Monday, December 26, 2011

Into the wild

 I woke to the sound of eerie silence Christmas Eve morning. The quiet stillness in the house was almost heart wrenching. I missed the children terribly. It was our first Christmas apart. I rolled over in the bed and stared at the ceiling for about 30 minutes before I decided to "function".
As I slipped into my favorite pair of blue jeans and tossed on my hiking boots, I knew I needed to just "step away" from it all, just for the day. Years prior when I was weighed down and needed to rid myself of inner turmoil I sought refuge in the woods. The crunching of the leaves would whisper friendly sounds. The wind would carry away any doubts or fears. The mist from rushing waters refreshed the soul... I always found solace in the wilderness.
For months I had pulled up the Tennessee department of Environment and conservation website and studied various parks and conservation areas. Out of many of the places I discovered, I had my heart set on the seeing the Walls of Jericho.

The Walls are found within the 21,453 acre Bear Hollow Mountain wildlife management area. The area extends across the Cumberland Plateau between Tennessee and Alabama along the state line. I never truly understood vast wilderness, and although I know there are far more primitive places in the world... this would eventually be my first taste...
I packed dried banana and mango, a couple bottles of water, chapstick and mittens, before calling my father and informing him of my intentions. Before hanging up the phone we made plans that I would make it back on time to have Christmas Eve prime rib with him and my mother.
"I love you, daddy", I thoughtfully said as I hung up the phone. "I love you too Smooch", he said. (My dad has called me that ever since I was little)
I loaded the car and headed toward Alabama. The 21/2 hour long car ride didn't take long at all. My loud obnoxious off key singing amused me greatly as I rocked out to Kings of Leon, Mumford and Sons, Foster the People and so on.
The road twisted and turned up the plateau. I turned the radio off and rolled the windows down. I inhaled the crisp winter air. I let the atmosphere wash over me. The breeze hit my fingertips that held slightly out of the drivers side window. The views were magnificent. I was happy for the escape.

 There were several  pull offs along the way. I finally found the parking labeled "hikers". I was surprised to find three other vehicles in the parking lot.
Dust still stirred around an older dark blue Mercury Sable. A man jumped out of the car leaving the door opened and briskly walked toward the port-a-jon. His little dog jumped out of the car and wandered around the parking lot untethered. I stepped out of the car and looked around. I pulled my phone from my pocket to send my father a text message,"Im here... Alabama hiking trail.".

I slipped my phone back into my pocket and inhaled the clean air. I heard the man whistle for his dog. The car door shut. I turned to see the blue mercury exiting the parking lot.

 I stepped onto the hiking trail. The path was clearly marked  as it twisted and turned down the plateau. It was fairly easy hiking but it did cross my mind that coming back up might be a different story. I was about 45 minutes in when I came across a fellow hiker. She was a pleasant lady fitted in fairly nice hiking gear. I could tell that she wasn't an amateur as her boots were worn for wear. She was hiking with her three dogs. I stopped and chatted with her for a bit. The largest dog of the three laid down at my feet as we chatted.

 She said I was about 30 minutes from the first walk bridge. She warned me that the hand rail wasn't real stable and advised me to use it more for balance verses something to firmly grasp or lean against. She told me that once I start to see the large cliffs go back farther into the gorge or I will miss the really beautiful parts of "The Walls of Jericho". I assured her that I wouldn't miss it.

I continued on my way... There was a beautiful spring pouring water down the mountain side.
The trail fluctuated from fairly level to gradually slopping. I came to a rocky area but as I looked around there was a cane break on a gently slopping part of the hillside. I walked towards it to investigate the native shoots.

I turned around to get back on the trail but I had became confused at this point. I looked down and saw the trail ahead and walked towards it. This was possibly one of the many mistakes I had made thus far. I should have focused at that moment to figure out where exactly I came from verses where I was going but I continued on... 

I could hear people ahead of me talking. Finally a family came briskly moving up hill towards me. I am assuming  that the man and woman were actually the parents and the gentleman that was with them was their young adult son. They were also fitted in full hiking apparel. At this point it did start to cross my mind that perhaps I underestimated the hike.

I took the ebb and flow of the terrine in stride. I finally came to the first walk bridge. I must confess when I saw it I laughed out loud. I wasn't expecting what I found...
Even at this point the trails were fairly friendly. The only real obstacle at this point was my physical condition. Note to self: work out more often.

 I followed the path across a second bridge... urgh.... very similar to the first one but much more stable. After I crossed the bridge I came to a field  the sat steadily between the two mountain sides... I felt so far from civilization as I looked towards the vast mountain sides.
Shortly after passing the field the terrain started to change yet again.. The path gradually became rocky and steep. There was a briskly moving stream littered with boulders directly off to my right...

I could feel my energy waning and my ankles were really starting to ache as I wasn't use to walking on such narrow uneven terrain. I kept my determination. "I have came all this way to see something breathtaking, I will see it", I thought.
I pulled my phone from my pocket once again to check the time. It was starting to look like I would be missing Christmas Eve dinner. It was 2:00 pm. It would be dark in a few hours. Taking in consideration the time it took me to get to Alabama and I had already been hiking for roughly 21/2hours. I decided I would give myself 15 more minutes and if I hadn't reached the walls yet I would just have to come back some other time. That thought was greatly disappointing. I needed to make the most of my time so I moved forward along the narrow trails that weaved beside the cliffs.
About five minutes past this point (referencing the picture above), I realized I might just be in trouble. I recall taking a step and my vision blurred. It felt as if the ground and hillsides moved in a psychedelic manner. I knew then that my blood sugar was low. I stopped for a moment to pull a few strips of dried mango from my back pack. I stared off into the distance....
I looked at the steep mountain around me. I had a long way back to civilization. I had no choice. The walls would have to wait. I knew that they weren't going anywhere but if I wanted to ever see them again I had to get the hell out of there.

"Getting out", was a key motivator in my quick pace. I drank water as I walked rapidly back the way I came from. I started to feel very hot. The first bridge I came to I had to stop and peel off layers of clothing. I had made it just past the second bridge when I started to feel nauseated. I started wreching up mango and water a quarter of a mile later. I would walk a few feet and then heeve into a pile of leaves and walk on again.

I finally came to the first cane break that had distracted me previously at the beginning of my hike. The path was clearly marked except for this one area. It was hard to distinguish were I had originally came from because all the boulders looked a like to me. I thought I had found a slightly worn path so I took it, but what I had originally thought was a human walking path became apparent that it had been made by the local deer. As I lost sight of the marked trail below me I began to panic. I decided to walk back to the marked trail and try again to find the correct path. I climbed back down. I look right in front of me and it looked as if the path came to a dead end.

There was nothing but large boulders in front of me. I had a decision to make. I could go back down to the camp site about a mile down and stay the night. That really wasn't a reasonable option. It would be very cold in the gorge at night and I wasn't sure my fire lighting skills were up to par. I thought about  the children. They would be returning Christmas morning and I wouldn't be there. My blood sugar was rapidly dropping. I was feeling disoriented and couldn't hold down food. Who knows what kind of physical shape I would be in in the morning.

I decided to trek straight up the mountain. If I had to sleep on the hillside at night so be it. I felt like eventually I would hit civilization as 16 South runs along the top of the mountain. I also had a better chance for cell phone coverage.

The incline was much steeper than what I had encountered throughout the day. I prayed as I climbed over boulders and rocks that I didn't accidently slip my hand or foot into a snake den. I continued to vomit in route.

 I gradually lost sight of the trail that I had left behind. I started to have doubts. What If I veered too much to the right or left and I wasn't going straight up from the path at all!?! Did I make the right decision? Panic started to set in.

I pulled my phone from my pocket. I was "out of network". Fear washed over me... I could see it all coming to head, five o'clock news headliner, "Dumb ass gets lost in the wilderness Christmas Eve".  I knew I needed to have a pep talk with myself. "Leigh, chill out, calm down, think, move forward", I said out loud.

Then once my outer voice became quiet my inner voice spoke out loud. "O GOD!", I whimpered in fear just before I began to dry heeve.

I stood up and hear two beeps, signaling incoming messages from my cell phone. That was the signal of divine intervention. I now had hope! The first message was from my father, asking me if I was going to be on time. The second one was from my friend Joel asking me if I was enjoying the hike.... My answers at this point were no and NO!

I messaged my father back. I cant remember what I said but it was something along the lines of. "I'm in the woods, I'm sick and I need help". I sent Joel a message that stated "I'm lost and my blood sugar is low."  Neither message went through at the time.  I was ready to cry. I was so frustrated discouraged disappointed and LOST! I again had to regain my sanity. The bright side... I got some sort of phone service.

Again my head started to spin and nausea took hold of me. I dropped to my knees clutching the leaves as I emptied bile onto the ground. I was freezing cold and shivering as sweat dripped from my temple.

I stood up as I wiped my mouth with the back of my sleeve and pulled the long stray strands of hair back into a pony tail. I dialed 911 on my cell phone. I held the dialing phone in my hand as I hiked on hoping that eventually I would get service. Finally I gave up in fear I would drain my battery. I looked down and noticed I had one bar of service so I dialed my father. My phone cut in and out but I could hear my mom. They had received my messages. I tried to tell her where I was and the situation but the phone cut in and out. I could hear the terror in her voice as she frantically said "I cant hear you. Are you ok? Where are you?"

"Mom I am off the trail, I'm sick, I'm lost, I was on the red Alabama hiking trail, I came in to the gorge from the ALABAMA side", I yelled as if it would help her hear me through bad reception.

I hung up and walked on. I finally came to the upper level of the marked path. If I had the energy I would have dropped to my knees and kissed the trail but I knew I wouldn't be able to get back up. I looked down at my phone. It was 3:45. I walked on. My reception still was coming and going. I only felt the alleviation for a few moments. The climbing really depleted my energy and I couldn't even hold down water at this point. BUT I knew I was better off than what I was. I was back on track!

I continued to get sick along the trail and my cell phone was in and out of coverage area. But apparently I picked up a signal and I had pocket dialed my father. All he could hear in the back ground was me wreching. His panic set in. He felt helpless. He didn't know where I was or if I would be coming home at all. He wiped a dribble of tears from his eyes and called the rangers. He was getting his things together for a rescue.

My legs trembled as I put each foot in front of me walking forward. Joel had received my message and asked if he needed to call in a ranger. I messaged him back to tell him I was back on the path, sick but I thought I could make it out. Then I lost service yet again.

I finally reached the hiking trail entrance and  immediately called my father. We briefly talked and he let me go so he could call off the search party.

I was so relieved to make it out, and I learned a lesson among many but ultimately the greatest lesson learned... Never underestimate the wilderness... 

AND... Of course there is that lesson that has been burned into us all many times as children...

Try once and if you don't succeed, try try try again!

Alabama bound!