I can’t remember why we decided to do it. If a good reason ever existed, it died in the snowy Shenandoah Mountains that January night. Two young, stoner generation-Xers dreamed an adventure of camping in a winter blizzard. We were an adventurous, if smoke-addled, lot.
My hazy memory holds a scene of warm camaraderie, in a living room with heat and weed, a few days before. My friend Tom and I might have been playing chess. Tom and I share the same fall birthday, though he is a few years older than me. Back then he might have been in his late twenties. It was college times for me, or some vague idea of college times. Our only real responsibilities were making sure there was money each month for rent and that aforementioned weed.
I remember days being longer then, even when most often I didn’t wake until noon. Tom had a job managing a Pizza Hut, maybe he was somewhere else by then. We either lived in a house with four other guys, or recently had. If I was working at all, it was as a cook at some chain restaurant that served up shit like broccoli bites and fucking Monte Cristos, which were ham and cheese sandwiches dipped in batter and deep fried. The head line cook would call out “Heart Attack” when one came in. But beyond those jobs there was only hanging out and smoking weed.
One night the conversation turned to camping, even though it was January and the forecast called for a snowstorm.
“Snow camping,” Tom said, as not really a question, but more a non sequitur.
“Yeah, why not,” was my likely reply.
“We could go up to the Shenandoah and hike in, stay the weekend.”
Knowing me, it seems like I would have been hesitant. A plan of sorts, however, came together, and the next day we hit up REI for packets of freeze dried dinners and rentals of below-freezing rated sleeping bags. We had a shitty tent and some backpacks already. Tom also bought a collapsible shovel–good for digging out deep snow, he said–and that was the extent of our planning. I vaguely remember reading an article in Backpacker magazine on the subject the day before we left.
The day of, light snow fell in the DC area, and we headed out early. We planned to leave even earlier, but overslept. Well, I did anyway, Tom was probably waiting for me to get my shit together. It could have been eleven before we hit the road. We smoked a few bowls on the way, because we always smoked a few bowls on the way.
The Shenandoah had gotten over two feet of snow, with more coming. Crews had done a good job keeping the roads clear though, and we pulled into a ranger station around three in the afternoon.
Ranger stations are particularly strange when you’re high. For me it had a Yogi Bear cartoon aura to it. The ranger, in her tidy greenish suit and hat, was nice enough. Letter sized posters covered the walls. One about bear safety struck me, mainly for the hand drawn image of a brown bear standing on hind legs, it’s angry maw spread for munching. Another showed a bright, red title: Hypothermia.
“Great, you’ll just need to register,” the ranger said. “You’ll have to park in Lot C and hike the rest of the way to the trail head. Roads up there haven’t been cleared.”
“That’s fine,” Tom said and signed a form.
The ranger told us another group of kids had just left for the same place. We’d likely run across them.
“You all have snowshoes, right,” she asked.
Normal people would have stopped right there. We did not have snowshoes. I have never even seen a snowshoe up close, then or since. Tom and I eyed each other and looked down at our hiking boots.
“Are they required,” I asked.
The ranger raised her eyes and gave us the once over.
“You all realize the snow will likely get waist deep,” he asked, “You’ve been snow camping before, right?”
I nodded yes before Tom, because I am the bigger knucklehead. Maybe she believed or didn’t care. Either way, she slid Tom the finished paperwork.
“Make sure and update us when you leave. Don’t want to send out a search party for nothing,” she said in parting.
The drive up to Lot C got slippery, the tires of Tom’s sedan whining against the ice. Snow still fell and had even picked up since we first entered the station. When we pulled in the lot and circled around a ten foot high mound of pushed snow, the other group of kids were standing with their gear, taken from the back of a now empty, rusted Bronco. There were three guys and two girls.
I don’t think we spoke to them. They talked loudly and laughed as they slipped into their snowshoes and then backpacks. Tom and I took our time to let them go on ahead. By the time we hit the trail head, they were far in the distance, lost to shadows and heavy snow.
The snow came up over knees, often to our hips. This was even though we followed in the other group’s wake, their snowshoes having tamped down a depressed line. If you’ve never walked in waist deep snow, you wouldn’t know how each step strains at your thigh muscles. You wouldn’t know that your lungs start to burst and retain that feeling for the duration of your hike, or that your eyes take on the look of a lunatic. I saw it Tom’s eyes, and I’m sure he saw it in mine. We rushed through the first pangs of doubt straight into encompassing, though unspoken, regret.
We had a few hours of daylight left. Our plan had been to hike a few miles in, then setup a campsite and maybe go farther in on Saturday. All I could think about was how we were going to have to hike back out of this fuckness. There is an immediacy to life when you are trudging through these kinds of tasks, though the singular focus is often accompanied by gritty irritability.
“We should stop,” I said around five o’clock, “and get camp setup before it gets dark.”
We cordially split the chores of setting up camp and forging for firewood. I took the firewood part of it, thinking Tom was more keen to use the shovel he had bought. We picked a spot about twenty feet off the trail, or what we thought was the trail. We had been following it for two hours, it damn sure better be as obvious on the way back. Tom took to digging out a ten foot clearing, going three feet deep. By the time I had dragged a pile of kindling and five or six larger pieces over, he was done and had flopped the tent into the middle of that hole.
Our camp wasn’t half bad. We had some odd, fold-up chairs placed in front of the tent, and a tall fire sprung up after some initial struggle getting it smoking. The dark and cold snuck up on us though as we rested. The bleakness of it hit me when we poured hot water into our metal tins of packaged meals–chili I think–and by the time I took my first spoonful, the outer edges had already begun to freeze. I maybe got three hot bites before all of it was like that. Our after-dinner coffee, which I had looked forward to since stopping to make camp, suffered the same fate.
We sat in our hole, the wind whipping up at times. Brittle animal calls echoed across the white landscape. These animals were, I thought, of unknown size, and god knows what level of hunger. There was some conversation between us, but not much. From our vantage point, by raising our heads slightly, the surrounding snow was at eye level. A ridge from the snow Tom had dug out, now smoothed down by the wind, lined the diameter of the hole. It had the feel of Eskimos, almost pleasant in a rhetorical sort of way.
We smoked a bowl.
When you are suffering, no thoughts are good ones. I tried to tell myself that this place was beautiful, that better men than me, maybe Thoreau, would think elegant words. But my body said, “Hey, you need to take a crap. Good luck with that, snow man.”
To his credit, Tom seemed to be enjoying himself more than I was. If I remember correctly I broached the subject of how shitty this was, and he seemed to not want to dwell on it. He was right, but I couldn’t let it go. This was the most miserable situation I had ever been in. (This is not actually true, but those are stories for another day.)
“I guess we should get some sleep,” he said after we finished one more bowl.
Before I relate the next part, I’ll remind you that I had read that Backpacker article the night before, and I swear to this day it recommended my next decision. The sleeping bags we had rented from REI were rated -10 degrees and seemed to be perfect for the occasion. As Tom climbed into his and tugged the zipper tight against the opening, I started taking off my clothes.
“What are you doing,” he asked.
“You’re supposed to sleep without clothes so the sleeping bag will warm up from your body heat,” I said.
Tom has a way of looking dubious that is quite obvious: eyes squinted down, lips curled. “I don’t think it works that way.”
“No, really,” I said. “Clothing blocks your body’s heat from creating an oven-like effect in these types of bags.”
I have a way of being confident, nearly belligerent, when I’m full of shit. I was also high. I stripped down to my underwear and slid into the sleeping bag. The underside was chill and so uncomfortable I had to shift every few minutes or the skin touching it became near frozen. Tom turned off the lantern. We both went silent, though for my part I went back to obsessing. Tom fell asleep after a while, leaving me alone to those creepy, night sounds and my own self-fed misery.
Sleep did come, in a way, though it was fitful and hardly deep. Much later in the night, though, I woke to the sound of grunting and the crunch of heavy footsteps. I thought of that bear on the ranger station poster. The sounds passed in terrifying slowness until all was (mostly) quiet again. But I was awake enough now to realize I was freezing to death. My body shook as if in a seizure. The ground underneath me felt like solid ice. My skin was cold to the touch.
“Tom, you awake,” I asked.
He didn’t stir. I nudged him, reaching out sharply twice, the cold on my bare arm like a burn.
“You awake,” I asked again.
His head, facing away from me, turned. “I guess, sort of. What’s up?”
“Let’s go,” I said.
He made no response. I realized it was a dickish request, but didn’t care. At that moment I was prepared to ask for the keys and hike back myself.
“I could probably make out alright staying, but I could easily leave too,” he said.
“Cool,” I said and started to get dressed.
It was two o’clock in the morning. While packing up we realized we only had one flashlight but did have that lantern. It was heavy and hard to hold, and since this was my idea, I got to carry it. We packed up in about thirty minutes. A brittle wind came steadily into our faces. Tom pulled a scarf up to just under his eyes. I had nothing to cover mine, only a wool cap pulled over my ears. I yanked it down as far as I could and still see. We trudged off with Tom in lead.
Nearly every step I took was off balance. I lurched through that snow, which was even deeper now, lantern clutched in hand, each step exaggerated, awkward and halting. like a coward that had been dared to walk through a nighttime cemetery. I had to constantly ask Tom to wait up, as he had bolted ahead toward the car, where we would find real shelter and heat. Twenty minutes in we walked through a spot that in my lantern light looked awash in animal footprints. There was a dark heap just off our trail line.
“Tom,” I yelled, “this looks like bear shit!”
Tom hiked back to me and looked down. “Yeah, maybe. It could be something that fell from a tree.”
He turned and kept moving, and I scrambled to keep up. The lantern light cast a dull glow into the trees, causing all sorts of eyes and mouths to appear. The wind drummed up just enough hint of moans to make me spin around and make sure nothing crept up behind me. I was convinced we were off course. Tom insisted that he had seen trail markers, and though the wind had covered our earlier footsteps, he saw an indented line in the snow. My feet were numb; the idea of frostbite occurred to me. I switched the lantern from one hand to the other, its weight a heavy strain on my upper arm. Step, teeter, balance, step again. Snow became packed down into my socks.
Around five am I saw Tom start to walk in regular steps. We had reached Lot C. I stumbled out of the snow after him. At the car, we dumped everything in the trunk not minding much how organized (or not organized) it was. Once inside, Tom revved the engine up and cranked the heat on high. The stereo blared: “For long you live and high you fly, but only if you ride the tide, and balanced on the biggest wave, you race towards an early grave.” If I ever meet Roger Waters, I’ll thank him for that perfect moment.
“Sorry,” I said.
“It’s fine,” Tom said, “it’s over now.”
The roads were snowy, but not dangerous if we took our time. We did not leave a note at the ranger station, and did not, in fact, think of it until days later. I’ve always wondered if they ever sent out a search party for us.
As we drove home though, none of that mattered to us. Outside the window, the woods looked beautiful again. Light snow fell. Another bowl was smoked. We had miles to go before we slept.