Hike Fourteen: Virginia’s Grayson Highlands

It’s true — I jumped numbers for this hike and went straight to fourteen.  That’s because thirteen was Andy and I revisiting Hawksbill Mountain, our favorite wild camp and hike.  In fact, if you ask him, he will tell you this is where he fell in love with me and . . . Wait.  I’m getting ahead of myself.  This will be a later separate post.

For now, for certain reasons, I will blog only about new hikes so . . .

Let’s pretend it’s the beginning of April, Spring Break, because to me that meant one thing: A week-long backpacking trip inhaling as much of nature was possible, drinking from nearby springs, and enjoying the serenity only a forest can bring.  For this week-long trek, there was one destination I had in mind: Mount Rogers.  I have looked forward to this hike since strapping my first pack onto my back.  Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia and with it came a strenuous climb, infamous wild ponies, postcard-worthy views, open balds, forests that supposedly resemble Canadian ones, clear steams — The list goes on.  Truly, it does.  I needed Mount Rogers.

There are a couple different Mount Rogers hikes and each have varying elevations and miles:

I suppose because Andy and I have trouble seeing reality, it was all too apparent that the last hike was the one for us.  Haven’t been out backpacking since last summer due to winter?  Oh, it’s easy to jump back in and pick up where we left off on the physical activity scale.  Haven’t been on more than a three-day hiking trip ever?  No problem, let’s test ourselves!  Haven’t done a climb more than around a 5,000 foot elevation?  Got this in the bag!  Only done a Level Four hike three times and a Level Five, well, never?  *Psh* It’ll be a cinch to tack on another star!

We are warped, I think.

Or warped I know.

Regardless, we quieted those poor protective voices, printed off maps, and began planning!

The trip was four and a half hours away with the start of the trail at the Virginia/Tennessee border.  This means that even if we left early, we would not have many hours to hike the first day.  The same with the last day, when we would end our trail — We didn’t want to be driving back in moonlight and darkness for almost five hours.  Therefore, we chose to break this hike into five days: Five miles the first/arriving day, ten miles the next, ten the following, ten again, then five miles our last day.  Keep in mind, at this point, we were really pushing ourselves.  Beyond us being dormant and foregoing exercise over the winter . . . beyond us taking on an overly hard, challenging hike . . . we hadn’t successfully cleared ten miles a day when we intended, um, anytime.  In the past, we had stopped, set up camp whenever we desired and therefore ambled about doing distances we felt comfortable with a daily.  Here, we were strategically saying, “Us, you are walking ten miles at least for the majority of your days.  Do it.  Do it now.”  This may not sound too insane but look again at the Difficulty Level, look again at the elevation.  Heck, the only time we push past ten miles a day on our ‘normal’ hikes was when we were lost in the wilderness with a fear of not surviving before giving life a last ditch shot . . .

And this is how my mind works: It was around here I came up with the three ten-miles-a-day plan.  I mean, we had actually done over ten miles a day often . . . due to the fact that we got lost often . . . so ten miles a day was an achievable victory.  And that’s how I tried to convince Andy too.  Which worked in the sense that he agreed to go.  But not in the sense that he agreed with my logic.

Regardless of what was going to soon be determined or not determined as an ‘achievable victory,’ we told ourselves firmly this backpacking trip was a test in numerous ways:  Plan and see if we could stick to specific mileage per day.  Plan and stick to a start and end date.  Plan and find water sources daily.  Plan and — eh, no — Stick to surviving in the forest for almost a week.  That’s why this hike was different.  It was concocted, calculated, and controlled.  We were to end up ‘here’ on Day So-and-So, camp ‘here’ on Night So-and-So, find water ‘here’ on Day So-and-So.  This all lead Andy and me to dubbing this trip our Preparation for the Appalachian Trail hike due to the fact that it was all white blaze.  It, single-handedly, would determine if we could successfully plan the AT.  It would determine if we could actually walk the initial Georgia portion of the trail soon.  It would determine if we could continue all the way to Maine on a path no wider than two-feet.  It would determine if we could actually do it, if we could become true AT hikers.

No pressure.

First, we started planning early on because, after all, organization is the key to success.  Numerous readings of maps were done, water sources on those maps were found, various-tasting meals were purchased, and several calls were made to national park rangers and shuttle service in the area.

The calls started off with the park rangers and quickly slid to confusing.  I wanted to know what to expect from temperatures, know where steams locations were, validate wild camping and fire abilities, hash out concerns, discuss life-or-death-situations — anything to make this hike successful.  “Plan carefully,” the young mousey sounding female voice on the other end of the phone told me.  “Plan for the unexpected.”  “But what is unexpected?!” I squeaked back.  I don’t know if I was trying to communicate in a tone she understood or if my fear of the unknown had me squeaking too.  “Just the unexpected,” she repeated which obviously brought no further answers.  That’s when my barrage of questions began.  “Again.  Just be prepared,” she moused back.  In the end, I learned that temperatures vary from one extreme to the next.  There are elusive streams with no specific locations.  Wild camping can be done in the national park . . . but not the state park . . . but there is no clear way to differentiate between the two.  Fires can only be made in pre-exisiting, equally elusive, locations.  And as far as the last bit — survival — we simply needed to be prepared.  Helpful . . . exactly as Andy and I have learned park rangers to be.  “We will plead innocence,” Andy told me.  “I’m not from the area.  I didn’t know.”  This is his solution for everything now, and in exchange I get a free ride as long as I don’t ruin the moment by opening my mouth.  Somehow though, I felt his lack of Virginia knowledge was about as helpful as he was getting us out of our last hiking ticket so I pleaded with him to double-back my efforts and speak to the park ranger himself.  “Please.  I feel it in my bones that it will have a different result for you.”  And so he did.  And so I was right.  The mousey woman was suddenly a wealth of knowledge, brimming with detailed information for the charming Englishman on the other end of the line.  Strange how that happens . . .

I did find one helpful person on my own though.  While Andy tackled the wanting-to-be-tackled park rangers, I called a shuttle service guy.  Previously we had been talking of how to avoid a shuttle, but it seemed inevitable due to the fact that we didn’t have time to double-back our hike and make it an almost eighty mile one.  That’s when I called Mount Rogers Outfitters Hostel (which side note, is comprised of an outdoors store and hostel across the street); they run the main shuttle service in the small town of Damascus, where our hike was.  It was here I spoke to a slow-drawled mountain man that I imagined to be balding and leaning back spitting sunflower seeds with a thick scuffed brown leather belt wrapped around his potbelly to hold up too big of drawers.

Me: “Hi!  I am hoping to hike Mount Rogers soon and wanted to ask about your shuttle service.”
Mountain Man: “Neh hold’n one minute!  I’on’t recommend a shuttle for ya.”
Me:
Mountain Man: ” . . . How long ya lookin’ to go?”
Me: “The longest hike there is in the area.  The about forty-mile one that — ”
Mountain Man: “Why ‘on’t ya instead do the 41.5 mile hike that is a big loop, huh.”  It wasn’t a question.  Never-the-less, I asked him to explain only to determine that hike was the 21.5 mile second-hike-I-listed loop.  Maybe it was his drawl that confused me.  Or maybe he was confused.  That’s still to be determined.
Me: “Well, we wanted to hike a large portion of the AT — Do Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers.
Mountain Man: “I see, I see.  I reckon ya need a shuttle service then.”
Me: “I agree, that’s why — ”
Mountain Man: “Now we ain’t waitin’ for ya!  We ain’t waitin’!  Yew say yew’ll be there at — what?  What time? — and we wait for two, three hours?!  Not happn’n!  Nooot happn’n –”
Me: “That’s completely understandable.  Actually, we were –”
Mountain Man: “We’ll wait for ya for ’bout, oh I reckon, thirty minutes.  But no more!  Ya hear!  No more!”  I felt scared, a cold feverish-sweat gripping me, despite the fact that he was envisioning it all wrong.
Me: “I, I absolutely understand, sir.  We just — We wanted to be dropped off first . . . then we would walk and return to our car . . . You know — So no one would have to wait . . . ”  I silently prayed for approval in the form of friendlier words from a sunflower-seed-spitting Mountain Man.
Mountain Man: ” . . . Now ya talkin!  We can do that.  We can def-i-nit-ah-ley dooo that!”  Crisis averted.

From there, Mountain Man and I plotted our method of attack.  He told me his prices for four or more people, and I sweetly got out my country drawl to say it was only me and one other person, which talked him down to a great deal.  This meant awesome news: Andy and I didn’t have to pay a crazy amount to be dropped off in the middle of the woods, miles from civilization.
Mountain Man: “Fur yew?  Fur yew!  Fur yew?  I kin do forty-five bucks.”
Me: “But what about the person I’m going with?”
Mountain Man: “Fur the both uh ya?  The both UH YA!  I kin do . . . I kin do forty-five dollas.  But ya add on more — Now that’s gonna be more!”  I quickly agreed.  I was startin’ to like this Mountain Man.  And he was startin’ to like me.
Me: “Now here’s a question for ya — What is the best way for me to get there?” and I told him where I was from.
Mountain Man: “AW MAN!  Hot doggie!  Yew from where I’m ah’from!” and we waxed poetic about city life, surrounding counties, and how there’s nothing wrong with it but it wasn’t a life we imagined.
Me: “I know, I know!  I want mountains and land and country — what you have now!  I don’t want to have to keep driving to these hikes — I want to live there!  That’s why I have a week off and I want every second to be in those mountains.”
Mountain Man (who, by the way, was most certainly softening up and chuckling now): “I know, I know!  I hear ya!  Why ya think I moved awt here fa?!  Get yew — GET YEW OUTTA DOGTOWN!” and I admit it — I jumped a little at the force his excited yell had.

In the end, Mr. Mountain gave me perfect directions so that we would be at his doorstep soon.  “Now I’m ‘uh here Mondee through Saturdee nine ta six, and Sundee twelve ta six — Gotta let Jesus in at six.”  I giggled and told him I agreed.  Whatever made Mr. Mountain happy made me happy.  Still, I wanted to push my luck further.  We were moving forward on the most positive foot.
Me: “So . . . There are wild ponies?  Can ya tell me about ‘um?  That’s why we’re goin’ — I’m beyond excited to see the wild ponies!”
Mountain Man: “Oh yee-ah, ther’ah pone-ies!  ‘Bout, ’bout — lots of ‘um.  And they all got names.”
Me: “Stooop!  Tell me one’s name!”
Mountain Man: “Fab-e-oh.  Fab-e-oh.  Got a long blonde mane pulled ova one side.  Yep.  Fab-e-oh.”  Despite the fact that I’m a bajillion percent certain he meant Fabio, I continued . . .
Me: “Well, I hope I see Fab-e-oh.  Hey, what is your name before I go?  You’ve been so very helpful!”
Mountain Man: “People ’round here — They call me . . . Lumpeh!”

And that’s how our conversation ended — I introduced myself then told Lumpy I looked forward to seeing him real soon.  “Right, L!  I look’ah ford ta it too!” and I could hear him smile.  I was smiling too — The reason I was going on this hike now was solely to meet this Lumpy man.

The next two weeks were spent reading and re-reading our plans, packing, and finally the day came when we could set off to meet a man named Lumpy who would drop us off in the middle of a forest.

We arrived perfectly to the sleepy town of Damascus, due to Lumpy’s amazing directions.
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Then walked into his shop only to find Lumpy wasn’t lumpy at all.  Tall and super-duper slender, the six-foot-seven Lumpy towered over us wearing the longest legged jeans I had ever seen, a flannel shirt and vest, stocking hat, and dark-tinted sunglasses.  I glanced up at the florescent lights of his own store; they didn’t appear brighter than normal lighting.  ” . . . Lumpy?” I questioned.  I just had a feeling that was Lumps.  “Yee-ah?”  “Lumpy, I’m L — We spoke over the phone about a shuttle service to Mount Rogers.”  My voice was rising with excitement.  “Heck yeah, hey L.  Nice ta meet ya.”  I moved to hold out my right hand, provide a nice, firm handshake.  He didn’t move.  From there Mr. Lumps introduced us to a man named John.  John, on the other hand, could have held up Lumpy’s nickname as we first saw him hunched over a cigarette on the cinder blocks outside the store.  Shaved head that glistened in the florescent lighting I now understood why Lumpy needed the sunglasses when talking to him.  “This guy here — John — He’ll be ya driver” and off John went to show us what car to place our packs into.  I clung around the entrance of the store a bit longer than John and Andy, hoping Lumpy would strike up a conversation with me.  For weeks I had imagined speaking with him in person, imagined who this Lumpy character was and how he got his nickname.  Now that we were face-to-face, he had gone silent.  Then again, so is the way with country folk so I turned and, before the door closed behind me, I gave a final wave goodbye to Lumpy.

That’s how our hike started.  John, who shuttles more AT hikers daily than he was able to count, sped along the edge of the winding mountain.  He told us stories of how he died twice and was brought back to life several minutes later after a massive Lincoln Navigator ran a red light in New York and plowed over him.  “I only have one memory from the accident — Can’t remember anything else.  I was reaching for a cigarette when I heard a voice screaming — a huge man running up to me, shouting, “OH SHIT!  HE’S ALIVE!  HE’S ALIVE!” and then I passed out.  They said it took two hours to cut me from the car.”  From there, John continued his surreal life, living nomadically in fourteen states but refusing to call any one place home.   The longest stay in one state was for ten years, and now he lives in a hostel.  “It’s great,” he said with a straight rally-car driver facial expression and beady eyes.  “Someone else picks up after me, cleans my place and I only pay three hundred dollars a month to live there.  No utilities or anything.  Of course I had to give up some things in life — a wife, a marriage — because my life is unstable.  But it’s worth it.”  Past stories of him, John told us about the AT hikers he had rescued when they called it quits.  “They stop for any number of reasons.  Wasn’t for them — Some greatly underestimated it, some got hurt, some got sick.  The norovirus, for instance — Now that’s something you don’t want to have.  It can kill a fully-grown adult.  Can you imagine how much damage it can do to a child?”  Andy and I pondered this much longer than we should have, imagining a life worse than death, while John continued and gave us the first bit of advice.  “If it doesn’t keep you warm or you can’t eat it, don’t bring it.”  I began to list all in my pack that I couldn’t cuddle with or eat — a hairbrush, rubberbands, pillow, spare fuel canister, suddenly what seemed like enough flashlights to light an entire home — I had the desire to empty my pack and was about to beg John to take my extra items back with him when our forty-five minute ride was over, and we pulled into the Foxcreek parking lot.   John got out and opened the hatch of his Subaru so that we could drag out our forty-two and thirty-eight pound packs.  Then he lit a cigarette while we tied our boots, strapped in, and prepared for setting off.  Taking one last drag he nodded a goodbye our way, saying over his shoulder, “You guys have hiked in Shenandoah — I don’t need to worry about you because of the bears there.”

And he left.

And we were alone.

In the middle of a small parking lot . . .

forty-some miles from my car . . .

five hours from home.

“You ready?” I asked Andy and he nodded so we set off.
20170409_142804IMG_0410I would soon learn the AT is similar to a scavenger hunt, one built around notes and quick scrawled messages to other hikers.  Notes of advice, warnings, and plans like this one found in the middle of the notice board to a guy named Chris, telling him to push south to Damascus which was over forty-miles from where Fellow Chris would find himself by the time he read the message pasted quickly up with a wide roll of duct tape.
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Trail registers are used to track hikers.  In them, hikers often write their trail names instead of birth names though.  Trail names are nicknames given by other hikers mostly on long distance trails, such as the AT which is most common for giving trail names.  This Nose Flute character stayed consistently in front of us throughout our hike but we never were able to find him.

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The temperature was in the seventies and we quickly felt warm, shedding layers of clothing before we were even a mile in.
IMG_0424.JPGThe warm weather also welcomed spring, sending green shoots pushing through leaves towards the sunlight. IMG_0432IMG_0433IMG_0434IMG_0447Oddly enough, even as temperatures pushed in the eighties, there were still patches of snow on the ground from the previous day’s snowstorm.
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Heading south towards the Old Orchard Shelter, we approached areas of balds bordered by fences, showing signs that ponies strayed through the area, despite the fact that none were seen yet.
IMG_0454IMG_0463This greatly disappointed me because I had packed a heaving bag of carrots for these ponies, a bag in which weighed an additional over one pound weight.  And let me tell you, if you’re hiking long distances, you may become the people Andy and I originally scoffed at but now are — The ones that pull out a scale to weigh e.v.e.r.y item in our pack in an effort to drop the overall weight.  Our goal is to get to at least thirty-five pounds, one we aren’t too far from actually, mainly given the fact that our first backpack had us lugging fifty pounds each over the mountain.  However, I digress — I say all of this to illustrate why we were snapping the handles off of toothbrushes and putting aside sunscreen because liquid weight is heavier than all others.  And here I am, choosing to pack an over pound bag of carrots . . . for horses . . . not even for myself . . . but for horses to eat . . . and they were nowhere in sight.

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Please notice the heavy bag of carrots

It was at this first horsegate that I walked through, fine and happy, followed by Andy who turned and suddenly screamed in pain then dropped to his knee.  “Oh my gosh!  What happened?!  What happened?!” I asked him, scared, confused, worried.  “Aghhh, my knee,” he huffed in terrible pain.  I learned then he apparently has a bad knee that gives him problems if he turns the wrong way, as in the precise way he turned through the horsegate.  So here we were, not even three miles in, a good trek from civilization, no cellphone reception, Andy unable to walk.  “What do I do?!?!” I pleaded with him, hoping to get some small task to help.  “Just give me a second,” and he curled his knee up, wincing in pain, uncurled it then winced more.  That incident definitely put me back.  So far, we have been injury-free on our hikes and that is the one thing I am most scared of happening.  If Andy hurt himself, there is no way I could carry him and his pack back.  If I couldn’t get his pack, we lose essential items we may need, mainly if I couldn’t get him back within that day.  It felt a lose-lose situation.  Luckily, he stretched his knee a bit more, inhaled as much air as he could muster, then set off through the gate once again.  “Do you want my knee brace?  Do you want to stop?  To rest?  To go home?”  Answers.  I simply needed something.  “No, I’m okay.  I just need a moment” so I hushed once more, keeping a watchful eye on him the entire time.

Regardless, he kept inching forward gingerly, then more keenly until he was back to his normal stride.  From there, we kept going on the blaze . . .
IMG_0462and once we had passed Old Orchard, we continued following the AT to Scales Campground.
IMG_0469It was here we finally found our first two ponies.
IMG_0480IMG_0484IMG_0489.JPGIMG_0486The next problem was the ponies weren’t interested in carrots.  And by “weren’t interested” I mean they acted as if they absolutely despised the orange vegetable.  I tried to feed them . . .
IMG_0475Andy tried to feed them . . .
IMG_0485.JPGand each time the suckers either ignored us or galloped away to the point that we worried we were harassing them.  Side note: We read later that you aren’t supposed to feed the ponies or harass them.  At that point in time I felt like the world’s worst hiker . . .

In the end though, we let them be — munching on the short, dry winter grass which is, without a doubt, not better than carrots . . . not that I’m keeping track . . .
IMG_0471and we settled on this amazing view before continuing on.
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At the base of the highlands was another trail registry.  Have I said already I absolutely look forward to reading trail registries?  I can imagine walking in the forest for months, passing a few hikers but for the most part, continuing alone with trail registries providing the only bit of information as to how many hikers are in front of you, how many you may catch up to, exactly who it is.  It’s like forming a sort of bond with those you do not know, and I found myself wondering if we would catch up to Nose Flute, get to say hello after following him for who knows how long.  And take a look too — While Nose Flute is there again, what is surprising is that for whatever reason the four hikers between us and him or her on the last trail registry have disappeared, three of which intended to stay on the trail for another few days and two desiring to finish Thursday, the same day as us.IMG_0495.jpg
Next, our trail took us higher . . .
IMG_0496.JPGand it was parts, like this, that were new to me.  True, we had recently hiked in areas with balds, but this — well, this was in the open for about miles.  Forest had disappeared entirely, leaving us following posts stripped with white on land so clear we could see distances far ahead.
IMG_0510.JPGEven more incredible — once we got to the top, there were more ponies.
IMG_0506IMG_0508.JPGIMG_0537.JPGIMG_0530.JPGIMG_0511.JPGThe horses were scattered throughout the highlands and we saw traces of them miles ahead when we continued onward too.  I was told by Lumpy they are Shetland ponies, which are native to England.  However, the more I research, the more contradictions I get — Anywhere from the ponies are from the Shetland Isles in Scotland to the ponies resemble Shetlands but aren’t actually Shetlands at all.  Regardless, they are stunning and the ones here were far friendlier than those before.  For example, this agreeable chap walked right up to us!  Look at how cordial he was too, actually smiling when I took his picture!
IMG_0524.jpgWe obviously knew he should be the one to feed so undone came the carrot bag and out came the carrots, which excited him so much his eyes opened wider and his pupils enlarged.  This, of course, made us want to feed him even more carrots.
IMG_0515.JPGIMG_0520“Bless him, the hairy lad!” Andy said as the pony munched loudly on carrots.  “His mane is so long he cannot see well!”  And that’s when my super sweet boyfriend moved his mane from his eye so that he could see better.
IMG_0521.JPGAnd that’s actually when his smiling picture was taken, which shows he was thoroughly appreciative and happy, and that made me even more excited so I smooched my face as close as his as possible.

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“Hiiiii, buddy!!!” I cooed to Lad as he lovingly flirted with me, averting those big brown eyes of his while nuzzling his nose toward mine.  “I love you!  I just love you!  You’re the handsomest pony in the world!  Oh, you are!  The most handsomest pony in the whole wide world!  Look at you!  Just look at you!  Being the handsomest — SHIT, ANDY!”  I was suddenly filled with terror and leaped back from Lad.  “JESUS, ANDY!  I’m HORRIBLY ALLERGIC TO PONIES!!!  WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING?!”  “WOT!!!  Are you an idiot?!  How did you not think of this in the first place?!  How can you be ALLERGIC TO THEM when you were just KISSING one!!!”  “JESUS!  I was ABOUT to KISS HIM!” I agreed, “But I’m ALLERGIC!  I’m seriously allergic — Like if he touches my face or I touch my face after touching him, I’m going to swell into a gigantic purple grape and not be able to breathe!  HOLY CRAP!  I ALMOST KISSED HIM!!!  WHAT AM I DOING?!  What are we DOING HERE?!  I’M ALLERGIC TO HORSES!!!”  At that point, I was freaking out, my childhood flashing before my eyes — Me at petting zoos, being so eager to see my favorite animals, the horses; petting and kissing their soft noses only to have my mother carry me from the pin as I gasped like a fish for air, my throat closing.  Or me about to go on a family horseback riding trip, in the stables before we set off and the itching, itchingitchingitching then my mother pulling my hand to whisk me away while finding medicine to pop in my mouth until she could get me to a better location.  Horses.  I adored them so much I cried when I saw them because I knew later I couldn’t get too close, and here I was — yet again — forgetting those childhood memories.  I looked down at Lad, apologetic, with pitiful eyes.  He mirrored my pitiful eyes, apologizing in his own way but clearly not understanding why our almost move-to-first-base had him heading back to the dugout.  “PONY!!!  I’m sooo sorry!  But I’m allergic to you!  Like for real allergic!”  I turned to Andy.  “JESUS!  What are we doing here, what am I DOING here?!  This has Death Zone written all over it for me!  WHY IN THE HELL DID I PICK THIS HIKE?!  I must have come here to die!!!  What if I had KISSED HIM!?  What if I had touched him?!  Sweet boy, I cannot even give you carrots . . . ” and I looked at Lad again, who was trying to nudge my arm.  “Lad, I almost kissed you.  I almost died for you, buddy.  But you’re so handsome, such a handsome Lad — Hey Andy, get his hair again for me.  I cannot touch him and his hair is in his eyes because he wants to look at me and can’t.”  And just like that, I forgot again how deathly allergic I was to horses in an effort to be sure sweet Lad could see.

“What do we do?!” I complained moments later, after Lad had eaten about seven carrots himself.  “We can’t feed him them all to him” and I spreading my arms wide to motion to the other ponies that were surely as starved as Lad.  “Lad.  You have to share, buddy, okay?  Be a nice pony and share,” I suggested to him.  As if on cue, Lad nibbled the grass, which was dry, almost dying, and dirt-filled.  “Bless him.  I wouldn’t want to eat that either,” Andy said.  “Let’s try the others,” I suggested but each time we walked close to the fellas, they quick-paced away.  Meanwhile, our little guy was now following us, more a trained dog heeling, so I snapped more pictures of his cute face as he literally galloped towards us in an effort to stay by our side.

In the end, none of the other horses wanted carrots and leaving Lad was the hardest part about the trail thus far.  Andy re-positioned his mane out of his eyes again and we said our goodbyes, speeding down the path in an effort to lose Lad, who continued to quick-gallop our way until the distance between us became too much.

With Lad and broken hearts behind us, we set off towards Virginia’s blue mountains, passing more ponies as we continued on the well-worn Appalachian Trail.
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With the sun setting and night about to envelope us, we scanned the area for a place to camp, and that’s when we saw this feisty fellow, swiftly jumping through the brush.
IMG_0558.JPGI should mention here that for a moment, we had a repetition of the ponies — I tried to get close to the rabbit, cooing over him as he darted away, only to remember that the one other animal I am severely allergic to is (drum roll) bunnies.  This, of course, didn’t go well with Andy, who seemed to have renewed vigor repeating the question, “How could you not have thought about these things in the first place?”  Even though I tried many times to reassure him that this was not a warped suicide attempt, he wasn’t having it and ended up sulking off, grumbling while testing his knew food-hanging skills.
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I will say, Andy’s two-pulley system, using a couple carabiners and a cord, worked wonderfully.  And these food bags were awesome as well — They are Osprey’s dry sacks, which are waterproof.

Content with how our day turned out, we set up camp a few miles from the forest, seeking shelter from the harsh wind among brush and trees.  We had planned to hike five miles the first day and ended completing almost one over due to the more flat and open highlands.  Therefore, Day One ended knowing we were ahead of our target mileage-per-day but also realizing it would get harder, and that’s when we would need any extra-stored miles because, for the three upcoming days, we had planned ten miles each . . .

But that was another time to worry — for tomorrow, a new day with new challenges.  And so, under the full moon, so bright it resembled more a sun, we chose to applaud ourselves and relish in our accomplishments because this, after all, was the farthest hike we had planned thus far.
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Day Two: We woke early, had a cup of coffee and tea then ate a breakfast of oatmeal (or porridge for those that are English).  We had slept peacefully and full and so we were ready for the next day’s adventures.  It was an odd experience to see the trail you are following weave and disappear into mountains far ahead, knowing you must continue on that path, walking — one step after another — up and over those massive looming mountains.  It was here we found ourselves again talking and planning our AT trip — the AT in its entirety — and wondering what it felt like to continue, grueling steps one at a time, over thirteen states.
IMG_0581.JPGBriefly taken back into the forest, we listened for Big Wilson Creek where our first water refill would come.  On the way, we saw enormous pine trees, the oldest we had found so far on a hike.
IMG_0579Luckily, the water was fast moving and easily heard as we passed by.
IMG_0590IMG_0589IMG_0583Therefore, it was a welcomed sight for water refill areas, and this one was heavenly.  Andy immediately went to topping off our bladders and bottles.
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From there, we found our first shelter, the Wise Shelter.
IMG_0627.JPGInside, we found many treats, including a list of detailed landmarks . . .
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and scribbled notes and carved words on the shelter boards.  This one stood out the most as it is what Andy and I want to live by and want the foundation of our relationship to be built upon . . .
IMG_0602and, of course, there was another trail registry, filled with odd comments and funny remarks.
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After we quickly signed the registry, the AT took us back out to the Grayson Highlands, where we read this area has some of the best views in Virginia.
IMG_0632.JPGAnd it didn’t disappoint.  We stopped here for several minutes, taking deep breaths of the cool mountain air and enjoying the reward of our hard work.
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Walking on, we passed ponies that were yards away from us . . .
IMG_0660.JPGIMG_0658IMG_0659and on further still into the highlands when suddenly, out from the bushes, this bright white and auburn baby lass came right up to us!
IMG_0647.jpgSo friendly and hungry for carrots, we took some from my pack to feed her.
IMG_0640Excitingly (for Andy at least because he could touch her), she loved being petted as much as she loved carrots!
IMG_0645Not seeing other ponies, we fed her two carrots, apologizing profusely for holding onto one in case another sweet love appeared.  Then, we said our goodbyes to Lass, who seemed quite content for a quick meet-and-greet because she resumed munching on grass before throwing us an affectionate goodbye look over her shoulder.
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Onward we went on the dry mud-trail, reinvigorated by Lass and how magical this place was when this large fellow appeared!
IMG_0653.JPGEager for love, he nudged Andy’s arms, persuading him to use both hands to pet him.
This blonde-maned pony adored Andy, and Andy loved him.  The pony walked as close as he could next to his new-found admirer, keeping his head practically under Andy’s arm.  “We have to give him our last carrot, L!  We have to!” Andy pleaded and so I gave Andy the last carrot to feed to his new best friend.  And that’s when Lass squeaked out from the bushes again, startling us both!
IMG_0644Lass immediately came trotting up to me, which broke my heart because I could neither pet her and we didn’t have any more carrots.  We ended up staying close to half an hour with these two though, which was tear-jerking when we had to leave them.  And boy did they test us!  When they bent to nibble on grass, we practically jogged away, hoping to make a discreet out, but they galloped after us!
IMG_0657“We should take them home!” Andy said as Fellow nudged Andy’s arm around his neck again.  “L, pleeease!  We should take them home!”  Can I say here Andrew is the worst — I am the type of person who walks into a pet store and comes out with a cat, despite the fact that I never wanted a cat but was so upset to leave him that I brought on an MS attack simply knowing the kitten’s brothers had been adopted and he was still left alone.  I’m the type of person that had to be pulled from that same pet store months later because I was sobbing — massive, hysterical sobs in public — over another cat, seventeen-year-old Chichi whose owner was forced into a nursing home and couldn’t take her.  I’m the type of person who still hasn’t turned on the news after hearing an absolutely horrible dog abuse story years ago; that story made me call the animal shelter that took the dog every other week, just to check on how she was doing and if it was adoptable yet because I was sure as hell going to drive several states down south for the opportunity to give her a loving home even though I didn’t plan to ever have another dog.  And it doesn’t stop there — It’s any animal, even insects, that I try to save, care for, or adopt . . . and here, of all people I am with, someone who begs me to take two ponies home!  At that moment, with Andy’s green eyes and two pairs of perfect-brown pony eyes looking at me, I was secretly thinking, “I thought that was the deal — You were supposed to be the logical one when it came to animals because I clearly lack the capacity to do it.”  “Fine,” I said, sighing and almost petting my Lass.  “You know I cannot say no.  Even if I am allergic.  Even if I will die if I touch you, Lass.  But come on, ponies.  Come on, Andy.  Let’s go home” and I meant it, I did, which he knew too so he smiled this amazing You’re-So-Incredible-And-The-Best-Girlfriend-Ever smile.
IMG_0654.JPGI mean look at him!  And the ponies were even happier at the news — They pranced, actually pranced, after us, elated to call our tiny apartment in the city home.  So as we walked towards that home, pony on each side of us, Andy and I discussed — in absolute honesty — about how we needed to break our lease the second we returned to purchase a house with acres of land for these two roaming ponies that found us on a hike.

Luckily . . .

right when we were telling the ponies details of how they would have to put up with our apartment at least for one day, a family of four out for a day hike, stumbled along our trail and the children shrieked over our ponies, which caused Fellow and Lass to turn and the kids to coo over them.  And so, fine Fellow and little Lass were deceived, left behind in (what I’m going to tell myself) were equally happy hands and equally happy love while Andy and I slipped silently away, carrying with us only a tale of how we were going to smuggle two Shetland ponies from the highlands because we felt, truly in our hearts, they would be happier with us.

From there, (I’m not going to lie to you) this story goes downhill and downhill quickly, as does every broken heart story, I suppose.

We did see some absolutely breath-taking panoramic views, by far the most beautiful ones we have ever seen hiking.
IMG_0662IMG_0663However, all the walking and additional weight of sadness caught up to me.  “Andy, I’m sorry, but I need to rest.  My feet are killing me.”  It was true — In an unseen instance, my feet were in the worst pain I have ever felt.  It was as if I had been walking barefoot over sharp rocks for the entirety of our trip . . . so much so that, as we continued towards a massive rock on the trail to rest upon, I was almost in tears and barely able to step anymore.  “Listen, I’m going to ask you something that is — I’ll just put it out there — gross, really really gross.  And I know it is the biggest favor I can ask, but I honestly don’t know if I can keep going.  I’m in so much pain.”  “You’re going to ask me to rub your mingy feet, aren’t you?” Andy didn’t look pleased, not one bit.  “I mean . . . yes, yes I am.  Please, Andy.  I honestly don’t think I can continue and you know me!  I’ve never complained of pain in my feet before or stopped or not wanted to keep going but I honestly don’t think I can do it.  My feet hurt so much.”  There was a pause then one heavy, unhappy sigh then, “Alright then.  Give them here.”  That’s when you know you’re with someone that really loves you — when, after walking for miles in the same hot, sweaty, disgusting shoes and socks, your boyfriend massages your feet.  And it was heaven, pure bliss.  True, it hurt like hell because my feet were beyond sore — they just went straight from perfect to deeply bruised — but that massage felt so so so good.  “Ahhhhhh,” I loudly exclaimed, unable to hold in my pants of appreciation.  “That feels soooo amazing!  Don’t stop, don’t stop!!!  Right there!  It feels sooooo good riiight there!”  I’m a little embarrassed to say there were the most hikers we had bumped into around these parts and all of them were extremely confused (and dare I say intrigued) by what we were doing.  But it was, after all, just a boy and a girl.  On a rock.

Andy, bless his heart, massaged my feet for a long and pleasurable half an hour until falling back on the warm rock to relax.
IMG_0668IMG_0665.JPGSeeing our path turn rocky on the last bit of the high mountain, we soaked up the sun and view a bit longer before continuing on.
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Our trail took us over more harsh rocks (which livened the pain in my feet again) before we slipped through tiny cool caves that provided reprieve from the warm sun.IMG_0669IMG_0672Onward still, we continued towards the Thomas Knob Shelter, not because we intended to stop there, but because we needed that little landmark to know we were in fact succeeding at our targeted mileage.

The trouble was my feet were beyond stinging.  By now, I felt as if they were ground bits of bloody flesh, a messy pulp really, and with each step, open nerve-endings were hit, sending shooting pain coursing up my legs.  “Hey, Andy,” I was huffing in agony.  “I’m so sorry, but I have to sit down again.”  This was the second pause we’d made after sitting on the rock for half an hour.  It had been less than three miles.  “Hey no problem.  It’s okay.  I want a drink anyway,” and he went to sit on another large rock beside the trail, patting the top of it in an effort to get me to sit next to him.  I hobbled, slowly and painstakingly towards it, taking a seat on top of the grey slab minutes after had sat down.  “I don’t know if I can do it,” I told him and began to cry.  “I honestly don’t know if I can do it.”  “Hey, hey, it’s okay!” and he moved closer to me, wrapping his arm around my side.  “We’ve done great so far!  And remember, we did about an extra mile the other day?!  We are doing awesome!  It’s okay.  Do you want me to massage your feet again?”  But I was lost, lost in my own mind, counting how many more days we had, how much mileage we still had to cover, and calculating how many more miles that meant we had to complete daily.  “I cannot do it,” I choked, crying harder.  I hated that I was the weak link, the reason he had to keep stopping, the reason we risked quitting the trail.  I hated that I couldn’t be like him — not appear to be in pain, not feel pain but to continue walking, plodding on endlessly and not succumb to the perils of the trail.  “I’m so sorry.  I know you could continue.  I know you could go — I’m not a good hiking partner for you anymore.  I’m sorry I’m holding you up.  I’m so so sorry.”  I was sliding deeper into despair, one that has no end on a trail due to the thought that the only way to end a hike is to continue walking, which is the one thing I did not want to do.  I had lost that desire, the power, will — the hope — to keep going . . . all I could do was cry.

Andy comforted me as best he could: He gave me the last bit of Gatorade; he offered me all food in his pack; he scanned the area for a place to set up camp for the day; he asked what he could me get from my own pack to make me feel better; he even opened my pack and took at least fifteen pounds from me.  “We can stay on this rock for as long as we need,” he told me encouragingly, lightly but all made me cry harder because the last place I wanted to be in that moment was on that damned rock in the middle of the Appalachian Trail.  And it was getting hotter — Not a boiling heat but a heat that clung to my skin, and I felt I was being cooked under the sun.  “Andy?  Am I burnt?” I asked him, feeling the tears boil on my skin as they fell.  “Oh geez, you are,” he whispered.  “Maybe you should put on sunscreen.  I know it’s probably too late, but it will protect you from getting more sun at least.”  It is here I revert back to my original comment in the beginning about packing . . . about weight . . . about liquid weight.  “I dropped it,” I told him.  ” . . . Wot do you mean you ‘dropped it’?  Did it fall out?  Where is it?”  He began glancing around our feet, down the trail we had just walked.  “No, no,” I sheepishly looked down at my shoes.  “I, um, didn’t pack it.  I dropped it — the weight, I mean.”  The look he gave me was equivalent to me saying I threw all of our food and water but thought we could still survive on AT dust.  “ARE YOU CRAZY?!”  His arms flew into the air.  “WOT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!”  “Liquid weight is the most — you know that!  I didn’t want to carry it!  I thought we would be more protected, that there would be more shade than there has been.  I haven’t been here before!  How was I to know?!”  We sat in silence next to each other, my despair escalating as the sun launched its heatwaves onto us, knowing we had no where to seek shade.  “I’m sorry,” I told him.  Not because I was sorry for forgetting sunscreen but because I was apologizing in advance for my next comment.  “But I would like a foot massage again, please.”  And so his anger was put aside to help my non-salvageable feet.  “Thank you,” I whispered when he was done and we both leaned back on the rock.  I may feel refreshed enough to continue, I thought.  I feel revitalized, maybe even approaching happy.  I may be able to keep going yet.  “I need to pee,” I said after awhile, prepared to start over.  Prepared to let my misery pass and grab ahold of a new opportunity to walk the AT.  “Yep, I just need to pee.”

Let’s sidestep for a moment and talk about something happy.  Let’s talk about the best hiking purchase I’ve made yet, the one I would have gladly paid a heck-of-a lot more money for, the one that has truly revolutionized hiking as a female.  It is, what I refer to as, my appendage.  This guy, the Freshette:
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I’m not exaggerating when I say it has revolutionized my hiking trips.  Instead of pacing and surveying for hidden pop-a-squat locations for hours . . . instead of becoming increasingly nasty due to the fact that I need to pee . . . and instead of having to take my entire pack off, do my business, lug it back on, then readjust and go through the pains readjusting, I now can stand — as liberated as a male — to pee anywhere I want.  I can choose to stand in one place and pee to the right or pee to the left or pee to the front of my shoes or aim between them.  Let me say the gravity of situation again:  I can pee anywhere I want whenever I want, leaving my pack on the entire time.  The brilliance of this device!  The pain, heartache, and time that no longer exist because of my new appendage — It’s nothing short of brilliance.  I’m so in love with my plastic-penis-like appendage that I tell Andy often I may even use it regularly at home just because I can!

“Alright, I’m going,” I announced again to Andy, feeling a bit happier at seeing my appendage.  “Right,” he told me, searching for a small snack for lunch.  “Where are you going?”  “I think I’ll go . . . ” I scanned the area, more refreshed, hope returning.  “Right there beside those bushes.  Right where everyone can see me.  But I don’t care.  Nope, I don’t care at all.  I’ve got this!” and I flicked my appendage in a showing-off fashion in front of his face.  “UGH!  WOT IS YOUR PROBLEM!!!  DON’T PUT YOUR PENIS IN FRONT OF ME NOSE, ME FACE!  WOT IS WRONG WITH YOU!!!”  “Whatever, Andrew.  I don’t have time to hear it.  I don’t have time for it because I need to pee.  The power is mine to harness!  With my appendage!” and off I stumbled, resembling more a ninety-five year-old woman hobbling, before coming to rest a few feet from him to relieve myself . . .

And that’s when it happened.  The worst of the worst.  There was no relief, oh none at all.  Only a mistake.  One big ultra-horrible mistake.

It was around this time I became a full-on body of misery.  If I had thought moments before when sitting on the rock in tears that life couldn’t get worse, well, life just got worse.  Much worse.  “I just pissed my pants,” I told him as I limped back to the grey stone.  “Wot?  Wot did you say?”  He sat up straighter.  He wasn’t necessarily asking me repeat my statement; instead, he didn’t believe me.  At least my urine smell didn’t give me away.  “I saaaid,” I told him nastily, “I. Just. Pissed. My. Pants.  I’m not even joking.  Do you want to smell?  Wanna feel?  They’re soaking — Everything.  My shorts.  My underwear.  Soaking with pee because I just peed myself.”  “How do you manage — ” “BECAUSE I DIDN’T PUT MY APPENDAGE ALL THE WAY AGAINST MY SKIN, OKAY?!  I DIDN’T AND NOW I SMELL LIKE PISS AND I HAVE TO WALK TWENTY-FIVE OR MORE MILES IN PISS PANTS!”  “Jesus.”  He shook his head in disbelief — not because I had peed myself but because only I would pee myself and now he was left with me, Girlfriend Who Peed Herself.  “Jesus,” he repeated, “this is going to be hell.  You’re going to be a nightmare” and up he stood, pulling on his pack before turning and walking down the trail.  Off he went, no glancing back, leaving me behind.

So I did what only I could do: Follow him.  Hobbling on pulverized feet in my soaking pee pants, deep in thoughts of what I would do first if offered on the trail: amputate my own feet or attack an oncoming hiker to steal their dirty underwear and wear it proudly.  Truth be told, I couldn’t decide.  Both were equally appealing and heck, even needed.  I guess I became so consumed with these two thoughts — weighing which I should chose so that I wouldn’t have to hesitate when the time to decide came — that I didn’t notice we passed the Thomas Knob Shelter, the shelter we had aimed to stop near for the day.  “Hey,” Andy said, finally pausing.  “How are you doing?”  The answer was that I was convinced my feet were a bloody pulp with toenails dangling from portions of mushy flesh but — good news — the hot sun had now cooked the urine in my pants so they were dry.  Hurray for me.  “Okay, well.  I think we should find a place to camp for the night,” Andy suggested and in that moment I could have jumped on him — giving him the most gigantic hug I could muster.  “That would be great,” I responded and followed after him again, limps more pronounced with each step.

Day Two ended with us accomplishing almost ten miles, a total of 9.63.  We found a spot at the base of the mountain, covered in thick leaves with little flowers barely popping their heads above ground.
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There was a fire pit already made and even large limbs to sit on.  “Listen.  Maybe tomorrow I will want to keep going, okay?” I told Andy.  “Maybe tomorrow I will feel better.  I just don’t feel good now.”  “Do you want to make a fire?” Andy asked as night was setting in, knowing one of few comforts on the trail is a fire.  But I was ready to decline all comforts to start anew the next day.  “A fire?  I’m burnt.  I’m hot.  My feet hurt.  I pissed my pants.  I’m miserable.  I just want to go to sleep and wake up and have it be a new day.”  And with that, poor Andy was left outside as I hobbled into our tent and passed out . . .

until, in the middle of the night, we were awoken.  It was pitched black, silent, when I heard a shoving sound, as if something large and mighty were trying to force a tree over.  We could hear the tree being hit and a massive rocking back and forth, extreme effort to push a huge amount of weight into the tree.  “Andy,” I whispered terrified because that sound — I knew that sound, I remembered that sound and only one very large substantial animal could make those heaving puffs, have that energy.  “Andy, are you awake?  Do you hear that?”  “I’m awake, L.  I hear it,” I heard him whisper back.  From the clarity of his voice, he had been awake for several minutes too, listening.  “Andy, I think it’s . . . ” I was too scared to finish.  “I know.  I think it is too,” he told me and my heart began to pound, pulses so deep until I could hear it, feel it in my ears.  “I think it’s at our food,” I told him.  “It is.  It has to be.  That’s definitely where the sound is coming from.”  And that sound didn’t let up — It was a continuous huffing push, a sound that came only when an entire being’s weight was being forced against an unmovable object.  “Andy?  It’s a bear.  I know it but what if it isn’t — What if it’s like before?” and I knew he understood I was talking about Three Falls when we were terrorized by what we are going down on record as saying were ghosts.  “I know,” he told me back, moving slowly, methodically towards the corner where he put his head torch and flashlight.  Slowly, he unzipped the tent as the zipper moved almost silently down the track.  We had to see — we had to.  We could not live another night petrified by the unknown.  Slowly, slowly, the zipper kept traveling down and with each small pull, the sound continued outside until finally, when the opening was wide enough for him to fit his head through, the sound stopped.  Andy didn’t hesitate — On went his head torch and on went the flashlights he held in his hand.  I saw the spray of light moving quickly over the ground, sweeping over trees, over our hung food bags.  But . . . there was nothing in sight.  “Our food is still there,” he said after awhile, coming back into the tent following his scan of our area.  “There’s nothing out there, L.  Nothing.”  The rest of the night, our bodies were tense, unmoving, listening for what we knew was a bear to approach again.

Day Three began with us wide awake and hearing another animal walk very close to our heads.  “Andy?  Do you hear that?” I whispered to him again.  “I hear it,” he said.  “Shhh.”  That “shhh” to me means only one thing — There is no threat.  If there were a threat, say a bear, he wouldn’t tell me to “shhh” and instead would have several other words — or no words — to explain the situation.  This “shhh” meant he too heard the animal but that we were okay and so we held our breath as the leaves crunched underfoot, guessing what it could be.  Once it had cleared our area and we could hear its footsteps further away so we hopped from the tent to find this guy, a white-tailed deer.
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Combined with the day before and the bear-noise-filled night, we decided it was better to leave the hike than continue on for three more days.  The fact was that I still only had one pair of shorts covered in pee (though, thankfully, clean underwear), my feet were almost unwalkable, and upon examination in the morning, I had one of the worst sunburns ever.  “I’m just miserable,” I told Andy as he examined my skin which wasn’t even red but more plum.  “I’m sorry.  I know you could easily keep going, but I just want to go home.  I think I truly could force my feet to keep going, but I don’t know how much more sun I will get and I’m already in pain.  We have no idea what the trail is like ahead — if it is harder or easier.  And we have to do ten mile days for the next two days or we won’t get back in time.  I just can’t do it.  Even if we get a little behind — We can’t.  I just want to go home.”  “I know,” Andy said, not hesitating as we packed our tent.  “I know.  I was going to tell you this morning — I already decided.  Let’s go home.”

They say never end the AT on a bad day, and this — unequivocally — was a bad day.  Or a bad set of days.

They say you will have regrets if you don’t keep walking, keep going because it will get better — The pain will numb, the concerns will go away, and soon enough you’ll cross trail magic.

They say you should end it on a high note.

And in the end, that’s what we did.  We did end on a bad day.  We do have regrets about not pushing on.  But . . . we ended on a high note.

We plodded, slowly, taking our time because we knew time was our friend now.  We stepped from the forest back into the last bits of the Grayson Highlands, enjoying our final view from the AT this time.  Then we stepped down a hill to cross a road . . .
IMG_0094coming to rest in Elk Garden parking lot, where behind the sign and pavement, re-entry into a forest that was rumored to look more like traveling through Canada.
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But we didn’t go in.  Exhausted, burnt, content with our decision, we waited under the Elk Garden sign, sitting on Andy’s foam pad and trying (more like praying) to get a signal for Lumpy to send a driver to rescue us.
IMG_0704IMG_0705“It’ll be about an hour.  ‘N forty-five dollars.  That okay?” Lumpy asked when we finally reached him a good thirty minutes later.  “That’s fine, Lumpy,” I told him.  Because it was.

In that moment, I was sitting exactly where I wanted to be — beside a road that would take us home; beside my boyfriend who never says no to an adventure with me and puts up with quite a lot but is the first to offer support, the first to know when to stop and when to keep going, the first to offer love.

I don’t know where I hoped to be or imagined being at the end of this hike, the end meaning an actual physical location.  I know that answer: Elk Garden, 17.32 miles in on the Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands AT trail.  But it felt we were somewhere else too, somewhere more significant.

While this trip was hard and grueling and painful, it was also special, well worth it.  That’s why no matter what anyone says, I know we did end it on a high note.  I left the AT in the back seat of a minivan wearing my pee pants, windows down, hair blowing in the cool breeze, Andy’s hand in mine.  I left feeling happy, hopeful, free.  So no matter what anyone says, we knew we set a goal far beyond what we may have been able to accomplish.  But in the end, we did better than we expected.

And so when the van parked and we got out, we strolled up and down the sidewalk of Damascus, population 900, pointing out the different bricks that were removed and replaced with various AT stones, messages immortalized from other hikers.
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And when we were done, we walked hand-in-hand to our car then retold our tale to each other the entire drive back.  It was our hike, our laughter I heard, our smiles and our love I saw.  So I’m grateful — Extraordinarily grateful we found each other, grateful we went, grateful we have this story.  Because, of all advice they tell you, this is the top one: Hike your own hike.  And that’s exactly what we did.

Hike Eight: Virginia’s Saint Mary’s Wilderness Trail

We felt adventurous on this hike (which happened a bit ago but I fell behind blogging because I just wanted to enjoy the remaining time with Andy) and oh how we get an adventure that lasted . . . and lasted . . . and lasted.  It was not an adventure in the sense of bear attacks or ghost hauntings — been there, done that.  This was a different type of adventure.  First, these two words: Unblazed trail.  Yep, that’s right.  We, the couple that gets lost on practically every hike.  We, the ones that have something near catastrophic happen every time a trail is traveled.  We, apparently ready for an unblazed, unmarked, no paint trail. The sheer logic behind our decision astounds me now as I summarize our trip.

And it gets better.  This trail also had a higher elevation than we had done before and over half of it was rated the tip-top highest difficulty.  Let me say again: The sheer logic behind our decision astounds me.  Regardless, we did it and while Andy’s existence could be yet to be determined, I am clearly still alive and blogging so let me tell ya about our trip in George Washington National Forest on the Saint Mary’s Wilderness Trail:

  • An almost twenty-six mile circuit
  • 5,300 foot elevation (wooo, major skill level increase!)
  • The first part is rated a Level Four of Five difficulty, but the second (and over half of the trail) is rated a Level Five of Five
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This is us saying, “What hell did we get ourselves into with an unmarked trail!?”

At this point in time, I had convinced Andy to set aside practically every weekend so that we could go camping.  It was autumn, but I was most excited about this hike because the leaves were at their color peak.  Before this, we had gone out multiple weekends straight to see autumn creep in and witness the leaves’ gradual color change so this hike meant autumn was boasting of her color, smiling down on us as we snuck below her branches.
FullSizeRender-19.jpgFullSizeRender-21.jpgleaves1leaves2img_0102Leaves4.jpgWhile the area around us was vibrant and alive, it would suddenly change and showed a time of the past.  Autumn’s remains lay scattered on the ground, creating an eerie atmosphere.  It was here that nature seemed skeletal with fallen trees and large clusters of dead containing limbs of once-alive plants. IMG_0052.JPGIn these areas, patches of ferns were now faint and delicate, thin as tracing paper, as they gasped for final breaths before creeping into the shadows, going dormant under the canopy of trees.
IMG_0062.JPGStill, the area was magical.  I know I have said this before about other hikes, but that’s the best description of how it feels to be the only ones within view, for the sole sounds to be your breath, footsteps, nature, to feel so tiny and hidden, protected by a monstrous mountain.  And when you wonder upon areas that look like this, you have to wonder if nature is testing you, seeing if you are perceptive enough to notice its playful personality.  Andy and I often joke that the forest is setting out enchanted doorways to other realms and we wonder how many other hikers have walked by and missed those entrances.

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A foot-shaped fern

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Perfect look at nature thriving despite what could be in its way

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When we started the hike, our trail cut through a massive stretch of rhododendron bushes, which if you are interested in going on this hike, I would highly suggest coming in the spring when the rhododendron are blooming; I can only imagine how gorgeous and breathtaking that would be.
IMG_0020.jpgIMG_0002.JPGOnce we got through the rhododendron area, the trail turned rocky . . .
img_0093img_0096and then broke left and right.  Left was to visit a waterfall and right was to continue the trail towards the vista.
IMG_0101.JPGKnowing we wanted to take in every moment, every “trail gift,” we chose the left which was supposedly almost six miles extra.  This lead us to these mini-falls over an amazing ridged rock formation.
IMG_0078.JPGPast that, our directions told us to cross a stream . . .
img_0084and soon another stream . . .img_0085and still another . . .
Me Crossing Stream.jpgso that by the time we crossed Saint Mary’s River (which we had to more than twice), my internal compass became confused, leading me to feel lost and backtracking through the same area despite the fact that the trail was visible and we were in the correct location.  I was learning the tough aspect about fall hikes is that when the leaves cover the trail, it makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to determine where the trail is.  This was made even more confusing when we had to cross the water.  Because the trail splintered off when it got closer, it made it unclear where to pick it back up once we crossed.  Not only this, but the water was getting deeper at each crossing so that we could no longer cross by stepping onto rocks.  This meant we had to take off our socks and shoes.  I’m quickly learning there are two things that will make me grumpy on hikes: One, is needing to pee and being unable to.  The other is being cold and wet so there is no way I was going to risk water in my shoes or wet socks.  However, we needed to cross so this seemed the only option.  To add insult to injury, someone finds it highly amusing when I get grumpy and here is proof of that person mocking me . . .
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Despite having a clearly sympathetic hiking partner, I loved this hike because it offered a bit of everything — gorgeous plants, water you had to cross, jagged mountain rocks, massive boulders . . .
IMG_0166.JPGimg_0089img_0090Apparently other people like this hike too as it is known to be one of the most popular trails in the northern Blue Ridge Mountains.  While it was not a built-up or developed trail, it was one that had evidence of those past hikers.  As we walked, we found items long forgotten and strewn on the forest floor: trekking poles, a scarf . . .IMG_0092.jpgeven a vest . . . which um, happened to be size small and uh, one I kinda sorta picked up . . . you know, to reduce littering the earth.  In my defense though, every hiker we passed, I asked if an item was dropped, but they all looked at me as if I was crazy.  So, new slash not new vest — score.  Meanwhile, Andy joked that since I had earlier talked nonstop about wanting to purchase a vest identical to the one we found, the forest seemed in a giving mood so we should ask it for other gifts.  He promptly announced — loudly enough so that the birds flew away from their perching tree spots — that he desired Ray-Ban glasses.  The forest promptly thought him absurd and that was the end of its giving.  For us both.  I was apparently punished by default of being near him.

Still, we did find other gifts: Relics from old iron ore mines.
IMG_0123.JPGOnward we continued . . .
IMG_0027.JPGuntil we approached two swimming holes.img_0129
The second one was amazing, too.  It was the color of the lightest jade and seeing this swimming hole alone made the hike worth it.  Again, I would recommend coming when the weather warms because a dip in this would be heavenly.

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Look more closely at the water: You can see all the way to the bottom.  It was gorgeous.

Past the swimming holes is where the trail got frustrating, and frustrating for two different reasons.  First, I had this danged gnat stalking me and attacking my eye.  It died a painful death in none other than my eye, which lead me to clawing at my eyeball, shrieking of how there was a gnat carcass in it, and asking Andy if he could see it to assist me in getting it out.  Just as a sweet boyfriend would, he rushed to my rescue, ready to analyze my eye . . . until I turned around and he saw how blood red and oozy it was which caused him to instantly let out a loud, fierce, guttural, “AHHHHH” before jerking his head away, retching at the sight of me, and telling me to stop looking at him.  Helpful, mainly because I couldn’t see where I was looking due to the gnat body.

The second frustration came from following the trail.  Further and further into the unknown, we were pushed forward by the goal of seeing this waterfall.  But mile after mile brought us no such gift, which lead us to stopping passing hikers.  “How far to the waterfall?” we asked.  “Oh, it’s about fifteen minutes from here, pretty quick hike,” a couple told us.  “Fifteen minutes?  That’s not bad,” we smiled to each other.  Thirty minutes later, still no waterfall.  “How far to the waterfall?” we asked another hiker, slightly more dejected.  “Ah, about fifteen minutes from here,” he responded and this conversation continued the same way with about two more people.

Finally — a whopping two hours later — our trail got more dangerous, meaning more rocky and steep with little room for error because we were walking at the edge above rocky water.  And it was during this time we experienced a creepy part: Suddenly, an old man appeared in front of us.  Suddenly as in exactly how it sounds: When we looked ahead on the trail, it was clear for several yards — no man, no human, nothing.  But suddenly, he was in front of us, a few feet away.  Frail and grey-haired, he had on a nice button-up shirt, khaki dress pants, and those cute but equally pitiful old-people-shoes that have Velcro instead of laces.  Not only this guys, but he was hunched over a cane — a cane!  And he was walking towards us.  “The waterfall is just ahead.  It’s very pretty too,” he whispered, without being triggered by a question and not pausing to hear our remarks.  Andy and I stopped and, gaping, looked at each other to confirm what had just happened.  Then, when we turned around to thank him, he was gone.  I joke not.  *Poof* gone. How did the man know we were going to ask about the waterfall?  Where had he come from?  How could he have hiked this trail (steep, rocky portions over the river) with a cane and without breaking a sweat?  And how had he just floated by — literally floated — by within seconds so that we didn’t hear a single pebble move under his feet?

I admit, the old man was creepy but instead of focusing on how he was a forest-spirit, we took it as a challenge and were reinvigorated — If he could do it, we sure as hell could make it to the waterfall!  Off we went on our non-blaze trail so that moments later, we were scrambling and scaling rocks.  It became so much so that at one point, I had to take my pack off to get around a narrow rock bend.  “Are we sure it’s this way?” I asked Andy.  “Who said anything about being sure?” Andy questioned back while I clung onto a rock for dear life.  “How the hell did the old man get through here?!” I mumbled then yelled back, “And what do the directions say?!” He quickly pulled them out and looked, “You’ll have a ‘blockage back to the trail.’  Wait, what does that even mean?!”  Frustrations from hugging the rock soon got to me as I screamed back, “I don’t know!!!  YOU ARE THE ONE WITH THE DIRECTIONS!!!”  But it was too late to turn back!  I keep baby-stepping forward . . . and forward still . . . out-of-sight of Andy until suddenly, the rock ended at a tiny cliff about fifteen feet above the river.  I hollered to Andy what I saw.  “Good!” a distance voice smoothed, “That’s where we need to go!  We need to climb down and re-ford the river!”  I groaned.  At this point, if I heard “re-ford and river” one more time, I was going to take my shoe off and chuck it at someone.

Moments later, we were safely below the cliff, standing in front of the water, and looking at it.  “I don’t want to go in the water again,” I told Andy.  “I’m cold just thinking about it.” “There has to be another way . . . the water, too deep for shoes . . . but another way . . . ” he responded, walking around me, his engineer-mind at work.  After a few minutes, he returned, dejected.  “We need to get up there [pointing] and climb up the steep embankment.  And [pause] I think the only way to go is into the river.”

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This is the embankment we needed to climb up from the river.

This is around when we both just stood next to one another and stared at it.  It rushed by, its little rapids unphased.  “FINE!” I screamed, throwing my hands into the air, as if he and the river had provoked me.  “I’LL TEST IT AND GET IN THE DAMNED RIVER!!!” Off my shoes went, off my socks went, and off I went into the water.  Fueled by rage to have come this far — when the waterfall was almost within sight — I stomped several large steps into the river . . . only to determine, too late, that it was more frigid than any before and the rocks were super slippery and sharp.  By this time though, I was stuck in the middle of the danged thing, rapidly losing feeling in my feet which was good because I was convinced the rocks were slicing open my feet and if I looked down, I’d see blood gushing out.  “Andy, it’s too much!” I shouted to him, trying oh so hard to make it back to him but failing.  I was slipping with each step  and falling in directions that didn’t benefit anyone.  “I cannot make it!” I screamed, hysterical almost.  “Save yourself!  Go on with out me!”  and truth be told, I wasn’t joking.  At least not about the first part.  What I wanted him to do though was haul ass into the freezing water to rescue me and carry me to shore.  Instead he just looked at me . . . and took my picture.  Again.
me-in-water“ANDY!!!  I’m SERIOUS!!!”  The situations was becoming dire.  “IIIII CANNOOOOOT FEEEEEL MYYYYY FEEEEET!!!”  “Get out of the water, L,” Andy demanded.  “Get out of the water right N-O-W!  This is WAY too dangerous.”  But I was dipping in and out of consciousness while my feet were being amputated under me.  “Annndyyy . . . ” I was whispering, barely loud enough to hear over the tiny rapids, “I can — cannot dooo ittt . . . my feet . . . I cannot feeeeel my . . . I cannot feel them . . . ”  If I remember correctly (again, I was losing consciousness) he cussed before throwing his pack off of his back and getting ready to save me — all the while still demanding me to “COME THIS WAY N-O-W!!!”  That’s when I had a surge of final-efforts-to-live energy and bounded towards him before collapsing on the rocks.  Maybe my subconscious just wanted to see if he would save me.  “I CANNOT FEEL MY FEET!!!” I cry-screamed to him, to other hikers, to the world.  “I CANNOT FEEEEEEEL MY FEEEEEEETTTTT!!!”  My cry-scream soon turned to cry-complaining which brought hikers towards us, fortunately not because they heard me.  They were coming from the other side of the river, the side with the waterfall, and headed towards us to finish their trail.  “Let’s watch them,” Andy whispered, apparently still thinking I was going to hop joyfully into the water again to see the stupid waterfall.  I put on my socks and massaged my toes instead of informing him how little I cared.
My Feet (two pics).jpgMeanwhile, hiker after hiker appeared, lead by this super-hiker who was telling the about thirteen people after him how to meticulously step to get across the river.  “Step heeere,” he cooed to a woman that was so unbalanced and uncoordinated I thought for sure she would be biting the rocks soon.  “Oh — okay,” she said and grabbed his hand as he gave her this sweet, reassuring smile and helped her magically across the rocks.  I leered at Andy; he just smiled and squeezed my shoulder, unaware that my look was blaming him.  In the end, we watched (well, I leer-watched) all thirteen hikers cross the stupid river, untouched by a single drop of water.  Then, they disappeared behind us.  “What are your thoughts?” he asked me.  I was still leering.  “Right.  I think the same thing.  The water will be higher once we return and it’s going to be getting dark soon.  I say we head back to find a place to camp.  Thoughts?”  Meanwhile, I had already put back on my shoes and tied the laces, picked up my pack, and was walking towards the trail, away from the stupid river.

So.  That’s essentially how Day One ended.  Me, complaining the entire way to our camp site about how the waterfall was dumb while also fussing that I must not be beaten by the river and will see the falls in the future.  Poor Andy was forced to listen for awhile because it was quite a trek to find a small bit of flat ground.  Finally though, we pitched our tent under burning yellow leaves that glowed in the late afternoon sun.
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With the sun setting, Andy gathered as many limbs as he could for a fire and as the sticks piled up, I started the blaze which was soon burning strong.  I’m just gonna throw it out there, I started this fire in a matter of minutes — no fire starter, just a lighter and everything was soaking wet, too.  I’m kinda awesome.  Or a pyro.  Or a kinda awesome pyro.
IMG_0144.jpgWith the fire going strong, Andy make us a cup of tea before we ate dinner.  By this time, the temperature was starting to drop too and the warm fire made me feel cozy and tired.  I was nodding in and out of sleep before finally deciding I needed to go into the tent to lie down . . . and when I turned around, a rush of adrenaline overcame me.  “ANDY!!!”  I shouted even though he was right next to me.  “ANNNNDDDDY!!!”  I think he thought a bear had crept up to our tent but it was much worse.  An ember had somehow jumped out of our fire pit, over my shoulder, and was burning a leaf on a sapling.  And, to make matters more scary, there were red hot embers under the sapling, glowing bright and ready to eat all of nature. “HOLYSHITHOLYSHITHOLYSHIT!” I screamed, absolutely overcome with fear as I imaged all of George Washington National Forest engulfed in flames due to our stupidity.  “WHAT DO WE DO?!?!”  We rushed to the little sapling and kicked at the base until the fire-leave fell then we stomped on it and all surrounding embers so severely I think I bruised the bottoms of my feet.  “Holy shit,” I gasped to Andy, “we almost burnt down the entire forest!”  “Calm down,” he told me, also out of breath.  “It was just an few embers.  We just need to be more careful.”  Careful how though?! I wanted to question.  It wasn’t as if I had tried to make the largest fire.  It wasn’t as if we chose to build one outside of a pre-existing fire pit.  It wasn’t as it we were sitting directly in front of the blaze the whole time.  That experience wiped all my energy away and I felt as faint as those ferns we saw when we entered the forest.  “Right, I’ll put out the fire,” Andy told me as I turned and crawled into our tent.

Day Two.
On our past hikes, we took it slow in the morning, lying in, building up a morning fire and nestling next to each other in front of it.  However this time, we wanted to get an earlier start.  After the river defeated us, we ended Day One with about eight miles (when we had estimated at least ten).  This meant we had a lot of ground to cover in the new day inorder to make it back to our vehicle at a decent hour.  With that in mind, we started by refilling our bladders . . .
IMG_0180.jpgand packed up our supplies.  Before we left though, we did carve our mark on a toppled tree . . .
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Afterwards, we hoped on the trail, ready to finish the circuit.  We started off pretty joyfully; we both got plenty of rest, felt good, and the weather was cool and perfect.  We also saw more remains of the old iron ore mines, which excited me because I love having out-of-the-ordinary trail traits, aspects that set each trail apart and make it unique.
img_0207img_0213Not only this, but we found animal tacks in the trail.

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This one was as big as our hand with our fingers spread out fully.
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This one was slightly smaller than our hand.

These were the first tracks we had found hiking and we spend a bit examining them.  First, there were two different ones, which seemed odd because the tracks belonged to one animal based on the direction and distance between steps.  Second, they didn’t have hoof indentations like something a deer would leave and they appeared too large for a “soft-footed” animal like a fox or large cat.  That lead us to believe the tracks could only be from a bear and since they seemed fresh (they weren’t covered by leaves or other prints) that bear could still be close.  In the end, we did not see a bear, which quite frankly was fine with both of us after our almost bear mauling at Three Falls.  So wherever hefty fellow left those marks, his tracks are the only enjoyably sedate way to semi-view him.

Side note: When we returned, I asked a hiking expert friend about the track pictures and he confirmed with 100% certainty they were bear tracks.  He sent me this image, which shows that bears apparently leave two different tracks based on their front feet and back feet, which explains why we had two different ones as well.

 

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Okay, continuing our hike: By this time, we supposedly had about nine miles left, which was a haul but do-able.  For the most part, the ground was flat . . . until we reached this sucker, which was described as a “small mound.”
IMG_0230.jpgSmall mound?  Hardly.  Let me tell you, there was nothing “small” or “mound” about this.  He may appear be an innocent little hill here, but he was terribly steep.  Like really steep.  Sure, we tackled him but our calves were burning after.  The good news is once we were on top of it, we got sneaking peaks of other mountains and of course, more amazing fall foliage.
IMG_0232.JPGThe trail then continued through another rhododendron area, this one significantly overgrown so much so that we could hardly see the trail.  Without a blaze color to guide us, we developed a plan of pushing slash battling the rhododendron to view the one-foot-at-a-time trail below.

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While hard to see, the path is in the middle of this shot and is best described as “the dark patches between the leaves.”

I used this as an occasion to push Andy for a machete.  I’ve been coveting one and even though I know it isn’t a hiking essential, I really really, really really want one.  As he pushed past the bushes, I invisible-machete-axed my way through, explaining that it would take us at least half the time if he supported my efforts to have a machete come to fruwishen. He though kept walking, occasionally deeply inhaling breath when my invisible machete moves came too close to his face.  “THIS is why you cannot ever have a machete,” he reminded me.  Shoulders slouched, I followed at his heels, invisible-machete being drug in the dirt behind me.

And let me add here, that despite his attempt at seeming uninterested, I’m pretty certain that he would have asked me to get my machete out again if I truly did have it because our directions made it seem we would battle the rhododendrons for a short time.  Instead, we fought those plants and the disappearing trail for several miles . . . several looong miles . . . until they suddenly cleared and ahead lay the steepest portion of our journey thus far — an absolute uphill climb on a very rocky trail.  It was barren on this part of the hike too.  The plants more resembled ones you’d find in a desert — thirsty, hot, and shriveling under the hot sun.  And that sun by the way was definitely hot without the canopy overhead.  Around this time, we were sweating and gasping for air and cussing and stopping and then passing one another in small bursts of energy.  It was a save yourself, do-or-die situation and well, there was no time even for pictures.  We were stuck, in the middle of a forest, on a mountain, after being (what felt like) being rapidly gobbled up by rhododendron, barely alive to escape.  The sad part was that our directions told we were only supposed to have a two mile uphill climb . . . when in fact, it turned out to be many more miles according to our GPS tracker until finally — finally — we reached a clearing and found our first sign of human existence in the form of a well, sign.

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This is me saying, “I cannot believe we survived the extended rhododendron trail portion.”

Past this sign, we strayed from the main trail onto a tinier one in search of the (enter angels singing) Green Pond.  It didn’t dawn on me that anything called Green or Emerald Pond was a bad omen, given our first hike with Usua and all the misfortune that held.  All we could think at the time was how we desired to see the glorious green pond, how the thought of that pond was what got us us through the rhododendrons, got us up over the steep rocky trail, how that green pond was the one thing pushing us on.  However, after all the battle, after all the fight, this is what we got:
IMG_0248.JPGDon’t see the pond?  Neither did we.  Apparently, it was covered by whatever plant took over the whole area.  The famous Green Pond was more a Dying Grass Pond which made us grumble loudly until we found our main trail again.

With heavy heads and hearts, we followed the trail to a Forestry Service Road . . . that lasted forever . . . and ever . . . and ever.  This bumpy, rocky road was supposed to total about three miles, but here again our directions got it wrong and it was much much more.  In fact, it became so much that I’m not gonna lie — I just wanted to give up and wave a white flag, call to someone that would hopefully pass by on the road.  And soon, I got my wish.  This guy in this four-wheeler-type of vehicle-thing zoomed near us . . . and then whizzed right by without so much as a pause to ask  if we were okay.  And we were not okay!  We cleary resembled more roadkill than hikers.  Once he passed, I full felt full-on defeat.  I was agitated and angry, and I began to complain about everything — the rocky ground, tripping after stumping my toe repeatedly, how hot I was, how there was no shade, the list went on and on.  I normally don’t complain on hikes either, but by this time I was ready to go home and it seemed each turn had uncalculated multi-miles to complete which put me in a foul mood.  I like being prepped, to be aware of what is coming, not have an additional several miles jump out at us.

Onward and onward we continued, more exhausted, more miserable, more ready to go home when we suddenly found the sole vista we came to see.  A little trail broke to the left of the main one and it was here, at the end of this little path that we saw what we had been waiting for, what made our entire hellious hike worth it.
leaves-filter3leaves-filter4The leaves were gorgeous, and I truly had not seen more astounding fall foliage until this day.  The view was of Kennedy Creek, which winds through the middle of these two mountains: Kennedy Ridge (left) and Kelly Mountain (right).
leaves-filter7leaves-filter2img_0251We stayed for what felt like hours on the rocks, looking out over the valley, letting the breeze cool and calm us.
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In all, we had supposedly about two more miles to the car . . . which (no surprise) turned into more miles again.  I don’t know what happened to our directions, but huge sections were left out which meant massive recalculations of mileage.  With fear it would get dark soon and with concerns we wouldn’t get back at a decent hour, I admit it — We took a short-cut and walked about half a mile along the Blue Ridge Parkway which was nice because we got this: a bench, an all-glorious bench, and I cannot remember a time that sitting down felt so needed and incredible.  Andy though was trying to silence my excitement — I was loudly moaning and awing and owing over how wonderful it felt to sit on this bench as passing people (who drove up to look at drive-up views) walked by, eyes bulging out of their heads as if I was insane.  I was at my wits end and wanted to attack them, which is probably why Andy kept telling me to “Shhh and calm down!”
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In total though, our trip was anything but calm.  It was supposed to be about twenty-six miles, but it turned out to be much much more.  And to give you an example of how much we hauled ass on Day Two, we walked over a whooping eighteen miles.  In one day.  Which is insane, mainly for the two people that estimate about five to ten miles at most a day.  To say we felt like we were barely holding onto life, to say that we felt drained in all mental and physical states, to say that we felt like f’ing champions by the end — all of that, an understatement.  Except for the champions bit.  We were, we are champions.
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Hike Seven: Virginia’s Three Falls

The Three Falls hike.  Oh mercy sakes, where to start?  You won’t believe me even if I promise to tell the truth, no exaggerations.  Honestly, I don’t need to exaggerate either because I couldn’t create or craft a story better than this one.  So here goes: This hike was a doozy, a real and true doozy, and to prove that, here is a few-words preview:

  • An almost bear mauling
  • A haunted campsite
  • Trouble with the law
  • And . . . let’s just say . . . icing on the cake

Yep, all true unfortunately.  And with that type of preview, there’s no need to dilly-dally so let’s take it from the top before adrenaline was pumping, breath was barely able to be caught, and heartbeats raced so fast we were on the verge of heart attacks.  Let’s start with the relaxing bit: The Three Falls hike, meaning three waterfalls which are Rose River Falls, Dark Hollow Falls, and Lewis Spring Falls.  This hike was meant to be a teeny bit more challenging with the increased elevation and difficulty level.

  • A little over a nine mile circuit
  • There’s a 2,205 foot elevation
  • Rated a Level Four of Five difficulty

Day One brought us gorgeous weather — no humidity, around seventy-degrees temperature with a slight breeze.
montage-1montage-2This, by the way, is how we amuse ourselves before our hike.

Off we go!  Autumn greeted us, waving from the woods as we followed her twisted trail of freshly fallen pine needles, acorns, and yellow, red, orange leaves.Tree roots.jpgIMG_0017.JPGAcorns.jpgNature seemed a breathing being, laughing among us as we strolled through; Andy and I, flirting with each other while the trees flirted too, blushing in a foreign conversation.
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After a few miles, our trail brought us to Rose River Falls, which is has two waterfalls.  One is twenty-five feet tall; the other, thirty-feet.

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Andy looking out at the taller thirty-foot one.

This is also where someone (not calling names or pointing fingers) wanted to jump into the water.  Granted, there was this jockish-looking fellow in the water with his dog, having a grand ‘ole time.  He was carrying on conversations with the passing hikers, throwing his pup a stick, smiling and enjoying life so it was easy to think, “This water is pleasant!  Wonderful!  I shouldn’t just watch!  I should go in!”  Therefore, at someone‘s recommendation, I changed into my bikini and Andy put on his swimming shorts.  Then, we leapt in . . . only to have our throats almost close because the water was a few degrees above freezing.
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We look happy, but we were more happy to have survived the arctic water.

Needless to say, our polar plunge was over before it felt like we started.

Once we towel dried, with wet and freezing hair, we set off for our next fall: Dark Hollow.img_0027On the way there, we saw ruins from an old copper mine.
IMG_0045.JPGimg_0044After that, we crossed over a steel footbridge . . .
img_0047img_0055img_0054img_0052and kept following the trail which was following the water . . .
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Dark Hollow Falls was gorgeous, probably the most beautiful one of the three (though we couldn’t see Lewis Spring Falls because of fog)

Day One ends with us finding the most incredible place to pitch our tent.  It was set up on a small hill overlooking a stream that was a few yards away.  We felt hidden among the trees as day hikers strolled by unaware of our presence.  We were tucked away, a hidden secret, covered under a canopy of bright yellow leaves that you could only see directly below it.
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We unpacked, pulled out our food for dinner, then climbed into the tent to get warm inside our sleeping bags.  My hair was still wet so, combined with the dropping temperatures, I was shivering despite putting on as many layers as I had packed and even some of Andy’s.  That’s how Day One ended — Us, snuggled up inside of the tent.

Or that’s how we thought Day One would end.

As we were listening to the small snap of limbs and the plopping of acorns onto the dirt, there was another sound — sudden, urgent, strong.  It was as if horses were running, charging straight at us.  Andy and I looked at each other.  “Wot is that?” is he asked, pupils massive.  “Get. out. of. the. tent.  Getoutofthetent right. now,” I said and jumped from my side door the same time he sprang from his.  That’s when we saw it: Directly in front of us, a baby black bear running full speed our way.  “Awww!  It’s a cuuub!  Look — ” we both smiled, then stopped mid-sentence . . . stopped as we saw the mother bear charging towards us too, following her cub.  “Oh shit,” we said at the same time again.  “What do we do?” I asked.  The mother bear was huge, at least much larger than I expected to see in person hiking.  She was easily the size of a four-person table, and she was dead set on keeping her cub by her side.  The only problem was that her cub appeared eager to explore . . . and see us.  “What do we dooo!” I asked, still panicking as the mother and cub continued to barrel towards us.  Then I grabbed my pack, which was empty but I wasn’t doing anything without it.  In my world in the woods, my pack meant my life.  I slung it over my shoulders.  The bears were now about three yards away, space between us and them was closing.  “Talk — Just talk to let them to let them know we are here.  Just talk — calm.  Be calm, but let them know we are here,” Andy said, speaking more loudly with effort in his voice to sound calm.  “Right,” I followed his lead.  “Aren’t we just supposed to make noise?”  We were both talking far too loudly than we should have been next to each other.  “Yes,” he answered.  “Just let them know we are here,” but they didn’t stop and the gap between bears and people was closing.  “We need to do something else!” I told him and picked up a thick two-foot rock then began hitting it against another rock.  “Right,” he said between my rock slams.  “Keep talking, keep making the noise.  They’ve stopped.”  And they had . . . but they didn’t leave.  There was a small hill ahead which allowed them to hide behind it, seeming to disappear until the cub would become curious again, slowly sneak out the side, causing the mother to pop up and look for her baby.  I kept banging the rock . . . until the rock broke.  Yep, literally broke in half.  A rock the size of my head. That tells you how hard I was slamming the two together.  It was silent.  The bears stared at us; we stared at the bears.  “They aren’t leaving,” I said to Andy, confused.  Black bears were supposed to be scared of people.  “I know,” he told me, sounding confused too so we all just stood there, people-with-bears and bears-with-people in this confused invisible bubble . . . until we heard another sound: hikers on the path who seemed just as interested in us as the cub was.  I turned to look.  A guy and girl quickened their pace and were pointing at us.  They scaled some fallen trees over the water, climbed the hill embankment, and crept — arm-crawl type — in our direction whispering.  “Ohhhhh!!!  It ISSSS!!!  It’s a BEARRRR!!!  You guys see the bearrrr!!!”  “No shit, stupid,” I wanted to say, thoroughly pissed they squeezed themselves onto our tiny camp site which was exclusive until now.  Andy kept talking, loud and calm.  “Yes.  She just arrived.  She was following a cub — that little guy there,” we heard twigs snapping underfoot behind the mother who was popping her head out from behind the hill and back behind it.  “She may have another cub.  We aren’t sure.  We keep hearing sounds from another animal stepping on something but both the cub and mother aren’t moving.”  “WOOOOOWWWW!!!  A MOTHER WITH HER CUUUBS!!!”  The guy and girl moved closer to the bears.  “Shhh!!!  Don’t talk to them!  You’ll scare them away!!!” Their footsteps, still closer to the bears.  “That’s the idea,” I remarked, showing how pissed I was becoming.  They needed to leave.  The bears needed to leave.  We had been here first and I didn’t want to go.  “SHHHH!!!” the strangers said in unison.  I looked at Andy, perturbed but it was true that the bears didn’t threaten us anymore with the other two people.  For the most part, the cub was roaming calmly behind his mother who was hiding behind the hill and both would peek out every few seconds to see if we were still there.  I grabbed my camera, first aid kit, and swapped out my flip flops for my hiking shoes.  The people, the bears were bound to leave soon but something told me I needed to prepare myself.  Dusk was upon us.

But they didn’t leave.  They all stayed — bears and strangers — about half an hour more.  “What do we do?!” I asked Andy.  I went from scared to panicked.  Darkness was setting in fast, and I didn’t know when people should consider abandoning their site.  Should we leave our belongings?  Do we take essentials?  What even were essentials?  When you spend days in the woods, essentials are everything in your bag.  That made me think how we needed our bags and that made me think we needed to pack, pack right now which is exactly what I told Andy.  “Right,” he looked at me.  We were on the same page.  His eyes mirrored mine — scared, concerned, worried, frightened, panicked.  They were mainly panicked.  “Right,” he repeated, “What do we pack?”  “Okay then!” the strangers called to us, reminding me that they were still bear viewing.  “Good luck with the bears!  We have to go!  It’s getting dark!  Goodnight!” and off they trotted.  I wanted to bear-charge them, pummel them to the ground.  Did they really just say ‘Good luck’?! ‘We have to go’?! ‘It’s getting dark’ before biding us a goodnight?!  Andy interrupted my visions of me tackling the girl and guy — a single giant leap, one arm for each, my full body in the air, fall broken by their bodies which I shoved to the ground in a furious gurgle-shouting rage — “L!  W-h-a-t do we pack?!”  “Pack?!  Right.  We need basics — We need to leave this site.  We need our packs and our sleeping bags at the minimum.  We can leave the rest.”  Andy turned from me to head to the tent then hesitated, waiting for me to come.  “I don’t want to help — I feel bad but it is not wise for two people to turn their backs on the bears.  Someone has to watch to see if they come closer.  If we are both packing, we won’t be able to hear them approach.”  “Right.  I agree,” and off he went towards the tent alone, a yard or so from me, only to return a couple minutes later with his head torch.  “Here,” he threw it at me and walked back to the tent, flashlight in his mouth because it past dusk.  It was getting dark.

Around this time, I could still make out the mother bear’s position because she was emerging from behind the hill.  The last full image I had of her before it went completely dark was her staring directly at me — gaze uninterrupted, trained on me.  She, a couple yards away now with nothing but low-lying plants blocking a path in front of her to us.  I put on the head torch and turned it on.  Her eyes glowed but she didn’t move.  “Andy.  This is going to sound crazy, but we need all of our stuff.  We need it and she is giving us a chance to pack up.  Pack it all.”  “FUCK!” he yells outside the tent.  “I dropped my torch!  I cannot see anything!  And you say wot?!  To PACK?!   I can’t pack all of this alone!”  “You need to,” I thought, “because I know you can” but what I said was, “First.  Do you want my head torch to find your flashlight?  Second.  Yes, pack.  Pack up everything.  Pack as if someone said, ‘If you can pack everything in five minutes, I will give you a million dollars.’  Pack as if you have never packed before.”  I waited.  I couldn’t hear him; I couldn’t hear the bear but I could at least see the bear’s eyes (I wasn’t removing my gaze from her).  “Right.  Pack,” and I heard our belongings shuffling then a few minutes later, “I’VE GOT THE TORCH!”  “Thank God!”

Time seemed to speed up with the noise of Andy packing, me standing still, watching the bear that was watching me.  “How’s the packing looking?” I asked after a couple minutes.  “I’ve got our sleeping bags and clothes done.  Now I need the pads and I’m taking down the tent.”  “You’re WONDERFUL!” I yell, elated because I knew he could do it.  “What’s the bear doing?” he hollers back.  “She’s still standing, same spot, and still looking right at me.  She’ll occasionally turn her head because her eyes go in your direction when you talk but then she turns back to me and stares again.  All I can see is her eyes.  I can’t see the cub anymore . . . I hear it every now and then, but I cannot see it.  I’m scared, Andy.  She’s literally a few feet from me.  She has better sight than I do in the dark.  If she wants me — wants us — we are done.”  “You’re doing GREAT!” he yells back, “just watch her.  You said she is giving us time to pack.  I’m almost done!” and I hear him rummage through everything again.  “Maybe my camera flash will light up the area or scare her off,” I think and start flashing the light randomly in the dark, no direction, no aim, hoping to get a better look at our surroundings.  It was only later when I was looking over my pictures that I saw this — another set of eyes in a completely different direction, a completely different direction from the one with the watching bear, a completely different direction from where the cub stood hidden behind its mom.

IMG_0082.JPG
On the left side of the picture, you can see the eyes peering through the darkness at us.

Over the next ten minutes, our conversation was identical to the one above.  Over and over and over again.  Me encouraging him.  Him encouraging me.  And the bear doing the complete opposite of anything encouraging.  Until . . . finally . . . Andy was by my side with two sleeping pads.  “I got it all but these,” he announced and raised his arms releasing them from his sides where he had them squeezed.  His pack was filled to the brim and his arms carrying many of our belongings too.  “I got the pads,” I said and began curling each then tucking them under my arms.  “Got everything?” I asked.  “Got everything,” he said.  “Let’s get outta here” and off we went, slowly and backwards at first, fumbling down the embankment, over the stream, then onto the trail.

Two hours.  That’s how long it took from us first seeing the bear . . to trying to scare it off . . . to the idiots coming with dreams of bear petting . . . to packing up and leaving.  Two hours that mother bear stared at us with her overeager cub.  And now, we were practically running.  But running to where?  It was pitch black and our car was still another t-h-r-e-e miles away.  We had a long way to go ’til safety embraced us, and that made me more suspicious.  I felt bears lurking around every tree, ready to stalk or attack us.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Seeing one bear makes you feel they are everywhere.  I scanned forward, behind, to our sides.  “I am convinced they are all around us!” I said through deep inhales, trying to catch my breath due to the fast pace we were walk-running.  Andy though wasn’t focusing on the unseen dangers; he was more concerned about the dangers that could have been seen.  “L!  Do you mind!  My flashlight is dying and I need your head torch to see where I’m walking — I’m going to kill myself on one of these rocks and tree roots if you keep that up!”  It was true, of course — I was the one scanning in every direction except the path while his flashlight beam was becoming more faint, dying.  Not only that, but let’s analyze this for a second: I was the one with the head torch . . . despite the fact that my boyfriend should have had it all along as he needed his hands free to pack our belongings.  However, I had stood, watching the bears, head torch on and my arms free at my sides . . . while he held the flashlight — in his mouth — and packed furiously.  Let me also tell you how firmly he was holding this flashlight: He realized later he had actually chipped his tooth from holding it so tightly!  Clearly, when one is being stalked by bears, one does not think clearly.  Scratch that: When two are being stalked by bears, two do not think clearly.

Back to story: We were running from Bear-Site, covering a mile more quickly than we had ever covered one.  I mean, fifteen minutes for a mile.  That’s crazy.  I remind you it normally takes us (on a good day) half an hour for one.  True, I had reason for my fast pace — My pack was empty!  Andy, on the other hand . . . bless him, as the British say.  To give you an idea of all he had stuffed solely into his pack, he had e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g but my (empty) pack, sleeping pads, head torch, first aid kit, and my camera.  This means he alone was carrying the tent, both sleeping bags, two pillows, all food, cooking materials (“stove,” pots, plates, cups, silverware), both of our clothing, and many more random things like the blanket and two mini towels.  Even so, he was keeping up with me, girlfriend-with-the-empty-pack.  I saw firsthand when it comes to fearing mauling by a bear, there is no limit to what a person can do.

“We need help,” I told him as we kept walking, and it was here we plotted our next plan: Should we call the emergency park number?  No, it said only if you have a health crisis.  Should we try to hike to the car?  No way, three miles in the dark was too dangerous; we mirrored drunken fools barely able to go a few feet due to tripping over every limb and rock.  Should we find another campsite?  Definitely not here because after seeing that bear, even a mile away was too close.  Verdict: Get to our next hiking phase which was the Dark Hollow parking lot.  From there, we decided to camp in the parking lot.  Literally, as in pitch our tent next to the road where the ground is flat and mowed because yep, it was a parking lot.  “We need help,” I told him.  “Rangers are supposed to patrol the area all night.  If they see us, they will know something is not right and they will help.  If they don’t come, we will wake when the sun comes up, pack, and go.”  It was our only option.

Finally the Dark Hollow parking lot was in sight, and I cannot stress the amount of relief we felt.  We were laughing from nerves, heavy breathing from our fast walk-run, and happy — so so happy — to be out of the woods.  We celebrated by unpacking . . . a second time.  “Rangers will come,” I promised him.  “They will help us, give us advice.  There is nothing that screams for help more than camping in a parking lot.”

Day One ends with us, drained mentally and physically, catching our breath before eating dinner around 9:00 p.m. (hours after the sun went down so in camping world, very late).  We snuggled into our tent and sleeping bags — which were like heaven to me — and whispered of our crazy adventure.  One thing I learned: When I told Andy to pack everything, do you know the first thing he grabbed?  Our swimming attire which was drying on tree limbs.  Not the sleeping bags.  Not the food.  Not the tent.  Nope.  He grabbed his all important swimming shorts and my bikini.  “I was properly freaking out!  I even went off pist (trail) to get them.  I thought it would be quicker.  Just smash off all the little jobs — bosh bosh bosh (this means check off) — do the big jobs last!”  Thank goodness for those small items.  Life savers they are.

So that’s how Day One ends.

Or at least was supposed to end.

About ten minutes after, we tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags, closed our eyes, and were about to go to sleep when we heard footsteps running full-speed at us.  We opened our eyes and looked at each other.  “Andy?” I whispered, “Do you hear that?”  “Yea, I hear it,” he said as the footstep noise grew — loud, distinct, and quick-moving — then circled around us with the sound of fingers, fingernails rubbing, scratching the side of the tent.  “Andy?” I whispered again, “What is it?”  I was terrified.  “I don’t know,” he told me and we waited.  It stopped.  We opened our tent doors, peeked outside, and there was nothing.  Fog was moving in, thick and full, but other than that, nothing.  Keep in mind we were in the middle of a large parking lot — flat ground, near the road, mowed grass.  It was easy to see what was around us; that’s why we picked this spot.  “It must have been an animal,” he said.  But I knew it wasn’t.  There were only two footsteps, the sound of a hand on our tent, no panting, and no sound of the footsteps leaving.  Plus, if it were an animal, it would have stayed to analyze our area more than race by it.  In we went again, tucked into our sleeping bags, freaked out but about to close our eyes when we hear the sound of footsteps — louder and stronger — rushing toward our tent again.  “Andy?” I was shaking.  It truly sounded like a person — one person — running towards us and then rubbing their hands and fingernails on our tent, up and down the side of it.  “I hear it,” he whispered back and we lay frozen in fear, listening to the sound of the hands running along our tent, more force this time so that the tent was slightly moving.  Then, a minute later, it was gone.  We unzipped our tent doors, looked out again, and once again nothing.  Fog though was setting in, dense but still we could have seen something clear the yards of blank space between us and the woods.  “It was just the wind,” he told me as our camping permit ever so slightly swayed in the breeze, flopping slowly against the other side of the tent (which was on the opposite side from where the hand-touching sound had come from).  “There is no wind,” I thought as I climbed back in but no sooner had we zipped the tent, the sound happened again.

It ended up happening about two times more — each more intense with the fingernail-scratching louder around more sides of our tent.  After the bears, after being drained physically from the hike, after exhausted and wanting sleep, I felt delirious and was laughing and crying.  “I want to sleep with the rainfly doors open,” I announced, “I have to see if there is anything passing our doors.”  No sooner did we open them and lie down again, the footsteps — stronger, stronger — running right up to our tent then racing around it with the sound of multiple hands running up and down, scratching over the sides, over the door . . . over the door and we did not see a thing as it passed.  I was terrified.  We lay, not moving, not blinking, not breathing as our tent literally shook from the force of the hands.  “Someone’s fucking with us,” Andy said before bursting out the side, knife in hand.  “Who is there?!” he yelled, angry.  “Who is fucking with us?!  We know you’re there!” but no one answered and no one came and it was silent.  He crawled back in.  “What did you see?” my whisper so faint I couldn’t even hear myself.  “Nothing, L.  I saw nothing.  No one is there.”  ” . . . I think this site is haunted.”  I knew it was; that was the only answer.  But I also knew he didn’t believe in ghosts and creepy spirits lurking in the dark.  “It’s only the breeze, L.”  His voice sounded dismissive, angry still and I remember thinking, “He believes you are crazy . . . he believes you are crazy . . . he believes you are crazy . . . ” as the sound of the footsteps came back, the hands scratching and pulling at our tent until I passed out — from fear, from fatigue.  I passed out and I didn’t remember anything until . . .

Pause here.  I want to fill in this space.  The next day, Andy and I talked about what happened and here he confessed to staying up hours after I went to sleep.  He, sitting with his knees tucked to his chest, trying to fight sleep as his head kept dropping, pocketknife opened and in his hand.  He told me the moment he fell asleep, he heard the footsteps again, faster and faster, then the hands so forceful that our whole tent was moving.  “L . . . ” he whispered.  “L . . . are you awake?  Do you see this?” but I had passed out.  He said the sound, the movement of the tent — all stopped, gone.  He sat in the same position, waiting, determining the next time he heard footsteps approach, he was going to jump from the tent as quickly as possible and confront whatever was terrorizing us.  “So,” he said, “when it happened again, I moved — fast — outta the tent, there is no way anything could have gotten away.  The night was clear — the fog had moved out and the moon was full and low, bright — and L, there was nothing around.  Nothing.  There’s no way anything could have gotten away.  I was out of that tent the second I heard something.”  Again and again it happened.  Louder noise, more forceful shaking of tent; whatever it was, more determined.  And he stayed up, waiting, confronting, yelling with a knife in hand . . . but two times more, the result were the same — nothing was there.  Nothing was ever there.  “I was so scared,” he told me, “but happy you were sleeping; you would have freaked out.  I guess I fell asleep too because I don’t remember anything more.”

Alright, then Day Two ends.  Finally.  That was enough for one night, right?  Bears.  Haunted campsite.  That’s enough, surely.  But the story keeps. getting. worse.

We had fallen into a deep sleep when suddenly we were awoken by an insanely bright light illuminating our tent. How bright?  The best way I can describe it is by telling you exactly what I thought in that moment: Aliens have come to abduct us and their UFO is hovering above, all lights on, ready to beam us into their saucer.  I wish I was joking.  But that shows exactly one, how bright the light was and two, how out of it I was.  From a dead sleep to a light so intense I couldn’t even see Andy.  I couldn’t even see my own hands.  Then we heard this: “PARK RANGERS!  ANNOUNCE YOURSELF!”  A booming, deep, no-b.s.-type of voice.  We didn’t move.  Well, I know I didn’t move.  I was still trying to piece together where I was, where the light came from, and if Andy had been taken into the UFO yet because — truly — I couldn’t see him next to me.  “PARK RANGERS!” the voice called again, more pissed off.  “ANNOUNCE YOURSELF!”  I hear Andy shuffling, the zipper to the tent door on his side being undone.  (“Thank God, he’s still on Earth!” I think happily, ignoring the current situation.)  “Hiya.”  He sounded confused too.  “GET OUT OF THE TENT!  GET.OUT.OF.THE.TENT  N-O-W!!!  STAND SLOWLY WHERE WE CAN SEE YOU!” the voice from who-knows-where was hollering.

By this time, my mind was slowly coming back to me: We had gone out for a hike, we had been nearly mauled by a mother bear due to an overeager cub, and there were apparently park rangers outside our tent . . . yelling . . . at my sweet boyfriend.  All I could think was “How is it possible to piss someone off this much in the middle of the night?”  I kept still and listened.  Maybe they would leave soon.  (No such luck.)  “I SAID GET.OUT.OF.THE.TENT.NOW!!!” Forceful, that’s the best word to describe how they were talking.  “Right, hang on,” Andy slowly stepped forward and out of the tent.  “DO YOU HAVE ANY EXPLOSIVES, GRENADES, FLAME THROWERS, MACHETES, SWORDS — ” “Flame wot?!  Are you serious?” Andy laughed.  There was one thing I was able to figure out right away: This ranger did not like to be laughed at.  “I SAID, ‘DO YOU HAVE ANY EXPLOSIVES,GRENADES,FLAME-THROWERS,MACHETES,SWORDS!'”  The ranger’s words were melded together, one massive word.  “I have a pocket knife.  Do you want to see it?” He asks and I could hear the hint of amusement in his voice.  I must have moved because the ranger pounced: “IS ANYONE ELSE IN THE TENT?!  I SAID, ‘IS ANYONE ELSE IN THE TENT?!'”  He wasn’t even giving Andy a chance to answer yet seemed to become more angry by his lack-of-time response.  “I am.”  I spoke loud enough so that the ranger could hear me over his own roar.  “WHO IS IN THE TENT?!?!?!”  He was right flipping out.  “I am,” I said calmly, trying not to alarm him more.  “HOW MANY MORE ARE IN THE TENT?!  I SAID, ‘HOW MANY MORE ARE IN THE TENT?!?!?!'”  “Wot?!” I could tell Andy was baffled as well.  Our tent is tiny, folks.  It’s a two-person but anyone camping knows a real two-person tent is actually a one-person.  The ranger yell-repeated the question which didn’t sound a question but a full-impact statement now.  “My girlfriend, my girlfriend is in the tent.  And I was in the tent.”  The ranger didn’t seem to get it.  He kept barking the same question.  “TWO!” Andy’s voice became more forceful.  “It WAS me and my girlfriend.  Now I’m outta the tent and she is inside.”  “COME OUT HERE NOW!” the ranger yells to me, which ticked me off because I was trying to come out of the tent; it was hard though with their lights.  I was fumbling and falling, trying to get out of tent doors that weren’t actually doors but tent walls because I damn well couldn’t see.  “I’m the person in the tent,” I tell him when I get out.  “STAND WHERE WE CAN SEE YOU!” he shouts to me.  I was already standing.  And let’s be honest, with his illuminator-2,000, anywhere I chose to stand, he could have seen me.  And that’s when the interrogation started.

Ranger: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!”
Andy: “We are camping.  We were hiking.”
Ranger: “WHERE ARE YOU GOING!”
Andy: “We are hiking the Three Falls.”
Ranger: “THE THREE WHAT?!”
Andy: “Three Falls.  It’s three . . . waterfalls . . . ”
Ranger: “When did you get here!”
Andy: “Yesterday.”
Ranger: “WHEN!”  Maybe he wants a time, I think.
Andy: “Erm, um, around noon” and I could the ranger’s thoughts it seemed as he realized Andy had an accent.
Ranger: “WHERE ARE YOU FROM!”
Andy: “England.”
Ranger: “WHY ARE YOU HERE!”
Andy laughed slightly: “I’m hiking with my girlfriend.”
Ranger: “WHY ARE YOU HERE!”  Clearly, he did not want that answer.
Andy: “I am working here for six months.”
Ranger: “WHERE DO YOU WORK!”
Andy: “C — Er ah, Commonwealth — ” and that’s when all hell broke loose.  In my mind, I heard him the way the ranger heard him: uncertain, when in reality, he was trying to determine if he should say the acronym of where he works or give the full name.  From this point on, the ranger asked such fast-paced questions that I was impressed Andy could even answer any.  “WHERE ARE YOU FROM EXACTLY?  WHY ARE YOU HERE?  WHEN DID YOU ARRIVE?  WHEN ARE YOU LEAVING?  YOU SAID SIX MONTHS?  WHAT DO YOU DO?  WHY ARE YOU DOING THAT HERE?”  The list of questions was endless.  That made me agitated.  Let me restate: That made me infuriated.  Here was someone, new to the country, being antagonized by an asshole park ranger when we needed help.  I had tried to bite my tongue but the ranger wasn’t playing nice so he could now play with me.  I cut Andy off mid-answer.
Me: “Listen.  What you are asking is not the concern — The concern is that we needed your help.  We’ve been waiting for you.  Where have you been?  I thought rangers patrolled the area?  We were almost mauled by a bear.  That’s why we are here, waiting for help.”  Maybe accusing them wasn’t the wisest choice, but I didn’t care.  Truth be told, I still don’t.  The ranger had no right to act the way he was acting.
Ranger: “WHAT HAPPENED!”
Me: “We were hiking — ”
Ranger: “WHERE!”
Me: “He already told you: Three Falls.”
Ranger: “WHEN!”
Me: “Wellllll . . . what time is it now?  I have no concept of time because I was sleeping and don’t have a watch . . . ”
Ranger: “WHEN!”
Me: “I have no idea what time it is but we started at noon on Saturday.”
Ranger: “HOW LONG ARE YOU HIKING!”
Me: “Until today.  Or tomorrow.  Or whatever time it is.  Sunday.  It is a weekend hike.  But again — You aren’t LISTENING.  We needed your H-E-L-P.”

Finally the ranger asked about the bear.  Andy and I poured out our entire story together — play-by-play.  It dawned on me as we were talking — We were the victims and yet, we were being treated as criminals.  I became angry again.  I blatantly remember thinking, “I had answered your questions.  Now you need to answer mine.” “Waaait,” I said instead, “why are you here?  Explain what we did wrong because we did everything by the book and I’m really confused why you are here yelling at us now.”

Ranger: “YOU’RE NOT IN A DESIGNATED CAMPING AREA!  WHAT YOU ARE DOING IS ILLEGAL.”  This absolutely made me livid.  Illegal camping area?!  He must have been joking.  We were practically  M.A.U.L.E.D  B.Y  A  B.E.A.R.  and I told him this again.  “We were WAITING for YOU!  I thought you patrolled the area?  We wanted to call you but your signs say only call if there is a health emergency!  What should we have done?  What would you have advised us to do?”  Okay, I admit I was growing more condescending but the audacity of him to interrogate us when we had barely survived, when we were asking for help– no way, nooo way.  Not now, not when we had been through what we went through.

Ranger: “DO YOU HAVE A CAMPING PERMIT!”
Me: “Yes.  Of course.  I told you we were going c-a-m-p-i-n-g.”  [I knew he wanted to catch us messing up; he thought we didn’t have one.  That showed he didn’t trust us.]
Ranger: “WHERE IS IT!”
Me: “On the tent.  Where it is supposed to be.”
Ranger: “GIVE IT TO ME!”
Me: “Oh, you want me to remove it from my tent — where it is supposed to be?”
Ranger: “GIVE IT TO ME NOW!”
Me: “Fine.  Let me remooove it . . . from the teeent . . . ” [I handed it to him.]
Ranger: “LET ME SEE YOUR LICENSES!”  [“Damn it,” I thought.  I knew this meant something bad was about to happen.  Police, rangers — They never ask for your license to welcome you to the area.  We did as we were told and then heard the ranger talk to someone else, “What do I do now?” he said in a whisper.  “Call it in,” another voice said.  I realized next he wasn’t alone.  At this point, we still couldn’t see anything but white light so I had no idea he had a second ranger with him.  “Damn it,” I thought.  “This guy is training.  And if this guy is training, they are both going to want to do things by the book or more harshly.”  That made me madder that they had no compassion.  Clearly this wasn’t a situation that happened all the time.  Clearly we were asking for help and had been asking for help from the moment we found the parking lot and chose to camp there.  Regardless, the main ranger left with our licenses.
Me: “Excuse me.”  [I was addressing the light as I had no idea where the other ranger was.]
“Are you going to the car to sit, too?”
Ranger Rick Two: “No.”
Me: “Good.  I have questions to ask you” and here I ran through everything in my head: How often do they patrol the area?  Exactly what were we doing wrong again?  Where should we have been camping?  What would he suggest us do in this same situation?  (which by the way, he suggested the  e-x-a-c-t  thing we did.)  Should we have called the emergency number?  Do they give rides to others if they are in situations like ours?  Is Ranger going to write us a ticket?  How much is that ticket going to cost?  With each answer, I had two more questions waiting.  I will say Ranger Rick Two was nice and calm and patient though and answered everything.  I think he realized then that we were telling the truth and were good people that did exactly what he would have done in that situation.  Jerk Ranger came out of his vehicle though, announcing he was going to ticket us.

Ranger: “I should give you both a ticket, but I’m just going to ticket one of you.”  So, thanks to the super duper kind Ranger, we were given one ticket for $80.00.

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After this, I was full well expecting they would offer us a ride back to our car — being that we made it clear we wanted a ride to our car but couldn’t find the path and were three miles away.  Clearly, we had stressed how much help we needed.  But no, ohhh no.  Our hellish Day One had no end.  Jerk Ranger and Ranger Rick Two ended up telling us to pack up (again) before pointing their heavy-duty lumen-2,000 into the woods to say, “Go about a mile into the woods — there are a lot of camping options — and camp.  Do not go too far because that’s a campsite and you cannot camp there (we had not reserved a spot earlier).  Don’t stay too close to the road either because that’s too close to a built up area and you cannot camp there.  Where we are sending you is still illegal, but at least it gets you out of the parking lot.”  WHAT. IS. THE. DIFFERENCE?!  I wanted to scream as we packed up our belongings  a-g-a-i-n  and headed into the woods.

Day One ends with us almost unable to find a camping site because the entire area had large rocks that we couldn’t move.  We ended up setting up our tent in a tiny area that had the least amount of rocks only to find there was a large rock sticking up through the tent footprint in the middle of our backs.  Oh, and once we got our sleeping bags all set, went to get into them, heads on pillows, we realized our campsite was tilted downhill so the blood was rushing to our heads.  We didn’t care; it didn’t matter.  At that point, we just wanted Day One to end.  For real this time.

And it did.

We woke, welcomed to Day Two, by rain.  A heavy rain on our tent.  And more fog.  But f*** it.  Bears.  A haunted site.  Being woken up.  Ranger interrogation.  A ticket.  It truly didn’t matter anymore so we packed up as soon as we could and hustled out, determined — more than ever — to finish this Godforsaken hike.  And truths being told, I’m glad we did.  The fog made the area appear mystical, enchanted.  It was quiet, for the first time in awhile, and it was gorgeous.  Calm.  That’s exactly what I wanted.
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On the way to our last fall, we even saw two white tailed deer . . .
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then we headed towards the Welcome Center . . .

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The fearless leader

where we documented our bear sighting.
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Finally, we arrived at the falls, which were practically impossible to see through the fog . . .
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But the area was ever so peaceful, and we ended up spending a large amount of time just sitting on edge of the mountain, watching the fog lift.
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I learned a lot on this hike.  I learned bear facts: After talking to the rangers, talking to people at the welcome center, and doing research, we learned that black bears should fear people.  They are shy.  They may be curious but they do not want to stick around.  As a ranger told us, “If they become too interested in people, those are the bears we hunt down and kill.”  Moral of the story: If you see a bear and it stays for more than five minutes, leave.  Do not wait two hours hoping and thinking it will go away.

I also learned there are such things as ghosts.  I knew this, but I’m writing these words so that Andy now maybe believes evidence supporting this.  Research shows Shenandoah National Park apparently was the site for Civil War battles.  Who knows if we had some creepy solider messing with us.  (Okay, I don’t think it was a creepy solider, but I do honestly believe it was not a person or animal and that only leaves the supernatural.)

The last thing I learned is it’s better to keep going.  It’s always better to keep going.  We could have packed up our tent and sleeping bags, sleeping pads, our belongings and treked three miles into the dark woods.  We could have stumbled over rocks and limbs and eventually found our way to the car.  We could have stopped our hike, turned back around, headed home.  But we didn’t.  We kept going.  We kept going in spite of every single thing that went crazily wrong.  We kept going together.  And in the end, that’s how stories are made, that’s how stories are told.  And damn, do we have a great story.
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