Friday, October 12, 2012

World's End State Park

Nick and I just got done watching astronaut Suni Williams floating in space.  Man, that would be fun, but I doubt I get to do it in my lifetime.  Bummer.  He said he'd like to open a soda in space.  I wouldn't like the mess.  It would gum up the landing gear.  We're officially in wait mode since Mike is sitting by a campfire on the second weekend of his Wood Badge program. 

My goal was not to wait all weekend for him to come home.  We were going to the Outback Kangaroo Farm, to an Artist demonstration, or out on the trails with Teddy.  I love walking with Teddy in this weather, backpacking weather, at least until it starts to rain. Right now, it's crisp and cool out. Leaves here and there are beginning to fall, yet it is still intensely green out my window. I love walking along a trail, kicking up leaves with my boots, smelling them in the air, watching them helicopter to the ground in the breeze.

Yet, I'll be honest. I'm not a big fan of backpacking. I don't see the point. You're telling me that I have to pack up some of my stuff and carry it around for a few days? Right. Oh, the trails are pretty and all, but there's nothing to stare at until you get to the top of something and it's just so much work to get there. I'd rather stare out over water, a river, lake, or ocean. I suppose I'm getting better at looking at the details along a trail, maidenhair fern growing from a crack in a stone, the way sunlight shines through the leaves, or bear scat.  I wasn't always this reluctant to go backpacking. Thirty-six years, a mild case of asthma, a shortage of moleskin, and back surgery will do that to a girl.

When I was sixteen, I went with my church group on a ten day trip on the Appalachian trail in Tennessee and North Carolina in early summer.  I remember that the mountain laurel was in bloom and colored whole mountainsides pink and green. I wore my brother's old hiking boots with three pair of wool sock because they were too big for my feet. My feet were so cosy in that getup.  I could never get away with that now. 

On that trip, I carried my old sleeping bag tied to my backpack.  It is a navy blue bag with light blue flannel inside depicting hunters and their dogs.  I love that sleeping bag. It had snuggled me at Rough River in Kentucky, by the beach at St. Augustine, and on the nights after I experienced a glacier in the Rockies, General Sherman, General Grant, the Grand Canyon, Half Dome, Wall Drug, and even Disneyland.  How can you not love something that has gone that far with you, even if it was ratty and rather mouldy smelling?  Sometime, I'll have to tell to you about how I come to love my gear, especially those things that protected me or went the longest distance. 

I also remember that on that trip to North Carolina, we formed long chains to rub each other's backs after a hard day of hiking and there was a crabby woman on that trip.  You know the type of woman I mean.  We could never get the dishes clean enough for her satisfaction.  At the end of almost every dishwashing session, she'd yank a pot away from a kid and wash it herself.  I vaguely remember her repeatedly using the words 'germs' and 'filthy' and 'disgusting.'  I think she would have had a better vacation at home with her dishwasher.  I know we all wished she was there instead.  Somehow though, she didn't ruin our trip.  I was in awe that we could get so far, 85 miles by the end of the trip, and that the water we washed our hair in could be so cold as to give us ice cream headaches as we poured it over our heads. Those were the days, the days when I still loved backpacking. 

I could tell you about not being able to walk before my back surgery.  I could tell you about how I became asthmatic living in the filthy air of New Jersey.  I could tell you about the expensive boots that I bought that peeled the skin off my heels no matter how I wore my socks, laced the laces loosely or tightly, or plastered moleskin to my heels.  Those boots were hell.  When I finally broke down and bought another pair of boots, the salesman recommended the same manufacturer and these did the same thing to my feet as the first pair.  It was backpacking purgatory.  I remember none of the glory of backpacking then and all of the agony.  I was always at the back of the pack, hobbling along. 

I could also tell you about the ravages of thirty six years passing and how it makes these things more difficult, but I won't.  I'm actually closer to being able to go backpacking now than I was in my twenties.  A year of traipsing around with a dog and a couple of hungry boys has gotten my legs and my lungs in better condition.  I wear Keen hikers now and the skin on my heels couldn't be happier.  All that exercise is good for my back and I've built up a bit of upper body strength by carrying food and water for all of us in my trusty LL Bean backpack.  Do you remember the backpack that was stolen out of my car with my laptop in it and eventually got returned to me?  Yeah, that one.  I kept telling Mike that those creeps wouldn't win, that I was damn well going to clean all of their broken glass and vomit out of my backpack and go back to using it. That backpack.  It's a good backpack and can fit everything I need for 24 hours in it.  I like my backpack.  There's that gear thing I was telling you about.

You know, I should be telling you about that trip Mike and I took to World's End State Park with a bunch of Explorer Scouts, or rather Venture Scouts as they are now known.  Yes, World's End State Park is it's real name.

It's a lovely and wild place in Pennsylvania. It is especially nice in the early fall. By the time we got there, the leaves were off. The deciduous woods takes on a clean look then. You can see further, but things are camouflaged in brown and grey.

I had finally gotten a new pair of boots, a pair of Zamberlans.  Oh man, my feet were happy in those things, so it was going to be a great trip.  To begin with, we registered with the ranger.  He was a nice man, kind of chatty, but I don't remember what he said to us on our way out except that we should have a good time.  That was a given with this group.  We started walking up a mild incline and about an hour in, I looked up to my left and ...

...  I saw a face in the woods. 

Yes, I would swear in court tomorrow that on that day, I saw a face in the woods.

"Look!" I said.  "There's somebody up there!"  We all looked back to where I pointed, but the face was gone.  Vanished.  There were just tree trunks and the hillside covered in leaves.  We stood quietly for a moment, but didn't hear a sound.

"You must have imagined it," I remember someone saying.

"No!" I said.  "I really saw a face."  They all went back to walking as I stood there for a minute with Mike and stared hard at the spot where I'd seen the face. 

"I'm sure I saw a face, Mike."  I said again. 

It was close to Halloween.  Maybe they all thought I was starting up with the scary stories.  At the campfire that night, the wind picked up.  It was strangely balmy, but you could hear it singing through the branches. 

Now, on this particular trip, I was the only female.  Most of the time, there were lots of girls, but this time, I was on my own with the guys.  I didn't mind, mostly.

"I've got to pee, guys," I said, getting up from the campfire.  "I'm going down this trail a bit, so don't anyone come down that way until I get back.  Okay?"

"I have to go too," said Ted.  He was fourteen and wasn't liking the stories the kids had started to tell around the campfire.

"No, Ted, you hang out here until I'm done," I said.

"But I really have to go," he said.

"So get one of the other guys to go with you.... that way."  I pointed toward the trail going the other direction.  The wind howled a bit louder and not one of those boys offered to go with Ted.  Neither of the leaders said anything either.

"Please?" he said.  Oh man.  I just wasn't one of those mom types back then.  We didn't have two-deep leadership then either, but there was that boundary I just didn't want to cross, not even with a kid who was afraid.

"No, Ted.  You need to go with someone else, not me," I said.

Poor Ted got this look in his eyes.  He was standing up, kind of shifting from one foot to the other and looking at me with wide eyes like he was going to cry. 

"Will one of you guys go with him?" I asked.  No one spoke.  The wind picked that moment of silence to howl just a little louder.

"Well, crap, Ted.  Come on.  You just walk beyond me about thirty feet and look the other direction until I say it's okay."

"But I'm scared.  What if something's out there?"

"Nothing's out there, Ted."  This was Ted's first camping trip, but I'd camped since I was a baby and always felt safer in the woods than I did in a town full of people. I wasn't being very empathetic.

"Please?" Ted nearly whimpered.  Poor Ted.  We stood there for a couple of beats.  I knew that Ted wasn't going to be able to make his feet go in that direction, no matter what I said.

"Okay, you walk back toward the campfire and I'll walk about thirty feet in this direction.  You face the campfire and don't turn around until I give you the all-clear."  So, in that way, we managed our awkward tasks and went back to the campfire, never having been bothered by anything that might have been out in the dark.

That night, the wind picked up, a lot.  It buffeted my tent.   In the wee hours, a few branches came crashing down around us, but when I looked outside, shining my flashlight around, I could see that all the other tents were okay.  I could hear Mike mumbling in the tent next to mine.

There was never any rain, just that crazy wind.  At breakfast, the other leader who'd been in the tent with Mike looked at him and said, "You weren't awake when you talked to me last night, were you?"

Mike gave him a blank look.

"You rolled over in your sleeping bag, poked me in the back, and asked if I'd checked for dead fall."

"I don't remember that," Mike said.

"Yeah.  I got to thinking about that dead fall.  I didn't sleep the rest of the night."  It all seemed so funny.  You know how trips can be.  I'll admit, that wind got to me while it was still dark.  It was eerie the way it sang through the branches in the night.  It would have been a good backdrop for a horror movie, but in the morning, it was suddenly funny.  We all got to laughing and couldn't stop until tears ran down our faces.

So, this was a simple over night trip, a loop on the map so we wouldn't have to retrace our steps.  Eighteen miles, max.  Near the end, we hit a snag.  The map had shown the dotted line of the trail crossing a creek.  When they'd planned the trip, everyone assumed it was a bridge crossing.  There was no bridge.

This creek was wide, but it was also swollen with recent rains and it was swift.  Mike told us all to take off our socks, then put on rain pants if we had them along with our boots, hats, and gloves.  Remember I had new boots?  I wanted to go barefooted to protect my new boots, but Mike vetoed it.  That way we'd stay as dry as we could in the chill air.  It was dry out, but I'd guess the temperature was in the mid-forties.  Then, our other leader took a line across wearing his big backpack.  He almost fell in, but pulled on the rope Mike was holding and caught his balance. The water came above his knees in places.  He took his time placing his feet.  I could see that when he stepped down, the current grabbed hold and pushed that boot downstream about a foot or so.  When he crawled up the bank, he took a minute, put his socks back on, and anchored the line to the base of a nearby tree.  Oh, I don't know what kind of tree.  It was gray and naked of leaves. 

Then, Mike anchored his end of the line on another tree.  One by one, we held onto that rope and walked across.  When it was my turn, the water rushing into my new boots made me gasp.  I began to shiver immediately, but I focused on placing my feet the way I'd seen everyone ahead of me do.  It was strange to pick a place for my foot and feel my intentions swept downstream.  I didn't let go of that rope for a minute.  I felt safer with that rope, a retired climbing rope.  Eventually, I made it to the other side.  When we'd all made it, Mike went back over without his backpack to untie the line on the other side.  Then, it was his turn to cross without the security of a taut line.  I'd like to tell you he fell in, but he didn't.  Mike's pretty solid on his feet. 

It was getting pretty late when we got back to the ranger station, just past dusk.  We'd taken an extra hour or so with our river crossing, way more time than it would take just walking across a bridge.  We'd probably taken too long with our pancakes in the morning too.  We weren't known for early rising and remember, we hadn't slept well because of that wild wind.

"I was just about to call search and rescue to go looking for you guys," the ranger told us.  I was standing right by his window while Mike looked for our names on the register.  We all laughed. 

"Why, was there an escaped convict in the woods last night?" I asked flippantly.  Mike laughed again.

The man just stared at me, not saying anything.  You know, there are times when it gets really quiet.  Even the birds seemed to have gone silent.  My stomach did a flip.

"Ah, well," the ranger said.

"Was there a murderer in the woods?" I asked, staring him down.

He looked away a minute.  He opened his mouth, then closed it again.  Then he looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Yes, a man escaped from prison and the police have been searching for him in these woods for the last 24 hours." 

I didn't say a thing about the face I saw in the trees.  I tried not to think about being thirty feet away from Ted who was thirty feet away from the campfire, in the dark, with my pants down.  As it is, Ted probably never went camping a night in his life again. 

Thank you for listening, jb

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