DESPITE WALKING THE SAME narrow path through the woods, the A.T. experience is different for every visitor to the Trail. No two hikers have the exact same adventure, even if they hiked the whole Trail side by side and in the other’s footsteps. Severe weather, seasonal challenges, physical limitations and an ever-changing cast of characters are all factors for a unique experience on the A.T. We all remember the special days spent among the white blazes. That perfect sunset. That endless view. We also remember the tough days. The terrible sideways rain storm. The miserable, everything hurts, I can’t believe I made it to camp days. It is all part of the greater A.T. experience. The good, the bad, the snoring bear. It’s what keeps us coming back.
The first time I visited Rice Field Shelter in Southwest Virginia, it was over 100 degrees in the stagnant July heat. Hiking along the West Virginia border, it was the kind of heat you can see rippling along a still horizon. A heat that hung onto us as we climbed the stile to the shelter. The water source, down a steep side trail, was bone dry and everyone in our group was without water after the long climb up from Pearisburg. We took a siesta in the shelter for hours waiting for the heat to subside so we could hike into the cooler hours of early evening to the next source.
Just before bedtime on that sweltering night I heard loud, heavy footsteps in the leaves to the left of my tent. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. I sat straight up in my sleeping bag. My first thought was that it was one of our friends who kept hiking and were coming back to mess with us. My second thought was that it was just a deer. The footsteps got louder as they grew closer. Thump. Thump. Thump. Sounded bigger than a deer. No. Definitely a deer, I reassured myself. The steps came closer. Stomp. Stomp. Now, only a few feet from my tent, the footsteps abruptly stopped. Silence. Some sniffling sounds. Then quiet again. A few agonizing seconds later, the footsteps moved on. It shuffled away as I could hear it walk back towards the woods away from our tents. I laid back down.
Then, abruptly, the steps turned around and began to shuffle back through the woods towards my tent. The moon was high and bright that night. As the sounds moved closer, a large shadow started to materialize on my single-wall tent. Silhouetted on the other side of the thin fabric was a large black bear. Its’ nose rubbing and sniffing along the nylon as it moved along the vestibule side. The bear slowly sniffed its way to the foot of my tent, before letting out a deep sigh and then laying down on top of it. THUD. My backpack crushed under its weight. Thankfully, my food was far away from camp and securely tied up in a tree and not in my pack…which was currently under a bear.
My hiking partner, Scout, at this time was asleep a few short feet away. I was sure she would hear what was going on, or at least be woken up by my pounding heart beating inside my chest. The slow, repetitive breathing, grunting and, eventually, snoring continued outside for hours. Finally, at 4 a.m. (I know because I was still very much awake), the bear stood straight up. I watched its large shadow stretch and bend and, with one more long, muffled growling yawn it strolled off back down its trail.
Ten years later, I hiked that section in a heavy March snowstorm with my boots sinking in to the shin-deep snow with every step. I arrived to the shelter to find three hikers shivering in their sleeping bags with a ground cover flapping in the wind in a poor attempt to cover the open side. They were waiting out the storm and predicted they would probably just be staying there for the night. Two very different experiences in the same beautiful place.
As the Trail continues to evolve and more hikers are drawn to its magic, it is more important than ever to be good stewards. To leave the Trail better than we found it for the next visitor. Whether we spend an afternoon, a night or months on the A.T., it is our responsibility to protect and conserve our national treasure for future generations and all visitors.
Early on in my thru-hike in Georgia, I met a man at a trailhead and his kind words stuck with me. “You are only borrowing the Trail for a short time. The animals live here. We are simply passing through," he said. If the Trail in the age of COVID has showed us anything — it is that we love the Trail. Like, LOVE it. We are passionate about it. For some, it is a way of life. It is a part of us. The memories we make with each step stays with us and we miss it when we are away. It isn’t one visitor’s Trail more than another. It belongs to all of us.