Last night, as we were standing in the kitchen, my roommate and friend asked me what it is about backpacking that I love so much – “You know, like what’s the best thing about it.” It was a good question; I had been talking about how usually, the day after a weekend of hiking and sleeping in the woods, I get back and feel elated for the first half of a day and then grumpy and disoriented for the second. It’s like I’m coming down from the extra endorphins my body makes when I’m frolicking in the mountains. I thought back over the past weekend, starting with the first moment, in order to answer her question.
It was around 9:40 pm this past Friday night when two of my dearest friends and I started our weekend hike. This is by far the latest I’ve ever started a backpacking trip, and I both do and don’t recommend it. I don’t recommend it because navigating in the dark, even with headlamps, is a little trickier, and I do because experiencing the woods at night and getting in touch with the feeling of the ground under your feet so quickly, immerses you immediately in the experience. We planned to hike about 2 miles, half of that headed South on the AT, before resting for the night. Along the way, as I was chatting with a friend I hadn’t seen in several months and who now I could only see via the narrow light of my headlamp, a moth flew down my throat. If you’ve ever been around anyone who this has happened to and you think their coughing seems a little excessive, as if they are just trying to be dramatic, I beg you to think again. This is one of those unique experiences of discomfort that can’t really be compared to anything else. In fact, I couldn’t shake the physio- or psychological trauma of swallowing that little bug until the next morning, its memory eclipsed by the pounding rainstorm we weathered overnight.
It was around 10:20 pm, perhaps five minutes after the swallowing and two minutes after one of my friends made a comment about how glad she was that it wasn’t raining, that the droplets began to lightly fall. At first it felt nice – even though we’d driven North and the air had cooled some from our sticky Triangle, NC climate, hiking had heated us up fast. After the light sprinkle turned steady though, we remembered that there was every chance that the campsites we were searching for weren’t going to be marked with neon signs. At that point we started looking for shelter. We had passed a couple of grassy clearings a few yards back, so we turned around. I headed down a narrow deer (or pony) trail to look for a spot, my friends following. We came to nothing, at least nothing good for sleeping, and I pivoted to head back to whence we’d came. Promptly, one of my friends who I’ll call ‘the Navigator’, alerted me that I was headed off in some random direction that was most certainly not the one we’d come from. This would happen at least 8 more times over the course of barely two days. No one would ever call me the Navigator, nor should they, which is one of the many reasons why I consider backpacking a team sport.
Back on the AT, another deer trail caught my eye, this time leading to a scrubby little oak tree, its branches spreading into an umbrella-like canopy. “Here’s a spot,” I shouted. My friends followed, but when they saw the tiny clearing surrounded by blackberry brambles, they looked skeptical. It was not the best spot ever, but the ground was flat-ish, the tree offered some protection but was not by any means taller than the rest, and it was now pouring. We quickly threw down the tarp and set up the tent, just to realize that the tent stakes were missing.
After finding some sufficiently dry sticks and jamming them into the ground to keep the rainfly off of the tent, we crawled inside. The Navigator was hastily bailing water from her side of the tent which had turned into a puddle over the past three minutes. We realized that the rainfly was sitting on the tent and causing water to pool up and drip inside, so the Navigator suggested that we tie a ‘sky hook’ to keep it off, which basically means tying a rope from the rainfly to a neighboring tree to create a canopy. While the Navigator bailed, my other friend, who I’ll call ‘Raindancer’ and I, leapt outside to tie the hook. At this point we were completely soaked and thoroughly scratched by the bramble we had pitched our tent in, but we reentered the tent victorious to find that Navigator had mostly dried the floor with her bandana.
That evening, as our bodies held the tent down, the long arms of Hurricane Cindy swept gales around us. The rain thumped down and the wind rattled our little tarpaulin home. I closed my eyes, smiled, and fell into an intermittent sleep.
Was the best thing about backpacking swallowing a bug? No, I thought. Was it getting lost down a deer trail within less than an hour of starting the trip? No, I thought. How about sleeping in damp socks, on a slight slope, in the pounding rain? Surely, this couldn’t be it. I’d have to keep retracing our tracks to figure it out.
To be continued…