On the second to the last day of hiking, we hiked to the top of Blackrock Summit (link within the words) and it seemed like the world opened up around us.
I have jumped into this story without context which means that I should back up and rewind…
We started hiking on Sunday, the boys starting at Rockfish Gap. Pat, our hiking partner, and I started about five miles into the park, just under Calf Mountain and about two miles from the Calf Mountain shelter.
The Appalachian Trail is an incredibly accommodating trail given that it is over two thousand miles in length, some of which goes through private property. Shelters have been built along the way; the ones that we encountered in Shenandoah National Park had three walls with roofs pitched at a steep angle. Surrounding the shelters were camping pads, relatively flat parts of earth that were pressed down and fairly free of huge stones. These were perfect for two-person tents which my hiking partner and I used.
On the first night on the trail, we intended to camp at the Calf Mountain shelter. Many of the boys had camping hammocks so they weren’t planning on sleeping in the shelter. However, about half of us (my partner and I) were sleeping in tents and were looking forward to sleeping in the shelter.
Upon reaching the shelter, though, we realized that it had been taken over by a group of five young man who clearly had no intention of being hospitable or inclined to share. Now, this is not me and my emotional sensitivity or insecurity writing here. This was an observation voiced by multiple people before I even shared my thoughts on the situation. The shelters are not huge; they would have been a bit cramped to sleep a large number of people (as in over ten). But the general rule of the AT (from what I have learned) is that it is a community of people who support and care for one another. The cliche of “sharing is caring” has a true meaning on the AT, something I quickly learned even in my limited experience.
I really didn’t want to sleep in the shelter with these young men. I’m private and really had no desire to be close to them…until the rain started to fall. And when I say fall, I really should say come down in torrential sheets that soaked through everything, including the water-proof jackets my hiking-partner and I were wearing.
The rain arrived just after the boys had finished pitching their tents and hammocks but before they had a chance to eat; they were using alcohol-cooking stoves which burn best if the air is still…not happening in a rainstorm.
At the shelter was a picnic table that these delightful young men promptly dragged under the shelter and sat around, clearly marking their territory. This truly was a case of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours and it sucks to be you.” I will never forget seeing my hiking partner squatting in a miserable ball on the ground, clutching her food in both hands and trying to keep it under her hood so she could eat her food without it getting soaked. Because it was already cold.
At least one boy didn’t eat that night because the stove wouldn’t stay lit. And my husband went from boy to boy to see if all had eaten; the boy in the preceding sentence didn’t tell the truth about eating dinner.
The shelter-men had built a fire but never invited the boys to use it to cook their food. The shelter-men never extended the invitation for us to at least huddle under the shelter and sit with them at the table so we could have a place to eat that was relatively dry.
I should have been more confident and gone over and asked if we could join them. I would assume that they would have said “yes” if anything to keep from sounding rude. I should have been less unsure of whether or not I was being rude by even assuming that I could sit at the table with them. I shouldn’t have been so stupid.
It was a miserable night. Everyone was cold and dealt with water leaking in through ill-tied rainflies or the water that found just the right seam. Another adult leader slept at the bottom of the site and ended up dealing with the water rolling down the hill and seeping in everywhere. And if it didn’t seep into his tent, the outside of his tent was filthy. I had brought two throw-blankets to keep warm; they failed. I ended up curling up in a ball and just shivering all night.
But my hiking partner and I were more than the misery. True, we left the path and drove to the camp store to buy ponchos, sweatshirts, snacks, and a blanket for her. True, we took two of the youngest scouts with us because the boy who hadn’t eaten the night before woke up vomiting because of dehydration and malnutrition. Fortunately, I gave him some food and made sure he sipped water and he perked back up.
That morning, the five shelter-men talked among themselves that they were going to hike the next thirteen miles and sleep at the next shelter. The adult leadership all agreed that our earlier decision to push the boys only seven miles was now truly for the best so the shelter-men would not have to deal with the developing frustration and anger we were all feeling at them. Note, this is when my hiking partner’s youngest son gave me my trail name, “Mother Wolf.” Because he listened to me talk about how I wouldn’t be quiet and I wouldn’t be insecure and I wouldn’t sit on my pad and hope to God that I would stay warm. I would happily walk into their territory and plop my plump bum down on the bench at the table and start cooking.
Because “sharing is caring.”
Yup…don’t mess with the Mother Wolf. Not when she has a pack of cubs who need to have the ability to eat.
So, lets fast forward to Blackrock Summit.
Monday night, we slept on the side of the hill. Tuesday night, we slept at the Blackrock Shelter where the five shelter-men had slept the night before. Monday and Tuesday night, my hiking partner and I finally stayed warm and dry, even though we had rain storms both nights. The boy who hadn’t eaten was back to normal and changed from begging to go home to having the time of his life.
And then, Wednesday morning dawned with a brilliant blue sky and a lack of rain clouds. The forecast was clear and the world was open for exploration. One by one, we packed up our tents, left the shelter (note, three other hikers came through and we invited them to sleep in the shelter, eat at the table, and partake in our food), and went back to the trail.
The first hill was a bit miserable. Everyone was tired; muscles were aching. We were weary and just not feeling the magic of the hike. And then we crested the hill, broke through the trees, and stood on the top of the world.
Obviously, we weren’t on Everest. I will never climb Mount Everest. I don’t have any inclination to do so. I’m just not that adventurous…at least at this point in my life.
But Blackrock Summit is a peak that is covered in boulders that are layered and stacked upon one another so much so that we were on a natural playground of wonder and beauty. The 360 degree views were unobstructed by the fog that had persisted for the last two days. Surrounding us were landscapes of raw nature, perfect beauty, and a sky wide open and beckoning us on to adventures.
The boy who had been sick stood at the foot of the hill where he had dropped his pack and I watched as his eyes shifted from boredom from yet another round of hiking to wonderment at the hill of boulders awaiting him. Two days earlier, he had been vomiting, his tiny body bent over as his stomach cramped, his face covered in snot and tears. On this day, he was enthralled with the idea that he was being given the ability to scramble over rocks and break away from the boundaries the path required.
He plunged over rocks, jumping from boulder to boulder without fear or trepidation. At one point, he stood next to me and talked about returning, of coming back so he could once more see this wild and incredible beauty.
As I stood as a motionless axis on this mountaintop, I felt the world spinning beneath my feet (figuratively here…I was not having dizzy spells). Hours and hours away from this quiet place, my home was still standing with all of its electronic and technological habits that kept it going and existing. The A/C pump was still pouring cool air through the vents. The refrigerator was keeping its relatively empty caverns at the perfect temperature. My phone was receiving phone calls I had no intention of returning because the people I loved knew I was abandoning the world to carve out my footsteps on the trail.
Hours and hours from Blackrock Summit, the building in which I worked was being prepared for the next round of students. Likely, the fall sports athletes were practicing or exercising.
But, there, on Blackrock Summit, I stood still because I was afraid of falling (just down, not off the mountain…that threat really wasn’t present) and luxuriated in the caress of the wind as it ran through my hair or pulled at my shirt like a small child demanding my attention or wanting to lead me to a special spot. There, on Blackrock Summit, I stared at trees that were already showing the inclination to change to their fall colors.
I was standing at the threshold of time as one season was giving up its place so that the next might step into place. I was standing at the point in which the Earth would pull away from the sun and the night would lure me into hibernation.
But, for that moment, I was secure in this place, secure in who I was and where I was and what I was doing. I was confident in my lack of movement and when I finally stepped away from my focal point, I walked with careful steps, going at my pace, not trying to match the speed of anyone other than the woman within me.