Thoughts About Death and Fun-size Candy Bars

(Photo: McAfee Knob, Virginia)
“Five people have died on the Appalachian Trail this year, did you know that?” a day-hiker asked me. He was hiking with his daughter to McAfee Knob in Virginia. I popped one of the fun-size Snickers bars that he gave me into my mouth and said, “hmm-umm.” 

“Yeah, I believe one had a heart attack. Another died in his sleep. I think it might have been one of those, what do you call it?" He looked down for a moment to think then said, "A brain aneurysm or something. Then there was a guy that slipped and fell in Maine. He died. Another guy had a stroke just twenty miles from finishing his thru-hike. The one everyone is talking about right now, though, is the hiker from Indiana that was beaten to death.” 

It's strange to imagine me as the Hoosier in that last headline, but this didn't make me feel any less safe. The Appalachian Trail is 2,181 miles long. It covers more square miles than most cities and millions walk on it every year. It would be amazing if nobody ever died on it. Besides, I know the stories that spread the fastest are about the rarest of incidents. Nobody bothers to say, "hey did I ever tell you about that hiker I never met that nothing out of the ordinary ever happened to?" And nobody ever clamored to get the movie rights from that hiker that didn't have to cut off his own arm.

Actually, a lot of day-hikers carried on about things that scared them about a thru-hike, like murderers and murdering. The thru-hikers, however, rarely talked about it. They spent far more time talking about how “fun-size” Snickers are actually less fun. Maybe this is what makes thru-hikers unique. I mean, to suggest that the fun in a Snickers bar is, somehow, not relative to its net weight... sorry, before I get all worked up I'll get back on topic...

“Have you ever heard of Randall Lee Smith?” he said. 

“Well, given our topic, and since you used his middle name, I suspect that he killed some people?”

“Yeah, in the early eighties," he said. "He shot two AT hikers near Pearisburg."

“Hmm, I’m two days away from Pearisburg,” I thought. 

“He went up to an AT shelter just outside of town with a shotgun. He shot one, then the other,” he said. “He went to prison for a few years, but got out on parole. Then in 2006, two fishermen were shot near the same spot near Pearisburg. A few days later, the police took Smith back into custody after he crashed a pickup truck that belonged to one of the two fishermen.” 

I don't know why he decided to tell this to someone who was thru-hiking. It almost seemed like he wanted to try to scare me or get me to question hiking the trail in the first place. I reached back to grab another one of those Snickers from the side pocket of my backpack. I suppose he was probably just looking out for me, to keep me on guard. I just refuse to believe that a man passing out free candy could have an ounce of menace in his heart. It’s surprising I made it into adulthood.

“Well, he went back to prison,” he continued. “And this time, he never got out. He died in there. If you ask me, he was murdered, but nobody really knows what happened to him.” 

When we were on the trail in Maine, Thumper asked me what my number one fear was. 

“Speaking in public probably, or dying,” I said. “Probably more the dying one than the speaking in public one.” 

I know I’m not the only one to have some anxiety about the inevitability of death. Unlike many people, however, I’ve never professed to know with any certainty that our consciousness continues after our brains die. Rarely, but on occasion, a thought would enter my mind that what I experience after death will be exactly like what I experienced before I was born. A lot of nothing. That idea could be almost paralyzing if I let it float around my mind for too long. 

I hadn’t thought about it much while hiking, but somewhere along the trail, the thought of death crept back into my brain. Actually, I remember the exact moment. I was in a shelter near Pearisburg, Virginia.

- - -

As the year progressed, the days became shorter. This meant more hiking at night to get the needed miles. I decided to stop for the night at one of the many three-walled shelters along the trail. I shined my headlamp inside. It was empty. I did what I normally did when I finished my day at a shelter. Before anything else, I sat down and made dinner. Actually, I typically shoved a honey bun into my mouth and then made dinner. 

I sat with my feet hanging over the side of the shelter and ate as I stared out at the dark moonlit woods. A flowing stream prevented a total silence. When I finished eating, I hung my food bag above the shelter floor away from rodents. Soon, I was wrapped snug in my sleeping bag and ready for bed.

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I saw a yellow glow bob out of the shadowy trees. It was a man wearing a headlamp. There was a rifle in his hands. He walked across the front of the shelter. I tensed up. It happened too quickly to do anything, even if I wasn't constrained in my sleeping bag. Neither fight nor flight were options on the table. 

He turned and looked at me as he passed. His headlamp shined in my eyes. I said, “Hello,” because, you know, there’s no reason to be uncivilized. 

“How you doin’?” he replied and kept walking.

“I’m doing great, thanks, how about you?” I said, trailing off toward the end of my question as he walked out of earshot. 

It takes slightly longer to rationalize that a man walking down a trail at night with a gun is probably a hunter getting out of the woods late, than it takes to deem him a shotgun brandishing lunatic. I suppose there is some evolutionary survival value in that, so even though it only took a second to assume I wasn’t in danger, a part of me prepared for the worst. 

What would I have done if he was some kind of Randall Lee Smith copycat heading into the woods near Pearisburg with a shotgun over his shoulder? In that short amount of time, the only thing I could have done is roll back and forth in my sleeping bag like some carnival game duck with a target on its belly. Even if this was a cartoon, there wasn’t even enough time to plug the hole of the shotgun's barrel with my index finger. 

When he was gone, and I felt safe enough to consider falling asleep, I reflected about death again. I've heard people say there are no atheists in foxholes, but I think you'll find an equal number of completely confident believers in there with them. In the face of death, it wouldn't surprise me if most of the people in foxholes, regardless of their prior beliefs, are suddenly agnostic. I couldn't help but think, what if that man's sudden presence would have been followed by a bang and then dreamless sleep for eternity? Why should it be any different from the unconscious eons before I was born? Perhaps the more interesting question was, why didn't these thoughts freak me out like they have before? 

Of course, it should go without saying that I don't want to die, but there is a difference between not wanting to die and actually fearing death.While living the free and simple life on the trail, I came to accept this particular inevitability. At least to a point where I don't dwell on it anymore. I thought more about the misnomer "fun-size" than I did about murderers, falls, aneurysms, or bears. And it seemed, the other thru-hikers did as well. I think it's because my fear of death was largely a fear of never living the life I always dreamed of living. I was doing what I loved, I would continue to do what I loved for as long as I can, and que sera sera.

So, I've never been able to alleviate the fear of death by convincing myself that there is an afterlife, but does anyone really? I learned, however, that I didn’t need to. I just needed to live this life.

And as for my fear of public speaking... yeah, I don't see ever getting over that one.

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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

The Shenandoah Valley, Part Five
- Numbers 13 and 96 on my life list.

Part 5: A Wednesday Alone
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       “Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of
         being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the
         glory of being alone.” - Paul Tillich

Yesterday, after leaving Corbin Cabin, the temperature began to feel more like summer.  I have experienced a year of seasons in five days. After looking around to make sure I was alone, I changed into warm weather clothes.

When the trail intersected a fire road, I stopped to check my location.  I slid my pack onto the ground, sat next to it with my map, and leaned my back against a trail signpost.  For no immediately apparent reason, I was overcome with a deep feeling of happiness. I rested the back of my head on the post with a peaceful grin on my face. 

It wasn’t a unique or exceptional spot in any way, just an ordinary forest floor covered in dried leaves.  There was no jaw-dropping view, or extraordinary sight or sound, but for whatever reason, I felt like I did that first time I got behind the wheel and pulled out of the driveway alone for the first time.  I felt free.

I’m sure many things contributed to the sentiment: not knowing what would be around the next bend, a backpack full of everything I needed and nothing more, nothing distracting my thoughts, and not needing to be anywhere, do anything, or answer to anyone.  Solo backpacking doesn’t even give you the option to have it any other way. It’s incredibly liberating.

It helps that I love being alone. “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” I remember reading those words when I was 24 in my tattered copy of Walden by Hendry David Thoreau.  It struck a chord with me.  Suddenly it was ok to love being alone, without wondering if it was a social disorder.  Not that that stops others from wondering.

I finished Tuesdays's hike meandering through the oldest trees in Shenandoah, then into Whiteoak Canyon, the most spectacular waterfall hike in the park. Just before sunset, I found a place to camp for the night.

Wednesday morning, I looked over my map and ate breakfast on a car-sized stone jutting out of the ground at the top of a hill. Even in late-October, the trees that covered the ground, sloping down hill forty feet below, still clung to their brilliantly green leaves.

I started the day hiking out of Whiteoak Canyon and onto Cedar Run Trail, which curled through the forest up hilltops, passed yellow leaves flowing down streams that crashed into boulders. Waterfalls poured over polished rock and surged into clear pools, many large enough for a swim.

With the grim of showerless days, I desperately wanted to hop in.  Some of these waterfall grottoes were just deep enough to sit down with water up to my chest, like natural hot tubs. The only problem, they were fifty-degree hot tubs. If the temperature was right, I would have had to add a day to my trip and would have had constantly pruned toes and fingertips.

The trail became steep and exhausting, so I stopped to rest at a small waterfall spilling into a pond shaded by trees.  The water cascaded from there through narrow channels, tumbling into puddles of varying sizes, until finally plummeting into one of the hot tub pools fifty feet below.

Surrounded by the shushing of flowing water, I sat by a deep puddle and took off my shoes and socks. I dipped my head into the puddle’s ice-cold water and then sat on the edge with my feet in.

I realized I loved being barefoot. I hadn’t really given it much thought before. It may be something insignificant and ordinarily taken for granted, but I grew up with shoes on from morning until night.  In fact, my only memory of being barefoot outdoors, when I was growing up in the eighties, was when my friends would run down our gravel driveway without shoes, while I pointlessly tried to keep up with unhurried cautious steps like Brook Shields walking over glass in Circus of the Stars. (It's surprising how many eighties references I can fit into this journal.)

So, rarely allowing myself to be barefoot outdoors, this is kind of new to me.  Now it seemed like strapping rubber soles to my feet just anesthetizes my brain from a fundamental human sensation. Imagine wearing gloves everywhere you went, what experiences would you miss?  It seemed the equivalent to kissing someone while wearing a Halloween mask, pulling it off, and realizing, “Wow, this is much better,” that millimeter thin mask might as well have been miles thick.

I discovered that I want to feel the warmth of sun-drenched bedrock on the arches of my feet, dig my toes into fresh mud, feel dry leaves and thin twigs crunch under my weight. I want to curl my toes over the edge of a granite pool, plunge my feet into the shallow water, and watch the cloud of silky sediment roll out from underneath.

Backpacking has shown me that in my effort to make life comfortable, there have been casualties that just made life duller. Being barefoot outside is only one of them.  Some of my favorite things on earth I sacrifice daily: the complete absence of unnatural noise, the excitement of wildlife confrontations, the lack of walls silencing nocturnal sounds, and being far from the city lights overwhelming the starlight.  My solo hikes in such beautiful places keep me from forgetting.  This contributes to the fact that I’m not the person today that I was last week or who I'll be next week.  I need this escape like I need the right amount of sleep and clean air.

Fully rested, and my feet sun-dried, I slipped my shoes back on and returned to the trail, the connection to the earth broken again by rubber soles. Miles later, I turned onto the horse hoof tilled Skyland-Big Meadows Trail. The rumble of cars on Skyline Drive was now in earshot.  To provide an unobstructed view for motorists, a large swath of trees had been removed, a manmade ecotone segregating two combating ecosystems. I was unhappy with this accommodation.  It made me feel like the wild wilderness didn't exist as it once did.

At the turnout on the other side of the divide, a woman got out of the car’s passenger door and sat down on a guardrail, her back to the view. Her husband stepped out of the driver’s side to get a picture.  They hopped back in and drove off. The windshield experience is almost no experience at all. Another casualty of a comfortable life, not knowing how much more majestic such a view is when it caps the end of a day-long hike.

With the lack of shade from missing trees, the sun beat down on me with more intensity that it had all week. The sweat began to pour and I sipped my water quickly. I walked with my gaze pointed down. The first day the ground was soggy, the second snow covered, but now I kicked up dusty soil and crunched through dry autumn leaves with every step.

At this elevation, the trees had fewer leaves, which had mostly taken on their brown mid-autumn hues. The balder plants opened up the view deeper into the forest. The wildlife found sneakiness impossible.  I could easily hear every one of them scurrying around on crunchy leaves, making even a sparrow sound large and significant.

I turned my gaze up and saw that I was being stared at by the glossy black eyes of a white-tailed deer.  We both stood unmoving, locked in a staring contest.  Our actions mirrored, but I assume our thoughts did not. Unless she was thinking, “Ooh, a human. Don’t move too suddenly, you’ll scare it. I can’t get tired of seeing these on the trail, so majestic! Where's my camera?” but she probably wasn't. She gave her tail a rattle and continued grazing.

I still hadn’t eaten since breakfast ten miles back, but was only a couple of miles from Rose Falls, so decided to wait.  It was worth it. Not only for the falls, but the declining elevation meant more color in the trees. I climbed down and sat on a rock near the base of the falls and decided I'd feast as much as I possibly could. A backpacking feast isn’t exactly Thanksgiving, as I ate less calories than I would normally eat on a lazy day at home: tuna salad in a half pita, cereal bar, crackers, and a couple handfuls of dried fruits and nuts.

I moved closer to the falls with my water filter and pumped water directly into my mouth.  Again I wished the water were warmer so I could get in. I craved a shower. I looked at the falls and visualized moving under it with my head pointed up and eyes closed, feeling each drop splash on my face.  I’ll never take warm showers for granted again.

On a sort of peninsula a short distance from the falls, I spotted a perfect place to call it a night. Two creeks converged to form a U thirty feet below, accompanying my hammock and I with the soothing murmurs of rippling water. Exhausted from a particularly grueling day, I setup camp, pulled my sleeping bag on like overalls, then laid down in the hammock without a struggle.  I've come a long way since that first night.

Lying in my bed of nylon and rope suspended from the trees, I heard a large animal only a yard or two away. This time, it wasn’t a sparrow rustling through the dry leaves.  It had heavy footsteps and a sniff that sounded big. With my headlamp on, I slowly poked my head out.  The forest was pitch black, but a pair of reflective yellow eyes stared back at me.

I fully expected to see a black bear, but to my relief, it was another deer.  A relief since this is one of the few large animals you’ll encounter in the woods that will rarely generate headlines such as, “Hiker Mauled to Death by Soulful-Eyed White-Tailed Deer.”

It stared at me for a few seconds then lowered its head to continue grazing, unconcerned with the man with the glowing forehead, hanging from the trees.

Throughout the rest of the night, it was apparent I picked a popular spot. The air was filled with sounds of nocturnal life, a constant reminder that wild, does in fact, still exists.

Part 6 >
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The Shenandoah Valley, Part Four
- Numbers 13 and 96 on my life list.

Part 4: Tuesday Morning at Corbin Cabin
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Standing on the middle stone of five crossing a creek, I paused to look downstream. I breathed in the view meditatively until interrupted by an unfamiliar, sort of higher pitched, Chewbacca-like moan coming from the trees. I scanned the area closely, but didn't see any movement. I stepped over the remaining stones. The noise repeated, I stopped, and searched again. My eyes connected with a young black bear's, high up a slender tree. Startled, it hurried down as quickly as a firefighter down a pole; its paws hit the ground, and vanished behind a trail of shaking leaves.

Bears are generally safe if you take some necessary precautions. First of all, any bear expert worth his salt will tell you that under no circumstance should you try hugging or riding on one, regardless of how overwhelming that temptation may be. That being said, they'll also tell you to make noise so it knows you're coming, keep a clean camp, and do your best to hide the fact that you are carrying food. A black bear can detect strong smells from miles away and sniff out that energy bar in your pocket seven times better than any bloodhound, or 2,000 times better than any human. Another interesting item worth noting, a human or trained bloodhound will find it much more difficult to chew your face off while trying to steal your Snickers bar.

Regardless of this superpower, and the subsequent thieving of hundreds of pic-a-nic baskets, there has never been a fatal bear attack in Shenandoah National Park. On the other hand, If it does happen, I’d put my money on it happening to a hiker who inadvertently finds himself between a mother bear and her cub.

Adult bears are usually silent, but the sound in the trees came from a young cub. As they approach adolescence, they become intrigued with the idea of independence, and venture further and further from the protection of their mother. In times of danger, however, they lose confidence and realize they still need the security of an adult. Like when you’re six and a librarian ghost roars at you in the opening of the movie Ghostbusters. Don’t judge me, I was six.

I worried that the Chewbacca-like moan was a distress call. Was he calling for backup?

I spun around looking in all directions for an even larger mass of black fur, but didn't see mama bear. Even though I knew the danger was low, my heart raced, and I'm not ashamed to admit I moved at a faster pace for the next hundred yards. A futile attempt, since an average bear could chase down even the world's fastest human with ease.

Once I knew I was in the clear, my adrenal gland eased up on the adrenaline, I soon returned to the peaceful state of mind that I was enjoying on that middle stone in the creek. I now felt thrilled that I got to see my first black bear up close in the wild.

Through the trees up ahead, I spotted a mediocre, but inviting little cabin that once belonged to George Corbin. In 1909, he and his friends hewed logs from surrounding trees and constructed the dwelling. George lived here, in the smallest home on the smallest farm in Nicholson Hollow, for 29 years on what his family could grow or make themselves. George provided other necessities by supplying moonshine to the nearby resort town of Skyland.

During a harsh winter, George's wife died while giving birth to their third child. Her body was laid to rest a few hundred yards from the cabin, in a family cemetery. In 1938, when the land gained national park status, George and his children were forced to pack up and leave.

It is one of the few log houses still intact in the park after a fire destroyed nearly forty mountaineer homes. Corbin cabin is one of the last monuments of the vanished mountain community, and still provides shelter to passing backpackers. Today it served three: Jimmy, Jarrett, and Jonathan.

“Hey, do you know what time it is?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, I have a cell phone in my pack, just a sec.”

“Oh you don’t have to go to so much trouble. I thought maybe you just knew.”

“It’s alright, I’m ready to have that off my shoulders for a little bit,” I said, and pulled my phone out of my bag and gave them the time.

“You’re more than welcome to take a break here for a little while. Here, have a seat.” The man stood and offered the porch rocking chair. “It’s my turn to fix breakfast anyway. I should get started on that.”

“You think? Since it’s already ten?" scoffed the second person on the porch. "Hi, I’m Jimmy,” he put his hand out to shake mine. “Yeah have a seat, take a load off.” I sat down on the rocking chair. “So, where are you coming from?”

I enjoy the differences in the getting-to-know-you chitchat on the trail. The questions are more interesting, and more enjoyable to answer. The ones typically heard are: where are you coming from, how long have you been on the trail, where are you from, where have you backpacked before, what is your favorite trip, why do you do this, are you insane?

You rarely hear my least favorite introductory question, “What do you do?” In other words, what do you do for money? This is usually the least interesting thing about a person. It’s definitely the least interesting thing about me. I get the impression that as soon as I say, I work in IT, the person I’m talking to will immediately regret asking and go talk to someone else in the room. To which, I can defensively react with, “Yeah, but can that guy tie a clove hitch? That loser probably doesn’t even know what a clove hitch is!” Then, “Oh no he didn’t,” a passerby would invariably say.

“So where are you coming from?” I pulled out my map and briefly went over the trip so far. They pointed out areas I should try to visit. They highly recommended Whiteoak Canyon, which was luckily already under yellow highlighter ink.

I asked about the cabin, which they talked about adoringly. To a backpacker a modest shack like this is a fancy summer home, especially when you’ve been on the trail a few days or weeks.

“Jarrett is getting married so we’re trying to get one last trip in.” They looked at each other smiling, but I detected a slight feeling of trepidation. Maybe I just assumed, since it’s how I would feel if I ever utter the words “one last trip”.

“So, she doesn’t like this kind of thing?” He shook his head. “Maybe she’ll be glad to get you out of the house for a week every year so you can all go again?”

“Ah we both have fiancées too, so I don’t see that happening.” Jimmy chuckled, pointing to himself and Jonathan, followed by a short awkward silence. I felt very happy to be single.

“You want to take a tour of the cabin?” asked Jimmy. Jonathan went inside to check on breakfast. Jimmy and I followed.

Weak floorboards creaked under my hiking shoes. The living room was dark. A small amount of light seeped in through an opened nearly opaque window and from a small fire crackling in the fireplace. It felt good to feel heat again.

Backpacking gear suspended on hooks clung neatly to the wall below spider webs that stretched across the corners under the ceiling. A plaque with a brief history of the cabin hung beside an old sepia photo of George Corbin. He may have lost his home, but with it, gained a slice of immortality. Last night’s entertainment littered a large wooden table: a deck of cards, cigarettes, and ashtrays made from folded aluminum foil, not to mention long blade hunting knives and a couple of handguns. The weapons did little to add to the hospitable charm.

Corn beef hash simmered in an iron skillet on top of an old wood-burning stove. I thought of poor Mrs. Corbin. Pots and pans hung on the walls above the stove. Left by different generations of hikers, each varied in age and wear.

The smell of sizzling breakfast reminded me how much I craved a warm meal. “Ryan, you staying for breakfast?” Jonathan asked.

“Oh no, I’m alright. I’ll get going here pretty soon,” I replied, even though I secretly wanted to shove him out of the way and cram it into my mouth by the fistful.

“No, I can’t eat your food. It's not like there are supermarkets out here to restock.”

“You’ve been out hiking, I know you’re hungry. How do you want your eggs?” he asked. “Seriously, we’re leaving tomorrow morning and we have a dozen eggs, so either you eat them or we’ll be throwing some out I’m sure.”

“Ok, over easy.”

Jonathan cracked more eggs into the pan and Jimmy continued our conversation. “I used to work at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in Michigan, you ever get up there?” This may have been the first time I had more than brief conversation with another backpacker. Sleeping Bear was home to one of my favorite nearby backpacking destinations, North Manitou Island. He also worked at an outfitter and he had plenty of backpacking knowledge. He didn’t have a career, didn't stick with one job for too long, but did something he loved.

“Hey Jimmy can you finish these eggs? I’m out of commission.” Jonathan’s head was tilted back and he was pinching his nose. “I’m getting a bloody nose from this dry air; I need you to take over… Come on, I’m out of commission!” Later it seemed like they must have been doing Karate Kid lines during their trip, so I assume that is why he kept saying “out of commission”. This made me like them even more.

Jimmy picked up the spatula, but kept talking and asking me questions. When Jonathan’s nosebleed seemed to have stopped, he busied himself with other tasks. “You want to finish these now? “ Jimmy asked. “No, I can’t. I’m still out of commission.”

I moved out to the porch and sat on the rocking chair. “So what do you do Ryan?” Jarrett asked, sitting down on the nearby wooden bench. The question is bound to come up eventually; at least it took some time to get there. I told him about my job, in as few words as possible, and he told me about his.

“I’m a freelance photographer and graphic designer. Jonathan is a firefighter and Jimmy… Hey Jimmy what are you doing now. “

“I’m making eggs, dude.”

“No, I mean for a job, what are you doing, like, for money.”

Jimmy paused for a couple seconds, “Political consultant.”

Jarrett laughed condescendingly and shook his head, “heh, political consultant.”

Later, Jimmy brought out a large plate, nearly overflowing with a mountain of corn beef hash and two fried eggs over-easy. Nothing short of an actual mountain could have looked as magnificent at that moment.

It was mouth-watering, the eggs cooked to perfection. A few minutes later, Jonathan brought me a cup of steaming black coffee in an old chipped black-and-white checkered coffee mug, a packet each of cream and sugar. I felt very thankful, and incredibly guilty.

To help ease some of the guilt, I offered to chop the remaining logs for firewood. The five logs I chopped, which were the first I’ve ever chopped, didn’t really make up for their hospitality, but I know they really didn’t care.

“Well, I better get back on the trail so I can get to my next site before it gets too dark.” I hadn’t planned on staying at the cabin for the two hours I was there. I thanked them for everything, but couldn’t thank them enough.

Part 5 >
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The Shenandoah Valley, Part Three
- Numbers 13 and 96 on my life list.

Part 3: Monday on Old Rag Summit
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Just after sunrise, I unzipped my sleeping bag and mourned the release of the sleep warmth inside.  I poked my head out of the tent; the cold cloaked my face. The quiet flow of water, the echoing birdcalls, and the promise of breakfast hanging safely in a tree, put me in a joyous mood. 

I poured a cup of water and powdered milk into a zip-top bag of cereal, then unfolded my map in front of me to review today’s hike. On the trail, even the simplest breakfast becomes a delicacy that you crave.  I’m coming back to this spot tonight, so don’t need to take much with me.  I sorted through my gear and decided what I could leave behind, and topped off my water at the creek.

After a two-mile hike from camp, I arrived at my trailhead and began to snake up the mountain on switchbacks.  Half a vertical mile above me awaited my destination, the summit of Old Rag.

An hour later my path ran into mounds of bedrock and boulders like elephant backs. I put the hiking poles away; I would need all fours for this one.

On my right, the trees were occasionally parted like curtains framing the mountains. I stopped to take a photo and two middle-aged hikers passed me.

“I picked this vacation, so what’s your choice for next year?” The exhausted man asked his wife. She paused to suck in some oxygen and declared, “A cruise!”

Birds hiding in bushes fluttered away as an expansive view of the valley opened up before me. Hundreds of feet below the sweeping view of forested hillsides, sprawled a patchwork of rural Virginian farmland.  It was a good spot for a break.

Soon a fellow hiker, who I will forever refer to as Paul (even though I actually have no idea what his name is) stopped to have lunch. Paul was an EMT, which was nice to learn. When is hiking in close proximity to an emergency medical technician ever a bad thing?

“Is that the summit?” I said pointing up the ridge at a huge rock jutted skyward.

“No, you still have a ways to go. There are a few false summits actually. This trail is a lot more challenging than people think. I’ve even seen kids trying this trail in flip-flops,” he scoffed while pulling out an orange. “I was hiking with a buddy of mine one year and a woman fell and cracked her head open against a rock." He dug his fingers into the orange rind, spraying a mist of juice, and slid his thumb underneath to peel it back, adding graphic imagery to his tale. "It took us nine hours to get her down from here. A helicopter came, but they couldn't land very close by. So, we carried her to it.”

“I try to help when I can,” he pointed at a backpack with a coil of thick nylon rope clipped to the side, “but I only bring a first aid kit and 100 feet of rope with me, so I can only help so much.”

A few minutes after some dispiriting medical dramas, I picked up my backpack. “We’ll, I’ll let you enjoy your lunch.  I’m going to continue on.” Sliding the pack on my shoulders, I started up the trail. “My name’s Ryan by the way, so now if you see a body on the rocks below you'll know what to call me.”

“I’m Paul,” he said in an almost demanding tone that didn’t make sense to me at the time.

“Nice meeting you.” I waved and proceeded up the trail.

“Oh,” he called back. “You’re going to get to a narrow ravine. Look for a little handhold on your left; it will help you get down,” I thanked him for the information. He turned back to the view and dropped an orange wedge into his mouth.

Wait, he didn't say "I'm Paul", he said "don't fall". Oh well, the name stuck. He's Paul whether he likes it or not.

At a shallow ravine two or three feet wide, I paused to figure out the best way get down. Realizing this is where Paul was talking about, I looked to my left. Sure enough, there was the handhold on the opposite side. I lowered my backpack and hiking poles into the ravine. I sat down, legs dangling over the edge, and slipped my left fingers into the handhold and slid in. I dropped onto the large boulders resting in the bottom, happy I didn’t smack my face on the rock wall.  

My shoulders bumped along the sides as I hiked a short distance to the much shallower end.  A small blue arrow spray-painted on a boulder directed hikers to the left. I threw my gear over the ledge and climbed out.

The trail twisted through a maze of granite slabs and enormous boulders. Often, I had to take my pack off to slide sideways through narrow gaps between rocks toward slivers of light at the other end.

I stopped at a smooth round boulder, as tall as me, that blocked the trail . It leaned against a granite wall to the right, and on its left was a steep drop. I struggled to think of a scenario where I got on top of this thing. “Surely there’s another way around it,” I thought, but there wasn’t. I had to get on top.

I could hear voices. “…took us nine hours to get her out.” It was Paul, who had passed me at some point earlier on, telling the same story to other hikers. If they could get up there, then I believed I could too. And if I was lucky, I could get passed it before Paul told them all the ways you can die up here.

I threw my gear on top of the rock and out of the way. I tried jumping and pulling myself onto it but it was too large, too slick, and too round. I tried once again while kicking off the granite wall next to it.  I grabbed for anything to pull myself up but slid back down, skin scraping on rock. The third time I got a short running start and once again jumped kicked off the wall with my right foot.  This time, I got my forearms and elbows on top. I knew I could make it now. I pushed up on my hands, got my knee under me, and crawled the rest of the way up. I felt very proud of myself. I felt like an accomplished seasoned hiker. I felt like Ninja Gaiden. And bruised, I also felt very bruised.

It was a beautiful day. The chill had gone. I removed my jacket, but still sweat profusely. I hid behind a rock and took off my base layer and got down to just a t-shirt and pants. I was so happy to be warm for the first time in days.

On a level area of exposed bedrock, with a clear view of the valley, I stopped to take a break. Paul was standing there taking advantage of the cell phone reception.

“How you doing?” he asked while stuffing his phone back into his pocket.

“Pretty good. Just a little trouble getting over a giant rock back there, other than that no problems.”

“Oh yeah, I know where you mean. That’s where that woman fell and busted her skull. They had to land the helicopter right here actually. We carried her all this way.” It was good to be in one piece, bones intact, with only the regular holes in my skull. And really how often are you reminded of how great it is to not have a gaping head wound? Thanks Paul.

He warned me about missteps, loose gravel next to dizzying cliffs, mountain lions, bears, poisonous snakes, raccoons stealing your only food, and any other unlikely fatal scenario that came to mind. I know occasionally someone is seriously injured or killed in our national parks, but people also die on toilets, in bowling alleys, at all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets and in Wal-Mart parking lots. Dying on a beautiful mountain range seems a far better way to go than dying like Elvis, or the thousands a day spending their last hours in hospital beds hooked up to beeping monitors.
The drive to the park is far more dangerous. Only about 100 of the 275 million people who visit the national parks each year will suffer a fatal injury, and it’s safe to say alcohol and stupidity inflate that statistic. It’s absolutely something to prepare for, but it’s just not something worth worrying about. Paul seemed preoccupied with it.  I suppose being an EMT means you’re going to see it and think about it more often than most.

Even though I'm regularly guilty of taking the path with the least resistance in life, I believe it’s important to be unafraid to take a small risk now and again. I’d rather live a short adventurous life, than a long repetitive one, with the regret that I've wasted all my youth and good health.

If only I could have pulled from memory one of my favorite John Muir quotes to end my conversation with Paul.  “Accidents in the mountains are less common than in the lowlands, and these mountain mansions are decent, delightful, even divine, places to die in, compared to the doleful chambers of civilization. Few places in this world are more dangerous than home.  Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. Even the sick should try these so-called dangerous passes, because for every unfortunate they kill, they cure a thousand."  Nobody says it better than John Muir.

A couple false summits came and went, but I was getting close. I felt more confident on the rough terrain now. I hopped onto boulders and over thin ravines like an old pro. When I got to the top, I was both overjoyed and a little saddened that one of the best trails I’ve ever hiked had ended.

On large boulders sat a scattering of day-hikers. Some of them were eating their lunches, while others sat with arms around a loved one just looking at the view. I found the boulder I thought was the highest and scrambled as close to the top as I could. I began nearly half a vertical mile down. Why stop with only a few more feet to go?

I stuffed an energy bar and my journal into a pocket before climbing up, then sat for a while writing and eating next to the breathtaking 360-degree view, the Blue Ridge Mountains on my left, and rural Virginia Farmland on my right.

I hiked through Weakly Hollow on my journey back down to camp. A much less challenging hike, but there were fewer people. Actually there were no people.

For the remainder of my hike, the sky stayed blue, but the trees’ shadows lengthened and began to darken the forest floor. The hike was peaceful, mainly due to the absence of humans, but also the lack of any unnatural noise, something you forget is greatly important until you're experiencing it. I could hear the tiniest sounds as birds fluttered from branch to branch and rodents bustled along the ground. The wind rocked the treetops back and forth while their drying leaves shivered and hissed, as calm as ocean waves.

Part 4 >
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The Shenandoah Valley, Part Two
- Numbers 13 and 96 on my life list.

Part 2: A Snowy Sunday
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It was a long night. Short catnaps and restlessness divided the hours. I woke up curled in a fetal position low in my sleeping bag, with my sock hat pulled tight over my eyes. I saw light through the knitted fibers and lifted it above one eye to search for my flashlight, which I assumed I accidentally switched on.

I was damn near exultant to realize the light wasn't coming from the flashlight. To give you an idea of how happy I was, I just used the word exultant for the first time in my life. I folded the hat onto my forehead and sat up to see that the sun had finally risen. It suddenly seemed so amazing that an object separated from me by 90 million miles of black void could feel as close or as reassuring.

The cold wind still hadn’t let up, but it left the air crisp and clean. My hands soon returned to their cold pale purple as I worked through the knotted ropes and repacked. I didn’t get mugged by a bear last night and I was thrilled to get back on the trail and my blood moving again.

I continued to gain in elevation. Hefty snowflake confetti fluttered to the ground and soon the forest was dusted in white. Tree branches sagged under the snow’s weight blocking portions of the trail. I smacked the base of them with my hiking poles to knock the snow off. Minus the weight, the branches rose up above my head, as if honoring me with an avenue of crossed swords.

By noon, my thermometer confirmed it was above freezing. The snow turned to a combination of rain and sleet. Droplets of water and ice pummeled my raincoat. Snap, crackle, pop. My knitted gloves, gripped around hiking poles, were glittered with specks of moisture. Beads of water glistened on the edge of the raincoat hood framing my view. The occasional hard step knocked them loose, sending them sparkling to the ground.

The rain rarely accompanies me on my backpacking trips, but it didn't bother me. Actually, I reveled in it. Not only did it keep others indoors, leaving the trail all to myself, but also the engulfing pattering sound narrowed my focus. I felt even more isolated from the rest of the world. A major reason I escape to the wilderness in the first place.

That afternoon, the once snow-white forest floor was already back to soaked brown leaves mixed with red, orange, and yellow. Up ahead the path curved over a creek. I lifted my sock hat on top of my ears, so I could hear the rippling sounds as I carefully stepped across on deliberately placed rocks.

The bright autumn foliage is Shenandoah National Park’s most anticipated show of the year, which is what initially lured me to this park. I looked over reports and photographs from the last few years to figure out when the colors would be at their peak. I chose the 3rd week in October, and it worked out perfectly.

My route’s frequent changes in elevation took me to ridge tops of rich red-brown oaks, down through canary yellow forests of birch and poplar. In the valley most trees were still thick with green, but bright patches of yellow leaves were scattered throughout. Some of them now flowing down streams and over waterfalls. The maples, Virginia Creepers, sumacs, and other vivid red plants were the stars of the show. Their bright pink and scarlet leaves seemed to glow under theater spotlights and grab your attention.

I stopped and took off my pack shortly after entering Nicholson Hollow. Between the trail and the banks of a gushing stream called Rocky Run, I sat on a tree stump and had lunch. Last night's irritation was long gone. My gaze moved to a clear patch of land which shown through the trees. After eating, I surveyed the area then decided to stay here for the next two nights.

It was a rough beginning, but I was so overjoyed to be out here now. I still had three hours of sunlight left, so I could take my time and leisurely setup camp. I located two trees to hang my hammock, away from weak branches, next to a large pile of boulders to help block the cold wind. My odor-proof bag filled with all food and scented items, hung high above the ground and several yards away, not attracting all the animals in the area.

I spent the rest of the daylight strolling along Rocky Run without weight on my back, and filtered it's water to replenished the supply in my pack. The last dwindling hour of sunlight was spent sitting sideways in a relaxing swaying hammock.

Mental note: This is the way the end of a day backpacking should be.

Part Three >

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The Shenandoah Valley, Part One
- Numbers 13 and 96 on my life list.

Go to Part: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

I try to keep my life simple. I’ve managed to avoid most of the responsibilities that tend to ride shotgun with adulthood: marriage, children, a career with even the slightest potential of upward mobility, or any measurable role in the community. But even without those things, ordinary day-to-day life can still keep me distracted from the simple relaxing moments I crave.

Staying on top of requests at work and merely maintaining a clean healthy home and body, so they don’t end up like a post-Chernobyl event, is a daily grind. So even a simplified life can bring with it some short frantic days and nights where you don’t even realize you’re tired until your worn out body hits the pillow.

Often, when I try to relax or spend time on something I enjoy, my mind drifts onto those chores and errands and a tiny pang of guilt seeps in for not working on them. I can't imagine how parents and people with more responsibilities handle it. You must have to be sick to get a guilt-free break from your to-do lists. Fortunately I have a solution that doesn't require being bedridden with the flu: a combination of solitude, a trail meandering through the natural world, and a bare minimum of necessities on your back.

Picture your own to-do list, and imagine for at least a week, that seemingly endless and ever-growing list has been simplified. Now it only contains (and when your transportation is miles away, it's noteworthy to say, it can only contain) one item: take another step. 

You don't think about laundry or mowing the yard. Nobody is going to call asking you for a favor, nor will a deadline at work even cross your mind.  No sense in feeling guilty about it, you are in the woods miles from a vehicle, there is nothing you can do but move forward. Soon you find that your mind unclutters and relaxes.  You can breathe easy.  The important decisions of the day are relegated to where to walk, where to eat, where to sleep, and where to poop. It just doesn’t get any simpler than that.

I know I often romanticize my time in nature and mostly remember the good things, but I want to be honest and not leave the undesirable moments out of my journal. John Muir once said it takes at least two weeks alone in nature to truly learn what it can teach us. I think I know what he was getting at, but for me, at least on this particular adventure, it took about five days. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed nearly every moment I spent in Shenandoah, utterly joyful and exhilarating moments, but there is a threshold. A threshold that once crossed, it’s hard to imagine ever returning to that busy normal life.

But let me start from the beginning. Early in the trip, let’s just say, small mistakes were made and frustration ensued.

Part 1: Saturday, the First Night

“Shit, I think I missed my intersection.” Nearly getting lost didn’t take long, always a good sign at the start of a solo backpacking trip. I’m on a trek through the Shenandoah Valley, paying more attention to the soggy autumn leaves under my feet and the parallel running creek than my location on the map.

I consider turning around, so pull out my map. Yellow highlighter ink zigzagged along to some of the best features in Shenandoah National Park, but I left plenty of opportunities to change course like this, or venture down side trails. Going ahead will only add a couple miles, so I continue.

This morning, as I drove into the mountains on the normally scenic Skyline Drive in the fall of 2009, the wintry conditions worried me. As my altitude increased, ice encased tree branches and thick curtains of fog concealed the turnouts’ views. I checked the weather daily before driving out and expected mid-40s for the low. I asked the man at the gate, who glanced over at the backpack in my seat, what the low was suppose to be tonight.

“They say about 29 degrees,” he said in a tone of “better you than me." 

The temperature concerned me. I wasn’t exactly prepared for it. Everything was frozen or wet and the sun was behind thick gray clouds. I would be sleeping outside in a thin hammock tent and sleeping bag that is far from cozy in freezing temperatures. I should have been better prepared. Forgive me Les Stroud, for I have forsaken you.

Back on the trail, my modified route proved to be more challenging than the one planned. The last three-quarter mile ascended over a thousand feet. I pushed as fast as I could to get on top of the chilly wind-facing hill before nightfall, but didn’t make it. With the sun almost set, I had to stop.

The last hour’s scramble covered me in sweat and the temperature fell below freezing. Even with my new vapor-wicking clothing, the sweat didn't help my comfort. I found two strong trees a good distance apart to hang my hammock. There wasn’t enough daylight left to setup camp properly, and my cold pale-purple hands refused to cooperate when tying the knots for my hammock and bear bag.

With the sunlight gone, I finally settled in for the night. I struggled to get into my sleeping bag, which isn’t easy to do in a hammock tent. It swings and you can’t lift much of your body up at the same time to get the bag underneath you. Until I nailed down a method, it was frustrating and exhausting like trying to take your winter coat off in the car while driving.

If you're having any trouble picturing it, I imagine it looked really similar to me being tazed while attempting to try on pants in a crowded bouncy castle. I hope that helps.

Finally I was settled in, then I realized I forgot to hang my toothpaste, deodorant, and other scented non-food items that bears often mistake for nighttime snacks. Shivering and irritated, I slid on my headlamp and got back out in the cold wind. I stuffed the items into a mesh bag tied to the end of a rope, and tossed it over a tree branch. I knew it would be easy pickings for a large bear with even a small amount of effort.

Strong winds rocked the hammock and whipped through creaking branches. Sharp undergrowth and thorns prevented me from lowering the hammock onto the ground for the warmth and stability. Now, I know none of this would hardly show up on any cable specials about harrowing tales of wilderness survival, but the point is, getting adjusted to leaving the comforts of home can take a bit of time. 

As I lay in my hammock bed, mild paranoia swirled through my brain. Did I do a thorough enough job checking for dead branches above the hammock? Would the wind send one careening towards me? Is that bear bag high enough? Would it get even colder? I wanted to slip into a blissful unconscious slumber, but I was far from sleepy.

Ahead of me were twelve long hours before sunrise. I searched for my book to help pass the time. Dexter. Brilliant. To top it off, I brought a book about serial killers.

Part 2 >

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