Today was a roller coaster of emotions. I woke up from a nightmare and heard footsteps outside my tent. At first, I thought maybe it was part of the dream but then I heard a few more quiet ones and I decided it was likely a squirrel. But it sounded a little heavy as it continued and so I told myself it was just Bambi outside. I sat up and started looking over my map, trying to decide if I was going to stay put or push forward to Big Branch shelter 6 miles away.
I decided to go for it since the hike looked much flatter with some downhills than the grueling climbs of yesterday when suddenly I heard a large branch beside my tent snap. My head shot up and I acknowledgment the sound knowing that a squirrel or even Bambi wasn't heavy enough to break a branch like that. I started to get very nervous and my heart dropped when I the heavy sniffing sound of an animal circling my tent. My heart was pounding and with trembling hands, I took out my mace as quietly and quietly as I could and unlocked the safety. I didn't know if I should make a noise or if I should stay silent.
I was told if you see a bear to make as much noise as possible and to yell and clap your hands. But I was inside two layers of a tent. A tent which had both doors in unpleasant and uneasy exit points. I closed my eyes and silently played to God to keep me safe. I started the video camera as I held the mace in my other hand. I figured if it was going to attack, I might as well catch it on camera. And if I was going to die at least my family would know what had happened. I listened as the animal sniffed and press gently against the front part of my tent, then walked up and around the hill to get to the backside of my tent. It repeated this motion a few times and then it was gone. I heard it walk away and my heart began to slow.
I waited in my tent probably more than an hour to make sure it had really left. And eventually, I got brave enough to open the screen door and then the rain fly door to poke my head out. When I stood, I looked around all directions but saw nothing. I walked up the small hill and look down the pathways and still saw nothing. That feeling of terror pretty much finalized my decision for me. There was no way I was staying in this isolated spot another day or night alone.
I quickly retrieved my bear bag, opened it up to get my morning wash-up supplies and made breakfast. The moment I finished eating, I stuck everything back in the bag and sealed it up tight. I had planned to wash up in the water but as soon as I started to step in, I noticed how silky and warm it felt. A swim would have felt nice but it would have left me still feeling unclean. I decided since I wanted to get out of there anyways that I'd skip the swim and wait until I got to a river.
As predicted, the hike was calm and steady. I spent most of the day alone and surprise to be so alone. Over the weekend I had met quite a few people passing by. At least one person every half hour or so. But now it was Tuesday, the middle part of the week, and I was completely isolated. The trees hung over the path like a green tunnel. The sky was only visible between leaves and even though the trees were tall, I couldn't help but feel a little claustrophobic. I was becoming nervous by the middle of the afternoon. A part of me wondered if I'd gone off the main trail, but I knew that couldn't be since I was still seeing the clearly marked white blazers along the trail.
I was hypersensitive to every little noise. I wondered if a bear or worse, a mountain lion, was stalking me. My eyes stared into the forest and I began the trip on small rocks and branches because I wasn't paying attention to the Earth in front of my feet but rather every shadow or swaying branch in the wind. I called out "hello?" to the dense woodland but no one responded. Finally, I decided to take a rest on a moss-covered rock. I leaned my pack against it to take the weight off my shoulders and hips before unclipping from the multiple straps. Pulling out my phone I saw yet again, I had no service. I wanted to call Len and hear his voice. I wanted words of encouragement because, at that moment, I was feeling very weak.
And then I remembered my little voice recorder. Len had made me recordings before I left. One was of my favorite Psalm. Psalm 91. I played that first and then listened to the first recording he made on his own. He spoke the exact words of encouragement I needed to hear. And he told me he loved me. Just hearing his voice and remembering that God was with me gave me all I needed to keep going. I slung my pack back on and headed down to Big Branch shelter.
A very long and high suspension bridge finished my day's travel crossing over the river to the shelter. I took a ton of pictures and videos as I had never actually crossed a bridge like that before. I couldn't help thinking of my best friend at that moment. She loved nature but had a terrible fear of heights. And that thought led me to remember how I couldn't wait to connect with people again.
I was disappointed to see there was no one at the shelter. I would have thought someone might be there taking a break or calling it early for the day like me. But it was completely empty. So I began looking to see if there were any flat spots the set up my tent. But didn't see any close by. So I walked a little farther down the path and look down at the rushing river. There, off to the side, was a perfect little clearing big enough for two tents but only one spot was flat. I slid down the hill on my butt with my pack and caught every tree on my way to slow myself down. I was filthy but I didn't care. I quickly set up my tent and pulled out my sweaty extra shirt and took off my sweaty clothes, leaving only my sports bra and shorts on and went straight into the river.
The rushing water was freezing! But it was crystal clear and super clean. It felt amazing to get the mud, dirt, and sweat off my body. After a few good moments of swimming around in one of the naturally made pools, I rinsed out all my clothing, including all my pajama pants that had begun to look like I had a bathroom accident from sitting on so many dirty spots.
It was so good to see some sky cut out from the large river. I didn't feel so claustrophobic now. The sun beat down on the riverbed and all along the bank. I laid out all my clothes on big boulders and placed smaller rocks on top to keep them from blowing away in the wind. I also laid myself out on a boulder to dry out, fanning my new short curly hair behind me to catch some sun as well. I was grateful I had cut two feet off my hair before leaving. My hair had been my signature and made me feel very feminine, but I finally realized the reason I felt that way was because that's what people told me. Two weeks before leaving for the trip, I decided to cut it off and I've been very happy I have. I used to trip on it and get it caught in things all the time. I can only imagine how difficult it would have been on this adventure.
A loud rumbling came from above and I open my eyes to see a large black cloud moving swiftly towards the river. My eyes widened as I realized the sound was not a plane but thunder! Still a little wet, I ran as fast as I could over the stones to collect my clothing and back over to my tent. I threw everything inside as quickly as I could. And then I grabbed my bear bag and rope.
I ran out to the river and down to a tree leaning over the rushing water. Connecting my little rock bag to the rope, I threw it as hard as I could up into the darkening sky. The rock bag went sailing and landed in the river. I pulled it in the way a fly fisherman rails up his line and tried again, and again. On my third or fourth try, the rock bag fell and smashed open on a boulder. "What am I supposed to do now!?" I cried out to do the river. Without a rock bag, I had no idea how I'd manage to get my rope up and over and back down to me to be able to tie the bear bag.
The drumming of thunder began to increase in-rhythm and volume. I flinched with each bang. I didn't want to be standing out in the middle of the open river on top of a boulder when the lightning and the rains came. My eyes darted around and I debated just flinging my bag across the river and hoping for the best. At least it would be away from me, but then I'd be without food and toiletries and I wasn't sure how far the next town was to resupply. Thunder boomed again and I felt rushed to make a decision. I looked down at my feet and saw a large rectangular shaped rock. I told myself this is either brilliant or one of the most stupid things I could try to do.
Unlatching the small rock bag for my rope, I began to tie the rope around the rock. I climbed up to the tallest boulder closets to the tree I could find, whisper a prayer under my breath, and through the rock with all my strength up into the now black sky. And by some miracle, the rock glided just over the tree branch and came flying back down towards my head. I ducked just in time and waited for the rock to crash behind me before untying the rope and reattaching it to my bear bag.
I pulled with all my strength to get the bag up, but the cord was thin and began to slice into my hands. I didn't know what to do at first but quickly I reached out for the same rock I had just untied and again wrapping it around the cord. I used the rock as a lever and walked back on bare feet over the river bank stones until the bag was high up in the tree. Then I grabbed a 6-inch long by about 1-inch thick branch and tied a quick clove hitch notch before letting go of the rope and letting the bear bag catch on the branch to dangle in midair. There was no way a bear would be able to get it now that it was at least 12-feet off the ground and 3-feet down from the branch, as well as nowhere near the trunk of the tree. I had essentially mastered the PCT method of bear bag tying under extreme pressure.
Despite the pain, my hiker feet being pounded into the sharp rocks with every running step. I made it back to my tent and closed the rain fly. I began stuffing everything into my pack and once that was done, I heard the howl of the winds. I felt as if I was sitting in a train tunnel surrounded by screaming ghosts. I was yet again drenched in sweat with my heart pounding. Once everything was in the bag, I began to debate if I should really be where I was. My tent was seated at the edge of the river and at the base of a dirt hill. If the rains came heavy, I could get washed into the river. I popped back out of the tent quickly and collected river stones to put around the base of my rain fly to help redirect the water that would come down the hill and move around my tent. But as I got back inside and listened and felt and saw the fabric of my tent moving in the pressure of the wind everything in my body screamed to get moving.
I jumped back out of my tent, kicked the rocks aside, stripped the rain fly down, popped the poles out and stuffed them into my pack without any order. Then I bear-hugged gathered the fabrics of my tent in one arm and with my other free arm began to pull myself up the hillside and dashed down the short path to the shelter as the storm came overhead.
Each drum was so penetrating it rumbled the shelter walls and caused me to duck down. I knew I wasn't supposed to set up my tent in the shelter, but being all alone and not wanting the rains to come in once they started I decided I didn't care. With shaky hands, I began to put each pole back in its place and began to pray to God that I wouldn't spend the night alone in the storm and in this shelter. I prayed out loud but the thunder was louder and so I decided to sing the few lines I knew of Amazing Grace at the top of my lungs.
I felt like I was playing a game with the devil of who could sing the loudest. I didn't want to cry although I felt like I was on the verge of it. I kept repeating over and over in my head, "please God don't let me spend this night alone." And just as I was about to set the last pole into place, I heard a voice from behind me say, "hey! No tents in the shelter!" I turned, jumped and screamed all at the same time. A tall woman jumped back, laughed and apologized for scaring me. Just as she got in, the sky opened up and a flash flood of rain came pouring down mixed with pee size hail that bounced off the wooden edge of the shelter. The wind and thunder carried on and we had to step back to the wall so the rain and hail wouldn't get us.
The woman was an AT through hiker and her trail name was Puddles. She was kind enough to share the story of how she got her name. And I'm going to repay her that same courtesy but not sharing the story. But Puddles used to be afraid of storms and got stuck out twice in them while hiking. She's been traveling with a companion called River. And although they hiked solo during the day, they met up each night at a pre-planned spot to camp together. She invited me to come camp with them and a graciously accepted.
We waited for the storm to pass, which it did quickly, before retrieving my bear bag. The narrow path from the shelter to the tenting area had a straight drop down to the river on the left side and to the right a direct uphill. As we were walking we heard a disturbing ear-splitting crack of trees breaking and crashing into one another. I screamed, "Run!" as I looked back to see the devil playing a vicious game of dominos with the line of trees behind us falling in our direction.
As a trauma survivor I have learned to move forward in my life and heal from my past by exploring many passions such as spirituality, art, travel & herbalism. I hope my blog can help inspire healing in others and let them know they are not alone on their journey.