by Joe Plymel
Fifteen thousand strides. I did not count each one, but the map indicated that the days hike had brought us an additional twelve miles or so, therefore, the number is probably a close estimate. Whatever the amount of lifts and drops my boots had done, my final destination made them each worthwhile. Sarabelle, my faithful yellow lab, and I found ourselves nestled in a high cove of the Blue Ridge of Western North Carolina. The surrounding forest is designated as the Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness Area, a 17,000 acre unit within the Nantahala National Forest. The wilderness is home to one of only a handful of virgin forests in America. For whatever reason - be it economic, political, geographical, or social - the trees had never fallen to the saw, or the rich earth laid open to the plow.
I leaned back against a large log that seemed a natural border for what had become our temporary homestead. I sat upon my folded sleeping pad. Sarabelle, contentedly tired and full of kibble and tuna and jerked beef, laid asleep with her head pressed hard against my leg in a perpetual nudge. Her occasional jerk and barely discernable whimper indicated her deep, restful slumber. I sat silently sipping hot cocoa - my traditional follow-up to Ramen noodles and tuna. "Hots", some call it. I call it supper. Whatever the title, hot food and drink taste no better than in the backcountry - and nowhere else does a small fire warm so well. Despite the rains of the preceding days, I had managed to raise a more than adequate flame. I watched the fiery follies of the one-ring circus as my titanium cup became increasingly lighter, and my eyelids heavier.
As darkness grew, my dreamy attention was drawn to the treetops. There was a familiar stir in the air. Indeed, the stir was brought about by the News of things forthcoming. The Titans - red maple, white oak, blue spruce - standing above me were first to receive the News. They became restless and excited; leaning first to one neighbor, then another - thus spreading the News. Then, to the rousing applause of the nearby rhododendron, the News swept through the camp.
Smoke, which had been slithering about the ground as if searching out the vulnerable for it's flaming master, began first to stop, then reel, then dart off in a panicked retreat - disappearing into the shadows of the forest. Fire, angered by the News, glowed a ferocious red then orange then yellow. He raised up and hissed and threw outward and upward his pyroclastic weapons of destruction - all of which diminished, dim and harmless, until they fell black onto the damp leaf litter. Seeing all this, Little Creek leapt into a rock crevice to giggle unseen like a bashful schoolgirl. She, too, had heard the News, and knew that her fantasies would soon come true; that she was about to grow into a beautiful and patient woman as she meandered to the place where she would someday wed her briney groom.
Then nothing. Silence. Eerily motionless and perfectly quiet. As soon as it arrived, it had vanished.
But not for long.
First, a tap on the hat. Then, a tap on the toe. Then another, and another, and another. The fire spat and spewed, the rhododendron began another ovation, and I roused from my slumber and scrambled to my feet. Within a few seconds, the pitterpatter of a few raindrops had become the roar of a deluge. I scurried around grabbing all that my headlamp illuminated, and within one minute Sarabelle and I were safely bedded down in the dry comfort of our little tent. The rain continued battering the fly of our shelter, and lulled us quickly to sleep - my favorite sleep. It is a sleep that can only be found 15,000 steps to where the giant sentinels of the forest stand watch, where the creatures of the darkness prowl by to whisper "good night", and where you are securely cradled in the loving arms of God.
About the Author
I am a son of the South in love with my American family. I'll never travel abroad because of the likelyhood of running out of time before seeing all there is to see here.