In hopes of achieving a long-time personal goal, Kathy Holcombe walked away from the comforts of her family and RV to set off on a 70-mile solo adventure through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park portion of the Appalachian Trail.
In Part 1 of this series, Kathy shares her travel log from her emotion-filled first day: excitement for what lies ahead, anxiety for the unknown that awaits, doubt and uncertainty as to whether it’s actually feasible, and of course, exhilaration at the thought of actually stepping into the wild.
Day 1 – Just like that, I set off into the wilderness, like I had a thousand times before. Except this time, I’m alone. My pack is heavier than usual, a whopping 45 pounds, because there is no one to help share the load. It’s going to be a long day, with over five miles and a 2,000-foot gain in elevation. It probably would have been a good idea to do some training hikes before I set out on this adventure, but it’s too late for that now.
I settle into a slow trudge, fifty steps and then a quick break to catch my breath. This pack is way heavier than I anticipated, and my body is threatening to boycott this mission: my heart and lungs racing to keep up with my oxygen demands and my burning legs. In my left knee there is just the slightest twinge of pain with every step. I am trying to ignore that, telling myself that it will work itself out if I just keep moving.
Aside from all that, my heart is singing with freedom and my mind moves from one thought to the next like one of those small rubber bouncy balls that you can never seem to catch. One thought ricocheting to the next in a series of indecipherable trajectories. It’s been eons since I’ve spent any time alone with myself, but just like reconnecting with an old friend, it’s fun to rediscover bits of me I had forgotten.
When I was younger, I spent quite a bit of time alone: hiking, climbing, biking, etc. As a mom, I love sharing experiences with my daughter so much, that time by myself has all but completely vanished. Seven days of solo hiking proved to be a wonderful reunion with myself, completely re-igniting my creative fire. I really need to make spending time (unplugged!) alone with myself a priority every. single. day.
I am making progress, one mile becomes two, then three. As I move further from the trailhead, and the last known location of humanity, the sounds of the forest become amplified. A rustle in the leaves sets me on high alert. I laugh at myself when I spot the small finch that triggered my internal alarm. Then I hear something much larger in the underbrush, and it’s close.
Immediately, the sign at the trailhead warning of an abundance of bears springs to the forefront of my memory. The crashing is definitely big enough to be a bear! What do I do? Why, oh why, did I leave the bear spray in the Winnebago?! The thundering footfall moves closer. My eyes strain as I squint through the underbrush trying to lay eyes on the creature that will surely lead to my impending doom. It moves closer. Every muscle in my body is coiled tightly, ready to spring into action, what specifically that action is, I am not sure.
The crashing is much louder now, likely bigger than a bear, possibly a T-rex. I am certain now, this is it, death is imminent. I take one step forward and … a grouse, no bigger than a chicken, bursts out of the bush next to me. My heart stops, and I feel like I’m going to collapse. I take a drink from my water bottle and try to recollect my jittery nerves. But for the entire next mile my brain remains hyper alert: the squirrels now sound like elephants as they rustle through the leaves, and walnuts fall from the sky in an apocalyptic meteor shower. I’ve really got to settle down if I am going to make it the entire 70 miles alone.
As my adrenaline fades, I feel a shift within and the foreign sounds of the forest become more familiar: the buzz of the insects, the whisper of the leaves, the chirping of the birds above, the musky smell of rotting vegetation. The rhythm of my steps are a meditation and compel me to keep moving, to discover what lies ahead. I come to a junction that is not on my map, and there are no signs.
My mountaineering roots entice me to continue upward. Fifteen minutes later, I find myself at a dead end, at the summit of a peak, with a rickety structure looming above me. It’s an old fire lookout station. I can’t resist and clamber up four flights of stairs, to the top of the tower and can see nothing but mountains stretching out before me. It’s gorgeous, but I am worried about being lost. I quickly retreat and retrace my steps back to the junction, opting this time for the downhill trail. It meanders and winds through the woods and eventually I see the familiar white blaze that marks the Appalachian Trail. Just another rolling mile and I make it to the junction to camp.
I descend into a valley and look for a place to set up my tent. But as soon as I arrive, it is clear that something is wrong. There is trash strewn about everywhere: wrappers, plastic bags, shreds of fabric. Everything lies in tatters except one piece of paper. I pick it up and turn it over.
It’s a notice from the Park Service that reads: “Bear activity in the area. Recent attacks have resulted in serious injury and death.”
RECENT ATTACKS!?!? SERIOUS INJURY AND DEATH!!! I am back on high alert, frantically scanning my surroundings. I gather the scattered trash and try to put in in the metal bear container in hopes of deterring another visit from Yogi, but the storage container is locked. I leave the trash, uncertain of what to do with it, and continue down into camp.
There is another notice from the park service that shows a map of the area with a handful of tent sites and a strong warning to cook and eat only at the fire pit in the center of the camp and to properly store all food suspended high in the trees. I explore the camp, hopeful that there will be other people to help defend against the inevitable attack that will likely happen at night, but there is no one. I am alone. I set up my tent, cook my dinner, hang my pack as instructed, and crawl into my sleeping bag just as dusk arrives.
That is when the symphony begins. It starts with the percussion … thunk-ch-sh-sh, probably hickory nuts falling and rustling through the leaves, that or the T-rex has returned from earlier. Can hickory nuts really make that much noise?!? Then an owl chimes in, just like in a horror movie. I am definitely doomed! The cicadas are so loud it sounds like a raging rapid, and as darkness envelopes the camp, the frenzied energy crescendos to a fever pitch. It’s got to be the full moon.
My emotions oscillate between terror and awe at the incredible commotion around me, one moment reveling in the beauty and power of the creatures outside, and the next cowering with my head under the sleeping bag certain that I will not make it through the night. I am exhausted, from the hike, but it is more likely that my imagination has taken a bigger toll. I desperately need to sleep, but the pandemonium outside is just too much.
I cautiously crawl out of my tent and make my way back to where my pack is suspended, every snapping branch and rustling leaf increasing my pace. I dig through my first aid kit and locate the Benadryl. Hallelujah! I take two, crawl back into my sleeping bag and wait for the inevitable drowsiness to arrive. I may die of a bear attack in the night, but at least I will be well rested. I awaken at some point and am surprised to find the forest completely silent, and can’t help but wonder where all the wild things have gone.