Friday, July 13, 2012

one more river to cross ...

With the first day of our hike behind us, we were ready to take on our second day. The night’s rest was shaken by the sounds of the nighttime forest. It seemed as if it rained all night, but it didn’t … the ground was dry.

This day we would hike 2,600 feet in elevation on the Eagle Creek Trail. We would starting at our current elevation of 2,300 feet and hike up to the Appalachian Trail to our second sleepover location, a shelter called Spence Field, at 4,950 feet.

We knew we had a hard day ahead. When we were planning our hike, we looked over maps and did our homework. We learned that this trail crisscrossed Eagle Creek several times. The exact number of times was hard to determine by looking at the map, but from our count, we would have maybe twelve water crossings. Since we had crossed through water a few times on our first day, we were ready for this.

We met our planned mileage per day on our first day and we used that same plan for the Eagle Creek Trail. We accounted for a slight reduction in miles per hour based on the elevation gains. We assumed we would be at the shelter at 7:00 PM, and well before sunset.

We were sleepy, so we took our time getting ready to start our second day. After re-organizing and re-packing our backpacks, we said goodbye to our first campsite. We started out in our shorts and our water shoes to avoid having to change shoes each time we crossed the creek. We tied our boots to the backs of our backpacks and set out on this day’s trek.

It was noon when we started walking and the heat of the day was making itself known. The trail started out pleasant enough. The creek stayed on our right for a good hour. The trail was all dirt and rocks. Our water crossing shoes made us notice every rock, stick, root, and bump in the ground. I knew now why my hiking boots had such solid soles. At first, it was like walking barefoot, but soon I was used to the natural feel and the intense sense of the earth beneath my feet.

My shoulder blades were sore from the day before. It was as if I never took off my backpack. The weight was noticeable with every step, and my hips – especially my left – felt the weight shift. Back and forth. Back and forth. Pressure and ease. Pressure and ease. Every step gave knowledge of soreness, weight, imbalance, weight, rocky earth, twigs, pressure, and … weight.

We came to our first water crossing of the day, which looked simple, but there were no large rocks to hop on to get across. Some rocks jutted out of the water, but we would have to also wade through the water to get to the other side.

“It’s cold,” Kirk said, as he stepped into the water and deftly navigated his way across Eagle Creek.

I watched him as he made his way across. I looked at the rocks he stepped to, how the water was up just over his calves, and up to his knees in some spots. I watched to see where he found footing. Before I knew it, he was on the other side waving at me.

I stepped into the water. It was cold … very cold. It felt good on my feet. I instantly felt vulnerable. I felt the unsteady rocks beneath my feet. The pack on my back changed my center of gravity and my balance was precarious. I was looking into the water to see which rocks were less mossy and I poked them with my walking stick to see which ones were stable. I took slow and cautious steps while I tried to step on the same “above water rocks” that Kirk did.

In the middle of the creek, I stopped to take in the moment. Mainly because I was trying to find my balance on the rocks, find a good footing and think. I was taken by the majesty of the rushing water.

Being in the middle of it was overpowering. There were falls upstream. It was a stunning moment: green, wet, clear, brown, sunshine, and the sound of the water flowing all around. I continued to wobble my way to the creek’s bank and Kirk and I took in the beauty.

“One down … eleven more to go!”
*     *     *     *     *

We continued to walk on the rocky and bumpy trail. The creek was now on our left. About twenty minutes later, the trail dead-ended into the creek. It was a little wider than the last crossing. Kirk crossed first and I crossed last.

Minimal rocks were above water so this crossing was completely in the water. The water was a deeper and the rocks were slipperier. As I made my way to the middle of the creek, the power of the water and the current was fully noticeable.

My thoughts went immediately too slipping and falling and I created a bit of a personal panic. I stopped in the middle of the creek and froze. The water was pushing its way past me and testing my balance. It was just above my knees.

“How the hell did he get across so quickly?” I thought.

Kirk seemed so confident and sure of his steps that it appeared that he easily glided across the water to the other side. I could not find the rocks that his feet had nimbly sought out.

“What rock did you step on from here?” I shouted above the water.
“It gets a little slippery right there, so be careful,” he responded. “There’s a good pebbly area right ahead of you.”
A pebbly area. Of course! Stop stepping on the rocks and look for the places between the rocks that are flat and filled with pebbles. He’s a genius!
I stepped into the pebbly area and looked for the next. I was feeling more confident crossing the creek now and Kirk stepped back into the water and extended a hand to help guide me to the bank.
“That’s ok. I can do this.” I said.

And I did. I was proud of this accomplishment. I overcame my fear of failing and my fear of making a fool of myself. My self-esteem was getting good boosts on this hike so far.

Every thirty minutes or so, I would stop to let my shoulders and back rest. I would lean forward with my hands on my knees and let the weight of my backpack rest on the middle of my back. My shoulders would instantly breathe a sigh of relief. My lower back would stretch and relax.

“Goddamn fucking packs. Can you imagine how awesome this would be if we didn’t have to carry them?” I complained.
“It’s pretty awesome now,” Kirk said.
He was right. It was pretty awesome. We continued to walk and made a point to talk about what we saw that excited us, fed our souls, and made us appreciate the experience. There were mossy rocks at the creek side. The sound of the water was pure natural power. The trees were dense and the bushes were lush. The bugs were also out in force, but this time the DEET didn’t burn my face.

We felt we were making good time as we continued to cross and re-cross Eagle Creek. I began counting the times so that we could compare that to the map and get a better idea our location. The incline and elevation gain was starting to increase, but it was steady and we kept a good pace.

A few hours passed and we came across a little clearing near the creek’s edge. Hikers must have devised it as a pit stop. There was a tall, almost cylindrical rock placed against a tree with a smaller, flatter stone in front of it. I stepped up on the flat stone, eased onto the taller rock, and sat back against the tree. It was the perfect place to remove a backpack!

We took off our backpacks and ate a snack. We checked the map and rinsed small pebbles and river sand from our shoes. We talked about how many river crossings we had done, which was already at seven, and the amazing foliage. It was dense and thick and all shades of green. You could smell the earth and the water, and the heat of the day created a rich, humid, fresh air.

“It’s like it is its own terrarium,” Kirk said.

We both laughed at this, since the forest is its own terrarium. It was true nature at its finest.

*     *     *     *      *

We prepared to put on our backpacks again. I hated this part. Once I took my pack off, I did not want to put it back on. It was a known and necessary torture. During our break, I had been thinking about how my pack was not fitting right. It hurt. It did not fit right in the shoulders, it seemed small, and I was convinced it was a woman’s backpack. It just did not fall where it should and was causing me real pain.

I thought back to when we were shopping for backpacks. I should have bought the one that the sales associate at Paragon Sports fitted for me. Instead, I bought one that Kirk found on Craigslist. He saved me money, though … it was only $80! I was starting to think that I got what I paid for. The only redeeming quality of this pack was the internal water bladder. I hated my backpack.

It was easier to put the backpack on with the rock to assist. While I was buckling the waist strap, I thought again about Paragon. The salesperson explained something about the pack resting high on the waist and above the hipbone.

“Oh my God, Kirk. I think I figured out what we’ve been doing wrong with our packs.”

I explained what I remembered learning at Paragon and he recalled it as well. He re-fit his backpack and instantly felt the difference. We celebrated with laughs and a high five. Once again, we had figured something out. It made me feel like I was actually getting the swing of this thing called backpacking. I wished I remembered this on our first day, but at this point, it did not matter.

To ensure I knew how to don my backpack, I took it off and rested it on the tall rock one last time. (OK, maybe it was an excuse to rest a little bit longer.) I hitched myself into my backpack, tightened the waist belt, and lifted myself up from the rock.

We continued walking. What a difference! The change in how my backpack rested on my body changed my center of gravity. It took awhile to get used to the difference.

Along the dirt trail and through the trees, we would come to the creek eventually. We crossed the creek a few more times and it was a new experience with the backpack change. The weight rested differently, walking was different, and balance was different. With each crossing, the creek got a little wider and a little rougher.

*     *     *     *      *

About three hours into our hike, and a few more river crossings, we came to the banks of the creek where the other side was about sixty feet away. There weren’t many rocks above the water’s surface. The large rocks under the surface created a very strong-looking current. The water rushed over them. It was not clear where we were to cross to pick up the trail. It was not directly across the river.

We looked upstream and downstream. It seemed as if we had to cross diagonally to our left and then climb up the embankment to the trail. Just before that embankment, there appeared to be a shallower area with a semi-circle of stones that shielded it from the swiftly moving current.

“Are you kidding me? Who made this trail? This is ridiculous,” Kirk said.
 “This isn’t a creek. This is a river. This is crazy,” I said.

Again, he went first and I watched him cross. The water was up over his knees and lapped at the bottom of his shorts. It was clear that the current was strong; he struggled with finding footing, but made it across rather quickly.

I watched him reach the other side of the river. He seemed far away. The water seemed too deep and rough. He was encouraging me and was shouting something from across the river. The water was so loud I could not hear him. I stepped into the river and immediately started to panic. I wasn’t used to the change in my backpack placement. I was scared of slipping and falling into the water. I stepped on unsteady and slippery rocks, my balance was faulty, I was nervous. I stopped, again, in the middle of the river.

The river was so strong that every time I raised my legs to take a step, the current pushed it downstream. I felt like I was limping through the water and being pushed downstream. I leaned on my walking stick for balance, but I was convinced I would fall. I slowly made my way towards the shallow area, a destination that seemed very far away. I stepped closer and closer to it. My heart was racing and my mind was racing. I could not get it out of my head that if I fell, I could be swept away with the current.

I stepped on a rock and slipped. I stumbled. I caught my balance and then lost it completely. I saw myself falling into the water. I put my arms out. I thought about dropping my walking stick but held onto it. My right arm was deep into the water and my left arm found a rock to keep my body from slipping deeper into the water. The river was sloshing all around me. My right leg was bent into the water and my left was trying its’ hardest to stay straight. My head and back bent forward and closer to the water as my pack slipped and moved its weight towards my head. I was convinced I was going in.

Dammit! My brand new fucking iPhone is in my fucking pocket. It’s probably ruined. Soaking wet and no rice to put it in. Dammit!

Somehow, I pushed myself up and found my balance. After righting myself, I stepped into the shallow area. I immediately pulled out my iPhone and was elated to see it was dry. Kirk was on the riverbank waving and shouting at me.

I was laughing when I held it up to show Kirk. Crisis averted! My iPhone was fine. My ego was a little bruised, and I was a little embarrassed, but my iPhone was not drenched! Hooray!

He was pointing and yelling. I held up my iPhone again and yelled back.

“It’s fine! It’s not wet!” I laughed, thinking about how close I came to a face plant in the river.

He came down the embankment and I was able to make out his words.

“Your boot! Scott! Your boot is in the water!”

I turned my back to Kirk and looked behind me. There in the shallow swirling water was one of my boots. It was floating on its sole and circling around and around and around.

“Holy shit! Oh my God!” I yelled.

I reached down and picked up my boot. I turned back to Kirk, held it up triumphantly, and made my way to the riverbank. I climbed up the embankment and saw Kirk’s concern.

“Where is your other one?” he asked.

When I turned to grab my floating boot, he saw that no boots were tied to my backpack. I ripped off my backpack and looked in disbelief.

“Fucking shit. I have no idea. Oh my God. Where is my other boot?” I said as I glanced in the bushes near the shallow area.
Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Where the fuck is my boot? Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.

We stepped into the river to look downstream. There was nothing to see except coursing water, lush bushes, and tree roots. None of them showed signs of holding an errant boot captive.

“We have to go back and look for it,” Kirk said.
“It’s gone! There is no way we are going to find my boot, Kirk! Look at how fast that water is moving. It’s so far downstream by now. Fuck!” I was exasperated and tears started to well up in my eyes.
“We have to go back and look,” he said again and he started back across the river.
“Oh my God! I am not going back through that river! This is insane! My boot is gone. And here I was … excited that my fucking iPhone wasn’t wet … but my fucking boot is gone!” I shouted.
“We have to go back across, Scott. It might be on the trail. We have to go look. You can’t do the rest of this hike in your water shoes.”

He had a point. I could not. Six more days hiking in water shoes was unthinkable. I took a deep breath and thanked God for Kirk and his calm demeanor. I crossed the river again.

We started backtracking down the trail. We walked fast, looking left and right, into the river, and into the bushes.

Where is my boot?! What if we don’t find it?!

I started to realize that we might have to walk all the way back to the Fontana Dam and call Nancy to pick us up. Our hike was over. I tied my boots to the back of my backpack as if tying shoelaces, with a nice “bunny goes through the hole” bow.

What an idiot. I just ruined our hike. It’s over.
“Ok. Here’s what we’ll do,” Kirk said, calm as can be, “We’ll find a nice little spot where you can sit and rest. You’ll watch our packs and I’ll run down the trail to look for it.”
“No,” I said stubbornly, filled with guilt over my lame action. “I’ll go. It’s my boot."
"Scott, let me do this for you … please,” Kirk said. “I want to.”

I stopped thinking for a moment. My head cleared. I nodded in agreement, as my eyes welled up again. He was willing to go to this length to help me. It was an amazing feeling knowing that he would do that for me. How selfless of him, how caring of him, how … nice.

We stopped at a place where an island divided the river in two and where rocks in the middle of the creek made a nice sitting area.

“You rest here and enjoy the forest. I’ll be back soon.”

Kirk took off his backpack and ran down the trail. I dropped mine next to his and waded out to the rocks in the middle of the creek. There I sat, thinking about how amazing he was to offer to try to find my boot.

Scott, let me do this for you … please. I want to.
I listened to the water. I looked at the trees. I looked down at my feet and wondered if I could do the hike in my water shoes. I breathed deeply and started to relax.

Then, one million questions ran through my mind because we did not set a “give-up time,” a time that he would stop looking, such as thirty minutes.
When will he be back? What if he doesn’t come back for an hour … or longer? Should I get worried? Should I go looking for him? I can’t possibly carry two packs. What if it starts to get dark? Should I set up camp near here? Where? Holy shit. What if a bear comes? Those packs are just sitting there, thirty feet away. A bear could come and snatch them. What if he sees me as a threat? What am I going to do?

I barked. Ferociously. I was a huge deadly, bloodthirsty dog-beast in the middle of the creek guarding backpacks and waiting to feast on invading bears.

Stay the fuck away bears. Woof! Not on my watch. I might lose a boot on my watch, but I will not lose our packs. I will cut you. Oh, wait. My knife is in my backpack. Still … stay the fuck away from this area. Woof! Woof! Woof! Woofwoofwoofwoof!

I stopped. I took a deep breath. I looked up into the sky and I said the serenity prayer.

“God. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I relaxed. I stretched. I cracked my shoulders and neck. I looked around. I realized I was in this gorgeous part of the forest and I started to laugh. I laughed and then I cried. Then, I laughed again.

I recorded my foible and the nature that surrounded me. I took some pictures. I settled into the restful break that Kirk graciously gave me. I needed this. I needed to stop the insanity in my head. I needed to laugh. I needed to cry. I needed to just sit and breathe. I just needed to sit and be.

Sitting in the middle of the creek, I could not help but believe that I just ended our hike. My boot was long gone down the river. Kirk would be gone a few hours, he’d come back shaking his head, we’d walk back to our prior night’s campsite, stay the night there, and then walk out of the woods the same way we came in.

Breathe. Close your eyes. Listen to the water and the wind.
“God. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
“God? … Will he find my boot?”
*     *     *     *     *

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