Shenandoah: A Bear, A Frying Pan, A Marriage

“Who ever ended up washing that pan?”

We’d been driving along through Virginia horse country, watching blonde hills rising and falling beyond black wood fences.

Phil looked at me, and for a moment I thought he might be puzzled by my question — we’d been in Charlottesville for the past few days, far from home and our kitchen sink. “You know, when we were camping and the pan was covered in the black flies.” But he knew what I was talking about before the clarification. We’ve been married for 15 years next week, together for 19 years in June, well over half of our lives.

We were about to drive through Front Royal, at the northern entrance to Shenandoah National Park.  We’d spent two nights there on either side of a backpacking trip, the summer after our freshman year of college, when we’d been together for just about one year.  We knew a lot less about everything than we thought we did — about life, traveling, each other, and most especially about backpacking. It was one of the first trips we ever took together, and it was not a success.


In 1993, we arrived in Front Royal past dark, and with the confidence of two Manhattan-raised kids who were sure they could find a place open late for dinner anywhere. (A nice restaurant owner held her kitchen open for us past closing time.) We were also later than we should have been when we arrived at the ranger station at Shenandoah the next day, because I had never seen a Wal-Mart before.

The shadows were growing long when we set out into the woods, packs on back. I promptly sprained an ankle. We encountered a black bear on a portion of the trail that looped back on itself, and then we didn’t know where the bear went, or if it was female, if she had cubs and where we were in relation to them. We didn’t know what to do, so we just stopped for a while.  We didn’t make it to where we intended to camp that night. In the gathering dark, we pitched our tent on what I’m sure was the rockiest patch of land in the entire park. Bugs swarmed our plastic lantern, so we doused it with bug spray — which softened the plastic and left it permanently encrusted with the bodies of moths and mosquitoes.

We knew we were supposed to hang our food from a tree because of the bears, but all the branches were way too high for us to reach. We propped our food against a tree some distance from our tent and went to sleep hoping for the best.  We woke in the middle of the night to the sounds of an animal snorting and rubbing against the tent.  We lay there scared stiff for hours until day break — there was no part of me that did not believe it was that bear that we’d seen — when Phil gingerly pulled down the tent zipper and saw we were surrounded by deer.

That was just the first night.


The next day, I sprained the other ankle. And then I fell constantly, and once I was down, I was unable to pry myself off the ground without assistance, due to the weight of the pack. So I’d just lie there, looking at the wavy line of blue sky between the leaves until Phil noticed I wasn’t behind him and came back to help me back to my feet.  After a while, we got to a narrow river with a log slung across it. Phil easily walked across, and waited on me to follow. I pointed out, shouting,  that I hadn’t demonstrated any particular ability to keep my balance on a trail without falling over, much less some fucking log. Well, you have to cross, he said, what do you want to do? I thought about crawling across the log, but eventually decided to wade through the river. There are photos somewhere that Phil took of my river crossing. The expression on my face was sour. He thought it was really funny. I did not.

Soon after the stream, my ankles abloom with swell, I decided that I’d had enough. I demanded that we cut the trip short by a night, and hike out of the park the next day. Phil was disappointed, and probably worried about spending money on a motel which neither of us had budgeted for, but could plainly see that this was not the country idyll we’d been envisioning. We set up our last camp, and cut open the brown plastic bag that contained our evening meal — MREs, military field rations.


The next morning, Phil made us some powdered eggs.  While we ate, the silver pan turned a writhing black, beset with flies. “So just wash up the dishes in the stream and then we’ll go,” he said. “I’ll clean the dishes, but I’m not touching that thing,” I said, pointing at the pan. “I cooked,  you clean,” he said. “But there are BUGS!” I shrieked.  This was our first domestic squabble.

We eventually packed out and got a room at the first cheap motel we saw. As I recall, the shower head came up to my shoulders, and the wavy carpet was a sooty peach.  We went for Chinese food, with the blithe assurance of a couple of Manhattan kids,  and it was terrible. We didn’t speak to each other once on the seven hour drive home the next day. I don’t remember how or when we made up.


We remembered all of this as we drove through Front Royal again, back for the first time since we’d left as teenagers in stony silence. It’s all pretty funny, now that it’s nearly twenty years later. We pulled into a Starbucks for a coffee, which definitely was not there in 1993.  I thought about how the differences between urban life and non-urban life have flattened out over the years: Manhattan now has almost all the chain stores you’ll find anywhere else, restaurants tend to stay open later than they once did, and bagels are everywhere. Of course, that’s an oversimplification: there are major differences between Front Royal, Virginia and Manhattan. But for better or worse, over the years, the boundaries have softened.

And much for the better, the boundaries between my interests and Phil’s interests have also melted  — a lot like plastic doused with bug spray. I’m happy to say that of the many, many trips we’ve taken together since, that Shenandoah trip was by far the worst.  (Helped, I’m sure, by the fact that we’ve never once gone camping together again.)

“I probably ended up washing that pan,” Phil said, as he pulled back onto the highway. And I think he’s probably right.

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