by E.J. Beck, life member and former KTA President
He’s walking along the trail, pack on his back, hiking stick poking the trail ahead, and a song in his heart. The stream babbles pleasantly off to his right, the sky is clear, and the autumn temperature is pleasant. All is right with the world—or at least his current part of it. This is a great time to be out and about in Penn’s Woods—the basis of the name Pennsylvania—and now here he is in the state’s north-central part.
He’s been looking forward to this hike for a while now. While sitting at his desk, supposedly tweaking computer code, he’d been contemplating what this hike would be like. And now here he is, nearly 10 miles from his car, thoroughly enjoying each step he takes on the trail. He hears some birds singing, although there aren’t many this time of the year. The leaves have largely changed from their summer greens to their autumn hues. Most are still attached to the comfort of their trees, seemingly reluctant to enter the last phase of this year’s life cycle. But some have come loose, floating on the breeze and settling mostly on the ground. A few, though, settle on the stream, where their adventure will continue to some unknown destination downstream.
Because of the fallen leaves on the trail, he’s a bit cautious as he walks, using his hiking stick to push the leaves away. One never knows when a rock or branch might be lurking beneath the leaves, ready to trip the unwary hiker. To fall with a 50-plus-pound pack on your back wouldn’t be good. He’s always said that the only dangerous thing lurking in the woods is gravity.
The trail follows the stream through an ever-narrowing valley with trees on both sides. He’s hiked this trail before, although from the other direction and with several other hikers. On that trip, he’d noted several places he thought he would like to see again—to spend a bit of time, not just hike through in a hurry to get to the next trailhead. He knows that up ahead, from the left, a small stream will trickle down the rocks and run across the trail. He’ll have to step over this to keep his boots from getting muddy.
Reaching the stream, he fills a couple bottles with water. He’ll later boil this water and use it for cooking. He has a separate bottle of city water for just drinking or brushing teeth. Great, he thinks—now he has more water, but he also has several more pounds added to his pack.
He eventually sees where the trail begins ascending the hill on the left side of the valley. The place he’s looking for is near where the trail crosses over the top of this hill. As he gains elevation and looks ahead, he hopes what he sees is the actual summit. All too often, when looking up at where the trail meets the sky, you think you’re seeing the top. But when you get there, you realize it’s only a false summit—a place where the trail levels for a bit and then begins climbing even further. Fortunately, as he approaches the apparent crest, he sees just what he is looking for off to the left—a mountain meadow.
A mountain meadow is an anomaly in the forest. Trees don’t grow there, mostly because of deer keeping everything but grass from growing. There are plenty of deer, and they diligently perform their duty of keeping the grass properly mowed. The meadow he finds, about the size of a football field, is about 15 feet off-trail; he gently pushes the underbrush aside as he makes his way to it. He checks where he’ll pitch his tent off to one side of the meadow—certainly not near the middle, where it would blight this natural setting. He cautiously walks off to an area about the size of his tent, careful not to step into a hole or depression—knowing that what seems to be a level surface might actually be a series of low, uneven hummocks.
He confirms this area is level, then loosens the shoulder cinches of his pack, opens the hip belt, and then swings the pack to the ground. He stands up and—whoa. He forgot that after carrying a heavy pack for several hours, you seem almost to float from the sudden lack of weight. He waits a few seconds to establish his equilibrium, then stands the pack against a nearby small tree.
He needs to set up his tent. He unstraps the tent from the pack and opens the ground cloth that’s wrapped around the rolled-up tent. He places the ground cloth (actually a sheet of plastic) and arranges it on the ground. Next comes the tent, which he puts on the ground cloth and unrolls it. He gets the small bag of tent stakes out, then looks around for a hammer. There are usually hammers lying around just about everywhere, cleverly disguised as rocks. He finds an appropriate one, looks it over, decides it will do, smiles, and softly says, “I hereby christen you, ‘hammer’; now let’s get to work.” He hammers the stakes into the loops at the 4 corners of the tent, then inserts the tent poles—a little more than a foot long and shock-corded together—at the corners and fastens them together at the top. After doing the other side, he opens the pole spanning the top and holds the upright poles together. Then he lifts the tent fabric and clips it to the poles. Voilà—instant lodging.
Next, he unstraps the air mattress and unrolls it into the tent. With a sincere thank-you to the person who invented the self-inflating air mattress, he opens the valve that allows air to enter the bag and watches the mattress to inflate. This is surely better than the old-fashioned way of huffing-and-puffing for 10 minutes to inflate a mattress.
He unrolls the sleeping bag on top of the mattress. Opening the backpack, he pulls out his bag with a change of clothes and tosses it into the tent, where it will double as a pillow for the night. Now that the air mattress is firm, he replaces the cap, looks around inside the tent, and decides all is in order. “Be it ever so humble, et cetera, et cetera,” he thinks.
Evening’s closing in; it’s time to eat. First he gets the stove out of the pack, unfolds the legs so it can stand, and then pumps up the fuel tank to pressurize it so that the fuel will flow. Then he brings out a stack of nested pans and takes out one that will hold his dinner, such as it is. He pours out a cup of water into the pan. He pulls out one of the packages of freeze-dried dinners. There are several to choose from, but they all seem to taste alike. After the water boils, he stirs in the contents, then turns off the stove, puts the lid on, and lets his dinner simmer for 5 minutes.
The dinner of beef stew isn’t really bad at all. Back home, he wouldn’t have even considered touching this stuff, but here in the woods, it seems like a banquet. As he’s finishing dinner, he uses the spoon to scrape the pan of every bit of stew that he can. When it’s finished, he measures his drinking cup with water, then pours it into the pan to make a cup of tea. Yep, stew-flavored tea. This way, the pot’s clean and actually washed with water. This is easier than having to wash any dishes or pots. When he gets home, he’ll run all cooking materials in the dishwasher.
He takes a light rope out from his pack and throws it over the branch of a nearby tree. He ties the pack to one end and hoists it about 10 feet off the ground. Then he ties the other end of the rope to the tree. Now everything is out of reach of any forest creatures that might happen by.
Just before dark, he walks through the brush back to the trail and sits down to the scene before him. The trail is on the side of the hill, where he now looks down to the stream below, and the entire hillside is on the other side of the valley. He’s pleased to note that since the sun has gone down over that hill, it will rise from behind him and light the scene that he is now facing.
He walks back to his tent to be there before it gets too dark to see. He stops to listen to a whippoorwill calling nearby. Another responds from a distance; they begin what seems to be a conversation. He’s always liked the evening sounds of bird calls and believes this might be a major reason for his enjoying the evenings in this part of Penn’s Woods.
He crawls into his tent and zips it closed. He takes off his hiking boots and lies down on the sleeping bag. He has a small, battery-powered light that he turns on to see while he enters his journal comments. He wants to note the highlights of the day, along with his thoughts about the experiences.
That done, it’s time to sleep. It’s been a great day, he thinks. Closing his eyes, he hears a call--whoo-hoo-hoo-hoo, whoo-hoo—from somewhere across the meadow. A great horned owl, calling into the night. He hears the call again—much closer (almost overhead) this time and, presumably, from another owl. And then yet another owl calls, from off in the distance. Neat, he thinks. This is beautiful music to fall asleep to.
Soon there’s the sound of something scurrying about just outside his tent. A field mouse or similar creature, alarmed by the owl calls, is seeking better cover to be out of sight. Another of nature’s intrigues is occurring. The owl hoots; the creature scurries, thinking it’s finding a better place to hide but, in reality, giving away its location. The owl hoots again, listening intently for the scurrying that so often follows and able to hone in on the prey’s location. Although owls are often credited with having superior eyesight, it’s actually their uncanny hearing that makes them such successful hunters.
The nighttime sounds of hooting and scurrying go on, but soon he’s almost asleep. Then he hears a new sound—a light crash in the leaves on the nearby ground, followed by a high-pitched squeal that quickly fades into the distance. He knows what’s just happened—nature, although sometimes cruel, had completed another cycle. Well, he thinks, the owl now has its dinner, so things should probably be quiet for the rest of the night. He’s soon asleep.
The night passes with an assortment of forest sounds. He’s eventually awakened by a new sound—the distant barking of a coyote. It must be nearly dawn, he thinks, since the coyote is nature’s way of heralding the day. Sure enough, just before sunrise, a coyote announces the upcoming day. And then another coyote seconds the notion that dawn is imminent. Not to be outdone, all coyotes in the area join in to make it unanimous. Dawn will be happening again.
He dresses, puts on his boots, unzips the 2 zippers of the tent, and crawls out. As he rezips the tent, he looks off onto the meadow, where he notices several deer looking in his direction. Of course they’re watching—the sound of the nylon zipper is totally unnatural. He slowly and quietly finishes the zipping, then ever so slowly rises and moves to the edge of the meadow. He knows that it is only proper to cause the least amount of disturbance, since he’s the one trespassing in the deer’s domain.
He slowly makes his way back through the underbrush to the trail. He sits and looks out over the valley toward the opposite hillside. It’s barely visible at this hour of the morning. The hillside is like a textured gray sheet. As the sky lightens, the opposite hillside assumes a lighter shade.
The sun is rising behind him, and he becomes aware of some color beginning to show on the hillside. Suddenly a ray of sunshine stabs through the trees behind him and splashes a bit of orange onto a tree on the opposite side. The splash of orange on the otherwise drab hillside is startling. Then there’s another splash—this one more yellow. Then another orange, then a splash of red, then a shade of green. It’s as though an artist (the sun, let’s say) takes a bit of color from a palette and daubs it onto a canvas (the hillside, let’s say). A daub of orange, a daub of yellow; then red, then green, then many daubs with a combination of the colors. As the sun continues rising and the rays find their way between the leaves, there seem to be multiple brushes daubing ever faster.
After what’s just a few minutes, the sun rises over the treetops. The entire canvas is complete, with an array of every imaginable vibrant autumn color. This spectacle is much more than he’d expected. One reason he chose this place as his night-camping destination was to witness this spectacle. Watching the dull hillside transform into so many vibrant colors made the entire trip well worth the effort.
He walks back through the underbrush to the meadow. The deer have moved on, the meadow is empty, and a few morning birds are singing their morning songs. He unties the rope from the tree and lowers the pack. He takes out the stove, pumps it up, and measures some water into the pot. Breakfast will be a package of oatmeal. He checks his options, discovering that he has a choice of flavors: apple-and-cinnamon or maple. Oh, well, he thinks. Live adventurously—combine both flavors.
After the oatmeal, with the required scraping of the pot, he pours enough water in to boil water for tea. Oatmeal-flavored tea this time. As he enjoys the tea, he looks around at the pleasant surroundings—the deer-mown meadow, along with the oak and maple trees wearing their autumn hues occasionally interspersed with the dark green of conifers. The birds don’t sing as much in the autumn as in the spring, but there are a few—a towhee, for instance, singing its Drink your tea song, along with (somewhere off in the forest) the melodious call of a wood thrush. They’re all adding to the atmosphere of a beautiful morning. A slight breeze is blowing, causing a drizzle of leaves to flutter to the ground. Everything is peaceful.
And to think his office coworkers had asked him why he was going on this hike. They’d never believe how wonderful this is. He knows that, when he returns to work, explaining the sheer joy he’s feeling right now, in this place, wouldn’t do any good. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s immortal Puck, “What fools those city-dwellers be.” They’d never understand—unless, of course, they see things for themselves by heading out for a hike.
So now it’s time to move on. He starts breaking camp by doing the reverse of setting it up—opening the air mattress, rolling up the sleeping bag, and rolling up the mattress by slowly pressing out the air. After he attaches the mattress and sleeping bag to his pack, he deals with the tent—unclipping the fabric, disassembling the poles, pulling up the stakes, rolling up the tent and the ground cloth, and attaching it all to his pack. He’s almost ready to go, but first he must rechristen the hammer so it’s once again merely a rock.
He looks around. The grass is pressed down where the tent had been. He walks around and kicks up the grass to remove, as much as possible, the fact that he’d been there. After all, when he’d arrived, the meadow seemed pristine, as if nobody had ever been there. He felt it was only right to leave the meadow just as pristine for the next hiker so that person would experience the same feeling.
With everything ready, he hefts the pack to his hip, slips an arm into a strap, and flips the pack around to put his other arm into the other strap. He positions the pack on his back, buckles the waist strap, and finally tightens the shoulder cinch straps. He retrieves the hiking stick from where it leans against a tree; then, at last, he’s ready.
This weekend will sustain him for perhaps a week, but maybe longer. He’d spent at least a week contemplating this hike; later, once again sitting at his desk and staring at his computer, he’ll think back to this hike and smile at the memories. He takes a final look around, then turns and takes his first step back toward reality.