Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Our Crazy Survival Story at Grayson Highlands/Mt. Rogers

Into The Woods
We were somewhere in rural Virginia, following a blue Jeep Wrangler to the rustic cabin we’d rented. It was such a hard house to find, the owner had met us at the local gas station so she could lead us in.

“There’s a run away calf in the driveway,” the owner had warned us. “She’s been there for a few days, and I don’t know who she belongs to. Just be careful not to hit her,” she’d said. We’d promised not to hit the cow and set off towards the cabin in the woods. 

Rogue calf in the driveway
The roads narrowed as we drove further and further from town. Finally, we pulled into the long driveway. On one side was a tall wire fence. The other side was thick with vegetation that hit the side and roof of our car. Finally, we found the calf. The Jeep had already passed her, but she danced around in a panic before standing close to the fence. 

“If this place wasn’t a bit creepy, I’d say she’s adorable,” I said.

“Uh, huh,” my son, Josh, said. He was too busy avoiding potholes on the narrow drive while keeping our promise of not hitting the cow.

“You don’t think this is one of those remote places where they lure tourists in to rob and kill them, do you?” I asked. I was mostly joking. My story-telling brain was having just a little too much fun imagining all sorts of lurid outcomes.
“Probably not,” he said.  

We turned one last corner, and were finally at the house. It was a quaint log cabin nestled into the woods. The owner let us in and gave us a tour of the small house. After the owner had left, however, Josh picked up a book that was on the coffee table. “Hey, maybe you were right,” he said. He laughed at my expression as I read the title: Death In a Small Southern Town.

“Seriously?” I said. I grabbed the book to check out which publisher had printed it and who the author…. “Oh, crap,” I said. “You know who the author is?” I asked.


“The man who owns this house.” 

Josh burst out laughing.

“That’s just great,” I said. “We’ll be murdered in our sleep.” 

Then robbed,” Josh said.


Josh took the book from me and walked away. 

“Where are you going?”

“To hide the book,” he said as if that was going to save us.

The rest of the evening went well. I made dinner and we watched the news and when I finally climbed into bed, I realized that the owner used the same laundry detergent my grandmother had used. I feel asleep, soothed.

The next morning, I woke up happy that the night had been uneventful. No deaths in this small town. As I showered, I noticed that the bathroom smelled foul - as in, outhouse foul. Gross. But as there were no other signs of a sewage backup, I shrugged it off and and we loaded up our packs and headed out towards the state park. 

Heading out
We parked at Massie’s Gap and as I slug my pack on, I felt strong, confident and prepared for this eleven-mile hike. We had plenty of bottled water, food, and our emergency supplies. We laced our boots, put on sunscreen and headed out onto the trails of Grayson Highlands State Park. 

We chose to drive all the way to Virginia just for this park. I’d read many glowing reviews, including one from my cousin, who assured me it was one of the best parks she’d ever hiked in. Plus…. There’s wild ponies. Seriously! Wild ponies - roaming the entire park! What’s not to love? Totally worth the drive, right?

As we started out, our plan was to complete an eleven-mile loop that would take us on several trails including the Appalachian Trail. As we’d already hiked thirty mountain miles at Smoky Mountain National Park, this trail would put us just over our goal of forty miles. And, as we’d recently hiked Ramsey's Cascades Trail - an eight-mile trail that was more strenuous than this one, we felt ready for this last challenge. 
Ramsey's Cascades Trail - is four miles
uphill, and four miles back down.
(It was worth it!)

Ramsey's Cascades - tallest waterfall in
Smoky Mountain National Park

Even though we felt prepared, little did we know what awaited us around mile six.

Miles 1-3
Grayson Highlands is beautiful. The terrain is grass and rock, making it feel like you’ve wandered into a filming site for the Princess Bride.

The only difference is that there’s about a thousand rhododendron bushes scattered on the hillside. We missed the bloom by about a week, but it was still beautiful. The visas from the highlands were incredible. Row after row of low mountains rolled out beneath us for as far as we could see.  Even if we'd only hiked this area, it would have been worth it. We saw a group of wild ponies but as they were facing away from us and busy grazing, I was a bit disappointed. I hoped we’d see more further along the trail.

Miles 3-5

We crossed out of Grayson Highlands State Park and into Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, following the Appalachian Trail. We passed through many beautiful landscapes and crossed a few streams. Some had bridges, some not.

One of the more serene spots was a tranquil pond that the trail crossed via stepping stones. 

Somewhere in this stretch, we came upon a pony and her nursing filly. We spent about ten minutes watching them. The mother didn’t mind us and the baby was curious, but kept her distance. It was so cool! I decided I was definitely coming back to this park.

We took a break at a fenced-in area called scales. It used to be a spot where cattle were driven to get weighed before being sold. As it turns out, cattle are still driven up there to build muscle mass before being sold. By the time we got there, I was a bit tired, but all I needed was some food. Peanut butter on gluten-free bread isn’t exactly a match made in heaven, but the area was so beautiful, I didn’t care. I listened to several groups of school kids on a overnight field trip laugh and play as I scarfed down my lunch. A few minutes later, we were off again. 

Mile 6
Within a hundred feet of Scales, the Appalachian Trail led us into an old-growth forest. It had an almost northern rain-forest feel to it - with lots of ferns and moss. It was stunning. 


Something was wrong. My lunch wasn’t perking me up. I’d felt this kind of tired a few times on our hikes in the Smokies, and food had always helped. I opened a juice - my emergency sugar supply, and started sipping it. We kept climbing, slower and slower as I waited for the sugars to hit my bloodstream. But every minute, I felt weaker, instead of stronger. 

My son turned to me. “You don’t look good,” he said. By then, I knew. We were not going to finish this hike. I tried to hide my tears as he graciously told me it was okay to turn around and head back to Scales. My legs felt shaky and weak, and I was fighting just to stay upright and not pass out. What felt like a ten-minute hike up into the woods, felt like a half hour back down. I was still puzzled, because I eaten and was definitely not dehydrated (I learned that lesson many years ago at Yosemite and have been careful about staying hydrated ever since). Had this week been too taxing on me? Had I hiked far beyond my strength? It was hard not to cry with frustration and disappointment.

Finally, we reached Scales and Josh left to ask other hikers what the best route back was. As I waited in the shade, I heard a loud bellowing cow. At first, I thought it was one of the kids who were on a class hiking trip. But then I saw it. A long-horned bull.

“What was that?” a girl asked as the bull bellowed again. She was clearly hiking the Appalachian Trail. Her huge pack sported the AT tag just as her hat sported the M that signified the University of Minnesota. 

“It’s a bull,” I said, pointing to the hillside.

She peered upwards and sighed with relief. “It’s brown and white. Those are usually docile. If it was a black and white, I wouldn’t get anywhere near it. Those are mean,” she said. And as she opened the gate, I thought I heard her curse the word, Holstein. 

Josh came back and said the unanimous vote was for the horse trail. It was almost entirely downhill through a valley, while the other trails wound up and down across the mountainsides. Taking this route though, meant we had to walk past the bull. And then, to my dismay, his friends. I had just enough energy to pull out my phone and get two pictures - because how weird is it to see bulls on a trail that’s supposed to have wild ponies? A man with a mountain bike walked along side us for a few minutes. He gestured towards the horned cattle.
“I just told these animals to leave me alone," he told us. "I said, 'I don’t mean you no harm.' Seemed to work,” he said. He demonstrated his strategy for keeping the cattle away through the entire length of the herd before getting on his bike and wishing us luck. 

Once again, we were on our own. 

Horse Trail
Sometimes math sucks. It would have been better if I hadn't remembered that there were more than 5,000 feet in a mile. My progress was so slow, it felt like we moving one linear foot at a time. I thought about what my friend and yoga teacher would say if she was with me. “Your body’s telling you stories about what it can’t do, but you can do this. You're stronger than you know.” I kept that in my thoughts as I forced my body forward, each step eliminating one of the more than 25,000 feet we needed to travel. 25,000 feet. One stinking step at a time.

It was hot. Sunny. The trail was very rocky and clogged with dead leaves. It seemed like the perfect habitat for rattlesnakes. I keep my eyes on the ground watching my footing and for snakes. More trouble was the last thing we needed. Josh and I talked off an on. He kept encouraging me, promising me we were going to get through this. I just nodded. We’d make it. We had to. But after an hour, Josh stopped talking.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. But, being his mom, I heard something in his voice and knew that he wasn’t. 

“You need to eat,” I said starting to panic. How would we make it if he collapsed from exhaustion? I pulled trail mix out of my pack and handed it to him. He grimaced.

“You know that metaphor about the oxygen mask?" I said. "That's you right now. You need to eat.” He still didn’t take the food.

“If I eat that,” he finally said, “I’ll throw up. You didn’t go past your strength, Mom. We’re sick.”

I closed my eyes for a moment as I thought this through in choppy half sentences full of curse words.

Holy F*! We’re sick. Up on a F'ing mountain. And only God knows how bad it's going to get and how much further we have to go. We could literally die out here. 

You know how awful it is to walk from the bathroom to your bed when you have the flu? Yeah. It was like that. And we still had miles to go. We both knew that if we stopped to rest, even for a minute, we might not have the willpower to get back up. 

So. One foot in front of the other. Miles would pass. We just needed to keep going, one footstep at a time.

“I’m never coming here again,” Josh whispered.

“Me either.” Our hike, which had started out delightfully had turned into a nightmare. 

We rounded a bend and I think both of us paused for the briefest moment.

Because on the trail right in front of us were two calves. But flanking both sides of the horse trail were about five or six mature and fully horned adults. Seriously? More bulls? We’d read about what to do if you see a bear while hiking. I’d researched what to do if you’re bitten by a rattlesnake while out on a remote trail. But who in the world comes across bulls in the wilderness?

Apparently, we do.

All the tales and legends I’d heard and read about bulls were not encouraging. Even worse, these bulls weren’t twenty feet away like the heard by Scales. These bulls were only a couple of feet away. I could literally lean over and pat one if I didn’t think it’d kill me. 

The odds were not in our favor.

In our moment of hesitation, I weighed our two options. Climb back up the mountain, or take our chances with the bulls. There were no other choices before us. There was no Siri to tell us the best option for survival was to climb a tree and wait for them to move on. There wasn’t even enough signal to call 9-1-1 and ask how to avoid being gored by bulls and if they happened to have a rescue helicopter they could send.

No matter how ridiculous and potentially dangerous our situation was, there was only one option. We were too weak to climb back up. We continued forward.

I ignored the first bull and he didn't seem to mind our presence. But the second one, literally five feet away from me, shifted his weight as we walked right in front of him. His head turned as we passed, closely watching us. 

“Don’t make eye contact,” I whispered.

“Oh. Sorry,” Josh said.

The two calves skittered along the trail in front of us, clearly upset that we were heading straight for them, but we did not change our pace or direction. They paused for a moment, watching us, then scurried ahead again. Suddenly, there was a sound, right behind us. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that bull, the one my son had looked at, the one who didn’t appreciate our presence in his peaceful glade, step onto the trail, about ten feet behind us. His hooves clomped on the rocks. Josh looked back.

“Um, mom?”

Just keep going, I thought. I could hear the bull breathing behind us and dared a glance back. He was closer now. I knew he wasn’t following us because we might be friendly humans with food. He was driving us off so we wouldn’t harm the calves.

Who knew bulls had a paternal instinct?

We picked up the pace. The calves rushed off the trail and up the onto grassy hillside where another fully grown, and horned beast watched us as we passed by. 

Maybe he was waiting to attack if the bull behind us did. Maybe he thought the whole thing was kind of amusing. Or maybe they were all suspicious of obviously sick humans in the same the way we give wide berth to an oddly behaving raccoon.
The trail sloped upwards again, and we soon left the group of cattle behind us. The one bull continued to follow us up, maybe another thirty feet before deciding that we were not coming back. I’m sure that if either of us dared to look behind us a few minutes later, he’d still be standing there, making sure we did not turn around. 

“Did that really happen?” I asked a while later. “Did we really get chased by a bull?”*

“Well, we didn’t actually have to run,” Josh said. 

“He chased us off.”

“Huh. Yeah, I guess he did.”

“I’m sticking with the word chase,” I said. “We got chased by a bull.”

“In like a year, it’ll be funny.”



Over all, It took us four hours to make our way back to the car. Five and a half miles of walking with a flu-exhausted body. We were so lucky, though. Not only because the cattle didn't attack us, but also because we never got violently sick out there. I'm sure we would have survived, but our journey could have been so much worse.

On our drive back to the cabin, I found out Josh had also smelled sewage in the bathroom that morning. Maybe the rustic cabin was just a bit too rustic? Maybe that was the reason we were sick. It’s hard to say for sure, but we decided the safest thing to do was leave. Immediately. When we got back, we packed up within twenty minutes. 

"Ha!" Josh said. "We did almost die." He held up the book, Death In A Small Southern Town, for me to see before dropping it back onto the coffee table. I couldn't help but laugh, even though my stomach was still in knots. Five minutes later, we got back in the car, said goodbye to the calf in the driveway, and was on the road. It took nearly two hours of driving to get us to the nearest city and the luxury of a clean, safe, Marriott Courtyard. 

The next morning, when we felt strong enough to drive to Nashville, we got in the car. It didn’t take a year for our misadventure to be hilarious. It took less than a day. We howled with laughter as we pulled onto the highway, imagining what we’d say when people asked us how our summer went ("Well, I got chased by a bull,"). And if walking past bulls without getting gored was something you could list on your resume. 

All in all, it was a fabulous trip. Even with all the trouble we ran into, we ended up hiking a total of forty-two miles on our trip. I highly recommend hiking in Smoky Mountain National Park and I even recommend Grayson Highlands State Park/ Mt. Rogers National Recreational Area. Just…. Beware of rustic water supplies and of course, bulls.  

*When I got home, I researched cattle and found out that horns are not a sex-linked trait. Female cows can also have horns. It’s very possible a female chased us.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Keeping My Story Close

These days, I'm not writing as often as I like. Now that I'm a student again, I'd hoped to have more time, but most of my time is spent studying. At first, I was dismayed. I knew that there wouldn't be much time for writing when I decided to go back to school. I just assumed that there'd be a little time left over each day. But that hasn't been the case. And as an unhealthy distance began to grow between me and my novel, I knew I had to change tactics.

So, I gave up my large chunks of writing time and instead, learned how to keep my story close. I bought a small, thin moleskine notebook that tucks into my bag without taking much room and weighs almost nothing. Perfect for a bag as overloaded as my schedule. I started working in the "off" moments, even if only for a few minutes. Even if it was just adding one thought, or one sentence. My brain is more full of biology terms and nutritional concepts, than the plight of my characters, but they are always nearby. And by grabbing a minute or a quarter hour on most days has kept me close. Now, as I'm approaching spring break, I'm not worried about trying to 'find' my character and plot again. Because it's still fresh. It's still close.