My Solitary Confinement
15 days of tears and pouring rain had passed by slower than any in my entire life. I still had another seven days to go before I could get back on an airplane and fly from Asheville, North Carolina to Boulder, Colorado. I had never missed the sharp peaks of the Rocky Mountains more in my entire life. I had been dreading this trip since I was six years old. My dad instructed the North Carolina Outward Bound school, or NCOBS, for 8 years and I am the fifth of his five children to attend this 22 day test of character and endurance. In the last 15 days, I had hiked almost 100 miles with a 50 pound backpack, and 12 backpacking companions from all over the world. They didn’t make very good companions though, because only three of them spoke English. I had been sleeping on dirt under a tarp, with nothing but a thin layer of plastic and a mediocre sleeping bag to keep me warm. It had been raining for the last eight days, and when it starts raining in the Smokey Mountains, it does not stop. At that point I was so close to strangling every other member of my “crew,” I needed some time alone. I had no idea what real alone time felt like, but I was about to find out.
I woke up on the 16th day of my 22 day trip ready to pack up camp and hike another 7 to 15 miles to our next campsite. That’s all we did all day; eat, hike, eat some more, and hike up and down more mountains and across more bridges until we finally found our next campsite. Blisters, cuts and bruises formed on everyone’s feet and ankles from the endless sea of vines, puddles and trails we had covered. However, this day was different. When we stopped for lunch, we were instructed not to put our backpacks back on. Puzzled, everyone looked at eachother and we moved off the trail to an open space in a wooded area. Our two instructors then handed out 6 ft X5ft tarps with two pieces of peacord, sleeping bags, and toothbrushes with no further instructions. Then one by one, the instructors led each of us out into the dense woods, until we couldn’t see or hear them anymore. I was the second to last one to leave. I followed my mountain man of an instructor along a small creek until I reached a flat open area about 300 yards from where we had stopped for lunch. For the next two or three minutes, he explained how I would be left completely alone in the woods for the next three and a half days with no food, books, supplies or a watch. I was instructed to set up my tarp with the two strings I was given, and I was not allowed to leave the 10 ft X 10 ft area that had been cleared for safety purposes. He handed me a small bleach bottle and a water filter and walked away without another word. And that was it. I was completely alone in the woods of North Carolina.
The next couple of hours passed by quickly because I was busy contemplating the reality of what had just happened. I had never been alone for more than a few hours before, and even then I had things to entertain me. Here, I had nothing but the twigs and branches around me, and the dozens of spiders investigating the freshly cleared area. I could not see the sun through the dense tree tops, so I had no idea what time it could have possibly been. It felt like early evening, but there was no way to tell. Staring up at the green and brown canopy above me, I thought about what I was doing 15 days ago. I thought about hugging my mom and dad goodbye at the security gate in the A terminal at DIA, and then walking along the long skybridge to get to my gate all alone. I thought about the four hours I spent staring out the window of the plane, dreading sleeping on the damp ground of the North Carolina woods. I thought about my friends going to the pool and the fair, getting late night pizza and ice cream together while I was laying here all alone.
After waiting for what felt like three hours, but could have easily been 45 minutes, I started to get bored. I still had 73 hours left. I spent some time drawing pictures and letters in the dirt, and trapping the spiders with twigs. I was about to walk the five foot distance between me and the small stream to filter some water and wash the clothes I had been sweating in for the past eight days when I heard a loud boom.
I couldn’t see the sky, so I had no idea the thunderstorm was approaching until it was over my head. Luckily, the tree canopy in these mountains was so thick, the rain did not begin to fall through the leaves for about 15 minutes. I quickly strung my tarp up between two trees and placed all of my stuff underneath. The rain began to fall, and it quickly became a downpour. It continued to rain until it was dark. I was laying in my tarp staring blankly at the green canvas above me, when I felt water on my feet. The water from uphill was running through my tarp to reach the stream five feet away. I had no flashlight, and it was getting so dark I could not see a single thing. No light got through the thick leaves of the trees above. Before it was completely dark, I was able to stuff my sleeping bag back into it’s protective plastic bag so it would not get wet. The absolute last thing I wanted on my backpacking trip was a damp sleeping bag. I spent the entire night sitting up, waiting for the storm to pass. I fell asleep when I saw light beginning to shine through the trees.
The next three days were uneventful and excruciatingly slow. I named spiders, talked to myself, and felt possibly every emotion a human can feel from loneliness to absolute joy, but the most constant emotion was boredom. I cried because I was all alone, and I cried because I missed my family and friends. I cried because I was spending the last month of my summer in the woods with people I didn’t like instead of saying goodbye to my boyfriend and brother before they left for college. At the time, it seemed like there would be no end to these three days. I wish I could say I learned some great or inspiring lesson about myself when I was completely alone for 76 hours, but the truth is all I was really thinking about was the airplanes I could hear above me and how badly I wanted to be on one.