by Damon Nomad
An encounter in the rugged southern Appalachian Mountains.
| Fear on a Mountain Ridge - True Story|
By Damon Nomad
This is the only story I intend to post that is not fiction. It is an account of what happened to me and two friends decades ago on a rugged mountain trail in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Myself and a co-worker, I will call him Mark, and his cousin from out of town, I will call him Phil. We were all experienced hiking, hunting, and backpacking, in our early thirties at the time. My memories of this trip are still vivid, many years later. I have written the story with dialogue, not based on actual recollection of what we said decades ago, but a rough approximation. I tell the story as closely as I can recall, to give a sense of how the trip unfolded and what it was that struck fear into the hearts of three men experienced in wilderness areas.
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Mark and I were in decent physical condition, out of college for about ten years at the time. Mark more so than me, he was a runner around six feet tall with a thick beard. I had never met his cousin Phil before this trip, he was a few years younger than Mark and I. Thin-framed but very fit, he had been an outdoorsman his entire life and an experienced hunter. He had not gone to college and was on the quiet side. Mark told me that Phil was devoutly religious, a fundamentalist but not someone who would get in your face about religion. Mark and I had backpacked together many times and socialized for several years before this trip. We knew each other well, and one of the topics we talked about was the Bible. He knew I enjoyed debating things including the Bible. He told me that Phil was a good-natured soul who might not appreciate a spirited debate on the good book, I understood the message.
They arrived at my house early on a Friday morning, it was mid-autumn and the weather was perfect for going into the mountains. Mark and I had already planned out a route, it would be around twenty miles in a wilderness area in high rugged mountains, with quite a bit of elevation change. The route started from a small gravel lot with a long climb on a spur trail, gaining nearly three thousand feet elevation to the crest of a ridge. The spur trail ended at a junction with a long-distance trail that traveled along a ridge connecting several peaks for more than twenty miles. We had picked out a shelter just past the halfway point, to camp Friday night. There was another shelter just before another spur foot path intersected the ridge where we would stay Saturday night. Sunday morning, we would take the trail down off the ridge, it looped back down to an old logging road, less than a mile from where we would park on Friday.
We stood in the driveway with the topo map spread out on the hood of my SUV, as I traced out the route for Phil. Phil ran his finger along the map, "This looks nice, it will push us just a bit but not too much." He looked at me, "I have my nine mil, this is national forest land so we can carry our guns, Mark says that is good for you. I just want to make sure."
I nodded in agreement, "Yea, I usually carry in wilderness areas, never know what kind of two-legged creature you might come across. I will have my 357." I looked to Mark, "You have your 45?"
Mark gave a thumbs up, "Yep. Let's double-check the gear and get on the road."
We stopped for breakfast on the highway on the drive over, we had been on the road for about three hours. We wanted to gas up the SUV and fuel up on pancakes and hashbrowns and a few bites of bacon before hitting the trail. After breakfast, we got off this main road onto back roads and forest service access roads for about another hour, before we got to the trailhead. That put us on the trail mid-morning right on schedule. As we pulled into the small gravel lot, there was room for maybe ten vehicles but we saw we were the only ones there, it was a rugged area, not a place for day hikers.
I opened the hatch and saw there was a porta potty for a quick pit stop, we each made a quick visit to the "facilities." Phil pulled his backpack out and set it on the ground, "What do you think, do we gamble on the shelters or keep the tent?" I knew he was wondering if we should lighten our load, but with the three of us we had done a good job of spreading out the weight, so I figured we were fine. I looked at Mark with a shrug.
Mark frowned, "I hate trail shelters, little critters climbing all over you, they keep me awake."
I chuckled remembering a trip from a few years earlier, Mark so frazzled one morning after we stayed in a shelter. He waved a hand at me that morning in frustration, asking me how I was able to sleep with those field mice climbing all over me.
I waved my hand in agreement, "Yeah we are not overloaded, let's stick with the tent, never know someone might already have the shelters." Not likely but possible.
We hoisted our packs onto our backs, ready to hit the trail. If you have never been backpacking, fifteen or twenty pounds does not sound like a lot, till you strap it on your back and start climbing up an incline and move over rough terrain. My memory of that morning as we hit the trail was the cool crisp weather and sunshine, the leaves were turning but still on the trees, and it looked like we had the trail to ourselves. The morning and trip over had been great, the start of a great weekend trek into the mountains. Within an hour of walking somewhere like this, it seemed like you could be a thousand miles away from the noisy chaos of modern life.
By this time, I had been on a few trips out west, long-distance backpacking trips in Colorado and Wyoming and some technical alpine climbs in the northwest in the Cascades. I had logged many hundreds of miles on the trail and did not much think of danger, especially in the Appalachians in the eastern US. You need to manage the risk, have a first aid kit, a way to make fire, a map, a source of water, and gear and clothing for bad weather. Most of the hazards are from the environment, by this time I was very comfortable in wilderness areas. I always figured the two-legged animal threat was a greater risk than the animal kingdom. There was no sense of fear or danger heading onto the trail that morning, not for me. I am sure Mark and Phil were of a similar frame of mind.
We settled into a comfortable pace, the trail was rugged but it was clear with the occasional blaze. We were not in a race, a comfortable steady hike, when Phil brought up the Bible, I was a bit surprised.
"Mark says you were in a Bible Study but got out. Do you mind me asking about it?"
I had spent several hours with Phil, did not know him well but I already had seen he was a decent and thoughtful person. He was not looking to start a quarrel, so I kind of gave him a capsule summary, "I made some of the people uncomfortable, with my questions. They were good people, no one asked me to leave, but I could sense I was making some of them uneasy. It's just my nature, I question everything, always have, it serves me well professionally but not always in personal situations."
After a few moments Phil continued, "Can you give me some examples, what kinds of questions?"
I went through some basics from Genesis and the creation story as compared to some of the scientific evidence regarding the formation of the cosmos, the basics of evolution, the fossil record, and carbon dating. I wrapped up my general thesis, I believe the Bible was God-inspired but was not meant to be a science or history book. I thought it was a mistake to read it literally.
Phil was quiet for a few minutes, "So you aren't saying that God does not exist, you are just saying the Bible has a simple way of telling us about some of this. Not that it is false."
I turned and glanced at Mark he was smiling, the conversation on this topic was going better than he had thought. I kept moving along the trail, "I believe that God exists. I also believe in scientifically sound theories of how the universe emerged from a quantum fluctuation, creating all that we see around us in this beautiful world. I think the greatest scientific minds will never be able to prove exactly how all of this was set in motion because it was the divine intervention of God. I think God set it in motion through the laws of nature and physics and lets us puzzle about it as it unfolds. We should use our minds to understand the science of it all. In my view, it is a mistake to treat the Bible as a book about physics, biology, or history. I read the Bible for divine inspiration and moral teaching, not facts about creation or history."
Phil peppered me with a few questions and shared some fringe theories about why the global flood was real, why the earth was only thousands of years old, and things like that he had gotten from a minister at his church. But he listened to what I thought about his minister's theories. He was smart, thoughtful, and willing to listen. After a while, he chuckled shaking his head after one of my answers, "You haven't convinced me on this notion, but you have given me something to think about." It was a good discussion and the time passed quickly.
The conversation moved on to hunting, hiking, and sports with Mark playing a bigger part in the conversation as we made our way up onto the ridgeline and moved along the ridge trail. It was turning out to be a great day, and in the late afternoon, we were not far from the shelter. We came around a bend in the footpath, there was a small clearing, and we could see the shelter, no one else was there. We put our packs on the ground and studied the area. The open-air wooden shelter had enough space for five or six people. It was in a saddle between two peaks, an area with no underbrush. Some large boulders scattered about and a few stone fire rings and enough room for maybe six or seven tents near the shelter. The clearing was in the middle of a heavily wooded forest of old conifer and deciduous trees, some with trunks nearly two feet in diameter.
It was a great spot to set up camp for the night, we were the only ones there and had not seen anyone all day. We had a few hours before things got dark, and got to work setting up the three-person tent near a large stone fire ring, maybe thirty feet from the old wooden shelter.
There was a side trail that headed around one of the peaks, and according to the trail books there was a spring, we could get some water for cooking. After we had the tent set up, the campsite organized, and collected some wood for a campfire, we decided to head down the side trail with a large collapsible plastic water jug, that could hold a few gallons of water. I was in the lead with my walking stick, with Mark behind me and Phil behind him moving as we started down the narrow trail in high meadow grasses. We were on the trail for less than five minutes when we heard it, there was no mistaking the sound. It was a rattlesnake, I had never heard one except on television and it was surprising how loud it was and how much it was just like from TV. It wasn't stopping, I heard Mark behind me, "Crap, where is it?"
We had all frozen, my heart was racing it was not far away, I was sure of that. I focused my eyes scanning the area where the sound seemed to be coming from, and finally, I saw it less than two feet away just barely off the trail to the right. A fat rattlesnake coiled up, his rattle above his body shaking away. My walking stick was in my right hand, I had always instinctively stuck it to the ground in front of me, someone had told me years ago that it was a good way to check for snakes. It had worked, if I did not have it with me, I am sure I would have been bitten in one or two more steps. I pointed with my left hand, "Two feet away, just off the trail."
We slowly backed away until we had a comfortable distance, maybe five feet away and a few moments later the rattling ceased and we could see it move away from the trail, it must have been four feet long. I looked ahead at the trail, it continued through the thick meadow for another several hundred yards. I could picture rattlesnakes every step of the way, hiding and waiting for us. Phil and Mark must have been thinking the same thing. Mark chuckled, "Isn't there another spring up the main trail, maybe thirty minutes."
That was my first encounter with a rattlesnake in the wild, little did we know it would not be our only brush with danger that day.
We finished dinner just as the sun was going down, we had a lantern supplementing the campfire to light up the campsite, we wanted to make sure no snakes were creeping back in on us. We had makeshift benches others had made with piles of flat stones. We were starting to laugh about our snake encounter, being grateful we had brought the tent. Mark made the point for all of us. "Could you imagine waking up in the middle of the night with that big snake on your sleeping bag? I would die of a heart attack."
I told a story about backpacking in Yellowstone a few years earlier, there had been a bear attack in a campground the previous day not far from where I was staying on a solo trip. Later that night I woke up to the sound of something rummaging through the campsite, I was sure it was something big. As I cautiously turned on my flashlight ready to bolt, I spotted a raccoon. That story got a big laugh, most of my encounters with animals in the wild had been small animals or deer once a moose in Maine crossed a trail not far ahead of where I was. Phil and Mark told a few of their stories, deer, and raccoons they also mistook for a bear. Phil told us about a close encounter with a momma bear and cubs that had scared him and a buddy when he was in high school.
We went quiet for a few moments; Mark said his wife claimed she had seen a bobcat in their neighborhood that summer. There had been several stories of bobcats, coming down out of the foothills into wooded neighborhoods in the area. It was getting dark now, the campfire was crackling and the lantern was providing ample light immediately around the campsite. Phil picked up his flashlight, "We live out in the country, the foothills are our back yard, I have seen bobcats a few times on the borders. When I go outside at night, I always shine my flashlight along the tree line, just to make sure. Usually see a few sets of eyes reflecting light back at me, mostly deer and raccoons."
Phil pointed his flashlight down the ridgeline as if he was demonstrating, and we could all see several sets of eyes reflecting light back at us, down low to the ground.
Mark stood up and turned on his flashlight, "I can't see what they are."
Phil stood up, "There are more of them."
My heart started to race as I stood up, what the hell was going on? I had never seen anything like this. Possums and raccoons don't travel in packs. "Could those be bobcats? But they don't move in packs."
Mark got his gun out of his backpack, "No, but coyotes do and they are in these mountains."
Phil and I got our guns and we spread into a line like we were hunting slowly moving down the ridge toward the edge of the thick dark forest. Shining our flashlights towards the tree line with our handguns in the other hand, safely pointing at the ground fingers off the trigger. I kept seeing more and more bright orange eyes, I noticed some were up high, but we were still pretty far away from the tree line. "They are up in the trees or on some ledges, coyotes can't climb."
Mark sighed, "No but bobcats can."
An image flashed into my mind, a few bobcats up on some rocky ledges, maybe further back in the forest with a cluster of coyotes closer to us near the edge of the tree line. I tried to focus my eyes but I could not see any outline of an animal. I continued to creep forward slowly with my two friends towards the danger, flashlight in my left hand and 357 in my right hand pointed at the ground with my finger outside the trigger guard. I was ready to react quickly if something sprang from the trees, still another thirty yards away from where we were, I could feel the adrenaline pumping my hearing was acute to every little sound, expecting to hear animals rushing at us at any moment. We all continued to inch forward, compelled to discover what was hiding at the edge of the forest.
Moments later Phil started chuckling and he broke into laughter, "Oh crap, it's the moon! Put down your flashlights."
We lowered our flashlights and instantly realized what was happening, the moon was rising over a far ridgeline low in the sky with an orange hew. The orange moonlight was streaming between the branches and leaves of the thick forest on the ridge we were camped on. Providing us with an illusion of the reflected light in the eyes of wild animals. It became very apparent as the color shifted and the moon climbed higher in the sky. Not coyotes or bobcats, just moonbeams and overactive imaginations from an earlier encounter with a rattlesnake. The right light and timing of Phil pointing his flashlight down the ridge had come together to scare all three of us for a few minutes.
Our nerves settled as we relaxed around the fire until we were ready to turn in for the night. Enjoying the irony of the stories we had just been telling about mistaking raccoons for bears, this was an even greater case of mistaken identity. Phil was the last to climb into the tent, he slowly exhaled as he turned off his flashlight and climbed into his sleeping bag. "There are a lot of unusual creatures God has placed on this earth." He paused, "Especially the orange-eyed coyotes and bobcats on the high ridges of the Appalachian Mountains."
We all laughed wildly and once every few minutes for the next hour or so one of us would start laughing, then we would all be laughing. But for about five minutes that fall evening, it felt like we were being hunted down by wild animals hiding in the darkness on a mountain ridge. It seemed absurd the next day, a pack of coyotes and bobcats ready to attack three men. Our perception was distorted just long enough for the three of us to believe it for a few minutes.
I have told the story to friends and family many times over the years. Someone usually asks if it is true, it is true and I still remember how I felt moving down that ridge toward danger and then I laugh at the image of three men hunting down moonbeams. A wilderness version of when something goes bump in the night, how our imaginations and perception of sights or sounds can trick us.