WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (PART TWO)
When we vacationed in Tennessee a year earlier, the lovely day-hiketurned-marriageproposal made a honeymoon hike along nature’s beautiful trails seem like a romantic, inviting, sweet breeze. But this trail was no breeze.
I didn’t think I could walk any longer. I had 40-plus pounds of weight in my backpack, and 100 pounds swirling in my head. The majesty of the wilderness was gone, and all I could see was the narrow trail straight uphill for several more miles. All I could think about was how long it would take until we reached our shelter. I had never done a hike like this.
This trail, the Smoky Mountain section of the Appalachian Trail (AT), is also known as the hardest section of the AT for a very good reason. It is unforgiving. Now, staring up at 10 more miles until our shelter’s destination, and already early evening, I knew it would be a long night. I just didn’t know how long.
I had planned our wedding in the Smoky Mountains for a year, blissful and wide-eyed. I had every special detail carefully woven into the ceremony. When my then-fiancé and I discussed a honeymoon, we both immediately thought of doing a hike. We love the outdoors, and he had undergone wilderness training and taken a couple of expeditions as a bachelor. I remember telling him he hadn’t seen or experienced anything yet like what he would with me. We would do the 74 miles of the Appalachian Trail through the Smoky Mountains. I would do the wedding ceremony preparations, and he would do all the preparations for the hike. A hard lesson in personal management I would soon learn.
As I stood on the mountain staring up at relentless trail, not thinking I could walk the 10 more miles, I had an epiphany. I knew there were side trails all along the AT and I thought we would just take one of those to a nearby campsite. I suggested this brilliant idea to my husband, and being the Boy Scout that he is, he thought we should call the ranger station to tell them of our change in plans. When hiking the AT through the Smokies, you have to register your hike and obtain a back-country hiking permit. Any person has eight days to hike the Smokies once the permit is granted and you start your hike. After that, the AT doesn’t pay attention to whatever plans you make for yourself.
Those mountains sensed my inexperience immediately. They sensed my smug attitude about taking a lovely hike in the woods for a week. They knew I didn’t pack my own backpack, try the trail food beforehand, or walk up my own stairs with my backpack fully loaded even once. They knew.
Standing there, hotter than a pepper sprout, and drinking water from the creek laced with iodine pills, I threw my pack off to the ground and let it land wherever it landed. I fell to the ground, looked at my husband and exclaimed how unprepared I was both physically and mentally for this trail. I sat on the ground with tears running down my face, pitying myself for my own mistake of mismanaging my experience, thinking we should just turn back around. All I saw was trail.
In my head for the last year, I imagined sweet moments in these majestic mountains, laughter, splashing water at each other in the creek, and campfire stories with other hikers at the end of the day. That was not the reality of our trip. We had to reroute for two days due to extreme rain and flooding of the creeks we were to cross, and also because of a heavy presence of black bears in the area. My husband mentally prepared for these factors. I thought to myself, ‘I can handle anything. I’m tough, and I’ve been raising two children on my own for several years now. There’s nothing I can’t handle, bring it on.’
And did the mountains ever bring it on!
The suggestion to turn back to my very rational husband was overruled by his reasonable explanation of it taking two or three days, anyway, to hike out at this point. “So let’s just keep going.” While he was explaining this to me in a very caring and patient tone, sweat pouring down his brow, he unpacked several things from my backpack, unpacking his backpack, and repacking it with the extra things he removed from mine.
My husband called the ranger station as we neared the top of the climb. We weren’t going to make it to a shelter, and would have to find a spot to set up camp without shelter from the wilderness or cables to keep bears, coyotes, and other animals away. The rangers
noted our approximate location, and then we were on our own again. We hiked for another couple of hours, my husband several feet behind me now due to the extra weight he mercifully helped me carry. Nightfall was setting in, and we had to find a spot.
The wilderness changes at night. Sounds from creatures you only read about are nearby. We stopped at a clearing and put our things down. My husband whipped up a cozy shelter for us with a tarp tied tree to tree. I hadn’t felt that safe the whole trip as I did right then, out in the open, accessible to anything that wanted to find us. We laid under the open sky, listening to owls, coyotes, insects, and other creatures we couldn’t recognize, very close. I can’t express the calmness I felt hearing the coyotes calling each other back and forth and listening to conversations the insects were having with each other.
I lay there, looking at my sleeping, exhausted husband get much needed rest, and I practiced true thankfulness looking up at that sky. It’s hard to be thankful when I feed my brain with negativity and discontentment. I had several realizations on this hike. This was a monumental moment in my life. One of those moments you write about— experiencing true thankfulness in a way only the mountains could show me.
We woke very early the next morning, and we laughed! We made cold grits, and I took back my belongings from his backpack, readjusted my straps, and we hiked on. Over the course of the next few days, we hiked for hours each day, and each day there was some detour due to bears or flooding. My mind was in the mountains now.
We met many different people on the trail…people from all over the world who had come to hike the AT. We met young and old, hiking for the first time alone, or hiking for the fifth time in a group. We gave each other water whereabouts tips, weather tips, shared snacks if needed, but mostly shared good karma and blessings. We trekked through dangerous creeks that were flooding over but were the only way to get to our shelter, saw the most breathtaking sunrises and sunsets I’ve ever seen, walked trails narrower than two feet wide with a 1000-foot drop looming directly to the side of me.
My previous trips and day hikes in these mountains always gave me a sense of comfort and warmth. This long hike through these mountains took my ego, my dignity, my sense of safety, and reshaped them forever with true humility, self-respect, and a sense of security. Precious things were learned, like to pack my own backpack next time! But most importantly, I came to know another human being in a way that I had never experienced knowing anyone else.
I think it’s time that everyone go take a hike!