A (long) walk in the woods: YES! Weekly’s Lee Adams takes a hike
I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me.
But only God can make a tree.
-Joyce Kilmer, ‘“Trees,’” 1913
These are the words Joyce Kilmer is most remembered for, penned in 1913. Just five years before, in the middle of a war-torn forest during World War I, he would be struck down by a bullet to the head. A sign at the Naked Ground trailhead tells this tale and commemorates Kilmer, for whom the forest was dedicated in 1936 after the Forest Service purchased 13,055 acres, saving it from the timbermill.
The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is home to some of the oldest trees in the Appalachians, virgin growths of over 400 years and reaching a circumference of 20 feet. The forest remains the home of black bear and wild boar, though you can count yourself lucky to ever see either, and countless other fauna and flora that vary greatly with changes in elevation.
Pink Lady’s Slipper is one rare plant found here. The bulbous flower of this orchid is a curious find. Many people try to dig up the Lady’s Slipper to keep at home but the plant will not live without a much-needed fungus that has not yet been identified by scientists and can only be found in the wild. The Pink Lady’s Slipper takes years to grow and is dependent on the bumblebee, the only bee strong enough to push its way into the petals to gather pollen. The Slipper tricks the bee by making it think nectar awaits it inside. As the bee goes from flower to flower trying to find nectar it pollinates the flower, thus preserving its life. The Lady’s Slipper serves as food for insects and white-tailed deer and as a shelter for the Eastern forest snail, which can be found making its way slowly across the forest floor here and there.
The intricate web of forest life is amazing. Each depends on another for the chance of life itself, something that can only be observed by patience and the willingness to sit down and hear Mother Earth breathe.
But right now the only breathing I hear is my own. Nature’s gentle caress is hidden as the huge limbs of the forest canopy bear down on me like savage teeth. The wilderness has a way of being gentle to its most delicate creatures while at the same time making another creature beg for its very life.
As I stab my trekking poles into the ground and fight the searing pain shooting through my legs and toes, great drops of sweat and light mucus combine in my moustache. As I bear down with all I have I lick the rolling drops from the edge of my lips, telling myself the salty flavor I taste is just the ocean spray on my face while vacationing on the Caribbean.
I’m halfway through a four-mile hike back to the campsite, and I’m the wimp here. It’s Day 2 and after four grueling miles down 2,000 feet of elevation I just can’t go any farther. My toes feel bruised; my knee hurts and my legs feel as if they are being penetrated with shards of hot glass with each step. After 45 minutes of resting and trying to rebuild my energy with a snack, I have no choice but to head back to camp, back up the 2,000 feet I just descended. The rest of the crew will continue their day hike, making a 12-mile trip and facing terrain much tougher than I’d faced. I wanted to continue ‘— for the sake of the story, for the sake of journalism, for the sake of my pride. But Blue Ridge Mountain Sports trail guide Kurt Peterson knew I could make it no farther and was threatening to make me eat my pride. Truthfully, at that point, I was so exhausted I hadn’t much pride left. I had all but cried out for Mommy in my attempt to keep my reputation as a man.
Stopping for water I turn to the other trail guide, Adam Paashaus, who’d given up trekking with the rest of the crew to escort me back to camp.
‘“I’ve got my lead for my story,’” I tell him. ‘“I fought Joyce Kilmer, and this time he won.’”
Later on back at camp as I rummage around the tent for some dry clothes I overhear Walter Wehner, a fellow hiker we’d met the night before, ask Adam how the hike back was.
‘“It was pretty relaxing,’” I hear him respond.
‘“Ha!’” I say to myself, still trying to catch my breath.
The day before we hiked more than four miles, gaining 2,600 feet in elevation; one thousand of that being within the last mile. We’d set up camp right before dark there in the area known as Naked Ground. This is when we met Walter who’d been camping with his dog, Shunka, for about a week and a half. Kurt, our trail guide, knew Walter from previous trips and decided that, upon Walter’s advice, we should camp at the Naked Grounds instead of going on to another campsite, which Walter said was full for the night.
That night’s supper, spaghetti with vegetable sauce, never tasted so good. With headlamps on, Kurt, Adam and Yachiel Gilo, an experienced backpacker along for the trip, looked over the topographical map to prepare for today’s hike. The trip up the mountain had taken a lot out of everyone, Kurt said. He’d planned to hike more miles on the second day with full packs but now he was reconsidering.
This morning we’d hiked two miles to this area called the Hangover before setting up camp and heading out for our little stroll. It was apparent to me from the beginning that the campers I was with were in much better shape than I. The hike in was done at such a quick pace that I soon fell far behind the rest of the group, giving them plenty of time to rest as they waited up for me so that they were raring to go again by the time I caught up.
Now, resting in my sleeping bag, a couple of hours have passed and the rest of the group arrives tired, but still not as tired as I, drifting in and out of consciousness as I lounge in the tent upon a large rock that bulges into my rib cage beneath my sleeping pad. There is nothing I can do to move it and at this point I am too exhausted to care anyway.
Brian Gardner snoozes in his sleeping bag next to me, his head at my feet. He was hiking with the rest of the group and has taken refuge inside the tent while supper cooks. At least someone else on this trip besides me is tired, even if he did hike eight more miles than me.
Soon the light of day has turned to darkness and the flicker of a campfire can be seen through the thin fabric walls of the tent. Supper is ready, Kurt says. Tonight we’re having burritos with rice and beans. I’m still trying to figure out if it’s worth getting up for it because the temperature has begun to drop dramatically here in this grove of rhododendrons atop the mountain. Eat, or sleep and stay warm? That is the question.
‘“It’s worth it,’” Kurt says back to me, trying to get the two of us out of our tent.
Yes, it is worth it. Yachiel has got a nice fire going and the burritos stick to my ribs as I quickly inhale two of them. The food and the fire soon have me warmer than if I’d stayed in my bag and I’m glad I got up.
After everyone else turns in for the night I soak up the last bit of heat from the remaining coals in the fire pit. My whole body is warmer now as I slide into my sleeping bag and it gets so hot that I wonder if I’ll have to unzip it completely.
Brian and I share a tent because it allowed us to split up the weight on the hike rather than each of us carrying our own tent. But now, lying there in the darkness of the night I’m wondering if I should have just packed my own tent and I’m sure he’s wondering the same. The space is cramped and as I rattle around my trash bags full of stuff to find my cell phone, I’m clearly annoying him. No, I can’t get a signal but I need my cell phone so I can set the alarm so I won’t miss the sunrise in the morning ‘— if there is one. It’s been overcast and damp the entire time, but I’m hoping for some kind of photograph in the morning.
I balance myself on the rock throughout the night, eventually learning to make it support my balance and feel quite comfortable. But just as I get into a deep
sleep my body, wrapped in the slick fabric of my sleeping bag, slides off and I end up resting against Brian. He quickly lets me know it by tapping me with his fingers through his sleeping bag and I pull myself back up the slight incline of the rock and perch myself there atop it once again.
Morning finally comes and Yachiel says the sun is rising beautifully. Despite my body’s pleas for more rest I get myself up and dressed and trod the path to the rocky overlook a few hundred yards away. Though the sun never comes out from behind the clouds it does cast hues of orange, red, purple and blue across the sky and through the milky waves of white. Low-lying clouds rest below us in the valleys like huge, fluffy pillows waiting to catch us if we decide to jump from the vista.
Back at camp Yachiel is making black tea with fresh mint leaves. It’s how he makes it back home in Israel, but there he has fresher ingredients in his garden. He loves to camp and has done much of it throughout the world during his life’s travels. He’s in the Greensboro area now after starting a business recycling wood products into absorbent materials such as kitty litter. But out of all his travels he still finds the mountains of North Carolina to be beautiful and full of wonder. On this trip he’s brought a friend with him, also from Israel, named Eitan Stern. On the five-hour drive up from Greensboro the two chatted non-stop in Hebrew making a conversation fascinating to listen to even though they could have been planning my demise and I wouldn’t have known it.
Soon enough it’s time to make the five- to-six mile descent back to the parking lot. It’s longer hiking back this time because we’re taking a different route. I make a mental plan and stick to it: at every resting point I continue on at my slow and steady pace, leaving the rest of the group behind me so that we’ll end up leaving the trail at the same time. Thirty minutes before leaving camp I took two Tylenol for the inevitable pain that was to come and was determined to go home and get some rest.
Finally, after almost five hours of hiking, we reach the parking lot. As I take my shoes off I notice three blisters on one toe while another toe is bruised. All are screaming out in pain and my legs want to buckle. The other nine hikers decide to take one last trail, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial loop at the trailhead where we first began.
‘“Not me,’” I say. I’m sitting this one out. And I retreat to Yachiel’s van for a much needed nap.
This was the hardest trip Blue Ridge Mountain Sports has conducted so far. Having backpacked avidly over a decade ago, all I could remember was the adventure of it all and I failed to realize how out of shape I’d become over the years. But I still feel victorious. Joyce Kilmer didn’t completely win; I made it out alive. There will be less strenuous trips in the future, Kurt tells me, and I just may take him up on one of those. Today, however, I’ll take a couple more Tylenol. My head is still reeling. I do feel fortunate to have had the chance to once again put myself at odds with Mother Nature and re-appreciate her beauty, her gentleness and her brutal strength.
To comment on this story, e-mail Lee Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.