All hikers know that you are relatively safe in the woods at night. Besides the occasional animal, insect, or snake, you should be pretty safe if you hang your food in a bear bag and zip your tent (or hammock) up nice and tight so no unwelcome critters can get in. When staying in or near shelters, you feel quite safe, as the AT community is a close-knit one, and hikers generally look out for each other. The real danger, everyone warns you of, is setting up camp near a town or road, as locals may be up to mischief or want to mess with defenseless hikers. One evening, as the sun was hanging low in the sky, JW and I had just about reached the end of our day. We were planning to hike across a road that led to town, and then continue 3 or 4 miles, in the woods, to a campsite. We figured that walking a few miles past this road crossing would be a sufficient amount of distance, since we were hiking by ourselves, and planning to camp alone too (the shelter was too far for us to travel this evening). Just before crossing the road, I became aware that I was completely exhausted. When we looked on the topographic map, about a mile after the road crossing, we had an intense climb. We had already been hiking for 9+ hours, and I just didn't want to participate in a 7PM cardio session. We waited on the road for about 10 minutes, just talking about what to do. As we were waiting there, we saw a disheveled-looking, shirtless, shoeless man, pacing up and down the road, about 20 yards from us. Now I am the LAST person to judge anyone based on appearance alone, but this guy gave JW and I a strange vibe, and when you are out on the trail, you learn that trusting your gut is the only security you sometimes have. We decided to keep on going, and crossed the street, into the woods. We had successfully avoided making eye contact with the man down the road, and he appeared to be walking the opposite direction as us, when we entered the woods again. We hiked about a mile, when we came to a stealth camping site, complete with a sweet little fire circle, and a few books in a hollowed-out tree stump. We decided that even though this campsite was close to the road, we were pretty tired, it was getting late and we just had to set up camp before it got too dark. We set up camp, made dinner, fed the dogs, and were laying in our hammocks in no time, about to fall into a restful sleep. Before I get to the scary part, there had been something strange that happened on the trail a couple weeks prior to this night. Most hikers on the trail knew about it; it was basically a confrontation/hostage situation (yea crazy I know) between a local crazy man and some hikers. Here is the full story if you want to read it:
Ok, back to JW and me on the trail. So we are snuggled up in our hammocks, and sleep comes very quickly. Although we knew we were close to a road, I don't think either of us were too worried about it as we were falling asleep. At what felt like 3AM, I woke up with the urge to use the bathroom. I was trying to shift my mind to something else; I really didn't want to leave the comfort of my hammock, not to mention try to muster up the coordination, after being half asleep, to get out, go to the bathroom, and crawl back into my hammock, without falling or disturbing the sleeping dogs. I was half-awake, but pretty groggy when I was deciding to get up and find a bathroom in the woods. Before I started to move around, I heard some rustling that sounded pretty close to our campsite. I figured it was an animal, but I kept still anyways. That's when I definitely heard footsteps, the steady and solid footsteps of a human, coming closer and closer. I was a little scared, but too tired to think of actually doing anything about anything. The footsteps got closer to our campsite, until, what it seemed like to me, the person making these footsteps was a few feet away from our hammocks. My thoughts turned to the man we saw on the road. I grabbed my headlamp out of my hammock pocket and turned it on. JW was hanging within an arms length of me, so I reached my arm out and gave his hammock a couple swats. I also, said, "Will, wake up," in what was probably a whisper. I then heard the footsteps walk away, in a steady rhythm, not hurriedly, just walk away. I kept my headlamp on for a little while, and JW gave me a few incoherent, sleepy mumbles from the direction of his hammock. I thought the person who belonged to the footsteps was gone, but after about 2 minutes, the footsteps came back! Ahhhh! This time, the person didn't come as close to our campsite, but I definitely heard the steady, solid footsteps coming closer to our campsite, and then turning around and leaving again. I kept my headlamp on for about the next 2 hours, but drifted off to sleep. I didn't hear the footsteps anymore that night, but remember just how frightened I was at 3AM on that trail. When I woke up the next morning, everything seemed a lot less scary, and JW didn't remember me trying to wake him up. I also gave up on the theory that we had two watchdogs, as Molly and Tess slept soundly through the early morning footsteps. I still don't know who that person was. I like to think, now, that it was a night hiker, as we met a few die-hard hikers, who would actually enjoy hiking all night. If this was the case, I obviously had nothing to worry about. Whoever it was that night, JW and I never camped that close to a road again.
Late Night Knockers
The next story in my trilogy happened in Johnson City, TN. JW and I were hiking near Johnson City, when I got pretty sick with the Hiker Virus. Many other hikers were getting sick with this virus, which included lots of trips to the bathroom (for most people, it was coming out of both ends, sorry, gross I know). I was up all night, digging holes in the woods, and I knew the next day that I just didn't have the energy to hike. JW and I began to try to think of a solution. We were so close to Johnson City and we had a great friend there, who we thought could help us out. We hiked a mile that day, to the nearest dirt road crossing. I was exhausted, and ready to curl up on a couch somewhere. We got our phones out when we reached the dirt road, and JW's phone actually had service! We were really excited and relieved. JW called our friend, Lisa, who said that I could stay with her and she would pick me up in about an hour, in her VW bus. (Perfect for a stinky hiker and two stinky dogs). JW and I waited on the dirt road for about an hour, JW trying everything he could to make me more comfortable, when we saw some gravel flying off the tires of a VW. Lisa pulled up with ginger ale, gatorade and treats for JW. She is a mom, and the ultimate caretaker. I got into the van, with Molly and Tess, and JW continued on (I would see him again in a couple days). Lisa and I drove to Johnson City, got a great time to catch up and have some girl chit-chat, and spent the day together. I was beginning to feel much better, so when Lisa made a delicious dinner, I took a small helping for my healing stomach. We spent time out on her patio, with cold drinks, just talking and sharing fun times with her and her neighbors. (Lisa lives in the tree street neighborhood of Johnson City; a historic, classy and close-knit community; and Lisa knows EVERYONE)! When it was time to turn in for the night, Lisa covered her comfy couch with a sheet, and gave me a comfy pillow and blanket. I was so glad to be sleeping in pure comfort, and drifted off to sleep easily. I woke up, at about 2AM, when I again had the bathroom urge. It was at this time that I noticed that all of her curtains in her living room were open. I felt a little bit vulnerable, as I was laying on a couch, right next to a large living room window. I began to think maybe I should close the curtains, but thought it would be fine; these were just my half-awake rambling thoughts. I got up to use the bathroom, and checked to make sure the door was locked (not sure why). It wasn't, so I flipped the lock and laid back down on the couch. I pulled the covers over myself and tried to get cozy again. As I closed my eyes, I heard the loudest, most aggressive, most intense, knock on the door. Actually, it was more like a fist-bang, that went on for a good 10 seconds. This was not a polite knock, or possibly a neighbor in trouble. This was someone who wanted their knock to be loud, and someone who seemed angry/crazy. I literally sprang up from the couch and RAN to Lisa's room in the back of the house. Lisa was already out of bed. "Honey, what WAS that," she asked nervously, with a hint of Tennessee twang. I just said, literally shaking a little, "I don't know, but it didn't sound good." We stood there contemplating what had just happened, in a half-sleep stupor, when we heard BANG! BANG! coming from, what seemed to me, was the top of the house. Even though we both had no idea what the bangs were, I turned to Lisa and sputtered out, "I think you should call the police!" Lisa called the police and they were there within minutes. Lisa and I both ventured outside, feeling safe and secure with two strapping Tennessee policemen as our bodyguards. We searched around the house, with the two police officers, in our pajamas, and were able to find nothing. The police asked Lisa some questions and looked in her neighbor's yards to be sure no one was hiding out. The aggressive knocker had definitely travelled on foot. As the police officers were shining their flashlights around the house, they happened upon two egg yolks, dripping down the front of Lisa's aluminum awning. I breathed a sigh of relief. Lisa had gotten her house egged. Strange for a middle-aged woman, I thought, but at least now we knew it was just some young punks, not any crazy thieves or prowlers lurking around the tree streets. Lisa thanked the officers and sent them on their way. We went back inside, and I shared Lisa's bed that night! Haha, I had been spooked enough to curl up beside her and we both had a somewhat restless sleep that night. When morning came, Lisa was talking to her neighbors about what had happened. They all joked that I probably wanted to get back on the trail rather than be in Johnson City. Lisa then developed a theory as to what she thought the egg-ers motives were. Lisa is a very active member of her neighborhood, and a very strong and outspoken woman. In a recent neighborhood meeting, the topic being discussed was the fraternity, of nearby college ETSU, that was located in the historic tree streets neighborhood. This fraternity had gotten a bad reputation in the community, basically because they were doing fraternity-type things, and this was a family neighborhood. The residents of the tree streets take pride in their neighborhood, their yards, their community, and the safety of the tree streets. Lisa was very vocal, during this anti-fraternity meeting, that she believed that the frat should move out of the tree streets. She was not shy about stating the lewd behavior she had witnessed from this group of people, and felt it had no business in the neighborhood. After the meeting, she didn't realize that members of this fraternity may pull some pranks on her, just to peeve her. Lisa thought the egg-ers were some young frat boys, just being punks. It was funny to laugh about this with Lisa and her neighbors the next day, it definitely seemed a lot scarier the night before, when all I knew was there was someone seemingly trying to break the door down. I'm glad that Lisa and I could laugh about it together, and now it is just material for a good story.
The Storm of Terror
The final chapter in my trilogy happened when JW, Golden (our trail friend) and I were aquablazing. We had all been paddling down the Shenandoah River, which ran parallel to the AT, in one canoe, for about 4 days, when my next scary story begins. The day, this day, had been a long one. We were in Virginia, close to West Virginia. It was HOT, and I mean HOT. This day it was about 105 degrees, as a high temperature, which meant that most of the day, it was around 95 to 100 degrees. The sun was out, the clouds were not. We were in the middle of the Shenandoah River, which was a wide, shallow river. We had to stay in the middle of the river, or our canoe would drag against the rocks on the bottom. The bad thing about the middle of the river was that there was no shade from the riverbank trees, just hot sun. All we could do was keep on paddling and apply sunscreen as much as possible. We hadn't taken many breaks this particular day, so we were all wiped out from paddling and the hot weather, when we began to look for a place to stop for the night. The past few nights, we had found some really good campsites, right on the edge of the river, usually with fire rings already made for us, a flat spot for Golden's tent, and at least three trees to hang mine and JW's hammocks. So we paddled and paddled, and looked on the riverbank, hopefully, trying to scout out a spot that we could pull over and set up camp. We looked and looked. The sun began to get orangey-red, as it hung lower in the sky. We kept on looking. Nothing. There were a lot of private residences on the riverbank, but nowhere for us aquablazers to park a canoe. Finally, Golden spotted a place that looked uninhabited, on the left bank of the Shenandoah. We paddled quickly over to it, as we knew we were about to lose all daylight. JW and Golden climbed up the steep hill, blazed a trail through some 6-foot-tall weeds, and were delighted to see a hayfield, complete with enormous circular hay bales, on the other side of these weeds. Golden had found a flat spot for her tent. Now were there any trees for JW and I? Directly past this hayfield, there was a wooded area. JW and I had found a spot for our hammocks. We parked the canoe on the side of the riverbank, and tied it up to a tree. We carried all of our belongings out of the canoe, up the hill, through the weeds, and into the hayfield (over the river and through the woods, haha). Golden set up her tent quickly, and JW and I made our way into the woods. We all noticed that there was some menacing-looking clouds to the west of us. We shrugged it off, as there was no rain in the forecast. JW and I surveyed the woods, and we didn't like the looks of them. The forest plants were up to our waist, and we would be sleeping with these plants under us; the perfect home for ticks. As we were in the woods deciding, I picked two ticks off of JW's shirt. We decided that being covered in ticks wasn't worth the comfort of sleeping in our hammocks. We opted to set up one of our tarps in the hayfield, and sleep, wrapped in our bugnets, literally on the ground, next to a hay bale (one end of our tarp was fastened to the top of one of these enormous hay bales, while the other end was staked into the ground). As we were setting up our tarp, the wind really started to pick up. The dark clouds that seemed far away were getting closer, and the air smelled like rain. Golden, who had already finished setting up her tent, had almost finished making dinner for all of us. We all agreed that it seemed like it was about to storm, pretty badly. I whipped out my iphone, which almost never had service on the trail. To my delight, I pulled up weather.com, successfully. As I pulled this up, the wind began to pick up considerably. It began to sprinkle. JW and I put our packs underneath our makeshift tent, and hoped everything wouldn't get too wet. The rain picked up a bit, and Golden told us to come into her tent, as it was big enough to hold all of us, even though it was a one-person tent. Golden, JW, Tess (the very large Alaskan malamute, who is afraid of thunder) and I all hurriedly squeezed into Golden's tent, as Golden served us some excellent beans and rice for dinner. As we were eating, weather.com finally loaded on my iphone. I punched in our location, and to our shock and surprise, we were sitting right in the middle of what was going to be a major thunderstorm, with the possibility of a tornado. We tried to eat our dinner, but I know I finished about half of mine. As we began to eat, the wind went from mild gusts to frightening howls. The rain picked up, too, and began to pound on the little tent we had taken shelter in. The lightning crashed and thunder banged. We continued to look at the only connection we had with the outside world, the storm radar images on my iphone. We followed the path of the storm, and were pretty scared to see that what we were now experiencing was just the beginning, we were located perfectly for the storm to hit us hard. We really had no choice but to sit tight in the tent. I began to think of the houses that were on the river, fairly near to where we were. Although I knew someone would probably take us in, it was too late, the storm was howling outside, and there was no way any of us were leaving the shelter of that tent. All of us were trying to feign confidence, and had to make the best out of the situation that we were currently in. Golden got out some of her delicious dark chocolate, and we did a little stress-eating. It seemed to lighten the mood, somewhat. I continued to try to load the weather radar, to see when this storm would finally pass. The wind continued to pick up, and we heard many trees snap in the woods that were right next to us. We decided that if we heard the sound of a tree falling nearby, we would try to get out of the tent ASAP, as this could be a quite dangerous situation. The wind picked up to the point that we were all holding onto Golden's tent. The wind was trying to pick up the sides of it, and was definitely trying to blow the rainfly off of the top of it. We grabbed the tent on all sides and didn't let go. The wind pulled and pulled it, we pulled and pulled it back to the ground. The rain pounded that little tent, but we had to wait the storm out. Then, as quickly as the storm blew in, it blew out. It continued to rain (with lightning and thunder) for about an hour after this, and all 4 of us (Tess included) breathed a sigh of relief. The rain eventually stopped, at about 1AM, and Will and I moved from Golden's one-person tent, to our makeshift campsite, to sleep on the wet grass. We were so exhausted from the heat of the day, paddling, and the tension of the intense thunderstorm, we both fell asleep quickly. We all woke the next morning, and packed up quickly. We made our way down to the river and were delighted to see that our canoe was fine, and still tied to the tree. That morning, we saw just how much damage the storm had done to everyone around us. Many trees were blown down, broken or uprooted. Some of them were just laying in the river, but many had crushed people's homes and were scattered among well-manicured lawns. I think we had been kept safe by the fact that we had found a hayfield to camp in, as the biggest hazard of this storm was the wind. If we had been camping in a forest, like we usually did, it would have been a much more dangerous situation. We all felt very thankful to have made it through a storm like that, and now, it's just a really good story.
Here's a story of what the storm did that night to residents in D.C. and the surrounding areas:
At the bottom of this page, you can enjoy a post-storm video I took, with my trusty iphone!
Hope you all liked my scary trail stories! I hope you were all entertained, as I had a lot of fun writing them. I'm glad that all of these experiences made for good stories, and I can now laugh about them (for the most part). Look for my next post soon!