It’s barely 8:00pm and the dark rainy October night has wrapped itself around me like a heavy wet blanket. I dig deep in the confines of my mind for warm, peaceful images, images of being tucked away safely in my bed back home in sunny Florida. Praying I’ll eventually nod off, despite the time, I try my best to relax, to forget I’m at the summit of Mount Sterling somewhere deep in the Smokies.
My mummy bag is zipped so only my face is exposed. My skin is still damp and chilly despite the zero degree rating and the strategically placed warming packs inside. Eventually the shivering slows to manageable and the pelting rain becomes more of a lulling drizzle which helps me to relax a bit and close my eyes, even if for a time. Tonight is supposed to be a full moon and I was hoping to photograph it, but it’s not to be.
When my eyes get too heavy, I give in resting them for a moment. As I do, my tent becomes suddenly illuminated. I open my eyes to see the clouds have parted revealing a big bright beautiful moon. The sight thrills me.
The silhouette of a giant rodent above my head does not.
Is it inside or outside of the tent? I can’t even tell. A scream escapes me as I fumble to free myself from the mummy bag and grab my headlamp to discover it thankfully on the outside, for now at least. Does he smell my fear or is it the honey Chapstick or apple-pie hand sanitizer I brought being the novice outdoorsman I am? Did I get all of the scented items out of my tent and hung in my pack some twenty feet above me, I can’t even remember. I know the rat is the least of my worries.
As the moon vanishes back behind the clouds, the rain picks up once again and I lay there wide awake, drowning in regret.
What was I thinking?
Why am I here in the mountains at almost 6,000 feet sleeping on the ground with only a thin layer of what, I don’t even know protecting me? Vulnerable- to the elements, to the animals, to anyone who wants to hurt me with no control, with nothing I can do except hope to survive another night out here. I lay, for endless hours as leaves crunch and branches creak all around my tent.
I am going to die out here.
At some point my anxiety turns to numbness and my mind becomes a blank, empty… frozen canvas.
I pray for daylight that never seems to come. I think about how selfish I am. What kind of mother would purposely do something like this? I think about my young daughter at home, missing me, probably wishing she had a normal mother, a mother content to have play dates and bake cookies and take her to Disney World. I think about her being forced to grow up without me, because I choose to travel, often alone taking unnecessary risks, hiking mountains and sleeping in the woods. I think about how I wear a façade, pretending to be fearless and adventurous, hoping if I continue to do so, one day I may actually become brave. I think about how I keep following my dreams, hoping to fake it until I make it and praying one day I will.
For weeks, I’d been planning to overcome my fear of these mountains, I planned to leave the comforts of my St. Augustine home to camp and hike the Smokies- alone.
I knew I’d be afraid, but I would be cautious, hiking only during the day and sleeping at drive-up campsites.
Backcountry camping never entered my mind.
But my departure date kept getting pushed back, a twisted ankle, husband’s ever-changing work schedule, and lastly the morning before I was set to leave, my daughter woke up with an unforgiving stomach virus leaving me wondering if it was all a sign, a warning for me not to go or maybe a warning just meant for me not to go alone?
While I spent the day at home with my sick girl, I stumbled across a Tennessee company- A Walk in the Woods, offering a three-day women’s guided hiking/camping trip set to leave in a couple of days and with only two other women signed up.
So here I am, night two into this trip, thankful I didn’t do this alone, but trying to quiet my mind long enough to find something positive to reflect on. These past two days have been the most challenging days of my life. Carrying a pack overweight for my small frame didn’t help matters and has left my hips sore and bruised. Today alone, we’ve climbed over 4,000 feet in steady rainfall, leaving me soaked to the bone, thanks to my imposter of a rain jacket I bought a few years ago while traveling in California.
I guess it’s only fitting that my jacket, like me is a fraud.
On the outside, I appear fit and outdoorsy and well prepared, but inside I’m falling apart, my heart pounds through my chest, my lungs heave with each breath, each step I take up the God-forsaken mountain.
Despite stepping over piles of scat, my fear of bears is long gone and has been replaced by the fear of asthma taking me down. Why having asthma never entered my mind while planning a fall hiking trip, I can’t say. Rain alone is usually enough to make breathing tough, but here in the woods, in the fall, in the Tennessee rain forest looming with spore-releasing mushrooms, I feel doomed.
Parts of the trail are barely hip-width across and much is covered with loose rocks and wet leaves and mud, oh so much mud. Two of the women in our group take spills, thankfully falling correctly- away from the Mountain’s edge. We hike through thousands of feet of mud, across streams making our way up the mountain. I try to think ahead, to think positive thoughts, but am overwhelmed. Instead I watch my feet and focus on my steps, making sure to stay upright and on the trail, left foot, right foot, one foot in front of the other. I can do this. I can do this.
I think of nothing else.
Today, there’s very little conversation, we just press on in the rain. I pray. I pray to make it to camp before dark, I pray for the rain to stop, I pray to be kept safe over and over again knowing with no cell coverage and no way to get help, an injury out here could be catastrophic.
We are elated to finally reach camp to set up our tents, put on dry clothes, hats, and gloves. I climb inside of my mummy bag and try to let my mind go blank. I am thankful to finally have shelter from the cold rain. I am thankful for dry socks. As we crouch under a makeshift tarp sheltered from the rain, I am thankful for my warm rehydrated meal and hot cider. I am thankful for my guide Jaimie, who makes me feel a tiny bit safer and who remains upbeat always finding a positive spin on every situation we encounter. She is the Queen of the woods. I am thankful for my family back at home but mostly I am thankful this is my last night in the wilderness.
When morning finally comes, everyone takes turns climbing the old sixty-foot tall rusty fire tower. After allowing the fear to creep back in, I prolong my climb so I’m last, almost not going at all. When I get to the top, I am in awe of the view waiting for me. The sun is shining above me and below, I watch the few scattered clouds roll by as I sit on the rickety stairs, taking it all in, thinking of this journey, and deciding at this moment, this view alone has made the sacrifices, the suffering all worth it. I put my eye to the viewfinder on my Nikon and snap away, allowing the beauty of the morning to wash over and dilute the fears settled in me from the past two nights. I will respect them and learn from them, but will not allow them to stay, to remain a part of me.
The descent back down the mountain proves to be tougher for some in the group and while it does seem to be surprisingly more physically challenging, I am walking on air.
My mind is light and free and clear.
Maybe its because I know we are heading out of the woods or maybe because I am different somehow. I faced my fear, albeit not alone, but I made it happen. I climbed a mountain and slept in the wilderness. I could have thought of a million reasons not to go, could have played it safe, took the delays as signs. I could have told my daughter I was too afraid and stayed at home with her instead. But maybe, just maybe I am teaching her something. Maybe I am showing her it’s ok to be afraid, that it’s more than ok to be afraid as long as you press on and face your fears anyway. Maybe I’m showing her it’s even ok to be a little selfish in order to pursue your dreams. Maybe I’m helping her become a strong fearless women who will one day look back and believe her mother was once one too.