Memorial Day weekend – 12 years ago

My husband and I went on a backpacking trip this past (Memorial Day) weekend. I didn’t particularly sleep well. I really haven’t slept well in a tent since a camping trip I took on Memorial Day weekend 12 years ago. I suppose I should start the story from the beginning….

I’d just moved to Atlanta a week, maybe two weeks prior to Memorial Day of 1999. I graduated from LSU and literally left for Atlanta the following day. I had a friend from college who lived here and I’d met his roommate once or twice. For the sake of the story, we’ll call the roommate “Bob”. Well, Memorial Day weekend was coming up and Bob called to see if I’d like to join him and some friends of his who were planning to go camping in the North Georgia mountains. My friend had other plans and wouldn’t be joining us, but Bob seemed like a nice person, so I said “Sure, why not.” I didn’t have a tent and some of the basics, but Bob assured me that he had everything we needed and I could borrow what I didn’t have from our mutual friend (and his roommate). I agreed to go and we set off for Helen, GA in rush hour traffic on Friday afternoon.

We arrived at a nice camping area just south of Helen as dusk was approaching and the only site still available was on the other side of a creek. It was a nice site – big enough for all 8 or 10 of us, so we headed back to the truck to carry our stuff in. All I had was my book bag from school, my sleeping bag & my pillow. Everyone else had real backpacks with their stuff all stowed neatly in a single pack. I felt like an ill-prepared fool fording the creek with my silly book bag on my back, my right arm around my pillow any my left around my old L.L. Bean sleeping bag from 10+ years before. I at least had half-decent hiking boots, though.

I was not prepared for the cool temperature of North Georgia. Until moving to Atlanta, I’d lived my entire life in South Louisiana and figured since it was late May and the city seemed to be warm, that I’d bring one pair of shorts and a pair of jeans for the weekend. I didn’t anticipate the temps dropping low enough to have to actually keep myself warm at night….I get cold when it’s 60 degrees outside, so “cold” is a relative term for me. I think it reached the mid-50’s that weekend. I was not prepared clothing-wise for those temps – not at all.

As I was fording the creek with my book bag with my pillow and sleeping back in hand while wearing big, clunky hiking boots, I managed to slip on a rock in the river and fall ass first into the water. I think my sleeping bag and pillow were barely above the water line (thank GOD) and all I could do was sit there and laugh and think to myself “Really? Aw, crap. I’m all wet and this water is freaking COLD”. I got up from the creek and made it over to the bank and went to step up on the bank to head to the site and the next thing I hear is a huge RIIIIIP – and my jeans split just in line with my butt cheek, right underneath the back pocket on the right side. My ass was literally hanging out of my pants. Nice – the only pair of pants I had for the entire weekend – in the first 20 minutes in the wilderness. Awesome.

I get to our site, help Bob set up his tent – which I was surprised to see was a 2 person backpacking tent – not all that roomy for people who barely know each other – another detail I was THRILLED about, let me tell ya. For those who don’t know, a two person backpacking tent will sleep two people in pretty tight quarters. I was envisioning a roomier tent with a little more personal space. As we get the tent set up, I realize that it’s mostly mesh panels and that I need to hop in there to change out of these ripped, wet jeans. I ask Bob if he can put the rain fly on there so I can change in relative privacy (it was going to be a challenge to change in there since the tent was about 2 feet high at its peak) and he says “No, I’m not putting the rain fly on” Niiiice – that’s the sign of a real gentleman there, ladies. I had to cover myself with my sleeping bag and shimmy out of wet jeans and into dry shorts in this tiny tent that I couldn’t even sit up in because the thing was so damn small. I was not pleased – not in the least bit.

As this point you’re probably thinking – “Well, why didn’t you just pack up and leave, silly girl?” Well, there wasn’t much I felt I could do about the situation as I was in a remote area with no car and no friends in town that could come and pick me up. I was stuck, so I tried to make the best out of the situation. I reasoned that my bad luck was up for the weekend. I mean really, how could it get much worse?

The next day, Bob suggested that we head up to Tennessee – with a couple from the group we were camping with. His mom had some property on the outskirts Great Smoky Mountain National Park where we could camp. It sounded nicer than where we were camping, so I said “Sure – why not?” and we packed up and headed up to Tennessee. The property his mom owned was in a development where some of the lots had homes already present with families living full time in them – other lots were still undeveloped/raw land. His mother’s lot was undeveloped, but we were within a 1/4 of a few houses. One of the property owners from up the street was driving by and stopped to inquire as to what we were doing there and as Bob was telling him that his mom owned the property and we were camping there for a few nights, the neighbor says “Well, y’all do know there’s a black bear in the area, right?” I just turned to the other female camping with us – this was her first ever camping trip and her eyes were about to pop out of her head at this point. I reassured her – “Oh, he’s just messing with us. Don’t worry about BEARS!” Then the neighbor responded “No, I’m not kidding. Our neighbor up the hill, feeds them off his back deck. They feed them dog food. He might be up there right now, let me go see.” Then I began to worry…and I started to think “What in the hell have I gotten myself into?”. I was still in denial though – I just reasoned that there weren’t any bears. That’s just nonsense!

My denial ended when the neighbor came back down to our site, told us that the bear was indeed up at his neighbor’s house and asked us if we wanted to go and see it. Thinking it was probably a tiny cub, I said “Sure. Why Not?” What the hell – it could be fun, right? Bears are cute, they’re cuddly and they look harmless – right? HA! We arrived at the home and were instructed to go up to the deck, which was about 10 feet up from the yard – the house was built into a hill, so the lot was sloped and the deck accessible from the yard via a staircase. We climb up onto the deck and watch as a HUGE black bear approaches and begins to eat dog food from a bowl underneath the deck. I mean this thing must have been 9 feet tall. This was an adult black bear, not some cute, cuddly cub. This was an animal bigger than any I’d seen in the wild up until this point. Needless to say, this did not sit well with me. Not at all. On our way back to the tent, I remarked to Bob my concern that we were camping less than 1/4 mile away from this bear’s known feeding ground – his response – “Oh, don’t worry, I have my 9mm pistol. I’ll just shoot it if it comes near us.” I just responded “Yeah, and that gun won’t hurt that thing, it will just be enough to get him really pissed off.” I did not feel secure about the fact that Bob had a 9mm pistol with him, I reasoned that if we were to encounter this bear – or any of his friends – that Bob would just use the handgun to piss off the bear and then we’d just create more trouble for ourselves. Double awesome.

We put all of our food and anything that had a scent (toothpaste, etc) in the cab of the truck for the night and the first night passed without incident. Not that I got any sleep, mind you. Between the fear of the bear sniffing around our site looking for food and the fact that the 9mm handgun was about 3 inches from my head (Bob had placed it in between our heads in the tent – you know, so it was readily accessible), I didn’t sleep very well that night. The second night, I was so exhausted that I actually dozed off for a bit, but woke up when I heard something outside of our tent. I woke up Bob to warn him that we might have trouble on our hands. The guy from the other tent reassured me that it was just a fox and that he’d moved on. Was that the truth? I will never know. I don’t know if I want to know the truth. I can tell you this, I have never, ever slept well in a tent since that camping trip.

A few weeks later, I ended up meeting my husband at IBM – where we both were employed. I was temporarily assigned to work with his team to upgrade all 2,000 of the consultant’s laptops to be Y2K compliant. We became friends during the project and then I was moved to another department, we started hanging out after work and the rest is history. We went on a camping trip later that fall – in the North Georgia mountains, near a remote creek and very far from civilization – in the perfect habitat for black bears. I woke up my husband in the middle of the night, CONVINCED that I heard a bear outside the tent. He listened for a while to see if he heard something and when I remarked how worried I was he said “Yeah, I’ll stay up with you.” and then he’d promptly fall back asleep. Magically, the bear would re-appear and the cycle would repeat itself. I’d shake him to wake him up, we’d listen for the bear – the “bear” would be quiet and then he’d fall back asleep and the bear would come back. It didn’t take long for me to realize that he was really the bear in this scenario. I was thinking that his snoring was the bear breathing outside of our tent. I was both relieved and annoyed at the same time. I felt so silly, but incredibly happy that it wasn’t really a bear – not as far as I could tell. I still worry, though. No matter how hard I try to get a good night’s sleep in a tent, I am not able to. The same was true for our backpacking trip this past weekend. I have plenty of pictures, video and stories to post. I will get to that soon, I promise!

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