Last night I went camping solo for the first time. For my day off, I hiked about a half mile in on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in western Maryland to the same spot that Natalie and I camped a few weeks earlier. I admired the beautiful fall colors – a mosaic of green, yellow, red, and brown above my head and under my feet. The sun shined bright and the air was cool. After setting up camp, I dozed in my tent for about an hour of the afternoon.
Then I decided to make the 2-mile hike to Annapolis Rock, a mountaintop cliff overlooking the vast landscape. The hike took a bit longer than I expected, but I soon found the sign nailed into the tree assuring me that I hadn’t passed it. The moment I stepped into the clearing my heart quickened at the breathtaking view. I sat down on the cliff and soaked it all in, feeling my soul being lifted and restored from a long week. I nearly had the sunset all to myself save for a few lone hikers sharing it with me. We exchanged some words, but mostly sat in silent awe of God’s country. After about an hour, one by one the hikers departed back to their cars and campsites before dark. But I had it in mind to stay until nightfall to see the stars. A cool, persistent wind gradually built up in my face as the sun dropped behind the distant mountains, so I layered on a sweatshirt and then a hat and then a vest. Spreading clouds threatened to cover the sky, leading me to contemplate following the wisdom of the other hikers and head back to camp. But being the stubborn guy that I am, I determined to make good on my investment of time and stay and see. Soon the forest began to hum with nightlife – toads and crickets and other creatures calling to each other in the dark. As 8pm rolled around, I was disappointed to see that what parts of the sky were clear were still quite brightly lit. Confused, I looked up behind my left shoulder to see the half moon shining bright like a massive beacon. I wasn’t going to see any stars, so I conceded and began to head back, donning a headlamp.
As soon as I hit the trail, it became clear that I should have headed back to camp in daylight. As obvious and clearly marked as the AT is, I still had to be careful not to lose my way or roll my ankle in the dim light of the moon and my headlamp. Without options, though, I pressed on. While walking, I happened to glance to my right, and about 20 yards away two green eyes stared right at me out of the darkness. I stopped in my tracks and my heart jumped into my mouth. Fumbling for my flashlight in my pocket, I thought, “Oh God, please don’t be a bear!” I clicked on my flashlight and shined it right at the eyes. A deer stared back, motionless. “Thank you God!” I thought as I clicked it back off. Then I noticed eyes to my left. The flashlight revealed another deer, which ran down the hill. Adrenaline pumping, I continued forward down the trail, my head now on a swivel for eyes in the darkness. “This is awesome, but stupid,” I thought. “I should’t be walking through the woods alone in the dark.” My one consolation was that my night vision had adjusted and the woods were taking shape around me again. As I hit the most treacherous part of the trail – a steep decline with loose rocks – I realized that it was starting to rain. “Awesome. I need to get back to camp.” Being careful not to slip down the hill, I could’t wait to find the “Pine Knob Shelter” sign nailed into the tree marking my campsite. I eventually made it back into camp, thankful for God’s grace over my foolish decision and laughing at myself.
I enjoyed a good night’s sleep, and then woke up for some wonderful spring-fed fire-brewed coffee and a cigar in the morning. (When I bought the cigar outside Frederick, I mentioned that I was from out of town and everyone in the store turned and stared at me. Small towns…) Another camper came by and mentioned that she saw a dead chipmunk by the spring where I got my water… Yeah, ignorance had been bliss. I took another sip.