Well, spring is just around the corner and that brings us to the warm weather sports. While there is a plethora of activities out there to choose from, there are a few that really stand out. There are conventional sports like baseball and volleyball. Then there are the "other" sports like whitewater rafting, surfing and mountain climbing.
Being a guy who prefers the outdoors, my particular "sport" this year is hiking and camping. I don’t mean the kind of hiking you do on a Sunday through the park. And I don’t mean the kind of camping you did with your dad when you were a kid. I mean the kind of hiking and camping that leaves you battered, humbled and grateful. Ah, you gotta love it!
Seeing as how hiking and camping aren’t really things that are regularly covered by sports sections, I thought that I’d take some notes and pictures of my hike on the Appalachian Trail so I could share my experiences with you. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get a kick out of it and try some hiking yourself.
The first day of our excursion mostly consisted of the yearly college mandate: road trip!
My travel companions were two very close friends of mine from high school. Robert and Steve have been friends for years. When they got to high school they had the sad misfortune of befriending me. Since then we’ve become like brothers and have been through several misadventures together.
Our plan was to get to the Virginia end of the Appalachian Trail that first (Saturday) evening and hike about four hours. We were hoping to take a 35-mile loop hike that consisted of the three highest points in Virginia. Insert chorus of "he’s got hi-ei-igh hopes" here.
Three guys, no, scratch that, three men, who are way too philosophically versed versus Mother Nature. Three Nietzsche-ian alpha males versus little old nature.
After a very tedious ten-hour trip, we finally got to where we were hoping our starting point would be. To get to our desired point of commencement, though, we had to take a dirt road that climbed up for about 1500 feet. Well we found the dirt road and Steve made the best use of his four-by-four. This is where I stop the story for just a second to let you in on something. There have been several times in my life when I’ve been scared to death; this was one of those times. I am amazed at Steve’s driving skills. There was a point where the car started sliding downhill towards the edge of the road (which was lined by a cliff).
When we got to the top of the road we found that it was blocked off. So back down we went. Right about now, we had all pretty much swallowed our own tongues. Going down a slippery road is no easier than going up.
Finally, we made it off the death-trap dirt road. After much kudos to our driver, we drove to the next spot on the highway that meets the trail.
In about ten minutes we reached our destination. We eagerly got all our gear together (a lot of freaking gear) and headed out on the trail. Important to note, it was dark when we started on the trail. We set our minds to following the trail for about an hour or so up the mountain.
For the first twenty minutes or so of the hike we were using our flashlights. Then we noticed a large bright light to our immediate left, on top of a hill.
"Hey man, is that the shelter already? It shouldn’t be here for another three-quarters of a mile."
"Oh my god! That’s the moon."
We immediately shut off our flashlights. When we looked around we noticed that the entire forest was perfectly well lit by the full moon. After a jocular howl by the author, our party marched on.
Soon our packs became heavy and we started searching for potential campsites. In almost no time at all, we came upon a spot that was decently shielded by a humongous rock. There, in the dark of the night, we decided to make our camp.
Soon we were setting up our tent and gathering up wood for a fire. The complications started right then. We were completely surrounded by snow. There wasn’t a dry spot to be found anywhere so we had to start a small fire just to melt the snow so that we could start a real fire. Using pieces of a starter log and some dry leaves and twigs, we got a small fire going. When we cleared up enough room for a bigger fire, we started hunting for larger logs through the snow and ice in the middle of the night. That wasn’t too easy. When we finally got the full fire going, we were well rewarded. We had been absolutely freezing and suddenly we could warm ourselves up. Bob, Steve and I had found a temporary heaven.
We were tired though and desperately wanted to go to sleep. We couldn’t sleep on the snow so we had to spread the hot embers from the fire wide enough to melt all the snow on the ground. It worked. We placed our tent and hurriedly went to sleep.
Oh, the pain! We woke up ridiculously cold. I was personally angry and not very personable. I tend to get that way when I wake up and can’t feel anything below my ankles. When I did start feeling something it was the sharp stinging pain of cold.
During the night, we had all been woken up several times by a mixture of the cold, wind and my snoring. None of us were rested at all. Combine that with our frigid state and we were not happy campers.
We almost immediately vowed to leave that self-same night. Since we had come all the way from New York to Pennsylvania though, it would be a great shame if we didn’t do one more day of hiking. It was nearly a mile and a half to the top of the nearest mountain: Pine Mountain. We decided on leaving a majority of our gear tucked away behind the rock that was supposed to shield us and then take light packs to the top of the mountain.
Off we went. Heavy of heart but lighter of burden our dispositions started improving as our bodies thawed. The uphill climb was doing us much good.
After a little while, we came across a little stream. Using the coolest piece of equipment I’ve ever seen, we pumped purified water into several containers. After a little refreshing rest and drink, we noticed our surroundings. Just ahead of us was a fifteen-foot rock just looming over us. Because of the density of the trees, it would’ve been impossible to see this humongous boulder from further than 40 feet out. We also noticed that there seemed to be considerably less "uphill" than before.
Off we went again. This time we were going just a little quicker. The water and the air seemed to have done something to us. Within thirty minutes, out of nowhere, the snow that covered every inch of the trail so far just vanished. In another half a minute we noticed a clearing up ahead. We did it! We reached the peak of Pine Mountain. We were five thousand feet above sea level and for the first time in twelve hours there were smiles to be seen. There was no snow up ahead and we found a pack of wild horses roaming around. This was absolutely and completely exhilarating. Bob and I had some victory cigars and felt like Kerouac heroes for a minute or two.
After a short and somewhat terse debate, we decided to stay for one more night. This time we would stay in the valley up ahead of us. It was completely off the trail but we spotted a tiny little river on the map of the area.
We ran back the entire way to our original campsite and packed our stuff up. Back up the mountain we went.
There was one small stop on our second trip up Pine Mountain. Steve, a closet hydro-engineer, decided that he wanted to change the route of a stream. Instead of it dying off to the right, he connected it to another stream about twenty feet away. Trouble is, to do that, he had to flood about ten feet of rocky trail. The trail was really rocky and now it was really wet. Thanks Steve.
By the time we got back up the mountain we were absolutely exhausted.
It was a little after noon and it was pretty much time to rest. We loosed our sleeping bags and 5000 feet above sea level we all had a sweet little bit of sleep.
When Steve and I woke up, we discovered that Bob was missing. Yes, that’s right missing. Fortunately, Bob’s a bit of an eccentric and guru in his own way so we suspected that he was down in the valley someplace meditating. We were wrong. To our surprise he came up the mountain from a different direction with three full bottles and a pot of water. Apparently, he had been hit by a mysterious attack of dry-mouth.
After a long lunch consisting of everything from carrots and granola to tuna, we decided to head all the way down into the valley.
Refreshed and re-motivated, we journeyed on. It was a beautiful hike down. It took a little bit of searching but eventually we found our little creek. It was in a valley of rhododendron trees. What a gorgeous site we had found.
We dropped all our gear in a nice visible spot and followed the creek down to see if it leads into a river. After about a half an hour of walking, through cold swamp, we turned back to find our site. This turned out to be more of a chore than we thought. We ended up going in full circle before we found our spot. Needless to say, I personally found this to be a very humbling trip so far.
This night we would be well prepared. We got more than enough wood for the fire and we were ready to boil up some powdered soup. After some appetizers of peanuts and granola bars, guru Bob pulled out the minestrone soup. In twenty minutes we were all warming up to communal canister of soup. Life was good. After some late conversation and such we headed for bed. This day was a far improvement from the day before.
We woke up early and fairly well rested. Still cold, but at least we had gotten some sleep. During the night, Steve had to wake up to shoo away a wild horse that was chomping on grass right outside his tent.
We ran around a little bit trying to warm up and then decided to break a rule or two by starting up a small fire for tea. Guru Bob brought some inspiring green tea that we boiled up. That warmed us up and soon we were planning for the day.
We decided on the daunting hike back up the valley to the top of the mountain where we could follow the Appalachian Trail back to the car.
When we started climbing we noticed the prairie scenery and were literally silenced. As we reached the summit, it was like an entire post-card opened up around us. The views of the surrounding mountain ranges and eventually Mount Rogers (the highest point in Virginia) kept getting more and more amazing. I may be an atheist, but at that moment I think I understood why people could believe in a god or higher force. Yes, we did often have to climb at 45-degree angles but we had the breeze to our backs and the most amazing scenery all around us.
When we reached the flat top of Pine Mountain we all just kind of picked a rock and sat on it for a while. There was really nothing else that we could do that felt so "right."
We were all feeling a little introspective at the moment so we decided to split up and hike the last few miles down to the car individually. Steve, who is always to test himself, wanted to head out first. Bob the guru wanted to meditate a little on top of the mountain. That made me the second to leave.
I sat on a rock for about half an hour then decided to find a large boulder and graffiti "freedom is a choice" on it. It’s probably gone by now, but I know I but it there and that’s really what matters.
Two deep breaths later I started my way down the mountain. It was me, my gear, some memorized poetry, several horizontal miles and 1500 vertical feet—nothing and nobody else.
At first my mind was completely occupied by staying on the trail and identifying all the markings that would ease my mind to that effect. Then, when I reached snow-covered ground again I became focused on my footing. The trail was made up of ice, snow and rocks.
That’s when something happened. I stopped worrying about my footing. Within minutes it seemed only natural to skip from rock to rock to rock. I never slipped once. I think I know what it was.
I stopped trying to fight nature. I let myself become what I was born: a full member of nature. Running down the mountain path I realized that my goals should not have been to conquer nature. I found everything so much more fruitful and pleasant when I simply partook of nature and let myself roll with (not against) the flow of nature. Yeah, it’s a little Zen of me, I know.
It was a two-hour, intense hike down the mountain to the car. After the half hour of rock-skipping I started finding dirt again and things started moving quicker and quicker. No matter how fast I would have gone, there’s no way that I could have missed the scenery.
The highlight of the entire hike for me was about 45 minutes from my destination. It was a slanted dense forest to both sides of me. On my right, the ground went up at a 60-degree angle. To the left of me, there was a drop at the same or even greater angle. Down the slope about 150 feet I was able to see the slight reflection of a river that I knew I was destined to cross just before reaching my final point. It was very still and because of the depth and shape of the valley I was able to hear the echo of the trickling river mixed in with the slightest rustling of leaves. It was peaceful and freeing and to be quite honest, very humbling.
Still, as immature as usual, I had to take advantage of the stellar echo. At the top of my lungs, feeling quite spiritual by now, I screamed "FREEDOM!" The valley, seeming to acquiesce, screamed it back to me twice.
The rest of the hike was an absolute lark. I couldn’t help grinning all the way to the last bridge before the last 100 feet before the end of my journey. I had to slow down. I had just experience the most natural of sports and the most humbling of experiences. My only solace was that I would return.
Later on, Steve and I were talking about our experiences. We agreed that there’s just something liberating about living off the food you have, drinking the water you found and pumped, and avoiding hypothermia by the fire that you built.
Ultimately, we could all use a similar experience. Yeah, the sport of it is great. But I guarantee you, the humility you are taught is far more precious.
See you on the trail.