I couldn’t wait to get off work Friday afternoon, because my Osprey Atmos was packed and waiting in my car’s hatch. The day began with a melted sherbet sky and it got up to seventy degrees. That would change, as my iPhone SE told me with a cloud icon sporting tiny blue raindrops. The morning’s icon was an attempt to signify wind. Hiker trash like me don’t mind stripping down to undershorts at trailheads to put on trail clothes. The weather icons informed my evening clothing selections, as well as what was in my clothing dry-bag. Under Armor compression tee with black Nike Dri-Fits covering my legs. I wear them on most hikes because they’re light, wicking, keep the ticks and chiggers off. I topped that with a button down Ex Officio travel shirt and UA hiking shorts, Darn Tough merino socks, and my Merrell Moab Ventilator mids which recently got out of rehab. Thank God for your cobbler if you’ve got one. My puffy jacket, winter base layer top, hat, gloves, and rain gear were ready for action come morning.
The rain and the wind started early. I hiked about a mile and a half to one of the backcountry campsites in Morgan Monroe State Forest where the Tecumseh and Low Gap trails share the same path. There was a short learning curve to get the larger fly and wind panels adjusted correctly for the first time over my Hennessy Expedition Asym hammock. I tossed in my sleeping bag and slid the insulating pad into place and started a small fire to keep me company while I cooked and ate my dinner.
Shortly after I pulled into the trailhead parking lot a well-fed bearded man on a motor scooter wearing a full internal frame pack parked across from me and we waved at each other. I lit off down the trail before him, and he came up the path as I was nursing my tinder. I should have invited him to join me, but was just distracted enough to miss the opportunity. He hesitated briefly then kept going. I found out after breakfast that he’d occupied the next camp site down the trail.
My belly was full and I was sitting on a log warming my face and hands when the wind kicked up and was followed in short order with a smattering of stinging raindrops. It was still in the sixties and I could have sat there staring into the embers for another hour had the sky not had different plans.
My tarp was doing it’s best imitation of popping corn a few minutes after I’d climbed into the hammock. The fire stood not a chance. Laying there in my woodland cradle, I enjoyed listening to the sounds going on around me; the pinging rain, the wind-rustled leaves; trees creaking against each other and the fire hissing in an elemental battle it would eventually lose.
Laying alone suspended between two trees in a valley full of pines. Heaven. Some people have a deep aversion to the woods and I’ve never understood them. Since boyhood, it was always my favorite place. In settled lands where the large predators have largely been driven to extinction, the woods by day is just about the same as the woods by night. Inhabited in turn by equally benign creatures just looking for a meal, neither the deer nor they coyote wants anything to do with you. The raccoons are a different story, but the weather kept them at bay on this outing. I’m not one who jumps at every sound, and neither a snuffling nose or a close for comfort yowl arouses a single neck hair.
If awoken by the screech of what my ancestor Christian “Christly” Garlitz would have called a painter up in the Pennsylvania Appalachians, I might change my tunes, but I’ve not had the pleasure or displeasure to date of such a harrowing experience. Most critters are out looking for food, and I’m just too damn big to make their menu.
Sometime after the first deluge, my iPhone picked up enough signal to tell me that Shelby County had issued a severe thunderstorm warning. Well, duh. That would explain all the noise overhead. Down in my “holler” protected by yards of waterproofed nylon, I was listening to an audiobook while the wind tried gently to rock me to sleep. The baffles I’d added to my tarp were performing nicely.
Sometime after the second deluge, the temperature took a nosedive and I crawled fully into my sleeping bag.
After the third deluge and before the truly epic winds began sweeping across the ridge tops and occasionally down into my valley, the coyotes held their first meeting. If you’ve ever listened to their conversations, you know that they have large vocabularies and like to talk. As they moved further away, I drifted off to sleep again.
I’d gone into my shelter before seven, and wouldn’t emerge for good until that number came around again on the clock. But the next time I stirred it was because the leaves about thirty feet away suddenly needed to be watered. If you’ve camped in cool weather, you know the drill. The sleeping bag is oh, so warm. The air is oh, so cold. The shoes you slip on are cold. Everything you touch is cold, even though you’re still pretty warm. So you finish your business quickly so you can return to your cocoon none the worse for weather.
When my errand was complete, I quickly raided my pack for the morning’s cool weather base layer and my puffy jacket and took them back in with me. In the rush to get out of the rain when I crawled in, I’d left them cinched down in my Osprey and it’s rain cover. The down jacket was nice to have as the temperature dipped even further. I pulled in into the sleeping bag with me to get it warm, and it returned the favor. At one point my right foot got cold where it was touching an uninsulated area of the hammock so I wrapped my feet up in it and it warmed right up.
There is an old Nordic saying that Columbia has popularized. “There is no such thing as bad weather, there is only improper clothing.” After my son returned from his stint in the Army at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska, I tried that one on him and he quickly retorted, “Oh, there is such a thing as bad weather. When it’s 40 below zero and your Jeep won’t start even with the block warmer on high, it’s too damn cold for anything.”
The Nordic saying held true for me on this particular morning as I emerged clad in proper clothing. It was spitting snow as I turned on my headlamp and searched for finger thick twigs to get a small hand-warming fire going as I prepared my JetBoil. Three cups of coffee hot enough to win a lawsuit went into my gut. Always coffee first. Then a Mountain House breakfast skillet rehydrated meal and a five year old iced chocolate breakfast pastry from an MRE that had languished in my bedroom closet for too long. I broke camp with warm hands and a full belly. The creek bed next to my campsite that had been bone dry the evening before held small pools of water leeching tea from the oak, maple, and poplar leaves that the wind was stirring. I put out the last embers from the damp twigs with a repurposed generic water bottle with the top cut off that I carry to fill up my Sawyer Squeeze bladder when I have to purify water on the trail. My backpack back on my back (say that five times fast), blaze orange knit cap on my head, lobster mitts on my hands, I took to the trail again around 8:30, throwing poles in the spitting snow.
A quarter of a mile down the trail, bearded scooter man was tending to his breakfast clad in a Mountain Research puffy and a fleece cap and gloves.
“Good morning, I see you also survived the night” I offered and that was enough to kickstart a thirty minute conversation.
His name was Roger and he’d been camping a lot since his workplace closed up and laid everyone off. I saw scattered across his campsite that his taste in gear was on the lean side of pricy. Yeah, he loved his puffy but he got it at an REI “garage sale.” He was also carrying an Osprey pack. We talked tenting vs. hanging, and places we’d camped and hiked. I apologized for not inviting him to make camp with me the evening before, and he said he’d have only kept me up, as he got up a couple times out of boredom to night hike a couple of miles.
“Before or after the rain?” I asked.
We both laughed.
“After. I was bored out of my skull.”
I told him I’d listened to an audiobook about hiking the AT at times between sleeping and waking. Before we decided to light up the night, in the winter everyone used to go to bed shortly after dark and slept until the chores. When you’re in the dark for twelve out of twenty-four, a lot of things happen. Long sleep interrupted by conversations. Storytelling. Love making. Praying. Reading by candlelight. Sitting in the quiet darkness and just letting ideas foment.
Roger said that with his current job non-situation, he didn’t see an AT thru-hike in his near future. I told him that in a way, every hike I took was training for an AT thru, followed by an attempt at the Triple Crown. We talked about the difficulties involved in such a venture. The wind was kicking up and standing there talking, I noticed my fingers had gotten cold.
“I better get moving again to get the blood pumping, ” I said.
We parted as friends.
God, I love the people I meet on the trails.