Appalachian Love Letter

A Wilderness Valentine
By Eddie Nickens

Once they were his adventures, and she went along. Now she has a backpacking ethic all her own, and he likes it that way.

She carries most of the food: both sleeping pads, a quart and a half of water, the plastic ground-cloth, her clothing and foul-weather gear, river sandals and above all, her precious thick fleece socks, which would displace food if it ever came to that. I carry the rest: pots, stove, tent water filter, the remaining food and my own personal gear. Mine is a prodigious load, but we've found this to be the most equitable division of weight. Even so, I never fail to be impressed. I outweigh Julie by 70 pounds.

If you look at the percentages, I should carry 17 pounds for every 10 of hers. I should do two-thirds more pot scrubbing, pack stuffing, wood hauling, tent setting and general camp-making than she does. I don't. If you look at the percentages, my wife is tougher than I am.

This occurs to me again as I take a breather on an uphill switchback of the Big Ease Fork Trail in North Carolina's Shining Rock Wilderness. It's a tough grind; we're 4,000 feet above sea level, with another 1,900 to go. She churns her way around the bend behind me, and I lean my own pack against a convenient tree and wait for her to catch up. Her purple socks are coated with fresh mud, and there is a thin streak of blood across her chin. She takes the last few steps with a grimace and tops the rise.

I know what will happen next; I have seen it on a dozen Appalachian peaks, in the Rockies, in the Caribbean, in the North Cascades. She'll cross her hands on top of the carved wooden knob of her aluminum hiking staff—her beloved "stick"—and rest her chin atop them. She'll breathe deeply, once, twice, dark bangs falling across a damp forehead. Then she'll break into a huge grin.

She'll never know how this quickens my heart.

Julie and I have camped and backpacked from coast to coast, and over those years and miles, I have learned this: Camping with the woman you love is neither better nor worse than camping with the boys; it is just . . . different. It is different in the way that the view from Mount Rogers is different from the view from Mount Sterling, or in the way the wind howls differently at Dolly Sods than it does at Table Rock.

It is different because Julie's motives are different from mine. When I ask her why she loves to backpack, I hear subtle but telling distinctions from my own reasons. I hike to prove to myself that there is wilderness left, and that I have what it takes to experience it. Rarely do I relate my outdoor experiences to the world on the paved side of the trailhead. But Julie does. For her, climbing a steep ridge and coaxing flames from damp wood are often metaphors for everyday challenges. "If I can do this," she'll tell herself, "I can do anything." In different ways, we're out to prove different things. And I've come to love those differences.

We started this trip at an elevation of 3,300 feet, where the Middle Prong of the Pigeon River butts into Bobs Ridge and takes a sudden but short-lived turn to the east. Our trail hugs the riverbank for three miles, climbs high over ridges where the river snakes through narrow gorges, and descends to the riverbank again. Emma Pearl, our yellow Labrador retriever, runs wildly for the first few hours and then falls into line just inches behind me, wet muzzle bumping into my bare calf every few seconds.

We make our first camp at Greasy Cove Prong, dropping our packs under a grove of young hemlocks and changing out of sweat-soaked clothes. Silently, we turn to our tasks. We pitch the tent together; then she pulls out sleeping bags and pads to make our bed, as I light the stove, balance a pot of water over the flame and begin to cook dinner. With the stew simmering, I meet her by the river, and we rest against a large rock and watch the stars come out, twinkling beyond the bare branches of the river birches. She leans her head on my shoulder.

In the morning we climb again, scrambling over steep pitches to oak glades carpeted with fern. False summits tease us mercilessly; at the top of each seemingly final rise is a hidden ridge leading ever higher. When we top out at Shining Rock Ledge, we stretch our legs in long, cruising strides to work the stiffness out of joints and muscles.

With a few years of outdoor travel under her belt, Julie has begun to develop her own biases about what is right and proper in the out-of-doors. It is a maturing perspective, a personal outdoor aesthetic all her own. She will tolerate neighbors within earshot but not within view. She prefers ridge-top campsites to the river's edge. She will sleep soundly in black bear country but fitfully wherever grizzlies are known to wander.

About Ursus horrihilis she can do little but fret, but to ensure the other parameters she is willing to put several thousand feet of elevation under her bootsoles.

This is brought to focus when we complete the final pull to Shining Rock Gap, only to be greeted by a mob scene. You don't camp in this popular spot expecting solitude, but neither do you expect a gang of 30 fraternity brothers singing pledge songs and otherwise raising hell.

We can imagine the cacophony that will break out after nightfall, so we turn uphill once more to find a camp as far away as the waning daylight will allow. We climb a near knob, bushwhacking through the underbrush, until we find a thick tangle of rhododendron whose understory will barely permit the tent. It's a homey spot, but, more importantly, we're a quarter mile from the rowdy crowd in the gap.

The rain comes just as dinner is ready; we huddle in the tent to eat and then read. Until we started camping together, I'd not read a single page on a backpacking trip in my life, but now we shimmy into the sleeping bags soon after nightfall, balance flashlights on makeshift pillows of spare clothing stuffed into sleeping bag sacks, and read for an hour or so. I fall asleep with my flashlight on, and waken to a dimming beam and the drumming of raindrops on the tent fly.

In the morning we break a silent camp, our moves muffled by the wet vegetation underfoot. Having listened to a distant chorus of fraternity songs during the night, we choose the toughest route back to the car, the Old Butt Trail, with a brutal rate of descent that all but guarantees solitude. It is a difficult hike, with near-vertical drops over rock faces and boulders, and we pass not a single soul. Near the end of the trail, where the flicker of passing cars can be seen through the trees, Julie swings around to gaze back toward the mountain we've just descended, now towering overhead. She looks at me with a smile and says, "Wow. "

It is a simple, elegant expression of respect for the land and her growing desire to experience it. And it points to another difference between us. Unlike me, Julie doesn't clamor for the highest peaks or the deepest woods; there are treasures enough in a mid-sized mountain. She is, in other words, more appreciative of the small wonders. I see this not just in the way she quietly absorbs a view, chin resting on her walking staff, but even in the way she holds a cup of hot chocolate in both hands, thumbs crossed, palms pressed gratefully against the warm mug.

And I realize once again that, while camping with the woman you love isn't necessarily better than camping with the boys, sometimes it most definitely is.

North Carolina-based Eddie Nickens writes for Audubon, Backpacker and Wildlife Conservation.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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