There might be bears

DSCF1768 Originally written for MIT French House (June 2013)

Well, this is embarrassing. I’m hiding behind a broken concrete wall. My rather muddy dog is taking an afternoon nap while I’m taking a chance to strip down to my sports bra, spread out my clothes to dry in the sun, and curl up barefoot on my backpack eating squished bread and tuna. It’s a peaceful chance to sunbathe – until a rather rugged man pulls up his pickup truck in the grass, not ten feet from me, and tries to turn it around. Oops. Should I grab for my clothes? Yell an apology? Nope. Just another hobo, he thinks, and drives off without a second glance.

***

It was a few weeks ago that I first had the brilliant idea of leaving behind my end-of-semester stress and taking some time by myself to think. I’ll take myself backpacking, I thought, I love hiking, it’s a perfect excuse not to do any work or check my email. I’ll do 100km or so for a little challenge. West Virginia isn’t that mountainous, right?

What I ended up doing was a fragment of something called the Allegheny Trail. I was accompanied by my dog Fei, who three days later has almost forgiven me for taking him on a never-ending-walk. It stretches some 330 miles through the Appalachians, and is the brainchild of a group of hikers who decided that if West Virginia didn’t have any long-distance trails, they would make one – an awesome attitude. DSCF1780

West Virginia is wild…

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wasting…

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wonderful.

The trail, is new and little-known enough that my time went something like this:

  • Paved Roads: walk along two-foot wide verge while locals drive by at 55mph. Be impressed by how quickly dog learns to get off the road and sit still when he sees a car coming. Be unimpressed when dog learns to dive under the guard-rail and away into the bushes when he sees a truck.
  • Jeep Trails: in some places I could go miles without seeing a house or person, and they were easy walking with lots of little streams and butterflies.
  • Footpaths: I came to dread these. They were never well maintained. I fended off spiders with a stick. Every few paces I stopped in the name of public service to throw aside trees and branches that had fallen into the path (Dog collected small sticks and had great respect for my tree-tossing prowess). Still, at many points we had a great time as jungle-explorers and bug-hunters extraordinaires.

The most spectacular path appeared on the morning of the last day.

Path in WV

Picture an obstacle course, where you have to climb over things and army-crawl under things and push through things while balancing on narrow branches. The re-picture it with a forty-pound pack on your back, and no idea whether it goes on for four more yards or four more miles.

When I finally made it through onto semi-populated roads, a guy in a little Honda stopped me.
‘Did you just come up Twelvemile Run?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘did I ever.’
‘Do you think I could get my car through there?’
I told him it might not be the best of ideas.

***

The final big adventure was camping. I’ve camped in the wild before, but always with a tent and some company. I brought some rope and a hammock and tarp, an intention to just pick some good-looking trees in places no one would bother me, and a lot of warnings about… bears.

Bears aren’t so bad, right? They eat lots of things that aren’t people. They don’t even like people. You just have to hang up your food in a tree, far enough away that a hungry bear can try to get it without having to go through you. Then, having hung your food, you stumble back to your hammock by flashlight, right towards a set of glowing eyes in the dark. (I did wish I’d discovered this about my dog’s irises before the trip.)

Afterwards, you can wrap up in your sleeping bag and slowly doze off, glad that your dog has good night-senses if anything comes. You can keep trying to slowly doze off while he cocks his ears in one direction and growls. And keeps growling, and growling towards this one patch of trees. It’s not a bark, which he gives to anything he thinks he can scare, but a continuous menacing growl at the dark. I can see nothing. He keeps growling. I make mental plans about which way to retreat in case of bears. Dog keeps growling. I wish I could just sleep so that whatever is out there can eat me and get it over with. Dog keeps growling, until finally it starts to rain and everything becomes still.

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Home Sweet Hammock

The nights were beautiful, too. There’s something special about camping in a hammock on a clear night, where you can open your eyes in the night and look straight up at the stars.

The last night, we stumbled on a spot that looked like a caravan campsite; a lovely riverside clearing a mile from anywhere. It was still early when we got there, so I spent a while setting up my lean-to in case of rain, then sat and watched the sunset over the tree-tops. At dark, the clearing filled with fireflies. The moment, after three long days, was perfect.

***

That last day, I loved the coolness of the rain and the drops on my head. Then I hated the endless rain. I hid from it under a tarp by the roadside full of the smell of wet dog. I rested from it sitting on mud of its making. Finally, I found a patch of sunlight winking through the leaves, and came out into open farmland, with a view over waving grass to the rain falling on valley after valley as the Virginia hills stretch blue into the distance.

– What did I find here, I asked myself, that I was looking for?
– I found how to keep going; that it doesn’t matter whether it’s rainy and your feet hurt.
– You learned a little bit more about sore feet? That took you four days of bruises, filth and getting mistaken for a hobo? After spending all semester wishing for more time to properly learn statistical physics?
– Yes. Physics is less important than feet.

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