Even as I assembled my gear for the backpacking trip to Pisgah National Forest I sensed something was off. Unlike my other treks, I had little enthusiasm for the journey and threw my things together at the last minute instead of carefully planning. We arrived in the early afternoon and began the hike in search of a spot to set up camp. Most of the trail was a descent, a blessing with a fully loaded pack. We came down from a ridge, into a valley, then back up , and again down. At the bottom we reached a rushing creek and a forest of very tall trees, their first limbs 25-30 feet up in the air. The understory was entirely ferns, on a flat fertile plain. We chose a spot next to the rushing creek and sprawled across a large area, setting up tents and tarps around a river rock fire ring. Dick pitched his tent under a big blooming rhododendron. Everywhere fat white blossoms were scattered on the ground.
My campsite nickname is Fire Lady because of my years of experience heating my house with a woodstove, so I set to work putting together a fire, using Jim’s dryer lint kindling and lots of small twigs. Everything was damp but we soon managed a healthy fire anyway, mostly burning small branches. I threw together some things to eat and made my way through an uninteresting dinner. My normal enthusiasm for good camp food was missing so I had just grabbed what was in the pantry.
The creek where we got our water to purify was clear running, only a bit tannic. It was teaming with minnows… chub, Dick said. I changed to warmer clean clothes, then tripped over a combination tent rope/tree stump/ rock into a total face-plant that turned the entire front of me black with damp woods dirt.
I couldn’t seem to get comfortable, sitting by the fire, so I turned in early to lay in the dark and listen to the creek’s music. At early light we got up, ate hearty and prepared for a day’s hike. It sounded like a hike I could handle. It followed, for many miles, the creek bed. The trail started on one side of the descending, cascading creek, and then would disappear, only to show up on the other side of the creek. We would stop, take off wool socks, boots, tie the boots around our necks and walk across the slippery mossy rocks on the creek bottom to the other side. There we would dry our feet– at first I used my bandanna, and then, when it was soaked, the top part of my socks. After we’d crossed the creek three times or so, we decided to start counting stream crossings.
Four hours of hiking and ten stream crossings later a dark cloud appeared overhead, and thunder started to rattle. My backpacking brothers had gone on ahead to the destination waterfall, and when I was nearly there, called up to me to turn around and head back for camp. Within a few minutes the sky opened up and rain started to pour. We began stream crossings 11-20 first in rain, and then in hail and claps and strikes of thunder and lightning. Eight hours after we’d left camp we returned. At the end I was barefoot, having grown tired of taking off and restoring my soaking shoes and socks over and over.
I cooked the richest meal I’d brought with me, which included the luxury of a fresh avocado. But I could barely eat it. Hours before sunset I climbed into my tent, and there I stayed for twelve hours, sleeping hard and deep. The next morning Dick and Jim prepared to hike out in the opposite direction and I climbed back into my tent and slept all day. Sleeping with the lush water sounds alongside my tent was my comfort. Night came and I barely ate, just longing for more sleep still. I could feel the beginnings of a fever setting in.
In the morning we packed up our site, and I set out alone, ahead of the guys, soaked hiking boots tied to the back of my pack. My return ascent was accomplished with a fever, wearing a pair of white flipflops I’d gotten as a party favor from a wedding at the Ritz. All my clothes were wet to one degree or another, and I hadn’t seen a mirror in four days. Once back at the car I unpacked my ground cloth and laid it down on the dirt parking lot, stretched out on it and went back to feverish sleep. For the next five days I slept. I spoke in tongues in my dreams. Long soliloquies in made up-Italian or faux-French. I marveled in my dreams at my facility for inventing language that sounded believable. In one dream my long-dead father and mother picked me up in their car to take me with them. That rolled over me like a great comforting embrace.
I did indeed spend four days sleeping alongside a rushing mountain stream. I did indeed hike for miles along its banks and study the plant life and fishes. I saw my first ever “nest” of stones, assembled on the bottom of the creek bed as a nursery for the eggs of a type of chub. I got out of the tent long enough in the middle of the night to see the full moonlight illuminating those 30 foot tree trunks. It looked like the vice squad had come to arrest the forest. Those memories, though , seem dream-like and skeletal. I can post photographs that pretend to be a normal eye cast upon the landscape. But the real journey was in my feverish mind, that carried me where it wanted for days and days– unexpected destinations, the strangest of landscapes.