About the Author: Sandra Bolan is an award-winning journalist and author of four books. She is also an Ironman, ultramarathoner, novice backpacker and adventure seeker as well as a Canadian now living with her three rescue dogs and husband in Georgia.
We’re huffing and puffing and have only just started to climb the Appalachian Trail’s Winding Stair Gap’s roughly 20 steps.
It was supposed to be a girls’ weekend filled with a lot of hiking, getting-to-know-yous, laughter and freeze-dried food.
About a quarter of a mile into the hike, or about 15 minutes, the four of us hear something up ahead. It sounded like someone was snoring. Then, as we approach a sharp right turn, there’s a person, face down on the trail. She wasn’t taking a nap.
Our guide Michelle immediately turned the female hiker over. It wasn’t good. The mid-50s woman’s face was blue and she had blood coming out of her mouth. She was non-responsive.
Michelle, Karen, and I immediately ripped off our fully loaded packs and tossed them haphazardly alongside the trail while we simultaneously yelled at the women, trying to get her to respond. Nothing. Our fourth hiker – Christina – headed back to the road to flag down the ambulance we were trying to contact. That endeavor was a very bad version of that commercial where the guy is always saying: “can you hear me now?”
Eventually the 911 operator got enough information to send the ambulance.
Michelle and Karen kept trying to wake the woman, while I invaded her space and did a pat-down to check for any broken bones and a cell phone. Negative on both. I eventually found her phone. We took a chance and called the last person she texted. Thankfully, it was her partner.
Tom let us know, her name was Roberta and she was just starting a solo day hike, something she did a lot. She apparently has epilepsy but hadn’t had a seizure in years.
Finally, Roberta woke up. She was groggy and confused but she had all her faculties, so much so, she let us know she likes to be called Bobbie, not Roberta.
Also huffing and puffing, the EMS guys came up the trail with a gurney. Bobbie was going to be fine but was headed to the local hospital, just in case.
The four of us sat there, stunned at what just happened. A shot of tequila would have gone down well right about then, but no one packed anything stronger than instant coffee.
It was time to get back on the trail. But Christina, decided this was not how she wanted her three-day backpacking trip to start. Seeing a semi-conscious stranger splayed out on a trail apparently rattled her more than the rest of us. She was flushed, shaking and looking like breakfast was making a reverse exit.
She tapped out.
So, Michelle, Karen and I headed up into the trail, while Christina headed off the trail and for a weekend of spa treatments.
But minutes later, trail guide Michelle decided Christina was too rattled to be alone. So, she too headed off the trail to make sure she was going to be ok.
And then there were two. I was starting to feel like I was a character in a Stephen King novel and things were just going to go further off the rails.
So here we were – Karen and me – two total strangers. One experienced backpacker, one on her first trip. We were going to get to know each well over the next 13 miles.
For hours, we just put one foot in front of the other. The only sound was that of boots crunching fallen leaves.
Karen moved easily up and down the trail with her 25-pound pack. For me, despite being fit, the extra weight was a challenge. I felt like a greyhound chasing the rabbit and just never quite being able to get it.
We eventually stopped for lunch, thank goodness! We made some get-to-know-you small talk for a couple of minutes, then headed out.
Michelle was also not going to re-join us on the trail. She was going to meet us at our campsite.
We finally made our way up to Albert Mountain. The view was amazing!
For every ascent, you know there is going to be a descent and on the backside of Albert Mountain was an absolute doosey of a downhill. We had to scramble down boulders and rocks with basically no footholds.
I climbed down with poles, went backwards and slid on my butt. To say it was steep and horrible, would be an understatement. At one point I was ready to throw my pack down the hillside so it would be easier for me to get down. But then, in the distance, I could see the misery coming to an end and the start of actual flattish, dirt trail.
Dusk was closing in on us fast, but we somehow made it to the meeting point just before sunset. We were ready to set up camp for the night. However, for some reason, Michelle forgot to claim a campsite for us.
We got into her car and literally drove halfway back to the start where there was a small parking lot beside the trail and just enough grass for us to pitch our tents.
We boiled water for our freeze-dried dinners, mine was Pad Thai, ate, then called it a night.
Whenever you travel, you’re going to meet some interesting people. The trail is no exception and perhaps the best place for quirky folk.
In one of the other cars parked by ours was a USPS worker, packing heat and apparently taking a mental health break from the world.
Usually you worry about bears, coyotes or maybe a hiker who had a few too many wobbly pops and tries to enter the wrong tent, but with this woman, we worried more for their safety.
Eventually the sun came up and we crawled out of our tents, not really rested.
I thought we would back to three on the trail. Nope. Michelle decided she needed to check in with hiker No. 4 throughout the day and sent Karen and me out on our own.
Once we shook off our ‘sleep’, we started to talk about just exactly what happened yesterday. It was a bit of therapy session for the both of us.
Once we settled back into silent hiking, I started to really think about whether hiking the AT, even in sections, was for me. It was. But it was a second morning with a late start. We had to drive back to Betty Gap to rejoin the trail where we left it, forcing us to book it to camp in order to beat the dark. I was not interested in chasing the rabbit for a second day.
I’m a runner. If I want to speed through the trails, I’d trade my boots for shoes, ditch the pack and pick a less iconic place to run. This was my first time on the AT. I needed to see it and soak it in, even if it really wasn’t all that picturesque.
I let Karen get way ahead of me. It’s not like we can take a wrong turn and lose each other.
We eventually got back together for lunch. I had to say it – I’m tapping out instead of making camp tonight. Thankfully, Karen was thinking the exact same thing.
Don’t get me wrong. We’re not a pair of shrinking violets who need our hands held. But this really wasn’t the trip we signed up for – unconscious hiker, AWOL trail guide and racing to camp to beat nightfall. Nope. Sometimes you’ve just got to call it a day.
Despite only losing about one pound of food from my pack over the past 24 hours, knowing this adventure was going to end, felt like I’d lost at least 10 pounds.
Our moods also lightened up considerably and we spend much of our remaining time talking about the silliest things.
So, you would think by me tapping out after two days would mean backpacking is not for me. Not so! Despite all that went sideways on my initial hike, I’ve gone out for more and plan on doing even more.
What’s life without a little adventure?