Guys. I went camping. Yep, me. The Virginia girl who, just a couple months ago, bought an expensive pair of hiking boots to set out on a journey to find herself in the wilderness. A girl who had every intent to go camping but didn’t actually know anything about camping or even hiking for that matter. Now look at me. I went wild camping. And, get this, I absolutely loved it.
So. My first wild camping experience: Triple Crown. I feel the need to bullet information:
- Triple meaning three main hikes: Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee’s Knob, and Tinker Cliffs. We voted to start with Dragon’s Tooth first because it was the shortest of the three and (more importantly) the most challenging.
- All three though are very close to each other and located in Roanoke so camping is ideal because it is three and a half hours from home and we wanted to enjoy the multiple peaks, setting up camp on one of them.
- In total, Triple Crown is a thirty-seven mile loop from start to finish
- There’s an about 5,600 foot elevation
Because of the length, other hikers that went suggested going for three days. Luckily, there was a holiday approaching which meant a three-day weekend and that seemed the perfect time to venture out . . . with . . . (drum roll because yes, it does deserve one . . . ) my boyfriend. Guys, meet Andy. Well, in truth, you’ve already met him — He went to Emerald Pond with Usua and me, and he was the one sweet enough to take me to my MRI. Somewhere in between those two events, I managed to convince him to become my hiking partner . . . annnd well, date me (which, let’s be honest, shows how fearless he must be because we all know now how date-able I am by my Grocery Store Getaway post).
Anyway, Andy and I packed our packs and headed toward Roanoke for a three-day hike slash camp. I was extremely excited about this trip. Not only was it going to be my first wild camping experience, but it would prepare me — er uh, us — to hike the Appalachian Trail! That’s right — Enter surprise Number Two: I may have successfully brainwashed him into thinking hiking the AT with me is a great idea! So while this hike is no where near the 2,100 mile AT, it was a tiny tiny step that would prepare us.
Back to Triple Crown: Our hike started with this text message from Andy:
“Have a band aid ready please . . . just saying.”
This came before we even stepped a foot near the car.
Shortly after that, I got another text saying that his bladder (stores water in pack) had a hole in it and he couldn’t take it as planned. I tried to ignored the doomed sensation I felt tingling throughout my body.
And it gets better: Once he got here, I had the desire to weigh our packs. This, after all, was the first time I was taking my new Osprey Sixty-Five pack out and I was radiating excitement.
(Side note: To say I have been obsessed with this pack is a dramatic understatement. I want to be in a relationship with this pack. I want to marry this pack. I beyond-adore this pack. So, HUGE thank you to Andy for finding it for me for . . . I’m not going to say exactly how much, but let’s just say he has connections and those connections scored me a brand new Aura pack for half the marked price. H-a-l-f. There’s no way I will ever be as excited about a deal as I was this one. It was love at first sight. For the pack, I mean. . . . Just bants, Andy, my sweet . . . )
Back to what I was saying: I had the desire to weigh our packs. I read on a website from another hiker that did the Triple Crown to pack light. Here’s exactly he said:
Warning you say? Bold you use? Italics? Red font you type in? Wow. This must be important so I figured his advice needed to be heeded.
“Andy,” I told him earlier. “We need to pack light. Do you think our packs will weigh thirty to forty pounds?”
Andy: “I certainly hope not. I’m not carrying that weight.”
Me: “So we can definitely get our packs to below thirty pounds . . . right?”
Andy: “*Psh* Of course. We can get it down to twenty-five. Easy.”
I must have gone to sleep that night reassured that I would wake up the next day, hike day . . . with a pack so miraculous that it would learn to diet . . . because when we weighted it . . . it weighed a whopping forty-five pounds. And Andy’s? Also forty-five pounds. So what did we do? Discuss how to reduce our pack weight? No. Take items out? Nope. Pack ninety pounds worth of hiking and camping gear in the car to leave? Yep. Brilliant we are.
Three and a half hours later, we arrive at the parking lot. . . which was so packed with cars that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find a spot. There was a man in a huge minivan in front of us, too, who apparently had the same concerns because he was trying to squeeze into what appeared to be a motorcycle space before darting out of his van, sprinting back in, and reversing again . . . then repeating the whole process . . . until we arrive. That’s when the guy jumps out of his van and starts literally jumping up and down a few yards in front of us, pointing at the same spot he was trying to get into . . . which confused Andy and me because it seemed he wanted us to take it . . . yet, when we moved forward, he would jump back into his van and move closer. We thought, “Okay. He is claiming that, saying ‘No, don’t take it!'” but that wasn’t it either because the moment we moved away and reversed, he ran from his van and waved us back, re-jumping and re-pointing. This part of the story ends with Andy beckoning him to the window, asking him if he could run around the parking lot and look for empty spaces then run back and tell us if any were free. Insanely enough, this stranger-man agrees to do exactly as Andy wants while Andy leans back in the seat and turns the AC on higher. I looked at him with bewilderment, asking, “Did you really tell this man to do what you should be doing right now? Did you really just get a stranger to run around a parking lot for you? To find you a space? Then report back to you?” Andy just smiled; his feet may even have been on the dash and his arms behind his head, leaning back. I think that was my first experience learning if you have a British accent, people will do anything for you. Cheers to dating someone British.
Okay, so the stranger slash exhausted-parking-lot-runner makes it back and tells us where to park. We listen, or course, because hell, it would be rude not to after he ran for us. Then we get out to put on our packs.
It was right around here that I realized exactly how heavy my pack was. “Have a walk around the car park to see if you want to take anything out,” Andy says to me but I knew instantly, yes, let’s take things out so I immediately take it off and start going through it. What doesn’t dawn on me at the time is I don’t need three pairs of pants, five pairs on underwear, three sports bras, deodorant, and more absurdities that I don’t even remember because clearly I wasn’t thinking of packing properly at the time. What I do know is that of all things I proudly pulled out my lotion and exclaim, “THIS! I don’t need lotion! I’ll leave it here!” and put it in the trunk then put my pack back on. Andy thought this was crazy because, as he pointed out, my lotion maybe weighed an entire ounce and did nothing for my pack weight . . . which was true because after he pointed that out, I felt my pack fill with invisible rocks and pull me down. Placebo effect destroyed.
It didn’t matter though, I tried to tell myself! A forty-five pound pack isn’t the worst thing in life! It will only make me stronger! I’ll soon be the best hiker the world has ever known! and all these other radical ideas were spiraling around my head as we set off, me smiling.
Our first peak: Dragon’s Tooth, which by the way, here is some information on it.
- A short almost six miles total from start to finish
- There’s a 1,505 foot elevation
- Rated a Level Four of Five difficulty (notice I’m taking on harder hikes!)
As I said above, we chose Dragon’s Tooth as our first peak because it was expected to be harder in comparison to the other two in Triple Crown. I’ll admit, I saw it as a challenge because the others, such as McAfee Knob (our second peak), were advertised as “a walk in the park compared to this [Dragon’s Tooth] tough short hike.” What that meant for us was intense rock trails . . .
extremely narrow paths on the edge — and I mean absolute edge — of the mountain . . . and parts that made you question where the line was between hiking and climbing . . .
However, given all of that, the trail did at least start off pleasant. We crossed a stream . . .
and even saw a snake . . .
which looked identical to the one we saw at Emerald Pond so I was able to confirm a few things: One, it did not have a rattle so it was not a rattlesnake and two, it was definitely a copperhead. (Yay! My internet friends, you guys rock for voting and confirming that!) Speaking of seeing a snake, rest assured — Andy didn’t feel the need to beam a rock at this one. Thank God. Peace and safety restored.
Back to our trek up the mountain: The way the path changes suddenly was pretty cool; it kept you constantly on your toes.
It was supposed to be a short hike; however, it took us a good few hours to get to the peak because the trail got tougher. So tough that I actually put my camera away because picture-taking was not an option then. My desire was focused on scaling the rocks and not falling to my death after slipping off the side of a cliff. Not only that, but let’s be honest, our forty-five pounds worth of mess didn’t help because at this point, it had now settled into place in our packs and seemed to weigh more. It was only when we reached the top of and were looking over our directions that we found this tidbit for the first time, which seemed to be laughing and mocking our efforts up the mountain.
As Andy would say though, “We bossed it.” I mean, in the end, we made it to the top and were rewarded by a few good vistas. This made me feel empowered, strong, alive — so alive that I immediately thought, “What type of wuss carries a twenty-five to thirty-five pound pack?! *Pfff*” Clearly, I had left my brain at the base of the mountain because a liberating feeling should not come from ignoring suggestions on keeping an almost fifty-pound pack at home. Regardless, this hike gave my pack a name — Baby because damned if I would leave it or any of its “essential” materials behind. Baby was mine and I was going to care for it lovingly and affectionately and take Baby to see amazing sites like this one.
Overall, Andy and I were proud of ourselves; we were doing great — We didn’t get lost (that alone is huge given our hiking-directionally-challenged skill set), we were still alive to tell the tale after hauling forty-five pounds up the mountain (we are incredible heathens). And we had time to spare so we decided to extend our hike to get a step forward on the next day’s trail. This became Rule Three in our Hike Rules: If you can keep hiking, keep hiking.
(Want to check out our other rules? They were formed after past hikes where, let’s be honest, we basically f’ed up but learned from our mistakes to correct our errors!
- Rule One: Every decision is a joint decision.
- Rule Two: Do not deviate from your blaze.)
Our payoff? Dragon’s Tooth.
Not only did Dragon’s Tooth have a great view, but it gets its name from the rocks which resemble dragon’s teeth (above right rock). There are also massive quartz rocks that were really beautiful and had an almost white-washed color (above left rock). Here’s a closer look . . .
While the peak of Dragon’s Tooth was incredible, we had other peaks to tackle and needed to step up our game because we lost time scaling such a hard mountain. Looking at our directions, we set off on the AT for our second peak, McAfee’s Knob . . .
While we weren’t expecting to scale McAfee’s Knob that same day, we wanted to get as close as possible so that we would be more on track for our ten-miles a day average. This meant that even though we were beaten from the climb up Dragon’s Tooth, we needed to keep going while we had light and some small fraction of energy. Off we go, onto what we thought was the AT . . . only to determine two miles later that it wasn’t the path we wanted at all. That was a bit frustrating but — good news! — we had passed an amazing place to wild camp so we turned back around, ready to call this spot “home” for the night.
Around this time, we were cuddling on a blanket by the fire, whispering of how beautiful the area was when we suddenly heard dry heaving. Like retching. Like a lot. A couple seconds later, we hear a boy crying and geez do I mean crying — sobbing as if every joy had been taken from his world. Soon, a family appeared down the trail. “I CAAAN’TTT!!!” this young boy, maybe eleven, screamed between a strong effort to vomit mid-walk. “I CANNN’TTTT!!! I CAAAN’T DO IT ANYMORE!!!” owah oooowahhh (the sound of regurgitation) “PLEEEASSSEEE!!!” “Holy shit,” I thought. “This kid is dying, visibly dying in the most painful, torturous way.” Kid: “I NEED TO STOP!!! I HAVE TO STOP!!!” ooowahhhooowahhh “I CAN’T!!! I JUST WANNA GO HOOOME!!!” More crying and retching. “I CAN’T DOOO IIIT!!!” Andy and I watched, more alert and scared than confused. The family walked closer to us. The mom was walking beside the boy; the dad, a few paces ahead but both were absolutely unphased by the boy; no one talked to him. No one stopped. Until they saw us.
“Hey there! This spot looks amazing!” The dad waved at us. “Yeah, we were pretty –” ooowahhh ooowaaahooowaahhh “– um, lucky . . . to have –” ooowwwaaahhhooowwaaahhh “– found it . . . ” “Most definitely! How long have you been here?” (sobbing sounds sometimes muffling his words) “We just got in actually. First day.” OOOWAHHH OOOWAHHH “Awesome. How long ya staying?” “Um, we aren’t sure –” (more sobbing) “Hey, is he okay?” I couldn’t ignore the poor boy any longer who, at this time, I was convinced had somehow thrown up his own intestines through his mouth and nose due to the incredible force at which he was heaving. I had never heard dry heaving sound so painful. Or loud. Or long. “What?” The dad truly looked confused. “Um,” OOOWWWAAAHHH OOOWWWAAAHHH “him” and I pointed, which I felt bad doing because I know my face was scrunched up in disgust, alienating this pitiful boy further but another truth to be told is that I was trying hard at resisting my own vomit from rising with each of his dry heaves. “Him? Oh yeah!” owahowahowah “He’s just not used to hiking that’s all!” Then he turns to his son: “Come on, son! Only a few more miles to go! You can do it!” At that, the boy mentally collapsed and I mean had a breakdown. He began screaming “ICAN’TIDON’TWANTTOIWANTTOGOHOME”s so loud I think the leaves were quivering. I might have hid behind Andy. “Come on, son!” The man repeated, smiling, and I was so scared someone would kill someone — the boy attack his father or his father kill his son. Mom simply stood there, looking at us. “I SAAAIIIDDD I–” ooowwwwahhhowww “–CAN’T AND I WON’T AND I CAN’T AND III WWWAAANNNTTT TO GO HHHOOOMMMEEE!” “Great!” dad replied, energized watching his warped torture-plan, “THAT is EXACTLY where we are headed!” Then to us: “Have a great night! Sorry about my son. Just ignore him!” and off dad turns, occasionally throwing some words of not-confidence-for-the-boy over his shoulders. “Just six more miles, son!” This triggered more sobs and retching and screams until — and I’m being serious — about half an hour later we didn’t hear them anymore. “Bless him, the poor lad,” Andy said, shaking his head. “Six more miles? You reckon he’ll make it?” I, on the other hand, was worried I wouldn’t make it. I had lost my appetite for food. For water. For cuddles. And nature. And life. I wanted to run into the trees and throw up for him.
Instead, what we did was stay by the fire until it got dark and then slip into our tent to go to sleep. And that’s when we heard it.
The best way I can describe it was a deep, gutteral, gunt-ish MOOOOOOOOOOAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH sound.
It sounded like a gigantic scary man-eating monster. Not lying. We turned to each other, frozen. MMMMOOOOOOAAAAARRRRGHHHHHHH!!!! The sound again just echoing and amplified because it was so quiet. “Bear?” Andy asked. “BEAR!” I whispered as loud as a whisper could be without it becoming an excited scream. “BBBEEEAARRR!!!” I said again while Andy plunged his face into the side of the tent to see if he could notice anything.
Let me add here that the number one thing I have been yearning to see is a bear. Since I got into hiking, I’ve mention wanting to see one more than I mention food . . . which I am realizing right now is the absolute best comparison because it is insanely true. I mean, I wanted to see a bear more than cage diving with great whites. I wanted to see a bear more than being under the northern lights. Guys, I wanted to see a bear more than scuba diving with a whale shark. Andy called it a crazy obsession, and he was right (don’t tell him, sh) but I could not imagine being at an absolute 50/50 of fear and excitement at seeing one in the wild. “BEAR!” I yelled, and hopped out of the tent, flashlight in hand, turned instantly on. Prepared. I felt I had practiced for this moment, I felt all my life had built up to this where I would be able to see a bear approach my tent! Where Andy and I would be petrified and have to scream to each other about what to do because we had no idea what to do because neither one of us had been smart enough to read up on black bears even though this was bear season. It didn’t matter though! What mattered is MY BEAR was coming! MOOOOOOOAAAARRRRRRGHHHHHHH!!! it gunt-yelled again, taunting me because as I swooshed from left to right, front to back there was no bear in sight. And I stayed outside that daggon tent for what felt like hours waiting for this bear to come. I even YouTubed “Bear noises” to determine, one-hundred percent accuracy, this was the monster we were dealt with. I mean, from the sounds of it, it was either Bigfoot or a bear. A bear just seemed more logical. Sure enough, YouTube confirmed it and I crawled back in the tent to play the noise for Andy . . . who looked like I told him I wanted to go make out with a bear. He was wide-eyed and maybe even panting from fear. “It’s COOOMMMINNNG!!!” I giggled, literally shaking with excitement. “Shut up,” he said doing the complete opposite of giggling and shaking with eagerness. “OOOOWWW!!! We may see a BEARRRRR!!!” and I tickled his side. I cannot remember what he told me — It was a cross between “Have you lost your bloody mind?!” and “You seriously have a problem!” because that was it. The end of my bear excitement as he nestled into his sleeping bag and turned his back on me. “A beeeearrrrr,” I whispered again, sitting up in the tent soon listening to the sound of Andy’s breath, asleep.
Hours must have passed because I don’t remember lying down, I don’t remember falling asleep but I do remember being awoken by a strange sound. WOOOOOO WOOWOOO WOOOOO, the sound felt light, as if it were bouncing in the trees above. My adrenaline began pumping again, I was alert as ever. WOOOO WOOWOO WOOOOO “Andy? What’s that noise?” “WOT?!” Immediately he woke up, on edge. “No, no. Shhh, it’s not a bad noise. It’s a sweet animal — I just want to know what type it is. Listen,” and we waited in silence. “Wooot?” He was impatient. There was no sound. “Shhh, just wait — There!” and the animal wooooo woowoo-ed again. “What type of animal is that!” I worded each syllable sweet, quiet, hoping to coax him out of sleep. What I was realizing the more I heard him ask “What” was that I was both wide awake and cared less about the animal ID than having a conversation with him. “It’s an owl,” he mumbled. “An ooowl!” I whispered. I couldn’t remember ever hearing an owl. It was silent for a few minutes as I listened to it. “Andy? . . . Andy?” “Wot?” “What type of owl is it!” In my mind, I was imagining him going fishing in Scotland, lying in his tent alone, listening to the night animals there. He was my expert, my animal identifier, and I wanted to learn. “Wot.” It was no longer a question; he didn’t want an answer. It was a statement that said he didn’t care about the owl and only wanted me to stop saying his name in reference to it. I waited, nervous. I didn’t want my new camping-partner boyfriend to hate camping with me. ” . . . but Andy . . . what type of owl is it . . . ?” “WOT?!” This seemed a rhetorical question because what was not lost in translation were the words, “Are you crazy?” His head raised when he said this too so that his words became more clear. I tried again. I was a go-getter, I wanted answers! “What tyyype of owl is it?” I tried to talk slower. Maybe I had misjudged him; maybe he just couldn’t understand me after being awoken suddenly. “How should I bloody know what type of owl it is?!” he asked, resting his head back down on the pillow. “But you go camping and hiking and hear animals all the time!” “Seriously?! I told you I don’t go often.” I wasn’t giving up though. I wanted to know the owl species. I wanted to talk to him. I felt excited, I was ready to party! “Please,” I said again as if knowledge was a thing that could be forgotten and suddenly remembered. “It’s a rare spotted brown (mumble mumble) owl . . . ” He was falling back to sleep but I knew he knew what type it was! I was overjoyed! “Wait, just wait — The what owl? Why is it rare? Because of its spots?” “Yea. Most owls have no spots so the smaller the spots, the more rare” and just like that, he fell asleep again. “Wooooow,” I whispered, eyes wide open, no longer interested in having a conversation with him but intrigued with our rare spotted owl. How lucky were we? How could he even sleep at a time like this? Imagine how few people in the world actually get to hear this owl! I listened until I don’t remember falling asleep.
It was only the next morning when I confessed to staying awake for as long as I could to hear the owl that he laughed and admitted he made up the name. “What do you mean you made up the name?” I asked, agitated. “You’re serious?” he said through laughs. “L. I called it a rare spotted brown idiot owl to shut you up because you wouldn’t let me sleep.”
And that’s the first moment I realized exactly what camping partner-boyfriend I had picked.
So. Day Two, which luckily, he redeemed himself and I was able to immediately realized a major plus of dating someone British. Three letters: T-e-a.
Yuuum. I could take tea any day of the week and at any time so the aspect of having my bloke (I’m so proud of myself right now for using that word correctly . . . at least I think correct . . . oh geez, now I’m second-guessing and may delete it . . . ) . . . my bloke ask, first thing, if I wanted a “brew” in the morning. It was marvelous. While Andy took to making us an a.m. drink, I stoked the fire — even though we were supposed to be leaving soon (I’m a bit of a pyro) and within moments, it was roaring again.
Even in the summer, there’s something special about a nice warm fire so we settled down on a blanket and discussed plans for Day Two.
Here’s what we determined: We were going to stay. Yep, Triple Crown off just like that. We were gonna stay put at our site. This was determined for variety of reasons. First, the coming ones offered campgrounds, which meant no wild camping because the trail passed through national forest land to state forest land. This meant more rules, like no fires. I love fire. Not only this, but we determined that my ambitious beginner goal of hiking at least ten miles every day was well, too ambitious. We had a minimum of sixteen miles in front of us that day and if we couldn’t hack that, then either we would turn out like the boy from last night . . . or we would be stuck in the middle of our hike somewhere near mile twenty with the knowledge that we would need an extra day to get back . . . and we weren’t off work Tuesday. Simply put, continuing seemed too risky because we were down days and up in miles-to-come. Dragon’s Tooth and our ridiculous forty-five pound packs took more out of us than we expected.
There was one problem that needed to be solved though and that was water. We had depleted ours: I alone carried a three-liter bladder and two liters Gatorades, and Andy had roughly the same amount. Now, the issue wasn’t that we were down water. We knew we would be and because of that, Andy bought a water filter where we could pump water from a stream and it would be filtered immediately, allowing it to be drinkable right away. Our problem was where to go for water. Our maps proved not helpful as they were all peaks separately without a clear understanding of how they related to one another. Without that, we lacked the knowledge of all water options. We knew there was a stream at the bottom of Dragon’s Tooth, but both of us didn’t want to have to hike down and back up that mountain any time soon.
It was around this time that we were discussing water when early morning hikers began to travel past on the AT. “Water could wait,” I decided, interested in talking to the people that passed. I wanted to hear stories of the Appalachian Trail and every hiker that walked by stopped to say hi. It was an incredible experience. We talked to two men that were friends — one was from Virginia, the other Colorado. The Virginia man had hiked the AT before and now he convinced his friend to leave the gorgeous mountains in the west to check out our peaks in the east. I was surprised to know the Colorado guy found Virginia breathtaking. He said back at home, the area was beautiful but here, “every direction you turn looks like a different postcard.” He talked of how the mountains were more nestled together instead of stretched out and how that offered numerous different views, which blew his mind. The way he talked made me realize something, something I had been starting to realize since my divorce: Virginia is a pretty amazing state. We have equally long four seasons, a coast, numerous stunning rivers, and astounding forests on mountains. Since I was small, I had been focused on getting out of Virginia, moving to a different country, starting a new life . . . and that kept me from taking in exactly how lucky I am to have grown up here, to be living here.
Other hikers we talked to were equally impressed by Virginia, though most were from this side of the country and hiking the AT in sections because they couldn’t get the time off of work and didn’t want to quit work in order to do the entire thing in one fat chunk. Oh! There was one guy though that was walking with the intent of crossing paths with his friend who was hiking the AT. More on him soon . . . but others that stopped to chat included an older man who told us he had hiked this section of the AT a few times. “Where’s water?” Andy and I both asked together. “Oh, you have tons of water options,” and the man walked closer, pulling out his map. “There two streams here” (pointing the way we came) and there’s a great water source here (pointing the other direction, the way we had started to walk when we thought we were headed to our next peak). “Brilliant. How far to this one?” and Andy points to the one that didn’t have the threat of Dragon’s Tooth looming over it. “Oh, about three or four miles away. Pretty close! And there’s a few different places to pick it up. Definitely much better than the small stream when you first head up Dragon’s Tooth” and he turns to go. “Thank you!” we holler to him as he headed off.
Our minds made up on which way to head for water, we began our first water search! In our moment of intelligence, we decided to take one empty pack because why make two people carry packs when we could fit the water in one? And off we went! This part of the trek was really nice, too. I cannot properly word how refreshing it was to have a pack that did not weigh forty-five pounds. I felt like God, I felt like flying, I felt like walking on water. I had such an amazing time that we stopped to enjoy more vistas.
Three miles later, we were still hopeful and laughing, flirting, looking forward to some delicious cold water. Three and a half miles later, we are excited because surely we would be stumbling onto some type of water any moment. Four miles later though, a different story. “Maybe we missed it somehow?” “But the man did clearly said multiple water sources and made it sound like there would be a pretty good full stream.” “Maybe he was lying?” “Why would he lie?” “Maybe he was a mean, not-to-be-trusted man.” But the scariest realization was “Maybe he had his mileage off” in which case who knew how far we would have to go for water. And that brought us back to the thought before, mainly if he was lying. “Let’s go fifteen minutes and check and see” so onward we continued, thirsty, irritable, untrusting. Fifteen minutes later and we were still heading downhill, not on flat ground where a stream could slide through. “What do we do?” At this point we were half wanting to turn back around the little-over four miles, go the almost six miles back down Dragon’s Tooth to find some type of water that we knew actually existed. “But I’m going to kill myself if the water is literally right around the bend,” said Andy, and he was right; there was a bend in the trail, and we were almost on flat ground. “Fifteen minutes and check and see?” And again, we stepped forward, joint decision to continue for this unknown location where mirage water was said to be found. Fifteen minutes later, Andy was cussing and giving probably too detailed descriptions of how he would murder the old man if he saw him again and I was too delirious to cheer or correct him . . . until . . . we saw this:
Yep, a shelter. Not water but a stupid **** shelter.
“What. The. Hell.” Doom and dehydration and death loomed in front of us, clear as the message on the shelter wall. “I really am going to kill that old man,” Andy kept muttering to himself as we circled the shelter oh, a hundred and one times before determining there was no pump and no sign telling us where this mystical not-tested-water could be found. “I know you’re going to hate me, but let’s go fifteen minutes more and check and see.” I didn’t hate him. It was our only option. So around mile five, we went on, trucking into the unknown . . . until . . . finally . . . I heard the sound of rushing water.
Andy took to pumping the water the second it glimmered in his eyes.
He also took to drinking the water immediately, too. “This is supposed to filter it so that we don’t have to boil it. But if I die –” and down the water went. I mean, hell. If he died, I wouldn’t know what to tell his family. “I’m so sorry. He, he just didn’t finish his sentence,” is what I’d have to say.
I don’t want to keep you on the edge of your seat. In conclusion, Andy didn’t die. In fact, he gulped down so much water that he ended up drinking straight from the hose from the filter. Once he got his fill, he began filling the bottles and boy, was that water ah-may-zing. I’m talking super cold and super clean and super delicious. We both agreed we’d never had water that tasted as good as it.
Once we resembled more water balloons than humans, we made the journey back to our tent. Oh, and that’s when we saw this little guy who was about half a foot long and as thin as my pinkie finger.
No sooner had we moved past the snake, we began to realize why having one pack was a completely ridiculous decision. “What. the. hell. were. we. thinking?!” we both asked after we switched the pack halfway. Let’s breakdown our stupidity: We ultimately decided one person would carry ten liters of water. One liter weighs two pounds which means water alone made this pack twenty pounds, which doesn’t sound like that much but after you have walked several miles, are exhausted, and have additional weight (such as your actual pack weight, first aid materials, toiletries, etc), the twenty pounds feels more like forty-five . . . which is what we started with . . . and not what we wanted to repeat on what was supposed to be a relaxing day to water.
Luckily, we had a diversion from our solo-twenty-liter-of-water thoughts. This came in the form of other hikers. It was around the time we ran into the guy who had no pack, no water, only earbuds blasting some serious rock music. This is the man I mentioned earlier, who set off for a quick day hike to provide a bit of day inspiration for a friend. This friend, was who I was interested in, was hiking the AT and had started all the way in Maine and was working down to Georgia; apparently, this guy was a serious hiker. The man we met told us his friend had hiked it before and had the fastest time ever going from Maine to Georgia but something about the person that went from Georgia to Maine beat him so he couldn’t claim the record. He was adamant that there should be two AT record categories: going north to south and then traveling south to north. He pointed out the hike is completely different depending on which direction of travel and that wears on your body differently. I tend to agree after listening to him. Speaking of records though, I learned about the person that held the AT fastest thru-hiking record. For the past four years, a woman named Jennifer Pharr Davis (who by the way is only thirty-three) hiked the 2,100 miles, fourteen state AT in an absolutely insane forty-six days, clocking about forty-seven miles a day. A day. What’s another word for insane?! Her record was only recently beaten (recent as in July 2015) by a man named Scott Jurek (he’s forty-three) who finished only three hours and twelve minutes faster than Davis. Props to a woman for hammering this trail though! I secretly think she could take down Jurek, too, if she hiked it again.
Anyway, talking about hiking made me think of something I read where I learned it is common for other AT hikers to give each other nicknames so I asked the man we were talking to if he had a hiking nickname. He did: Bells. I then asked what his friend’s name was: Speed Goat, he said, and laughed. Bells ended up waving goodbye to us, saying he was going to stay put in the middle of the trail, leaning against a tree, waiting for his friend Speed Goat. I promised to ask the coming hikers if they were Speed Goat, which greatly amused Bells. “He’d like that! It’d give him hope that I’m close!” Then, as we were walking away, we heard, “AND HEY! TELL HIM I’M DRINKING A MARGARITA WHILE WAITING FOR HIM!” “PROMISE!” I screamed back, laughing while thinking, “Really really cool. I want this to be my life where strangers with funny nicknames stop each other and talk as if they were close, and where nature wraps people into a embrace that feels of safety and curiosity and passion, an embrace that makes them keep pressing on for something that isn’t a material possession but a mental reward. This is what I want,” as I looked at Andy who was smiling too, and soon, we were back at our tent, bringing our fire back to life.
Day Two Night had no crazy bear stories or rare spotted brown idiot owl tales to tell. However, it does have what I will call The Torch-Watching Incident.
Here goes: It’s the middle of the night, we’re in the woods, no light from vistas so blackness all around our little tent. We are exhausted after going to sleep early so we are passed out . . . when suddenly a light shines on our tent. And who knows how long the light shines on the tent because I don’t wake up to the light but I become aware of it when Andy whispers, in a commanding voice, “Sh.” I sit up. “What do you mean ‘sh?'” I was sleeping, we were cuddling, I was warm. “SH,” he repeats again. “BEAR?!” I ask excited. He gives me a look that says, “Really?! Why is it impossible for you to listen to what I am telling you?!” then shakes his head, very defined shakes I’ll add, and says again, “S-H.” So I sit and wait. And wait. But in my head, I’m thinking, “I’ll show you! I can follow instructions! I can wait!” and I wait and wait and wait some more. I cannot tell you how many minutes went by — five? ten? — with him leaning over me, frozen with wide eyes, listening for . . . what? “What are we listening for?” I ask, no longer bothered to show I can be patient. Again, I had been sleeping, we were cuddling, I was warm. “Come back. Just stop. I don’t caaare,” I complained, trying to get him to lie back down but he wouldn’t move. “SSSSS-HHHH” and he gives me a very furious look. I grumble and puff and flop back down on my pillow. We wait more. “I don’t get it. What is the MATTER?!” and that’s when he tells me: “Someone is watching us.” “WHAT DO YOU MEAN SOME-ONE?!” I didn’t know whether to be scared or doubtful. “Someone. Is. Watching. Us” he tells me again, as if repeating it with a more defined pronunciation will help me understand. “WHO?!” “How the bloody hell should I know?! Someone is out there. Do you see the torch?” He’s whispering in my ear now about there is a torch shining on us (which PS–A British torch is not like an American torch where we have a super strong flame on the end of some serious wood. What he meant was there was a flashlight that was on and pointed at us. I know, it sounds less impressive and scary now but ’tis true.) “WHAT?!” I now noticed the light. Before I was so dazed that it didn’t dawn on me. “What do we doooo?” I whisper in his ear. “I don’t know. I don’t know how long they’ve been watching us” and he hesitates “or why . . . or exactly where they are . . . ” which makes him slowly creep over me towards the opening of my side of the tent. I’m thinking he’s going to go out and approach this creepy stranger . . . in the forest . . . whose been watching us . . . with a “torch” . . . when suddenly the light shifts and darts away. I gasp as the person must have gone running when they saw Andy’s silhouette sitting up and moving towards the tent door! But at the same time I inhale, Andy exhales and then I hear, “LLLLL!!! It’s a TORCH!” And he’s talking normally now, eyes less wide; he, less on edge. I’m confused. Of course it’s a damn torch; he made that clear several minutes ago, but hell, if he wants to argue over whether it is a torch or a flashlight, I’ll have at it so I open my mouth, prepared to define both when he dips down to my feet, jabs his hand at my toes, and pulls up a “torch.” IT’S YOOOURRR TORCH! YOU LEFT IT ON! JESUS! I THOUGHT SOMEONE WAS WATCHING US!!!” This story ends with me hysterically laughing at how tense he was and begging him to tell me what he would have done if there was actually a person that had been watching us all night. He though didn’t want to play that game and instead tucked himself back into his sleeping bag, rolled over, and fell asleep.
We woke up early, but we took our time eating breakfast, getting ready, and watching the fire die. It was probably around noon when we started to pack and come to the conclusion that, again, we had truly carried too much. This made me become determined that I would not take forty-five pounds worth of material back down the mountain with me. And that made me re-examine all I put into my pack. Until I saw these comfy bad boys. I know, I know. They look disgusting but let me just tell you these flip flops have been around since my freshman year of college. I hear ya, entering jokes about how you can tell, but these flip flops are soft and light and thin and more comfortable than any pair of flip flops I’ve ever owned. These flip flops are my world, and I love them. But in that moment of panic, realizing I was going to trek down a steep and arduous mountain again, I decided the flip flops must be an item to cut . . .
<enter distressing, depressing music: duuun duuun duuun dahhh dauh-dah dauh-da dah-dah>
. . . so I stepped forth, flip flops in hand . . . and dropped them delicately into the fire . . .
I almost cried. These flip flops have been through college, getting my puppy, buying a house, getting married, moving into an apartment with a man, a separation, a divorce, and now a rebuild of my life. These flip flops have been there, they’ve seen me at my worst. They’ve carried me through the worst. And now, they were slowly curling up like some dying, drying insect.
Then I smelt death . . . in the form of rubber. I felt like I could hear them screaming. And just couldn’t do it. I dove my hands into the fire — into the building flames of Mordor — and dug them out. They were curled and the rubber soles melted.
For the most part, my flip flops were still alive. I beamed at Andy, who looked at me like I had lost my mind as I tucked them back into my pack. “A guy I work with says you should allow one luxury item when you camp. Mine is going to be my flip flops,” and off I set onto the trail, not looking back at his judgement, feeling both relieved and heroic at the same time.
We had about six miles down the mountain and around mile two, we see two signs. “Dragon’s Tooth Parking,” they clearly read and clearly point in the direction of a trail that seems off the main trail. “This must be the trail those guys talked about that would take us an alternate route to the parking lot,” Andy replies. What guys? When did they say this? Do you all remember because I sure as hell didn’t. I think he made it up, but that didn’t matter because off Andy goes down this side trail. And I follow. It didn’t dawn on me that we were leaving the main trail at that time. Andy was going down the trail. I was hiking with Andy. I needed to go down the trail. So I did.
And this trail equaled death.
I’m not even joking. And I can say that but the amount of seriousness I am trying to portray right now will never be conveyed adequately so just trust: This trail equaled death.
It was so steep. It was as if we were scaling down the edge of a cliff. Not in the way Dragon’s Tooth had been where there were neat ring-steps, or rock cutouts to tuck your feet into and hoist yourself up. Ohhh nooo. This was honest to God simply scaling down the edge of a cliff. It became so steep that we were sliding at times straight down an about 80-degree cliff side. It became so steep that the top portion of my pack was actually flying over my head because gravity, in that moment, was just as confused as we were. It became so steep that I butt-skidded down the trail at some portions because if I stood up fully, I would fall headfirst over the side of the cliff. It was so steep that we were literally throwing our arms out to the side to catch onto any limb or sapling so that our fall, or uh I mean descend, was less treacherous. It was so steep that we began laughing in this I-cannot-believe-we-are-doing-this type of nervous way before saying, “Thank EVERYTHING mighty that we do not have to hike back up this mountain using the same path,” and here we would pause every now-and-again to peek up the cliff at our walking slash tumbling-down-the-mountain trail.
That’s when we saw a couple falling down the mountain with us, and when I say falling, I mean just that: rocks being loosened as they slipped, skidded, and literally fell down the mountain. “Hurry,” I told Andy. “We have to beat them. We cannot let them pass us,” and we began throwing ourselves down these rocks and boulders and cliff edges so carelessly that I’m amazed, looking back, that we did not break our necks and paralyze ourselves. In my mind it was for a purpose — an important purpose though. This was the most insane trail I could ever imagine and if we let them pass us, then we would be stuck here, alone, with this death-trail. I wanted company and the only way to ensure I had it was to make sure they didn’t pass us on the white blaze trail . . . wait. White blaze trail. W-h-i-t-e b-l-a-z-e and I frantically began searching for a blaze color, any blaze color — one approaching, one we passed, anything . . . but nothing, not one partial brush-stroke of paint in sight. “Andy.” I had stopped walking, terrified, full of fear. “Andy. Stop. Stop. This isn’t right.” He stopped, back still to me. “When was the last time you saw a blaze.” His head rose then slowly moved from left to right, up and down, all the while getting faster, more nervous. “L. I’m going to be honest. The last time I saw a blaze was when we were on the main trail, before we took this one.” “Fuuuck,” I said because pure and simply the answer I told him was “Me too.”
This meant a couple different things. Number One: There was absolutely no blaze where we were. Nothing. Number Two: No blaze means no trail. Number Three: No trail means lost-in-the-middle-of-the-mountains. Number Four: Lost-in-the-middle-of-the-mountains can mean death . . . or lighting a flare for an emergency crew to find you . . . but we had no flares. And how lost were we? About two miles off track. “Fuuuck,” I said again. And it was around this time the couple caught up to us and stopped at my side.
“Hey!” they said, smiling. I wanted to slap them. Hell, I wanted to slap me. How could I have been so stupid?! Usua and I always follow our blaze! How could I have followed Andy, why did I follow Andy? Hiking Rule One should, forevermore, be Follow your blaze.
“Hi!” the young bubbly blonde said and my urge to slap her became so intense that I clasped my hands together. Andy could do the talking. “Do you know where you’re headed?” he asked. I don’t think either of us every said hi; I know we didn’t greet them warmly. “Huh? Do we? No. We were following you. We thought you did.” Their answers bounced from his mouth to her mouth as their smiles started to fade. “Well then, we’re all fucked because we are all lost.” “Fuck! Fuck!” the guy said to his not-so-bubbly-blonde girlfriend. Her eyes grew wide, so wide I held out my hands to catch her eyeballs when they fell out of their sockets. I think she thought I was shaking her hand. “Sooo, what do we do?” “What do you mean, ‘What do we do?!’ ‘What do we do?!’ Find a way off this mountain!!!” I wanted to scream at her then decided communicating with them was clearly not something I was ready for yet. “Well, we have to find a way off to the parking lot,” Andy said, calm, patient, sweet. Or maybe it was just the British accent, which another thing I’ve learned: With a British accent, the world seems quite peaceful, full of butterflies and bunnies. I pulled out my phone, hoping for a pin of where the parking lot was. Hoping for the right trail, close enough that we could just suffer off path for a bit but pick it up again. My phone turned on. Fifty-three percent battery. “Good,” I thought . . . and then in a second the battery plummeted to red and had seven-percent left. Andy’s phones were dead. “Do you have phones?” I asked Blonde and Guy. The first words I’d said to them. “No,” they said in unison. They did, but theirs had died too. “Fuuuck,” I thought again.
The blonde and her guy turn to each other and start whispering, a secret meeting. I looked at Andy, annoyed. I may have even rolled my eyes. He darted away, calling over his shoulder something about how he was “just going to pop up to the top of this cliff to get a look out and see if he could find anything.” He returned soon after. Nothing. No parking lot. No open area. Nothing. “Holy shit,” I thought. “We are lost. We are truly lost, in the middle of the wilderness.” That’s when Andy and I turned to each other, same thought in mind. We are lost. And the only way to have any hope was to go back up the cliffs.
“What are you guys doing?” Andy interrupted their pow wow. “He wants to continue down, but I think we should turn back,” Blonde said. “We should turn back,” I confirmed. “So turn back? Everyone in 100% agreement?” Andy asked. This was our confirmed earlier Hiking Rule One. “Yes,” we all nodded. And that’s what we did. We turned back, up the cliffs.
We learned Blonde’s name was Lauren and Guy’s name was Jacob. And only Jacob had on a pack, an ity-bity type that I don’t even know could be considered an actual pack. Lauren had nothing. Quickly they began rock climbing up the cliffs, leaving Andy and I farther behind. We were struggling too. Forty-five pound packs made it hard to come down these cliffs but going up, truly it was one millimeter from impossible. “Andy,” I whispered to him, gasping for breath, for life, for hope. “I can’t do it. I really can’t. I’m not just saying that joking around or wanting attention or saying it because I can, but I really can’t. I can’t keep doing this.” We had gone a few yards and I was about to collapse. “Com’on. You have to, L. Keep going,” and he shoved my pack forward. A couple more yards to go and I’d turn to him again, tears in my eyes. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I really really can’t. I don’t know what to do. I just can’t,” and I looked up the mountain at Lauren and Jacob, yards ahead, waiting on the next cliff divot. “Tell them to go on? I don’t even have the energy to yell. But they need to make it. It’s not fair to keep them waiting,” and I turned around, tears falling from my eyes. “Heyya, you go on without us,” he hollered. “Are you sure?” they shouted back. “Yea,” he said, “Go on. It will be getting dark soon,” which was another sad truth. It was around 5:50 p.m. and the sun was heading down. “Oh . . . kay . . . ” they yelled, unsure. “Hey! Lauren, Jacob!” I screamed up. “Yell when you reach the top, okay? Yell so I know about how far we still have. Can you do that? Please. Just yell when you reach the top.” “Yeah,” they called back, disappearing behind trees, rocks. “We’ll yell,” and soon, they were gone.
I turned back to Andy. I didn’t say anything. I think my expression showed exactly how upset, lost, worried, frantic, anxious, everything-equaling-doom-and-death I felt. “Hey,” he came closer. “We’re going to make it, okay? We’re going to make it out. Just take it a little bit at a time.”
So we did. We walked what should have been one normal footstep in three steps because we had to fight the steepness from pulling us backwards with our heavy packs. The truth was I couldn’t carry my pack anymore. I was beginning to think I needed to leave Baby so I began begging Andy to let me tie a cord around my pack, leave it on the ground, throw the cord up the cliffs, climb up, then pull my pack to me. “No, L. We can’t. It would harm the pack and everything inside and it would be probably just as hard and time-consuming to do that than to actually hike up,” and he would set off again, slow-stepping up the cliff.
We hiked and hiked, rock climbed and rock climbed; me, stopping every few feet to just look at him and cry. And he’d keep pushing me on, up and up and up the cliffs. It was getting darker so dark that it would soon be dangerous to continue and that’s when I turned to him one final time: “Andy. I am going to use the seven-percent to text my mom and say, ‘Tell work I won’t make it Tuesday. We are okay. Just lost but on track for tomorrow.’ We need to find some type of small camping spot and save energy to get back home. Safely.” This is what I was going to say. I turned to him, mouth opened and in the middle of forming his name, I happened to look up the cliff and that’s when I saw Lauren and Jacob. Standing at the top. Looking down at us. Waiting for us.
I laughed. I cried. I screamed. I cheered. I yelled, “I’m running up the mountain to both of you to give you the biggest hug and kiss ever!” I announced they were my angels and saved me when I was sure I couldn’t do it anymore. They laughed and laughed, too, at my response, at my flying up the mountain as if with wings. “We were worried about you!” they said. “How the hell you made up with those heavy packs — We wouldn’t have been able to do it! We were so worried you wouldn’t make it with those packs” and Andy and I just laughed more.
When we reached the top, I hugged them. I may have even kissed them. Heck, I could have made-out with them. I loved them. What I do know is I took this picture:
What was scary, frightening really was that while Lauren and Jacob waited for us, they told us how they saved five more people from following the exact same signs that we saw that led us all down that very trail. Five more people in an hour. That trail had been well established too, showing its wear from hikers that had taken a wrong turn just like us.
But in the end, we made it out alive. The sun threw its last rays of light onto the trail and we were able to scale down the correct path in no time. To give you an idea of how quickly we were traveling to our car, it normally takes us about thirty minutes to walk one mile. Here, we finished at least two miles in about one hour. (When we were lost and moving down the wrong trail, it took about an hour for one mile.) Eventually Jacob and Lauren continued ahead; we called out a goodbye and they left, for real this time.
But we made it. We made it home, true around 9:30 at night. But we made it.
And never once did we lose faith in each other.
Never once did we argue. Or blame the other person. Or do anything but help encourage that person to continue. Never once did we turn against each other. Or attack the other person for a decision.
In fact, as we walked back to our car on the trail, we held hands the entire way. We were happy together.
What I learned from my first wild camp is priceless. It’s more than just experience in the wilderness or a bit of understanding in pitching a tent and living outside, roughin’ it. It was more.
I learned life keeps going. I’ve struggled, how I’ve struggled — MS, my divorce, we all struggle. But I learned life surprises you. This time, not in a negative way either. Life surprised me that day by introducing me to two amazing people. Those two people didn’t have to wait for Andy and me, they didn’t have to confirm if we were alive or confirm if we made it back up the mountain. They didn’t have to wait . . . but they did. Strangers, strangers that cared about strangers.
More importantly though, I learned life doesn’t end at something traumatic. Life doesn’t end when the person you thought you’d be with forever is no longer by your side. Life keeps going . . . and as it twists down various paths, as you have to rock climb up cliffs, sometimes — if you’re lucky — you’ll meet someone else. And sometimes that stranger, that new person in your life defines and reshapes your mind, challenges you to think about life and love and everything differently. And that’s the most important aspect I learned.
That there may be such a thing as love. There may be such a thing as a second chance. And crazily enough, this second chance may be with another person, living a life that I could have only dreamed of before.