles, “Now I want to play a song that I wrote. It is called Whatever Happened.”
She plays soft cords and shares verses with us. The song talks about sunshine days and moonlit nights.
She sings, “There’s beauty in every direction, everyone teaches a lesson…”
I feel thoughtful about the lyrics.
My adult life has gone by so fast. Our babies are nearly grown. One is leaving.
My husband–while not ambitious beyond our home, certainly always seeks to spend time with me. Not a social butterfly, a little grumpy at times, but his love is genuine. He still wants to be with me even after all these years. How many people receive the gift of consistency in a relationship?
I reflect on the day we met in May twenty four years ago. The day we pretended not to look at one another. The day I rolled my eyes at God because I knew with all my being that life ahead involved Paul by my side. Not one day since have I ever questioned if Paul wants to be with me. I feel…blessed.
Inhale. Exhale. Pause for oxygen.
I sense he may be missing me and wondering about our progress right now.
Grabbing my phone off the charger next to the wall, I send Paul a text—I AM SAFE AND SOUND AT OUR LAST STOP. GOING TO SLEEP SOON AND DRVING HOME IN THE MORNING. HOPE YOU GUYS ARE OK. LOTS OF ADVENTURES TO SHARE IF YOU WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THEM. I LOVE YOU.
Paul returns a text immediately—I LOVE YOU TOO! CAN’T WAIT TO GET YOU HOME. AND, YES, I WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE ADVENTURES. SEE YOU TOMORROW NIGHT. BOYS AND I ARE FINE. TTYS!
Brieanna rounds out the lyrics of her song, “Put the pieces away one last time…there’s beauty in every direction, everyone teaches a lesson, which way will you choose…”
The common denominator of anything that really matters is family, friends and love. Everything else can be rearranged, sold, donated. Just because I want things a certain way does not mean that is the only way. Life can evolve, and I’ll be just fine.
The room begins to clear. Campers go to bed with the sun.
Ted smiles in a belly full kind of way. He reaches for his wallet.
“Uh, no sir,” says SunFloJo. “We’ve got this.”
In his jovial manner he says, “Thank you.”
“Ted, we appreciate you. And thanks for coming up here tonight. It was good to converse when we weren’t falling apart from exhaustion,” I say.
He smiles, shakes all our hands. Then with a quick so long, he is gone.
We girls chip in our funds, and SunFloJo finishes the bill business. Tank and Frodo say thank you.
While Brieanna is packing up with her dad, we exit. The Steam Team plus Tank and Frodo make our way up the wooden stairs and out the lodge front door. Crickets dominate the cool night air.
We carefully step through the darkness down the hill toward our car. I do not want a sprained ankle. Not even at this stage in the game. Flip flops don’t fail me now.
Lightning highlights the sky. A low thunder sound is not far away.
The guys stand as we gather gallon size bag after bag of trail food, some from the back of the CRV and some from the bear box. Frodo’s mouth drops and Tank’s eyes widen as they say, “This is a lot of food!”
We are giggly but do not want to disturb the campground. I peer around to see how many people are still outside. Some people are still awake, but most seem to be tucked away in their tents and campers.
On one of the bear box retrieval trips, I happen to notice a familiar person. You have got to be kidding me!
Shut-Up-Guy is outside of his tent next door to us in campsite 3. He shakes his head perhaps in disbelief too.
We pile plastic bag after bag into Tank and Frodo’s arms all while they marvel about the types of food inside: jerky, marshmallows, crushed pop tarts, fruit chews, pretzels, peanut butter, and more!
Tank says, “Wow, this will save like 4 days of grocery cost for us. Thank you so much.”
Frodo adds, “When this happens it’s called Trail Magic! And that means you four are Trail Angels.”
Trail Angels. I like the sound of that.
“Here,” Frodo sets down the bags for a moment. “We have to hug. Thank you so much. This was a great evening.”
Frodo and Tank take turns hugging each one of us.
My heart is full by their gratitude and admiration for their journey. How awesome is it that they are thru hikers halfway along on their full route AT adventure? Our trail magic gets to move on without us through them.
Stalker C says, “Do you mind if we follow your journey on Facebook or Instagram or something?”
Both guys say absolutely and give us their real names.
“We hope to be in Vermont by Labor Day,” Tank says.
“And finish in Maine by end of September or early October,” Frodo adds.
I say, “We’ll be cheering you on.”
SunFloJo adds with a chuckle, “Virtually.” Even her wonder woman of a body is tired now.
We smile and after one more round of hugs, the guys carry their food off into the night.
The Steam Team leans silently against the CRV bumper.
All of us look toward the dark campsite thinking how set up at this point would be difficult without light—and probably noisy.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11: 28-29
The AT leads us to a cliff and then takes a sharp turn to the right. More trees. More rocks. More dirt.
Ugh. I thought we were getting close to the end of this ordeal.
Our sweat has knit an extra layer around our bodies.
SunFloJo reads my silent disappointment. I pick up on her equally silent encouragement vibe.
Keep going. We can do this.
At the turn, she slows down to talk with a bearded guy coming from the opposite direction. “What’s your trail name?”
“Sushi!” he says with pride. He has energy and spring in his step. May I have some of that please?
Passing us, he looks back and projects his voice, “Oh hey, there’s a party in the Tap Room tonight at Big Meadow if you’re interested!”
Apparently, the invite has gone full circle.
“Ok thanks!” SunFloJo says and smiles.
Then to me she chuckles, “Well, this means the girls are alive up ahead.”
I laugh in my body somewhere, but I’m not sure if it shows because I am so tired. In my mind, I think how fantastic it is that the girls are still sharing the invitation and now other people are inviting…us!
Trail Mail. Word of mouth. Love it.
SunFloJo is a couple steps ahead of me probably wondering if I’m going to have a heart attack or not. I cannot talk or respond no matter what she asks. That’s probably not a good sign.
I feel my fat work against me. My muscles say, we did not prepare properly for this! I barely feel my legs—probably because my brain can’t listen to the pain anymore.
We stumble down a slight decline. The path is narrow. SunFloJo marvels at nature, “Aren’t the trees just beautiful?”
She really is a mountain woman.
I am not capable of participating in conversation with my dear SunFloJo/SteelCut/why-did-I-say-yes-to-this-friend.
Are those cars on a road that hear?!
Eh, maybe. Could be my mind playing tricks. The forest spins a bit.
I feel dizzy.
Stop it! You’ve got to pull through this. The Tap Room is metaphorically in sight.
I stop to drink the last of my water. I suck the bottle dry, caving in the plastic.
Ok, let’s finish this.
I follow SunFloJo’s easy going pace with my huffing it pace. We hike along a ridge seeing a mountain above us and mountain below us. We trek downhill and straight ahead on a dirt path corridor.
Soon I see an opening in the trail. We walk toward it.
And there are the girls!
They sit on a gravel access road that crosses the trail.
I look to the left. There is a small trail leading across the path into the woods. To the right, the access road leads to…(yes!)…a real road which I assume is Skyline Drive.
Across from our position, the AT continues.
The girls look slightly refreshed. They’ve gotten to sit without their backpacks on the ground for a while waiting on us–aka waiting on me.
“I can’t wait to shower,” Stalker C says. Her “shower” sounds like a really long word: “sha-ow-wherrrr”.
Sunshine Rat responds with, “1.25 for 5.25. Oh yeah.” She recites the dollar and minutes sign we saw at Big Meadow shower stalls.
I lay down on the gravel with my head on my pack.
We stare into the trees. No one speaks for a few minutes.
Finally, I can function jaw muscles again. My first words are, “We’ve got to take an after picture of us before we shower.”
Everyone agrees. This accomplishment will need documentation. We are disgusting and picture ready.
SunFloJo springs an idea, “Hey girls. If I give you the car key, you could leave your packs here and walk to get the car at Lewis Mountain just up the road. Then drive back to get us.”
This keeps the Steam Team from trying to figure out Dick’s short cut through the next part of the trail with our packs on.
Stalker C and Sunshine Rat are all over that plan. Their young legs are free from burdens and ready to walk with purpose. They stand up and turn toward the road.
Laying there, I feel tearful. Dehydrated ducts can still feel the feels.
It’s over. We did what we set out to do. SunFloJo gathers energy to move backpacks further toward the road so the girls won’t miss us when they return.
A thin guy and girl emerge from the AT. They say, “Have you seen the shelter?”
I shake my head no.
“There’s supposed to be one around here. We’re ready to call it a day and sleep there we hope.”
My toes point toward the foot path that crosses the AT. I look beyond my toes and see a small sign carved in wood. I ask and point, “Is it in there?”
They walk toward it and read. He shouts back, “This is it. Thank you!”
Cool, glad I could help. Then I think about them sleeping in one of the little wood lean-tos that are mentioned in the first chapter of the book A Walk In The Woods.
I hope they have buffs, so they don’t risk breathing the rat doo-doo underneath.
Oh, first thing I am thankful for post hike: not sleeping exposed in one of the little wood shelters any of our nights this week.
From my supine position, I hear the Toyota CRV pull onto the gravel behind me. Wow, those girls made great time.
We load packs in the back and grab our beloved red bag from Deb.
SunFloJo blasts the air conditioner. We climb in and pass around remaining Deb snacks, shoving peanut butter filled pretzels and melted together iced animal cookies into our mouths like we haven’t eaten in days. Crumbs fly!
Someone says through mouthfuls, “I wonder if Ted will really come to Big Meadow tonight?”
Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path
of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. ~ Proverbs 4:25-26
We’ve got this.
I feel stronger after a little rest and protein. We trek south.
As we walk, SunFloJo asks me, “Why do you think that one guy thinks I’m SteelCut?”
“I think he was saying that he can tell that you’re tough.” I answer, then add, “Which is true.”
“Really.” I see she doesn’t believe me. “Well, we can look up definitions in the online dictionary when we get back to Big Meadow.”
“Hm. I suppose.”
“I think it’s a compliment. SteelCut fits. Could be your new trail name.”
Our path is about two feet wide with gradual downhill then uphill slopes. Eventually the drop over the mountain to our left becomes the drop over the mountain to our right.
Foot traffic meetings increase.
We need a break just as a tall shirtless young man approaches.
“What’s your trail name?” We ask.
He smiles through a developing beard, “Doc.”
“And how come that name?” SunFloJo inquires.
“Because I’m working on my doctorate and decided to take the summer off to clear my head and walk the AT,” He responds. “My friends thought that was a good fit, and I liked it.”
Stalker C occasionally dings her bear bell as we hike. Sometimes the quick path elevation change causes the bell to ring on its own also.
We walk and see another shirtless man, not as tall, sitting on a tree stump. His hair is dark and loosely curled around his head. His skin is a smooth, a deep olive tone. He peels socks from his feet.
“Hi there,” says SunFloJo. I can tell she is in an interview mode.
This guy is reluctant to speak at all until SunFloJo says, “Oh, I see you’re doing a sock change. Smart.”
Yep, that got him. He says, “Yes. Changing socks is one of the best things you can do out here.”
Sunshine Rat says, “Do you have any more tips?”
SunFloJo follows with, “I would love to know how you pack your food.”
“Ok,” He obliges and opens his backpack. “This is my protein. He points to various jerky meats. This is my mini stove. I cook pasta in there from a ready-made bag in the evening.”
“Uh huh. Mm,” SunFloJo listens as if she doesn’t have the same exact things in her bag.
“What’s your trail name?” Stalker C asks.
Great name. I estimate he is a thru-hiker. I ask, “What mile are you on?”
SunFloJo asks, “Do we look like thru-hikers?”
“No,” Hawaii responds quickly.
SunFloJo laughs. “How can you tell? No one ever asks us our trail names.”
Hawaii looks us up and down, “Well, your packs are too heavy for one thing.”
Hey, I have met thru hikers who had as big or bigger packs than us.
A fly or gnat flies in my mouth. I spit it out to the side of the trail without leaning my body or gagging. Wow, I have become one with the wild.
I stop listening to Hawaii’s tips for the most part. I hear him say something about packing toothpaste in a tiny baggie instead of a small tube. He stops in a town about every 4th or 5th day for a rest. He gathers and stuffs items back into his bag and stands up. He’s ready to head north, the opposite direction we are going.
As he takes off in stride, he turns to shout back at us, mainly to Stalker C, “And you don’t need that bear bell!”
SunFloJo, Sunshine Rat and I laugh. Stalker C reaches back to the bell and says to our group, “Oh, yes, I do.”
We walk on. This part of the forest makes me think of the first Disney movie I saw in the theater as a child: Snow White. I visualize the Seven Dwarfs marching along this area.
The trail takes a steep but short dip near a cliff’s edge. We still giggle over our interaction with Hawaii when we see a guy and girl sitting on a log. SunFloJo says, “Sorry if we were a little loud on the approach.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” the guy says. “We just saw a bobcat so a little noise is probably a good thing.”
The girl nods.
I suppose that means bobcats can be aggressive.
“Hey, we’re all meeting up at the Tap Room tonight at Big Meadow if you want to join us,” SunFloJo says. I notice the couple smiles.
Sometimes it’s just nice to be invited.
The girl says, “We’ll keep that in mind. I think the Tap Room is close to where we heard you can get blackberry shakes in Big Meadow. Hikers say they are delicious.”
Wow. Something cold sounds amazing right now. I’ve never had a blackberry shake.
Rounding another part of the trail we see a woman. She’s solo. Her sandy blonde hair is in two braids. She wears a purplish blue skort.
“Are you a thru hiker?”
“Yes, I am,” She proudly stops to chat. “I probably look a little clean because last night I got a shower.”
“Yay, you’re doing it,” Sunshine is impressed. “What is your trail name?”
She shares that she is at mile 1200 and pressing onward. She is doing the trail north to south. She began in Maine and is headed to Georgia.
We are getting close to Bearfence Rock Scramble. I remember the description on the map:
1.2 mile circuit hike to a spectacular 360° view. Short but challenging hike with a rock scramble—do not attempt when rocks are wet. Pets are not allowed on this trail. Only attempt if you have good balance.
I do not have good balance at this point of the trip. Anything could knock me over. Or knock me to my death if I attempt Bearfence Rock Scramble.
We slope down a hill, then back up again. We manage a dip, another incline, then a decline and so forth. This is a roller coaster of a trail.
Turns out we weren’t so close to Bearfence afterall.
We are tired. Sitting on rocks or logs here and there becomes more frequent.
“Hi,” A young tall, bearded guy and an average height dark curly haired guy approach.
They need to catch their breath, and so do we. Their panting looks more graceful than ours, like they’ve been hiking fast for several miles. Rest is a mere formality for them.
My marriage potential radar lights up on behalf of my Steam Team friends.
“I’m Tank,” says the tall one.
“And I’m Frodo,” says the other. Oh, look! He has a ring around his neck like Lord of the Rings. He even looks like Elijah Woods with his big blue eyes.
Frodo affirms the story of his name, “A girl early on the trail said I look like Frodo. Then some Cracker Jack box had this ring inside of it. I was like ‘perfect’. So, I found this cord to tie it around my neck.”
Sunshine eyes Tank, but fatigue brings her down—literally. She and Stalker C sit on rocks near our conversation but are not completely in the conversation.
Not to worry. SunFloJo and I have matchmaking responsibilities covered.
I ask, “And how did you get the name Tank?”
He proudly says, “Cause at the beginning of the trail people were amazed by how quickly I climbed up hills like a tank.”
SunFloJo asks, “So you started in Georgia?”
They nod and say, “Yes.”
“When are you hoping to finish?”
“By October. We were making good time, but I had to go home for a few weeks because of a leg injury,” Tank says.
“And I went with him,” Frodo says.
I ask, “So were you friends before the trail?”
Frodo smiles, “No. That’s the funny thing. You meet up with people at the beginning of the AT season and you just never know who you will click with. We clicked, and we didn’t want to lose the teamwork that was kind of natural to us. We are in this to the end.”
“That is awesome,” I say. I glance at exhausted Stalker C and Sunshine Rat. This really should be you two chatting over here.
SunFloJo extends our invite, “We are going to be at The Tap Room tonight at Big Meadow Campground if you want to come join us. They have some yummy appetizers and drinks.”
Frodo’s face lights up a bit. He’s the more social one, I think. He says, “That’s where we plan to camp tonight.” He smiles, “Maybe we’ll see you there.”
“Great,” I say.
Tank and Frodo exchange see-you-laters with us and head north.
We hike toward Lewis Mountain where our car is, but everyone else seems to be walking in the direction of Big Meadow.
We continue south for a while and then take a break to sit on logs facing one another. I say, “Girls, you kinda held back back there.”
Sunshine Rat smirks. Her knowing look, green buff that surrounds her head, and matching backpack make my heart smile. We are all dirt covered and sweat glistened.
Stalker C forms her cheeks a bit like Shirley Temple when she says, “Oh you two had us covered. You didn’t need us back there. We could rest up while you two did the talking.”
SunFloJo turns to me, “’Cause I’m the grandma and you’re the mom type.”
I smile, “That’s right.”
We stand up. Our muscles may snap. Soreness runs deep.
Soon we make it to the BearFace Scramble extra trail entrance.
And by soon, I mean it took forever. We wondered several times if we were still on the correct course.
I quietly hope no one wants to do the 360-degree view with tricky footing. There is no way I can safely crawl around the most dangerous of rocks in this area especially with a backpack.
A young college man emerges from a side trail, “Hi, he says.”
I curse the size of his itty-bitty water supply on his back. That’s it. Nothing else. And he looks so…clean.
Sunshine Rat asks because of his t-shirt, “Are you from JMU?”
We saw James Madison University on our drive.
He continues, “My mom is down here doing a section hike. I’m going to do BearFace and then go meet her later.”
SunFlo offers, “Well if you want to take her to the Tap Room at Big Meadow tonight, that’s where the party will be. We’re going to be there and we’re inviting everyone we meet to join us.”
I sense a snicker from the Stalker C who is sitting on a rock.
SunFloJo, er or SteelCut if she accepts that new name, learns more about him. It is fun to see her social skills in action.
This candidate is studying economics. He’s not 100% sure which career field he wants, but he has time to figure that out since he is a sophomore.
In response to the invite he says, “Sounds fun. I’ll keep that in mind.” He flashes a perfect smile and heads up the rocks that form a staircase leading to BearFace.
I turn to the girls, “Does anyone want to do BearFace?”
Stalker C says, “Definitely not.”
We later learn that people do BearFace without big packs. Sounds like a good day trip only to me. I suppose we could have left our packs on the AT and walked up, but the extra path is over a mile. No one has extra miles left in their legs.
The hike continues.
Stalker C pauses to pee while we turn our heads. Funny, she does not even take the backpack off this time.
We’re girls just doing what we must do. That takes talent and skill, Stalker C!
No one seems disappointed about not doing BearFace. I am so glad. I don’t want to be the reason anyone misses anything.
We trek onward. Rocks become plentiful as we climb higher on the trail. There are big rocks, sometimes wobbly under foot. My poles are part of my body at this point.
We, the poles and I, do the best we can.
Man, I’m tired. I sense total body shut down threatening my ability to finish.
The younger girls sense the end is near and surge ahead of us. It is weird to not hear, see, or catch up to them anymore.
SunFloJo could totally keep up with the girls. But when she notices that I lag, she walks back to me and talks me through.
I can no longer speak or respond.
Pole step, one foot, pole, the other foot, repeat. That’s where I am, all my focus is on poles and feet.
Sweat is an extra layer of clothes, heavy. Flies drive me nuts.
I see sunlight through the trees. Is there hope? The path appears to end.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
We exchange a good laugh about the Fisherman’s camp and continue walking.
I send a telepathic check-in to home base: I’m ok, Hon. You know I am a survivor no matter what. Hope you can feel my soul speaking to you.
I imagine Paul is happy to wake up this morning having had no knocks on the front door from police delivering bad news. Knowing the Steam Team’s darkest night is over may provide relief both to us on the trail and to those who care about us. I find it funny that our darkest night involved sleeping with a light on the whole time.
The terrain changes from the abundance of browns to tall, wispy lime green grass and blue sky on the horizon as we climb higher and higher. I think the bright blue is a good sign at first.
Looks like the top of the mountain is just ahead. We’re almost there.
I remember on the trail plan that at the end of Laurel Prong Trail we will turn left back onto the AT.
The top, the top of the mountain. I can see it! –or so I think.
The girls await my caboose at a trail marker post.
When they see me approach, they turn right.
Why not left!?
Sunshine points out that the trail post says Laurel Prong continues this way. To the right. There’s more Laurel Prong to hike. We are not to our official turn yet.
“Sneaky trail,” says Stalker C.
Yeah, it is!
To the right we go. SunFloJo lifts the mood, “Isn’t this beautiful?!”
From the back of the line, I quietly huff, “Breathtaking.” –which had a funny double meaning if anyone had heard it.
I look right and down over the mountain side trail we just climbed. That is an impressive view of how far we’ve come today.
To my left is the mountain ridge and a majestic crisp sky. Between me and the ridge is soft flowing grass. I mentally immerse into the beauty. We are on top of the world.
I pause to look across the sky at many mountains in the distance and contemplate how this mountain is among its friends. This is an overlook without a drive or pull off parking spot. There is no road. We’ve earned this glorious view by climbing.
While one foot follows the next, I enter a prayerful time of reflection while thinking a lot about my relationship with God.
I sense my Higher Power say:
What if you spent more time with Me? What if you stop trying to make things fit and simply give it all to Me? Give me your marriage. Give me your work, your children, your journey. You don’t have to figure it out. All you need to do is do the next step and then the next step after that. The supernatural comes from Me. Allow and invite me into your whole life, not just your heart.
I ask: But why haven’t you moved in our finances? Why are things not better in Paul’s work and body? What do we need to do to improve our situation?
Have you asked Me in faith to handle those challenges?
Verses come to mind as if I can hear the Word more clearly from this elevation.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9
Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6
And then my mind hears:
What I’m saying is make room. You chose the name Surrender for a reason. Make room and allow Me to direct your path.
I ponder the many ways I have not asked for God’s help in recent years. I think about what it would mean to make room for supernatural blessings. I think about my friends who say, “trust the process.”
My mind hushes. I seek time with God. My mind churns to a pleasant blank nothingness while feeling fully embraced by love.
We march on with heat friction between our backs and backpacks. Sweat drips down faces, necks, and arms.
The trail changes to extra narrow. We enter a path about five inches wide of dirt between billowing grass. I am unnerved by the grass brushing my calves.
Please don’t let anything climb up my leg or inside my pants leg! I make noise and swish the ground with my trekking poles.
I am torn whether to look left to the poetic mountain tops or to keep my eyes on every spec of dirt in my path.
Look! A bright orange salamander type creature ahead of my feet. That is cool.
I am careful not to squish him. I step over it and then nearly step on a fuzzy orange-yellow furry caterpillar type guy. There are some brightly colored things up here that don’t seem to have camouflage options.
I take in a deep breath and exhale. The air grows thin. I repeat the deep breathing.
Keep walking, Surrender. Keep breathing too.
Then trail changes again. We begin a rocky edge along the tip top of the mountain. We step up and over many rocks to make our way, big and small rocks.
I encourage my ankles to remain strong. The slightest slip could cause me to slide left off the cliff and down the side of the mountain. The trail is narrow with nothing but empty space to my left and a wall of rock just taller than me to my right.
The narrow footing is a challenge. If we run into anyone going the opposite direction, then we will have to cling to complete strangers to figure out how to pass one another.
The Steam Team walks close together now. Everyone wants to make sure we get through this ridge. No one talks. Concentration is high.
I think about how snakes might like to sun themselves on the rocks to my right and how much I hope they don’t choose to do that here today. I hope we make enough noise to keep such creatures away.
A large rock blocks our path. As she scales it, SunFloJo slips. My heart skips. The girls gasp.
SunFloJo falls wisely toward the rock wall side and hangs on to jagged stones until she regains footing.
Sunshine Rat asks, “Are you ok?”
“Yep. I’m good.”
“Good save,” I say.
We are a tired, dirty crew. Flies buzz around my greasy head. I notice Stalker C bats flies from her forehead too. I am kind of surprised flies hang out at this altitude.
We pause to put our sleeping buffs around our heads. That keeps flies at bay somewhat but not completely.
I step with my trekking pole and the pole sinks. I slide down with the pole face first into rocks. My belly saves me by catching on the rock I was trying to climb over.
“Surrender!” Sunshine Rat sees me go down.
I glance at the cliff to my left. “I’m ok,” I say but don’t believe.
Surely, we are near the AT intersection. Surely.
“Wanna rest a minute?” SunFloJo asks me once I crawl over the rock.
I nod. The girls hike ahead.
The two most senior of the group need a break. Tiredness is becoming a liability.
SunFloJo and I sit on a 3-foot log that somehow is stuck on this short-width trail. I try not to think about the rocks or critter holes behind or under me. My feet touch the edge of the mountain. Hopefully whatever lurks nearby stays at bay.
From our seated position we face the deep valley and mountains as far as we can see. Falling to our death is easily possible. I cannot see how far down the mountain is below my feet.
Far, very far. Steep, very steep.
Yet how beautiful is this?! When in life have I ever had the opportunity to be wedged on the side of a mountain this high up? Um, never.
Overcome, I sense dry tears could flow. I am too dehydrated for wetness to form in my eyes.
“Are you tired?” SunFlo asks.
I nod and wipe sweat with my shirt collar. The sun is intense.
“We’ll just sit a moment. We have plenty of time.”
I drink the water we purified earlier this morning. I’ve been thirsty for a while. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to make my ration of water last if the rest of our day is like Laurel Prong Trail has been.
SunFloJo hands me a dried mango slice. I eat it without hesitation. It tastes good, sweet. I need nature’s sugar.
We breathe and rest for a few minutes. We can not afford any more stumbles on this stretch.
Regaining some strength, I share, “I’ve tried to throw my anger and sadness off cliffs, over waterfalls and into fire this whole trip.”
I pause, “Not sure how many more opportunities I’ll have.”
“Do you feel better?”
“Maybe lighter emotionally.” I continue, “I’m happy for our son. He’s going to go live his dream. I would never choose the risks and lifestyle of a military career for him, but it is what he wants. I’m going to miss him.”
“You have a baby and everyone warns you that they grow fast. Man, that’s the truth…. And maybe I need to let go of the non-profit dream. Perhaps I’ve laid the foundation and someone else will rise to take on the next steps. Maybe I need to make room for others to carry on the work. I am going to be open about whatever is next. I’m giving God back the dream. We’ll see what happens. When it is time to quit, I trust He will make it clear. It is so hard to turn away from doing something you love.”
More listening. We stare at the valley and mountains.
SunFloJo is completely still. I sense that I have however long I need on this log.
I can talk with God, her, or both. It doesn’t matter to her. She could say something. That would be ok.
But she doesn’t.
“And those girls.” I point to the right although the girls are well beyond us, “They are so smart, young and have such good attitudes. Lord, please don’t let them settle for anything that holds them back or weighs down their spirit. They are encouragers. They are free from restraints. Keep them free. Keep them blessed and upbeat like they are right now.”
I wipe my face. This is a new sensation; crying without tears because my body can’t produce any.
SunFloJo asks, “That’s really more about you, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I choke on air, “It is.”
I say, “I remember being like them.”
“I hear you, sweetie. Me too.”
We stare and breathe, taking in the moment.
Guess we better get going.
I stand. SunFloJo hands me her last piece of dried mango. That should be enough fuel to get me to lunch. My legs went to sleep while sitting on our awkward perch. I fight through the sleepy muscles and get my feet moving.
Soon the rocks change back to tall grass. We are no longer on the edge of the mountain.
It takes a little while to catch up to the girls.
“We see it!” Sunshine says about the trail intersection we’ve been looking for. “Just up ahead.”
The four of us approach our last trail marker.
Sun rays filter through the trees to shine gently on the intersection spot. This is where Laurel Prong Trail dead ends into the AT making a very big T.
It is finally time to eat lunch. We have not seen another human all day so we make ourselves at home in the intersection which is perhaps the widest path we’ve seen today. SunFloJo spreads out her sleeping mat for seating. I sit on a stump with my pack on the ground next to me. Stalker C is to my left with her legs stretched straight out on the ground. She starts to munch some chips.
I go for protein from Teriyaki Beef Jerky. I tear pieces of a tortilla to eat and unwrap ginger candy to hopefully boost my body.
Sunshine sits on the mat with SunFloJo. She offers insight about the time she and Stalker C were alone, “We had a little moment.”
Stalker C rolls her eyes, “I kinda lost it. I am not going to make it much longer. My body and attitude are done.”
My head tilts.
Sunshine adds, “Her foot issue is getting worse. But maybe we won’t go up any more mountains from here. It looks pretty straight in the direction we’re going next.”
“Lies,” Stalker C says. “The trail lies. Can’t trust it.” She swats a fly, and then another. She shakes her head. “I’m losing it.”
“Oh, Honey,” SunFloJo laughs. “We just had a moment where Surrender was breaking down and then talking about how great your two girls’ attitudes are.”
Sunshine snickers, “I wasn’t having a very good attitude the last few miles. That trail marker back there saying that it was another mile before we reach the AT just about sent me over the edge. I wanted to jump off the mountain for sure.” She sighs. “Alas, but now we’ve made it.”
Stalker C says, “We couldn’t believe how positive you two were being when we had to scale those rocks!”
“Us? Positive?” I say.
SunFloJo requests half chuckling, “Tell what you were hoping for their lives, Surrender.”
We laugh through the dirt and sweat on our bodies about how I hope they’ll maintain positive attitudes like they have today and be wise about sticking with positive people, to never let negativity hold them back.
Stalker C scoffs and her shoulders go back, “But now I’ve lost it. I’ve got a bad attitude.”
Sunshine Rat offers, “Stalker, you’ve had a great attitude. This is tough. We just lost it a little for a moment. We own it. We’ve got this. We’ll work it out.”
I smile. We are all humans on a mission managing the best we can with our minds and bodies. I look south down the AT as far as I can see, “Homestretch now.”
SunFloJo says, “I think it is funny that we were having separate meltdowns at the same time while admiring the opposite two.”
Laughter cleanses us.
After our revelation, we take time to breathe. I adore how our unique foursome respects quiet time. We are our authentic selves through strain, laughter, and peace. We value reflection time unanimously.
I stretch and recline for a few minutes.
Sunshine Rat breaks our silence, “Stalker C, we haven’t hit our goal yet. We’ve only got one trail left,”
Sunshine turns to the older of us and says, “We thought we’d meet our dream mountain men this week and be swept off our feet.”
Stalker C says, “That’s right. We’ve gotta bring home our true loves from this graduation trip to our parents.”
Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.
Stalker C startles awake. She whispers, “What is it?!”
My words barely enter the air, “I. Don’t. Know.”
We are frozen, sitting up. We do not peek behind us yet.
I continue slowly, “We are going to have to turn around. I think it is in my backpack. Or outside. Or maybe both. I am hoping it is outside.”
We listen. She hears it too.
“Ok. I’m going to pull down my buff and look.”
“Ok, me too.”
We slowly tug fabric and turn. My eyes adjust. I don’t see anything moving on top of the pack. Thank God.
I gulp, then crawl closer to look. Nothing obvious is inside that I can see without putting my hand in the bag. I am too scared to place my arm inside or to widen the opening.
Then I hear something with four legs move away from the outside wall. It sounds big, bigger than a rat. I wince to stand and then look through a tall window.
I can’t see past the darkness. I hope the animal is small. However, the sound is what I imagine a curious bear might sound like.
What do I know? Maybe I am wrong. I dismiss my fears by thinking: It was probably a skunk or possum. Mostly I am glad it was not indoors with us.
My heartbeat slows down, “I am so sorry I woke you.”
“I was afraid.”
Stalker C nods.
Next door in the lights-out room our friends continue snoozing.
We try to get comfortable and go back to sleep with buffs back over our faces.
But Stalker C whispers, “Something is behind us.” And we become a fit of giggles.
When we stop giggling, the quiet somehow makes us start laughing again and again. SunFloJo and Sunshine Rat must be deep sleepers. They do not stir.
Ok. I’m going to try to sleep. My back may split in two from the hardwood floor, but morning will arrive. I need legs that are ready to climb the next mountain.
“Surrender!” Stalker C whispers.
I don’t move. Through the buff I say, “What?”
Stalker C sits higher than me. She says calmly, “There is a centipede barreling toward your head. I don’t know if you care or not, but if you do, we should do something about it.”
A centipede? Barreling?
I think it over, then pull the buff below my eyes. Sure enough the centipede scoots along a crack coming from the baseboard and heading my way. We will soon be face to face.
“Fine.” I stand up and do a short pace back and forth considering what to do. I don’t think I can kill it. It is too big for me to stomach squishing it.
I need a plastic bag. Stalker C watches my body language. The nearest available plastic bag is on the hygiene product table in the front room. If I go in there, our neighbors’ motion activated light will turn on.
Stalker C reads my mind, “Don’t worry. They won’t wake up.”
I slip past our lightly snoring friends and grab a plastic bag. No one moves when their light comes on.
Back in our room, I realize I need a pen, stick or something slender. I eye Sunshine Rat’s pen on a small table. I walk back in to grab it. Still no one wakes up.
Whew! This is good. Those two will be rested and able to go for help tomorrow when Stalker C and I are not physically able to finish.
I twirl the centipede onto the pen and deposit it into the plastic bag. I poke a tiny hole in hopes of giving oxygen to the centipede and place the bagged friend on the windowsill. “I’ll let you free in the morning, Little One. Hope you make it.”
Back to “bed”.
Stalker C whispers, “Surrender, there’s a spider.”
Oh, dear God. Where?
I roll over toward her and remove enough of my buff to expose my left eye.
“Right there.” She points high on the wall on her side of the room and above our feet.
I say, “That’s like five feet up.”
“It’s been there for a while.”
I have nothing left. “It will go away.”
Or drop right on us. I look toward the window to see if there is any sign of daybreak. Seeing nothing yet, I roll over and slip back into whatever sleep level I can.
I look at the sky through the window. That is not black. I see a little blue.
We can’t let Ted down. I’ll get my stuff together, change my pants and then wake the others.
Assembled, I try to say gently, “Good morning girls. We gotta go. Make sure you have everything.”
Stalker C mumbles, “We can’t disappoint Ted.”
Now that the party stirs, I slip outside to add the wet socks to my dirty laundry bag.
Sunshine says hopeful, “I wonder if Ted is making coffee for us.”
SunFloJo says, “Oh I hope so.”
I pee outside to start the day well–the outdoor bathroom expert that I am. I search each room making sure we haven’t forgotten a single thing or left any crumbs.
The centipede is set free on a porch rail—possibly still alive. It was hard to tell.
The last thing I grab and put on my feet are the socks from the security cameras.
Then we shut the door behind us.
We pass the fountain in the center of Rapidan Camp. Last night Ted told us how the fountain still works, but no one is sure exactly how it drains. I think the fountain looks lonely with no buildings around it anymore. I picture the bear walking by it in the mornings.
The bear isn’t here today, is it? Hopefully it will sleep in after such a stormy night. I keep an eye out just in case.
Passing The Creel house, Sunshine smells for coffee. Nothing. Ted doesn’t have to be up this early. Hopefully we get to see him tonight.
We walk across the bridge and over the river so Stalker C and Sunshine can use the outhouse. They take one step in and walk right back out.
SunFloJo asks the girls, “Smell too bad?”
The girls nod. No way they can accomplish anything in there.
SunFloJo and I stand on the bridge and look over the river that is easier to see from here today in the morning light. Wow, we crossed that yesterday?
We walk on, looking for our next trail.
It is early. Maybe 6:15am or so.
Sunshine looks at her boob-o-meter, “With any luck we’ll be back to Big Meadow by 3pm and have time to shower before Ted arrives.”
That’s a good thought ‘because we need showers. Desperately.
We walk behind Rapidan Camp now. To our left is clearly marked Fork Mountain Trail. But in front of us we have a dilemma. There is a small width trail left of a trail marker post. And about eight feet and to the right of the trail marker is a wider width trail that kind of looks like a road up the hill.
Which one do we take? Which one is Laurel Prong Trail?
We guess that the trail marker being next to the smaller width trail must be the correct answer. So we begin.
Morning sun sparkles through the trees. This trail closely follows a tiny creek that I assume is Laurel Prong Creek. I think about how this looks like where Smurfs might live. There are mushrooms and many moss covered rocks. The landscape is wet and cool from the downpour last night.
We continue half a mile and then the mossy creek trail ends. There is no right, left or forward choice. We picked the wrong trail.
Sunshine says, “Great start, Steam Team. Good thing it is so early.”
Stalker C, “Yeah, we didn’t disappoint Ted. Early start and already an excursion.”
SunFloJo, “We have plenty of time to get to the Tap Room before 6pm.”
Sunshine, “Because that’s trash and laundry time. We gotta be there by then.”
We spread out along the thicket. Sunshine says, “Hold up.” We pause to give Stalker C a moment to pee ahead of us.
Back to the trail marker post we switch gears and head up the hill on what must be the real Laurel Prong Trail.
Uphill.Ouch. My foot to shin angle feels like about 45 degrees.
Soon we enter what feels like an enclosed wet wood forest with more browns than greens. There are many twists and turns.
The tall trees intertwine their branches above our heads to form a roof of leaves. A sea of ferns gathers on the lumpy and bumpy mountainside. The ferns are not as thick as we saw in places yesterday, but their bright green waves contrast the many fallen logs and large rocks.
Occasionally the three front runners pause so I can catch up. We are a human slinky; widening and closing our gaps as we walk.
Surely, we are getting close to the top. This is supposed to be a 5.7 to 6.7-mile day, but I must remember: the trail lies.
Mentally I am prepared for and 8 to 10-mile day, but if it’s all up hill like this I am going to be in trouble. My heart rate is up as if I’m midway through a Jazzercise class or something.
When we have walked 2.5 miles according to Sunshine’s boob-o-meter, we see something.
We stop to look left. Probably 40 feet off the trail is a clearing where someone made a big circle of cut back trees and bushes.
“That must be the fire ring we were supposed to stay in last night,” SunFloJo says.
Stalker C eyes the vast forest in every direction of the burned space. She says, “Oh thank God for Ted. We would never have found that at night.”
“And the mud would have made it rough,” Sunshine Rat adds.
We shake our heads and shiver at the thought. We would have missed it. No doubt.
SunFloJo says, “Well if anyone asks, we stayed overnight at the Fisherman’s camp just outside of the national park just down from Rapidan.”
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.
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.