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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hiking, Part 9

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

I had been looking forward to this day, since circumstance and responsibility kept me off the hiking trails for the last two weeks.  It has been a stressful period and I needed some time in the woods.

After perusing the maps, I chose an AT access along US 522 southeast of Front Royal.  A check of Google Maps Streetview confirmed the presence of a pullout there large enough to park a few cars.  As I left home early in the morning, I noted with satisfaction that it would be a spectacular late-summer day for Virginia.  Temps would stay in the low 80's with low humidity, a great day for hiking.

I found the pullout and after parking and gearing up, I headed south.  There was a lot of up- and down-hill to this section, but I had picked it because 4.2 miles in I would meet Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.  During the initial ascent, I saw to my right a really nice overlook off a beautiful meadow, the view somewhat restricted by a tall chain link fence, which would accompany me for nearly the whole way.  I'm not sure who owns that property, but they sure wanted it protected.

A little further up, the trail became overgrown with shin-high grass, still wet with dew.  Pretty soon, the trees closed back in and brought back the shade.  I was feeling good, really happy.  Being in the woods on such a day, I felt, was a gift.  I hadn't seen any other hikers, but I definitely wasn't alone.  At one point, I saw movement off to my right and pausing, saw two deer.
Look veeerrrryy carefully...

We regarded each other for a few moments, and they went back to grazing and I went back to hiking.  Not too much further on, two more deer flashed by across the trail, no more than 50 feet in front of me. Odd behavior, that.  Curious, I looked back along their path of flight to see what had spooked them.  Initially, all I saw was the forest, dappled in sunlight; a picture of beauty.  But as I looked harder, about a couple hundred feet away was what I initially thought was a large black log.  But something wasn't right, and as I continued to look at the "log" that something became apparent.  It moved, and as it moved it acquired a head, ears and a snout.  I came to a dead stop.  My heart leaped into my throat as I realized what I was seeing.

Not mine, but a sample from a far less fortunate hiker
from Rutgers University for whom this was the last photo
he ever took.

It was an adult black, pretty good size, and now was looking in my direction.  Fortunately, my brain which has a nasty habit of going blank in moments like this, instead went straight to that file where I had stored the information on what to do in case of a bear encounter on the trail.  I started backing up, speaking in a low, firm voice.  Don't ask what I said, because I don't really remember.  I was also concentrating on the difficult task of walking backwards downhill on a rock- and root-strewn path.  (And let me tell you how much fun that was.) I had moved thusly about 30 yards when the bear suddenly lurched to its feet and took off running.  In that moment, my heart left it's assigned place in my chest and vaulted into my throat.  But to my tremendous relief, the bear ran off in the opposite direction.  In a matter of seconds, that large, ponderous behind was out of sight, although the sounds of its crashing passage through the forest were still evident.

I sat down on a convenient rock and tried to return my pulse and respiration to something more clinically normal.  In that amount of time, I decided that it would be better for me to turn around.  True, I was only a part of the way to my goal, but I knew that I had to return via this same path and I was in no mood to argue for a hiking easement with a creature who would bring teeth and claws to that discussion.

My hike back was, as you might imagine, was taken at a faster pace, and it was with a  relief that I got back to the pullout.  I felt safer, but still cheated.  I hadn't gone very far at all and the day was still young, so I decided to cross the highway and hike north for a ways.  This path was much easier, less of a uphill grade and one of those wonderfully soft and loamy trail surfaces that feel so good on the feet.  I went on up about a mile and stopped for a few minutes at a rock-filled stream.  I suddenly felt very tired.  That encounter with the bear had taken a lot out of me. much more than I realized.

Another moment of epiphany occurred when I realized just how alone I was on this trail, and what could have happened.  I still hadn't seen any other hikers, and even the road seemed to be bereft of the sound of passing traffic.  True, I had left clear instructions at home as to where I would be hiking, but how long would someone wait before calling the authorities?  If I had been badly injured, its likely my tattered remains would have remained there for a day, perhaps two before someone found me. 

This was a watershed moment.  All summer long, I've hiked bits and pieces of the AT, as well as other trails throughout the area.  Never had I seriously considered any contingency plan for a serious injury.  I had been a tourist, I decided; not a responsible hiker.

 I decided to return to the car, ending up with a 4.25 mile hike for my troubles, about half of the distance I had planned.  

When I got back to the car, I flipped up the tailgate and contemplatively ate the sandwich I had prepared.  It had been an interesting morning, but at least now I knew that the people who wrote those guidebooks knew what they were talking about.  

When my dearly beloved returned home from work that night, I told her about the encounter.  After a few moments of thought, she then announced that she was going to accompany me on any future hikes.  On another day, I might have been reluctant to surrender my day of independence.  But after the experience of staring into the eyes of that bear for those few breathless and defenseless moments, I felt better that from now on, I wouldn't be alone in the woods.

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