I was backpacking with three friends in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, on a roadless section of Appalachian Trail, when a woman showed up late one afternoon at Derrick Knob Shelter where we were going to spend the night.
She was not carrying a backpack.
Not far behind her came three children, a girl about 12 and two slightly younger boys; a man in his 30’s or early 40’s, who turned out to be her husband; and an old man, in his early 60’s, her father. None of them had backpacks.
They had no tents or sleeping bags, of course. No food. Their water bottles were empty. They didn’t even know where they were, didn’t know, literally, north from south. Her first questions: Where am I? Where is the nearest road?
They were day hikers who had meant to walk north on the A.T. from Clingmans Dome to Newfound Gap, 7.7 miles, where their ride was waiting on them at U.S. 441. Instead, they had walked south, on and on.
Their mistake was not going to be easy to fix. It was 10.6 miles back to Clingmans Dome, if they went north. And going south was not really an option — it was 22.7 miles south to Fontana Dam. Those were the nearest roads.
There were nothing for them to do but spend the night, it was getting on towards sundown and getting chillier by the minute.
There were six backpackers at the shelter, the four of us [Lynn Muchmore, Mark Ogden, Tony Goldman and me] and a father and son who arrived shortly after we did. Between us we had enough extra food for the lost family, supper and breakfast. There was a spring nearby, water. We could build a fire. And a couple of guys had bag liners they could sleep in and let the kids have their sleeping bags.
Everything would be OK.
But the woman, who appeared to be in her mid-to late-30s, said “No” — they would hike back to Clingmans Dome — and it was quickly apparent that she was calling the shots. Her husband and her father just stood there with their mouths shut.
I was incredulous.
Ten more miles in the dark —they didn’t have flashlights— with three children and an old man?
Are you serious?