I recently camped alone for the first time in the Elkmont campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was a great first solo camping experience because I was alone without being alone. I wanted to camp by myself to get over the fear of camping by myself. Baby steps. First, a well populated campground. Next, backcountry. I kept thinking of this quote I read about how we tell ourselves horror stories all the time. Below is what I wrote in my journal while a rainstorm poured on my tent one night. Best sound to fall asleep to.
I just started antibiotics for a sinus infection and have been having all sorts of joint aches lately (I’m being tested for Lyme), so easy miles are on the roster for this weekend. On the drive here I was so nauseous from the meds I had to pull over at a rest stop and dry heave for a minute before getting back on the road. I debated whether or not to turn around and just go home, but I couldn’t give up on this trip.
Today on the trail I was a little nervous. I walked to the Little River trail from my campsite and walked all the way to Campsite 30, which is 6.8 each way, a straight shot, mostly flat with some stream crossings. This particular trail is usually crowded because it’s an easy walk that doesn’t take a lot of effort. Once I passed the Cucumber Gap junction, all the foot traffic dropped off and there was no one else out there with me. The entire way to Campsite 30 and back to that point I was alone, which is about 9 miles of alone in the woods. It’s often said that hikers are in their own heads a lot, and today felt like a long moment of getting reacquainted with myself. I was vigilant for snakes, eyeing every pile of rooting wood, pushing vegetation aside with my trekking poles, listening sharply for heavy movement in the woods that would signal a bear.
Campsite 24 was closed due to “aggressive bear activity” and there were signs everywhere saying DANGER, which was disconcerting to say the least. Of course my imagination got the best of me and I had visions of some insane bear charging out of the woods. Things were eerily still. I clapped a lot and kept on going. Beyond the site the trail narrowed. I kept on clapping.
The mist was rising off of the river as I passed, creating an ethereal atmosphere. All was painfully beautiful, deep green, lush and mossy.
The rocks I had to step over were slick with algae. I eventually came to a stream not too far from Campsite 30, stepped on a rock to cross, and slipped right in the water. My biggest concern was hurting myself this far in with no one around. Thank goodness I was able to right myself, do an injury assessment, and make it across. My shoes squelched with water as I hit the bank. They’re new shoes though and I wanted to see how well they drained when wet, so this was a great opportunity for that. Campsite 30 had no dangerous bear signs, but with the clouds darkening, I didn’t linger for long. Sure enough, a downpour started not long after I headed back.
On the way out, after I went back past all the DANGER signs and clapped a lot, I sat at the Goshen Prong trail junction and changed my socks. Gnats flew in my eyes, but dry socks felt so wonderful. About 3 miles away from getting back to Elkmont campground the skies opened up for the second time and poured. I had just about dried out from the last thunder shower and here I was soaked again. My rain jacket did a good job, but there’s only so dry one can stay in torrential rain. The only people out on the trail were fly fisherman and another lady by herself who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the experience of being outside.
On the drive here I listened to the She Explores podcast which was the perfect shot of encouragement going into this weekend of being alone (but not really alone) out here. It’s an amazing collection of stories about women in the outdoors and there was one positive message after another about how sometimes we have to do things that make us afraid, or do things that push us to be more than we thought we could be.
I feel like I am at the very beginning of a journey in learning about the outdoors, both in terms of skills and industry, and there may be nothing that comes of that learning, but right now in this season of internal restlessness, this has been rewarding in ways I never thought it would be. I didn’t think my body was up to the task of walking a half marathon a day, much less over mountains and ridgelines. I didn’t think I could overcome the fear of loneliness and be out here by myself to camp for a couple of nights without Rob. I love having him along and it’s so much fun when we can have experiences together, but I also want to be brave enough to do this on my own. My parents kept asking if I had convinced Rob to come with me yet, but I was never trying to convince him of anything. He knew I wanted to try this and needed the space to be able to do it on my terms.
I earned my 250 mile pin today thanks to a long, flat trail that rattled my nerves a bit. Last year for the NPS centennial, I walked 100 miles in the Smokies. I wasn’t thinking ahead, aiming for 250 at this point, but I caught the bug and it happened. Getting the pin meant so much to me. All those miles brought me closer to who I am today, a little braver all the time.