Tale from the Trail: Getting Found


2013 Appalachian Trail Thru Hike
Mid-October
Middle Virginia – Mile 1477

We reach McAfee Knob in late morning – I’ve been waiting for this photo op since I saw a hiker’s jubilant photo here on a postcard in Millonocket, Maine on Day 1 of our AT thru hike.

Groucho is grouchy, brooding and snacking, but consents to take the photo.

Even though the air is brisk, I take off my wind pants emulating the carefree look captured in so many NOBO summer photos. Feeling vain and proud I realize we made it. I can send my folks a picture of beautiful me in beautiful Virginia, my dad’s home state. I contemplate going off trail right then and there. This photo is proof of my accomplishment. What more do I have to do or to learn after 1477 miles?

We start down the mountain. Groucho always walks faster than me, but today I feel light and keep up. I stop to tie a shoe and look up. Groucho has disappeared around a corner. Darn. I’d tried to keep pace, willing my steps to bring us into harmony after a difficult and divided morning.

I step lively and reach a clearing where power lines cuts through the forest. Animal paths weave through the open meadow and I see an opening in the trees beyond where the wide path continues. I continue, lost in thought and bathed in a blaze of sunlight for a moment.

Groundscore! Back in the trees I find a pair of sunglasses. I put them on and jog down the path wanting to share my tiny joy with Groucho, who must be just around the bend. Feeling confidant and light on my feet I head down a gentle slope. I cross a gate blocking the path and look back at the sign on the gate “no motor vehicles” says the sign.

Odd.

My steps slow as I reach T in the path. I could go right or left but not straight and there are no white blazes to indicate which way to turn. Typically on the AT there are friendly 2” x 6” white vertical blazes spaced about a minute apart. Blazes fade or flake off trees occasionally, but are reapplied by volunteer crews. When a major or confusing turn is coming in the path, they paint two blazes askew but side by side. If the Righthand blaze is higher, turn right. When the left is higher turn left. Some parts of the trail, like just outside Dartmouth, the trail is almost over-blazed at the frantic collegiate overabundance of the DOC at marking every tree for the last 100 years. What I’m saying is, it’s hard to lose the trail…

My throat tightens. When was the last time I saw a blaze? How long have I been walking alone? Did I miss a turn? I felt like I was right behind Groucho, but was I?

Unease sets in as I realize with irony that there was a gap in our map set, and this is the blank space – my first time without a map in 1400 miles. The maps we’ve been cursing carrying because it’s so hard to lose the trail, even on a moonless night in deep forest. And this is the first time I have actually needed it.

I check my watch. 4:00pm, with sunset in about 2 hours… there’s time. I stop and breathe I plan to turn right at the intersection and walk for 5 minutes – if I don’t see a blaze I’ll backtrack and take the left turn for 5 minutes. If that doesn’t work, I will backtrack further… maybe I missed something at the power lines.

Then I see the craziest spider right on the path. Large and in charge – with a huge orange pumpkin butt. I stop to take a photo. If I die out here will they be impressed with my huge spider picture?

I walk for a couple more minutes and realize it’s been too long. Even night hiking in Vermont we saw blazes every 40 seconds or so. When hiking alone I rarely feel fear, but as I head down the fire road fear starts to creep like vines into my consciousness.

I turn back with a sinking heart, taking the other branch of the T for a few minutes, finding no blazes there either. I must have missed a turn, but where? If I go back to the power lines, will I see the AT this time? What if I sprain an ankle or see a bear? If I die out here, alone, would anyone find me?

Without my map, I don’t know where these old fire roads lead, or which direction I’m supposed to be going. And even if I find the right trail, how far ahead of me is Groucho? I check my watch again. About 4:30. I am, at minimum, half an hour behind him, and his phone only has service sporadically.

I try to text anyway “Thought I wasn’t getting enough miles in today, so decided to trail blaze on a forest road or something. Trying to find the AT now”. Fingers crossed he will get it. Fingers crossed that I am right and that going back was going to take me closer to Groucho and the AT.

Jogging back up the road I scour the trees for blazes or possible side trails, nothing, nothing, nothing, and more nothing. Nothing even looks familiar. Will this road even lead me back to McAfee’s Knob?

I sing songs. I sing loudly. I sing to erase fear so I won’t make stupid mistakes. I make up lyrics when I didn’t know them:

“Under Pressure, pushing down on me, pressing down on you, no man has fallen. It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about, watching some good friends screaming ‘let me out’. Tomorrow you’ll get high high highhhhhhh. Turn away from it all like a blind man, get on the floor but it don’t work. People under pressure they get crushed and torn, Why? Why-ieeeeee …” In moments of desperation I turn to Bowie.

I turn a corner, seeing the powerlines. This must be the AT junction. I scour the rock structures and trees and there are no blazes and no alternate paths.

Am I going crazy?

I cross back across the power line and to the path I thought was the AT where I last saw Groucho. I start to panic, and things are starting to feel a little Labyrinth for me. Flushed and heart pounding, I wonder about who has the tent? How do I get in touch with Groucho? Should I hike all the way back to the Knob? All these thoughts churning, sucking me further into a vortex of despair….

I look up, and suddenly I see a northbound blaze.

Relief. I spin to see where the southbound blaze is… and finally I see it, leading to a tiny bit of trail leading off the forest road.

Curses. This IS marked, but I feel like there should be a freaking beacon or something. I TOTALLY missed the blaze before and I can see why; 30 meters away the power lines cut a bright, sunlit swath through the dense forest. It’s as alluring as Odysseus’ sirens – the sunshine and signs of civilization had called me off course.

I turned onto the proper and super well blazed AT southbound and quicken my pace. How far ahead is Groucho by now – an hour or more? Will I have to run to catch up to him by dark? Does he even know I am missing?

10 minutes later I find Groucho rolling a joint, sitting on a rock. Having noticed my absence he stopped, and sat. Knowing he was on the AT (as evidenced by a nearby blaze) he decided to wait for me.

I feel so relieved at being found. And, despite moments of panic, having kept my cool. All of the worry and fear of the last hour begin to melt away. I feel foolish, but also jubilant. I found myself!

Groucho walked for a bit, stopped for water, and waited for me to catch up. He almost immediately realized something was wrong because he had only just seen me ten minutes before. He decided to stay put, but after about an hour of smoking joints he was feeling a little anxious and about to come looking for me.

I feel great – with the weight of uncertainty vanished, and my hiking partner found. We are both relieved. Despite our individual strength, stamina and endurance, and despite our independent natures, our ability to hike whole days without talking to each other, and despite the everyday annoyances that sometimes drive us apart — we are a team, and there is comfort and sweetness in our camaraderie. Sometimes you don’t know what you have or need until you (almost) lose it. The trail would provide this lesson in a myriad of ways on our journey. We are a great team.

We stay close, talking, and arrive at the Catawaba Mountain Shelter. The spring is dry, but a trail angel left gallon water jugs, and hey – a fire pit! We’re both emotionally exhausted, so we end the day a little early here. I collect wood, and Groucho cooks over an open fire. We eat chocolate, drink water and relax. Everything feels easy after this afternoon. I read Agatha Christie in front of the fire until I get tired and we go to sleep with quiet efficiency.

 

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