I spend a pretty good amount of time on a soap box about actual danger. I think I get this tendency from two major platforms of my life; my love for walking alone and my love of predators. There’s so much fear in our culture, and I find the marketing of it to be rather askew. Statistically you are more likely to get crushed by a vending machine than killed by a grizzly bear. Yet, more often than not, people who don’t live in grizzly country are insisting that they know the dangers that I’m up against. And it’s best to take that as protective and caring concern, rather than misinformation. It bothers me how much the media loves a sexy story. It feels unrealistic when people mark me in their minds as some kind of badass for the experiences I’ve had hiking. It feels a bit hurtful when they accuse me of being less than smart for walking alone. I know what’s out there, from being out there.
The things that are actually dangerous are so much less glamourous. Like slipping on these rocks. I came around the corner to a woman sitting on a rock pile with blood dripping between her eyes. She was smiling and another hiker was tending to her, but still, a reminder that the edge is closer than you think. It’s kind of her to take one for the team and share that message with us. I sat with her and cleaned up some of her wounds, checked her for a head injury, laughed with her about our crazy lifestyle and after her wife came to get her (which is the best news possible in that scenario), I walked on, thinking about danger.
It would be wise to take my time on these rocks.
Then I came across one of the two critters on the Appalachian Trail that can actually end you. On a hot day near Palmerton, I reached a beauty of a water source and took off my pack beside it. This is gold, and I know it, having a piped spring coming right out of the mountain side in Pennsylvania. These ridges don’t run with brooks and streams and moss-covered rocks, as many AT ridges do. These are low, dry, rocky places. Meanwhile, there are warm rocks in the sun below me, and there’s shade here next to the water source. All of that adds up to an ideal place to stay a while. I began to unpack my overnight stuff, soaked from the night before, and spread it out on the rocks below me.
“Yard sale” I sang, to humor myself as I lined up my sleeping bag, silk liner, and tent along the slope. Then I took a seat next to the spring. I got out my book and looked ahead at the statistics of my day. It could be 18 miles until the next water source, if I didn’t want to go off trail a good amount. The next stretch was a super fund site, and came with a warning. Those were not the streams or berries one would do well not to consume, not high on my list of fun facts.
“Time to flip.” I said, as I pushed myself up toward my gear. I picked up my tent and gave it a bit of a shake, making a familiar rustling noise with it’s cuben fiber floor, and then a shot of adrenaline slithered through my spinal cord. A copper head snake crawled carefully around my sleeping bag liner. It was beautiful, I have to admit, her gold and tan patches spiraling around the royal blue cloth. She didn’t look at all aggressive, but it was unnerving. I shuttered, and made moves to get the hell out of there. Meanwhile, the entire next climb made me jumpy. I was walking up a pile of rocks in the sun and wanted to see every cranny before putting my foot down.
The other critter that counts the most out here is the black legged tick. The Lyme carrier. That doesn’t get news coverage like bear attacks or trail murders, but each year 30,000 Americans contract Lyme Disease. I was diagnosed with it in 2011, after this hike. It is a real and present danger.
Then, perhaps, the most dangerous thing of all is the basket-full-of-crazy inside our heads. Things like time goals, attachment, and vanity. I don’t have any photos of the snake I saw the other day, because I don’t think like that. Just yesterday I was standing on the highest mountain around in a thunderstorm, and all I knew was that I needed to get down. The hiker behind me thought making a video was more of a priority. I disagree. The idea of showing off the danger we come close to, is a tremendous threat to our safety. Being attached to being somewhere at the time you thought you would is one of the leading causes of search and rescue parties. Adaptability is so much of wilderness survival. A gift to spend time with in such obvious examples, like many things in the woods. The metaphors for life are poignant. We do our best when we work with what’s there, rather than forcing what we want or have become attached to.
Danger looks so different than the things we worry about. A stranger can be easily made into a villain by a ridiculous movie scene in your head, while a person you’ve been trusting with your most vulnerable pieces, can turn out to be a wrecking ball. Your heart can say a quick prayer that mountain lions don’t eat you, while a mosquito is giving you malaria.
I give myself a shakedown for attachment, and try to shed some of it like extra weight in my pack. I check myself for stories like I check for ticks. There are some, every now and then. I’m sure I miss some, too. This is how I have come to rely on myself in the woods. Trust your gut and check in often. That’s the best I know how to do.