Spend enough time in the woods and you’re bound to learn something about human nature.
It seems counterintuitive, but is true nonetheless, and the more time you spend out there – trying to get away from the trappings of civilization – the more you will come to know about civilization, your fellow man, and about yourself.
The first thing I started to notice after a few years stomping over the mountains is that many (not most, but a lot) of the people to take off to the trails and trout streams have no idea what they’re doing.
One fine spring day in the middle 1990s Laura, my fishing partner of the hour, and I were enjoying lunch on a sandbar at the Chattooga River.
It had been a marvelous morning on the river, one of those days when nearly every cast seemed to bring a fish.
Between the two of us we’d caught and released more than 50 rainbows and browns and were looking forward to an equally productive afternoon.
Laura and I were interrupted in mid bite by a voice calling from the laurel hell at our backs.
“Excuse me, could you help us?”
You could tell by the accent that he wasn’t from around here; turned out the man was from Cleveland, Ohio.
He was one of the most bedraggled humans I’ve ever seen. “I can’t seem to find the trail,” he said. “Could you point us in the right direction?”
It was the “us” part that got my attention.
“Who all is with you?”
“Just my wife and her mom,” said the man, stepping out of the way so we could see two women who looked as if they’d gone through the Bataan Death March.
“Oh my,” said Laura.
Hobbling out of the laurel hell the husband told their tale of woe. His wife helped her mom out into the sunlight and I noticed the older woman was wearing a bright pink pair of rubber gardening boots; the kind that have little daisies in a ring around the tops.
They’d started the morning walk at Pigpen Branch about three miles away and worked their way upstream on Foothills Trail.
About a half-mile from where we found them Foothills takes a hard right and goes up and around the steep gorge below Big Bend Falls.
Instead of following Foothills, they’d followed an old fishing path, which had quickly petered out. They didn’t try to retrace their steps and find the trail, they just pushed on and spent the better part of four hours lost in the murderously steep laurel hell that separates Foothills from the river.
At no point during this time were they more than 100 yards from either the river or the trail.
We shared the last of our food and water. The trio had not thought to bring any since they’d only planned to be gone for about an hour.
While they ate and drank I noticed the older woman seemed to be in considerable pain. I asked her what was wrong and she pulled off one of the boots.
She wasn’t wearing any socks and her feet were a bloody mess.
At this point my partner leaned over and whispered fiercely in my ear. “If you tell them I’m a nurse, I’ll kill you.”
To her credit Laura did a bit of first aid for the older woman and let her use the tennis shoes that lived in Laura’s fly-fishing vest for hikes back up from the river.
My partner managed to slog along in her wading shoes. Not the easiest thing to do since they were felt-soled; which is great in a stream but horribly slick on dry leafy ground.
The fishing was over for that day and we started to guide the little family up the side of the mountain and back to the trail.
It only took a few yards for it to become plain that the mother was not going to be able to make it back to Pigpen, so I offered to give them a ride in my truck, which was parked at the top of the mountain.
Laura gave me a look that spoke volumes to the breadth of my stupidity.
As it worked out, Laura was right. The husband and I had to carry the mother to the top while Laura superintended and the man’s wife carried the rubber gardening boots.
It took three times as long as it should have to get them to my truck.
While they were loading into the back, Laura asked the wife where the mother’s gardening shoes might be.
“Don’t know. I must have left them while we were taking a break,” she said.
I went over our path on a later trip to the river and never did find those boots. They’re probably still in the laurel hell where they should finish decomposing sometime around the middle of the century.