31 Mar 2011

The Context

Have you ever had a wonderful idea that didn’t quite turn out as planned? I certainly have. While challenging at the time, the events that come out of these thoughts tend to be wrapped in the fondest memories. Here is an account of our first backpacking trip. Doubt it would ever happen this way again….

Backpacking in the Woods
Lovely woods and mountains

The Story, part 1

My wife and I have always enjoyed walking together. Our first Air Force assignment was in Wiesbaden and we would often travel the country side, stopping at places that looked interesting, then head off on foot and explore. It wasn’t long before we picked up our Volksmarching books and begin racking up kilometers on weekends, it was the perfect pretense to go exploring. Then the kids came and our lives went into baby mode. Diaper bags and strollers, sleep deprivation and sippy cups. Parents, you know the drill.

Time passes, kids grow, orders come. We got assigned to Omaha, then Washington D.C. The kids were growing into little people and we were looking for activities that would create family memories, live life together. I was still in the Air Force with an income that made meager look excessive so the only real choices had to fit some place between free and next to nothing. Our love of outdoors and the natural wonder of the Blue Ridge yielded the perfect answer, camping.

Given this trajectory it was only a matter of time until the idea came. We would get away for a weekend, just the two of us, on a backpacking trip. Like most ideas it took time to germinate, sprout, and grow. It had to be tended. We had to decide where exactly we wanted to go, what additional gear we needed, and how far should we should hike. The possibilities were captivating.

After a great deal of deliberation, talk, map consultation, and gear selection we decided to string together trails that would form a loop passing through Mary’s Rock. Using our three and a half hour 20k Volksmarch hikes as a bench mark we concluded 12k legs would fill six hours and be just right for our first backpacking trip. This route also made for favorable logistics because there was parking available at the Thorton Gap entrance to Skyline Drive.

At this point I suppose it’s important to acknowledge that the level of excitement surrounding this outing was slightly imbalanced. While my lovely bride was anticipating getting away for a weekend with her husband, she was not so fond of leaving behind a steamy shower, shampoo, and the hair dryer. So we hit on a compromise. We would go for a three day weekend with camping the first night, bed and breakfast the second. One issue solved.

Next there was a concern about wildlife. For some odd reason Brenda got the idea that there were bears in these parts. Never mind the legend attributing the summit’s name to Mary Thorton returning home following a visit to the top carrying a bear cub under each arm. That was back in the pioneer days after all, now it’s civilized, with people and houses nearly everywhere. Shoot, the Dukes of Hazzard’s orange hot rod Dodge Charger is parked at the bottom of the hill in Sperryville, can’t get more civilized than that. In time the objections tapered off, excitement began to build, and the preparations were complete.

Planning done, food purchased, and packs loaded. Nothing left now but take a hike. We got out the door and to the trail head on time, wonderful start. The sun was shining through an azure sky littered with the occasional puffy cloud meandering eastward. We put on our packs, walked across the road, and plunged into the forest.

As we started down the trail Brenda was fiddling with her pack straps attempting to get the perfect fit and what walked across the path not 75 feet in front of us? A black bear. I nearly groaned out loud, this can not be. My mind raced as it lumbered past. We are so close to the car Brenda will call off the hike. The great time we are going to have together, wiped out. All that preparation, gone. We’ll never get to try this again. Cringing at the anticipated verbal onslaught and the giant slice of humble pie I was about to eat for arguing against bears I turned and looked over at Brenda. She continued to tug on the strap, oblivious. I didn’t miss a stride as I thought: humm, she missed an amazing moment, her loss, sure am glad that’s past.

Pack adjusted we settled into a trail rhythm. We were enjoying the mental transition from work-a-day world to the marvels of nature stimulated by the sensory input percolating through our consciousness. A less traveled track through the forest. Seeing the spring flowers bursting forth with a riot of color, rising up to fill gaps in the canopy where the sunlight streamed through. The temperature was warm but not overly. Hours passed, the terrain was up and down but mostly down so the hike here was relatively easy. By the time we stopped for a very late lunch we were immersed, reveling in the experience.

Following lunch we started the ascent. Slow going. The unaccustomed weight of the packs started to show as our pace dropped. This was not unexpected, but hard none the less. Rests were frequent and getting longer. The sun was sliding out of the sky towards the mountain above us. We were on the east side so night would come considerably faster than on the flats or a west face. Fortunately we were very close to our planned stop. It wasn’t much longer before the arm shown on the topographic maps was directly in front of us. I was counting on it to provide a clear flat area large enough to pitch our tent. What wasn’t obvious from the map was the steepness of the slope leading to the top.

Brenda was pretty well spent by this point and the prospect of climbing the hill with the pack was too much. Walking up the trail and then attempting to cut back from the right elevation was no more attractive. I began to second guess the camp site choice. A look about didn’t reduce the doubt but it did confirm we weren’t camping here, nothing but angles and points. So, I grabbed her pack and humped it up.

Have to admit, I nearly fell out. Two packs at the end of the day on a very steep slope left me huffing and puffing at the top with legs on fire and a pulse beating double time inside my head. Fortunately it didn’t take long to settle, and after a look around it was obvious we hit the jackpot. A bed of dried leaves on a narrow strip of flat earth like an peninsula jutting into the rocks and trees below.

We set up camp and started dinner with the faint sound of creek splashing through the boulders near the trails edge below. Then, as we finished cleaning up, the sun made his exit. Natures beauty, a healthy dose of exertion, and a good meal in the company of my love. As near perfect a day as one could imagine.

Night. A new moon with a layer of clouds blocking the star light, we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces dark. Nothing to do but turn in, sleep would not be far way. That’s when it got really interesting.

Backpacking in the Dead of Night
Darkness before dawn

The Story, part 2

Brenda shook me awake and I felt the fear in her voice as much as heard it. What was that?!. Double punctuation deliberate, but not even close to expressive enough. It was a hybrid question and demand. I answered with a groggy ‘don’t know’. Then I heard it. Scream. Not the hurt kid, fix my boo-boo kind. The wild, tortured, demented howl kind. Hollywood horror can’t touch this. Loud and close. No gun, two smallish knives, not good. Wait an eternity. Another scream. Ok, I do think that’s an animal. Should I feel better about that? Assess the options. Thin tent, can’t see, four paws full of claws plus teeth or tall tree, two paws of claws required to advance, limited path to my flesh, high ground advantage. Tree’s looking pretty good.

I conveyed the plan to Brenda. You go up the tree, I’ll walk towards it making noise and shining the light to see if it will move on, if not I’ll come up behind you. A clear sense of urgency combined with a short tent door caused her to catch her hair in the zipper. Tug, twist, another scream, move, small bit of hair remains in zipper. I get the light going, make lots of noise and am rewarded with unblinking orbs glowing out of the darkness. It is not going anywhere. I joined Brenda in the tree.

After some time it did move on, the adrenaline levels start to drop, and we sheepishly headed back to our tent. Not for long. A couple of hours later it was back angrier than ever. You would think we could have ignored it. Not so. That sound ripping through the blackness and rattling around in our heads, over and over, it was completely unnerving. Back up the tree. This time it stayed longer. After half an hour Brenda decided she was not going back down even if it did go away, so we improvised. I went back down and got boots, sleeping mats, and sleeping bags then brought them up. Brenda made a perch using a couple of larger branches while I spread my mat across some smaller limbs projecting radially from the trunk below her and lay down. We listened to it pace in the distance just beyond flashlight range for some time, but at least the screams had stopped.

What followed was surreal. The remaining half a night went on for days. Perhaps it was the oscillation between a dream state and the wakefulness required to stay put. Falling out of this bed would qualify as a significant life event. Then there was the bed it self, a few tree branches that would bend down at the ends threatening to drop you if you approach the edge. As I drifted in and out of sleep I noticed the clouds had dissipated and the stars joined us providing a soft backdrop with just enough luminescence to take the edge off. At about this point sleep overpowered consciousness and it went from star studded velvet to hazy morning light in the next blink.

That first look around presented our next challenge. Brenda is not a climber and is afraid of heights. We discovered her climbing ability can be expressed as is a multiple of fear and the inverse of depth perception. A very scary situation and no visibility last night put her right at the top of the tree. How to get down? Fortunately, a little coaching on handholds and lots of coaxing did the trick. No other options probably helped some too.

Suffice it to say that a mood had been set. There would be no lounging around camp and no breakfast this morning, it was time to get out of these woods. We packed up and headed out. It didn’t take long to realize that completing the hike as planned with little sleep, no breakfast, and the most substantial portion of elevation gain in front of us was not going to work. It’s time for some flexibility and a change of plans. The highway wasn’t too far back so we decided to retrace our steps, drop the packs, then day hike the trail to Mary’s Rock for the views.

About half way up we came to the conclusion that even this was going to be overly ambitions given the circumstances. When we reached an intersection with the Appalachian Trail we hung a right rather than press upward and went directly back to the car. We arrived tired and sore. After a moment savoring those wonderfully padded seats we drove down the mountain to collect our gear. We picked up our packs, put them in the trunk, and headed back up and over the mountain.

The Bead and Breakfast was a dream. We got some seriously cross eyed looks when we came in looking (and smelling) like tramps but they gave us a key. We moaned just a little standing at the base of that long flight of stairs leading up to the room. Hurt so good. When we got into the room the first thing we did after dropping the suitcases was draw a bath in the giant Jacuzzi tub. Heavenly. After we were cleaned up we went down for dinner.

We started the meal with a salad and began to recount highlights of the hike. I casually mentioned that I had changed my mind about bears inhabiting the Blue Ridge. Why Brenda asked, did you see tracks? Well, not exactly. Did you see scat? No, didn’t see any of that. Well what then, why do you think there are bears up there? I saw one just as we started out. MICHAEL!!!, all eyes in the restaurant on us. Then, in a barely controlled whisper, I can not believe you didn’t tell me….

Originally Published Jun 2011 on Squidoo, later moved to HubPages now here… The events recounted were from around 1995.