I am honestly having trouble putting into words my experience at the national forest. This was my first time visiting and I also went alone. When I told people I was going alone I got mixed responses but most were in the range of “that’s dangerous”. Even my husband was skeptical as to why I needed or wanted to go alone. He responded “why don’t you wait for a weekend so I can go with you”. Going by myself was a big step for me as this would be my first solo hike. I wouldn’t be spending the night, but I would be driving and hiking alone.
The first thing you notice when you turn into the national forest is that the number of people dramatically drops to near zero. I did go on a weekday which was probably responsible for the low turnout, but during my entire visit to the 251 square mile forest I saw only 2 other people. The forest is very old and tall, the trees tower over you in a way that only old growth can. I instantly felt the urge to roll down my windows as I drove on the park road, and I was rewarded with a rich woody humid smell. As I parked and turned off my car the silence hit me. A deafening crowding silence. No cars, electrical hums, machinery, nothing. This complete silence was hard to take in and for the first 30 minutes of my visit my heart rate and blood pressure felt abnormally high. I felt the need to return to the safety of my car. Full disclosure, I did bring my dog along, but at that moment she did not bring me any real comfort.
I entered the trail at Ratcliff park which, based on information at the empty visitors center, was a tourist destination for summer. As I began to walk I started thinking about all of the things that could kill me. Every horror movie, camping disaster, and CSI episode began racing through my head. “Hiker dies in woods and isn’t found for days”, they would say “why did she hike alone, so irresponsible”. The fear was very real and made my progress on the first mile very slow. To make matters worse I scared quite a few napping deer who found the brush near the trail a nice place to rest for the mid morning. I would turn a corner and be met face to face with a leaping frightened deer as it bucks and jumps away from me into the woods. Needless to say I was on edge.
Two miles into the trail I began to calm down, the silence was replaced with a quiet buzz of animal activity, and the forest began to feel familiar. I was able to begin to appreciate the nature around me and take it in. I started feeling excitement and enjoyment of looking, listening and smelling. There was almost too much to look at and I needed to see all of it. At the halfway point I pitched my hammock and ate lunch. I took a moment to close my eyes and be still, to feel the soft breeze and hear the sounds of the forest. It almost seems to be breathing in and out with each passing gust of wind. In-between each breath you hear birds, insects and small animals going about their day.
The return trip always feels quicker than the initial one. I was no longer walking with fear but a slight confidence that I knew not only where I was but I was happy to be there. I was almost disappointed to arrive back at my car so soon and I began to look for excuses to stay just 10 more minutes. I am incredibly happy I challenged myself to solo hike. Maybe it was the fact that I was alone which made it more impactful, the lack of conversation and distraction allowed me to see more than I normally would have. Either way I left with a new found experience and love for nature.