Alone in the Wilderness

It’s 21:00 Wednesday night and I’ve just pulled my Toyota into the dirt drive of the trailhead to Big Beechy trail off of WV150 Scenic Highway.  I turn off my car, and then the lights.  Everything goes dark around me.  I panic for a moment, a long moment and a million thoughts go through my brain:  What am I doing? Why am I so stubborn and why am I at this trailhead at night and most importantly- WHY AM I ALONE?!  Why did I think this was a good idea?!  What if someone saw me pull into this drive and they know I’m alone and they are going to wait until I get out of the car to attack me? WHY AM I ALONE?!  No phone service. Ahhh, I totally have to pee and now I’m too freaked out and don’t want to get out of the car.  CALM DOWN! Turn on your dome light, no wait, don’t- then people can see in and you can’t see out.  WHAT PEOPLE?!  Ok, turn on your headlights… but wait, that’s when it happens in movies: you turn on your lights and BAM there is someone right in front of you!  Just do it, Vanessa.  Ok… no one is around.  Calm down and get out of the car.  How do you plan to go into the forest alone if you can’t even get out of your car at night. OK! OK!”

I eventually got out of my car, headlamp on and knife in hand to pee right outside my car.  Don’t worry, I didn’t start hiking right away.  I decided to sleep in my car and wake up at sunrise to start my adventure.  It was a long drive and I figured it best to just be there at night and ready to go in the morning.  After folding up my back seat giving me enough room to lay down in the back of my car (Toyota Rav4) I got out the map printouts, copies I had made from a trail guide and my hiking GPS.  Something I’ve always done before wandering off into the forest:  take a GPS point of the vehicle.  I reread through the trail info I’d copied from a pretty awesome book I recommend checking out if you are going to hike the Cranberry Wilderness: Monongahela National Forest Hiking Guide.  Looking at maps and reading trail guides calms me.  An outline of the hike, followed by a bit of details and photos:

Sept. 13

  1. Big Beechy Trail:  2.0 miles
  2. District Line Trail:  2.8 miles
  3. County Line Trail:  4.0 miles

Sept. 14

  1. County Line Trail:  3.0 miles
  2. Middle Fork Trail:  2.5 miles
  3. Big Beechy Trail:  3.0 miles

Sept. 15

  1. Big Beechy Trail:  3.5 miles

Total:  20.8 miles  (I’m going to call it at least 21 because I wandered and check out some things off trail.)

So you all know, I did tell my housemate exactly which trails I would be hiking and when to expect me back home.  I also bypassed my stubborness and turned on my phone briefly while camping (knowing that on most ridge tops you can get a bit of cell service) to text her where I was sleeping and which trails I’d be hiking the next day.  It took a solid 15 minutes of debating with myself before I turned on my phone- the deal breaker was thinking that if something did happen and I was too stubborn to turn on my phone for a minute to let someone know where I was…. well things wouldn’t really work out in my best interest.

When a guide book tells you that a trail is “strenuous” and is poorly maintained, believe them.  I’ve hiked miles and miles of backcountry OFF trail and a majority of District Line and the entire mid-section of the 7 miles of County Line I hiked were very similar to off trail hiking.  District Line is hardly used and I spent a lot of moments questioning if I was still on the trail or which way I was supposed to go.  If you aren’t familiar, wilderness regions rarely have blazes (painted spots on the trail) and the only signs you’ll come across are at trailheads and intersections.  Sometimes you’ll find helpful cairns along the way. If maintained, some trees are cleared or notches are cut out.  On District and County Line trails be ready to hike through saplings chest high on the trail and tangles of hemlock and rhododendron across the trail.  You’ll also be climbing over or crawling under LOTS of downed trees.  It’s fun and provides for a total body workout- the pack on your back is like an added bonus!  I just don’t recommend it at all if you are wanting relatively clear trails and continuous reassurance that you are on the right path.  Usually I’d come across a decaying tree with moss growing over it but I could still clearly see where years ago it was once sawed in half to clear the path.  Someone not too long ago flagged the County Line Trail as well, which I hate to admit I was really happy for because it would have taken twice as long to hike through.

Water supply – Most of the small creeks on County Line were dry, which was making me nervous as my water was running low.  I told myself I couldn’t stop hiking for the day until I found a water source.  I needed to make my vegan mac and “cheese” for dinner!  Water was found, (one creek wasn’t just pure mud) and filtered.  Shortly after my tent was set up and water was boiling for dinner.

Hiking alone and being clumsy isn’t really the best combination.  I decided to, for the first time ever, hike with a stick to help my balance.  I’m pretty sure it saved my life more than a dozen times.  I only actually fell once- scuffed up my knees and jammed my thumb but that was it thankfully.  By the end of the day my back ached and I had a few blisters on each foot.  It didn’t matter that I had hiked plenty in these boots.  I’ll admit, I was lazy this year with hiking.  Those are things I should fear, falling and breaking my leg while alone- and I do fear that as I fear getting stung by a bald faced hornet and dying from an allergic reaction.  But I fear humans more. Maybe most people fear things in nature like rattle snakes and bears.  But the entire time, my biggest fear was some sketchy person attacking me.  Actually that’s my fear all of the time.  I wish that, in the very least, while in the wilderness I could escape that fear.  If I’m with one other person that fear mostly diminishes. Not just because now obviously I’m not longer alone, but in part because I’m there calming their fears (while distracting my own) of all of the new noises around them:  coyotes calling, acorns falling, beetles scurrying and any unfamiliar forest sounds.  It should be noted, however, that I truly value and do not take my solitude in the wilderness for granted.

The next day I awoke with aching knees and hips but after that first half mile my pace quickened as the pain faded, allowing me to finally see the end of County Line which would be met with a flat and “moderate” [EXTREMELY EASY] hike on Middle Fork.   Middle Fork trail is the one that everyone recommends, including Backpacker.  It’s flat, there’s plenty of water and places to camp and it’s scenic.  My 2.5 miles went by before I knew it, which only meant I’d be hiking uphill for the rest of the day.  As I hiked up the side of the ridge on Big Beechy trail, working my way to the top, I could see the ridge I had spent my morning hiking off of.  It reminded me of my work in Tennessee tracking bats- we’d hike to the top of the ridge only to find out that our bat was on the other ridge.

About 3 miles into Big Beechy off of the Middle Fork trail you will find an area to camp, pretty much everything else before and after is rocky and on the side of a ridge.  If you plan to camp, this is the spot.  The second day felt like a breeze after hiking District and County Line trails.  My plan to save the easier trails for the second day was much appreciated.  I also hiked further on the first two days so my third morning would be short.

This morning, I woke up at sunrise, packed everything up and finished the last 3.5 miles in just over two hours.  For 21 miles and 2.5 days I didn’t see a single person.  I hiked through lush mossy beds under hemlock forests sprinkled with spruce, through saplings of beech trees- their odd sounding leaves crinkling loudly against me, between tunnels of rhododendron, stumbled on boulders with my awkward balance, tripped over twisted tree roots, hopped over muddy creeks, crawled under fallen hemlocks and over downed beech trees, fell asleep to the drumming of a ruffed groused at sunset and awoke to the chatter of juncos at sunrise, each new day brining about more colors of autumn… but not once did I pass by another human on the trails of Cranberry Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.

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