It was a long and boring day. I finished work at 2:30 p.m. Having completed all the menial Friday billing and payroll tasks I closed my IBM stinkpad and decided to do a few chores before departing. I mowed the yard, grabbed a shower, and hit a few stores before getting on the road. It was well after 7:00 p.m. when i departed.
I was on the road about 20 minutes when I realized I left my stove fuel bottle, full of white gas, in the garage. Without it, I wouldn’t be eating. So I turned around and headed back home, got the items I left in the garage and tossed them into the trunk figuring that I’ll work out how to pack them when I got to the parking lot in the forest. Off I went, the second time. It’s now close to 8:00 p.m. but I’m determined to start my camping trip on Friday — damn the torpedoes.
The drive was about two hours. I arrived at the parking lot of the trail head around 10:00 p.m. When I turned off all the lights, it was pitch black. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face beneath the trees. So, working with a flashlight I tried to repack my gear. Things weren’t going well for me either. I dropped one of the water bottles I had packed and broke the top. Spilling all the water out of it and getting some of my gear wet. I couldn’t figure out how to carry my camera equipment up the mountain with me and didn’t want to risk breaking it without the proper padding and protection. I wound up leaving my photographic gear behind.
Finally at around 11:00 p.m. I took a large dose of ibuprofen, I knew I was going to need it, and got it together enough to begin my ascent — traveling by fifteen year old memories and flashlight.
I didn’t weigh my pack. I think it felt heavier than carrying my oldest child on my back. Get out a pencil and paper and add this up with me. I’m going to estimate it at a conservative seventy pound pack. Add to that a few pounds in each hand for stuff that just didn’t fit in my pack. Add to that the darkness of a national forest. Add to that a seven hundred foot incline over a kilometer. Add to that a forty year old, desk-jockey with bad knees who doesn’t get enough exercise. Now, what does that total? Yes, you are correct! An hour and a half hike up the mountain. Fatigue. Muscle cramps. Mental anguish. Fear of wild animal attack — it is bear country and they are just waking up emaciated from hibernating.
With everything that went wrong there was one thing that I had on my side. I’m more stubborn than a jackass and I wasn’t going to give up. Honestly, that’s all that kept me going. I kept remembering a Concrete comic book by Dark Horse Comics that I read in college. In it the main character climbs a mountain and comes to a realization about life and mountain climbing. Each is boring, monotonous, and mind numbingly repetitive. And the way you climb a mountain is stupidly simple: you keep taking the next step. So, that’s just what I did. When I felt like I couldn’t go any farther, I told myself I had to take just one more little four inch baby step… I can do that, I know I can.
About a quarter of the way up I had to rest. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest. Then I figured on average the trail was a 1/5 slope. For every five feet forward I traveled I climbed a foot in altitude. I caught my breath, let my heart slow down to about eighty beats per minute and paced myself with strides that were about a foot and a quarter in length. I counted to myself from one to four, over and over and over.
I was extra alert, and managed to find the turn in the trail which lead to the peak. It was marked with a small stack of stones far off to the left of the trail. Honestly, I remember missing this trail in the distant past in the daylight. It’s easy to do. I was ecstatic when I found it Friday night for two reasons. One, it meant I wasn’t lost, and two, it meant I was half way there.
After the turn, the trail felt much steeper. My pack felt heavier. I was tired and hungry, having passed up fast food on the road for some deranged, idealized vision of a dehydrated, camping-food dinner that I had planned to eat under the stars on top of a mountain. I had to stop and rest three or four times. My legs ached, my knees hurt, and I was sweating even though it was maybe 40ºF.
Up, up, up I climbed. The trail started to look like a deep, dry gully. And a light shown down from the top of the trail. It was another camper. I managed to say in a panting, rasping way that almost resembled speech, “Tell me this is the top.” He said I was really close, which invigorated me and I managed to climb this steepest part of the trail, the slope having to be 2/1 for about 10 yards.
I asked how crowded it was. He said it was pretty crowded. There were only one or two crappy campsites left right there on the main trail. I told him I had been up here before and remember hanging my hammock between two trees right along the peak. He took me to the peak. I stumbled around on the top of the mountain for a while before finding a suitable pair of trees to hang my hammock. I literally mean stumble. As I lost my footing, fell, and either sprained or broken my pinky-finger.
So now it’s 12:30 a.m. I clear some brush. Hang my hammock. Start my camping stove. Boil some water. Rehydrate a dehydrated meal and wait for it to cook. Repack my gear. Hang it in the tree next to me. Eat dinner and bed down.
It’s now just after 1:00 a.m. I’ve turned off my flashlight and in fifteen minutes my eyes adjust to the starlight. On top of the mountain, with no trees shading the light, it was bright with just starlight alone. There were billions and billions of stars that were visible with the naked eye. It was absolutely magnificent. The other campers who were on the peak with me were loud, obnoxious, and having a great time. I had packed an MP3 player and tried to drown them out with some heavy metal.
While I was laying there jamming out under the star filled sky I saw a shooting star. It burned for 3 seconds, covered one fifth of the sky’s arc, and the fireball was at least an eighth of the relative size of the full moon. For a second there before it burnt out I thought it might actually hit the Earth.
I snuggled down in my sleeping bag, with my Tijuana blanket while the wind rocked my hammock. I was warm, comfortable and happy. I think I fell asleep around 3:00 a.m. But this is a camping trip, so you know that happiness and contentment didn’t last long.
I slept for about an hour listening to System of a Down, Marilyn Manson, and A Perfect Circle on my MP3 player only to be awoken by the ruckus of the rude individuals sharing the mountain with me. I heard them OVER the head-banging, metal that was playing directly in my ear canals. They finally shut up around 4:30 a.m. and I fell back asleep without the need of music to drown out morons.
I was exhausted both mentally and physically and slept deeply. The wind blew the trees and rocked my hammock. I had found heaven on earth. Happiness and contentment again, right? You got it. It wasn’t meant to last.
At 6:30 a.m. another band of hikers came to the summit, which was damn close to my camp, and carried on. Wonderful. I slept all of maybe three hours, if that. I laid there, waiting for the sun to rise. I had a good view of the horizon through the trees. And just before the sun peaked over the distant horizon, the tops of the pine trees turned a brilliant, fiery orange. Followed closely by the bright, blinding, morning light of our day star. It was amazing. All of my anger at the rude, loud, obnoxious people on that mountain disappeared.
I made breakfast. Repacked my gear properly in daylight. Broke camp and waited. And waited. And waited. I wasn’t leaving until I had a bowel movement, because I knew if I started without one, I’d need to go 1/2 way down the mountain, and there was nowhere to dig a cat-hole on that trail. I had brought a book with me, the Army’s field manual on Survival, thinking that I’d make a mockumentary out of the whole trip. With my camera gear in my car seven hundred feet below me, that wasn’t going to happen today. So I sat, read, and waited.
Finally, business was taken care of and I suited up and hiked down the mountain. I tell you, going down isn’t easier — my leg muscles burned and my knees hurt worse than ever — but it was faster. When I got to the car I took some more ibuprofen and relaxed for a bit. Then I realized I had left the ropes in the trees at my camp site. You need to know, for me, that’s horrible. I’m a low-impact camper. I bury my bodily waste and I carry out everything that I packed in. I leave my campsite in the natural way I found it. No visible fire ring, no ash on the ground, no trace. So, I had to go back for those dumb ropes. Not because of their value, but because of my principles.
I was going back up anyway, I might as well take my camera gear and get some photographs and take some video. So I climbed to the top of the mountain again with only my camera gear in the daylight. I’ll tell you, a much easier climb. I really did feel 20 years younger. Like superman? No. Maybe more like Popeye. Ibuprofen is my spinach.
After going up, taking photos, talking to other hikers, and coming back down I was tasked with finding a new campsite. Surprisingly this was much more difficult. I was determined to get away from people this time. You’d think that would be an easy task in a 1,076,711 acre National Forest. So I got in the car and drove the forestry access roads. And drove. And drove. A few times I got out and hiked, scouting for a suitable campsite, but I found none. Oh, hell, I’m picky alright. It started getting later in the afternoon now, about 4:00 p.m. I became disappointed at my inability to find a really nice, secluded spot to camp. Add the threat of rain which was looming and it was an easy decision to just call it an overnight camping trip and head home.
Honestly, I felt that I had more privacy at home, in my own back yard, than I did on that mountain.
This is where my luck turned for the better. I got home without incident and fell asleep on the couch Saturday night around 8:00 p.m. Again, it was a sound, restful and deep sleep. The camping and MRE rations I had eaten must have been loaded with salt. How can I assume this? I suffer from gout and my episodes are triggered by salt. At 6:00 a.m. I woke to a burning pain in both of the tendons around my knee caps (not the joints themselves, I can tell the difference), and both my achilles tendons in my heels. Pain. Huge pain. I got up to drink water and take medicine. I could barely walk. If I had packed in anywhere, and camped out in the woods, there was no way I would have been able to walk out, let alone hike out with seventy pounds on my back. I was so glad I was home. It took about an hour for the pain medication to work and I went back to sleep and slept another four hours.
So, I’m home, safe and sound… only slightly injured. I can honestly say that I had an overnight adventure. Not my only camping trip this year. I’m going back, only with better preparation, satellite surveillance and reconnaissance, and much better food, with no salt. My ideal camping spot of years past is gone. Ruined by the masses. I’ll hunt out another spot to camp. Maybe in the Uwharrie National Forest? Who knows?