My journal entry on the night of my first solo backpacking trip reads: “Just heard a loud cracking noise, followed by some heavy thumps. It sounded like a bear. Didn’t bear-bag my food. Whoops.” I cringed in my sleeping bag, clutching my pocket knife as I pictured a snarling beast tearing through my tent like it was tissue paper. How I wished I could turn to the person next to me and whisper giddily, “What do you think that sound was?”
I had spent the day hiking through the Seneca Creek backcountry in West Virginia. A few weeks prior, someone told me about a spruce forest that resembled the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Inspired by the transcendentalist literature I was studying in college, I decided to explore it on my own. It was a test. Could I survive a night in the woods alone?
The plan was set: ten miles over two days. I printed the necessary maps, studied the trail system, and dutifully checked the forecast. I had enough outdoor knowledge to make the trip a breeze. Or so I thought.
Worried I’d be setting up camp alone in the dark, I took off at the trailhead like a rocket, huffing it past other hikers who seemed amused at my frantic pace. Maybe it was the storm that blew in and drenched me, but hours later I realized I’d overshot a turn. I was tired, flustered, and soaked. With daylight gone I made camp, scarfed down some granola bars (no glorious camp feasts to be shared), took off my socks—which felt like damp dish rags—and plopped down on my sleeping pad.
Some people rave about the freedom of camping alone. I have friends who speak in platitudes about the peace and quiet they find among the trees. But the overwhelming emotion I experienced that night was boredom. At 6 P.M., I fished around in my pack and pulled out a too-soggy copy of The Best American Travel Writing. No thrilling tales would be read that night. I resorted to journaling, stretching, then getting lost in my thoughts. Eventually, I crawled into my bag.
Then the bear, or whatever it was.
After I realized my rookie mistake—forgetting to bag my food—I thought longingly of the voice of reason that apparently had abandoned me a few hours ago: Before we hit the hay, let’s take all the food out of the tent so a bear doesn’t eat us, alright? I could see the headline: “Lone Hiker Killed by Bear in West Virginia.” The disturbing sounds continued: crunching twigs, heavy footsteps, and, wait, was that a scream? (After my trip, I learned that crying foxes can sound like children.) The absence of another human was sobering. Every worry was heightened to the point of feeling like real danger. I slept maybe an hour that night.
I woke up as morning light filled the tent. Still on high alert, I peeked cautiously through the zippered opening. Then the scenery caught my eye: canary yellow and flame-red leaves scattered the wet ground; thousands more hung above me like ornaments. The sky was a bright, milky gray.
Emerson wrote that man “cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.” He’s right. I was so fixated on the end goal that I’d ignored the gorgeous, fleeting foliage that surrounded me on the walk in. I began the hike back to my car, thankful to have all my limbs and flooded with confidence. I had survived the night, without the safety net of a companion.
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