The Time I Almost Died On the Appalachian Trail
Benjamin Warner Recalls the Great Drought of '99, and a Single Bee Sting
When I was 12 years old, my parents—realizing I wasn’t getting there on my own—bought me a collection of tiny books housed in a cardboard box called How to Become a Genius. The books contained thousands of pieces of trivia, and a prologue that suggested that if I were to memorize them all, I could take my place among the world’s great thinkers. I remember lying on my back on the living room floor, holding those books cracked open above my head, trying.
By the time I was a freshman in college, having taken off a semester to hike the Appalachian Trail, there was only one little fact from that series that persisted in knocking around my brain. (Truthfully, there had never been that many.)
The fact was this: Each year, more people in the U.S. die from bee stings than from shark attacks.
In the summer of 1999, the east coast was experiencing its worst drought in more than 50 years. My friend Jeff Klein and I were in Virginia, about 800 miles into a 2,000-mile hike that would take us from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. We carried guidebooks that mapped out where we could find the most reliable streams to refill our water supply, but that summer, even the most reliable streams were dry. Thru-hikers like us were forced to rely on “trail angels”—townspeople along the trail who were sympathetic to our predicament. They left five-gallon plastic jugs filled with water where the trailheads met with local roads. I remember once, hiking down a slope along a creek, seeing what looked to be fall leaves floating in an eddy. Someone had used stones to dam up a corner of the creek’s turn, and floated cans of soda there. They were almost ice cold. Another time, as we came out of the woods, a group of hikers had gathered together close to the road. We could feel their elation radiating back to us through the trees before we understood what was going on. One of them held something aloft. “Look,” he called to us. “Beer!”
1999 saw a record number of Appalachian Trail hikers. Oddly, the drought allowed many of us to remain on the trail longer than we otherwise might have. There were no muddy boots to contend with. There were seldom times we had to pull on a pair of wet shorts in the morning, starting the day with a chafe. But an increase in the number of hikers and a bunch of dried up streams meant that we were all drinking from the same charitable trough. There was only so much beer and soda to go around. Both Jeff and I carried two one-liter bottles for water, but on most days, we were lucky to fill up one. The days were hot, over a hundred degrees. We were parched, caked in sweat-salt, and suffering with headaches as we hiked from sunrise to sunset. At night, we sweated on top of our bags.
Somewhere south of Virginia, we heard that a man ahead of us had died of heat stroke. “He was in his sixties,” a fellow hiker said. Jeff and I were 19. We’d met at summer camp when we were six, and spent many days hotter than these on the basketball court. Safety was not our primary concern, but having lost a battle to his mother, Jeff carried an emergency cell phone wrapped in a trash bag at the bottom of his pack—a boxy Nokia with a colorless screen the size of a matchbook. In 1999, insisting your son carry a cellphone on the Appalachian Trail was as Jewish-mommish as insisting he take a brisket wrapped in foil. (Incidentally, Jeff took the trail name Grendel, thinking specifically of the character’s despotic mother.)
As we approached Shenandoah National Park, the dead man must have existed in the backs of our minds. Some part of us must have thought, This could be dangerous. We should take it slow. We should rest more often, and find more water, and hike fewer miles per day. The AT runs about 105 miles through Shenandoah. Our packs weighed approximately 45 pounds. We decided we would hike the whole park in four days.
As a native Marylander, Shenandoah National Park felt like my park. It wasn’t more than a couple hours drive from my high school, and I’d overnighted there at least a dozen times with the outing club. In fall, it’s a beautiful place, and though summer has its charms, those charms are mostly obscured by dense leaf-cover. Hikers referred to long sections of trail as “the green tunnel,” because instead of hiking along a ridgeline of vistas, we seemed to be boring deeper and deeper into the space between the trees and their undergrowth. Shenandoah is also a much flatter section of trail than we’d come from farther south. All in all, we saw no reason why we shouldn’t knock it out as quickly as we could.
Though the water sources were still either dry or mostly dry, we hiked nearly a marathon on each of those days. I remember the dull headache of dehydration I couldn’t shake. I remember tying a cloth to the shoulder-strap of my pack as a handy way to wipe my brow, how by the end of each day it was dry enough with salt that it flaked off on my shirt like dandruff. I remember lying awake at night in an oven of darkness, waiting for just a single breeze that never came.
On the fourth day, we hiked with such little water that we had to stop for an hour and leave our bottles beneath a pipe in the side of the mountain that released one drop at a time. The result was maybe a gulp.
But we were almost through. We imagined emptying out into the town of Front Royal, finding an all-u-can eat, and drinking a few gallons of iced-tea. We made the descent from Tom Floyd Wayside in a near-run, our packs bouncing on our shoulders. In what I can see now in slow motion, the insect floated toward me, big and black and shaped like an asterisk. It landed on my knee and I let out a high, elongated Ya-ah, more like I’d been goosed by a tickler than stung. Jeff was on the switchback below me, and I could see the top of his head. He looked up and asked if I was okay. “Yeah,” I said. “I just got stung by something.”
In my life to that point, being stung by bees was a fairly common hazard of going out to play, and I’d spent a good chunk of my childhood outdoors. One summer, my primary occupation had been the trapping of bumblebees in plastic take-out containers. (Maybe this was karma.) A minute after the sting, I began to itch. Not on my knee, but my stomach. The sensation climbed up to my chest and I threw my pack onto the ground. Lifting up my shirt, I saw that I was covered in long pink welts. I tore at them with my fingernails, the only time in my life I can remember thinking that ripping off patches of skin would be preferable to keeping myself in one piece. The itch reached into my hair, and I dug at my scalp. It crawled into my mouth, between my teeth. I bit my lips until they bled. I couldn’t talk. I could only whimper.
I sat down. Jeff had come back to stand over me. “What do you want to do?” he asked.
I tried to stand up, but couldn’t. The itching was subsiding, but I was quickly losing strength. “I don’t know,” I said. My head was swimming. I lay down in the dirt and knew that I wouldn’t be able to pull myself back to sitting.
When I opened my eyes, two more hikers were staring down at me. The man had a red bandana rolled around his head. I don’t remember what the woman looked like.
“He was stung by a bee,” Jeff was saying.
The man knelt down next to me. “Where?” he said.
He took a brown wad of tobacco from a pouch and pressed it to my kneecap. “This should suck out the venom,” he said.
I lay my head back down and threw up on my shoulder. I thought to myself: Each year, more people in the U.S. die from bee stings than from shark attacks.
My vision was narrowing. Jeff began to run back and forth up the trail, looking for help. When he stood above me, I saw his legs shift from one to the other with nervous energy.
And then… the phone! Of course! We had a phone! I can still see Jeff holding the loose end of the garbage bag as the lump of telecommunicative plastic inside rolled end over end in its unwrapping. Everything was turning around. There was still life in the battery! A signal! Jeff dialed 9-1-1. He’d found another hiker up the trail who had an epipen. The emergency operator was telling him how to inject me.
“But it’s not prescribed to me,” I managed, knowing nothing of epinephrine shots. (Now I carry the self-injector around in a yellow tube, like a cigar I hope never to light up.)
“It’s not prescribed to him,” Jeff told the operator.
He was holding the phone against my ear. “I don’t want to use it if isn’t prescribed to me,” I said.
“Okay,” the operator said. “Don’t use it, then.”
Looking back, this was the moment. The Appalachian Trail traverses the Eastern Seaboard, always only a hangnail’s distance—on a map, anyway—from an ambulance’s route to a hospital. Yet on top of that mountain, it seemed for that moment, that I could very easily die there in the wilderness.
At some point, I began losing consciousness. I imagine this was the first time since infancy that I’d closed my eyes in front of a group of people leaning over me, their hands pressed against their knees. I imagine they were concerned.
But they didn’t know me. The brotherhood that exists between hikers grows thin when it asks of them to stand for any length of time in one place. They were losing ground, losing daylight. Most of them hiked on.
It was Jeff who stayed close. Most friends who start out on the Appalachian Trail don’t make it to the northern terminus together. One of them gets injured or sick, or meets a girl. Or they simply can’t stand the sight of each other anymore. But in my photograph from the top of Mount Katahdin, Jeff is right there by my side. He lives in Boston now, and I just got off the phone with him. We were talking about his kids. It’s a wonder I don’t end every conversation by thanking him for saving my life.
He talked to me incessantly, though I don’t remember what he said. I remember the hum of his voice, and knew that he was trying his hardest to keep me from slipping forever off the edge.
He only paused as the rescue team made their way up the mountain. They were laughing and shouting, the sounds of a Boy Scout troop left to their own devices. Then everything went quiet. They were close to me. I could almost feel their breathing.
One of them said, “Shit.”
They shot a needle in my arm and I opened my eyes. They attached me to a drip of saline, epinephrine, and Benadryl. A couple of them lifted me to a stretcher. There were two at the front and two at the back, like pallbearers. The one behind my left ear knocked me in the back of the head with his knee every time he took a step with his right leg. The one behind my right ear knocked me in the back of the head every time he lifted up his left. I was regaining my senses. Already, I could see them. They were big, heavy Virginia men. Volunteers. Every hundred feet or so, they put me down to rest. By the time we reached the bottom, they were laughing and cursing again. The medicine was working. The last time they paused, I saw the break in the trail, where it met the road. I tried to sit up. “I think I can walk the rest of the way from here,” I said, and from the way they laughed at me, I knew I wasn’t dying.
At the road-crossing, they’d called for two ambulances. One would take me to the hospital. The other—this is not a fanciful coda—was loaded with beer and lemonade.
Jeff and I ordered a pizza to triage, and I stayed a couple of hours getting fluid. One of the nurses worried over me. I’d been very dehydrated, she said.
At some point, the doctors had affixed suction cups to my chest to take an EKG. I left them on and had my picture taken, flexing and scrawny, looking like I’d survived a medical experiment. But that’s pretty much the way I’d looked before.
We rested for a couple of days in town. We found an all-u-can eat, and went through a couple pitchers of iced tea.
Then we hit the trail again.