You can’t come, it’s a boys’ trip. Girls don’t go to deer camp.
These words rang in my ears as tears welled in my nine-year-old eyes. I couldn’t understand the unfairness of the situation as I watched my father and two younger brothers pack their hunting gear into the truck. I sobbed into my mother’s lap, begging to go, “I’m a better shot than Sam, and Zack doesn’t even really want to go! Why can’t I just go with them in the morning?”
I am the only daughter in a family with four sons—to say I was a tomboy is an understatement. I am lucky enough to have grown up in a log cabin in the woods, surrounded by farmland, with my own horse and riding trails, and no other sounds but from birds and the wind. The great outdoors was my babysitter, where we would run free in the summer, as long as we returned in one piece for dinner. When our cousins visited, we would pick teams, and of course, the boys were always chosen first. “You’ll get hurt! Only boys can do that!” We girls would shrug and act like we didn’t care, but under that game face, I tried so hard to be like them. I usually wore my brothers’ clothes, which infuriated them, but girl’s clothes couldn’t handle my adventures. They would yell at me for hanging out with their friends and building forts instead of playing Barbies inside. But still, she persisted…
Throughout high school, I struggled with my identity as an outdoor lover. I wasn’t soft-spoken or gentle. I didn’t wear much makeup and detested dresses. I had calloused hands and chipped fingernails. I’m not even entirely sure my parents realized they didn’t have five sons until I started dating. And even then, it was hard to find a boyfriend who could keep up with me. I would continue to struggle with this identity for years, even while working as an outdoor guide. I didn’t truly find my tribe until I moved to Knoxville. Here, I surround myself with fierce women who play as hard as I do, and while we are different, we all have one thing in common. We love nature.
REI will go down in history for their “Force of Nature” campaign, partnering with Outside Magazine to design an entire issue strictly for women. One article really hit home about how women suffer from the pressures of social norms in the workplace, and also at home. The outdoors is becoming an escape for women, specifically, to mentally and physically release that pent-up pressure. I recently found myself similarly struggling with work issues, an overflowing inbox, a growing to-do list, and a stressful (and expensive) illness of my horse. I needed a serious nature break.
That morning, a Facebook memory from a year ago popped up showing a photo from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There I was, standing in front of a herd of elk in the Cataloochee Valley. My hair was windblown, my eyes sparkled, my clothes were dirty, and I had a huge smile on my face. That’s what I was missing. I messaged one of my best friends, a like-minded crazy busy ICU nurse, and then rashly booked a campsite in North Carolina for the following week, the first Monday in October. I’m normally a control freak, but since we only had 24 hours, this felt right to just wing it.
We left Knoxville and decided to stop and hike a trail near the state line that I had done years prior near Big Creek. Hardly any other cars were on the winding roads and the trailhead was deserted. My anxiety melted away with each crunchy step of my boots. Leaves were gently falling as water gushed through a ravine below, drowning out my thoughts of work and stress, and evidently our sense of direction. We missed the turn and went a mile out of our way. When we found Mouse Creek Falls, a fine mist beat lightly against our cheeks. The air tasted cleaner, more pure. A warm rock invited a short nap, then we carried on down the trail.
We were dripping sweat by the time we reached Midnight Hole, only a mile or so from our car. It definitely wasn’t swimming weather, but we were hot. We looked around—no one in sight—so stripped down to our underwear and jumped in. The cold knocked the air out of my lungs like a freight train! I have NEVER felt such cold water in my life. Dozens of rainbow trout darted around our legs, surely curious about the two crazy chicks that landed in their home. I showed Portia how to spot the fish against the rocks, then wisely decided to leave before we got hypothermia. The hike back helped warm our bones as the sun lowered behind the mountains surrounding us. The drive to Cataloochee was short from there.
We set up camp in less than an hour. Tents? Check. Firewood? Check. Food? Duh. Beer and whiskey? Double check! We spent the evening laughing, planning future trips (I’m coming for you Iceland) and reminiscing over adventures past. Two girls without a care. The 6 a.m. alarm came quickly while still pitch black, so we packed up by the light of our headlamps and made coffee on our camp stove, determined not to miss the show.
Driving slowly through the gates past the rangers station, our headlights pierced the dark. Windows down, ears straining. I pulled off the road and cut the engine, hoping…praying. Then, a faint huffing noise started as a low guttural groan and crescendoed as a screeching bugle raising goosebumps on my arms while making my hair stand on end. The eerie challenge of the bull elk echoed farther away by his rival in the trees. We had found the rut.
As the sun began to rise, the bugling became more intense until suddenly, another larger, much more aggressive bull elk came barreling from the tree line to defend his harem from the interloper near us, sweeping his giant antlers low towards his opponent. We silently watched as the victor returned to his herd, screaming in triumph. His cry echoed and ricocheted off the peaks around us bringing to mind the words of my yoga instructor and dear friend Tracy:
This moment is fleeting. This moment, right now, will never be here again. This is the only time you will experience what is happening before you. Cherish it, and be present.