A Hiking Sure We Went

a tent is illuminated from the inside, billions of stars shine through the night sky silhouetting the treeline above

Photograph by Justin Kern

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The three of us woke with our fair share of a Grand Canyon-style splitting headache.

I was certain Paul Bunyon himself had whacked me with his axe at some point in the night. Scrambling back to our feet, my two companions and I rummaged through the beer bottles to assess the night’s damage.

Brad had organized the trip, let me in on the general details, and we thusly decided to invite John to make it a threesome. More people’s worth of backpacks to split the tent poles. John was the fittest of us all, the type of guy who joins soccer leagues for fun because he can’t seem to plant himself in front of the television after work like the rest of us. Brad was an experienced hiker, but in the past couple of years managed to wrap a dozen more pounds around his waste than he may have preferred to haul up a hill. I commuted to work at the time on a bicycle, but smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. So all in all, we were an assorted variety of “ready to climb a mountain”.

Which is why Brad had organized a three day hike for us that was intended as an easy up and down along rolling hills in West Virginia.

John lifted two bottles of whisky from the debris which had once been our hotel room and Brad found another, vodka this time, under his pillow. We hadn’t all seen one another in six months, so last night was more of a celebration than was good for a party of backpackers. Nonetheless we were all determined.

“Three bottles should be good, right?” John asked, Brad didn’t seem sold. He was too hung over and it was still too early to argue.

I nodded, “Three nights, three bottles. We don’t want to get so worked we can’t find our way back out the mountain, right?” Everyone seemed to agree, though Brad still doing so reluctantly.

We piled into our car and tried following the map to where we were hiking. It was a map of all of West Virginia, not particularly detailed. There was a lot of room for guess work.

“Turn here, turn here,” John buried in the map and Brad at the wheel. Our car edged onto a dirt road, passing a small park which bared a similar name to the trail we were to follow. The road followed a rather large, well-flowing river before it finally came to a dead end. There was some torn up dirt as though a bulldozer had been through the area recently and otherwise no sign of a trailhead.

We stood around debating things for about half an hour. Each of us grabbed one of the three bottles of liquor, shoved them in our backpacks, and stood ready to hike.

“This doesn’t seem right,” Brad was still looking at the same too-zoomed-out-to-tell map.

“No,” John walked into the trees, following the bulldozer tracks, “this looks good.”

I followed. Brad a few seconds later.

Immediately it was obvious that we were not on a trail. The dozer tracks went about a quarter mile into the woods and up the side of the mountain, then stopped. The big tractor that had made them still parked at the end.

“Let’s go back down and figure out where the trail is.” Already our ascent was more than Brad had intended when planning the voyage. John insisted this would be a good way to go, though, and I was happy to follow along with whoever was more forceful. John won the proverbial coin toss and once again we headed up, this time directly through the trees and brush hanging from the side of this mountain.

We’d gone less than a mile before coming on another trail, wide enough for a vehicle to pass. “Seems like a driveway, not a trail,” Brad observed. John ignored him. We were climbing this mountain, he’d decided, and that was that.

A mile up the trail or driveway, several paces ahead of us, John stopped. In a sort of muffled Keanu Reeves he uttered, “Whoa…”

We caught up. And saw the sight. Gruesome.

Three Doberman Pinschers strung up with ropes by their necks, swinging from a hemlock tree. Their guts cut free from their insides. A farm in the distance behind them, we immediately cut east and away from the horror. John was rampaging up the hill now, completely ignorant of any attempt at finding the easier path, he was simply going up, straight up, over fallen trees and through thorn bushes. I did my best to keep up with him, a few paces back at any given moment. Brad, equally uninterested in discovering the story behind hanged dogs in a part of the country where we had no particular desire to see the reds of the farmers’ necks, was plowing along behind us as quickly as he could.

After thirty minutes or so he called out, “Hey.” The phrase he was looking for was, “Wait, I need a break” but some mixture of being out of breath and pride prevented him from the actual request. John turned around and sat on a log. I joined him a few steps later. By the time Brad had caught up, we were both smoking cigarettes and easy breathing talking about what kind of a fucked up situation might lead one to find dogs swinging from tree limbs.

“I need a minute,” he said, panting, staring at our cigarettes longingly while growing angry in the eyes at our relative ease of climbing this uncharted route up the side of the mountain.

I put my cigarette out in guilt. John stood up, ready to move.

The next three hours were a repeat of that exact situation. John and I would get some distance ahead, Brad would make a noise, we’d stop and wait, smoke and chat. Brad would catch up. A minute or two later, John would start up the mountain again.

The two of them had grown up together, best pals since elementary school. I’d met both in college two years back and, while I considered them each close friends, we’d never really done anything stressful together before. So I was trying to take a backseat to the heat I could see brewing between the two.

John, yeah, he was being a dick. Going too fast, wanting to make a marathon out of it. Brad was definitely holding things up. People want to hike at the speed they feel comfortable, if your partners aren’t on that level, whether too slow or much too fast, it causes issues.

So by the time we’d made it to a small brook just shy of the top of the mountain, everyone was more than ready to bust out their liquor.

Still, there was work to be done. Apparently.

I was having little-to-none of it. We all gathered a few stones, I collected some twigs, retrieved a paper bag I’d brought, and was ready to make a fire. Brad was lugging more and more massive stones over to the side of the fire pit. John was pulling entire fallen trees out of the brush.

My fire sparked, I opened the bottle of whisky and took a pull, lit a cigarette, rummaged around in my bag for a granola bar.

“Drinking already?” Brad dropped another massive boulder onto his pile. I looked up, quizzically, Brad turned around and retreated back into the forest. I could see John struggling with a ridiculously large branch, trying to free it from the tangle of undergrowth it had probably fallen into years ago. Another pull, hit my cigarette, blow on the fire.

“You wanna set the tent up?” Brad asked, in my direction, this time he’d managed to balance basketball-sized three rocks, all of which cracked into some amount of smaller stones as he hoist them down atop the rest.

“Sure, just give me a minute.”

“Well don’t drink that whole bottle.” Weird. I didn’t say anything back. Another pull, another hit of my cigarette. When I’d sucked the last bit of burning tobacco smoke into my lungs, I capped the bottle and assessed where we might best position our tent.

“Hey, wait,” John signaled, hauling the branch he’d been working on for the last thirty minutes over to our homestead. “That’s all rocky there.”

“Yeah, pretty hard to find a smooth spot up here.” The top of the mountain, just behind our campsite, was made of jutting boulders rising like Freddy Krueger’s glove into the sky. Whatever natural method had formed this mountain some millennia ago, time and erosion had whittled away most of what could be considered soft, comfortable ground. “Basically, anywhere I put the tent there’ll be some stones underneath.”

John began gathering moss and, laying just enough of nature’s thick green bedding down to cover his own sleeping footprint, then gave me the signal that we were good to go as far as erecting the tent was concerned.

“I’m happy to sleep on the rocky part, man,” I said, assuming he wasn’t interested in doing so himself given his actions.

“Hah,” he laughed, “you want to sleep on my moss now, eh?” I put the tent together and returned to the fire.

Brad had by now created an entire sofa out of his rock pile, long enough to seat three and complete with backrest and arms. He then went off to help John gather wood. I tended the fire. John returned with a few sticks, declaring his wood gathering mission complete, a success I suppose, looking at the stack of timber that could keep us in bonfires for the rest of the summer.

I lifted the bottle toward him, he nodded. But instead of taking a swig he declined to accept my token of getting the good times going, instead disassembling Brad’s rocky sofa. He took precisely 1/3rd of the creation and formed his own little chair, directly across the fire. I watched, amused for certain, and puzzled at how exactly he intended to see this trip resembling anything close to enjoyment after pulling such a maneuver.

Upon Brad’s return, he grew furious. The hours passed long, slow and in silence.

Finally, John and I took a short jaunt up around the stone outcroppings that crowned the mountain. We smoked a bowl, peered into shallow caves looking for bears and watched the sun roll over the trees. I noticed that, aside from the dead Dobermans, we hadn’t seen any fauna during our entire trip. A few birds cast shadows down on the boulder we sat, legs dangling over the side, a fifty foot drop below. But no animals scurried in along the forest bed. The notion disappeared into our hazy minds and for the first time on the trip I felt like we were actually here to enjoy ourselves.

Back at camp, Brad had polished off a good bit of the first bottle of whisky. He’d lined up the bottle of vodka he’d carried in his own backpack as well, and his first words upon our return were, “John, where’s the other bottle of whisky?”

John walked over to his pack, which had been opened, some of the contents laying on the ground around it. “It was in my bag,” he grimaced, digging through it and putting socks and various other random items back into his pack.

Letting out a sarcastic little chuckle, “I checked it,” Brad took another swig from the whisky, staring straight into the fire. “It’s not in there.” They argued, again, for about an hour before John admitted that somehow he didn’t have it, and that he’d run back down the mountain to get it if it was so important.

Brad tried to ration the alcohol. We ignored him. We eventually hit a level of intoxication large enough to have us laughing. The fire grew high, and then got a bit out of control. We scrambled to stamp out the smoldering leaves that were leading toward a forest fire, an unlikely occurrence here in the dampness of Appalachia, but not something we cared to test. The night went on, the drink flowed, and we all passed out.

In the morning, Brad produced some iodine tablets and a portable water pump. He asked who wanted to walk down to the brook nearby to filter some water. We all went. I declined filtering my water. “It’s the top of the world here, if this water isn’t clean, nothing is.” Brad and John went on to extoll me the virtues of charcoal filtering and how they wouldn’t be carrying me out if I were sick.

We returned to camp. The day was easier, more relaxed. We climbed around on the rocks and rebuilt Brad’s sofa and gathered moss for the entire underbelly of the tent. Around 4pm John went looking for a bottle.

“Whoa, there’s barely anything here,” he pulled the bottle of vodka from the tent.

“Yeah,” Brad smiled a little, “I faintly remember us polishing that off last night, too.”

I had ample marijuana, so I wasn’t particularly concerned. We smoked and passed around what was left of the vodka and then smoked some more. The fire grew higher as the sun gave way to a pitch black sky. Every star still shining in the universe twinkled down on us that night.

“Last round?” John asked, taking a swig and passing to Brad, who in turn passed it to me. The last drop went down stinging hot and heart burn. I rolled another joint, we told horror stories, I packed up a bowl, we told some more. Suddenly, we were all very much stoned, and the alcohol was wearing off.

A twig snapped in the forest beside us. John jumped to attention. We hadn’t seen as much as a squirrel thus far and now something sizable was rummaging around in the brush a few feet away. I picked up a softball sized rock and started tossing it up in the air.

“If a bear comes running out of there, don’t you dare throw a rock at it,” John insisted, serious and obviously a bit paranoid.

“If a bear comes at us, don’t you think at least trying to scare it would be helpful?”

“Wait,” a lightbulb illuminated above Brad’s head, “we haven’t seen anything so far because this is it. The cradle of civilization.” He looked at us, expecting a reply. “Dinosaurs still live here. It’s a raptor.”

“Or what if it’s a cougar?” I added.

John spit out a sip of water, laughing through his nose, “As if a cougar’s worse than a dinosaur?”

“It’s probably just a raccoon,” and other such statements followed, three grown men in the forest so burnt up they’d made themselves afraid.

Once again, sleep fell over us. We awoke in the morning, all of our limbs in tact, no sign of prehistory or predator.

We made the decision to call this trip a success and hike back down out of the mountain. We’d explored the entire top of it and, being out of liquor, thought perhaps another night in a hotel down in town might be more fun that pretending like we all were prepared for another day of good, clean, sober fun.

As we began descending John was veering West. “We’re over this way,” I assured him. He protested fiercely. I had, apparently, grown comfortable enough to join in on the arguing, and insisted he was leading us the wrong way. We came across a trail that followed along the mountain horizontally, and though we’d ascended directly up on our way in, Brad decided he’d rather follow that than listen to the two of us bicker.

John and I watched him disappear down the trail. “Well, either way that’s not right.” John decided to listen to me, and twenty minutes into wondering if we’d ever see Brad again–who owned the car and was presumably holding the keys that could start it–he came scrambling down the mountain to where we could call him over.

“This is definitely right,” he assured me, as John walked several feet behind me, always looking around as though this land was so foreign you might think I took us so out of the way we’d arrived in another country. I felt confident in my sense of direction.

Then we came upon a river. I suddenly realized I had gotten us lost.

“Well there was no river on the way up, except the one we parked next to.” John was obviously right. I admitted nothing.

“We can follow this to civilization,” Brad watched a good deal of Survivorman and Bear Grills.

“We’re not trying to get to civilization,” John snorted, “we need to get to your car.”

Still, instead of following either John’s inclination that we should be heading more West or Brad’s desire to walk downstream, which would have also lead us West, I insisted we trudge on. “We can’t cross this river,” was my excuse, invalid as it were.

A while later, tired of climbing uphill, Brad had moved to John’s side of the argument. Two trees had fallen, one from each side of the river, to nearly form a bridge. They didn’t exactly meet in the middle, a jump would be required, perhaps three feet wide and two feet down. “I can’t jump that,” Brad was insistant as he could see John and I’s brains working to decide whether it was traversable. The water was definitely flowing, enough so that it would certainly carry us downstream if we were to find ourselves less sure-footed than our attempts might desire. By the time John had jumped across it, Brad’s middle finger was high in the air. “Fuck you guys!” could be heard, slightly, over the rush of the river, as we both made it to the other side.

I watched him, assessing the river’s current, the length of the leap. He removed his backpack and threw it, skillfully catching one of the straps on a branch protruding from the second half of our felled tree bridge. It took him another ten minutes to make the leap. His feet landed on the now slick trunk of tree, covered in mud and moisture from John’s boots, from my own.

Moments later, everyone was safe and sound on the other side. Brad announced that he needed to fill up his water bottle. John was annoyed that, after taking so long to cross the river, he would be adding another stall to what was now, in John’s mind, a mad dash for the car. Brad removed two one liter, empty, Aquafina bottles and began filling them from the creek using his purifying pump and iodine tablets. John was slowly inching his way down the trail.

“Ready?” he asked Brad, annoyance stuck between every vowel and consonant that whipped from his tongue.

“Not quite.” He then reached into his pack and produced some Kool Aid packets. Before he could even get them open, John was down the trail and out of sight. Admittedly, and considering I found the use of iodine tablets the mark of a city boy, I was annoyed at the idea that the water must be sweetened before consumption. I began down the trail, too.

“At least there is a trail now,” I laughed to John as I caught up. He was in no mood for humor. For half an hour or so we walked on the flat, easy terrain, finally coming to a clearing. Brad caught up and immediately saw exactly what we had: his car. On the other side of the river. And in this spot the river was not passable, maybe one hundred feet wide and the raging, murky whitewater too much to swim across.

John began removing his boots, his wallet, his backpack. “I’ll swim it, give me the keys.” I was sure that would mean certain death.

“Give me the keys,” I said, “I’ll run down the river and find a place to cross, grab the car and be back in no time.”

“Okay well give me your pot, then.”

John and Brad, lighting up cigarettes and my marijuana, tucked in for what I’m sure they presumed would be an hour or so of hanging along the river bank while I retrieved the car.

Two miles down the river, though, no sign of a crossing was to be found. Eventually a small, paved road ran alongside the river and I took a smoke break, waiting for a car to pass. Two cigarettes later one did, but my raised thumb was met with a blank stare through the front windshield. I walked along the road for the short while it parallelled the river, but as no additional cars passed, I returned to the river to find a way across.

Another mile downstream I came on a few hunting cabins. No one appeared to be home, but to my delight I saw a zip-line device where twenty foot towers on each side of the water were connected by a steel cable, and a metal bucket large enough for a person to sit in hung by a pulley system. Salvation.

I climbed the towers, exhausted, but this was it: my big chance to cross the river and become the hero. More than an hour, probably a couple of them, had passed. John and Brad had already decided that I’d tried to cross the river and drowned, but I was certain that in no time I’d be in the car and on my way to their rescue. I reached the top of the tower and began climbing into the bucket, looking over the pulley system as to how this contraption worked, little concern at safety, completely absorbed in the miraculous novelty of it all. And then I saw it.

A padlock.

I climbed back down and continued on.

It was another hour before I found a bridge.

Several more hours of walking, now slowed and feeling defeated, passed before I made it back to the car. John was sitting on the trunk, he’d swam across, despite assuming I had met my demise in the water, despite Brad’s protests. He was not happy to see me alive. He snatched the keys from my hands and we did 50 miles an hour down the dirt road that we’d initially driven in on. The several hours of walking I’d done took only minutes by car. We retrieved Brad and made our way directly to the closest restaurant, a pizza place that treated us like the dirty, stinky out-of-towners we were.

It took a few months before we all decided to pick our friendship back up. It’s been seven years though without another hiking expedition together.

Photograph by Justin Kern