My friend Alison is hiking along the Appalachian Trail about 50 feet ahead of me. We have been hiking alone for 10 days and are carrying 50-pound backpacks, so her running is more like a hurried hobble.
I see her try to pick up her pace, stumbling over roots and rocks as she continues to ascend the ridge, but her speed doesn’t accelerate much. “Go!” I call frantically. She can’t look over her shoulder because we are wearing poorly-packed, external-frame packs that extend high over our heads with sleeping pads and pots and pans strapped to the outside. Alison has no idea why I am suddenly commanding her to hurry, but due to the timbre of my voice she doesn’t stop to question me.
Behind me, I hear the thudding of heavy feet galloping up the trail. Something big is coming fast. I hear the leaves and brush rustle and scrape, but I don’t dare to turn around. The faster I run, the faster it pursues me. I am in a blind panic. “Alison!”
We are both 16 years old. This trip had been my idea. The previous summer I had attended Camp Farm & Wilderness, and now felt that I was well versed in outdoor living. I had convinced Alison that we should hike on the Appalachian Trail for a month and survive off of wild edibles along the way. I had also just read “My Side of the Mountain” and pictured us fishing out of clear streams with hooks carved from saplings and eating pine nuts and acorn pancakes to sustain ourselves. Surprisingly, our parents thought this would be a good experience. Maybe they were in need of some respite.
Not surprisingly, it was harder than it sounds. By the second day, we were starving and begging other through-hikers for handfuls of trail mix. We hadn’t even brought a stove and realized quickly that acorns, while
Needless to say, we were ill-prepared. No stove, no food, no maps. And now we were in bear country. We had recently passed a sign that gave instructions for a bear encounter:
- Do not run
- Back up slowly
- Climb tree
- Use pepper spray
At night I had been sleeping with a butcher knife under my pillow–just in case. But currently, that knife was buried deep in my backpack. I was helpless against my attacker. In my rush, I tripped. My heavily-laden backpack toppled me forward, and I hit the ground hard. My knees crashed down on a rock, and I struggled to quickly unclasp my hip belt and twist free of the weight of my pack. I was picturing the bear shredding me with his long teeth and jagged claws, and I wanted to be ready to kick at him. With a sharp intake of breath, I turned to face my doom.
There was nothing. Instead, I saw my sleeping bag had become unrolled and had been dragging on the ground behind me, bumping along the rocks and roots and sounding very much like a bear in hot pursuit. The relief that flooded me could be sold as a street drug.
“Alison,” I called. “It was my sleeping bag.” She dropped her pack immediately and looped back down the trail to me. She was covered with sweat, her cheeks shone red, and her breathing was ragged. She laughed, “Let’s get some pictures of your bloody knees.” (See picture above.) I posed, and she took some shots.”We should probably sing to keep the bears away from now on.” she said. I agreed. So, we did.
I saw Alison yesterday for the first time in 18 years. We met in a coffee shop called Book and Bar in Portsmouth New Hampshire. She was with her 11-year-old daughter. Alison had read this blog and reached out across cyberspace to reconnect. As we spoke her daughter leaned over and whispered in her mom’s ear. “Is this the one?”
“Oh,” Alison laughed, “She has heard stories.” We started swapping tales of that trip. How we hiked with ferns behind our ears to keep the gnats away and ended up looking like forest nymphs. How we hadn’t even brought a stove or a map. How in our starvation we took a break from the trail and hitchhiked to Arby’s. We set up our tent up in the parking lot and ate dinner and breakfast there. We remembered asking a farmer to sleep in his barn along the hike during a terrible thunderstorm and huddling under his tractor to avoid his very agitated horse that was also seeking shelter. It was rearing up and kicking at the hard-packed dirt all around our heads. We spent the night questioning whether we had ever heard of a horse trampling someone to death. We remembered how kind everybody was and how helpful. “You will have a lot of adventures, Penny, just
We paid no attention to detail, we relied on the goodness of strangers, and we learned more than we could have ever from a book or a screen. It was terribly uncomfortable, and, at times, we were alternately exhausted, starving, and terrified or all three at once, but, of course, it was worth it.
On this bike adventure I will bring food, lots of it, and maps too, and I hope the appropriate gear. I still welcome the craziness of not planning every moment, but, given my track record of chaos, I will try a little harder to give some thought ahead of time to some of the details.
I hope Oakley will sing with me if I get scared of bears like Alison did.
Here is what we are planning to bring:
- 3-person tent that does not require stakes
- 2 cozy, very compactable sleeping bags
- 2 soft, compactable sleeping pads
- Biolite stove that can use twigs if no fuel is available
- Cooking supplies
- Two touring bikes, double racks and double fenders on each
- Kevlar tires (to prevent flats)
- 2 sets of front and rear panniers
- TransAmerican Trail Maps
- Bike lights
- Homeschooling supplies
- Repair kits
- First aid kit
- 2 full sets of rain gear
- Battery pack for
- Serious amounts of food
- Serious amounts of food
- Serious amounts of food