Emily Karcher, Crofton, Md.
There’s no doubt about it: I thought we were going to die at the top of that mountain. And as we lay in our tent, flinching and squeezing each other with every lightning strike, I think my husband saw his life flash before him, too.
Before we embarked on our three-day, 26-mile journey on the Wild Oak National Recreation Trail through the George Washington National Forest, I attended a workshop for women about wilderness safety. Heck, I had never before slept in a tent, much less guzzled purified water from a mountain stream or climbed 4,600 feet with a 40-pound pack on my back. So imagine my shock when the presenter told me she cried as she neared the parking lot after her first backpacking trip. She said the silence was addicting: “Imagine not hearing a telephone ring for three days.”
My husband and I let civilization slip through our fingertips on the first two days of our hike. The songs of sparrows replaced ringing cell phones, and the buzz of insects replaced car engines. “They’re just passing through,” my husband reminded me every time I swatted the air around me. Life blossomed everywhere on that trail, and I let the world at home slide away with every bead of sweat that tickled my spine.
As the sun dropped behind the trees on our second evening of hiking, the flickers of an approaching storm lit up the field where we were huddled over mac-n-cheese. We laughed at our bad timing. Raindrops soon pelted the ground around us, so we ran to set up our tent in a clearing in the nearby forest. We zipped the rain fly over us and undressed to stay cool inside. We first played cards, but I couldn’t concentrate for long. Growing up in New Orleans, I learned at an early age to count the seconds between lightning and thunder to discern how close a storm was. The less time between the two meant, of course, that I needed to get off the swing set and watch the lightshow from inside. On this night, the seconds between the two were not enough to count. As the crackles of thunder grew closer, even the crickets were silenced.
After 20 minutes, I buried my head into husband’s bare chest and begged to run down the mountain where I would feel less vulnerable. “Trust me, that’s more dangerous than staying here,” he said. The rain fell harder and my tears soaked his skin. All we could do was wait…wait and watch the beetles trapped at the top of our tent become silhouettes with every flash. It reminded me of a bug zapper, only we were in it with the bugs.
For three hours, we waited. Shortly after midnight, this monster finally left us. As the thunder slowly retreated, I loosened my grip around my husband and we dozed off. Hours later, just as dawn cast its cold breath on our soggy tent, I awoke to a sound I never thought I would cherish: crickets.
When we arose the next morning, sunlight sparkled on every branch and leaf. Far from my mind were my aching calves and hot spots on my toes. We were alive! Not far down the mountain, lightning had sheared off a large tree limb, which blocked much of the trail.
Even though I had been warned, I did not expect to cry at the end of my first backpacking trip. When we entered our final mile, my husband said to me, “See, you did it.” My eyes filled up. I wasn’t ready to hear phones ringing again. I wanted to do it all over again—minus the storm.