My son Erik and I walked along the Appalachian Trail in relative silence. We had never been a talkative pair. I had explored over a hundred miles of this expansive trail in day hikes, and though I loved talking with thru hikers as they strode by, I had no desire to do the entire trail. I just wanted to spend one overnight on it, to face my fear of darkness in the woods that had plagued me since childhood. Shoulder and neck issues along with intermittent bouts with sciatica, reduced the amount of weight I could carry. I accepted my limitations and made a plan. For my sixtieth birthday I asked Erik to accompany and assist me on an overnight hike on the trail. He readily agreed, and now, six months later, here we were – in the Shenandoah Mountains in late June.
We spent the morning zip lining through the woods – an extra added surprise – and then devoured burgers at a local diner. Next, we stationed the cars at the hike’s beginning and end points. Our boots did not hit the trail until mid afternoon – in heat and humidity beyond anything I had experienced in my northern New York climate. The approach was through an open field, under a sun that steadily ate away at my endurance. We moved slowly and Erik waited calmly each time I ducked under a small bush to grab a few inches of shade. I struggled to inhale air so laden with moisture it felt like I was under water. I had real doubts that I could make the first mile, even without the backpack that Erik had already relieved me of. My heart pounded against my chest as I gulped down water and inched up the incline. When we finally reached the ridge the temperature fell with the shade and the trail leveled out a bit – small measures of relief that pushed my feet forward. A couple miles later we perched on two large boulders to drink more water and rest briefly. Suddenly Erik sprang to his feet “What?” I asked – and he pointed down the trail –“Bear!”
Thirty seven acres of woods had surrounded my childhood home, but the unknown threats lurking in the shadows had halted my steps into them – even with my two brothers by my side. My father entered the woods every day, culling the trees that provided our livelihood from its depths. When dad spoke, his words were often as rough as the bark that clad the logs his chainsaw felled. Silence became my tool to cut through the air of anger that resided within our home. One day bears arrived in those woods, transplanted from their overpopulation in the Adirondack Mountains a few hours away. Stories of bears entering back yards where small children played, of sightings by the mailman just down the road, along with the one told by my mother after she, my two brothers and I were herded together by our quivering dog in the blueberry lot, made my small heart race. Even before their actual arrival, bears had chased me into my nights, with teeth bared and claws extended, my screams unable to escape as I woke in terror. The fear of bears kept me away from the woods well into adulthood, until I hesitantly joined a group of friends on a hiking trip. That day I felt the power in pushing my body upward, to the top of a mountain that revealed a view like none I had ever experienced. I discovered quiet and peace amongst the trees. It was the first of many hikes to follow, and my fear of the woods started to abate – in the daytime.
Now, not 30 feet away was a huge black bear. Adrenaline rushed through my limbs, ready to do whatever needed to be done. Without a thought I found myself standing between the bear and my son – my mother bear kicking in despite the fact he was over a foot taller and 70 pounds of muscle stronger. “What do we do?” I sputtered. “Mom, we’re just going to walk back the way we came for a little bit.” he responded calmly. As we started moving away the bear lumbered into the heavy brush surrounding the trail. We stopped, waited and listened. The sound of the bear breaking through the woods dulled with distance. Cautious feet led us slowly forward, past the spot where the bear had stood, and then sped up to put space between us and it. Our eyes jumped from tree to tree as we scurried on.
To be continued……