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Five Days Afoot

Five Nights Hiding In a Sleeping Bag, Waiting for the Bear

by Rodger Ling

The Pre-Hiking Festivities

The question is always the same. "You're going alone?" people ask. "Isn't that dangerous?" Everybody's heard a story about a murder or violent crime on the Appalachian Trail, and they react like I've just announced I'm going for a midnight stroll in Gotham City. "No," I tell them, "it's not dangerous."

During the three hour drive into North Carolina, I awake occasionally from highway hypnosis to realize that, for me, it is a one-way trip. The inevitable moment when I will give Annie a kiss, turn, and walk into the woods is now only minutes away. I imagine myself losing my voice from lack of use, eating the bark off trees, running wild with wolves. The weather, I suddenly realize, tends to be cold in the mountains. It would very likely be dark at night. Worst of all, I'm going to have to eat my own cooking.

Day One: Looking for Thoreau

The fog pools in the valley below, then lifts slowly in great colorless bands as I eat my breakfast. I am a hundred yards off the trail on a ridgetop, barely a mile from the Rock Gap trailhead, having survived my first night on the trail. I ponder the miles yet to come. Mostly, I hope vaguely that a few days in the woods will allow the mental debris to settle. Like Thoreau, I imagine myself living a simple life, thinking profound thoughts. But inevitably, I have brought some of the clutter along with me: the 2-meter radio, the Walkman and tapes, the extra clothing and batteries, just in case.

My backpack creaking and groaning, I march through the mountains, absorbing images of the sunshine and mushrooms and bright Fall colors that appear in front of me. By sunset, I have made camp near the summit of Wine Spring Bald, having covered a total of ten miles for the day. That night, reading in the tent, I am startled by an eerie wail from the forest, and pull my covers--or rather, my sleeping bag--over my head. Only later do I realize that I have been reduced to a state of terror by a common screech owl.

Day Two: The Howl of the Hound

Two miles of bright yellow beech trees laced with green ferns and lichens leads me to the stone tower on Wayah Bald, where I meet four hikers heading south. Their leader speaks in a curious foreign accent. "Do you need medication for your feet?" he asks. I try to reassure him that the blisters on my toes are not as bad as they look.

After crossing a gravel road at Burningtown Gap, I meet a hound dog coming the other way. He barks and retreats as I advance; neither of us will yield. Eventually, the beast melts back into the woods. A mile further, I halt at the Cold Spring Shelter, a three-sided log structure similar to those found at 10-12 mile intervals all along the trail. I sit reading by candlelight, while a nearby spring gurgles quietly to itself. Then, out of nowhere, the devil dog reappears, barking furiously, his eyes glowing fiendishly.

Life in the shelter, I soon decide, is considerably more stressful than putting up the tent. I worry that the dog will carry off my boots. Assuming the dog goes away, I worry a hungry bear will come into the shelter looking for food. I worry that a mouse will chew holes in my pack. I worry that a snake will slither by, hoping to catch the mouse. Until rain starts on the tin roof above me, I lie there with my sleeping bag pulled over my head, listening for all these things.

The dog goes away. No bears or snakes attack. But in the morning, I discover four acorns stored carefully inside one of my boots.

Day Three: Civilization

Shortly before Noon, I'm wandering through the mists of Rocky Bald, a high point of granite lined with patches of deep, soft moss. By now, the blisters on my toes have subsided. The pack rides naturally on my hips and shoulders, until I feel almost naked walking without it. Like a long-distance runner, I have learned to concentrate on the big picture, to ignore minor discomforts (aching feet, blisters, the human body's instinctive need for beer and television) and just keep going.

The ten miles of trail down to the Nantahala River begins as a moderate descent, then drops rapidly. I hear the disconcerting sound of traffic. At 4:30 p.m. I emerge from the woods at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and make the novice outdoorsman's mistake of trying to use a payphone:

(1) After getting change at the NOC store, I attempt to call Annie collect, but she's not home. So I try person-to-person, hoping to leave a message on the answering machine, but don't have enough change. I walk back to the store for more.

(2) I try again, but the phone eats my money. The coin return, of course, is broken. Back to the store a third time for change. The NOC people are starting to give me sideways glances.

(3) I finally get through and leave a short, somewhat incoherent message. After I hang up, every cent I'd deposited comes tumbling down the coin return. I consider going into the store a fourth time to change the heavy coins back into bills, but can't get up the nerve.

Fed up with civilization, I trudge north, into the woods.

Day Four: In the Bear's Domain

Having climbed through dense fog all morning, I reach a rocky outcrop far above the river, and find myself in sunlight. The tops of lesser mountains look like islands in the sea of clouds below. Two hours later, I'm cooking lunch at the Sassafras Gap Shelter, otherwise known as "Bear Attack Camp." There is a notebook serving as a register which tells of an aggressive bear that has been driven back only with the most vigorous banging of pots and pans. On another occasion, the bear made off with a backpack belonging to someone named Tim. "He was raising hell!" the note says. The bear, I wonder, or Tim?

Regardless, I decide I will spend the night somewhere else. Cheoah Bald, less than a mile further, proves to be a glorious place. A tunnel of Rhododendron leads to a rocky outcrop where the Smokies beckon. From my tent, over a grassy field, it is possible to retrace my route across distant, towering mountains. As darkness falls, I find myself waiting for the bear from the shelter to pick up the scent of my dinner and walk boldly into my tiny circle of light. I keep a pot and pan within an arm's reach at all times, just in case.

Day Five: The Wilderness Lost

I awake early the next morning to voices: bear hunters have come up the mountain with their dogs. Camp broken, I find myself raging in anger at the sight of discarded cans and candy wrappers left at regular intervals along the trail. Even here, a good day's climb from the road, the illusion of wilderness is a fragile one, easily lost. Later, one of the hunters stops to talk. Most of the bear, he says, have moved down to lower elevations. I mention the one that made off with the backpack at the shelter. "That bear's not around anymore," the hunter says simply and ominously. Remembering the tinge of awe I had felt as I moved through what I had imagined to be a bear's domain, I walk sadly on, another illusion broken.

Moses came down from the mountain with ten commandments. After five days and 46 miles on the Appalachian Trail, I come down from Cheoah Bald hungrier, but no wiser. At the NOC Restaurant, I devour a Veggie Burger with extra fries and sit watching civilization cartwheel around me. Evening descends and I sit in a pavilion out of the rain, reading, while kayakers play on the river long into the night.

As I sit, it occurs to me that all of us--backpackers, kayakers, even the hunters--share a common quest: an escape from our ordinary selves, a connection with something larger, a glimpse of the bear, real or imagined. Each of us, whether armed with rifles, paddles, or simply pots and pans, moves alone through our personal vision of the wild. We are solitary travelers, seeking a moment of bright clarity and perspective, when the mundane in our lives will be nothing more than a faraway dream.

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