We pull up to the ranger station at the entrance of the campground, our SUV laden with new hiking gear and 3,000 pounds of snacks. We brush crumbs off our fleece sweaters and talk to the ranger at the window, a man with friendly eyes and a soft Virginia accent.
“Have you seen any bears yet?” he asks, grinning with an excitement I find troubling, as if he will personally release bears into our campsite if we do not see any by the end of the day.
“Not yet,” we reply. The only bears we have seen are on the various key chains, mugs, and posters at the camp store/gift shop down the road. They also sell bear mace. Shenandoah National Park, we later learn, has the highest concentration of black bears in North America. The ranger continues to tell us that that the previous year, the number of bears wandering through the campground was record-breaking.
“But they weren’t doing anything they weren’t supposed to,” he says. I picture the things bears aren’t supposed to do. Mental images of bears selling drugs, catcalling women, embezzling park funds.
We pay for four nights, and drive into the campground. As the Forester rolls through the spiderweb of single-lane roads, we make note of the dense collection of tents and RVs already inhabiting the woods–families from New York and Maryland escaping for the week, lured by the Shenandoah Valley’s promise of scenic beauty and acceptable bears.
It’s my first time camping, and I feel the awkwardness of the late bloomer, embarrassed that this seemingly universal experience immortalized in comic strips and cartoons has eluded me until well into adulthood. I’ve never slept outside, never even owned a sleeping bag. And I’ve never set up a tent, even though I’ve always wanted to have a fatherly moment of anguish as I become encumbered by impossible folds of canvas and bent metal poles, as was promised by the sitcoms of my youth. Now, as an adult with a desk job and opinions on municipal trash collection, I realize that I hold the power to make this missed experience a reality.
We circle a few times, looking for any un-familied patch of land to stake our tent. Finally, we settle in an area near the entrance, relatively free of settlers. In minutes, the sleeping bags are unfurled, pots stowed, snacks stored in bear-proof locker mere feet away for quick access. Moreover, the tent is up in a matter of minutes, to my disappointment. I will need something else to go hilariously awry to achieve the desired camping experience.
As we set up for dinner, we realize our area of the campground, empty when we began, is now flooded with multi-colored tents and the sounds of children throwing balls and tantrums. The awkwardness returns, and I wonder if camping is meant for adults at all, or is merely a rite of passage meant to stay in childhood, a lesson used to ease young ones into a world of self-inflicted hardship and tedium. I feel alien. Bear-like, I have wandered onto this campground, and while I’m not strictly allowed, I’m also not doing anything I’m not supposed to, so my presence is tolerated.
Undaunted by the battalion of happy families around us, we assemble our campfire, carefully placing our firewood in a formation aimed to provide maximum heat. We stuff it with tinder made of old notes and paper bags and the twenty-eight matches which have proven faulty. However, a short thirty minutes later, our campsite is lit up by the flickering glow a masterfully-constructed fire. My wife and I roast marshmallows and admire our handiwork.
“That’s a great fire,” I say.
“We’re so good at this,” Rachel says.
“Three Michelin Stars.”
“It just comes so naturally to us.”
“Let’s adopt it.”
The conversation continues like this until the fire is a collection of ruby embers, and the moon, nearly fully, casts the grounds in an eerie black-blue light. We retreat to the tent and read, but as I scour the same passage over and over again, I cannot shake the feeling that I have stumbled into a world for which I am wholly unprepared–like learning a foreign language, camping can only be learned in youth, and no amount of discount gear or vigorous snacking will legitimize my pitiful efforts to conquer the wilderness. I lie in my sleeping bag, and I listen to the sounds of the woods, the hooting of owls, the absence of bears.
We wake up early, consume our morning snacks, and load up for the day’s hike: a grueling 10-mile excursion up Old Rag, one of the most popular hikes in the entire park. The park’s literature stresses, explicitly and definitively, the strenuous and even perilous nature of the hike, which turns to exposed rock and demands intense scrambling in the mile approach to the summit. Aware of the danger and intense nature of the journey, we pack up our most calorie-dense snacks and set out for the adventure.
Shenandoah National Park is a 100-mile long strip of wilderness that follows the Appalachian Mountain Range, bisected by Skyline Drive, a scenic byway which runs its entire length. Because of this, accessing areas outside the park requires a meandering journey back up Skyline Drive to the nearest exit, and then back down again to one’s destination. So while Old Rag is only ten miles away from our campsite, it takes over an hour to reach by car. By the time we arrive at the trailhead, it’s 10AM, and parking lot teems with families seeking to commune with nature and vie for the chance to ride in a rescue helicopter. Despite this, we manage to squeeze into a spot and begin our trek up the mountain.
For forty minutes we ascend, maneuvering around families and children scattered like land mines. We pass a family resting on a rock–a mother and three teenagers, all clad in pink. PinkMom breaks away and asks us how far they are from the trailhead. I look at my watch and inform her that it’s been two miles.
She looks back to her brood, smiling, and says “Wow, two miles already!” They scowl at her. We push past and continue up the mountain.
The trail is crowded, and we have some difficulty passing the slower-moving hikers, who do not move aside when we approach. We strategize, slow down when the trail coagulates with families, speed up when it widens, try to maneuver around tour groups and MeetUps. Our respites are brief, paranoid, our eyes fixed downtrail, ready to leap up and continue at the first sight of other hikers. It is the adrenaline rush endemic to the most-trafficked trails, the brief panic when, while taking a snack break, you witness a Christian youth group slowly crest the ridge to the south, and you stumble back onto the trail, spraying peanuts and granola everywhere, desperately trying to increase your distance lest you become caught behind an orange wave of “Hikers 4 Christ” t-shirts.
I wonder if I’m hiking incorrectly. I wonder if the families look at us with disgust as we rush up the trail with our trekking poles clacking in perfect sync. I wonder if the bears do not approach me because they are disappointed with my behavior.
We rest, and Clan Pink approaches. They pass us before PinkMom turns back and asks, “Do you know how far it is to the rock scramble?”
We tell her it’s not far. Based on the map, it should be less than a mile. She goes back and reports this to her children.
“Have they done this before?” we can hear the boy ask. He has a pink sweater draped around his shoulders.
“I don’t know,” PinkMom says.
“Have they done this before?”
“I don’t think so.”
“So they don’t know.”
Defeated by PinkBoy’s ironclad reasoning, PinkMom leads her clan quietly up the mountain. We let them disappear over the ridge, then continue.
As the sun climbs higher in the sky, I notice an unsettling trend as we, now 24 hours without phone access, incorporate more and more internet memes into our conversation. Slipping in without our noticing, our journey up the mountain is punctuated by references to creepypastas, deal with its and bae caught me hiking, as well as older millennial memes long-abandoned by a the more recent, more cynical internet.
When I relay this observation to Rachel, she replies, “Child reacts nervously GIF.”
We pass Clan Pink, who are huddled at a bend in the trail. Pinkboy glares at us as we pass. “Hey look, mom,” he says. “It’s your favorite people.” I want shake my trekking pole at him and say We are no one’s favorite people.
We emerge above the treeline, and the ground turns to rock, and the mountaintop bursts into chaos. The scramble has begun. We shorten our poles and clamber across the landscape, heaving ourselves over boulders and shimmying through narrow passageways as hikers fan out around us, laughing, chortling as they slip from the rocks. They offer advice to us as they tumble into crevices, as they dive headfirst into the stone, remarking on the danger of the mountain. Children gnaw at boulders, adolescents in Converse sneakers swing from outcroppings, hollering their teenage war cry. Elderly retirees cast aside their walkers, scale sheer cliff faces in loafers and robes. Young parents gleefully toss their babies back and forth across open chasms. There is no law here, only the rule of Old Rag.
I must compress myself into smaller and smaller passageways. I do not fit on this mountain, any more than I fit on the campsite. Around us, the trail rumbles with the vicious roar of the families enjoying themselves. They cluster, hunched over and gargoyle-like, upon every flat surface; there is no place to rest. We will never rest again.
“MFW we’re surrounded by handsome families,” Rachel says.
After what seems like hours of crawling, climbing, hoisting, and heaving, we reach the peak of Old Rag, and the park spreads out beneath us in a magnificent vista. I tell my wife I love her, and wish her a happy anniversary. We embrace and look to the horizon, where we see another peak, the actual summit, in the distance.
Quietly, we let go of each other and continue the scramble. My arms ache. I haven’t been swimming enough. Around us, parents fling their children over the boulders in their attempts to reach the summit. We’re racing now, glancing over our shoulders to watch our pursuers. It’s too hectic to stop in any one place to admire the view, as even a brief pause can spur a bottleneck here, backing up the families for miles.
We reach the summit, and I wish my wife a happy anniversary, and we amazingly we find an unclaimed snacking place. We sit down and make note of the next peak in the distance, higher than this one, and most likely the actual summit.
It is not the actual summit, but the next one is. A wooden sign points us to the trail which leads to the highest point on the mountain. Already, a line of families has formed there, waiting to get to the top. We ignore it and begin the journey back down the other side of the mountain.
The descent is easier, the technical portion giving way to a winding dirt path that leads down the mountain in an easy slope. Trees surround us once more, and the softness of the dirt is calming beneath my feet, as if to invite me on a safe adventure inspired by the storybooks of my youth. I relax and let the sounds of the forest ease my worries. The violence of the peak is far behind. An old man passes us on his ascent, laughs and says, “They told me this was the easy way up!” Leaves rustle, spurred by the whisper of the wind. Silently, almost ghostlike, a group of young Quakers slips by at impossible speeds.
Somewhere up the mountain, a hiker screams that they have hurt their ankle.
Rachel freezes, looks upward. The scream returns, louder now.
“Hold on,” Rachel says, and listens, waiting for some sign that she is needed to intervene.
The screaming turns to laughter, and a few more screams join in. Ankle jokes are screamed back and forth.
“Cool,” my wife says. We resume our hike.
The laughter turns into tortured birdcall, an excruciating cuckoo. Some hikers below respond in kind, and for the next mile we are trapped between these two competing factions, descending within a bubble of screaming that seems to possess the entire mountain.
“If anyone breaks an ankle,” I tell my wife, “you’re not allowed to help.”
The trail widens into a fire road, where we inexplicably pass Clan Pink again, sans their matriarch, who I assume has been left for dead on the mountain, her corpse partially cannibalized in one final act of teenage rebellion. They say nothing to us as we pass.
By the time we return to the parking lot, it’s late afternoon, and we’re coated in a film of dirt and sweat. We pile into the car and begin the long drive back to camp, stopping for beer at the camp store on the way.
It takes mere minutes to start our fire, and we settle around without a word, exhausted and bereft of words to convey the emotional maelstrom of the day’s climb.
We drink our beers in silence. Rachel looks around. Orange flames dot the wilderness, the fires of our neighboring campers, who have all presumably descended Old Rag.
“Do you worry our fire is too good?” she asks.
That night we sleep bearlessly.
I wake up to owls and throbbing pain in my arms and back. Luckily, today my wife has planned a canoe trip, a relaxing six-mile drift down the Shenandoah River to ease out the pain of the climb. We have a leisurely breakfast of snacks and set out on the hour-long drive to the river outfitters.
When we arrive, the dirt parking lot is empty, save for a pair of school buses, each attached to a trailer filled with a rainbow of canoes. The brown river, just beyond the line of trees, churns with menace.
We walk inside the outfitter shack to an apologetic lady behind the desk.
“The river is too high,” she says. “We tried to call you.”
Disappointed, we return to the car and being the journey back to camp, postulating as to what “too high” means in the context of canoeing. We drive alongside the river, which sits safely in its bed, not floating above the treeline in a watery cube as one would expect a “too-high” river to do. As we do not understand canoeing, we assume that the outfitters are merely trying to drum extra business by creating an artificial scarcity, that a too-high river is too much fun, and will inevitably lead to disappointment for other customers who arrive on low-river days.
By the time we return to camp, it is past noon and we have no plans for the day. Unwilling to stay at campground, where we may encounter Clan Pink, we throw together plans for a six-mile hike. We pack the mid-range snacks and trek the Dark Hollow Falls trail, chosen both for its proximity to our campsite and for the branding opportunities should I perish en route.
The trail brims with a line of families shuffling toward the falls. We take our spot in the queue and begin marching, penguin-style, downward to the lookout point.
While most of my fellow penguins stop at the falls to take pictures, the trail continues on, a thin, overgrown dirt path plunging down into the valley. After a minute on this path, we are alone. As we descend the natural staircase wet rock, the tumbling falls our companion, I feel the sense of tranquility I’ve been seeking.
In contrast to the scramble up Old Rag, this hike seems tailored for us. We walk at our own pace, stopping at our leisure. The few hikers we see smile at us, wave, partake in the good-hearted fraternity of the trail. We pass families, the fathers of which dispense homespun wisdom as their children bow and step aside for us to pass. A Whippet is there. For the first time on this trip, I don’t feel like an impostor.
We return to camp, exhausted yet refreshed from the trail. Despite the pain in our limbs we manage to light a fire, keeping it alive with an unceasing supply of wood, as the growing wind threatens to snuff it out any moment. I find an enormous log on the ground and heave it in. It barely fits into the fire pit.
“I’m in awe at the size of this log,” I say.
“The absolute unit,” says my wife.
That night, the wind turns violent. I don’t sleep, only stared bleary-eyed at the dancing, blue-glowing roof of the tent, watching as the shadows of tree limbs pass overhead, bending closer and closer to earth on the urging of the wind. Every few seconds, a gust bulges the tent inward, pressing it into my face, and the trees rustle and creak with delight. I can only think of the sheer number of branches overhanging our tent. My wife, who wakes up at various points in the night, informs me at two in the morning that, barring a direct blow to the head, a falling tree limb is quite survivable. Even a broken femur isn’t that bad, she says.
Unless the bears arrive, of course.
We wake up the next morning, uncrushed, unmauled, but exhausted. The howl of the wind has not stopped, and is only getting stronger. Most of the tents around us are gone, the few remaining families quickly packing up. The weather report, a whiteboard tacked to the front of the ranger station, is a warning in blood-red letters.
Tornadoes, thunderstorms, and floods on the horizon.
I don’t know whether to stay or not. Is my camping less legitimate if I leave? Will I be allowed back into the park, or will the friendly, bear-aligned ranger look over his notes, say “Sorry, this is for real campers. Ones who don’t flee at the first sight of tornadoes. Also I’ve notified the other National Parks regarding to your cowardice.”
Between the trees, a tent flips over.
Old Rag roars in the distance.
We make a decision. We gather our supplies and climb into the car, looking for a new adventure. We traverse Skyline drive for the last time, stopping only to go into the gift shop so my wife can purchase a poster to remember our trip.
We leave the gift shop, eyes trained on the darkening horizon, and wonder what to do with the rest of our vacation.