A couple weeks ago I visited Blacksburg, Virginia for a couple days to clean up where I had been living. I had stayed at my parents’ place for the last three and a half years and it showed. Some of their friends were going to be using the place so I had to touch it up before they got there. But I didn’t want to just drive there and back, I wanted an adventure, I wanted an escape. So I shoved some gear into my backpack and planned for a trip in the woods.
I made it to Blacksburg around two in the morning and crashed. The next day I quickly cleaned and called a couple of my friends who were still there. I told them what I wanted to do. I had ants in my pants and there was only one sure fix. My friend Daniel and I went over to our friend Scott’s place to talk plans. Daniel had no intentions of coming with us but after hours of discussion, we convinced him to meet us out there after buying some gear from Blue Ridge Mountain Sports. Scott and I made it to hiking just before seven pm. It’s not unusual for us to get a late start but this was a little crazy even for us considering we had sixteen miles to our destination. We headed towards Dragon’s tooth in Catawaba, Virginia, a beautiful mountaintop rock formation with incredible views, possible star-gazing, and good enough shelter from the wind.
The hiking was beautiful. The sun was setting over a ridgeline to the southwest directly behind us. The thick green foliage is something I’m not used to with my winter backpacking habits. I have typically avoided backpacking in the summertime to focus on triathlon training. I didn’t have a bit of clue what I was missing out on, and for the sake of my training, it’s probably best that I didn’t know. The warm, humid air felt incredible compared to the dry bitterness of the winter. I loved the sweat dripping down my face. I loved the warm breeze, the color green encapsulating us. It was a complete change from winter backpacking and along with the beautiful differences, also came some dangerous ones.
Scott and I made it just a couple of hours before we had to pull out the headlamps. We had walked nearly a mile in pitch darkness and it was freeing letting my vision adjust to the dimming light and eventual darkness. But with our deliberate, cautious steps, our pace was simply too slow for the distance we needed to cover. What we soon realized is that the darkness concealed threats other than rocks.
Our first scare was a big black bear just twenty yards up the trail. With Scott leading the way, he saw the two-hundred and fifty pound furball first. It can honestly be hardly called a threat though. Maybe it was easier for me since I had Scott between me and the bear. Maybe I just have become numb to the fear of these silly lumbering herbivores. As expected, the bear sprinted uphill off the trail as soon as he realized we were behind him and was out of our sight within half a minute.
Just a short while later, Scott slammed on the brakes again. He had led the way nearly the entire time, laughing that I wasn’t breaking the spider webs for him anyways because I just walked underneath them. I didn’t mind, especially when we came upon a little copper head relaxing on the trail. Deadly threat number two. Scott and I stared at the snake, wondering what kind he was. Neither of us had a bit of clue whether we were looking at death or a painful jab. Either way we figured avoid it. We may be ignorant but we’re not morons.
After this, Scott said I could hike in front. So I took the lead, naively expecting nothing else could possibly happen. So within an hour, I slammed on the brakes, cross-eyed to catch a glimpse of a black widow riding on my face. I quickly threw him off and bent over to confirm it.
He hadn’t been hitching a ride for long. I had felt his web hit my face and that’s when I stopped. I thought about before I left for this trip, I had discussed my plans with coworkers and they warned me that I was going to become a statistic. I had always thought winter camping was where the threats were. I can plan for nearly everything in the winter but a black widow chomping down on my face is not something I could very easily prepare for. But after these three threats (that we know of), and I was still alive. The way I see it, these things weren’t actually threats. Had they been, I probably wouldn’t be here now. All of these animals have made it to wear they are because they are survivors. They didn’t see me and Scott as food, so they left us alone. Weather will kill you with no hesitation. Among animals (at least these animals), we seem to all want the same thing, to be left alone so we can eat and survive. Maybe this is naïve but hey I’m not dead yet.
I remember I was camping out on the slopes of Mt. Washington and a skunk stumbled up to me while I was cooking dinner. He had apparently smelled my delicious meal from the brush and came wandering out expecting it to be his. I’ll never forget that moment. He looked at me and I stared back at him. I remember planting my hands on the ground, ready to run. He stood there with a look of absolute surprise and fear. After just a few seconds of staring, he turned around and sprinted back down the hill. None of these animals want to mess with me any more than I want to mess with them. I don’t feel like I was greatly threatened that night.
Scott and I continued walking and met up with Daniel sometime after midnight. Our headlamps were nearing death at that point so Daniel’s bright light was refreshing. We stopped for water and headed up to camp. Scott and I were experimenting with lightweight gear and carrying just a bivy sack, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag liner for our sleeping system. The temperature on top of the mountain dropped unexpectedly and I spent the night in the fetal position. When the morning came, I was ready to get up and moving. We explored around the campsite a bit and then headed back down. A goddamn epic adventure if you ask me. It was good to scratch my itchy feet but unfortunately such a short trip only provides very temporary satisfaction. Time for another adventure.