Tuesday, July 3, 2012

... and home before dark ...

As we continued walking, the effects of nature began to calm our nerves. It was as if the symphony had started and the music was washing over us. Our breathing and footsteps were the rhythm; the songbirds were the melody; the breeze that whistled through the trees provided the harmony; and the faraway thunder was the tympani. Our backpacks swayed as if mimicking the movement and syncopation of a metronome.

We continued with our interjections of conversation. We wondered what time we would be at camp. When would we stop to eat lunch? Were we even hungry? Did we think it was going to rain? What time was sunset? Isn’t the air amazing? Did you see that flower?

We looked for good walking sticks. One that I picked up seemed perfect until I found my hand crawling with ants that had made that stick home. It wasn’t too long after that when another branch presented itself on the trailside. It had a slight curve at the top for the perfect handle and was just the right height to provide balance.

Finding this stick provided the opportunity to take a little break, something that I looked forward to doing often during the hike. When at rest, we’d lean forward to reduce the pressure of the pack on our backs.
“When we get to camp, I want to whittle this stick,” I mentioned between breaths. “I have never done that before, but I think it might be fun.”

I looked for a stick for Kirk, which gave me the chance to rest again. It took a little longer to find him one, but eventually the perfect one just popped up on the side of the trail. So now, we felt “mountain man” complete and continued walking.

We stumbled upon a rusted and abandoned car resting in a ditch. It had no roof, interior, or motor. It was just a shell of a car circa the 1930s. We gawked in awe as we wondered how it got there, way up in the woods. We took a closer look, snapped a few photos, adjusted our packs, and moved on. We were soon dumbfounded when we came across another abandoned car.

At this point, we were deep into the woods, although, the feeling of being “deep into the woods” was based on our perspective at that moment. We felt we were deep into the woods, but we were in the foothills of the mountains, not even two miles into the trees. We were walking a trail called the Lakeshore Trail. This trail ran along the edge of Fontana Lake. Sometimes it ran very near it, up on the ridges that bordered it, or in the brush and trees that are adjacent to it.

We had stopped to look at the second abandoned car when an older male hiker ambled toward us. When we were dropped off at Fontana Dam, he had just arrived. I watched him remove his pack from the trunk of his car. He was nowhere near us when we entered the woods, but now he quickly approached. He wore shorts and an open white cotton button-front shirt. His grey-hair-covered belly protruded from it. He looked like an avid hiker. He didn’t have a large backpack, and he looked “seasoned”.

We greeted each other and made quick, trail small talk (where are you headed, how long are you planning to be out here, etc.). We started to move on, thinking that we could out walk the old man, but he kept pace and wanted to chat. He explained that the cars were probably abandoned in the 1940s and that there used to be a town or a village “up in them woods.” He pointed out a larger and wider path that could have been the road. He assumed the cars were abandoned due to blown tires when rubber was rationed during the war or that they may have been abandoned once the dam was complete in the 1930s.

He was a bit too chatty for Kirk and me. We had not yet fine-tuned our “trail etiquette” or manners and we wanted a quiet and personal hike. We stopped to have a snack and the old man pressed on. We hadn’t been on the trail three hours and already our shoulders were feeling the effects of the weight of our packs. I was amazed at how quickly this old man disappeared down the trail and was out of sight.

We took off our packs and sat on a log to eat a quick snack of meat sticks and Clif Bars. We finished our snack, stowed our trash in our trash pouch, put on our packs and adjusted the belt and laughed about how this was what the next seven days would be like; walking and walking, taking off our packs, putting on our packs, and then walking some more. So … started walking again.

*     *     *     *     *

The trail led us up the foothill and took us deeper into the trees and quiet. We focused mainly on keeping a solid and steady pace. We started hiking at 12:30 PM and anticipated being at our campsite at 6:00 PM. We had our map and when we wanted to check up on how much further we had to go, I’d examine the map, review the turns and the straight-aways, and try to pinpoint our location.
“Did we make a left turn and then a right turn,” I’d ask.
“Ok … I figured it out. We will go up about 200 feet and then we’ll turn to the left. After that, it looks like we’ll be level and then we turn right and climb another 100 feet,” I’d add, making myself feel useful in this situation that was so foreign. I hoped I was reading the map correctly.

The lake and our proximity to it were an important touchstone in this process. We had a few streams to cross, too, so seeing if we were on its left or its right, and assessing our distance from it, helped with navigation and guessing the distance we had travel or the distance we needed to.

It was warm and humid. We were both sweating. The “no see ums” and gnats were out and annoying us. I stopped to put on DEET insect repellent, which were wipes that came in a little foil packet. One provided enough coverage for my arms, legs, neck, and face. When I wiped it on my face, it felt cool – at first. An instant later, a burning sensation shocked every cell of my face. It was on fire and my eyes were watering. This was probably a reaction of the DEET and the glycolic face cream slathered on my face that morning. Once the burning turned to a moderate warming, and once I could open my eyes, we continued walking.

*     *     *     *     *

By now, it seemed that I was getting the hang of this thing called hiking. The pack was still heavy, and it was hard to keep walking, but I was no longer in “freak out” mode over what we were doing. Everything was new and exciting. We were climbing in elevation. We were looking at flowers in bloom. We were seeing the lake in the distance. We were panting. We saw moss, ferns, trees, and wild azaleas. The air was fresh and smelled of green and dirt. Birds chirped. We marveled. We walked. We got tired.

Several times, when climbing up inclines, I needed to stop and take a break. I started to worry that my legs wouldn’t be up for this task. They were already getting sore and it was only 3:00 PM or so. At one point, I stopped to rest when Kirk was ahead of me. He turned to face me and said in a horrified voice, “Scott! Walk towards me right now!”

My heart stopped and then leapt into my throat. I froze. Was a bear behind me? Thoughts raced through my mind. I need to make myself bigger than I am … I need to find that damn bear bell! … Why isn’t Kirk barking?

I took a few quick steps and caught up with Kirk. It wasn’t a bear, but a far easier critter for my emotions to handle -- a sunning copper head snake. I didn’t see it, but Kirk did. From that point on, I paid better attention to what was on the trail, instead of watching my feet navigate rocks and sticks.

We started walking again and practiced our dog barks just in case we encountered a bear. Thunder rumbled loudly in the distance.
“Oh shit. It better not rain,” I said.
“What was it Jeff said to do in thunder storms?” Kirk asked.
“We’re supposed to take off our packs and leave them, squat on the balls of our feet and cover our heads,” I remembered.
“Do you think we need to do that now?”
“Maybe we should just put on our rain coats. It sounds like it’s getting closer."
“It’s so hot out. I don’t want to put mine on.”

The thunder rumbled again noticeably closer. We contemplated again putting on our raincoats. We were already so hot and sweaty that the thought of putting them on was unthinkable. If rain came, it would be welcome.
“I swear to God. If it rains and we have to set up camp in the mud I am going to be pissed,” I said.

It started to sprinkle. You could hear it on the leaves of the trees and what drops did make it down to the forest floor was nothing noticeable on our skin or around us. It was nothing to be concerned about so we kept walking. A few minutes later, the clouds passed and the sun was out in full force.

Now that our concern of rain was behind us, we could focus on what was truly important: how much further? With each passing hour, it seemed like we should be about an hour away.
“I think we’re close,” one of us would say. “It can’t be that much longer.”

We really had no idea. The only thing we knew was that we needed to be at our campsite before dark. Neither of us wanted to try to set up camp in the dark.

*     *     *     *     *

So far, the only person we had seen on the trail was the old man. And so far, we had not caught up to him or passed him. Either he was walking fast or we were walking slowly. The latter was closer to the truth. I kept telling myself that if he could do this, then I certainly could do this. I mean, really, did you see his gut?

We just kept walking and walking. The incline would increase and we hike up. Then, the trail would level off for a few yards and we’d descend, only to hike up again.
“Where the hell is camp?”
“How much longer?”

We stopped for lunch. We laughed about our initial lunch plan was to cook macaroni and cheese. We giggled about how we thought we’d break out the stove and cook at this time. What were we thinking? At this point, I wasn’t all that hungry, but Kirk was. We ate Clif bars, meat sticks, and some dried fruit. For some reason, I had no appetite. Maybe it was nerves. Water was the most needed thing in my belly.

We finished eating lunch and hiked for a few more hours. I was beat. My legs were really starting to burn.
“Kirk, I am really out of shape. I don’t know if I can do this.” I would say, but quickly follow up with, “But I will.”

In my head, I sang about putting “One Foot In Front of the Other” in order to keep my mind off the heat, sweat, and exhaustion that was coming over me. Kirk seemed to take it in stride. My thought was that since he was a dancer, he used his legs more often. I cursed having not used my gym membership more often.

At this point it was clear – it didn’t matter. No matter what kind of shape I felt I was in, it just didn’t matter. I had to keep walking. “Left. Left. Left, Right, Left.” was another ditty that swam through my brain. It was getting darker and I wanted to get to our campsite before dark.

Eventually, after several stops to enjoy the smell of the air, the wind in the trees, or to listen to the thunder in the distance, we hiked into Campsite #93. We needed to pass through this site to get to ours. We were both very excited to see this site. This was the first major recognizable landmark that we could definitively point out on the map.

This site was bustling with activity. There was a church group of twelve or so teens and the group’s leader, a couple with a very sparse campsite, and the old man, who clearly had been there awhile and had his site completely set up. We asked how much further to the next site and how to get there.
“About thirty minutes. Walk through those trees and then cross the footbridge.”

Elation! Thirty minutes! That’s nothing! And it was getting darker, so we needed to press on and get to camp before sunset. We needed to hurry as quickly as we could.

We reached the footbridge, a simple railing and a skinny plank that crossed over a creek. This seemed like a huge stream and like a daunting task to accomplish with this pack on my back. We crossed the creek and continued walking. Soon the trail led us to another bridge that was made of steel and crossed a larger river. The sun shone bright in this area. It wasn’t as late as we had thought. We took a bit of rest and some pictures.

We walked on. Thirty minutes passed. Mossy trees, ferns, and mushrooms were all around the trail. The trail twisted and turned. Where the hell was our campsite? We hiked on for about another hour. Where the bloody hell was the campsite? My calves were on fire, my shoulders were sore, and my back was really starting to ache. The trail continued to twist and turn and run adjacent to this river. At least it was more level. I don’t think my legs could have taken any more inclines or declines.

Finally, the trees thinned out and we came upon a clearing. We made it! Our campsite! There were three campsite areas noticeable by their makeshift stone fire rings. We looked at all three and then chose the one with the best flat spot for our tent. The river was about 25 yards away. We took off our packs and I sat on a log that sat in front of the fire ring.
“Yeah! We’re here! We made it! I am so exhausted,” Kirk said. He was still looking around the site and surveying our surroundings.

I was quiet. I was tired and hungry.
“Are you ok?” he asked as he sat down beside me.

I started to cry. And it wasn’t like a tear spilled over my eyelid and rolled gently down my cheek. I cried … sobbed … a snot-dripping, coughing, red-faced, mouth and face contorting boo-hoo-hoo fest.

Kirk must have thought I was crazy. But I was so elated and filled with joy, I just had to let it out. The only way my body could cleanse itself from the panic, fear, nervousness, unease with not knowing why the hell I said that I would do this hike, was by crying like a little kid that just got kicked in the gut. I blubbered something as Kirk rubbed my back.
“Look what we just did … our first day out … these fucking packs. My legs … sore … God this sucks … I didn’t … think we’d make it. The river is close … good thing … dirty … the DEET on my face … so tired … my God … we made it …. So happy. I am so happy.”

I had an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I was so proud of living life in that moment. I was filled with joy, pure joy. That was something I have not felt in years. We laughed and Kirk hugged me. I hate when I cry, because I am not a “pretty cryer.” I calmed down and we sat in silence for a moment.

Kirk gave me a kiss. Now that my emotional breakdown was complete, we knew what we needed to do, set up camp. We unpacked the tent, stove, and water filter. We worked together to quickly assemble the tent and then I went to get water while Kirk went to gathered wood for a fire.

I walked to the stream to fill up on water filter and returned to camp to hang it on a tree. I organized the inside of the tent with our sleeping mats, sleeping bags, and other things that we would need that night, like our journals and pens. Inside the tent, there was a little “loft” that attached to the ceiling. I put our permit, my iphone, Kirk’s camera, and an overhead light in that. Our rain coats, and our down sweaters were stowed in the pouches at the head and fott of the tent’s interior. The Pack It Out Poo Concealer and baggies were placed at the foot of the tent.

The sun was setting and it was getting dark. We put on our lighted headlamps and the work to set up camp continued. Kirk was working hard to start a fire. While I set up the cook stove and looked for that night’s dinner.

*     *     *     *     *

Before we left New York, we had organized all of the meals – breakfasts, lunches, and dinners – into daily pouches. The idea being that all we would have to do would be to find the pouch labeled Day 1 and we could quickly prepare the needed meal.

During this preparation phase, we eliminated most of the large lunches that needed cooking and we beefed up our snack pouch instead. I had ordered several Condiment Kits that included salt and pepper packets, napkins, coffee and tea pouches, several books of matches, ketchup, mayo, and relish packets, coffee creamer, and hand wipes. We had so much of these things, that we weeded out stuff that we didn’t think we would need.
“Let’s not take the coffee. It dehydrates and is a diuretic,” Kirk said. Out came the coffee.
“We don’t need Katchup. Gross.” I said. Out came the ketchup.
“We don’t need all this salt. Those freeze-dried meals have enough sodium as it is.” Kirk said, pointing to the daily pouches that lay all over my living room. Out they came, except for a few.
“We don’t need twenty-four books of matches, either. Geeze. That’s gonna take up a lot of room. Besides we have those water and windproof matches,” I said. Out they came, except for one book.

*     *     *     *      *

Now that we were at camp, we felt our planning was coming to life perfectly. We worked together to create our little home away from home. And rather quickly. We didn’t have any fuss over who was supposed to do what, or what needed to be done. We just did it together. No fuss. No arguments. No issues.

Well, there was one issue. The wood was a little damp and we quickly went through the book of matches. The fire would not light. We could not find good kindling, or even dried pine needles to act as kindling. Kirk tried to use the waterproof matches, which were hard to light and either broke or burned quickly.
“Opps. I guess we should have packed all those matches after all….” I said sheepishly.

Kirk was visible annoyed as this was a big mistake on my part. We didn’t have a lighter. We were almost out of matches. We did not have enough fire power for seven days, so we’d have to get some from other hikers. Maybe trade food for one.

Kirk tore pages from the back of his journal to use as kindling. We worked together to stoke the flames and soon we had a fire roaring. We were so happy when it finally caught that we both cheered and clapped. We accomplished something else … we started a fire together!

We ate our chili, mashed potatoes, and green beans in front of the fire while the darkness closed in our campsite. We realized that no one else was coming to this site that night. We were alone in the woods.

The clearing was adjacent to an incline into the woods. As dusk turned to dark, thoughts of what might lurk in the woods came to us. Every once in awhile, we would turn on our headlamps to the brightest setting and we would aim them into the trees. Was anything out there? What was that noise? Did you hear that crunching?
We stoked the fire a little longer and then began to prepare for bed. We heated water to use to clean our cooking pot and utensils. We heated another pot of water and used a rag to wash our faces, arms, and pits. That warm water and rag felt so good! We brushed our teeth and hung all of our belongings on the bear hang.

We sat in front of the fire and chatted about our day. We talked about the day and our accomplishments, congratulated each other on our success, and talked about where we were sore. My calves and thighs felt very worked-out, Kirk’s shoulders were hurting from the pack.

*     *     *      *     *

Soon, we decided to crawl into the tent and sleep. I put Bio-Freeze on Kirk’s back and on my legs. It cooled and provided some relief from the heat and soreness. We crawled into our sleeping bags and lay there in silence. At first, the sound of river was all you could hear.

Inside the tent, we were comfortable and cozy, but also nervous and scared. It was warm and we only needed to sleep in underwear. Our clothes and our boots were placed at the feet of our sleeping bags. I knew I would have to get up in the middle of night and pee. This thought didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t want to have to go out into the dark.

I closed my eyes briefly, but the thought of where we were, fueled by over-exhaustion, kept my head running. I barely slept a wink, but when. The whole scenario was a little too “Blair Witch,” something that neither Kirk nor I would say aloud until days after leaving the woods. The splendor of the woods in daytime turned spooky in the night. The thought of being alone in that secluded area brought up all childish fears and imaginary thoughts.

It also brought up very real sounds and very adult fears. As the night progressed, we heard footsteps and the sound of crunching leaves. There were critters outside – lord knows what kind – but they were out and about and exploring. After awhile, the sound of rain was clearly audible in the trees. Soon it was falling in quiet drips on the tent. I thought about how muddy it would be tomorrow and how I hoped the waterproof claims of our tent were accurate. I thought about how our packs could be soaked through. I had to pee, but decided to hold it.

At one point, I bolted up and froze. I nudged Krik in the shoulder and mouthed to him:
“Do you hear that?”

He lay stiff and silent and nodded his head. We both held our breath as a loud sniffing sound explored the corner of the tent. We didn’t move a muscle. We lay there, holding hands, frozen. It crunched away and I either passed out from fear or lay awake unaware of it stopping. I remember it being dark as dark can be inside the tent.

My post-adrenaline rush helped me fall asleep for what felt like an hour and a half. I woke up and wondered how much rain fell. I had to pee very badly now. Not going would mean I would be awake he rest of the night and I was not going to go outside to piss. The mud, the animals, the sniffing sound. No way!

I knew I could not hold it any longer. I really had to go. I told Kirk I had to pee and that I needed his help. I knew now why my dad always had a coffee can in our tent on those family camping trips.
He aimed a light, I held a zip-lock bag, peed into it, and zipped it closed. I placed it in the Pack it Out Poo Concealer, which already had its inaugural baggies inside. We turned off our headlamps and lay back down in our sleeping bags. A fit full and half-sleep state was the order for the night. Every sound echoed in the trees. Every sound was a threat. Every sound was the Blair Witch coming to bang on our tent.

*     *     *     *     *

We woke up about 8:30 AM. The sun was up and the sound of the stream was the only audible sound. I opened the tent flap to see how wet and soggy it was. To my surprise, it was as dry as a bone. It hadn’t rained at all that night. Why had I thought it did? What was it that was causing that sound? Was it just wind blowing leaves and needles off the trees? I had no idea, but was pleased to know that we wouldn’t be hiking in mud all day.

We both got dressed and talked about how scary that was last night. We started going about our morning business and Kirk said he would cook breakfast. We were having oatmeal.
“You know what I can’t wait to have?” he asked while he was searching for the Day 2 food pouch. “Coffee."
“We didn’t pack coffee,” I glared. We both rolled our eyes and chuckled at our packing mishaps.

I wondered if other glaring mistakes would surface on this hike. We started a list of things we would do differently for the next hike. So … the good part was that we both thought there was potential for a next time. We talked about the day before and what we expected from our new day and we ate our oatmeal.

We cleaned up, took down the tent, rolled our sleeping bags, and re-organized every item we were carrying. Now that we had one day under our belt, we had a better idea of how to pack our backpacks. We divided things differently and prepared our packs.

In looking back at our first day, we covered 9 miles in 5.5. hours. We had three river crossings and we gained 1000 feet in elevation. The terrain was relatively level with some climbs and descents. It was hard, but we persevered and we were ready to face our second day. We were a little more tired than we thought we would be, but we felt refreshed by the cool air and smell of the woods that surrounded us. We were ready to start our second day. We donned our packs and started walking. We said goodbye to our little campsite and we prepared to hike up to the Appalachian Trail.

Little did we know that we were about to experience a day like no other in this journey.

*     *     *     *     *

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