#31: A Stranger in the Night

It’s official: this is the craziest year in all of my 30 years.  The world has erupted in chaos in the last few weeks and the heartbreaking scenes on the TV have driven me further into the safety of my own bubble, desperate to limit my exposure to the horrific scenes and curb the ensuing anxiety.

Though I find myself sometimes transfixed by the media reports, unable to distance myself from the news for the sake of my own mental health, I try my best to throw myself into nature and my immediate surroundings. This welcome distraction helps me to center myself and not focus so hard on all the things I can’t control. The more I watch the news, the more I lay awake at night unable to turn my mind off and stop the thoughts of death and violence creeping back into my every thought. These swirling thoughts and worries for the world my son will grow up in boil up from my stomach and stick in my throat as my chest tightens and tears well up in my eyes. It’s apparent that grounding myself in nature is more important now than ever.

Lately we have reinstated our evening walks.  It was a ritual that began before I was pregnant and we were living in Clarkesville as a way to acclimate our dogs to each other – both of whom were used to one-dog households and needed a careful approach to their integration.  But retrospectively it was a therapy tool that Chris and I needed after a turbulent start to our marriage, and through it we became better acclimated to married life.

The pups on one of our daily walks of yore.

One of the many challenges of living this lifestyle is maintaining a routine through all the changes.  Each new park brings different commute times, new work routines, and new surroundings.  So the more we can retain these small rituals the more grounded we feel, especially when the world around us is so turbulent right now.

Just like old times, we take an evening walk down the dirt road – except now we have the pitter patter of excited little feet to keep up with too. I think this ritual is good for Junior – to experience a daily dose of family time with fresh air, no screens, and a little bit of exercise. I hope that it’ll teach him a healthy coping mechanism for life.

It’s usually a short walk on account of Junior’s little legs and Chris’ motorcycle accident in February which has left him struggling with walking/hiking at times still.  Some days we’ll go 2.5km, others just 1km.  But distance isn’t the goal, it’s the enjoyment, relaxation, and family time that matters.  I always return home feeling like a small weight has lifted and it caps the day off nicely before Junior’s bedtime routine. Junior seems to really enjoy the walks too.

One of my most favorite pictures of my little boy living free without a care in the world.

In paying more attention and consciously focusing on nature I’ve reaped an array of benefits.  I have begun to learn more about the flora in the area and have been trying to learn the names and medicinal purposes of the many flowers and herbs that grow naturally in this land.  

While junior was napping I was visited by a baby bunny rabbit the other day and, had I been gazing anxiously at the TV instead of in awe out the window, I would have missed him. His tiny little grey ears poked up from behind some weeds next to the camper and I stared perplexed for a moment as to what sort of curious creature was lurking. Then he hopped towards me and pushed his tiny, furry body through the chainlink fence and sat nibbling quietly on the grass as I quietly observed. I steadied my breath and held still so as to not frighten him. He turned and looked at me and we locked eyes for a moment, each curious about the other. I held his gaze for a moment before he hopped happily back through the fence and off into the wild beyond.

These sweet little encounters with the fauna of this mountain, although with common woodland creatures, feel like little miracles and I return to my day feeling that much luckier to have shared a moment with them.  But some creatures don’t have the same calming and non-threatening presence, especially the ones that lurk in the night.

A few weeks ago, shortly after our arrival, Chris and I were sat chatting by the fire. It was getting late and we weren’t far from turning in for the night. We were chatting idly about everything and nothing at all, when all of a sudden there was a commotion in the thicket behind the fence. Chris shushed me harshly and froze – something he does often because the poor old bugger’s imagination likes to run away with him at the slightest drop of a leaf. I rolled my eyes but obliged and held still and listened. The rustling sound was louder now and I realized that, at least on this occasion, he was right; something was lurking in the bushes.

Excited and curious we grabbed the spotlight and crept toward the corner of the fence where the sound was coming from. We held still and listened intently. Silence. I held my breath and strained to hear.

Suddenly the silence was broken again but this time much closer to the fence. So close, in fact, that it sounded like it was a mere few feet from us. Chris clicked the spotlight on and lit up the darkness but the light caught the twisted, tangled thicket and cast shadows beyond it which darted around with the movement of the light, playing tricks on our eyes. Suddenly another commotion, this time closer to where we had been sat by the fire. It’s on the move.

We quickly and quietly scurried across the grass toward the noise and clicked the light on again – but as soon as we did the light faded and died.

“No!  No, no, no.  The damn battery is dead” Chris exclaimed with frustration. “It’s right there, it’s right there!”  

He clicked the light on again and again it lit up the thicket for a second before fading and dying.  He repeated this action frantically, desperate to just catch a glimpse of the rustling creature just feet from our faces.

Then there was a sudden commotion back toward the corner of the fence where we were before. But then a commotion in front of us again. This time the rustling was moving. It wasn’t the delicate and graceful movement of a deer searching for a place to bed down, but rather the clumsy crashing of a much larger creature with no fear of predators. But it was two of them.

“It’s a mama bear and her cubs” I whispered, desperately searching the darkness for just a glimpse at the majestic creatures. We shot back up towards the corner of the fence as they crashed through the darkness, moving at speed now. I used the light from my phone out of sheer desperation. As I pulled it out of my pocket a thought flashed through my head that illumination of the scene could reveal an angry and protective mother scaling the fence at speed and a black, hairy face with long white teeth, drool dripping in anticipation. I took a cautionary step back, clicked the light on, and was a little relieved to find the fence unobstructed before me.

As the creatures crashed off into the abyss we returned to our fire, both disappointed and relieved. Chris has been itching to see a bear; he’s never seen one before in the wild. I have seen one before, but not in a few years, and always appreciate the majesty of those elusive creatures.

Excited by our encounter, we retired to our camp chairs and talked excitedly into the wee hours of how they were “right there, they must have been no more than 8 feet from us!”

As the weeks passed by, the many warning signs around the park displaying images of black bears and declaring this as “bear country” seemed to taunt us. Every day I’d cast my eye to the woods as I drove or hiked the park, hoping today might be my day.

Then our stranger in the night returned last night. As we sat in our camp chairs, Chris on the phone to his Mom, he noticed that Devon had run off and was barking at something.

“It’s just Devon, it’s probably nothing. He probably just saw his own shadow.” I said dismissively. Devon has a tendency to try and drum up drama for the sake of it, so we usually ignore it when he raises the alarm. But last night he was persistent.

“Should we go investigate?”  Chris said hopefully.

“Sure.  I’ll grab the spotlight.”

With the spotlight fully charged, we casually walked around the barn and to the fence at the very back side of the complex.  The fence was several feet up a steep bank overgrown with weeds and poison ivy – something neither of us dare go near for fear of the weeks of ensuing pain and wild itching blisters that follow.

Chris restrained Devon while I shone the spotlight up the bank to the small clearings on the other side of the fence. Suddenly a rustling began and we knew it was our stranger in the night again. I searched the tree line frantically but alas, the evasive little bugger disappeared into the woods before we could catch sight of him.

“We’ll see him eventually, babe.”  I said, trying to cheer Chris up.

Defeated, we returned to our camp chairs once again.  We made light of the incident by laughing about how big and scary Devon thinks he is, but how he would cower and run away if that bear made it over the fence.

This morning I headed up to the laundry barn at the mountain summit to help housekeeping with laundry.  On my way up I got a message from Jessica saying that a bear had been spotted at the walk-in campsites that morning.  Lucky buggers, I thought.

After all the laundry was done it was nearing lunchtime so I loaded Junior into the truck and started back down the mountain. I was running through my mental to do list as I rounded the corner near the visitors center a large black creature suddenly leapt into the road in front of me, bounced across, and disappeared into the bushes. Ecstatic and elated I pulled over and hopped out to see if I could see him in the woods but he was already gone.

So we continued on back down the mountain when suddenly he appeared again right in front of me.  I watched as he nimbly leapt onto the thin guard rail by the overlook and looked back at me.  I pulled over and jumped out with my phone ready to snap some pictures.  He lingered for a moment, almost unaware that I was there.  

My new best bud.

I watched in complete awe of him as he bumbled along the forest floor. He lifted his nose to to take in my scent drifting through the air and curled his paw up as he investigated. Then he turned and looked right at me. His big brown eyes stared into mine and I froze for a second trying to contemplate how long it would take me to bolt back into the truck behind me. He stared for a moment then, just as quickly as he had appeared, he darted off into the woods.

I jumped back into the truck with a smile plastered on my face and a little bit of adrenaline pumping through my veins. I was positively giddy. I love these creatures and felt so incredibly lucky to be visited by one and have him follow me along my drive down the mountain. I’ve anticipated such an encounter for months now, so to finally catch a glimpse of the adorable beast at last was a truly thrilling experience. Though I’m excited at the prospect of seeing the little guy again and maybe taking some better pictures of him, I definitely won’t be hiking without my pistol and bear spray anytime soon.

#8: Motherhiker

Living in such close quarters as we are certainly forces you outdoors a lot more than when living conventionally.  I’m sure there will be times where I will dislike this aspect of our life but this week has not been one of them.

My schedule at Vogel has me working 4 days on and 4 days off.  Wednesday began the first of 5 days off because of a screw up with the schedule when we first arrived.  With beautiful weather in the forecast I wasn’t upset about this.  So Wednesday morning I awoke with the itch to explore.  

Chris rose for work early as usual. I awoke around 7:30am and rubbed the sleep from my eyes just in time to give him a goodbye kiss as he handed me my coffee (I know, he’s wonderful). I stumbled, blurry eyed, into the kitchen to see Junior already in full destroy mode and he grinned at me with that cheeky little glint in his eye that says “I’m ready for mischief today”.

“Me too, son, me too.”

So I dressed us both and pulled on my running shoes, a scarf and a hat, strapped Junior into his stroller, slapped a leash on Dev and set out to find an adventure. We decided to begin with a gentle stroll around Lake Trahlyta – about 3km of flat and gentle terrain. I brought my camera and snapped some pictures of the gorgeous morning views.

The fall colors reflected on the glassy surface of Lake Trahlyta.
The fall colors reflected on the glassy surface of Lake Trahlyta.
Fiery reds of Lake Trahlyta.
Looking South-Southwest over Lake Trahlyta towards Vogel State Park.

On our way back I stopped in at the visitor’s center to say good morning to the ranger and the other ladies that work there.  We exchanged friendly chatter and they cooed at Junior as he flirted wildly.  I picked up a map of the park trails and asked the ranger if there were any trails suitable for an off-road stroller.  She laughed.  I took this to mean no.  So we headed back to the camper to devise a plan.

Now, about 3 years ago I could have very easily slung a 25lbs child on my back and climbed a mountain for breakfast, but a rough pregnancy with a very large little boy left me struggling to regain my once athletic physique.  I sat at the camp looking at the various trails and trying to gauge the elevation gain and the roughness of the terrain.

There are several trailheads at Vogel.  The Coosa trail is a challenging 13 mile trail that scales several large peaks including Blood mountain and has a 2 mile stretch with a 1500ft elevation gain – not for the faint hearted.  I discounted that one immediately.

The Byron Herbert Nature trail is a 1 mile loop that doesn’t leave the park and features many sign posts along the way pointing out different natural sights en route. It’s aimed at young children and is suitable for all ages and abilities. Too easy. We want adventure. One cannot adventure in one mere mile.

Bear Hair Gap Trail.  That’s the one.  It’s roughly a 5 mile loop from the trailhead, not including the hike to the trailhead, and has an optional short additional loop to Vogel overlook at the top of the mountain for views over the park.  I looked at the time and knew that if we were to return before dark then we would have to set off immediately after Junior’s nap.  

About 2pm we were ready to head out.  I checked the weather again to make sure we were all clear and saw that we had about 3 hours until the sun disappeared over the ridges and darkness would move in fast after that.  I hesitated a moment and asked myself “am I really ready to do a 5+ mile hike up a mountain with this kid on my back?”  I didn’t hang around for the answer and, against my better judgement, decided to just go for it.

The sun coming through the leaves at the trailhead.
The sun hovers above the peak of Blood mountain and peeks through the trees.
Junior playing peekaboo with the camera as we set off.

With Junior in his backpack carrier on my back, a couple snacks, a map, and my phone I set out.  About a mile in I realized that I had neglected to bring any water.  This is not a smart decision when hiking in the wilderness.  A map is helpful but sometimes can lead you astray.  I considered turning back but knew that the trail crossed several clearwater creeks in the area and that I wouldn’t be in danger of dehydration so decided to push on.  Then Junior decided to chime in.

“Doggy.”

“What?!”

I lifted my eyes from the trail expecting that maybe we were encountering other hikers on the trail with a dog.  There was no one.

“Doggy.”

I span around.  No one behind us.

“Doggy.”

I cast my eyes to the woods, frantically searching through the trees.  My heart began to race as the name of the trail surged through my head: Bear Hair Gap.  You see, Junior has just begun to talk and his vocabulary is limited to a handful of words, his favorite being “doggy”.  We took him to the zoo on a recent trip to Memphis, TN and he exclaimed “doggy” at most of the exhibits there.  But he has also been known to just say the word sometimes, as though he had forgotten that he could and was proudly reminding everyone that he can speak.  Thus, I could not determine if he was seeing a dog in the forest, jabbering mindlessly or, as I feared, seeing a bear that I could not see and calling it “doggy”.

“Where, son, where is the doggy?”

“Doggy”

I span around again.  I stopped and listened for movement amongst the dry leaves that covered the forest floor.  The blood was pounding in my ears and I struggled to calm my breath after the mile of steep incline we had battled.  I suddenly became abundantly aware of the fact that I had decided to leave the pistol at home, had no bear spray, and was utterly defenseless against any attacking creature larger than a squirrel.  I wasn’t even sure about a squirrel in my current physical condition.

“Doggy.”

I span around again.  I put my arms behind my head to feel that Junior was looking to my left.  I span around to my left and searched the woods hard, knowing that bears can be incredibly stealthy creatures.  Nothing.

“Doggy.”

“WHERE, SON??  TELL MAMA WHERE THE DOGGY IS??”

Giggling.  

I sighed deeply and swallowed hard.  I couldn’t see any dog, nor bear.  I had no way of getting any sense out of the kid, so I decided that I should continue along – but as loudly as possible.  One thing I did know to protect me against black bears in the absence of weapons is to be as loud as possible.  Bears don’t like humans; we are not part of their natural diet and they have no interest in combat with us.  The biggest chance of being attacked by a bear is to startle one by coming upon them suddenly.  So being loud, it seemed, was the best defense to any bear attack.

The rest of the already challenging trail became further challenging by the need for me to sing various annoying nursery rhymes much to the amusement of my 1 year old.  I am convinced that he masterminded this whole thing just to get me to sing to him all afternoon.

After about an hour of pushing hard up winding mountain trails crossing creeks and a final 1/2 mile of approximately 10% grade, we made it to the top.  At Vogel overlook there is a small break between the trees – about 10 feet wide – with glorious views over Vogel and the surrounding mountainous area.  In the middle of the sprawling mountain peaks was a vibrant blue splurge which was Lake Trahlyta; the lake we had hiked around that morning.  

The view over Lake Trahlyta from Vogel Overlook. The picture DOES NOT do it justice and my limited camera equipment doesn’t capture the sweeping mountainscape behind the lake.

“Wow, look, Monkey!”  I breathlessly managed to squeeze out.  He was, for the first time in over an hour, completely silent as he stared hard at the view.  It occurred to me that, in his short 15 months on earth, he had never seen a view of our world like this where everything looks so small yet so vast at the same time.  It’s the kind of view that instantly reminds you of how small and insignificant you are on this earth.  

I tried to take a picture of us with the view behind us.  I held my camera out to one side and tried to get Junior to turn around and look at the camera but his little eyes were locked on the view ahead of him.  I didn’t mind, it meant that my son indeed carries the same sense of awe and wonder at this beautiful planet we live on, and that he does in fact have the capacity to be still and introspective sometimes.

I finished snapping my pictures and checked the time.  3:15pm.  It’s getting late, I thought, better press on.  At least this is the easy part.

So down we went.  The trail wound around the other side of the mountain and I gave in to the decline, trotting over tree roots and rocks.  Junior laughed hysterically as he bounced around behind me.  I giggled with him for a while.  Until, that is, I felt a wet gush on my back and my arm.  I reached down and wiped my arm to find that the kid, from all the bouncing of the steep decline, had thrown up on my back.  Great.  At least he was still laughing.

Then the trail got steeper, slimmer, and rockier.  Tree roots jutted out from every inch of the trail and dried leaves and pine needles made it slippery and tough to get good traction.  Roots and rocks created big steps downwards.  As the trail wound around the mountain and got even steeper the hillside began to become a cliff to onside with sheer rock face to the other.  I paused a moment and considered my options.

If the trail conditions diminished any further I wouldn’t be able to continue – not with a wriggly 1 year old on my back and old running shoes on.  But to turn back now meant climbing another mile back up the mountain to come down the 3 miles on the other side.  I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it before dark and the realization set in that I had gravely underestimated this trail.  I kicked myself for not properly preparing myself like I knew to do.

I had to push on.  No time to sit and deliberate now, I’d just have to be careful.  

The trail got steeper yet and wound around giant boulders jutting out from the mountainside.  These created steep drops in the trail that required me to crouch and jump down – not an easy task with Junior on my back.

Then I slipped.  I lost my footing and, because I was in running shoes and not proper hiking boots, my ankle rolled to the side and I collapsed – luckily forwards – and caught my knee and shin on a rock on my way down.  I lay there for a minute cussing and groaning in pain, holding my ankle and trying to calm my breathing.  Junior fell silent and I realized that he likely knew from the fall and then my tone that something was wrong.  So I began talking to him as calmly as I could – the last thing I needed right now was for him to lose it.

“It’s ok, baby, Mama just fell over because she’s silly.  You’re fine though aren’t you?”

I tickled his leg and he giggled a little.  Ok, phew, he’s fine.

I was not, however.  My skinned knee was stinging but was not an issue – I had powered through much worse in the past and knew that was fine.  But my ankle was throbbing.  I wiggled it to find it was sore, but not broken.  3.30pm.  I have to keep going.

So I pulled myself to my feet and, once again, soldiered on on the winding mountain path.  My ankle was sore and weak so I had to tread slowly and carefully for fear that I was hovering on the edge of disaster.

The steep drops eventually became gentler and at 4:40pm we finally made it back to the park – just 15 minutes before the sun disappeared behind the ridges of the mountain.  I text Chris to let him know that we were safe and to let him know that I had injured my ankle but that we were both ok and there was nothing to worry about.  I got the expected response: “You dumbass.  Glad you’re ok.”

I learned that day that one should never be so conceited as to not go prepared on unknown trails, even if they look easy.  I also learned that I am capable of much more than I thought I was with my jiggly postpartum body.  It is, perhaps, even because of motherhood that I was able to finish the trail.  It was a close call and certainly satisfied my appetite for adventure for a few days, at least until my ankle heals.

Calamities aside, it felt wonderful to get out and do things that I used to do often and really enjoy.  Before becoming a mother I was many things: a hiker, a primitive camper, a fisherman, a wood worker, a lawyer, a boxer, a runner, a cyclist… the list goes on.  I had many identities.  But almost immediately upon becoming pregnant I had abandoned most of those and assumed the role of mother.  For a while it was the only identity I had and this caused some emotional turmoil and something of an identity crisis which my dear husband spent many long teary nights counseling and encouraging me through.

Climbing that mountain with my son on my back, as reckless and dangerous as it was, helped me to realize that I can actually reclaim some of those identities without sacrificing my favorite one; being a mother.  Becoming a mother surely does mean that you have to shed some of your identities; it’s inevitable.  But with practice and time I have begun to figure out which of those identities was most important to me, and were a fundamental part of myself, rather than just something I do.  Now I have the confidence to embrace those parts of myself without neglecting my most important identity.  I actually found that including Junior made it considerably more enjoyable than I remember hiking to be.  I may not be signing up for the Appalachian trail anytime soon, but I will be taking a lot more regular hikes.  With the proper gear and supplies, of course.