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What’s Out There?

<em>
Linda Jilk, Blacksburg, Va.</em>

The sound was close—too close—to our tents. It was so loud. And I was so scared. There was something out there, and it sounded big. My mind raced with possibilities: mountain lion? bear? elk? What creature lurked near my sleeping family?

We were on our first family backpacking trip, exploring Chestnut Knob, a grassy summit on the Appalachian Trail in southwest Virginia. Our overpacked backpacks were heavy, but nothing compared to the “what ifs” that weighed on my mind. My husband Michael and I were not experienced backpackers, so my anxiety increased with every step away from the safety of the car.

When woods opened up into a wildflower-strewn meadow, we knew we had reached Chestnut Ridge. The summit rewarded us with incredible panoramic views of the Beartown Wilderness. We spent the afternoon relaxing under trees with our books, searching for interesting plants and signs of wildlife, and exploring this gorgeous section of the AT. We had the mountain top to ourselves that night, and the sunset was amazing. The afternoon’s delights had washed away my worries.

We pitched our tents in the nearby woods, and had fun setting up our campsite and making and eating our generous dinner. But our site under the trees meant it was very dark. We stayed close to the campfire and avoided scary stories as silence closed in around us. We climbed into our tents early and hugged the warmth of our sleeping bags, but I found myself unable to sleep as I listened intently for potential threats to my family’s safety.

I must have dozed off though, because it was after midnight when I was awakened by a fearsome, formidable noise, a noise like nothing I’d ever heard. I was paralyzed with fear and unable to do anything but listen and contemplate a course of action should the beast attempt to enter our tents. The terrible scraping, clomping, kee-kee-kee sounds continued for what seemed like hours.

Morning finally came. Michael and I huddled together and compared horror stories of the night’s listening and speculation adventures. The kids had slept through it all, but listened with eyes wide to tales of the terrifying creature in the night. We sought out the light of the dew-soaked meadow for breakfast. It wasn’t long before a seasoned-looking hiker crossed our path. We chatted, offered him a selection of our plentiful food and water supplies, and shared our mysterious wildlife encounter.

The backpacker, who had hiked the A.T. many times and had camped not far from us below the knob, had not heard the strange animal; however, he immediately offered a diagnosis. The source of the nightmarish noise, he conjectured, was just the common, everyday deer, whose alarm sound is a snort, a noise made through the nose, accompanied by foot stomping.

Things are so much scarier in the dark.
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A Letter to My Son
<em>
W.J. Wilkins, Clemmons, N.C.</em>

I was heart broken when I received an email last October from my son, Carson: he was being deployed to Afghanistan. He ended his email with this request: “Dad, could you go for a long walk this evening before sunset and think about all the good times we’ve had together and write back to me?”

I grabbed my headlamp and headed out the door, trotting up a Rails to Trails path just above our cabin in Pennsylvania. After an hour or so of hiking, I stopped to write my son a letter. I pulled out some scrap paper and pencil and began to relax and take in the wilderness around me. Pine Creek flowed behind me, the moon was full and bright by that time, and I could hear deer traveling nearby.

I thought about all the adventures he and I had experienced in these woods: his first campfire, his first roasted marshmallows, hiking with our dog, canoeing with his sister, Meredith. He and I always ended the day sitting and laughing about the day’s adventures and having deep talks about life and its meaning.

Meredith died in an accident a few years ago while checking the mailbox for a special backpack to arrive, so we could go on a family backpacking trip. It was a long time until Carson and I ventured back on any trail. But finally, we realized that she would want us to get out in the woods, where we would feel her presence most.

So Carson and I hiked the 45 miles of the Black Forest Trail in her memory. In the evenings by the fire, we cried. But as we approached the end of the trail after four days, I watched as Carson crossed the Slate Run and finally realized he had completed the entire trail. His expression was astonishment, pride, and an opening into a new life of hope. We were going to think about Meredith every day, but we also were going to keep moving forward.

I jotted down these memories, folded up the paper, and walked back to the cabin. I stirred the hot coals in the fire ring at the cabin and tossed in a few logs. I worried he might not ever sit here by this fire again.
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On Top of the World
<em>
Carson Hogge, Richmond, Va.</em>

More than 60 PBJs, five dozen granola bars, 28 apples, 125 cookies, and enough bottled water to fill a bathtub: that was our lunch box for 27 people, including 11 boys who had never been on a hike in the mountains.

I was taking a group of middle school boys from Charlottesville’s Young Men’s Academy on a day hike to the summit of Hawksbill Mountain, which is the highest point in the Shenandoah National Park. It would give them a chance to enjoy the outdoors, experience the fun of hiking, and see a world they have never seen.

The ride to the Shenandoah National Park was scenic, and the boys got really excited when we saw mountain ranges. Once we got on Skyline Drive at Swift Run Gap, we saw all kinds of animals. We even passed a momma bear with her three cubs near Hazeltop Ridge. Of all the times I have been hiking, I have never seen a bear, so this was a real treat not only for the boys, but for me, too. The scene will remain in their memories forever.

When we arrived at the trailhead, we distributed lunches and goodies, and the boys were off on their first hike. Everyone started at a fast pace, not realizing that the trail to the summit was very steep. Some raced up the mountain and made it in good time, but others had to stop occasionally to catch their breath. Along the way, the boys snapped pictures of deer and even a wild turkey.

When it was time to hike out, most of the boys raced backed down the mountain to claim a good seat for the ride home. Back at the trailhead, I talked with each boy about his day and videotaped their responses. Every single boy said that his favorite part was getting to the top of Hawksbill. They loved the feeling of accomplishment as much as the view. One boy said it best: “I felt like I was on top of the world.”

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