In October of 2009, I thought I was going to die.
It was Fall Break of our second year of college, and four of my best amigos and I decided to spend our vacation in the great outdoors. Shenandoah was calling out to us. We wanted to break away from the grind, and discover a place where we could be free, where we could hike in our underwear, wrestle mountain lions, and defecate off of waterfalls. We wanted to be men. We wanted adventure.
School ended, and I’ll never forget the excitement we all felt. We were about to be conquerors, men of the wilderness. While all of our friends were packing their dirty socks for their mommies to wash, we were scrounging together tents, beans, and cigarettes. This was going to be the best Fall Break of our lives.
The first day was a success. A park ranger, who must have been trying to look like Ranger Smith from Yogi Bear, handed us a map, our adventure, and set us on our way. We reached our parking lot, hurled our backpacks onto our backs, and pushed on into the mountainous terrain, destined for greatness. The forest swallowed us, and we adventured on.
Dan, Vinny, Hunter, Austin, & Matt
“I can’t wait to run through the forest all day tomorrow in my long underwear” Hunter said, as we climbed the trail. “I may never wear anything else for the whole trip. You ready for that Vinny?”
Hunter, the jovial lead singer of a metal band with a tendency to intentionally push other’s buttons for amusement, proceeded to give little jabs to Vinny’s stomach, knocking him slightly off balance.
“Stop it, man!” Vinny complained, sending a sharp echo into the forest. “How about you carry more than your own sleeping bag asshole!”
“Oooooooohh, why are you getting so mad there bud?” Hunter danced around him chuckling.
“Guys, I think this will be the perfect spot to set up camp” Dan, our hippy-ish companion remarked.
We all agreed that the spot looked great, a nice open clearing about 50 feet off of the path with some ancient trees which had fallen, providing a small fortress. The sun began to fall, and we began to set up camp. I set up one tent with Vinny and Hunter, Matt another, and Dan set up his hammock. That evening we struck up a wonderful fire, argued about whether it was right or wrong for monks to live their whole lives in isolation, and decided to call it an early night.
We may have gotten a bit lost on the way…
Sleep was coming easy for me until a heavy hand used my relaxed stomach for stability.
“Owww, what the hell?” I yelled, disrupting the serenity outside.
I opened my eyes and saw Hunter standing up in the tent. He half kicked Vinny, who was closest to the tent entrance and said, “Sorry boys, got to take a piss.”
So he stepped out of the tent and trotted off into the darkness. A few moments passed. Then, all of the sudden, we heard an uncomfortable squeal immediately followed by the unrhythmic sound of Hunter sprinting back to the tent panting. He hopped over a log and belly flopped through the flimsy tent door landing directly on Vinny.
“Dude!” Vinny cried.
“Guys, guys, guys!” Hunter panicked. “A mountain lion just chased me while I was pissing.”
“That did not happen” I replied.
“Shut up Austin. I know what I saw. Shut the tent, quick!” he stammered.
Silence followed. The chaos drained out of the tent and was replaced with the familiar sound of the Shenandoah Valley. I closed my eyes.
Moments later, with no reason at all, Hunter hollered across the campsite, “HEY MATT!!!”
The scream must have come from the deepest part of his soul, because it rattled the trees to their core.
“Whuutt” Matt grunted with force.
“I love you” Hunter said plainly.
The sun rose and brought with it the primary task of our trip, a ten mile loop which would take us through a valley, across and over a long ridge, and back around to our campsite again.
0.1 miles – Enormous excitement. We will conquer this loop.
2 miles – An amazing stopping point, a view of the entire valley and beyond. Cigarette break. Beautiful. Glory to God.
2.5 miles – Knees get sore as we descend down the rocky trail.
3.5 miles – Down into the valley we find fresh water pools. Skinny dipping dare. Cold, horribly cold.
4 miles – Our journey turns upwards, as we begin to climb the steepest hill in the valley.
5 miles – “Uhhh, dudes I think I’m getting a chafe.” – Hunter
5.1 miles – “Long underwear was a horrible idea boys! This is horrible.” – Hunter
5.3 miles – “I want to die” – Hunter
5.5 miles – Legs are tired. Onward!
6 miles – Exhausted. Hungry. Must keep going… must conquer the mountain.
6.5 miles – Triumph. We finally reached the top of the ridge. Only a few miles left.
The journey towards our campsite continued but little did we know that this would the turning point of the entire trip. I turned my phone on and called one of my oldest friends Hafer, who was planning on joining us for our second night.
No signal, go figure.
We hike on, and after a full day of grit and manliness, we finally made it back to the parking lot where we started.
“Only two more miles left!” Dan exclaimed. “Austin, is your friend here?”
“No…” I replied. “And that hike took us a lot longer than I thought it would. He should be here by now.”
Only a few minutes went by before we all got restless. We longed for fresh clothes and the comforts of our tents.
“Well, you can wait for him Austin, we’re gonna head back to the campsite” said Matt.
A civil war started, and Hunter and Matt decided to head back to camp, since they were a little unsure about whether or not they were going to stay the night (Hunter having the chafe, and Matt probably having a date or something). Vinny and Dan stayed with me with hope that Hafer would not live up to his usual reputation of being late. “Hafer-Time usually equates to about 2 hours later then he says. It will be 3 hours later than he planned if Oceans 11 is on TV. Luckily I had left my car keys in my backpack and we hopped in my car in search of telephone signal.
After long fought battle with Verizon, I got a hold of him. His car broke down, and he was stranded at the auto-repair shop where they probably filmed the movie wrong turn. We booked it down Skyline Drive and reached the shop thirty minutes later. He slid across the hood of my car like Bo Duke and got in as fast as he could. He was well aware that we had a problem bigger than chafes, car problems, and hunger.
Our new problem: The sun was setting.
By the time we reached the parking lot of our trail, the sun had already fallen behind the trees. We helped Hafer grab his stuff, which included a huge pan buffalo chicken dip, chips, a flashlight, a lighter, and one blanket, and hauled ass into the woods.
Time was not on our side, and our single flashlight quickly became our biggest ally. Cloud cover blocked all of the potential moonlight which could have aided us, and finally darkness fell all around us. I knew that we were going to take our second left off of the trail and that our camp was about a mile further after that turn.
Suddenly, a flashlight appeared in the distance.
“What is that?” I asked, beginning to worry.
“It’s a flashlight you idiot” Vinny replied.
“Maybe it is a park ranger or someone who can help us find our campsite” Dan suggested.
“Let’s hope so” I thought to myself.
The light got closer, and it was only until it’s brightness was right in front of us that we could see the smiling faces of Hunter and Matt.
“What the hell guys?” I moaned. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Back to Lynchburg!” Matt replied with a tone of sauciness. “You guys took way too long and we can’t wait around any longer.”
Vinny jumped in, “Well, how do you expect us to find our campsite in the dark?”
“We left a little fire. Just keep moving, and when you hit some mud you’ll be right next to the tents.” Hunter sarcastically explained.
“Mud???” We all began to protest.
“Sorry boys, good luck!” They laughed and then disappeared down the mountain.
We were on our own. Us and the Shenandoah darkness.
“It’s over here” – “NO! It was back that way, like five minutes ago” – “This is dumb” – “You’re dumb”
Our friendly group dynamics had flown away with the sun a long time ago. It was pitch black now.
“Okay, let’s calm down” I said with a false sense confidence. “I think we are getting close, but that it is still a little further down the trail. Let’s keep moving.”
The arguing subsided for a moment and we moved on, feeling as if a thousand eyes in the forest were watching us. We were getting spooked. We started combing the sides of the trail looking for any shimmer or sparkle of the metal on our tents.
Silence crept in. Our only goal was to find out campsite now. Hope was fading and our bodies were giving up on us. I remember stepping over a little tree that had fallen across the path, and it was there when I heard the most terrifying noise in my entire life attack us from darkness.
I swear it sounded exactly like the scream from Prometheus.
We ran. With our hearts beating out of our chests, we ran as far away from the Prometheus scream as we could.
That was the moment when I thought to myself “I have done it. I have now led myself and my three best friends to our painful deaths. We will be those boys on the news who disappeared in the wilderness, and it will be all my fault.”
Dan was screaming. Prometheus got him.
“Whaaat happend?” Hafer yelled.
“Ow, ow, ow, I turned my ankle. I need some help.”
Vinny picked up Dan and became his human crutch. The group hobbled away from the noise until we all agreed that we were finished.
We gave up. It was time to move on from our dream of a warm sleeping bag and new underwear. We had to set up an emergency campsite. We ate the buffalo chicken dip, lit a small fire, and waited. And just when we thought this couldn’t get any worse, it started to thunderstorm.
We made it through the night – no sleep, no blankets, and almost no food. Eventually the thunderstorms stopped. No one could sleep, so we sat around our wimpy campfire and stared at its dancing flames. It was a hard night, but it was a night I would never take back. It was a real adventure. True adventure can only take place, when we let go of our plans and comforts.
The sun rose and we cleaned up. We headed backwards towards where we thought our camp might be, until we could hear it again, the scream. However, this time we had daylight on our side. Off the trail we saw the source of the noise: a tree branch barely hanging on to the tree, swinging back and forth. The noise was still terrifying, but we had to laugh at ourselves.
And wouldn’t you know it, right there directly across from the swinging tree, I saw the most beautiful thing – my tent. We ran to the campsite and embraced our possessions. We all curled up in our own beds and slept.
This was our adventure.