“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” – Paraphrased from Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
Well, I’m back from my hiking adventure and as you can probably surmise from the title and the quotes that followed, things did not go exactly according to plan. Nonetheless, there is still a story to tell. If you’ve been following my blog with any regularity you probably already know that I have been in somewhat of a funk lately. Hiking usually lifts me right out of this funk and this two week adventure was going to be the longest I’ve ever done. I had great hopes for this hike to lift me higher, and it did, until it didn’t, and I plunged lower than I’ve ever went before. Yuck, this sounds pretty depressing doesn’t it? Who wants to read something like that? Never fear, I didn’t stay down there. I could have, but I didn’t.
My trail name is M&M, which stands for Mud and Missteps. There was some mud. There were definitely some missteps. Bet you are all wondering what the hell I am talking about. How best to tell you? Oh, I got it, from beginning to end. Strap in, it’s a long one. First, let me list a few things I learned.
- I wasn’t as nearly prepared as I thought I was.
- Thru hikers are goddesses and gods and I doubt I’ll ever ascend to their level.
- Hiking through the mountains for days at a time is awesome and I love it!
- I will never take something as basic as water for granted again.
- I suck at weight management for my backpack.
- I suck.
- I can’t wait to do it again.
It was around 7:00 am on a Saturday and my son, Dusty, and I had just strapped on our packs, extended our trekking poles, and hooked up Sawyer, The Trail Wonder Dog, to the hiking leash. We were standing at the Compton Gap overlook which is the northern most place you can access the Appalachian Trail on the Shenandoah National Park Skyline Drive. My wife took a quick picture with her phone and then I gave her a hug and a kiss, told her I loved her and would see her in two weeks. Little did I know then, that wouldn’t be the case. That’s called foreshadowing in case you are unfamiliar.
We crossed the road and disappeared into the woods on the trail access point. We headed south and immediately began climbing up a mountain. I couldn’t help but think that, man, this pack was really heavy. But it’s supposed to be heavy right? I mean, I was carrying everything I needed to survive the next two weeks. A tent, water filtering equipment, stove, rain gear, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad were just some of the things I was carrying. I also had a week’s supply worth of food, and water for the day for myself and Sawyer.
It wasn’t long before I saw the first white blaze that marks the path of the AT on a tree. This filled me with such excitement that I soon forgot about the weight of my pack. Up ahead I heard Dusty muttering and saw him clawing at his face. I couldn’t help but chuckle a little. He was running into spider webs that had been spun across the trail during the night. Often the first one on the trail in the morning is on what is called spider patrol. Dusty hated spiders and the stuff they shoot from their butts. However, he soldiered on as he hiked on point.
About 15 minutes after we began, the trail started to level off some and my leg muscles were rejoicing. Dusty was no more than five feet in front of me when I heard him gasp and start gesturing spasmodically. I thought maybe he had run into a particularly dense web, maybe one with a spider still in residence. When I communicated this thought to him he just shook his head and pointed to the right of the trail. I followed his line of sight and saw what had him a little concerned. There were two of them. They were not spiders. They were bears. Black bears to be more accurate. One looked like a cub and was halfway up a tree. The other was quite larger and was standing at the base of the tree. They were only about ten feet away from us. We froze in place and stared at them. They froze in place and stared at us. Sawyer was looking at me like, “What the hell is going on dude?”
I knew it was only a matter of seconds before Sawyer saw the bears or got the scent and barking would be forthcoming. If that was a mother bear and her cub then we were in for a shit storm. Slowly we started walking further down the trail while I guided Sawyer along hoping he wouldn’t notice. We got maybe 20 feet down the trail with no sign of pursuit when Sawyer finally caught the scent and tried to go back up the trail. I had to drag hard on the leash to get him to come along and we picked up the pace to put some distance between us and the ursine encounter. Only then did I think to grab the can of bear spray in my hip belt pouch that my wife had insisted I take. I may have been a little late on that one but I kept it in my hand for the next hour, just in case. Neither Dusty nor I had even thought to take a picture of the bears. We were too freaked out. They say picture or it didn’t happen. That shit happened y’all and if you don’t believe me then fuck you.
Did you think I might have gotten mauled by a bear and that was the cause of my plans going awry? No, nothing that exciting. As a matter of fact the first day went great. After we calmed down from that excitement, we hiked on. A little after noon we summited North Marshall Mountain and came to a spectacular view. We chose this place to have lunch. Lunch consisted of tortillas, tuna fish, sausage, and cheese. Oh yeah, just about half an hour before we got there, one of Dusty’s brand new trekking poles broke. Luckily he bought them at REI which is known for working with hikers to replace gear on the trail. We were able to get a cell signal at the lunch spot and called them to arrange for a replacement pole to be sent to where we planned to resupply in a week. In the meantime, Dusty used that universal magical material better known as duct tape, to temporarily repair his pole.
After lunch, we got back to it and hiked on. We descended North Marshall Mountain and soon came to another trail access point parking lot on the Skyline Drive. We stopped to take a little break here and I saw a man sitting on a rock by the trail head eating a snack. He had all the looks of a thru hiker. I struck up a conversation with him and he was in fact a thru hiker going southbound (SOBO) from Maine to Georgia. I compared the size of his pack to mine and it looked like his was smaller by half. I remarked on this and he was somewhat surprised to hear I thought his pack was small. That is, until he got a real good look at the one on my back and kind of shook his head. I asked him his trail name, which was Red Beard (even though it was full on white), and gave him mine. I told him my son didn’t have a trail name and was just called Dusty. He said that the trail was often dusty. I liked this and I dubbed my son Dusty Trails. He also told us he was shooting for Gravel Springs Hut for a camping spot. I told him that we were shooting for the same place. He said he would see us when he got there, but I replied that he would probably be passing us soon. He said he doubted it and we hiked on, leaving Red Beard there. Twenty minutes later as we were ascending South Marshall Mountain, he passed us.
A couple hours later we were nearing the short side trail to the shelter when we ran into Red Beard again. I’m not sure how we caught up to him as he had been flying when he passed us. We all turned down the trail and headed to the shelter. Shelters, or huts, are erected all along the AT. For the most part they are three sided structures with an open side. You can sleep in them without having to put up a tent. There was nobody at this shelter when we arrived and Red Beard immediately began unpacking his stuff and claimed a spot in the shelter. Dusty and I were going to tent camp. There are usually good spots around the shelter for tents and this one was no exception. Just about 50 yards away, down a slight hill, were two good spots and we set up our tents there. Once that was done the work wasn’t over. We had pretty much gone through our water supply and had to get more from a creek that was flowing about 100 yards back up the trail.
Getting water to drink and cook with isn’t just as simple as scooping it out of the creek. Unfiltered water can contain parasites or bacteria that can at the very least make you sick to your stomach and give you diarrhea (cha cha cha). At the worst it can cause you to become deathly ill. That’s why we brought water filtering equipment. Filtering water is not a quick process and took us a while to get enough to drink for the night and to cook our evening meal. When we were finally done with that chore I noticed it had been two hours since we had gotten to the shelter. Getting camp set up and doing all the necessary chores was time consuming and I was really beat. But now we finally had a chance to relax and eat a meal.
When we got back over to the table by the shelter we noticed that two other people were there. A father and his daughter were setting their stuff up in the shelter. They were out for a couple weeks on a north bound section hike. When Dusty and I pulled out our food sacks everyone else got wide eyed. Then Red Beard said that he couldn’t believe the size of our sacks. Hehe, I just realized I could have made a joke about that statement, but I was too concerned with the look in his eyes. I hefted the food sack up and realized that it was really heavy. When we packed, we brought freeze dried meals for dinner, tortillas, tuna packs, sausage and cheese sticks for lunch, and snickers and cliff bars for snacks throughout the day. In addition I was also carrying a Ziploc bag full of hard dog food and pouches of wet dog food for Sawyer. It really was a lot but I didn’t see any way around it and I said so. Red Beard then pointed out that the freeze dried meals that Dusty and I were currently consuming were for 2.5 servings. I looked down at the bag and confirmed what he had just pointed out. Son of a bitch! How had I missed that when we were buying them? Red Beard showed me his single serving meal which was a small bag and weighed much less. Just then I realized I was getting full and there was still a substantial amount of spaghetti left in my meal bag. Both Dusty and I ended up giving some leftover food to Sawyer, who was happy to help us out with that problem. Oh well, guess I still had some things to learn yet.
After finishing our meals, we cleaned up and stored all our food and scented items in a bear box that was installed near the shelter. This came as a welcome surprise as we thought we would be hanging our food bags in a tree to keep Yogi away from our pic-a-nic baskets. We had even watched You Tube videos on the best way to hang bear bags and had practiced in the back yard a couple days before leaving. Dusty and I broke out a deck of cards and played a few games of 31. If you don’t know how to play this and you’re interested, just let me know and I’ll teach you. It was getting close to 7 PM and the sun had already set about ten minutes before that. The light was fleeting and Red Beard had already crawled into his sleeping bag in the shelter and pulled his mummy hood over his head. We broke out our head lamps and played one more game before calling it quits. Everyone else was also winding down for the night. You might think that 7 PM is awfully early to hit the sack. Normally I would agree with you, but when you have been hiking all day your body is ready for some rest so it can be good to go the next morning. This time of night is often what is referred to as “Hiker’s Midnight”. I probably could have stayed up a bit longer but I didn’t want to disturb the ones in the shelter. So I made a quick visit to the privy (something you probably don’t want further details about) and then headed to my tent.
Dusty had already crawled into his tent when Sawyer and I got there. On previous weekend overnight hikes I sometimes had to cajole Sawyer into the tent. Not this time. As soon as I unzipped the flap he went straight in and flopped down in his spot. Guess it was hiker’s midnight for dogs too. I changed into some sleeping shorts and this is when I discovered that the GoPro camera I brought was completely dead. I had fully charged it before the hike so I could take short videos along the way without worrying about having to recharge it. I had taken it out of my pack earlier and shot a short video at the shelter. I then put it in my pants pocket where it evidently had inadvertently gotten turned back on and shot about an hour’s worth of video of the inside of my pocket before it died. It’s some real riveting footage I tell ya. I expect it to be nominated for an Oscar in the short documentary category. So now my GoPro was just dead weight and I wouldn’t be taking any more videos with it.
I broke out my ear plugs and put them in. I brought these because of lessons learned from previous overnight hikes. Once I’m lying down inside the tent and trying to go to sleep, every little sound I hear is amplified in my mind as a bear, mountain lion, or Jason from Friday the 13th, coming to kill me. So I figured I would put ear plugs in and if any of the aforementioned assailants happened to show up, at least I would have gotten some rest before I felt the claws or machete tearing me apart. Ended up working like a charm, and except for a 3 AM pee break (Sawyer included), I got a pretty good night’s sleep.
I rolled out of my tent around 6:30 and woke Dusty up. Sunrise wasn’t for another 20 minutes or so but I could already see the sky starting to lighten and we needed to get packed up and back on the trail. We got all our stuff broke down and back into our packs and headed up to the shelter. Red Beard was already gone and the father/daughter team was just getting ready to head out. I could see we were going to have to get faster at getting on the trail in the morning because we still needed to filter more water and have some breakfast. This is when I noticed that I was missing my large water filter bag. I had brought three in my kit, a large, medium, and small. I remember using the large one for water to boil the night before for dinner. I couldn’t remember putting it back in the kit. What I did remember is that the father had also filtered water not long after us and had a ton of water filter bags. I wondered maybe if ours had gotten mixed in with theirs. At the moment the father was in the privy so I asked the daughter if she saw our large bag on the table and if it could have possibly gotten mixed up with theirs? She told me she hadn’t seen it and all their bags were accounted for. What was I supposed to say? Maybe I was wrong and I had left it by a tree where we were camping. I went back down to where we had put our tents up and searched around the whole area coming up empty. When I went back up to the shelter Dusty was the only one there. So now we were down one large water filter bag. This wasn’t the worse thing in the world but it would make filtering water take even longer now. That’s exactly the task we set out to do after scarfing down a few pop tarts for breakfast. By the time we were done with that it was almost 8:00. We were definitely going to have to get faster getting out of camp.
As soon as I hefted my pack onto my back my body protested with aches and pains in places I didn’t even realize I had. I was sore for sure but that’s the price you paid for getting to walk through amazing places like this. I told myself I would get used to it in a couple of days and started hiking. We had 13 miles to hike today with several mountain summits in between before we reached the next shelter on the trail. The first climb was slow going for me. I had to stop several times to catch my breath and I could see it was frustrating Dusty who didn’t seem to be having any difficulties at all. I told him to go on and hike ahead if he wanted and I would catch up. He offered to take Sawyer with him and I graciously accepted. Soon he was around a bend and out of sight. I wouldn’t see him again for the next couple of hours.
I slowly made my way along a series of switchbacks up the mountain I was climbing, taking a few sips of water from my bladder every now and then. Sometime not too long after, I started noticing my vision doing something funny. It was like I was seeing stars in my vision. If I turned my head too quick the stars would multiply and my vision would close down to a pin point. This usually only lasted for a few seconds and if I rested it would go away entirely. Despite this, I continued to hike. What else was I going to do? I eventually made it to the top of the mountain and I found some huge rock formations. I decided to celebrate making the ascent by sitting down on one of the perfectly positioned rocks and taking an extended break. I didn’t take my pack off though. It was a pain in the ass to lift that thing back up so I tried to limit how many times I dropped it during the day. After about ten minutes I decided to get back on the trail. As soon as I stood up the stars returned, except this time they totally closed in my vision until I could see nothing and then all went black.
The next thing I knew I was coming to, sprawled out on the rock I had just been sitting on. Luckily I still had my pack on and it kind of caught in a wedge on the rock and kept me from tumbling down amongst all the other rocks. I figured I had probably been out at least half a minute. I got my bearings and slowly stood back up. I still felt dizzy and saw a few stars but nothing like before. As you can imagine this was somewhat concerning to me but I had no choice but to hike on. I started on the descent and picked up a little speed. As I made my way down I started to feel better and before long I came upon Dusty and Sawyer resting on a log. I let him know what happened and he asked me what I wanted to do. I consulted my AT guide book and saw that we were only about half a mile from reaching Skyline Drive again and there was a wayside at this crossing. A wayside is like a small rest area, store, and grill along the road that people stop at to get souvenirs or a bite to eat. We decided to get some lunch there and figure out what we were going to do then.
We soon came to the wayside and got a few cheeseburgers to chow on. We ate our lunch sitting at a picnic table while consulting our guide. It was already after noon and it was painfully obvious that we were not going to make the other shelter before dark. Most people would wonder why we didn’t just hike until we wanted and then throw our tents down for the night. Well, it doesn’t quite work that way. There are portions of the trail going up and down the side of mountains and there are no spots to put a tent. But the main concern is stopping at a place where there is a water source. I was quickly coming to understand that water was the number one factor in almost every decision we made. We found a spot in the guide that showed a water source at a day use facility about five miles away. There were two summits we would have to make before getting there though, so it would take us some time. Also, day use facilities don’t usually allow camping, but at this point we didn’t care. We would just have to do some “stealth” camping.
We shouldered our packs and headed back on the trail. The trail descended for about another mile where it reached the valley floor and then began to climb the first of those two summits. This one was going to be the longest summit of the two and I figured if I could just bust this out, the rest of the day would be gravy. My body did not agree. About halfway up, the stars returned and I felt dizzy again. I tried to keep going but I soon realized that things were getting ready to go south on me again. Dusty had stayed close by this time and asked me if I was alright. It was obvious to him that something was going on. At this point I had no idea what to do. I knew that if I tried to go on I was going to pass out. My head was in a fog and I couldn’t even think straight. I told Dusty that I didn’t have a choice. We were going to have to go back to the wayside and try to figure something out when we got there. I could see the disappointment in his eyes but he agreed. I hated to be the cause of this disappointment and I felt like a total shit that I was letting him down.
We headed back the way we came and soon reached the valley floor again. Shortly after starting the climb back up to the wayside we met a ranger coming from the opposite way. The ranger took one look at me and asked what was going on. I had no idea it was that evident. I related the story of how I passed out earlier and was feeling like I was going to do it again. He told me I needed to get off the trail and get myself checked out. In the back of my mind I knew this was probably going to be what I had to do but hearing it come from a ranger made it all real. Here I was on day two of my grand adventure and I was going to have to quit? What a loser I was. Couldn’t even hack two days on the trail. The ranger could see my utter defeated look on my face and told me that he understood what I was going through. He’d seen it a hundred times out here, but I had to consider my health because this was no place to have a serious medical episode. He then told us to make our way back to the wayside and see if anyone there could give us a ride to a town.
So that’s what we did. Once back at the wayside, this introverted, socially awkward, dirty, stinky person walked around the wayside asking people if they could give us a ride in to town. How do you think that turned out? Yup, not one taker. After an hour of begging we were still sitting at a picnic table no closer to getting out of there than we were when we arrived. I have to tell you, if you’ve never done this kind of thing before you really take having transportation for granted. It was the most helpless feeling in the world not knowing how you were going to get where you needed to be or what you were going to do when the sun went down at night. Dusty was particularly upset by this and I felt that I was failing as a father to provide some answer. We were actually thinking about trying to camp in a picnic area adjacent to the wayside after the placed closed in about two hours. I could only imagine how well that would go over as it would be easy for a ranger on patrol to check and kick us out. As I was contemplating this I saw an employee from the wayside store come out to have a smoke at an adjacent picnic table. I walked over and asked him if they had ever had hikers that needed to get off the trail and come here looking to do that. He told me to check with the lady that ran the gift shop. She had a list of numbers for Trail Angels in the area. Trail Angels are people that like to help AT hikers out, usually in the form of a ride in to town or a return trip back to the trail. I thanked the guy and went into the store.
Inside I found the lady and related my story to her. Her first concern was for my health and asked me if she needed to dial 911. I quickly told her that I didn’t think my situation warranted that but that I needed to get off the trail to have myself checked out. She consulted a folder she had under the counter and told me my best bet would be to call this lady, Allison, who ran a nearby hostel. If we gave her our business for the night she could take us wherever we needed to go. She let me use the phone on the counter and I called. Allison picked up the phone and I explained my situation to her. She told me she had another hiker she was picking up at a road crossing and then she would come to the wayside to pick us up. It would probably be about 45 minutes. I thanked Allison and the lady behind the counter, and then went outside to give Dusty the news. He was relieved to find out we had a ride, as was I.
A while later a van pulled into the parking lot. A lady got out and opened the back door. We walked over and I asked her if she was Allison (I’d already had a few false alarms before that) and she stated she was. It’s at this point that I realized I never told her I had a dog. Not only a dog, but a 100 pound dog. As soon as I voiced my concern over that she told me not to worry because her hostel was a pet friendly place. As a matter of fact I could see someone sitting in the front passenger seat with a small dog in his lap. Sawyer is a teddy bear when it comes to humans. Not so much when it comes to other dogs. I was a little worried but he was so tired he just jumped up in the back and only gave the other dog a cursory glance. Once we had all our gear in the back we got in and were on our way to the hostel. All I could see of the other passenger was the back of his head but for some reason it looked familiar to me. Not long after, the guy turned his head to say something to Allison and I saw that it was Red Beard! I knew from talking to him the night before that he had planned on making the next shelter also. I guess he changed his mind. A half hour later we pulled up to her hostel. It was a beautiful house on the side of a hill partially built in rock. A sign on the front proclaimed that this was the Open Arms Hostel.
Before I go any further let me take a moment to talk Allison up. She is a wonderful host who totally saved our asses in a difficult situation. Sure, she is running a business but it’s not to get rich. She truly loves serving the hiking community and goes all out to do so. If you are a hiker, or biker, or anyone that’s looking for a hostel in the Luray area of Virginia, you would be hard pressed to find any better than this one. Check out her website at https://openarmsluray.com/. She is a true Trail Angel and you won’t be disappointed.
Allison showed us around the place and told us we had open access to all the common areas. She took us upstairs to show us the available rooms. Dusty and I chose a room with two twin beds and Red Beard took another room. As anyone who has read this blog would know, I am an introvert with social anxiety. I’ve never stayed at a hostel and I was a bit nervous about doing so now. However, Allison made me feel right at home and soon all the uneasy feelings dissipated. After we had showered to get the hiker stink off us, she offered to take us in to town to get some dinner. Red Beard took her up on the offer and decided to get dropped off at a pub. This sounded great to both Dusty and I but unfortunately we couldn’t take her up on that offer. Allison had three cats and Sawyer had never been around cats before. Allison offered to let him stay in the house while we were gone but I just couldn’t trust that Sawyer wouldn’t be more tempted with feline cuisine for dinner than the package of wet food I had planned for him. So we ordered a pizza instead. Once the pizza was delivered we offered to share with some of the other people staying at the house. One was an exchange student from Belgium I think it was. Another was working at the park doing some type of botanical studies for her degree. It was nice to chat with them despite my social anxiety.
Later, after Allison had run some errands and picked up Red Beard, she came to our room and asked us what our plans were? I had called my wife earlier to inform her of the situation and after I was able to convince her that I was not in any immediate danger, we discussed the option of maybe seeing a doctor around the area and then getting back on the trail if everything checked out. However, Dusty was not too keen on this plan as he had really been uncomfortable with the whole relying on other people for a ride thing. To tell the truth, I wasn’t exactly comfortable with it myself and it didn’t take too much convincing to decide to just rent a car in the morning and take the 4 hour drive back home so we would be in familiar territory while I got checked out.
You would think that renting a car would be an easy thing. Not so much. Allison told me that the closest town was very small and only had an Enterprise Rental Car place. I went online on the community computer that Allison provides her guests and to my delight, I was able to book a car for the next morning there. About an hour before Allison was going to give us a ride to the place the next morning I got a call and was told that even though the website said there was a car available there actually wasn’t one. Balls. Because of this issue I forwent the computer and actually had to use the phone and talk to a live person at another Enterprise in the larger town of Front Royal a little further away. Try as I might I could not get through to the actual local place. It kept transferring me to the national rental center. I talked to a lady there and explained my situation. When she heard I had a dog she told me that he would have to be in a crate. I kindly explained to her that we had been hiking the AT and I didn’t have a crate and had no way of getting one. She then told me she would go ahead and make the reservation and then transfer me to the local office to where they would “probably” be all right with my situation, but I could make sure. So after being on the phone with her for a substantial amount of time to complete the reservation, she transferred me. I explained the situation to the guy who picked up the phone and he flatly informed me that a dog would not be allowed in the rental car. No amount of pleading would change his mind. So I finally told him thanks for nothing and cancelled my reservation. The next place I called was a Budget at the Harrisonburg airport that was an hour away. It was like night and day talking to this guy. He couldn’t have been more helpful and told me that dogs were allowed as long as I agreed to pay a cleanup fee if the car was dirty or had dog hair all in it when we turned it in. My dog is a Golden Retriever and sheds something awful but at this point I was desperate and agreed. After confirming with Allison that she could take us (she actually cancelled a conference call she had scheduled), I made the reservation, told the Budget guy he was my new best friend and that we would see him in an hour.
An hour later we pulled up to the curb at the little regional airport. We dumped our packs on the sidewalk and Dusty stayed with Sawyer while I went in to the rental counter. I expected things to go wrong here but the guy remembered me and things could not have gone smoother. As soon as he held up the keys I quickly snatched them out of his hand like it was a rope thrown to a man sinking in quicksand. I know that sounds melodramatic but there is a crazy uneasy feeling when you are basically stranded and these keys gave me back my freedom. I turned around and there was Allison. I had expected her to take off as soon as I went in to the airport but she had hung around just to make sure everything went well before she took off. I’m telling you, she is one hell of a host. If you ever have the opportunity to patronage her place, do so. I gave her a hug and thanked her for bailing us out of a difficult situation.
I exited the airport holding the keys high above my head like a prize to show to Dusty. We loaded up and were soon heading on our way home, Sawyer sleeping in the back of the SUV I had rented. I had been happy and relieved when we got on the road but as the miles went by I started to realize something. I was a failure. Two years I had been planning this trip and I hadn’t even lasted two full days. My son had taken leave from the Navy to be here and spent all kinds of money to come on this trip and I was ruining it for him. To his credit he repeatedly told me he understood and that we couldn’t take chances with my health, but nonetheless I started to sink down into a depression. I felt like the biggest loser in the world.
By the time we arrived home that night I was in a total fog of despair. My wife tried to comfort me as best she could but I was so embarrassed I didn’t want anyone to know I was back home. I avoided all social media and asked her not to tell anyone I was home until I had gotten checked out. The next morning Dusty and I returned the rental car after I vacuumed out a ton of dog hair. I guess I did a good job because they didn’t charge me. I then went to an appointment at Urgent Care that I had booked the night before. I don’t go to the doctor very often so I don’t have a primary physician. Whenever I require medical attention I usually go to an Urgent Care facility. However, this time after I’d gone through the check in procedure and explained to the intake nurse why I was there, she called me back into her office to let me know that the doctor said they were not equipped to handle my symptoms and that I needed to go to the Emergency Room at the hospital. I tried to explain that while I did pass out, it was a couple of days ago and even though I was still feeling a bit light headed and dizzy, I wasn’t having serious issues at the moment. I just wanted someone to check me out and tell me if I needed to look into this further. No joy. They insisted I go to the ER.
Like I said before, I don’t go to the doctor that much. The biggest reason is I don’t like being the center of attention. It jacks my social anxiety to the stratosphere. Going to the ER would be that times a billion. I numbly walked out of the Urgent Care facility, got in my jeep, and just started driving, wondering what to do. I needed to get checked out but the last fucking place in the fucking world I wanted to go was the fucking ER. I know that’s a lot of “fuckings” but that is how it was going in my head over and over until I had what I can only call my first panic attack ever. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was a total nut job. I had to pull the car over to the side of the road while I tried to get it together. I eventually noticed that I was actually on a surface street back in my neighborhood. That’s when I saw a little dog walking right down the middle of the road. I looked around for an owner and saw no one. I was afraid a car was going to come by any minute and squash the little guy. So I got out and tried to call him over. He was a little warry and constantly kept just out of my reach as he walked down the road. I followed him for a few blocks until he swerved into the yard of a house. He kept circling out of my reach but stayed in this yard. I was just figuring out he lived here when the door opened and a guy came out and told me everything was OK. It was his dog and he let him wander on his own. I thought this wasn’t a very good idea but I wasn’t about to get into it with him right then. As I walked back to my jeep I realized I had calmed down quite a bit. I silently thanked the little canine intervention and resigned myself to the fact that I would need to go to the ER and I headed that way.
I’ll spare you lengthy details about the visit. They stuck me in a bed and gave me all kinds of tests, including an EKG, CAT scan, and static/dynamic blood pressure testing. Six hours later you know what they found wrong with me? Absolutely nothing. You might think that would make me glad. You’d be wrong. This meant that I quit the trail for no good reason. That I just couldn’t hack it. It made me feel like shit!
They did actually say they saw signs of dehydration when they ran tests on my urine sample (gross, sorry) and that I probably didn’t drink enough water while on the trail. This did make some sense as I knew I had been worried about conserving water and making sure Sawyer had enough to drink. But it didn’t do anything to assuage the feeling of total loserness. I quit what I had been looking forward to for so long because I didn’t drink enough water?
I went home and informed my wife and son of the results. Then I went to bed. The next morning I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I slept in a good while and when I finally got up I found Dusty watching TV. He asked me what the plan was because he didn’t want to use up all of his leave if we weren’t going to do anything. I told him we’d figure something out that day. Instead of doing that, we ended up binge watching the whole last season of The Walking Dead that Dusty hadn’t seen yet. By the time I went to bed that night I was even more in a black fog and pretty much figured everything was a lost cause.
The next morning I woke up and laid there thinking I had a choice to make. I could either wallow in self-pity and see my son leave early, or I could get my ass up, regroup, and figure out how to salvage this situation. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to execute the latter option. I sat down with Dusty and we talked about what had gone wrong and what we could do with the rest of the time we had left. We decided we were going back out. Unfortunately, my wife was working and could not take us back to the AT and drop us off. So we concocted a plan to drive back ourselves and do portions of the AT and side trails that would allow us to park, hike, camp, and return via a circuitous route the next day. Then we would drive to another section and repeat the process as many times as we could. I printed out new maps of candidate side trails and things started to take shape.
One of the things we came to the realize was that we had seriously over weighted our packs the first time. They were close to 50 pounds and were just too heavy to be hauling up and down mountains. If we were going back out we would have to seriously cut down on the weight this time. We scaled back on everything we could and managed to get our packs down to a more manageable 35 pounds. Alas, this did not leave room for me to carry things for Sawyer and he had to stay behind this time. He was none too happy about that and let me know with his sad puppy dog eyes when he saw us gearing up. It broke my heart but I just didn’t have the time to figure out how to accommodate him on this trip.
We completed our preparations when we ran by REI to get Dusty’s broken trekking pole replaced and to buy another large water filter bag. At 5:00 the next morning we rolled back out on our hiking trip, part two. Three hours later we had packs on and trekking poles out ready to hike. This hike would actually be a combination of three different trails and as I set foot down on the path for the first time I immediately felt my spirits lift. We were back out here and it felt nice to not let our previous troubles utterly defeat us. We couldn’t avoid all trouble, which you’ll see, but spoiler alert; we didn’t let them drive us off the trail again. We hiked the first trail that led us up a mountain until it intersected with a ridge trail. We hiked that trail along a very rocky ridgeline of Torrey Mountain. We didn’t mind the rocks one bit. We were back out here and we were loving every minute of it.
We hiked this trail for the first part of the day and just after noon we intersected the Mills Creek trail that would be our next route. We stopped here for lunch and then headed down the trail into a steep valley. A few hours later we came to a place where there was supposed to be a creek. There was a wide spot and an area where a creek might have ran before, but now it was bone dry. This caused me a little concern as there were supposed to be two more creek crossing where we could get water before we came to the place we had chosen to camp for the night. If those were also dry we were going to be in for some big trouble. We had no choice but to hike on and sometime later I stopped and told Dusty to be quiet. In the distance I could hear what sounded like water flowing. We practically ran until we came across a creek with substantial water coursing along. This served to quell my fears. We still had about 2 miles to hike until our camping spot but it was also supposed to be right next to a creek. As much as I would hate to backtrack, I now knew that water was in range even if the other creek was dry. I needn’t worry. The creek next to our camp site was even bigger and faster flowing than this one.
Now let me tell you about the bugs, and by bugs I mean gnats. After we crossed that first creek, gnats slowly started to appear and buzz about. As we hiked on, the gnats grew more and more numerous until they were actually blotting out the sun! It was a swarm of gnats and they were buzzing around and in every exposed orifice I had. We were on an upgrade again, heading out of the valley, and my tired muscles were protesting. I couldn’t muster up the energy to hike faster to rid myself of these gnats. Dusty, on the other hand, absolutely could not stand the onslaught and starting running up the trail. I had to go into a Zen like state and just let the gnats violate me as I walked. I eventually caught up to Dusty just before we reached the other creek crossing and came to our planned camping site. Normally, our first order of business would be to set up our tents and then filter water. Dusty had alternate plans this time. He built a fire to get rid of the gnats. It did a pretty good job too. The gnat level dropped drastically and by the time night fell they were gone completely. We had a great time that night, just the two of us, sitting alone in the woods, cooking our meals, and playing cards around the fire. We even got a chance to try out our bear bag hanging skills. Dusty was much better at it than me. As I lay in my tent that night I had a big smile on my face as I slipped into a slumber.
The next morning we broke camp, filtered some water from the ample supply of the creek, ate some breakfast, then continued hiking the rest of the trail. We hiked for about three hours and luckily the gnats never came back. There were several more creek crossings and the scenery was outstanding. Then we came to the part we had both been dreading. We knew it was coming. We had read the warning in the description of the hike map we had printed out. What am I taking about? We were at the beginning of a very tough climb with 1100 feet of elevation gain in eight switch backs in just over a mile. Now was the big test. Was I going to be able to do this or would it get the best of me again? I really had no choice. It was the only way to go. So up we went. I’m not going to lie. It was tough and I had to stop several times to catch my breath. Slowly but surely I made my way up this steep climb. Dusty was ahead of me on the climb, which he often is, and about halfway up I suddenly saw him jerk back like something had pushed him. He then went down and slid off the side of the trail near a precarious drop off! I quickly reached down and grabbed the back of his pack with one hand and a tree with the other. I was able to half drag him back onto the trail where he eventually gained his feet. After my heart stopped racing even harder than it already was during this climb, Dusty showed me a tree limb that was sticking down right in the middle of the trail. It had caught in the top portion of his pack and had propelled him backwards.
After that little excitement we continued on and eventually made it to the top, where we had a most curious welcoming. A dog came down the trail and started barking at us. Where the trail came out on top of the mountain was a beautiful camping spot where we saw a tent pitched and a guy following behind the dog. He apologized for the dog barking which we told him was totally not a problem. We talked to the guy for a bit and he was actually amazed that we had come up the trail with full packs. This site was actually next to a fire road (that we would soon be hiking on) and him and his buddies that were currently gone to get supplies, had driven up in their off road vehicles to camp for a few days. They had ventured a ways down the trail the day before and turned around because it was too steep. This made me feel like I had really accomplished something. We decided to celebrate by taking a “packs off” break for a bit. We asked the guy if he minded us copping a squat next to a large tree off to the side of their site and he was cool with it. We rested there for about half an hour, refueling on snickers and cliff bars. His friends came back while we were still there and we all introduced ourselves. They offered us a beer and we were extremely tempted, but we had miles to go and wanted to get to another trail today, so we remorsefully declined.
Once we were done with the break we geared back up and bade our fellow outdoorsmen good bye. We set out on the fire road which was a breeze compared to what we had just done. Not too long after we turned off the road onto another trail that eventually connected us back to the beginning of the trail we had started yesterday. In a couple of hours we were back at the jeep and we executed a celebratory high five on completing our first planned hike. We then drove south to our next planned hike. Just off the AT was a trail called the Apple Orchard Falls trail with stream views on 90% of the hike. Our plan was to make this hike to the top of the falls then continue on until it intersected with a fire road that cut over to another trail called Cornelius Creek which would eventually return us to the trailhead where we would park. Since we would be getting to the trailhead late in the day we decided to hike a ways up the trail and find a camping spot then start early the next day to finish the route.
We ended up finding a really nice spot to camp down in a valley next to a flowing creek. Well it was really nice except for one thing. As we were putting up our tents, Dusty was just hammering down his last tent stake in the spot he had chosen when I heard him swear and start running around. He yelled that something was stinging him and that’s when I saw a swarm of yellow jackets chasing him around. One of them had gotten him on the arm. We both retreated to a safe distance and soon the yellow jackets disappeared. I slowly went back over to his tent and looked around and could find no signs of a nest anywhere. I figured they had just been passing through so I bent down to finish hammering down the last stake. Just as the rock hit the stake I noticed a little hole in the ground next to a small tree by the tent. Then I saw about fifty billion mad as hell yellow jackets come flying out of that hole straight toward me. I ran my ass off but one of those little fuckers got me on the arm as well, and to add insult to injury, one got Dusty again on the same arm.
We retreated even further this time to discuss this dilemma. How were we going to stay here with those damn things buzzing about? Both of our tents were almost completely erected and we had unloaded a good portion of our gear from our packs. We only had a couple hours of daylight left. I doubted we would be able to get to another suitable place and set up before it got dark. Even if we did decide to do this, how were we going to get Dusty’s tent down without getting stung a gagillion more times? We thought about using a lighter and creating a blow torch out of the little can of bug spray we had. We even tested it out and it flamed up just fine. Only thing was I had my doubts on how far the flame would make it down the hole and just how mad the surviving stinging beasts would be. So we aborted that plan. What we ended up doing was waiting until we couldn’t see any more yellow jackets. For some reason I think they were trying to get back into their nest for the night. We found a rock just about the size of the hole. Dusty shoved the rock into the hole and I took a bigger rock and hammered it tight down in and then left the big rock sitting on top. Then we beat feet a good ways off and observed. At first we didn’t see anything but after a few minutes we saw a few yellow jackets flying around the rock. Was there a back door to that nest? Were they tunneling around and getting out? We braced ourselves for another onslaught, but it never came. We eventually determined that these few yellow jackets must have been outside the nest when we blocked it up and were trying to get back in. They didn’t even bother us because they were so concerned with why someone had installed a front door to their nest and nobody was answering their knocks.
Just to be on the safe side we stayed away from Dusty’s tent area the rest of the night. We built a fire next to the creek, cooked our meals, and played cards until we were ready for bed. I went into my tent first and made sure every point of entry was sealed up. When I was sure, I gave the word to Dusty who ran for his tent, and with speed that would make a NASCAR pit crew proud, unzipped, slipped in, and zipped up before any remaining yellow jackets could attack. The next morning we both carefully emerged from our tents but we didn’t see any signs of those ground dwelling jizz waffles. We decided to cook a hot breakfast that morning to celebrate our victory. While we were eating, Dusty showed me that his arm where he had been stung was a little swollen. I asked him if he was OK to continue and he said he was, so we broke camp and headed out on the Apple Orchard Falls trail.
This trail is a pretty tough climb up to the top of the falls but there were amazing views of fast running streams and lesser falls all along the way that made it totally worth it. A few hours later we made it to the top and took a break to enjoy the splendor of the tumbling waters. After that, we headed up to a fire road and took that for a couple of miles and connected with the Cornelius Creek trail and started back down. This trail also had some very nice views along streams that we crossed over back and forth until a few hours later when we returned to the trailhead and the waiting jeep.
Once we got all our stuff loaded in to the jeep I saw Dusty examining his arm. It was now twice the size of his other arm. He had never had an allergic reaction to a sting before but this was starting to worry me, as it was him. We had planned on heading to our next trail so we could hike a ways and camp at a shelter for the night before continuing on the next day. However, I did not want to be on a trail miles from a medical facility and have Dusty develop any serious complications from an allergic reaction. We decided the smart thing to do would be to get him checked out before proceeding. I consulted the GPS in my jeep for the nearest hospital which was in a little town called Bedford, 45 minutes away. At least it would have been 45 minutes away if the GPS had distinguished between an actual road and the barely dirt path it directed us to follow. Except for the delay in getting to the hospital, we actually enjoyed the ride. It gave me a chance to throw the jeep into 4X4 mode and doing a little off-roading. We twisted and turned on a path only wide enough for one vehicle up the side of a mountain where we eventually emerged onto a blacktop road that we followed into Bedford. So for the second time in two weeks I was walking into a hospital. We went to the ER and immediately apologized to the intake nurse for our stench. We’d been out on the trail for several days so you can imagine we were pretty ripe. They took Dusty back to see a doctor and I sat in the waiting room. There were several other people there and for some reason they tended to drift to the farthest corner of the room from where I was sitting. I didn’t blame them. Even though we take it as a badge of honor, we aren’t called hiker trash for no reason.
The Bedford Hospital ran a pretty tight ship and it wasn’t too long before Dusty came back out with a band aid on his arm. The doctor had told him he was having some kind of reaction but that it wasn’t serious. They gave him a shot to help reduce the swelling and told him to take some Benadryl for follow on treatment. We picked some of that up and stopped at Burger King for a much appreciated meal, then headed out to our next trail. The trailhead was a couple hours away and as we drove I could see Dusty’s eyes glaze over as the combination of the shot and the Benadryl took effect. I asked him if he was all right and he said that he was but he had serious doubts about whether he could hike anymore today. There was no way I was going to question his ability when he had fully backed me during my issues. So we decided to stop at the closest town to the trail and get a hotel room for the night.
Once we got settled into the room we took showers then ordered a pizza for dinner. Then we watched a bit of TV and were both sound asleep by 8 PM. The next morning we were up at 5 AM and packing the jeep. We cruised by the hotel breakfast bar and fueled up then headed back to the trail. This time we were hiking solely on the AT and our destination was McAfee Knob. This is commonly referred to as the most photographed spot on the entire Appalachian Trail. I’d actually been there before on a day hike but Dusty had never been. Our plan was to hike to the top of this mountain and then come back down and stay the night at one of the two shelters we would pass on the way up. We wanted to try a night in one of the shelters instead of a tent to see how it was.
Soon we were back on the trail hiking along some beautiful scenery. Within a couple of miles we came upon the John’s Spring shelter and scoped it out. The shelter looked pretty nice and there was a privy, yea! However, the spring that was supposed to serve as the water source was dried up. We consulted our guide and saw there were two more water sources around the next shelter a few miles away. We made the executive decision to drop some of our gear and stay here for the night. We would continue to hike to McAfee knob stopping at the next shelter to confirm that there was water. We would then fill up on water on the way back down before coming back to this shelter for the night. We ended up erecting Dusty’s one man tent to put our gear we wouldn’t need for the rest of the hike. We didn’t feel comfortable leaving it in an open sided shelter. Would a tent stop anyone from taking our stuff? Nope. But it would keep honest people honest, and most hikers I’d encountered were honest people.
We headed on up the trail and in a few miles we came to the Catawba Shelter. Want to guess what we didn’t find? Yup, no water. Both springs were dried right on up. This put our plan in jeopardy. In the end we decided to hike on up to the top and try to conserve water so that we’d hopefully have enough for the night. This is exactly the kind of thing that got me in trouble in the first place and I was a little worried about it. I tried to put it out of my mind as we hiked on for several more hours. Luckily, with the much reduced pack weight, I didn’t experience the same issue as before. When we broke out of the tree line I couldn’t help but take a deep breath at the sight before me, and I’d been here before. I then saw the look on Dusty’s face and it was priceless.
There is a 270 degree view of the Catawba Valley far below and there is a section of rock that juts out from the cliff side that gives it the McAfee Knob moniker. The last time I came up here was on a weekend and the place was packed. This time it was a weekday and we could only see two other women hikers here. We took the obligatory pictures of us standing on the knob and sitting on the side of the knob with our legs dangling off. We even got one of the ladies to take our picture as father and son stood with arms around each other’s shoulder, with the knob and surrounding valley in the background. Of all the pictures we took (used as my featured image on this post), this one is my favorite. We stayed a while and chatted with the ladies. They were from nearby Roanoke and were doing a challenge called three hikes in three weekends, except doing it on weekdays to avoid the crowds. This was the last one they were doing as they had already completed Dragon’s Tooth and Tinkers Cliff the previous two weeks. I had heard about these places but never been. I thought we might have to add them on as planned hikes this trip.
A few more people showed up but we mostly had the place to ourselves. We took some time and ate lunch. Then we just kind of relaxed for a bit and continued to take in the view. I found a weird depression in the rock face that looked like the outline of a body. In fact, I laid down in it and found that it fit me pretty well and was actually comfortable. I closed my eyes and took a little snooze. A little while later, as much as we didn’t want to, we geared up and headed back down.
We soon came upon the same two women that we had seen at the top and they graciously stepped aside to let us go by as we were hiking at a little bit of a faster pace. Now throughout this whole adventure I had yet to take a tumble on the trail (unless you count the passing out on the rock), but that was about to change. That I hadn’t fallen yet was actually unusual (that’s how I got the second M in my trail name to begin with). I had come close several times during this adventure but I had always managed to catch myself before going to the ground. This time we were in a relatively flat spot of the trail and I was trucking along when I tripped on a rock. It wasn’t a big trip, just a minor stumble really, but what I failed to realize was that when we had geared up for the hike back down, I had forgotten to buckle the stabilizing straps on my pack top hat that contained several weighty items. As I went to right myself from the stumble, the top hat swung around and threw me off balance. Down I went, right into the brush on the side of the trail. I just laid there stunned for a second as Dusty tried to suppress his laughter when he asked if I was OK. Then I realized that the two ladies would soon be upon us and I didn’t want them to see me sprawled out in all my glory. I started to scramble to my feet but it was too late. I heard the ladies ask if I was OK and saw smirks on their faces. They then told me that that I might want to take an alternate route down a fire road that led back down and was an easier hike. I thanked them but informed them I had no intention of going anywhere but back down the AT the way I had come up. Later they would be glad I made that decision. They went on their way and I got myself brushed off and examined a couple of scrapes on my left knee. I got my top hat straps buckled and we were underway again.
We soon caught back up to the ladies again but they didn’t offer to step aside this time. So we kind of hiked right behind them for a while until I started to feel uncomfortable, like we were stalkers or something. I held Dusty up and we took an extended break so that the ladies could get far ahead of us. After that we continued on and passed the Catawba shelter again. About halfway between this shelter and the next one, we turned a corner and saw one of the ladies running back up the trail screaming about something. As she got closer we could hear she was screaming about a rattlesnake in the trail. I got her to calm down some and we slowly went down the trail to where I found her partner standing there staring at a spot ahead of her. I looked to that spot and saw one of the biggest rattlesnakes I had ever seen coiled up in the middle of the trail and shaking his tail, causing a very loud rattling noise.
The ladies said they didn’t know what to do but I had a plan. Chunk rocks at it and get it to move off. Dusty and I started chunking rocks but this was a pesky fellow and just continued to rattle at us. So we chunked more rocks. The ladies even got into the act and after scoring a few direct hits the snake crossed the trail to a small tree that was on the other side of the downslope. There he refused to go any further. As a matter of fact, one of the rocks (not sure who threw it) had managed to actually pin the snake’s lower half against the tree. However, he was still right next to the trail and well within striking distance if you were to stroll down the middle of it. Unbeknownst to me, another young girl and her dog had come down the trail behind us and was watching wide eyed at the inept snake wrangling going on. We had actually briefly met her at the knob. She was from NYC and was dog sitting for some friends while they were gone on their honeymoon. She had never really done much hiking but had heard about McAfee knob and thought she’d check it out. Now she was scared shitless as she saw the snake and stayed well back from the rest of us.
We were kind of at an impasse with the snake unwilling, or unable to move on. So I told the ladies to get ready to go uphill off the trail a little ways and cross over as Dusty and I threw more rocks to keep the snake occupied. That’s what we did but when we were done throwing the rocks I noticed that only the two older ladies had passed and that the young girl with the dog was still cowering behind us. I told her to get ready and we would throw rocks again, but she was frozen with fear and would not move. I had to get Dusty to lead her by the hand as I threw rocks and even then he practically had to drag her along. After she passed I heard her tell him that she was never going hiking again. Dusty threw rocks at the snake as I passed and then we stopped to take another look at it. As if the snake knew we were all safely by, he freed himself and started to slither down the hill. It wasn’t a bear, so we took a picture this time.
With that little excitement over with, we hiked on alone until we got back to the John’s Spring shelter where we planned to hang our hats for the night. We sat down at the table there to rest. When we pulled our water bladders out of our packs we discovered, to our utter dismay that we each only had just a little under a liter of water left. We tried to figure out how we could do this but the simple fact was that it wasn’t enough water to drink and cook for the rest of the night. We reluctantly concluded that we wouldn’t be able to stay there tonight and would have to hike back out. We geared back up and headed out. A couple miles later we were back at the trailhead. Once we got our gear loaded in the jeep we discussed our options. We could go resupply in town and then head out to another trail and find a place to camp. This was actually my preferred option, however, Dusty expressed a desire to call it a trip and head back home so he could have a few days of R&R before he had to return to his naval duties. I could have easily stayed out on the trail several more days but I understood where he was coming from and I agreed. Besides, I didn’t mind spending a few days with my son, relaxing and tossing back a few brewskis. So we took the five hour drive back home, arriving late that night.
That’s the story of our hiking adventure. It didn’t quite turn out the way we had planned, but I could have let it be a total failure and I am so glad it didn’t turn out that way. We may have not made the miles we wanted, but we definitely made the memories we intended. I’ll treasure them from now until my last days. If you read this whole story, I hope it wasn’t too boring. I quite enjoyed making the journey in my head again.