I woke to a knock on my wooden shelter’s door. It was my ride to the trail head, where I’d begin my first twenty-five mile solo hike along the Benton MacKaye and Appalachian trail.
A big breakfast of eggs, bacon, over buttered toast and juice, and I’m on my way to the start of one of my toughest and strangest adventures I can recall. The lady drove me up a narrow paved road. We ascended till my ears began to pop, and the air grew chillier. A big bobcat dashed across the road before I could raise my camera to snap a photo. We turned a corner and climbed higher and stopped at a look out point, where a warm orange-red sun rose above the miles of Appalachian Forest. We continued to incline till we were surrounded by clouds and my ears are so plugged up chewing gum couldn’t make them pop. Three deer stood next to the road grazing on the grass, not running as we passed.
We drove up a steep and narrow dirt road that felt like it would send the truck rolling backwards. Closer to the head of the trail, we stopped in front of a cascade where my photo was taken. Back in the truck and around the corner. We arrived where I would begin my hike: through a narrow and uneven path mostly lost in the fog. My adrenalin rushed. I knew there would be scenic views, waterfalls and creek crossings, and possible wildlife, such as Elk, bobcat, deer and bear…but there was always something mysterious about venturing out in nature, the unpredictable that both excited and concerned me.
It wasn’t long before I’m surrounded by tall hunter-green canopy on both sides of me, like a corridor stretching over the top of the path. To me, it had the appearance of a rainforest. Already I’m snapping photos of the trees, the sunlight and shade, darting my gaze around for wildlife. The path ascended for a while, my leg muscles burning with each stride. Descending, I came upon my first of many stream crossings. Carefully I crossed a slippery log bridging over a cold stream. I moved on when the roar of a waterfall caught my attention. So I hurried ahead. At the edge of the path I used a rocky uneven trail down to the waterfall, white frosty water spraying my face. On a wet rock I stood and captured a few photos of the river and waterfall, and then ascended back to the trail. A number more streams required me to cross. Reaching the last opening and scenic view of the Appalachian Mountains, I snapped what today is called a selfie of me in front of the blue mountains that stretched an unseen miles in the distance. That was the last picture I would take as my phone’s battery was dying. I shut it off, thinking just maybe if I so happened to get loss there was, even a slim chance I’d get a signal.
And the map didn’t match the signs along the trail.
Considering I was actually lost, I decided to follow a stream in the direction it was flowing, because that was what people were supposed to do…right? Well, from what I’ve researched I’ve learned yes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I was going to find civilization. I hiked this narrow trail along the stream till there was no trail. As I came to a crossing, I was required to cross almost knee-deep water. Doing so, I smelled and noticed bear scat, and paw prints. I jingled the bells to let bears know I was coming, and belted a song; my singing enough alone to frighten even the lion king away. In the same area there was a long and wide footprint imprinted in the mushy auburn soil, twenty or more inches long. My first assumption was that it was made by a bear. No, because it wasn’t a paw print. No claws either. So, my next assumption was that a person who had a foot the size as large or larger than Shaquille O’Neal removed their shoes to cross the stream barefoot, not to wet their shoes and socks. Makes sense. Though I am not easily convinced to draw conclusions without evidence, I am a bit skeptic…it keeps my mind open to possible truth. Keeping myself in a small circle I’d risk missing any evidence that might come to exist outside of the circle. That said, the skeptic side as well as my active imagination caused me to consider the footprint belonging to a Sasquatch. What? Get out of here! If my camera hadn’t died and I was more prepared for the venture through the mountains, I would have captured the photo of the set of foot prints and let people decide for themselves. Perhaps another time.
Mind racing and heart hammering in my ears I crossed the stream where I found more of the footprints as well as bear paw marks. What the hell was I doing? I thought I was following the stream to civilization. Another river crossing, the chilled water up to my waist, and I’m on another narrow trail. A photo of a young child laid in the dirt. Surely I wasn’t the only one who’d trekked this path. I could not figure out why or how someone could drop a photo of their kid. There were no footprints, tire marks from mountain bikes, no paw tracks from bears or any other wildlife. I was utterly alone, had been since the start. But now I started to feel it more.
I was calm, however. My heart slowed a bit till I heard what I thought was a deep low growl. A bear? Sasquatch? My overactive imagination? I don’t know but I began singing and talking aloud to myself again as I made haste of my hike, blisters burning around ankles and the heels of my feet.
The stream ended near a dirt road. I walked on to it, hoping to find a cabin or a passing truck. It was quiet except for the swishing of leaves and whistling of the wind. I had less than four hours before the sun sank. The dirt road led me to something on the right. Off on the side of the road a meadow set beside a lake with water as black as molasses. In front of it appeared to be four graves with rocks arranged in a peace symbol, or something similar to it. People had been here, and maybe they’re near by, so I moved on. But there was no house, no cabin, no trailer, no campers, no nothing other than I and Mother nature.
I came upon a junction where a power line cut through a narrow mountain valley. I had the option of going north or south. Problem was, I could not see an end in any direction. I could choose one way and ended up walking a length of the Appalachian trail up north. I swallowed cuss words before turning around and hiking the trail I came in, thinking I’d be camping at least one night out in these mountains. Perhaps I should have followed the power line south, but there was no telling how long that would have taken.
I’m hurrying back the way I came when I heard another deep growl. I shouted and shook the bells I had and kept trudging ahead. While on this other path, I assumed would lead me to the road, I made a few arrows with rocks on the ground in the direction I was hiking, in case people came to look for me, or some random hikers or mountain bikers came along. It wasn’t a popular terrain for hikers, but it was for bikers. I never saw a soul out there. Interesting enough, I found another arrow on the ground made with stones similar to mine.
A bit hungry and my feet burning with blood-blisters, I found the road and descended back toward my shelter, two or three motorist roaring pass me, till the lady from camp showed. I was done.
The large footprints, the stones made in to an arrow, the photo of the child laying on the ground in the middle of nowhere was never clear to me. What was clear to me was that when I was lost, I felt real fear: the thought of not making it out of the forest, being mauled, the sickening stir in my stomach and my heart hammering in my ears. I wanted to live more than ever. I realized how easy it was to get lost in the wild, and how vulnerable I was to nature and its elements. All in all it was an interesting adventure, and a lesson.
Stories come out of these experiences.