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A morning campfire crackled. An ax chopped wood. The wind whistled through the trees and rattled branches.
What bothered Travis Makepeace was what he didn’t hear. No boys chattered about the upcoming day or bantered about chores. No adults called for everyone to get ready. No sounds of backpacks being prepared reached his ears.
December days inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were short. Reaching the next campsite required a long day of hiking, so early starts were a must. Why wasn’t everyone preparing?
Wrapped inside his sleeping bag, Travis willed his body to move, but his muscles protested. Sure, he had carried a 30 pound backpack over mountainous trails for the last few days, so some stiffness was normal. But everything hurt. Even the joints in his fingers ached.
Besides, his head throbbed. The pain stabbed right behind his eyes and pierced deep into his skull. Days of hiking didn’t explain that.
Keeping his eyes squeezed shut, Travis reached for his canteen and unscrewed the cap. Muscles twinged and his hands shook as he raised the water to his chapped lips and sipped, wincing as he swallowed. The icy cold water trickled down his parched throat to his turbulent stomach. His body threatened to repel the liquid before settling to an uneasy calm.
Vague memories flickered in his head. Muscle spasms. Vomiting. Diarrhea. Losing consciousness. The longest night of his life. He hadn’t been that sick in ages.
Food poisoning? A flu bug? Was it over? Or was there more nastiness to come?
The gurgling in his stomach subsided. Travis sipped more water, soothing his burning throat.
Cracking his eyes open, the glaring light flooded in. Even inside the tent, the sunlight burned, so he clenched his dry eyes closed again and threw his hands across his face.
In the safe darkness of his palms, he hesitantly reopened his eyes. The lids felt gritty and rough. Blinking helped, but the improvement was slight.
Braced for the onslaught, he created the smallest of gaps between his fingers, allowing a glow to seep through.
Bright. Too bright. Must be mid-morning at least. Too late to make the next campsite before dark. Time to get moving no matter how bad he felt. Back country permits in the park were strict – specific campsites for specific nights.
Travis sat up, the sleeping bag falling to his waist and exposing his bare chest to the cold, winter air. A wave of nausea gripped him and his muscles spasmed. The little water in his stomach threatened to erupt. His vision grayed as consciousness threatened to drift away.
Wrapping his arms around his abdomen, he doubled over and rocked. He sucked the frigid air deep into his lungs, held it, and slowly exhaled. The muscles of his body reluctantly released their hold.
Travis straighten his upper body for a second time, sitting up and allowing his eyes to focus on the supplies in the tent.
Noting the empty sleeping bag beside him, Travis rejoiced that Mike Chapman was already up. Best friend. Soccer teammate at school. Mike had let him sleep while organizing the group for the day.
The annual winter camping trip occurred over the Christmas school break, restricted to just 6 teenagers and 2 adult leaders. Those coveted slots were reserved for the most experienced boys in the scout troop, a reward for working with the younger boys on other trips.
The two adults were Johnny Hamilton, the long-time Scoutmaster and an experienced outdoorsman, and Derek Chapman, Mike’s father.
Both 16 and Eagle Scouts, Mike and Travis were old hands at high adventure trips. The remaining four boys, 13 to 15 years old, had dozens of camping nights each, but respected the older boys’ experience and followed their lead.
Doing his best to ignore his body’s protests, Travis slid out of the sleeping bag and pulled on the layers of clothing needed to fight the cold mountain air. A base layer, the clothing nearest to the skin needed to wick away sweat and keep you dry, came first. A mid layer added insulation, providing warmth without needing a bulky coat. When needed, an outer layer protected from extreme cold and repelled rain and snow.
After tying his boots, Travis sipped from his canteen and caught his breath. Getting dressed had required more exertion than he had expected.
With such a low energy level, how far could he hike? Could he stand without fainting?
Time to test that. He unzipped the tent flap, stuck his head into the brisk breeze and scanned the campsite.
The sun hung high in the clear blue sky, confirming the lateness of the morning. More of a surprise, several inches of fresh snow blanketed the ground. Snow was not uncommon in late December in the Great Smoky Mountains, so they had been careful to monitor the weather throughout the trip. The next significant snow fall was days away, after leaving the trail.
But as Mr. Hamilton reminded them, “Expect the unexpected – especially when it comes to weather.” A surprise storm had swept across the ridges overnight.
The depth of the snow would make hiking difficult, even unsafe. Staying put for the day was safer. They could make up the hiking time later in the week with some long days.
Travis smiled thinking of a day of rest. Another night of sleep and he would be ready to hike hard.
They needed three solid days of hiking to get to their last scheduled campsite Saturday night. After breaking camp Sunday morning, a short hike took them to their parked vans for the drive home in Charlotte.
Being off schedule meant making up the time hiking all day Sunday and driving home that night – an unpleasant but doable outcome with school starting back Monday from the Christmas break.
Resigned to their condition, Travis focused on the large campfire roaring in the center of the ring of tents. Thirteen-year-old Cooper Gatley, the youngest and least experienced camper on the trip, wielded an ax. He had built an impressive pile of wood off to the side, enough to last several days.
Chopping all of that wood took a lot of energy. He had better not hear Cooper whining later that he wanted to rest rather than keep hiking.
But worse, that large fire nearly guaranteed that they wouldn’t be hiking today. They needed only a small fire, easy to extinguish, to cook breakfast. A large fire would take a lot of work to become “cold out” – the embers cold enough to touch with your hands. Another of Mr. Hamilton’s sayings, “If it is not cold enough to touch, it is not cold enough to leave.”
On the positive side, Travis spied a coffee pot hanging above the fire. With coffee, maybe his headache would subside enough to make it through the day. That alone might save Cooper some grief.
Motivated by the thought of caffeine, Travis exited the tent and stood, testing whether his legs were strong enough to keep him erect. His knees quivered, but he decided he would not faint.
Startled at the movement behind him, Cooper spun around and stared. He dropped the ax into the snow and ran toward Travis exclaiming, “Dude! You’re alive.”