A Lesson in the Words ‘Cold’ and ‘Uphill’
I had known it was supposed to get cold but that night. The ‘21’ that had displayed on the screen earlier in the day didn’t quite register until I couldn’t shake the chill from my bones…
My uncle, ‘Doc’, had invited me to hike a weekend out on the Appalachian Trail with him. Until now I had thought him a reserved and pragmatic man, and I was worried that we wouldn’t get along. Jumping at the chance to get my feet on real trail, I took him up on his offer regardless of my worry.
The weeks leading up to the hike, I worked out relentlessly, fully aware that Virginia is a lot less flat than Michigan. To be honest, I was a little scared. I had been camping many times before, but this was going to be my first real backpacking trip, not to mention with someone who really knew what they were doing. I was also afraid, somewhere deep down I guess, that I would hate it. That I had spent two years and more money than I care to mention on a hike that I would decide that I didn’t want to do. Luckily, that didn’t happen.
Flying out was an ordeal. I hadn’t been on a plane and years. Afterwards, I was slated to spend time with family that I hadn’t seen in an equally long time. I was blessed that when I reached Virginia I was able to stop by Doc’s house. A breathtaking cabin on a peaceful hill, and my amazingly kind aunt made me lots of food to eat. I played with their dogs and pet their cats. It was exactly what I had needed to get my feet under me. That night and next day of family went well, and before I knew it Doc and I were heading out to the mountains. My heart fluttered as we drove beneath the foothills of the old giants. We saddled up and headed out.
Walking along a beautiful little creek, we stayed quiet mostly. A little voice bugged me in the back of my head to say something. So, I did what I always do when I’m outside and I started talking about the trees around us. They were all nearly leafless, being mid-November, and I impressed Doc with my bark-identification skills. He showed me a new shrub, mountain laurel, regaling me with a time when his buddy got stuck in a thicket of it, known as a ‘laurel hell’. We became more at ease with one another.
We finished our creek walk and began to climb up the side of the ridge. It was a steep climb, and I could feel my legs begin to complain beneath me. As we ascended, the ground dropped away and the bigness of it all started to take me. Doc told me story after story of his backpacking adventures. I begun to feel dwarfed, both by his experience and the mountains around me. Uphill we continued. I pointed out sassafras, tulip poplar, red oak, Virginia creeper, and eastern white pine, dutifully reciting the Latin names that had been drummed into me in college.
We made it into our camp, and the second we stopped walking I could feel the cold creep up onto my neck. He set up his hammock and I my tent. The sun began to set and we made a light dinner. Cup ‘o’ soup for him and homemade leek and potato soup for I. It then came to be the best time of the night. Hot Cocoa Time. I pulled out my hippie-dippy packet of reishi hot chocolate mix and he reached for his packet of drink mix. Suddenly Doc exploded next to me:
“It’s not hot chocolate, it’s LATTE MOOOCHA AHAHA!”
We erupted in laughter. To me, he thereafter became ‘Doc Mocha’, ceasing to be the ‘quiet, pragmatic’ man I had painted him to be since I was little.
We talked for a while. I began to shiver, so we decided it was time for bed. I crawled into my cold sleeping bag, zipping it all the way to the top and buttoning the collar. Burrowing down into it, I had managed to get warm. Just as I relaxed, I got cold. As the night continued, I began to feel goosebumps break out over my skin. It took me hours to fall asleep and I started to worry about my gear setup. I remembered a tip from Les Stroud (the Survivorman), that tensing and relaxing your muscles repeatedly can help get your blood flowing and keep you warm. The tip was very helpful and I was able to stay warm enough to finally sleep.
In the morning I awoke with frost covering my, well, everything. It coated my sleeping bag, tent poles, rain fly, and shoes. I slithered out of my sleeping bag, feeling like a caterpillar coming out of its cocoon much too early. It was freezing and I was miserable. Doc and I made breakfast. I had forgotten to bring my platypus into the tent and it had frozen solid. He had managed to melt some of his water, but the second his water bottle touched the ground it began to freeze again. I couldn’t get my steaming oatmeal and boiling hot tea in me soon enough. I was so grateful to get hot food into me.
To get our blood flowing we slack-packed a mile down to a beautiful little waterfall. The sun hit my back on our way to the falls and I had never been so thankful for the warmth. I told myself that I would never call anything ‘freezing’ ever again. We explored the falls a little, and then headed back to camp to pack up for the day. It was time to hit real trail. The Appalachian.
The trail connecting the blue blaze we were on to the Appalachian was very steep, and we had to take several breaks to keep our legs and lungs from complaining too much. I was thankful for the exertion, however, as it kept me warm. I quite enjoyed the feeling all of my fingers and toes not being frozen. We kept our upward trajectory, when in the distance I caught sight of my first white blaze. My heart flipped over in my rib cage. The moment had come. We had reached real trail. I stepped onto the Appalachian Trail and immediately felt ignited. I instantly felt connected to everyone that had ever had or would hike the trail, and I instantly wanted to run off and hike it all end to end and over again.
We hiked along, each white blaze making me more excited and driven. After an hour or so we came to a scenic overlook at the highest elevation of our section hike. The boulders on either side of the overlook obscured the view on the approach, and walking to it I had thought to myself, “This is going to be good.” Oh boy, was I right. The ground dropped out from beneath us and extended for miles upon miles in front of us. I was overtaken by the expansiveness, and again I had the feeling that I wanted to hike the whole trail right then and there.
Continuing on we talked with ease. PCT plans, the world at large, God, birds, and the magic of nature all drifted in and out of our conversation. Our plan had been to hike to a trail shelter before stopping for the day but we decided to make camp early since Doc’s knee had been giving him trouble going downhill. The second we stopped walking I could feel the cold swirl around me again.
After getting some good dinner into us (homemade enchiladas and BP Pad Thai), I decided that I would slack-pack it to try and make it to the shelter. I set out on my own at a very quick pace. I walked up the ridge and down the other side, feeling like a pinball going down some switchbacks. The sun had started to get a little low as I got to the bottom of the ridge and began up the next one. I still hadn’t reached the shelter, but I stopped in my tracks and realized that I had hiked almost a mile and a half downhill. To get back I would have to do a lot, LOT of uphill hiking.
Anxiety began to grip me a bit. I knew that I was fine, though. I had a flashlight on me and our camp was very obvious, not to mention close enough to the trail to not really be able to miss. Unfortunately, the little annoying anxiety advocate deep down in me was always there to counter all of my “I’m fine” thoughts. If I had been hiking any faster I would have been running. In the back of my head the thought “at least I’m warm” kept me cheerful.
The sun began to set and I wondered how far I had managed to wander, kicking myself for not realizing that the uphill hiking would take me longer to get back. I kept going, huffing and puffing up the switchbacks, and I rejoiced as I caught sight of the top of the ridge! Barreling down the side, I saw Doc’s tarp. I sat down with him and we laughed about the whole thing.
Doc had an amazing idea. He had known how miserable I had been that morning, despite my efforts to hide it. Lending me a Nalgene, he instructed me to boil some water and fill it, and put it in the foot box of my sleeping bag. Deciding that it was hot cocoa time, we drank with relish, keeping the cold at bay. We laughed and listened to Barred Owls in the distance. We retired to our respective beds. I had thrown on my rain gear as an extra layer to try and fend off the night’s cold, and I again burrowed into my sleeping bag, which was now a bastion of heat from the hot water bottle. I quickly fell asleep that night and slept nearly till morning. Nearly, I say, because
I was wakened by the sound of Doc screaming.
It sounded like he was trying to imitate an elk call, a muted bugling scream erupted from behind me. I shot up, and heard him mutter under his breath, “I think that scared him off…” only to be followed by another haunting, elk-like scream. I froze, thoughts of bears and coyotes instantly filling my mind. I waited, and waited, straining to hear any noise. Leaves dropped to the ground around my tent, making me flinch. Suddenly, I heard a loud, snarling snore from behind me, and nearly broke out laughing. Whatever Doc had been trying to spook, it had been in his dreams. I snuggled back down, falling asleep laughing to myself.
In the morning I was the first to rise and I told him of his dream-screaming. He laughed at himself and we ate breakfast quickly, as we had a bushwhack between us and my flight home.
Doc had decided that to save time and to show me a good time, that we would bushwhack down the side of the mountain back to the creek trail we had begun on. I learned several things from this experience. One: the mountain always looks steeper than it feels, and two: don’t count the number of times you fall because all it ends up doing is frustrating you.
Following our weak GPS heading, we made our way down the ridge and into the valley. My knees started to complain, and I hoped that Doc’s was holding up alright. We quickly shed our warm layers, working up a sweat from the effort of trying not to fall down to our deaths. I occasionally slipped and fell backwards, kicking my heart rate up a notch. Sometimes I’d send a rock tumbling down, serving as a reminder of how far we’d fall if we slipped the wrong way.
An hour, 10 slips, and two deep bruises later we made it back to the creek trail and we booked it back to the truck. We called our significant others as we made our way back to the reach of cell towers. I looked back at the mountains, overcome with the feeling of being totally unready to leave. Before I knew it I was on a plane watching the mountains disappear beneath me, and I couldn’t help but cry a little.
A Return to Normalcy…?
In just the short time I had been out on the trail, in the mountains and forest, I had fallen completely in love. Sitting on the plane, it had felt like days since we bushwhacked our way down the valley that morning. The following days left me feeling completely jet-lagged. Not from the three flights home, but from the dysphoria caused from coming from a time of simplicity back to the bustle and pace of the ‘real world’. Work depressed me. All I wanted was to be out in what I perceived as the real world. I resolved that I would spend my time as actively as I could. Hiking, being present, loving my family. It is all I can do to remain connected to the real world.
As Doc said, “You can always take nature back home with you. If you feel overwhelmed, just imagine yourself back at the overlook, buzzards flying overhead, and just rest there a while.”
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.