After the first day of what was supposed to be a solo adventure for me, to say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I’d been training hard for a few months, so I expected to do better. But really, to echo what others have told me, no matter what you do to try and prepare yourself, there really is no substitute for strapping that pack on and just doing it. I found this to be more than true.
I woke up the next day bright and early, my pack organized and lighter, my spirits high. I’d fixed the problem with Chewy’s pack and discovered how to make mine fit better. I was determined to make the summit that day. I ate a good breakfast, fed Chewy and off we went. We arrived at the park a little before nine. While I waited for the Visitor Center to open, I gave myself an internal pep talk while walking around the building to look at the arch. I looked around for the scale to weigh my pack, but couldn’t find it. I signed the trail log once again and up the mountain I went, to park in the parking lot at the top of the Falls. As we left the van, I stopped to take these photos:
We headed up the steps past the sign that marked the Approach Trail and were immediately surrounded by trees, falling leaves and miles of climbing, twisting trail. This trip was supposed to be a break for me. I hit the point of Mom burnout some years ago and I have felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails for a while now. I’d been struggling with feelings of weakness, of feeling unappreciated; like I’d made it through 44 years and felt that everything I tried to give my heart to just handed it back to me. Very little satisfied me anymore. I’d struggled with depression, marital discord and health issues. I didn’t expect these few days to hold some great ephiphanal moment or anything, but I hoped that I would get some peace and some answers to some nagging questions. I knew I needed some intense work, so at some point I would have to plan to head into the woods for longer stretches, but for now, this is what I could do. I needed the practice out there, anyway.
Could I do this alone? That really never was a question I asked myself. I knew I could. I truthfully wasn’t worried about being alone out there. I had a dog with me (a very protective one at that), a cell phone, battery pack (charger), GPS with satellite text capabilities, weapons (if I needed them), plenty of food and water. As much as total solitude would have been nice, I did expect that others would be taking advantage of the glorious weather, too.
What I learned about myself in those first few hours, was that I was nowhere near as physically prepared as I thought. True, I’d been working out with a trainer for a few months and was WAY better off than if I had attempted this prior to beginning my workout routine, but I was shocked at how difficult it was for me to breathe. I’m from the Land Of Flat. This place was in the clouds. Even though the elevation wasn’t that great, my lungs protested.
After yesterday’s failed attempt, I’d downloaded a song to help me concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, climbing and breathing in rhythm. It was an old Suzanne Vega song, Tom’s Diner. It worked. With the help of those wonderful, glorious trekking poles (I appreciate them so much more now), I pushed forward, singing to myself. Anything to take my mind off of gasping for air. I wondered, “Do I have asthma? What the hell?” Chewy seemed unaffected. He was having trouble figuring out where he should be–out in front, on the side, behind–and often found himself out in front, where he would stop and circle back around me, wrapping his lead around my poles. There was a lot of that. At one point my left trekking pole had his lead wrapped around it so many times he barely had room to move. His pack wasn’t flopping around anymore; I’d rigged it and it was holding just fine.
The fog was so thick. It blanketed everything. It was very similar to those foggy scenes you see in horror movies before something jumps out at you. It was ethereal and beautiful to me; not scary. Not too far up the mountain I noticed the first campsite. It was occupied by two young girls in their twenties. I would learn later that they were from Florida, too. I will not lie–I felt better about my progress after learning that they’d found the approach trail so difficult that they’d decided to stop there the previous day. I also passed a group wearing state park shirts. I guessed they were a trail crew. Chewy did not care for people with (large) packs on their backs. Everyone we came across without a pack (or just a small hydration pack) was met with friendly wiggles, but anyone with a big pack was suspect. He’d never seen anything like that before, save me with my own pack. These were teaching moments, and he eventually settled on a wary look as opposed to growling at the strange hump-backed creatures. His manners with other dogs (we came across two that day) leave much to be desired. He’s been heavily socialized since puppyhood, yet his attitude problem with regard to other dogs is troubling. He needs much more work in that area. With the first dog, which was on lead, I was able to distract him with food and the “watch me” command, which he knows well. The second dog was unleashed and came upon us as I was collecting water from a stream. I yelled up at the owner that my dog wasn’t particularly dog-friendly, and he called his back. She was a lovely dog and very obedient. They waited for us to get on our way and let us get ahead a bit. Desensitizing Chewy to other dogs is something that I will have to be extremely diligent about. He is too young to be behaving like a jerk. Mama doesn’t play that.
There was so much beautiful scenery around me, and it was impossible to be looking around at it without tripping and falling over rocks and tree limbs. I had to stop every now and again, just to take in the view. I was amazed at how quiet it was. Glorious, beautiful silence. I drank it in, as it was something I rarely got at home. Occasionally you would hear a twig snap in the distance, but we saw no forest creatures. Not one. It was almost like we were all alone up there.
After a while we came upon the sign for the Hike Inn, an eco-friendly, self-sustaining Inn that was just off the Approach Trail. It isn’t dog-friendly, so I’ll have to check it out another time. I’d heard great things about it.
Not long after this sign I passed a gentleman who could’ve been Bill Nye The Science Guy’s twin. He was a pleasant sort, and bid us good day after chatting a few minutes. “Enjoy your walk!” he said as he went on his way. I remember thinking that if I weren’t so worried about making the summit by dark I might enjoy it a little more.
It wasn’t long after leaving Bill Nye’s doppelgänger that I came to Nimblewill Gap. The fairly narrow trail suddenly opened up into a large clearing. This struck me as extremely odd, since the forest had been pretty dense up until that point. It was still covered in fog, but as I approached I discovered that I’d reached the site of a plane crash. I’d read about it and knew to expect it at some point, but I was struck by the large open space. The area had to be cleared to remove debris from the plane and to retrieve the victims from the wreckage. I am sick that I didn’t get photos or video of the area. It was such a beautiful spot and magnificently eerie to stand there in the silence. I think that spot was one of the most beautiful of the whole day.
As I began to pass yet more campsites, in hindsight I should have stopped. I did not stop for lunch, but I did stop several times to rest and eat some almonds or a protein bar. Still, I needed more calories than that. I pushed myself so hard because I felt I had something to prove to myself after my failed attempt the day before. I was determined to reach the summit by sunset. I believe now that I would’ve gotten much more out of the trip had I relaxed and taken in the surroundings more. I think slowing down and taking in the view is important for all of us.
What do you think–Do we make it to the summit before dark? Are my repeated and out loud calls to Jesus answered? Stay tuned for Part 3 to see what happened that night on the mountain. Hint–We’ve given you a clue above. Can you find it?