Essay: Outdoor Misadventures - A Retrospective

First posted in May, 2004

This is a nostalgic, rambling essay that should have been outlined beforehand and revised a few times but wasn't, inspired by a friend of mine having read The Outdoors Almanac: Practical Solutions for the Wilderness Experience.

I'm glad when essays like this happen, because I have never been consistent in keeping a journal until now, and certain things that should have been chronicled at the time are slowly finding their way into entries...

The first time I went backcountry camping, I was alone. I was 20. I had car camped in developed campgrounds as a kid, but nothing in the recent past and never alone. I was working for the National Park Service, but as yet hadn't had to be out overnight. I don't know what it was, whether it was a genuine desire to see if I could do it, or to vanquish the mystery of the wilderness, or what, but I decided that spring break of my sophomore year I was going to go camping in the backcountry.

Then I couldn't get anyone to go with me. My boyfriend at the time refused to go and expressed GREAT CONCERN that I would go alone, and you'd think if he had been that concerned, he would have relented when he saw I was going to go regardless. But he didn't, and I was undeterred.

March that year was unseasonably cold and a huge storm hit the Friday night of the break and it snowed. There were drifts several feet deep in the high country, but I was staying low (in Walnut Bottom), so I went anyway, against everyone's concern. I was determined to learn how to do this, and no one would show me, and everyone insisted I not go but damn it it was important to me to make this step, and so I ignored all of them and went anyway.

I enjoyed a pleasant five mile walk along Big Creek and arrived at Campsite 37 by midday. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most heavily visited in the country - 10 million people a year (though much of that never leaves the road). Subsequently, they choose to concentrate the use and you are only permitted to camp in designated sites, even in the backcountry. I found a wonderful spot by a waterfall, and I was fortunate in that I arrived at my camping spot only hours after someone else had vacated it, and so the dry footprint from their tent was still present amongst the snow. I had worried about that on the way in - how I would set up my tent with all this snow on the ground, but it ended up not being at issue at all.

I set up camp and spent the rest of the day sketching and reading. Everything went well. Despite the cold, I didn't mess with a fire. I rarely do even to this day. I cooked on my stove. New to this whole experience, I went to bed at sunset. I didn't care that it was early; I read in my tent until I was dozy, and when I read while lying down, that generally doesn't take long.

I woke very early the next morning as a result. Upon my return from the bathroom I left the rainfly open on the tent and snuggled back down in my bag. I remember lying there on my stomach for a long while, looking out the door, eyes right at snow level, watching birds hop about. I was completely alone and yet completely content. This had been a good experience so far.

I spent much of that day just lounging by the tent. Not sure why, but I didn't want to hike too much. I took a mid afternoon nap. When I woke, I heard voices. I remember that it freaked me out a bit, having that serenity disturbed and being alone with strangers nearby when I still didn't yet feel in my element. But later that afternoon I got up the nerve to introduce myself and it turned out that they were wonderful people my own age who had had a terrible experience the night before.

They'd been in the high country. They had waded through snow waist deep. There were six of them, from Northwestern University near Chicago, and they'd camped in the Smokies once before, the previous spring, which had been a much warmer year. This time, based on that previous experience, they had under prepared for the unpredictable weather that the mountains can sometimes provide. The night before they had had to sleep six people to a four man tent for warmth, stashing all their gear in the smaller two man tent they had to protect the gear from snow. Two of them had gotten delirious with hypothermia and had had to be carefully watched so that they didn't wander off.

Eventually it came out that I worked for the park, and they asked if I had a radio. I did. They asked me to radio our dispatch to tell them where they were, for they had come out of the high country a day early to escape the snow on Mt. LeConte and were now off their itinerary.

They had me over that night for supper. The next day, we all hiked out together. I kept up with one of them by e-mail a few times, but I haven't spoken to any of them in years and don't even remember their names.

I learned a lot that trip, both from my own solitary experience and from what I learned in listening to my new friends.

And still on the topic of wilderness experiences, the author of The Outdoors Almanac is cautionary in hopes that the gentle reader will be less stupid in initial backpacking experiences than he was as a feisty youth. Like the Len McDougall, I have had many experiences that I look back on with a feeling of relief, having faired well and come away with a lesson. If you spend enough time in the backcountry, things happen. They just do.

I've gotten sick with a stomach virus in the middle of a solo hike and had to spend the night curled on the ground beside my pack with stabbing stomach pains and nausea. I was just half a mile shy of a warm cabin with a stove and sleeping bags and running water, but between me and the cabin was a river I'd never before crossed, and my sudden illness had slowed my pace. I didn't make the river before nightfall, and knew better than to cross an unfamiliar stream, forty feet wide, in the dark, alone, while sick. The earth is a cold place to spend the night in the rain, protected only by raingear and a garbage bag.

I've broken my leg, passed out, and experienced mild shock three miles from the trailhead at a mile above sea level in spring in the Smokies. I was one of six on that trip, the only female, and the only paid park employee - the rest were students of mine in a field archaeology course at the university. I cursed myself for the accident, and though I knew it could have just as easily happened to any of the men, I felt bad that it had been me, the supposedly capable one (in retrospect, it was fortunate. If one of us had to have an accident, I was the lightest of the bunch to carry and had the least upper body strength). But at the time I felt so terrible for burdening them that whenever they left me alone to go back and get my fifty pounds of gear that they'd left behind to carry me (I'm not sure why they left me alone like that, but they did), I would crawl toward the trailhead. I hated that they were carrying me. I probably crawled between a quarter and half of a mile that day on my hands and one knee, holding the other leg up to keep it from being jarred against the rocks. My reward? The next day my chest hurt more than my broken fibula and torn tendons. (Silly, stupid Jacqueline.)

I've laid at six thousand five hundred feet next to a rock glacier in a one man bivvy and felt the rain slowly penetrating not only the tent but my sleeping bag as well because the tent was a cheap piece of crap that I'd opted for to save on weight and it was so small that there was no way to lie in it without the bag touching the side panels. I endured my wet cocoon while all my companions camped nearby in very heavy, but warm, dome tents. But I was determined to tough it out as long as it was merely uncomfortable but still safe. (The icon for this post is from that trip, actually.)

When I was younger and horribly poor, I once went to work moderately sick because I thought I could muddle through and I didn't have the sick leave available and couldn't "afford" leave without pay. Later that day, I found myself delirious while hiking in the snow (fortunately not alone). That night I had a temperature of 104F (40C) and experienced dreams the likes of which I hope to never see again. The next day I was diagnosed with pneumonia.

At any rate, I always managed to do okay, and have learned from every adventure, and now have a very firm grasp of what to do in most potential situations, and it all seems fairly natural to me now. Like I've always known how to do it. As if it's just the way it is. I know it's all experience, but it truly does feel innate somehow. And what's really odd is that looking back, I'm not sure how the city girl that was me became this confident outdoorsman. I wasn't conscious of the transition, somehow. It just happened.