A Walk in the Woods
I went for an afternoon hike in Pocahontas State Park a couple weekends ago, and I have to say that the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation employee had a lot of good tips for me as he drove me back to my car at 9 p.m. that night.
I guess first I should set some context for this story. Recently I have been mowing our grass while wearing a 30-pound back pack.
I guess first I should set some context for that context.
This fall, some friends and I plan to go on a relatively challenging hike. I’m not going to say exactly where we are going, because it feels like I’m jinxing it somehow, but it rhymes with Cand Granyon.
Given my current state of physical fitness, I have embarked on a training program to get ready for the big trip. Actually, what spurred the training was one of the guys (a real outdoorsman) telling me I’d better start training because he’s not going to carry my fat ass the whole way.
OK, he didn’t use all of those words, but the meaning was clear.
So I’ve been training, taking long hikes with my new (and increasingly smelly) back pack, gradually increasing the weight I’m carrying to prepare for the 40 pounds of gear we’ll need to carry for four days in the fall.
Since it’s not always easy to find time to take long hikes, I have been trying to combine activities when I can. So, for my neighbors who have been wondering, that is why I’ve been cutting my grass while wearing a giant back pack lately. And no, the back pack does not contain beer, or supplies to run away from home, or a defibrillator, although that’s a good idea. I’m using bottled water to weigh down the pack.
And the reason sometimes I am cutting the grass at night (still wearing a back pack) is because occasionally I go to happy hour immediately after work and what’s with the interrogation already??? That’s why God invented headlamps!
OK, so I went for an afternoon hike at Pocahontas State Park. I planned to follow a trail that would circle me out through the woods and then back to my car six miles and couple hours later.
I headed up the trail with 28 pounds of bottled water in my pack. The squeaking of the bottles against each other as I walked made me sound like the Tin Man coming home after a water bender. After a couple of miles of an uphill climb, I rounded a corner and noticed clouds piling up above the trees.
Pulling out my smart phone, I checked the radar and saw a little green on the screen a few miles west, headed my way. A sprinkle of rain. No big deal. I’m training for a rugged wilderness hike, so I should be able to handle a little rain.
Two minutes later I looked at the radar again: the little bit of light green has grown into a yellow dot surrounded by darker green, and it was still moving my way.
A minute later I looked again. The storm (it was definitely a storm now) was a blooming rose of scarlet surrounding a purple center, nicely offset by brilliant yellows and deep green. It would have been beautiful if I were at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden instead of three miles from my car in the woods.
I Googled what to do if you’re caught out hiking in a thunderstorm. The first three hiking-enthusiast sites LITERALLY said hikers caught in a thunderstorm should return to their cars. Where do these people hike? Mall parking lots?
One site gave me useful info: go to lower ground, find a stand of small trees away from tall trees, and crouch down while balancing on the balls of my feet to minimize contact with the ground (since lightning travels up from the ground and down from the cloud simultaneously).
Looking at the path of the storm, I figured I would probably start hearing thunder in BAM-BOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM!!!!!!!
I turned around and began walking as fast as I could toward the car.
FLASH BOOOOOOOOMMMMMMM and the rain started, a light drizzle for a moment, and then a downpour. I reached a fork in the trail and looked at the paper map, which was seriously wilting in the rain. Seeing I was a couple miles from the car, I decided to take the trail heading toward the lower ground closer to the lake, where I hoped to find shelter or at least a little more distance between me and Zeus.
FLASH! BOOOOMMMM!!!! FLASH! FLASH! FLASH! BOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!!!!!
So now I’m running down the trail toward the lake. The twenty-eight pounds of water bottles bouncing on my back were squeaking like a colony of mice in a spinning bingo cage, and my knees were sending urgent messages to my brain about the difference between hiking and running. I texted my outdoorsy friend to ask if the water would make me a target for lightning. “Only if it slows you from getting off high ground,” he replied.
When I finally reached the lake, the rain was coming down so hard I might have been drier in the lake.
I scrambled through the undergrowth just off the trail to a low stand of trees. I removed my pack, and crouched down, balancing on the balls of my feet.
Seven seconds later I have to give up balancing on the balls of my feet. Seriously – how long are the thunderstorms where these people hike? So I got into sort of a loser’s crouch, sheltering my iPhone under my torso.
After what seemed like forever, but probably was only 48 hours, the storm passed.
I reached in my pocket for my map to see how to get back to the car, and pulled out a tan ball of mushy pulp.
No problem; I’ll check my phone, I thought. I pulled up the Pocahontas State Park web site and the image of the trail map flashed briefly before the phone battery died.
No problem: there was a road that ran around that side of the park. I’d just follow that. So I started squeaking along the road, still carrying my 28 pounds of bottled water and probably another 5 pounds of rainwater in my clothes.
As I walked, it dawned on me that the bike trails probably would get me to the parking lot quicker. And they would have, if I were riding a bike. But since I was walking, all the bike trails did was lead me on a muddy, serpentine walk in the woods. I didn’t have a compass with me (apart from the excellent compass on my dead smart phone), but I learned that when the sun circles you several times, it’s not a good sign.
I also learned not to hike in shorts, because I picked up chiggers, a nasty little bug that burrows into your skin and itches like hell later. As a side note, why do we still use that name for these bugs?? I guarantee you if they were called “Chourmotherisadirtyslut” we would have changed the name of the bug years ago.
I spotted the main road through the woods and, with the sun nearing the horizon, I decided to give up on my short cuts. Reaching the road, I turned in the direction (I thought) of the park’s main entrance.
After a half mile or so, a school bus full of singing kids passed me going the other direction. “They couldn’t be going into the park as the sun is going down,” I reasoned. So I turned around and followed the school bus.
The school bus was going into the park. I figured that out 20 minutes later when it passed me going back in my original direction. I turned around again.
At least now I knew I was headed in the right direction, which was good, because it was dark. So I walked. And walked. And walked. And watched for bears. And walked. And walked.
Finally, at 8:45 p.m., I stumbled into the gift shop at the entrance to the park, startling the park employee who was closing down the store. He told me I had another mile and half to get to my car. Given the fact that I’d been hiking almost four hours, covering something more than 12 miles, carrying 28 pounds of water (a good bit of it now in my stomach) and was soaking wet, the park employee kindly drove me to my car after he was done closing up. On the way we reviewed the lessons of the day:
- Bring a plastic sleeve for the map to keep it dry.
- Carry a compass.
- Carry a poncho.
- Bring extra power for the smart phone.
- Wear long pants.
- Chigger is a horrible name for bug.
- Don’t follow school busses.
On a possibly related note, after hearing my story, my wife Stacy decided we needed to update my will.