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When Crunchy Meets Country

Jeff Ell SmallA girl with black eyes walked out of the forest and stood in the soft glow of our campfire. We introduced ourselves, the odd thing was that I thought I recognized her. About an hour later I was sure that I had seen her before. I asked if she and her hiking partner were at the McAfee’s Knob parking area the previous Wednesday? Sure enough, I had seen them trying to hitch a ride toward Roanoke, while I was driving in the opposite direction.

Curious things often happen when we share a common path with people from different obits. I call it serendipitous providence. It’s like the whole world gets compressed into that tiny moment when the cogs of giant gears turning in opposite direction are pressed together.

Deer hunting was the reason my two sons-in-law and I were sitting around a campfire in the mountains a few days before Thanksgiving. The hikers we ran into were there because they are thru-hikers, hikers who attempt to traverse all 2189 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in a single season. Like I said, we were from different orbits.

So what do you think happens when the paths of hunters and hikers intersect in the mountains of southwest Virginia? How do you think the stereotypes of crunchy hiker and country hunter would hold up in the tiny laboratory of a twenty by twelve shelter during two days of stormy weather?

Some folks on one side of our cultural divide might imagine there would be some condescending finger wagging about animal rights, the merits of veganism, and the evils of fossil fuels. An opportunity for condescending ideologues to enlighten the clan of Neanderthals they discovered squatting near a smokey fire clinging to their spears and superstitions.

Some folks on the other side might imagine hearing an angry rant delivered by a camo clad man with a red face and a blaze orange hat. A guy who eschews tattoos, wishes he could ask certain people for their green cards, and can’t talk about the weather without raising his voice to the same vitriolic pitch of his talk radio heroes.

Think what you will, but let me tell you about what happened to us.

We had been planning our Thanksgiving week expedition for months. We knew there was a chance that we might have to share the shelter with hikers, but the odds seemed pretty remote. Over ninety percent of thru-hikers, start at the southern terminus of the AT in Georgia in early spring, and finish their journey in Maine in the fall. There are so few that attempt the trail from north to south, that we assumed we would have the shelter to ourselves.

We were wrong.

We backpacked up the mountain early Monday morning. Our first job was to gather piles of firewood and stash it under the floor of the shelter. We had been watching the weather forecast closely, checking it almost hourly, hoping it would change.  The forecast was for two days of heavy rain, sleet, freezing rain, snow, and wind gust up to 50 mph, so we needed lots of dry firewood.

After camp was made, we went off in different directions for an afternoon of hunting under an ever thickening sky. At dark we gathered at the shelter and started a fire. We were getting ready to cook up nearly two pound of spaghetti, sauce, and sausage we had packed in.

The fire was roaring when I looked up into the forest and saw a head light coming down the trail.  A few minutes later a man materialized in the circle of light. He was wearing high tech all weather clothing, his beard was neatly trimmed, his eyes blinked thoughtfully behind horned rimmed glasses. He looked like he might have been a tired college professor who had just come home after a long day of lecturing and paper grading.

He was an affable guy about the same age of my sons-in-law. He dropped his pack and immediately began to warm himself by the fire. We traded names and made some small talk, but he kept walking away from the fire and looking up the mountain. About half an hour later he told us his hiking partner was behind him on the trail and that she should be coming down the trail soon. We had started to boil water and roast our Italian sausages when a second headlight could be seen flickering up in the trees.

This is when the black eyed girl showed up, and I will tell you about what happened the next time . . .

Jeff Ell is pretty good at catching, killing, picking, and growing things to eat. He regularly finds bemusement in the outdoors and enjoys telling his stories to anyone who will listen. Jeff’s the author of Ruth Uncensored, blogs at and can be contacted via Facebook or smoke signal.

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