I emerged from the woods at 8:30 in the morning, having already hiked almost 4 miles from the river valley where I camped the previous night to the top of a mountain, and was greeted with this view. I decided it was a good place to stop for breakfast.
It was probably one of the best views I encountered during my two-day, 21-mile backpacking trip through the Shenandoah backcountry this week. At least once a year I try to get out on the trail for a longer-distance, overnight trek. My younger brother has accompanied me for several of these trips, including our bucket-list adventure through the guts of the Grand Canyon last year, but the past couple trips have been on my own.
It’s an odd thing to be alone in the wilderness (I’m not being dramatic – it’s actually called a wilderness area by the National Park Service). It’s probably pretty close to what true freedom must feel like, if I wasn’t constantly preoccupied with the possibility of encountering a bear around every corner. I wonder if there’s a such thing as freedom that is not tinged with a little fear.
The hike started in the best possible way – a cool, sunny morning; a new day pregnant with possibilities. But those possibilities gained a sharper focus when I encountered a sign posted to a tree less than 2 miles in – “problem” bears had been reported along this trail. Problem bears are the ones that boldly approach hikers in search of food. Usually hikers are instructed to make loud noises – shouting, clapping – as they walk through the woods to warn timid bears of their presence. But what do you do when the bears are actually looking for you?
Fortunately I never encountered any bears during this trip (maybe the shouting, clapping and whistling worked?). But I had plenty of time to think about it as I hiked for hours without seeing another human, and then set up camp in a remote, dusky corner of the park next to a trickling stream. Thankfully I had brought an engrossing book to take my mind away from the constant analysis of every woodland sound outside of my tent as the sun sank behind the ridge above.
I covered a little more than 15 miles on the first day, leaving a smaller segment of about 5.5 for the following morning. To an endurance athlete, that might not sound like much. I could run 15 miles on the road in 2 hours, and even allowing for the uneven terrain on the trail it would probably not be more than a morning’s work. But the point wasn’t necessarily to cover the distance quickly. After all, I was also carrying 30 pounds of equipment on my back and hiking up and down mountains. The point was the experience – stopping to take in the view through a frame of pine branches, eating trail mix while sitting on a rock and watching the fish dart through the pool at my feet, setting up my own camp in a location I chose (backcountry camping isn’t the same as campground camping, where everything’s laid out for you).
I could have finished the entire 21 miles in one day, but then I wouldn’t have been able to hear the cacophony of insects and frogs as the last evening light faded from the valley, and I wouldn’t have woken to a forest that lay impossibly still, as if waiting for some unseen signal before humming to life.
Now I’m back home, slowly reacquainting myself with the things that generally occupy my mind – training, work, chores. I came back with a cleansed mind, some fresh ideas for my professional life, a renewed respect for the comforts and conveniences of home. I’m also quite sore, from my shoulders to just about every muscle and tendon below my waist. (There’s a reason I only do this once or twice a year). I’ll give myself a day or two before my next hard workout – time for my body to recover and also time for my mind to settle back into the triathlon-training mode (it’s not so easy to find importance in a ride or run after having been immersed in nothing but your own wandering mind for several days).
It was nice to be out there, and now it’s nice to be back.