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Camping Humor as Newlyweds Camp the Appalachian Trail

A longtime camper, Dan has experience with tents, pop-up trailers, camp trailers, and motorhomes.

The Newlyweds Plan a Camping Trip

A few months after being married, my new wife Darlene and I decided we would like to go camping. Our short two month courtship during the winter had allowed no such activities, but both of us came from camping families.

I grew up camping on the Oregon coast - Cape Lookout comes to mind - and almost yearly trips from Oregon to Disneyland, camping during the travel down US 101 along the coastline. As I grew older camping weekends consisted of a few friends backpacking into the wilderness area of the Wallowa mountains in northeast Oregon.

Darlene's family also made yearly treks to the beaches of South Carolina and motels were just as foreign to her as they were to me.

A weekend of camping sounded like just the ticket, but where to go? We finally chose the Appalachian Trail, a road and path along the Appalachian mountains that runs from Georgia to Maine. We would find a place outside of Culpepper, Va to spend the night(s).

Now, the Appalachian Trail was extremely popular even in the 70's, with reservations to be made and many rules to follow. We could set up our campsite in the wild, but had to be a certain distance from any road or stream. No fires were allowed. We found many warnings about the bears; it seemed there was a healthy population of bears in the area and that required caution. While the black bears to be found there are the smallest of the American bears, they are still quite dangerous and should be treated with caution. Food had to be hung in trees, garbage completely picked up each day and so forth.

To complicate matters just a little, our total camping gear consisted of a backpack frame and one large canvas sleeping bag. No tent. No cooking stove. No cookware (that was OK as we had no stove anyway). We didn't even have a tarp for inclement weather.

No matter - we were a young couple in love and the world was our oyster. Let others worry about the little details - we would have our camping trip! We got our camping permit in the mail and the next Friday loaded the backpack, sleeping bag and a few hotdogs and chips into the car. There was a day use area not far from our chosen camp spot and we expected to find grills there for the hot dogs. Shucks, there was a restaurant only a few miles further down the road - we'd be just fine!

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night....

Arriving at a wide spot in the road where we could leave the car, we parked and unloaded the backpack and sleeping bag. We had brought one light blanket, with the idea that we would open up the sleeping bag and lay it on the ground, putting the blanket over us. It would be a rather hard bed, but we had pillows - we'd be just fine!

We walked a considerable distance through the woods to a likely looking spot a goodly distance from the creek we had forded. By this time it was getting pretty dark (it had clouded over and there was no moon or city lights to help at all) and to add to the problems it began to rain a little. Picking the largest tree around, we spread the blanket on the ground under the tree and, opening the sleeping bag, crawled under it. The bag was waterproof and while the ground was harder than expected, we'd be just fine!

By now it was as dark as the inside of a cave. We couldn't see our hand in front of our face and knew that we were there for the night. There was no possibility of hiking back to the car in the total blackness of the storm - trying to ford the creek or cross the rock slide we had so easily traversed earlier would surely result in falls and injury, but that was all right. We were in love and, holding each other tight, we'd be just fine!

Out of the blackness Darlene suddenly asked "What shall I do with this?" and pressed a small bag into my hand. It was a bag of gorp (raisins, nuts, sunflower seeds and such). Recalling the stern warnings about bears, I was a little concerned but there was little I could do about it. Taking the bag from her I simply threw it as far as I could and hoped for the best.

Far off in the distance we began to see lightning strikes, and watched as they came closer and closer. We were under the biggest tree in the area! Not a good thing at all, but the lightning storm bypassed us around midnight and we once more relaxed. We'd be just fine!

When Visitors Came Calling

We both managed to fall asleep in spite of the inevitable rocks and sticks digging holes the size of Mt. Everest in our backs. The world was good and we would be just fine.

Suddenly, out of the inky blackness surrounding us came the most gawdawful racket I had ever heard! My eyes snapped open as if on rubber bands, but to no avail - there wasn't a trace of light to be found. Trying to conjure a flashlight out of nothing I listened to what had to be a herd of elephants crashing through the underbrush only yards away. No, wait! It can't be elephants in Virginia - it must be the whole population of black bears at once, looking for us! Darlene slept through it all, but I lay rigid, listening for any sign they were coming closer. My terrorized brain was sure that all 5,000 bears were only feet away, but what to do?

Eventually the racket died away and the terror slowly receded. Once more I fell asleep - we'd be just fine!

Sometime around 2:00 o'clock I was again wakened, but wasn't sure what caused it. Had the bears come back? I listened carefully, but could hear only a soft, snuffling kind of noise somewhere in the distance. The night was as coal black as ever and eyes were still completely useless - I had only my ears to detect the bears when they came. That they would come was, by now, inevitable and my poor brain worked feverishly at finding a solution to their relentless approach.

A light scraping noise was now coming to me through the night. What was it? Is a bear marking the tree above us with its claws? Are we next?

The sleeping bag moved slightly and I realized that some animal, invisible in the inky blackness, was walking along the bottom of the bag, sniffing quietly and scraping its feet on the canvas bag. Once more my brain went into overtime, running at 1,000 miles a minute. After an hour or two of this it dredged up the fact that I should lie still and not move. Not move??? The huge brown bear (surely that's what it was! Even blind, I knew that!) moved across the sleeping bag looking for dinner but apparently decided it didn't want us and wandered off into the forest. Against all odds, I again slept.

But not for long. Once more I woke to listen again as the monstrous Alaskan grizzly strode heavily across the sleeping bag in search of food. Once more I froze in terror while the starving grizzly bear began to move up the side of the sleeping bag towards my head. I realized my arm was hanging out of the bag, but hold still and don't move! When that monstrous, marauding grizzly ran into my arm I couldn't help myself and involuntarily jerked it back into the bag. This so startled the maddened bear that it ran off into the night, which by now did nothing for me - it would surely return for its dinner before morning. Darlene slept quietly through the hideous ordeal, which also did nothing for my peace of mind - she could of at least shared in the experience!

Morning Finally Arrives

Some ten years, give or take a few, after the visit from the starving, maddened group of grizzly bears the most beautiful sight I had ever seen occurred as the sun began to peek over the trees. Darlene finally woke, still in one piece, and the world was once again good. We actually were fine!

I reiterated the events of the past few hours to Darlene, explaining that it was only through the incredibly courageous actions of her new husband that she was still alive to experience the glorious sunshine. She listened solemnly, we very quietly rolled up the sleeping bag and, without so much as breaking a twig, crept silently back to our car.

As we left our campsite I looked for any tracks or claw marks the huge beast might have left, but the area was far too damp to find any. Later reflection tells me that it was probably a raccoon investigating the new addition to the forest and not a maddened grizzly bear somehow transported from Alaska, but nevertheless we purchased a very nice tent before our next camping trip. We have gone through many camping "homes" in the last 35 years, from tents to camp trailers to motor homes, but never again has it been a simple sleeping bag under the stars. Nor will it ever be in the future.

© 2010 Dan Harmon

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