Posts made in September, 2007

Old Rag

Posted by on Sep 7, 2007 in All things natural, Spirit | 0 comments

It is already one PM when we get to the ranger station near White Oak Canyon, the morning squandered with chores, errands, packing and driving. The nice ranger behind the counter gives us the lowdown on what to expect from the mountain and the wilderness. We had already lied boldfaced to lady at the entrance to Skyline Drive when she asked us if we had rope to hang our food ten feet off the ground, but that was before we narrowly avoided hitting a young black bear that leaped across our path on the way up the road. We listened very seriously to the graybeard at the information center, trying to ask the right questions and get the answers that would keep us alive for the next few days. He kept focusing on how strenuous a journey we have picked. My girl chants optimistically, ”No problem mom, we can do it.” I turn to the cheerful man and say,

“She thinks I’m her age.” He smiles, but informs me, dead serious,

“If you make that climb, you are her age.” Even though a knot of fear and dread settled right between my shoulder blades, I knew from that minute on the mountain was mine.

We are both extremely thirsty, and know we have forgotten the camera, but when we head to the adjoining store we ignore a wall of photo equipment and glass cases of liquid in favor of spending thirty dollars on bear deterrents. Money well spent it turns out, but a bit myopic. A short drive brings us to the parking lot our friendly ranger has designated, and with weighty packs strapped somewhat comfortably on our bodies, we head off the eight or so miles to find a camp site. About a mile down the road I realized I have left our friend Jack Daniels in the back seat of the car. Knowing that medical emergencies might arise, it was an easy decision to sit my pack down for my girl to watch and jog back to the car. It was a long sweaty walk with full gear the rest of the way. My water was low, so I tried to conserve, although I felt myself becoming lightheaded and clumsy. The fire road we traveled through the still woods was beautiful and devoid of humans up until the moment my girl asked for me to get some snacks out of her backpack. Lifting my arms up to the top pocket, I found my head spinning and could not keep my footing. No one was more surprised than me when I found myself on the ground, struggling to lift the weight of my backpack and body off the gravel. Out of nowhere a man and his son came up behind and offered to help. I now know what superpower I want, teleportation, because if I could have, I would have vanished right before their eyes instead of lying there flailing my ineffectual arms and legs in the air like a turtle. When I unfastened the pack and stood up, the helpful man tried to lift it from the ground. I saw a flash of respect cross his face when he felt the weight of what I carried.

“Well, no wonder,” he said, leaving the pack where it lay. I shouldered it quickly, drank the rest of my water, and discharged him as rapidly as possible. When he passed from sight I checked the place that hurt, my left arm, and discovered I had a startling lump that projected about three inches, giving the appearance of another elbow forming right above my more familiar one. Eva asked if it was broken, and I quickly took stock. No, not enough pain for that, just a bit of trauma that will later become a flat fantastically colored bruise to compete with the others I am to acquire in the next few days, but I get ahead of my story.

We heard the sound of swift running water before we took the turn that brought us to the river. Thirsty and hot, the site looked like paradise. Under the shade of ancient trees was a bit of soft earth only requiring the removal and shifting of 5 or 6 fallen trees to make enough room for the tent. As few rocky steps took us down to the water, where we sat on a flat boulder, beside a natural pool, to filter desperately needed water. Three quarts later I am back in my right mind and ready to organize the campsite. My girl is as good a woodsman as I, with youth and strength on her side, so with a surge of pride I finally stepped aside and let her take charge. I started looking for a likely limb where our newly purchased rope could be attached. The problem with old growth forest is finding a branch low enough to the ground and strong enough to serve our purpose. With trepidation I finally lassoed one that was marginal at best, but tired and hungry, I decided it would do. Eva called me for dinner, a warming chickpea and sprout curry over rice made with the assistance of our newly purchased pocket sized propane cooker. Camp cleaned and food stowed in the trees, we were both sound asleep before dark was fully upon us. Several hours later we woke to the sound of a crash that cut through the constant throbbing of insect and amphibians, but neither of us named the terror that bears might be in our campsite. I lay there hardly breathing or moving for hours, listening for every tale tell sound of possible scratching or snorting, trying to plan out strategy for fending them off. My heart stopped briefly when I heard a faint rumbling noise until I realized it was the deep slow breathing of my girl’s contented sleep. Soon exhaustion overtook me and I slept, albeit fitfully, until first light.

When I stuck my head out of the tent the next morning a ranger was emerging from the jeep that was parked on the fire road 100 feet away. I ducked back inside and told her to give me a minute to put my pants on. “Works for me”, came the cheery reply. She checked our permit, our intentions, and finally the food bag, happily intact. “Pretty flimsy branch, that”, she quipped in a Minnesota accent. I told her our plans to leave tent and packs behind and hike the mountain. She looked me up and down. “Good luck”, came the skeptical retort. I added her unspoken warning to my considerable stockpile of anxiety. Several hours later, fortified with gallons of water, instant coffee, and Cliff bars, we headed toward the trailhead. Deer moved soundlessly through the trees on the gentle slope upward. Soon the ground turned rocky and much steeper. Other hikers, both novice and experienced, mingle with us on the upward spiral, sometimes passing us, sometimes waiting at the next switchback. Although the predominate age range is 20 to 30 and English the dominant language, there are children, people who look close to my age, languages I cannot identify, and one smiling Japanese family with sturdy wooden hiking sticks. I remember the father especially. Later on the path, his was the proffered hand I took gratefully as I scaled a slippery ten-foot wall of rock. I do not know who boosted my left foot up from below as my right one clung to a quarter inch depression in the wall. I only know it was a friend, one of many I would make before the day was over.

“This is the push me pull me section,” the ranger had said, as he marked the mile long rock scramble on our map back in the air conditioned visitors center. I finally understood what he meant as I squeezed through a two-foot crevice between two enormous boulders and found the only way out of a 20-foot hole was up another sheer precipice. This time there was a discernable foothold; only it was six feet up the wall and there was absolutely no purchase for a hand once the foot was there. This was the moment the bread I cast on the water those many years I spent as a scout leader came back to feed me. Chris, a strapping lad not a day over 19, an Eagle scout, got down on one knee and told me to put my foot on his leg. I protested, I pleaded, I cursed, but Chris just stood there, solid as the mountain, patiently repeating, “Yes you can,” and I did. Another hand from above reached down for mine, and I lunged my body up and over the top. I turned to him after and asked if that was the worse spot. “No,” came the honest reply I did not want to hear.

We ate our Builder bars and little boxes of soup in the rarified air of the first false summit, me believing that finally the worse was over. I was wrong. The little blue trail blazes kept pointing at sheer drops, wide gaps that must be leaped, areas where navigation was done horizontally with feet and hands braced against the ancient stone. By the end of the day I had forced my body to do things I did not believe were possible at any age. My girl and I came down the other side feeling that we had conquered the world. The trip had taken only 6 hours, covered a distance of 7 miles up and down the mountain, plus the three mile trek back to the camp site. We were battered, bruised, exhausted, and exhilarated. I pulled my shoes off and headed down to the river where Eva was already sitting on the flat rock with the water filter. After a day and night of death defying challenge, I wasn’t expecting the tiny stone that caught my toenail, ripping it from its foundation. I felt a wave of nausea wash over me as I looked at the damage. My girl and I took stock of our options. It was after 4, dark would come in a bit over three hours and we were about that far from the car, only tired already, hungry, and now, injured. Eva had twisted her ankle on one drop and had been nursing that foot down the mountain. I told her to wait until morning and hope the ranger came by again. She felt strongly that we should try to get out tonight and decided to walk to the parking lot and get the car, so she could move it to the nearer to our camp. We agreed it would be easier to think on full stomachs, so we put off the decision until after dinner.

It would have been easier to hike the three miles than to wait for her return. I organized the camp, packed what I could, and then lay down in the tent. I fell asleep almost immediately, and woke with a start to find her still gone and the sky pitch dark. I have no idea how long I waited, listening for bears, second guessing my foolishness in letting her leave alone, but when I heard a panicked voice yell “Mom” through the dark, my heart leap with joy. I opened the tent flap and saw her kneeling there, dripping sweat, her breath coming in big raspy gulps. “Sit down honey,” I pleaded. “No,” she gasped. We have to go. I saw a bear, not ten feet in front of me. I screamed and it ran, and I ran. Pack, now.” She starts stuffing everything randomly into the backpacks telling me she’ll carry everything, but we have to leave. There is no arguing with her determination, so I draw shoes and socks over my injured toe as she flattens and packs the tent. I am able to carry my own pack along the 2 mile path and we talk at the top of our lungs and laugh like lunatics, no doubt sending bears scurrying up trees along the way. She tells me of getting a ride with strangers from DC who drove her around for an hour and a half to find the car, and she tells me over and over of her terrifying encounter. She can’t wait for me to close the door of the car and doesn’t care to check the map to see where we’re going. She just wants me to drive in any direction as long as it’s away from here. A half hour later, about the time we see the sign for Charlottesville, we are already planning our next trip to the big woods.

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