I’ve made peace with the idea that if something happens to me while I’m solo bushwhacking, I’m going to be an instant good example of a bad example. People will shake their heads, call me foolhardy, put me up for a Darwin Award. The Internet will buzz about me for a couple of days and then I’ll be relegated to the occasional “Remember that guy?”
The people who will remember the most will be the people that know and love me. They are also the ones that will live with the aftermath. They will deal with the second guessing and thoughtless statements of strangers.
They too, have come to their own peace with my solo hiking. They know I feel incomplete without it so they allow me my small selfishness, because there is no getting around the fact that it is an act of selfishness. Acknowledging that fact, I try to minimize the pain and worry I cause the ones I love. Sometimes however, it takes an incident to bring the hypothetical issue of death, and it’s consequences to loved ones, to the forefront. I can’t stop death if I make a mistake, or if bad luck claims me, but I can do a lot to keep my loved ones out of the limbo of not knowing what happened to me.
The clouds were moving in. I was lying on my back atop the flat stone wondering if the crew would arrive before the storm. I glanced up toward the trail and saw no one. The creek to my back gurgled as it ran next to the granite slab. I caught a glimpse of movement to my right and turned to see a garter snake gliding gently towards me. Toward me? Why toward me? My experience is that retreat is the usual behavior for snakes when confronted with a human presence. The serpent slithered up to a small pool in the rocks a couple of feet from my shoulder. The pool, more of a puddle really, was about four feet long and six inches at the widest point. Several times the snake stopped, extended its head out over the water a couple of inches, tasted the air with a darting tongue, and then moved further along the small bank.
When it reached the shallowest part of the pool it froze for a moment, and then explosively dove into the silty water. All I could see were glimpses of yellow underbelly and green striped sides undulating and writhing as he dove and swam the length of the narrow pool. The apparently random writhing gave way to a regular corkscrewing motion. I’d seen enough to know what that meant. It had caught something. Sure enough, it emerged with a fat tadpole in its mouth. It formed up into a relaxed s-shape and downed the hapless frog-to-be in one easy movement.
Only then did it noticed me. The scaled head cocked back in a “Were you there the whole time?” pose and a tongue flicked out suspiciously. We sat that way for a few moments with neither one of us moving. I heard a crack from the trail and turned to see if people were coming down. Instead I saw that a dead, moss covered branch had fallen into the path. I immediately turned back to see the tiny reptilian hunter slither down the rock and out of view.
My mind tried to find some meaning in what I’d just witnessed. It wanted to make some analogy, or learn a lesson. But it wasn’t there. Intriguing as it was to watch the drama unfold, It was just a snake doing what a snake does. No symbol, no sign. I turned back to the trail. Well, if they weren’t going to come to me I’d have to go to them. I left my day pack, grabbed my water bottle, and headed back toward the parking lot.
“So you’re our hiker?” the deputy asked as I approached the car. He had removed his bullet proof vest to keep from overheating, and rested it on the hood of the police cruiser on this unseasonably hot and humid April day.
“Yeah, I’m the one who found the body,” I replied.
I’d hiked downstream a little better than three quarters of a mile from the granite slab to get to the parking lot.
“Is it just you?” he asked.
“Yup. I’m out for a couple days by myself.”
The deputy had the bearing of former military. He more or less confirmed my suspicions when he invited me into his vehicle so we could fill out the report in air conditioned comfort and said, “Man I wish we’d had AC in a Humvee.” He leaned into his radio. “I have contact with the reporting party.”
My mind swam crazily and I thought of a hostess calling my name over an intercom in a restaurant: “Mark, party of one. Mark, party of one.”
I spent the next few minutes recounting my hike upstream and my discovery of the body in the pool. I didn’t like recalling it, but I gave the best description I could. Green sweatshirt, hood up, shorts, and hiking or fly fishing boots. I admitted that once my mind recognized it as a body, I didn’t want to look too long.
After finding the body I’d made my way back down to the trail from the creek bed and then started up the steep path that led to my tent in order to get my phone. There had been no use in carrying it with me in the gorge because there was no reception. Even the GPS lost signal down there. Once I retrieved my phone my choices would be to find higher ground where I had reception, an iffy proposition at best, or hike 2 miles back out to my car and drive 10 miles to a place where I knew I could get reception.
Before I could head up the trail to my tent, I was startled by voices behind me on the trail. Being a weekday, I hadn’t expected to see too many people. I turned around and saw a group of backpackers. I hurried down the path yelling, “Hey! Excuse me! Does anyone here have a phone? I just found a body!”
I heard a responding “Wha?” from the hiker in the lead.
“I said, I found a bo...” I trailed off.
The hiker was taller than me, but couldn’t have been more than 14 years old. “You found a BODY!?” he asked. I could hear both fear and perhaps a bit of excitement in the young man's voice.
“Umm. Are you the trip leader?” I asked.
"Nah,” he replied. “TRACE! Can you come up here?” the boy called behind him.
A woman in her early twenties came forward. She looked like she was comfortable on the trail, but not quite as comfortable being in charge of a bunch of fourteen year old boys. Then again, no one looks comfortable in that situation.
“Do you have a phone handy?” I asked.
Trace was leading an Outward Bound group along the Mountains to Sea Trail. The hike out to the parking lot was only about three quarters of a mile from where I met the group and would be much quicker than going to my tent and returning.
“We’ve got a sat phone.” she said, “ I don’t know if we’ve got reception here or not, but we can try.”
We walked out of earshot of the group. On the third try we got through, but the signal dropped in and out.
“I’m not sure they got all that,” Trace told me. She looked distracted. I could see that exposing the group to a body hadn’t been on the agenda. She not only had to worry about reporting the body, but also about dealing with the possibility of having a bunch of Search and Rescue personnel running through their group, and also the inevitable questions about the body.
“I think we’re just going to turn around and go back,” she told me.
They had camped just across the creek from the trailhead where I started my hike. We agreed to have the group wait with the co-leader for about 15 minutes while Trace and I made our way back to the parking lot where there was a better chance of getting reception on the sat phone. That way we could speak without having to worry about details being overheard by the kids.
We found a spot almost all the way back to the parking lot where she could get solid reception. I did my best to describe the location, but my knowledge of the area was a bit more extensive than most, so I gave some more general directions like “He’s below all the big falls on the section between FR 233 and HWY 181.” My references to Cave Falls, Pothole Falls and Steel Creek Falls didn’t mean much to Trace or the person on the other end of the line.
“Our dispatcher is going to call it into the Forest Service,” she told me.
After the call, I turned to Trace, “Look, I’m sorry about freaking that kid out. I thought he was an adult.”
“Not your fault,” she said. “From a distance he looks like an adult.”
I thought of how I would have reacted at age fourteen. I don’t know if I freaked him out or intrigued him. At that age, death, up close and personal, is often far enough removed from life that it’s not quite real. I tried to imagine how I would have reacted as a teenager, but the distance between then and now seemed too great. I'd seen too much and dealt with death on a personal level too many times. I could imagine a situation like this feeling less real than the death of a beloved character on TV or in the movies. This was real life, but it lacked the context of a story.
I made the decision to go back to where the trail diverged from the river and wait for Search and Rescue. It was rugged country and I didn’t feel that reporting the body would be enough. If the rain came before they found it, the river could wash the body into a much harder to access spot, and access was going to be difficult enough. I ran into the rest of the Outward Bound group as I trod back upstream and relayed Trace’s instructions to meet her back where they had camped the night before.
It was there, waiting on Search and Rescue, that I encountered the garter snake. I’d been lying on that rock thinking about how I’d originally wanted to spend my day before my world turned sideways. Locals refer to the area between Linville Gorge and HWY 181 as “God’s Country,” and Steel Creek is what I consider my slice of heaven. It is a place of hidden waterfalls and emerald water.
The Mountains to Sea Trail runs beside it, but climbs away from the most spectacular sections. I had intended to hike the creek bed from the parking lot at the end of FR 233 to the top of Steel Creek Falls. In that section was the only quarter mile of the creek I hadn’t seen. To get to it, I would have to swim a pool and then climb a steep rock slab next to a waterfall plummeting through an overhanging crack. I’d wanted to do this for years, but the time never gelled. When I’d found a body two pools below the Crack Falls pool, my trip came to an abrupt end.
In the parking lot the deputy and I discussed logistics. "Yeah,” the deputy said, “Outward Bound called the Forest Service and the Forest Service called us. We’ve got a team coming in from the top.”
The deputy told me that someone had been reported missing and they had found his car parked near the top of the trail. Downnhill would be faster, but the pool in which I found the body was much closer to the downstream parking lot that we were standing in.
If they were trying to stay in or near the creek to make sure they didn’t miss him, it could take hours for them to get down to the body. I asked whether it was possible to contact the team and tell them to stick to the trail. I said I would meet them at my campsite just off the trail and lead them to the spot. The deputy relayed the information and I headed back up the for the second time that day. As I hiked, I heard woodpeckers, towhees, and chickadees. The clouds were moving in, but the sun still shone through in spots.
The trail climbed away from the creek and I dodged the nettle and poison ivy that lined the path. I climbed over logs and around rocks. How would I get someone incapable of helping themselves out on this trail? I often play mental games of “How would I?” The games keep me thinking and aware of my surroundings. Only this time, there really was someone who needed to get out. Then it hit me. There was no urgency, no life to save. The situation was beyond that point.
The person in the pool had all the time in the world.
I made it back to my site and waited. I made lunch and boiled water for tea while I waited under a tarp. The rain spat occasionally, but never committed. Within half an hour, I could hear voices coming down the trail. In the lead was a young officer with a beard and a gun on his hip, followed by two other men, perhaps a few years older than myself.
“You guys SAR?” I asked.
“Yeah,” the man with the gun responded. “Are you our hiker?”
I nodded and the young guy pulled out a walkie talkie. “Have contacted reporting party.”
(Mark, party of one?)
“Give me a second to refill my water bottle, grab my pack and I’ll lead you down,” I said.
It’s hard to make small talk knowing you’re walking toward a body. Every few yards one of the older members of the team would tie a strip of surveyors tape around a tree so trailing rescuers could keep to our path. I pointed out some fisherman and deer paths that led down to the creek that could be used as emergency access points, but all were pretty treacherous.
“Are you out here by yourself?” one of the older guys asked.
“Uh huh.” I answered hesitantly. I prepared myself for the lecture on not hiking solo or at least sticking to the trail if I did so. Instead the man merely nodded. Solo hiking can be a touchy subject with rescue professionals. A good chunk of their work is dealing with people who went out solo, unprepared, and ended up the subject of a costly search operation.
When we reached the creek, I dropped my pack, sat on the sandy bank, and gave directions to the body. I hesitated.
“Do you want me to lead you?” I asked.
Part of me didn’t want to go back, but I also felt an obligation to the person in the pool. I was the one who found him and I felt the need to be there to ensure others saw him. Until someone else sat at the edge of that pool and viewed what I viewed, my job wouldn’t be done.
The young man answered, “Whether you come or not is entirely up to you.”
I hesitated again. “I’ll go.”
I was wearing Five.Ten Water Tennies, which are shoes specifically made for walking in the creek, while the SAR personnel were in hiking boots. I waded up the center of the creek, or jumped from rock to rock if the pools got too deep. The rescue crew stayed to the stone on the banks and had to navigate the brush and boulders that lined the narrow creek bed. At one point an enormous rock slab projects from the right bank where an overhanging wall cuts off access from above. A boulder sits in the middle of the creek, blocking the view upstream. It’s a beautiful, tranquil place and the last place I’d stopped earlier in the day to take pictures before continuing up stream over a small cascade and finding the body. It was also the last place I had felt at peace.
Again one of the men asked, “You came out here by yourself?”
I said nothing.
We walked around the boulder and looked over a small waterfall.
“There he is.” I pointed to a vague form snagged on a tree branch in the center of a calm pool.
As the search team went up the right bank, I rock hopped to a boulder in the center of the river. I sat and watched. The rescue team talked amongst themselves. I felt a sudden urge to give the man and those who would take care of him some privacy.
“Do you need anything else from me?” I called across the current.
They all shook their heads and then called back, “There are some folks coming up from the sheriff's department. Can you show them the best route to get here?”
I nodded and indicated I was going to head back down the creek bed to where I’d dropped my daypack and waited for the deputies to arrive.
For some strange reason, I had left my camera gear, including a tripod, attached to my pack when we hiked down from my campsite. I don’t know why. I certainly had no intention of taking pictures of where we were going.
Before any one arrived from down stream, the Search and Rescue team came back out. For one crazy second I thought maybe there hadn’t been a body.
“Please tell me I didn’t drag you guys out here for a dummy or something!”
“No,” the bearded officer said, “though I could see how it could be mistaken for one.”
He told me the body was stable and that they were going to wait for the sheriffs office to take pictures before doing anything else. I saw concentric rings form in one of the puddles along the creek, and then more. I felt the rain hit below my left eye and drip down into my beard.
“I’m headed back to my site before the sky opens up. You guys know where to find me.”
“You’re not hiking out?” one of the older men asked me.
“No, I’ll be here until tomorrow morning.“
The rain fell harder as I started up the trail. I didn’t wear my rain jacket because I was already soaked. The rain felt good. Clean. I reached my site and made dinner under my tarp as the rain tapped out a manic morse code on the taut fabric. I went to open my pack to get my snacks and realized that the weight of my tripod against the zipper had pulled my bag open. My jacket was gone.
I sighed, put on my hiking boots, and descended the trail once more. I was almost back to where I left the crew when I found my jacket, bright red, sitting in the middle of the trail. I could see headlamps and hear voices through the trees separating me from the creek, a lot of them. Days later I read there were two dozen people involved with the recovery. I had no desire to deal with that many people so I grabbed my jacket and made the arduous return to my tent.
I spent the evening wondering about the person I found. Was he a hiker? The deputy said that there was a missing man in the area. What had he been like? Was he often out here by himself like I was? I regularly joked that the reason I hiked by myself is that it is the only time the voices in my head wait their turn to speak and I didn’t need anyone else interrupting. I counted the number of times I’d been asked if I was hiking by myself that day. I questioned whether I was more or less careful when I was out by myself. Did this man trust in his judgement to get out of bad situations as much as I trusted mine? There was little doubt that what I did by myself was considered risky. Not to the point of being outright dangerous, just... risky.
Were they risks I would feel comfortable asking other people to take if they were with me? Being alone in the woods allows me to get into my head, and most of the time it’s therapeutic. This time I wasn’t sure I wanted to be alone with my thoughts.
The rain stopped falling around midnight and the drumming gave way to the white noise of the creek. When I fell asleep, I dreamed I was underwater with my face pointed toward the rocky riverbed.
The next day I hiked out. There was no trace of a recovery operation. The creek flowed a little higher due to all the rain, but there was no other indication that anything had changed. When I got home my wife asked if I was okay and then, with a relieved laugh, showed me a text I’d sent that had been trapped in the ether and only arrived in her phone that morning.
“Hey hon. I don’t have much signal. You might hear news about a body found on Steel Creek. It’s not me, but I found it. Spent most of the day with rescue showing them where the body was located. I’m fine and I love you. See you tomorrow. “
In retrospect, the “It’s not me” shows just how disjointed my thought processes were at the time.
Over the next few days I tried to wrap my head around the whole encounter. I went back and completed my hike up the creek the following week, because if I hadn’t gone back quickly, I might not have gone back at all. It was all that I hoped it would be, challenging, beautiful, and a bit risky. I hiked back down and sat by the rock below the pool where I found the body and thought about what happened.
Ten days. That was how long it was between the time the hiker was reported missing and the time I found him. I tried to imagine what it would be like for my wife, my parents, and my friends. From the point of waking in the morning to the point of trying to sleep. The uncertainty and the hope would be crippling. This is where selfishness of solo hiking ends and responsibility toward other people begins.
I can’t control what happens to me in any absolute terms. Small mistakes magnify, and random events occur. The only control I have over events after I die while hiking solo is my ability to let people know where I’m going to be, and when I plan to be back. I might not be able to stop the unexpected from happening, but I can help prevent the hell of family not knowing.
The family of the man I found thank me quite often for finding him. They've fully invited me into their lives. At first I didn’t understand it. I hadn’t gone looking for him, I just discovered him. It took me a long time to realize that I pulled his family from limbo, an in-between state that allowed both hope and despair to exist concurrently. The fact that I found him allowed the circuit of grief to be completely closed, and the one of unknowing hope to be broken.
I’ve hiked alone for many years, and in the past had given general ideas of where I plan to be. Now, the thought of my family giving rescuers only a vague idea of where I might be fills me with dread. My loved ones accepted my selfishness as a matter of necessity. The least I could do, in case anything went wrong, is ensure that they would be spared the limbo of a loved one who was both alive and dead in their minds. Now, I make sure I give detailed itineraries of where I plan to be and when.
It’s no guarantee. People disappear even with plans relayed effectively but it reduces the chance of people I love being stuck in the in-between.
Solo hiking will always be my favorite way to explore the wilderness, but it’s been driven home that even by myself, I carry the burden of the concerns of people I care about. It’s added weight, but no heavier than the concerns my family has been bearing for me when I go out alone.