I knew we were in trouble when they turned on the light bar. The pickup sat there across the small gravel parking lot from our campsite – it’s headlamps ominously aimed at our tents. And now the million-lumen light bar, which lit us up like stadium lights. It was a horrible thing, the truck. Idling like a ravenous beast. It was a full size American-made truck of an indeterminate make in the post mid-night darkness. If Stephen King were Southern, this truck would have been his Christine, except it would be named “Bocephus” or “Delmar”. It had massive, knobby tires and one of those after-market muffler set-ups that made the engine roar at an ear-piercing decibel. A tattered Confederate battle flag hung defiantly from an antenna on the right fender. It was a nightmare. A redneck’s wet dream.
We sat in our tents paralyzed. What the fuck were these guys up to? Melissa tried in vain to get a signal on her cell. Chase, our 13-year old nephew was in his own tent a dozen feet away. Ours were the only two tents around.
The truck had come down the mountain on a jeep road just a few minutes earlier and, seeing our tents, the derelicts decided to have a little fun at our expense. They spun out, doing figure eights and slinging gravel, the howling engine at full octave. We were initially annoyed. But then they backed into the corner of the lot and stopped, headlamps in our direction. When the light bar came on, annoyance evaporated into fear. I was on this mountain with my wife and my nephew. I was responsible for their safety. My mind raced with a hundred different scenarios, none of which were good. I didn’t have a gun. We didn’t have a signal. It was 1am. We were completely vulnerable.
The truck idled in a low growl, menacing and aggrieved. It occurred to me that it was a Friday night (now Saturday morning), and these idiots had been out partying. They were drunk at a minimum, but who knows what else they’d been up to. Meth is rampant in these Appalachian backwaters. They had guns, no doubt. No way they didn’t have guns. What were they doing? Planning? Were they still just fucking with us or had their whiskey-addled brains gone to a darker place? It seemed entirely possible that they could walk down into the campsite and… God knows what.
After a few minutes the truck pulled forward and stopped adjacent to us at the edge of the campsite, only thirty feet away now. One of the two rednecks got out of the passenger side and walked around the truck. He seemed agitated. I could make out enough of him in the waxing moonlight to determine that he looked exactly as I’d expected. Long, stringy hair, cutoff t-shirt – straight out of central casting. There were faint aromas of pine and burnt motor oil and cheep beer.
He reached for something in the bed of the truck and my heart pounded so hard I was afraid they’d hear it. I could hear muffled conversation but couldn’t make anything out. If they walked down into the campsite, I would have to get out of the tent – I would need to address them – try my diplomatic skills – attempt to diffuse the situation. But I knew that if they walked down there, things would turn very ugly very quickly.
I prayed they wouldn’t, and I cursed myself for choosing this campsite, only a few tenths of a mile from the highway and easily accessible. What had begun as such a good day – an excellent day on the trail and at camp had turned into a nightmare. I felt at that moment like we were on the verge of something violent and terrible. Perhaps death. Or worse. It didn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility. It felt real and close and almost scripted – as if there were no other way for it to end.
To my immense relief, the redneck got back in the truck after what seemed an eternity. They spun more donuts, the monstrous engine roaring, enraged. And then, just as quickly as they’d arrived they were gone. We heard them tear down the gravel access road and then turn onto the highway, the roar of the engine growing more distant as they lumbered into the dark night.
We’d been given a reprieve, but we knew there would be no return to sleep. What if they came back? What if they were going to get more buddies? We were completely vulnerable at our camp. There was only one thing to do. I called out to Chase to grab his shoes and headlamp. We were going back to the trail. We wouldn’t bother with packing – it was more urgent than that. We needed to find a safe place now.
We accessed the trail at the northwest corner of the Laurel Valley parking lot, climbing a couple dozen steps away from the lot and onto the trail proper. We sat there at the top of the steps for a few minutes, listening and trying to comprehend what had just happened. The surge in adrenaline left my legs rubbery. My lungs burned. I had to make a concerted effort to control my breathing.
We whispered to each other and this was reassuring. Just being back among the trees and away from view made us feel safe. After a few minutes it occurred to me that the trail paralleled the jeep road for quite a way – perhaps a mile back west, and if they did come back we would be vulnerable in our current position. Having accepted the reality that there would be no return to camp until daylight, we began walking back in the direction we had come that day – westward through the inky black of deep night.
The trail looked and felt different in the dark. Our headlamps, set to tactical red, cast shaky beams of muted light, illuminating our next few steps but not much beyond. There was an electric sense of urgency and as we walked through the corridor of hemlocks and pines, we listened in nervous anticipation of the truck’s return. Somehow we sensed that they were not quite done with us.
After about a mile, we came to a spot where the trail intersected with the jeep road again at a sharp curve. We descended steps down to the crossing, cautious, slow, headlamps off, listening for any movement. We quickly climbed back onto the trail on the opposite side of the intersection and ascended another hundred feet or so westward until we felt sufficiently safe.
We sat one in front of the other on some steps along the trail. Chase, in front and below, Melissa in the middle, then me. We could make out the jeep road below us, faint moonlight reflecting off the sandy surface through a thin veil of pine branches. We continued to try 911 intermittently with no success. We were stuck for the night and sat uncomfortably, knowing there would be no sleep. It was now around 2am.
Suddenly we saw headlamps below and to our right, and heard the crunch of tires on gravel. Before we could even comprehend what was happening an SUV was directly below us on the jeep road. We realized with alarm that we were much closer to the road than we’d realized. We sat frozen. The SUV stopped and someone inside began searching the hillside with a spotlight. I hissed to “get down!” We found ourselves in the surreal position of being on our stomachs, faces I the dirt in the middle of the trail, another set of hooligans below us.
These weren’t our rednecks from earlier but who were they? Did they know we were here? Had they seen us? The searchlight switched off and the SUV began to pull forward, away from us and down the road. We were up in a flash and walking again with renewed urgency.
We walked another half mile or so until we came to a spot with some steps that seemed sufficiently far back from the jeep road. I knew the road was still not far away, but we couldn’t see it any longer, which seemed marginally safer. We sat down in the same arrangement as before, front to back. We speculated about what might be happening back at our camp, and what it might look like when we returned at sun-up. We assumed it would be ransacked.
We settled in the best we could, alternately leaning on one another and shifting frequently. The temperature had dropped to the mid 60’s – uncomfortably cool with no jacket. Melissa had thought to bring water, but her bottle was less than a quarter full, so we rationed our sips carefully. We were all parched. We felt safer now, and talked in muted whispers about the events of the night. We tried the cell occasionally and still had no success despite being higher on the mountain.
We marked time and tried to nap. We did our best to get through the night, shivering and battling boredom. The boredom was ironic, given all of the excitement. I realized that I had left my hiking pole at the other set of steps when we had to scramble away. We sat in the dark in the middle of the Foothills Trail and we were completely unafraid of bears or snakes. Sitting exposed in the wee hours, wild animals were not our concern. Only people.
Gradually the hours slipped by and around 6am a faint, early light began to filter through the trees. We cautiously made our way back toward camp. Despite lingering trepidation, it was invigorating and restorative to be up moving again. We made good time, gaining confidence in proportion to the strengthening light as we walked. We were eager to see what condition our camp might be in, and to pack and be on our way. We were tired but energized all the same.
At the steps leading down to the parking lot I motioned for Melissa and Chase to stop, and I made my way down slowly, the parking lot and campsite revealing themselves by degree with each step. It was perfectly still. The gravel under my feet and birds, full in their morning song, were the only sounds. I motioned for them to come on down.
Walking across the parking lot, the crazed tire tracks obvious in figure-eight gouges of the surface dirt. It was evidence that last night was real and not some shared horror dream. We got to camp and everything was intact. We were relieved and quickly set about breaking down tents and loading packs. Within twenty minutes we were loaded and walking.
We decided to walk down to the highway where we could pump water from Estatoe Creek under the Highway 178 overpass. We ate breakfast here too, just off the road at the edge of a private drive. It was an overcast morning and muggy. Cars flew by, drivers oblivious to us on the highway. Before long we were on the move, picking up the trail on the east side of the highway.
We finished the trail that day, despite plans for one more night of camping, reaching the car at Table Rock State Park after a long fourteen miles or so. We’d seen two black bears on our hike that day, which was thrilling, but also solidified our resolve to push on. After the drama of the night before, camping in an area where we’d seen multiple bears just wasn’t appealing. We had experienced our fill of drama. We were eager to get to the car, to a hotel in Greenville. To have a shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. We were emotionally and physically exhausted.
We arrived at Table Rock around 5pm and found our car where we had left it a week before. Melissa and I had completed all seventy-seven miles of the Foothills Trail – something that had long been on my bucket list. Moreover, we had survived the night before and learned some things along the way. Principally, that I will never again camp without a weapon. This saddens me, but camping unarmed – at least along the East Coast – no longer seems prudent. To be clear, I would not have handled the situation any differently if I had been armed. But it would have been a comfort to know a weapon was available had things deteriorated further. I also learned that in our part of the world, where there are no Grizzlies, bears are nothing to be overly concerned about. People are a different story.
More importantly though, I learned that we were pretty good in a crisis. All of us. We worked well together, we stayed calm and we thought through our best options. We took action when we needed to and we laid low when it made sense. We didn’t let fear paralyze us. I was proud of Chase for his bravery and cool calm. I was impressed, as always, with Melissa for her toughness and spirit of adventure. We were a good team.
We survived to hike another day.