We Are Nature’s Guests: In Memory of Susan Clements

I had planned on adding a new trail review this week, or possibly even a list of some of my favorite fall camping recipes. But the story of Susan Clements, a hiker who went missing in the Smokies last week, has me rattled in a way that missing hiker stories rarely do. The reason why isn’t hard to see: last month on our trip to the Smokies, we hiked Clingman’s Dome. I’ve seen so many pictures in my social media feeds this week of places where my kids were walking, climbing, and laughing. We did not do the Forney Ridge Trail where Susan went missing, but I looked at the trail sign for it for a good minute or so trying to decide if I wanted to ask the rest of my group if we should, and put it on my list of places to return.

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The rocks at the trailhead. The same rocks shown in a lot of news stories about Susan.

Whenever I hear about hikers that go missing in places I’m not familiar with, my brain kicks into self-preservation mode, and imagines terrain I’ve never hiked before, and am not likely to hike. I’ve been on narrow trails next to steep drop-offs, and I’ve stood at a trail marker after dark, just praying that I was reading it correctly. Once, before we had kids, I went on a solo hike, and I know I walked into a predator’s den. The air went completely silent and still, and I had the very distinct feeling of being watched. I started banging my hiking pole on rocks and singing, and eventually the feeling left and the sounds around me returned to normal–but it made my hyper-vigilant for the remainder of my hike. Regardless, I hear these stories, and have to comfort myself with the thought of “it can’t happen here.”

Susan Clements hits home because, the tragedy of her circumstances aside, her death is a sharp reminder that it can happen here. The Smokies are the most visited National Park in the country, and Clingman’s Dome is so highly trafficked it felt more like walking through a theme park than walking on a trail, but step off the trail, and all that goes away. Kairi was disappointed we hadn’t seen any white blazes since I told her Clingman’s Dome was the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail, so I took her down the spur to the AT so she could see them–we might have walked a dozen yards before connecting with the AT, but it was astonishing how quickly the crowds of the Dome gave way to dense, silent forest. It’s easy to see how, in the fog and growing darkness, someone could lose their way.

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Dense forest, right across from the spur to the AT

I LOVE seeing the growing movement to get more people outside. And to get people outside beyond the fit white men and women who look like they stepped off the cover of Backpacker. Groups like Adventure Mamas, Hike It Baby, and Switchback Chics, or Latino Outdoors and BrownPeopleCamping. The efforts to diversify the outdoors. It’s encouraging. And as a mom, I know that seeing other blogs and organizations dedicated to getting kids outside, I have had the courage to go out with my kids on my own, or to tackle trails I might previously have felt were too ambitious for little legs. In the age of social media, we inspire each other to get out–but we are usually only seeing the good. The pride, the joy, the feelings of peace. Not the struggles, the tears, or the giving up and turning around.

There’s a lot of speculation already about Susan’s level of preparation–a lot of conversation about people who approach the trail as tourists vs people who approach the trail as hikers. That conversation bothers me, honestly. It makes assumptions about Susan that we have no way of knowing anything about, for one–but it also makes assumptions that all you need to avoid Susan’s fate are experience and preparation. Which is not true.

The truth is–there isn’t a way to avoid it entirely. There’s a reason we label hiking “adventurous.” Whether it’s a copperhead snake in a city park, a 200 foot drop off a rocky bluff, or fog so thick you can’t see what’s trail and what isn’t, there is always some degree of risk.

And I hear you–there’s always some risk in everything. Driving, walking down the street, even children aren’t safe in their classrooms anymore. Avoiding the activity isn’t how we avoid risk. In civilization, we look at all the ways we can reduce or eliminate threat. But outdoors, in addition to proper preparation, the best thing we can do is remember that we are just guests, in a world where everything else there knows more about the trail than we do.

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Thick fog at midday

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