The Appalachian Trail is the ultimate test: endurance, perseverance, surrendering control—and, if you’re John Cave Osborne, running from food-swiping, tree-splintering bears.
Each year, Lovie is good enough to let me abandon my family and hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail for several days. Some of her friends give me grief about my annual sojourn. They seem to consider it nothing more than an alcohol-fueled bender in the woods.
If they only knew.
My friends and I temporarily trade our complicated but comfortable lives for simple, arduous ones. We hike up and down 3,000-foot inclines, covering up to 20 miles a day, armed with nothing more than 40 pounds of essentials, the clothes we’re wearing, and a desire to lead more meaningful lives.
Hours and hours are spent consulting our trusty maps as well as several guidebooks to carefully analyze topography, mileage, water sources, weather patterns, shelters, and campsites before we even decide upon our itinerary. It takes almost as long to organize our backpacks. The last thing you can afford on the trail is too much weight, which means many of the things I might have wanted to take get left behind. That’s OK, though. You get by better with only the things you need.
I can’t speak for my companions, but while I’m in the woods, I feel the entire gamut of emotions—from exhilaration after cresting a two-mile incline, to wonder while witnessing the divine beauty at the top, to relief at beginning a much-needed descent, to despair when staring at yet another uphill stretch, to exaltation when I finally see the campsite I’ve dedicated the previous 11 hours to reach. There I will rest and replenish, all so I can experience another collage of emotions the very next day.
Each year, I fight many battles on the trail, but they’re typically waged by me—whether I’m questioning my endurance, challenging my perseverance, or pushing my resolve to the absolute limit. Those battles motivate my body to keep moving through the last two miles of a long day. Those battles motivate my mind to ignore the burn in my thighs as I ascend the final 1,500 feet that separate me from my destination.
But last year, a new type of battle emerged. This one was not waged by me, but rather by all things outside of my control—things like unexpected creatures, unknown fate, and the morbid curiosity that lies therein. Ordinary noises took on new meaning. Normal shadows took on new life.
I’ve logged enough hours on the trail to know that I’m not in control. The trail is. It decides when to deliver me unspeakable joy. And even if I’m feeling invincible, it can bring me to my knees in an instant if it so chooses, reminding me of my relative insignificance.
It haunts me while I’m away. Year after year, I come back for more.
Last year’s trip was to span seven days and cover 106 miles. On the second night, we were right on schedule, camping out along the shores of Lake Watauga, and settling in for a much-needed night of recuperation. I headed to my tent shortly after 9 p.m.
At 10 o’clock, I awoke to the rhythmic rustling of leaves accompanied by intermittent pops of breaking wood. Loud pops. Too loud to come from twigs, but rather from thick, fallen branches being snapped in two by something heavy. Something strong.
One of our friends had stayed up and was still outside, reading by the dim glow of his headlamp. He looked up and saw a bear climbing the tree from which we had hung our food. He jumped to his feet, grabbed his trekking poles, and clanged them together over his head while slowly walking backwards, carefully avoiding eye contact with the animal the entire time—a textbook reaction by a true outdoorsman.
The bear scampered down the tree, but not before clawing through the tarp that contained our food bags, which fell to the ground like candy from a piñata.
We huddled around the coaled-up campfire and decided to re-hang our food from a tree further away and remain there until morning, instead of hiking through the pitch-black night, loaded down with backpacks filled with everything a bear might find delicious. With the food even further away, we felt there was no chance he’d come back.
But at 2 in the morning, our furry friend returned, alerting us of his whereabouts with similar noises to the ones he’d made earlier. As we scurried out from our tents, he slipped away into the mysterious night, scared off by the loud noises we were intentionally making in hopes of eliciting that reaction.
My friends and I quickly broke camp and began hiking toward a road that was just two miles away. It felt as if we were in a scene from The Blair Witch Project. We walked close together in a single-file line to the rhythm of our quickened heartbeats, thin and shaky beams of light emanating from our foreheads, one of us banging on a pot for effect, and all of us with our heads on a swivel.
When we reached the new food-hanging tree, we were surprised to discover that one of our bags was missing—mine. The shock experienced after the initial encounter must have kept us from noticing that the bear had gotten away with it. By the time we reached the road and set up our makeshift camp, it was close to 4 a.m. We woke up tired and confused just a few hours later. Without my food, it would be impossible for me to complete the section as planned.
Thanks to the bear and the food he pilfered, we were forced to change plans midstream. We got a ride to a quaint little inn some 25 miles away, where we reloaded and spent the night. The next morning, we got another ride to what was originally supposed to be our ending point. From there, we hiked back to the inn where we had left a car, finishing strong by covering over 50 miles in those final three days.
The end result was 80 miles in five days. Our minds taxed and our bodies spent, we decided to leave the 26 miles between the inn and our roadside campsite for another time. Or, perhaps better put, the decision was made for us.
If you’ve ever hiked the Appalachian Trail, then you’re familiar with the white blazes painted on the trees along either side. They’re six-inch-high-by-two-inch-wide affirmations that you are still, indeed, on the right path. During an 18-mile trek, these blazes blow by like mile markers on the interstate.
Sometimes, especially when my mind and body are weary, it feels like the hike I’m on is my entire life; each white blaze, another day; and the trail, God. Until I reach His camp, there’s no point in stopping, even when I feel as if I can’t take another step.
So onward I go. To finish my hike. The one I spent so much time planning. The one I’m executing to the very best of my abilities. But no matter how well prepared I am, and no matter how effectively I carry out my plan, my steps won’t decide where I go. The Trail will.
Me? I’m just a hiker.
This post is dedicated to my friend Katie Granju and her entire family.