At three in the morning I awoke drenched in sweat and stumbled out into the almost-full moonlight, ravenous. It took me a minute to find my equilibrium with my head swimming, but the night came slowly into focus: our orange tent where my friends slept, the log like a giant’s forearm where we had rested our backs earlier. In the edge of camp there was the glow of another group’s smoldering fire and the smell of smoke.
I fumbled to turn on my headlamp before tromping off into the woods. Scratching and swatting my way through the briars and vines I searched for footprints or remnants of the trail that would lead me to the hanging bear bag.
I know what you’re thinking, but no, I’m not a werewolf. Nevertheless I clawed at the cord until it untwirled from the hardwood that held our food suspended eleven feet off the ground.
After a moment the narrow rope made a zipping sound against the tree bark and the bag lurched down a few feet, just enough for me to paw my way through the dehydrated packets, bags of carrot sticks, mounds of trail mix, and blocks of Cabot extra sharp cheddar (thanks Cabot for making lactose-free cheese). Finally I had my hands on what I was after, a ziploc bag of glucose tabs, cherry flavored, and downed several before stopping to repair the damage I’d done.
Once I’d stuffed the remaining glucose tabs in my pocket and hoisted the bag as high as I could with one hand while yanking on the hanging end of the rope, I made one pull, hoping to get the bag back where it was. Little did I know how difficult it is to hang three people’s food bags in the middle of the night alone when your blood sugar is still hovering below 50 mg/dl.
I’m no werewolf, but I do have type 1 diabetes, and I had awoken in the night with a blood sugar of 29 mg/dl. In case you’re a novice to diabetes, it should be around 80, most people start to feel low around 70, and once you get below 50, well, there just isn’t too much further to go until your brain runs smack out of fuel.
Luckily my animal instincts were on, probably because I’d been tromping through the woods all day alternatively pretending I was an otter while swimming in the crystal pools of Gragprong Creek, and then a wolverine while scrambling up the steep incline of Timber Ridge trail. Before laying down to rest I’d sat up back to back with a friend and watched the cove light up with blue ‘ghost fireflies,’ perhaps named so because, as my friend pointed out, they had a way of disappearing like a dream just before they hovered close enough to touch.
I’d gone to sleep with my blood sugar high but it had plummeted in the night, maybe when an earlier occlusion dislodged and released a surge of insulin or just from the effort of hauling around an extra 30 pounds while hiking all day. When I awoke from low blood sugar I tested on my meter and treated it immediately with a ‘honey zinger’ packet, but I’d only brought one in the tent. At 30 grams of carbs, it’s usually enough to bring me up and because of bears I typically hang all but one. This time though, my blood sugar had been so dangerously low that I couldn’t go back to sleep without securing back-up.
By the time I’d made my way back to the tent I was feeling more stable and could take in the beauty of the night. Frogs and night birds made soft sounds. The moon glowed as bright as a wide-eyed child’s face on her first camping trip. Pouring out from the trees came the voluminous HOOoooo of Barred Owl calling in the darkness. Her sound became a lighthouse that guided me back to sleep.
On this short overnight trip four friends and I went up and around, backtracked and got found, and fully explored the Lost Cove area of Wilson’s Creek. For each of us it was our first time in the woods together since the wheels of some pretty big changes had been set into motion.
The semi-loop trail started with a quick descent from a parking area to the edge of Gragprong Creek , thick with ferns and smooth-skinned boulders. After a little rock hopping and a snack break we were back on the trail headed towards our first wildlife sighting:
From now on during my occasional meditation kicks, I will call to mind this little toad. He sat calmly while behind us, a gaggle of about 7 teenage girls were giggling their way towards his perch. His confidence created a force field around his soft brown body.
For lunch we stopped at Gragprong Falls where my friends flitted around below, above, and to the side. One of them disappeared for some time but we weren’t worried about her. She’d left with her zoom lens camera around her neck and a soft silence coming from her eyes that told us she was going to observe.
After our first mountain stream baptism of the year in a footprint pool and a little sun-dozing we marched on, playing word games and talking and then not talking, falling into comfortable silences. The trail took us over several stream crossings and spit us out in a dirt parking lot littered with jeeps, Subarus, and unfortunately discarded bottles and wrappers. If you are trying to find Timber Ridge Trail from this juncture it’s a little tricky.
We found that the sign did not line up very well with the trail, but we did eventually find it directly in line with all the parked cars. It was not a very worn trail and we quickly found out why. From meandering sweetly along Gragprong Creek the trail veered sharply uphill. Here is where I’d like to make a plug for trekking poles. I recently bought some REI brand trekking poles for my 69 year old mother for Mother’s Day. She fishes for Rainbow and Eastern Brook Trout two to three days a week, hikes often, and walks in the woods nearly everyday. She rejected the poles kindly, saying that although she appreciated the gesture, her wooden stick was doing just find and what she REALLY needed was some new neoprene booties for wading the stream because hers were just worn out.
I appreciate a woman who knows herself, and I guess you only get there by experimenting, so I decided I would give the poles a go.
I wasn’t completely sold on them until hiking became something like uphill skiing and I hurled both in tandem into the soft earth, heaving myself up behind.
Now I find myself putting my arms out while climbing stairs at work, wishing their support was there.
We were exhausted by the time we hit the ridgeline and stretched out immediately on the pine needles and leaves to nibble carrots and trail mix and listen to the sound that our one male group member pointed out: ‘car-lessness.’ I love a chance to experience the phenomenon of being ‘car-free.’ We heard the birds, not Pileated Woodpeckers and Screech Owls but the quiet cheep-chirp of Snowbirds and other little singers whose voices can still be lost to noise pollution even in the forest. We heard the wind before we saw it give life to the dancing beech leaves. Our own voices quieted.
After leveling out this section of Timber Ridge Trail proved itself worth the scramble. Even though it was a gentle stretch our progress was slow as we reveled in the mountain laurel thicket with its stark white flowers opening like tea cups, some blushing a light pink. After walking for a mile through the chuppah of delicate flowers we took it upon ourselves to rename the stretch ‘Bridal Ridge,’ all the more apt since it was two of my friends’ first backpacking trip as an engaged couple.
Looking around at my friends I realize we’ve hit that magical time in our lives when proposals, marriages, and sometimes even babies begin to happen. We are starting and finishing master’s programs, writing books and delving into our careers, sometimes in new places. The ties that bind us together as friends are still there, but there are other layers of support that are beginning to weave underneath, holding our role and our place in the world.
In this time I find myself increasingly impressed by the way my friends strike a balance between independence and collaboration, between self-reliance and creative partnerships.
The support we offer to each other is indispensable, at least speaking for myself. In the morning, chatting on the log while we ate tortillas filled with fruit and sunflower seed butter, drank instant coffee, and watched the sun stretch through the tapestry of rhododendron leaves, I mentioned to my friend and tent-mate that next time I’d bring my own tent so I wouldn’t wake her up if I got low again. “No way!” she exclaimed: “Why didn’t you tell me to get up and help you? That’s all the more reason that we need to be in the same tent.”
Backpacking with a chronic medical condition can be hard, but it’s also the best medicine I’ve ever found for my body and mind. I’ve heard my friends say the same about the power of walking through the mountains. Carrying that tangible load on your back seems to relieve some of the pressure on your heart that life just seems to dole out from time to time.
For all of us there are certain sorrows, burdens, and challenges that live inside and cry out in the middle of the night. The knowing eye of the moon watches us struggle to find our way on what can be an unpredictable path. But somehow, this trip proved that although no one else can carry your weight, their support can fortify you against the odds and balance you through the uncertainty.
We passed and swapped everything from carrot sticks to hiking poles, to our packs, assembly line style across stream crossings. We warned each other of snakes in the grass (of which there were many) and shared purified water. We felt, maybe, a little bit of why each other needed to be out there in the woods, different for all of us but for each true and basic, like the need for love and shelter. Together we breathed in the sweet June air as the buds grew heavy, flowers unfurled, and seeds dispersed into the wind.