Alone in the Allegheny National Forest
Story by Don Kirkland
Nearly 10 years ago in the late 1990's I decided to attempt a solo backpacking trip. I had never been out alone before and was a little nervous but still confident in my skills. I kept the trip short, just 20 miles over a three day weekend. That way I figured if my nerves got the best of me and I freaked out being alone at night in the forest I could just push hard the second day and be out of the woods.
At 5:30 AM on Saturday I headed to the Allegheny National Forest in PA. I parked my car at a secluded trailhead at the end of a long and winding forest road and set off on my solo weekend. I was hoping that I wouldn't see another soul until my brother picked me up Monday morning at another trailhead a just over 20 miles away.
I had chosen this little known and seldom hiked trail for more solitude and it was a good choice. The entire first day I had the trail to myself. I hiked at a leisurely pace, I only had 5 miles to go and I wanted to take the time to really enjoy my surroundings. All too often backpackers push for high mileage trying to get to a destination and miss the little details all around us.
I set up camp that afternoon next to a creek in a hemlock grove. Firewood and water were plentiful so I made a shelter out of my tarp, collected enough wood to last all night, and built a small campfire to keep me company.
Night came early in the hemlock grove. The dense trees blocked most of the sun during the day and at night they completely obscured the moon and stars. I settled down to sleep but had difficulty getting relaxed. I found that the sounds of the woods are louder and more mysterious when you are alone. I didn't have anyone to discuss noises with and come up with logical explanations for them so I was stuck with my mind conjuring up images of bears and mountain lions every time a twig snapped. Eventually I gave up on sleep and got the fire started again. I spent the rest of the night jumping at every sound and praying that the sun would soon come up. This was not the way I envisioned my first solo hike would turn out.
Eventually the sun did rise. I wasn't going to sit through another night like this so I decided to hike the remaining 15 miles to the parking lot. I would be a day early but the parking lot at the end of the trail was on a main road and I was sure I could hitch-hike to a pay phone and call my brother. I couldn't hike back to my car because, like a genius, I had locked my keys in the car for safe keeping knowing my brother had a spare and would unlock my car for me when he dropped me off.
Six miles into my day I ran into one of the dangers of seldom used trails. As I emerged into a clearing the path before me was completely overgrown and no trail markers could be seen. What looked like deer trails split off in 5 different directions. The map I had was no help because there were no identifiable landmarks. I picked what looked like the most used path and hoped for the best.
I walked 200 yards before I realized I was on the wrong path. I backtracked and picked another path. This time I walked about half a mile without seeing a trail marker before coming to a 15 foot drop off. This obviously wasn't the right path either so back I went to the clearing. Finally on the 3rd try the trail looked promising and before long I found a trail marker. Things were looking up but I had wasted several hours looking for the trail and I really needed to push hard to make it out before dark.
I got a good hiking pace going again but 10 miles into the day my solitude was interrupted by the sound of someone shouting from 100 yards off the trail. "HEY! Over Here!" I stopped dead in my tracks at this unexpected voice and looked to my left. Through the trees I saw a young but scraggly looking man. Again he shouted. "Hey! I need some help". Of course I wasn't going to leave a fellow hiker stranded in middle of the forest so I made my way over to him through the thick underbrush.
Joe was a thin 20 year old with long unkempt hair and a scruffy beard. He was dressed in a tie die t-shirt and some cut off jean shorts. His pack was an old, 1970s model, metal external frame with patches sewn all over it. He sat on the ground with one worn out old hiking boot off his right foot and the most grotesquely swollen and misshapen right ankle I had ever seen. He calmly said "I think I broke my ankle, I've been out here 2 days without food and water."
He obviously couldn't walk and it was too late in the day to hope to hike the 5 remaining miles out, get help, and return to him. I assessed the situation and decided it wasn't a life threatening injury. Since I had plenty of food and water left I decided the best course of action would be to build a fire, feed Joe, and get help first thing in the morning.
Joe wasn't much for conversation, all I got out of him was that he didn't care much for modern society and preferred to be alone. I asked about his family, where he was from, where he was going, and where he had been. All my questions were answered with a blank expression and the sound of Joe chewing on the granola bar I had given him. From the patches on his backpack it looked like he was well traveled. I was particularly impressed by the colorful one from Death Valley. I asked about it but his only response was "Yeah, I walked through there". At least this night I wouldn't be alone.
I awoke at first light and Joe was already awake, sitting in the same position, just looking at his ankle. I left my last full water bottle and granola bar with him and set off to get help. As I was leaving he looked up at me and said "Be careful, you don't want to end up like me". I gave him a half smile and assured him I would be back with help soon.
The hike out only took a little over an hour because I was going as fast as possible. When I arrived at the parking lot it was still too early for my brother to be there but luckily a day hiker was there preparing for her hike. I told her about Joe and we reasoned that between the two of us we could help Joe safely out of the woods. She grabbed her first aid kit and some water and I led the way down the trail on our rescue mission.
We never did find Joe. I'm certain we were in the right spot because there was a fresh fire ring and my full water bottle and granola bar, but no Joe. I picked up my water bottle and noticed a piece of metal under it. It was a pin that would be used to hold the cloth pack to the metal frame of a backpack. I kicked some leaves aside and there on the ground was an old metal backpack frame with some shreds of pack cloth still attached. It looked like it had been there for 15 years. I looked closer and there, on the side of the pack was a faded patch from Death Valley.
I still have that patch. It is sewn on my pack. I keep it as a reminder to never go out alone again.
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