As a former infantryman I’ve spent my share of nights sleeping on the ground. My wife and I enjoy backpacking, and we’ve shared a tent on many occasions. What I hadn’t done a lot of, when I began my John Muir Trail thru-hike, was camping by myself. It wasn’t unprecedented, mind you, but it had probably been a few years since I spent the night in the woods all by myself.
I had forgotten how spooky it can be.
There I was on day 1, alongside Sunrise Creek, dinner eaten and ready to get to bed early. I hadn’t seen another hiker since the intersection with the Half Dome trail.
The night before I hadn’t slept well due to pre-hike jitters. The climb out of the valley had kicked my rear end and I was ready for some rest, even if there was still a little daylight left.
As I crawled into the tent and zipped the door shut I was immediately aware of the fact that I was out in the middle of the woods, alone. From inside the tent I could only see about two feet in front of me, but I could imagine that I was surrounded by a whole bunch of critters. Some of those critters were larger than me. I had seen a mother bear and two cubs less than three miles from this very spot.
And that doesn’t even count the bipeds with backpacks, some of whom may be wandering the woods with bad intentions.
Chasing the imaginary hoards surrounding my little tent from my mind, I closed my eyes and settled in for the night.
Something hit the ground near my tent, HARD.
OK, I told myself. This is the woods. Stuff falls all the time. No big deal.
I had just about convinced myself that it was nothing, or perhaps I had imagined the whole thing, when: pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…PLOP!
I had no idea what was making that noise, but it was NOT the wind (there wasn’t a breath of a breeze) or the trees settling or—well, I don’t know what else it WASN’T.
Here’s the thing: there was intentionality to the sound. Someone or something was doing this on purpose, within a few yards of my tent, and making a lot of noise in the process.
Finally, I summoned all of my courage and got up. I half expected to find a prankster standing there with a grin on his face and an unlimited supply of croquet balls to hurl on the ground where I had chosen to sleep.
But there was no one there. In fact, there was nothing there. Even the chipmunks that had been playing on a fallen log in my campsite had sacked out for the night.
I sat on the log and looked around. No sounds. No activity at all.
Then, suddenly, pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…PLOP! A large, heavy, sappy, unopened pine cone landed within a few yards of me. I looked up, and sure enough, at the very top of several tall pines was a squirrel jumping from limb to limb.
I watched him jump from one tree to another, climb up to a pine cone growing from a branch, and start gnawing. Within a minute or two he had the cone separated from the tree.
As it fell it hit a branch (pffffft), another branch (pffffft), etc. When it hit the ground it hit hard and loud (PLOP). Mystery solved.
I crawled back into my sleeping bag, feeling more than a bit sheepish, and was asleep within minutes. In the morning, there wasn’t a pine cone on the ground to be found.
Good hiking, Ray