Only a quarter mile to go. The soles of my feet ached. My back and shoulders could barely bear the weight of my 40-pound backpack. With ten brutal miles already under my boots, the prospect of another one was deflating. My brain was weary, bouncing between thoughts. What’s ten more minutes after I’ve already hiked for hours? Did I really need to bring those beers? I pressed on, slowly falling behind my adventure partners, Dylan, Owen, and Michelle. We were silent, taking one careful step at a time across an exposed outcrop of flaky sandstone in the Dolly Sods Wilderness.
We stopped ten minutes later. Owen and Dylan checked the map for the umpteenth time. Our campsite should have been right there, but we didn’t see any semblance of human life—no barren tent spots, no cut branches, no fire rings. We continued on. Only a quarter mile to go.
Fifteen minutes later, we stopped again. Each of us drifted off the trail in a different direction. I scoured the terrain; there must be a campsite somewhere, anywhere. I wandered in large circles, anticipating the moment when I could shout, “I’ve found it!” But to no avail. No one else found a promising spot, so we walked on as Dylan said, “Only a quarter mile to go.”
We started to get desperate, questioning whether there was a campsite anywhere close. We didn’t want to build a new one, but we were all exhausted and couldn’t keep going for much longer. I knew that if I sat down to take a break, I’d never get up again, so I adjusted my frayed backpack straps and took another step. Thirty minutes later, we stopped again to prowl around for a campsite. Owen stumbled into the woods and proudly proclaimed he found something. A wave of relief flooded through me as I rushed toward the campsite— we were home.
The archaic campsite looked as though it had been unused for at least twenty years. The soil-capped stones that lined a small fire ring had mostly sunken into the earth; a stout sapling sprouted amidst the ancient ash. I dropped my pack, wiggled my lightened limbs, and set out to explore our nest for the evening. Although the exhaustion lingered, it was overwhelmed by the comfort that comes with knowing I was done for the day. Dylan and I placed our tent in a grassy meadow near a spruce thicket and cracked a beer (it was worth its weight in gold). Then we scrambled up a large boulder that overlooked the expansive Appalachian wilderness.
We spent the rest of the evening on the boulder, cooking dinner, chatting, and gazing into the stars. We built a small fire, prepared to discard the ashes and welcome the next rains that would wash away any evidence of our arrival. Inevitably, we laughed about our journey here—the endless excitement at the beginning of the trip followed by several periods of being lost. We didn’t see anyone that day, save for one pot-bellied, tote-carrying man with chiseled calves —our trail fairy who graciously pointed us in the right direction when we had no idea where to go. We revealed our inner monologues during the final stretch of the day, growing closer over our solitary struggles. Michelle calls these moments ‘going inward.’ You can’t talk, you can’t laugh, you can’t do anything but focus on getting yourself through whatever it is you’re going through.
The next morning was a breeze compared to the day before. We rose slowly, brewed coffee, and cooked a hearty breakfast of grits, bacon, cheese, and dried ramps. There was absolutely no rush to get back on the trail. When noon approached, we finally packed up and continued along our route. Despite consuming two hefty meals, liters of water, and several beers, my pack didn’t feel any lighter.
About a quarter mile later, we came across the established campsite, most likely the one noted on the map. There were ideal nooks within the spruce forest for tents and a grander rock outcrop overlooking verdant mountains and steep drainages. At first, I wished we’d continued hiking just a little longer the day before, but then realized that we experienced the timeless joy of a campsite from days of yore. I hoped it would stay untouched for another twenty years.
We carried on down the trail, dropping in elevation through a diverse cove forest, an ecosystem unique to the Appalachian Mountains. Birch, sugar maple, and bigtooth aspen glowed in the ambient sunlight. Their backlit leaves showcased faint hues of yellow, orange, and red, a perfect contrast to the rigid, dark needles of hemlock and spruce. The autumnal decay of plant life renewed the land itself, providing immense depth and texture to the ravine. We descended the trail and bushwhacked through waist-high nettles to arrive at a waterfall gushing over drenched, dangling moss. The nettle stings dissipated within a few minutes, much longer than it took us to forget about our tribulations from the previous day.
There’s an adage that if you never go out in the rain, you’ll never do anything outdoors in West Virginia.
In retrospect, we didn’t forget about the struggles of that trip, the sufferfest we collectively endured simply to haul hefty packs through uncharted terrain (at least to us). We still reminisce about the endless slog, the exhaustion, the quiet. We remember the moments of uncertainty about where we were going and whether we could make it. And yet, we look back at that trip as one of the best backpacking adventures of our lives. After hitting rock bottom on rocky scree, flavorless food tasted utterly divine; a sip of water felt as though it hydrated every single cell in my body. The forest and creek took on an intensely vivid quality, perhaps because I was more open to absorb every aspect of my surroundings. I couldn’t wait to do it again, and neither could they.
Every May, Michelle, Owen, Dylan, and I set out into the forests of West Virginia, eager for complete immersion in spring greens and raging creeks. Our annual backpacking trip is also the first of but a few backpacking outings each year. We’re never in shape and we always bring too much. Sure, we could slim down or train more, but I’ve come to relish in the inevitable discomfort.
The following year, we set out into the dark depths of the Otter Creek Wilderness. I took the lead on trip planning, sought advice from a good friend who’s been venturing there for years, and mapped out our route. The forecast didn’t look great, but this being our annual trip, we couldn’t back out.
We started out our adventure with unbridled enthusiasm. But as we ventured further into the wilderness, the route became choked with downed trees and the trail eroded into a muddy mass on the hillside. We scrambled over and under giant trunks. Michelle, keenly attuned to her surroundings, mindfully placed each foot as her backpack effortlessly followed in her wake. I attempted to do the same but was ensnared in an aboveground strainer. My shirt snagged on a branch, my arm started to bleed, and my backpack lurched forward, tumbling my body over the tree. Finesse is not my strong suit.
We continued our quest through the matrix of debris as we noticed hints of a storm approaching. “Maybe it’ll blow over,” I said with the hopeless optimism that comes with living in a place where it perpetually rains. I felt a raindrop on my hand, then another on my face. We stopped, deciding to gear up in Gortex before it was too late. The steady drizzle persisted until we arrived at our campsite. Dylan and I quickly set up our tent and a tarp, then managed to start a small fire with an oatmeal packet wrapper and some relatively dry hemlock twigs.
Thirty minutes later, the skies opened, releasing sheets of rain. Michelle, Owen, and I huddled under the tarp, as the acoustics of the torrential storm engulfed us. Water pooled in the tarp depressions, filling and releasing buckets of rain. After many nights of wet camping, Owen and Dylan had perfected their auto-burp technology, a system of rigging a tarp to be periodically self-draining.
Dylan, showcasing his own hopeless optimism, attempted to keep the fire going with diminishing returns. Water poured down his back and funneled into a gap between his rain jacket and rain pants, soaking every inch of his baselayers. Thirty minutes later, he accepted the fire’s fate and joined us under the tarp, significantly wetter than he would have been if he had just abandoned the idea of a fire before the deluge. We swapped stories and sipped whiskey for several hours before crawling into our tents. My sleeping bag embraced me in downy warmth and I drifted off to sleep, comforted by the sound of heavy raindrops pattering against the fly.
Although we never embark on an adventure in pursuit of suffering, we invariably experience elements of suffering, often born from the elements themselves. There’s an adage that if you never go out in the rain, you’ll never do anything outdoors in West Virginia. Another is that there is no bad weather, only bad gear. We take both to heart, rarely letting the forecast deter us and always bringing waterproof layers and fresh tent socks.
With another successful sufferfest in the books, Dylan and I geared up for our next adventure, a three-night trip in the lush Cranberry Wilderness, the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi. We cruised along the Highland Scenic Highway as the sun illuminated leaves mottled with greens, yellows, and reds. It was a perfect September day, a harbinger of our idyllic West Virginia adventure week, or so I hoped. But the second we pulled into the parking lot at the trail head, it started to rain.
We waited in the car, munching on a lunch of leftovers and wishing the storm would pass. Twenty minutes later, we committed to another wet hike in the woods. Moving at a brisk pace, we booted up, put on our rain gear, and prepped our packs. I brought too much stuff (of course), so my pack cover jutted out in various directions to encase a water bottle, pair of sandals, and loose sleeve of crackers. The rain poured down, finding every crack between my backpack and its cover. The sleeve of crackers swung left to right in a puddle that accumulated in my pack cover, sloshing in tune with my steps.
The trail wound through a sweeping spruce forest, each tree spaced apart enough to command individual appreciation. Rolling hummocks of neon green moss coated the floor, freshly fluffed from the ample moisture. Wet West Virginia woods have an unparalleled beauty. We passed through the spacious woods and entered an encroaching rhododendron thicket. As a shorter human, I get whacked from head to toe with saturated branches. I looked up as another couple approached us. “Are you enjoying the car wash?” a woman giggled. They forgot their rain gear and turned around to head for the dry respite of their car. We wished them well and carried on through the tunnel of soggy bushes.
After six miles or so, we checked the map and discovered we were approaching our campsite destination. We ventured off trail in opposite directions but found nothing resembling a campsite. It felt like the Dolly Sods trip all over again. We walked for another fifteen minutes, consulted the map, and wandered around again. I inspected a boulder outcrop and discovered the faintest hint of an old fire pit. The moment I’ve been waiting for, “I found it!”
I dropped my pack and did a happy dance as the rain lightened up around me. We hung our wet gear on wet branches and changed into dry clothes. We gently constructed a cozy nest of hemlock needles upon which to set our tent. Despite the misshapen pack covers, our gear stayed dry, except for one corner of Dylan’s sleeping bag. He built a small, but impressive fire with some wet, fallen twigs—just warm enough to evaporate the moisture off his bag. After a quiet, peaceful night in the woods, we crawled into our tent and fell asleep.
I woke up the next morning to the sun filtering through a misty canopy. We did our camp chores without any sense of urgency. When the caffeine hit, we set off, eager to explore new trails. As we descended the trail, which felt more like an eroded creek bed, I noticed a cluster of bright red mushrooms. Then another and another. I glanced around to see yellow, orange, brown, and black fungi. They were everywhere. It was a fungal fairy tale, all made possible by the rain and the mycelial miracle of the underground.
The rest of our trip featured warm, sunny days. We took refreshing dips in the Williams River and lounged on a rock, basking in the sun. By all definitions, it was the perfect weather for a backpacking trip. But when I reflect on that adventure, it’s the soaking slog through the misty spruce forest and the mushroom extravaganza that I cherish most. We’re fortunate to live in a place so abundant with water; life flourishes before our eyes as rain transforms the landscapes that surround us.
Along with the external world, I treasure the internal world I seem to only explore when conditions are less than ideal. I only go inward when I’m hauling a heavy pack over exhausting terrain or getting drenched through the rhododendron car wash. The outward challenges provide those increasingly rare opportunities to check in, put my life into perspective, and convince myself that I’m strong (and stubborn) enough to carry on. After all, there’s only a quarter mile to go.
Nikki Forrester is senior editor of Highland Outdoors and looks forward to the many sufferfests that will inevitably happen in the future.
Feature Photo: The author heading deep into the Cranberry Wilderness, just minutes before the downpour that totally soaked her to the bone. Photo by Dylan Jones