Sunday, May 22, 2016

AT in NC: Close Encounters

Appalachian Trail in NC – Brown Fork Gap Shelter to Fontana Dam Visitor Center – 10/24/15 – 13 Miles

As the voices drew closer I removed my ear plugs and my heart commenced pounding.  Male voices, not trying to be quiet, one singing in a drunken-sounding slur and the other mumbling with occasional discernible phrases.  I heard the plop of a backpack landing on the shelter’s wooden floor and then one voice said, “Hey, there’s a food bag hanging up here.  And there’s a tent.” 

My bright pink tent that screams female. My mind racing:  These are not the hikers I met earlier. These are not ordinary hikers who would be very quiet and also would not be rolling in at 2:00 a.m.  This shelter is several miles from any road access.

Is this a dangerous situation?  I feel very vulnerable.

Next set of thoughts:  They don’t know who is in this tent.  It could be one female, two females, a male-female couple.  Maybe a dog (although no barking).  Maybe all of the above plus a gun?

Round 3:  What will I do if they approach me?  A:  Snore deeply.  B:  Answer in a gruff voice to quiet down.  C. Tell them to back off or I’ll shoot.

They didn’t approach me, but the talking/singing continued, and I slowly began to comprehend that this was ONE person, quite used to conducting a running dialogue with his own company.  Did this make me feel better or worse? 

Answer:  Worse.  If something happened to me, there would be no help.  All the concerns and warnings about being a solo female backpacker echoed in my head. 

As the panic train began accelerating down its track, the voices stopped talking – and began to snore.  The guy had simply laid down on the shelter floor and fallen asleep.  Eventually I dozed as well, and although occasionally I heard coughing, that was how the rest of the night went.

By 6:30 a.m. I was wide awake and making a plan.  The sun wasn’t up yet.  I would pack up as quietly as possible, abandon my food bag hanging six feet away from my shelter friend, and get out of there.  My planned goal was to hike to Fontana Dam, 13 miles, but there were a couple of road crossings and I could bail out if I still didn’t feel safe.  If this guy woke up and seemed threatening, I would try my best to outrun him. 

I packed up quietly inside my tent.  When I stepped out and began to strike the tent, the hiker woke up, sat up, and said, “Good morning.  I apologize for my noisy entrance last night, but by the time I saw your tent I knew I had already disturbed you and it was too late to look for another shelter.” 

Hmmm.  I smiled and said politely that it was perfectly all right, the shelter was for all hikers (geez, what is it about us Southern women that we need to be nice even in the face of something so wrong?)  We had a short conversation (while I continued to pack as quickly as possible) and he introduced himself as a southbound thru-hiker, meaning he was going in the opposite direction I planned.  He had stopped for pizza earlier and delayed his intended mileage, and he was used to night hiking, thus his arrival at that ridiculous hour.  I wished him good luck with completing his hike, shouldered my pack and walked nonchalantly up the path to the AT, on hyper alert for sounds of being followed.  Never heard or saw the guy again.

Months now after this experience, some observations and decisions:  I am very glad that I did not choose to sleep in the shelter and instead pitched my tent.  I want to continue hiking solo on occasion but I will take more safety measures.  I will never carry a gun, but having pepper spray is a reasonable precaution.  And as much as I love my pink tent, maybe I should invest in a camouflage one for my solo ventures?  Bottom line, the southbounder was harmless, as 99.99% of hikers are, but next time I will be better prepared and carry some peace of mind. 

What happened the rest of the day?  Well, I went hiking.

A recent blowdown on the trail

At Cody Gap there were three tents set up, a little campfire going and several guys in various stages of caffeine intake.  I asked if they had met an odd backpacker last night – yes, he had stopped at their camp to talk but they were glad when he moved on – and they offered sympathy when they heard about my encounter.  As we talked, a small dog came nosing up to me which I assumed belonged to the group until I noticed its radio collar.  They explained that the dog had gotten attached to them on their hike in and had hung out all night, obviously very hungry. They had called the number on her collar and gotten a response that the hunter-owner expected she would find her way back to a road. When I turned back to the trail, guess who followed? 

She stayed on my heels for the next 2.5 miles until we reached Yellow Creek Mountain Road.  There I was hoping to get a cell signal to call the owner again. No signal, but as I took a break on the wooden steps by the road a truck pulled up.  The driver looked at the dog’s collar, said he knew who the owner was, and lifted her into the truck bed that contained several dog crates.  Nice neat ending. 

The remainder of my hike was nondescript and I was distracted with thoughts of strange men and strange dogs and how much I loved hiking.  When I reached NC 28, though, I was ready to put down my heavy pack and call it a day.  But… the AT winds for another 1.5 miles to the Fontana Dam visitor center.  It seems that the trail builders took extra care to stretch this bit out. 

For the thru-hiker, the shelter called the Fontana Hilton awaits, a comfortable place to land in a spectacular resort-type setting and free hot showers at the nearby visitor center (which I took advantage of before driving home).  This is where you take a deep breath in preparation for the 72-mile traverse through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Fontana Lake on the approach to the VC

Reasons why I love these overnight backpack trips:

It’s not difficult to find a two-day window to slip away

A mini-retreat, especially alone, from “ordinary life” demands and stresses

Significant hiking miles justify the driving miles

I get to places that I can’t reach in a long dayhike

It’s just one night, so I carry minimal food and no cooking

It’s just one night, so no matter what the weather, I know I’ll sleep in warm, dry comfort the next night.

It’s just one night, but It feels like a lifetime passes in the hours between leaving my car and arriving back at it – in a good way

In life, one has a choice to take one of two paths: to wait for some special day -- or to celebrate each special day.”  ~Rasheed Ogunlaru

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