Out of breath and pouring with sweat, I’m climbing up the hill with under one mile to go after just coming out of a state of extreme fatigue. In the distance, I hear a loud rustle in the trees and think to myself, “It must be a squirrel leaping onto a thin branch and causing a stir.” But I also have a feeling. I say to myself, “Could this be the moment?”
It is day eight of walking in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and I’ve just crossed my 100th mile, accomplishing a long-time goal of a 100-mile walk in the woods. Since mile one, I have had my ears and eyes open for bears. With nearly every rustle in the woods, I have stopped in my tracks to take in the scene and scan each nook and cranny of the forest for this creature. Day after day, noise after noise, no bear came into my sight. There were moments when I was certain a bear was nearby. I could feel it deep inside me. Yesterday I was sure I would see a bear. I saw bears in every dark colored log, every black shadow in the woods. I saw the overturned stones and the logs torn open – most likely by bears searching for and eating grubs. The interactions with the forest were fresh, but no bear was in sight.
Today I had just about given up on the desire to interact with this friend of the woods. With just seven miles left in the woods, I was coming upon the very thin stretch that I thought they would be less likely to roam.
Then, there I was standing on the trail just out of my state of extreme fatigue, just minutes from the last camp, and the thought came to me so strongly that it nearly left my lips, “Could this be the moment?”
Before I could even finish the thought, my neck was swiveling to the right and there she was.
The smallest adult bear I’ve ever seen, seemingly not much bigger than me, standing broadside, head turned to the left, looking right back at me. But she wasn’t alone.
She let out a grunt and powered her front legs into the ground, jumping up onto a log. She sent her cub up a tree. As the cub climbed, there were four eyes on me, and the mother seemed to be assessing my threat level.
I stayed still. Female bears are most likely to be aggressive when they feel that their young is threatened.
She seemed to lower her perceived threat level in a short time. The cub came back down, and I realized there were two, as my eyes caught a second cub, identical in size and color, scurrying butt first down another tree nearby.
The short moment of tension passed and the trio seemed to return to what they had been doing before I came across their path. The mom walked along, searching the ground for food, and the cubs curiously explored nearby. She let one of the cubs fall back, leaving the cubs surprisingly close to me, unprotected. I saw this as a sign of her being at ease.
They continued south in the same direction as I was walking, about 20 yards off the path. The sun was dropping lower into the sky behind them. I tiptoed along, stopping when they stopped and walking as they walked, maintaining a respectful distance.
The mom started to hook east and she came up onto the path, again about 20 yards from me.
It was as if she only just then remembered I was there, sending her young up into the trees again. But it was only for a short moment before they came back down. And she led them back west, down the mountain and into the sea of green, dappled by the end of day sunbeams.
As they disappeared into the woods, I stood arms wrapped around the very tree the little one had just scurried down. I put my face to the tree and felt the bark, the lichen, the life as part of me.
It was one of the most special moments I’ve had with a tree, my most intimate moment with this friend of the woods, all to top off my long walk in the woods.
Hiking Days Day 1 – Started at Northern point of Shenandoah National Park, 8 miles to primitive campsite
Day 2 – 13.4 + 1 miles to primitive campsite
Day 3 – 11.2 miles to Byrd’s Nest
Day 4 – 10.9 + 0.3 miles to Rock Springs Hut
Day 5 – 11.8 miles to Bearfence Mountain Hut
Day 6 – 12.4 + 0.2 miles to High Top Hut
Day 7 – 15 miles to Loft Mountain Campground
Day 8 – 19.1 miles to Calf Mountain Shelter
Day 9 – 6.7 miles to finish at southern tip of Shenandoah National Park
I am back on social media after a month off.
This is the one photo from my 100-mile hike through Shenandoah National Park in July, captured by a hiker named Elie. I carried no computer, phone, or camera for 10 days, so there were no photos to be taken, no calls to be made, no messages to be checked. I spoke solely with my hiking partner, and to myself on some days. That was my practice of presence.
Elie was out on a hike of his own and was surprised to find me in the woods, having followed me on social media for some time. I’m really happy to say that, in my month off social media, I have met numerous people on the streets, in the stores and in the woods who follow me online. This was very gratifying and meaningful because it’s so important to me that the work I am doing is truly reaching people. And even though I have not met most of you and we interact just via the screens, I still feel a meaningful connection to you.
A month off social media has helped me to create a healthier relationship with my time on the computer. I intend to maintain this healthier relationship and balance.