Think for a moment about escaping the mundane. Ponder for a little while the wonders the world holds and the opportunity to savor some of them. Imagine setting yourself free and welcoming the different, the challenging, the road less traveled. Now think again.
My friend Shelley is a perfectly sane Michigan pharmaceutical IT analyst who, in a moment of insanity, decided to become a full-time Florida resident. Being insane will come in handy in Florida. It will make the transition to July heat strokes much easier. Before she went all-the-way crazy, Shelley went just a little crazy. She and her friend Lisa were looking for a little adventure. They decided to go backpacking in the eastern U.S. Neither of them had ever backpacked before so of course they opted to go hike the Appalachian Trail.
The AT is 2180 miles (or 2200 miles or 2164 miles…no one—including the Appalachian Trail Authority—can seem to agree on the exact length) of forested, mountainous beauty. From the southern terminus in Georgia to the distantly magnificent Mr. Katahdin in Maine the AT presents a wide array of hiking scenarios and a thorough test of the human will.
The AT also presents bears. Black bears to be precise. Folks who are not bear-o-phobic make comments such as “They’re smaller than grizzlies” (they still weigh three hundred fifty pounds) or “They’re typically shy creatures” (key word is typically) and, oh, here is my favorite “There hasn’t been a bear attack on the AT in forty years.” To quote author Bill Bryson, that’s not because the bears have signed a treaty, you know. Just ask Shelley and Lisa if some sort of non-aggression pact has been put into effect.
The two women thought they’d spend four days walking a thirty-six-mile portion of the trail and provisioned themselves accordingly. They borrowed a lot of items: packs, aluminum pans, a white gas stove, the ubiquitous collapsible cups, and water filters. Then they threw in a change of clothes, some books, and cameras.
A backpack, you understand, is a pack you carry on your back. Shelley’s pack weighed in excess of fifty pounds, a staggering—-literally—amount to tote up and down a mountain path. Filled with the type of hope only the truly delusional can embrace, Shelley and Lisa began their escapade and by escapade I mean rude awakening. The packs were heavy. The must-have water was heavy. Water weighs eight pounds a gallon at the best of times and hauling it on your back does not begin to approach the best of times. They had dutifully boiled about ten pounds worth of water. Their belief was that it cost them exactly that much in sweat to carry it so things were pretty much a wash, if you’ll excuse the pun. The promised beautiful vistas were blocked by what Shelley referred to as “rhododendron hell.” She could see approximately one foot through the overgrown thickets of bushes where there were no vistas of any description. And did I mention the packs were heavy?
Very early in the week, Shelley and Lisa ran into two guys from Louisville. Experienced hikers, these two men did one trial heft of the pair’s packs and pronounced, “You women are stout.” Stout, I am given to understand, is a compliment in Kentucky.
After spending the first night sleeping under the rhododendron-blocked stars Shelley and Lisa slept the second night in an AT bear shelter. Ha Ha. This is just a little AT humor. A bear shelter consists of a flimsy three-walled wooden shack with a piece of fence across the open side. Any self-respecting bear concerned with dental hygiene could use one of the pieces of wood as a toothpick and a length of fence as floss. The plan was to meet with the silver-tongued Kentucky hikers on the third night.
Making their way to the rendezvous spot, the two women stopped in a meadow, kicked off their boots, and enjoyed a rare unobstructed view. Shelley heard some rustling behind her. She turned around and there stood a very tame deer. NOT! There was a big ol’ bear with his eyes on the prize. As though he were cruising the aisles at Kroger, the bear casually lumbered between the women, picked up Shelley’s entire pack, and sauntered off. (Note: the fifty-pound load did not even phase him.) To recap the salient points: The women are two days from civilization. They have no food. They are scared witless. So they decide to go BACK to the bear shelter. Unfortunately, when they got there, the bear shelter was doing just that, sheltering a bear.
This second ursine encounter was not galvanizing. It was paralyzing. But after two hours they came up with a viable plan: high tail it out of the woods. As the high tailing was taking place they noticed the trail was littered with awfully familiar-looking pans and books and cameras.
Passing the spot of the intended meeting with the two men, they left a note explaining their absence and that while the local bears now had plenty of food, they themselves were fresh out.
To prove that in Kentucky chivalry is not dead, the two guys hiked at a brisk enough pace to catch up with Shelley and Lisa. This extraordinary kindness was followed by three more: They cooked the women dinner. They shared their campsite. They did not use the word “stout” again.
A few years later, Shelley married Nick. Nick is good at bocce ball, pretty good at golf, and a world-class beer drinker. He is, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, undisciplined. When he told me he had been in the Military Police I was…let’s just say stunned is not too strong a word. “Is being an MP just like it describes in the Jack Reacher novels?” I wanted to know. “Oh yes,” he replied. “I could kill things with just thought rays.”
Shelley probably wishes she had met him earlier.
Marla Boone resides in Covington and writes for the Troy Daily News and Piqua Daily Call.