I Am The Scariest Thing Out Here: Shakedown Hike Part II
(Continued from Part I)
When the sun peeked over the hillside, I set off. I paused to filter water at the creek, then followed the trail as it climbed out of the rhododendron tunnels and up the mountain. My body felt great. I credited the lack of soreness to my gradual training and yesterday’s flat trail. Today, there were a few moderate climbs. I took photos from each viewpoint but paused for breaks in the woods because the wind was cold on the exposed ridges. Midway through the day, I began listening to an audiobook to help pass the time. I didn’t see any other people, and I was enjoying the peaceful solitude. It was perfect weather for hiking, with clear skies and temperatures in the 50s. The trees weren’t budding yet, but the warm sun sifting through the branches suggested that spring was, at least, thinking about it.
I arrived at Doc’s Knob Shelter after six hours of leisurely hiking. I recalled spending a night there on a weekend hike in 2016. There was nowhere to tent on the uneven, muddy ground, so I slept in a shelter for the first time ever, alarmed by the mice that scurried around. (I had spent that same evening in engaging conversation with thru-hiker and writer Rahawa Haile, and then proceeded to follow her journey all the way to Katahdin via social media. Rahawa’s book about her thru-hike is coming out soon, and I can’t wait to read it!) Now, however, thanks to the efforts of volunteers with Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, the shelter has a beautiful wooden deck in the front, saving hikers from the ankle-deep mud generated by the spring. I had the place to myself, and I spread out my gear to soak up some afternoon sunshine. I even did some yoga on the deck to stretch out my tight muscles, feeling like a bit of a cliché.
As the afternoon faded to evening, I used my camp stove for the first time out in the woods to make some ramen. When I finished, I carefully packed away all my food, dishes, and smellable toiletries and hung them in a tree a couple hundred feet away from the shelter. No other hikers had passed by since my arrival, and I was beginning to resign myself to my first night of camping alone. And if I was going to be eaten by a bear, I would not have people reading my obituary, clucking, and saying “Silly girl should have known better.” I was going to take every safety precaution in the book.
I also attempted to start a fire, figuring that would also help deter any night time ursine intruders, but all the wood that I could find was damp from the downpours the night before. Even though I could not get my little piles of dead leaves and twigs to burn long enough to ignite the larger branches, my efforts generated enough smoke to smell like a campfire, and I rationalized that was good enough.
Next I thought I would tempt fate by setting up my tent inside the shelter. (I think the technical hiking term for this is "a dick move.") My rationale here was that just like forgetting an umbrella practically guarantees a rain shower, I might be able to entice fate to deliver me some human company if I was selfishly unprepared to share the space with other hikers. Once they arrived, I swore, I would apologize and happily move the tent out of the way and cohabitate. And if that plan failed, at least the tent would discourage mice and spiders from bedding down with me. This extra sense of security was completely a false one: the gauze-thin mesh would no more stop a chewing mouse than a charging bear, but it made me feel like I had a little bubble of safety, the same as how when you’re a kid the monsters in your closet can’t get you if you’re hiding under the covers.
No other hikers arrived. Darkness fell, and I retreated into my cocoon. I journaled by the light of my headlamp for a while, then nestled inside my bag and went to sleep with my audiobook playing in my ears to drown out any night time noises that my overactive imagination would have interpreted as a rabid pack of grizzly bears. When I next woke up, I was cold. I was wearing wool baselayers, a lightweight synthetic jacket, and my down puffy, as well as fluffy socks, my buff, and a beanie. The temperature should only have been in the forties, no colder than the previous night, but I was shivering. To make things worse, I had to pee. I sighed and poked a hand out of my tightly-cinched mummy bag to find my phone. It had to be nearly dawn.
It was 11:15pm. I had been asleep for less than two hours. I stared into the dark for a few minutes, debating the relative merits of sticking it out versus putting my hiking clothes back on overtop of my base layers and running up to the privy. I remembered reading somewhere that keeping the urine warm in your bladder uses up a surprising amount of body heat, so it’s always better to pee than to hold it on a cold night. On the other hand, the privy was close to where I’d hung my food, and I imagined a ring of bears seated below it like children taking turns to swing at a piñata.
Eventually, the second option won out. I did my best to pull on my hiking socks, leggings, and shirt without leaving the sleeping bag, then added my rain gear for good measure. Next, I turned on my headlamp, unzipped from my cocoon, and ventured out into the frightening wilderness that was exactly zero percent more dangerous than the inside of my tent. I took a trekking pole with me. I doubt it would have been much use in self-defense against human or animal, but it felt good to have something bludgeony in my hand. I trudged up the hill to privy, trying to convince myself that a 160lb primate with a bright light on its head and a loud swishing noise with each step (thanks, rain pants!) would be positively the worst nightmare of any creature that might be lurking.
“I am the scariest thing out here,” I said aloud to myself. “I am the scariest thing out here.”
I made it to the privy and back without incident. Whether it was the added layer or the adrenaline, I was toasty warm in my sleeping bag now. I put my headphones away and turned off the phone to save battery, but my crinkly-potato-chip-bag sleeping pad worked double duty as white noise instead of the audiobook. I woke up frequently throughout the remainder of the night, but each time I fell asleep again straightaway, and when dawn arrived, it felt like a breakthrough. My first night alone! That wasn’t so bad. By the early morning light, I could already imagine that once I joined the thru-hiker bubble, I would look back on the solitude with longing.
It was the last day of my shakedown, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet, neither literally nor figuratively. I was still 9 miles from Pearisburg, and I was about to face my biggest challenge of the weekend. Once I escaped the strong gravitational pull of my warm sleeping bag, I discovered that my food bag was stuck.
Unbeknownst to me, I had strung up the bag in a dead tree (In my defense, it’s still winter, so all the trees look dead. It’s an easy mistake to make). When I'd hauled the bag up, the paracord had burrowed deep into the soft, rotting wood, and now as much as I flicked the loose end, friction proved more stubborn than gravity, and the weight of the food in the bag did not bring it to the ground. I’d had a sneaking suspicion the evening before that this was happening when I hauled the bag up, so this morning I'd brought a trusty trekking pole to help get it down. However, even fully extended, the trekking pole only increased my reach enough to bat the bag around, much like the piñata bears that I had envisioned during the night. I could prod at the bag from below, but even when jostled and bounced, the bag would not succumb to the pull of the earth below. Next I found a tree branch that was about six feet long and tried with that, but I failed to pull the bag down even when I fitted an angle in the branches around the top of the food bag. The branch was just too flexible, and it bent around the bag rather than acting like a two-pronged fork to pull it down.
I thought about climbing the tree, but it seemed dangerous. I thought about just hauling on the loose end of the rope and pulling the whole bag over the branch, but that seemed risky to my brand new camp stove and the rest of the contents of the bag (I'm realistic about my coordination. There's no way I'd have caught that bag once I yanked it overtop of the limb). I thought about using my extra paracord to tie my two trekking poles together to increase my reach, but that would not solve the issue of having nothing to hook onto the bag to pull it down. I crossed my arms, I scratched my head, and I’m sure if I’d had a beard I would have stroked it pensively as I studied my dilemma. I even considered leaving the bag behind, but that would mean hiking nine miles on an empty stomach. No. Failure was not an option.
Eventually, I made a lasso from the loose end of the rope and used a fallen tree limb that branched out in a Y shape at one end to lift my loop up until it encircled the food bag. Balancing on one foot so that I could hold the branch steady with one hand and the crook of my knee (see diagram, included), I used the other hand to pull on the lasso so that the noose closed around the top of the food bag. Now when I hauled downward on the paracord, my captured food bag descended. I whooped in victory. Once I unclipped the bag, I removed the carabiner from the end of the line and tried to pull it back over the tree. It got stuck again, and this time, despite hauling on the end with my full weight, it would not give. Now I realized how useful a knife would have been, and instead of sacrificing just eight or ten feet of line, I was forced to abandon my full bear bag rope. (I’ll go back for it on a day hike one day this week.) Still, I felt pleased with myself. A spool of paracord was a small concession if it meant eating breakfast.
Now, I set some water in my stove to boil while I packed up my tent and the rest of my belongings. After a warm bowl of oatmeal, I set off at a quick pace. First my reluctance to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag and then the bear bag challenge had set me back an hour and a half from my original timeline, so now I had only three hours to hike nine miles if I was going to meet my parents at the scheduled pickup location. I had no service to contact them, but I hoped up on the ridge line I would get enough signal to let them know I would be late.
It was another cool, sunny day, and I cruised along the trail as it climbed out of the valley where Dismal Creek flows and up onto Pearis Mountain. This time, I felt a little sore from the day before, but the pain and stiffness were mild compared to Day Three of previous backpacking trips when I'd started out with more ambitious miles. At the ridge line, the trail was not as steep, but still drifted generally upward until I reached the overlook at the top of the mountain. I managed to get a text through to my parents, so from the second overlook at Angel’s Rest, I knew I had an hour to reach the parking lot on Narrows Road. It was still about three miles away and about 2,000 feet down. At the steepest places, I had to pick my way carefully downward, but on the more gradual slopes I hustled.
I arrived at the parking lot about five minutes after 2pm, and I was greeted by both my parents and the puppy, who was adorably excited to see me after just 48 hours of separation. We headed straight to Dairy Queen. That afternoon, I stiffened up and experienced serious pain in my kneecaps going up and down the porch steps to take the puppy in and out. I’m assuming the quick pace and the dramatic downhill at the end were more severe on my joints than the previous 18 miles had been. I took some ibuprofen and slathered on some menthol cream before bed. In the morning, my knees were much better.
I am planning to do about 60 more miles of trail on a longer shakedown next week, and then by mid-April I will find myself at Amicalola State Park in Georgia for the start of my thru-hike. I can’t wait!