When was the last time I'd backpacked alone? And I mean really and truly alone - no Ryder pup, not even other hikers nearby. I had ventured into Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock wilderness to get away from people and to test my skills in a wilderness area. The designated wilderness area was a new challenge to me beyond the well-maintained trails of national forests or the Appalachian Trail. Wilderness areas mean minimal impact: no tools, no trail blazes, no campsites with fire rings, no regular maintenance to remove trees or clear brush. A wilderness is meant to be pristine, and I was there to explore this new (to me) but ancient environment.
Joyce Kilmer is a special wilderness in that it's one of the last and largest stands of old growth forest east of the Mississippi. The hardwoods are behemoths with tulip poplars and oaks reaching six feet in diameter. It's an unforgiving wilderness, unused to human hands and feet, and that wilderness was part of the appeal of the Unicoi mountains, but it was still unnerving to stand in the middle of virgin forest and realize I hadn't seen anyone at all since I'd left the trailhead.
I was out there in the wilderness and I felt completely alone.
That night I had to stealth camp. I didn't want to sleep in sight of the parking lot, and so I had initially set out that afternoon full of optimism, expecting to find some place to stop along the trail before the last summer light faded, but I didn't. The wilderness trail was unyielding - no clearings, no campsites, no welcoming wild home. It was all thick brush and I knew this was the reason people strongly recommend long pants for wilderness trails, but you just don't believe it until you get a briar thorn lodged in your shin. Stubborn me, although I think I still prefer the feeling of nature on my legs than those godawful sweat columns people call hiking pants.
And so there I was, swinging in a hammock between the trees where the undergrowth was just a smidgen less dense, utterly exposed to the wilderness and hoping the bears didn't get me.
Curled up with my journal and acutely aware of every noise in the forest around me I realized I was never this worried before about venturing into the wilderness. I wasn't sure if it was because everyone else's fears of the wilderness were seeping into me, or if it was because my general anxiety about the world was increasing, or if it was just that I was venturing into wilder and more remote places and, honestly, that's scary. It's one thing to backpack the Appalachian Trail - it's blazed and built up and you'll always run into other people and it's hard to get lost (not saying you can't do all those things, just that it's lower risk) and for god's sake there are shelters, but starting to venture out into a wilderness where you're lucky to see another soul and you have to constantly search for the trail and you hope to god you're reading the map correctly? Okay, that's now scary.
But I had to take this leap of faith. I had to prove to myself that I could be alone in the woods and that it would be alright.
From my hammock I could see a smattering of stars through the maple leaf canopy, and in the morning the sun rose bright and golden through the virgin forest, and for the first time I appreciated the size of the trees as their long shadows engulfed my little hammock where I was cocooned. Once or twice during the night when a mosquito screamed by my ear or my hammock swayed abruptly with the smallest movement I thought I had to be fodder for some great spider - a Shelob or Aragog that still roamed this untouched wilderness - and that spider would come and finish wrapping me up in my hammock and tie me off with silk and that would be that: some hapless hiker would find my desiccated body a week later and I would just be another one of those precautionary horror stories of women going into the wild on their own.
But no giant arachnid came to finish me off. No bear plundered my pack or pulled me off as a trophy. I hadn't seen a single soul since the parking lot, and I rose in the morning to the thought:
It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?