Opening the back(country) door: Beginner backpacking trip highlights OMC’s new mission
The morning fog is barely lifting at 8 a.m. when a group of five women meet outside Kathy Odvody’s home in Waynesville. I add my fully loaded backpack to the pile accumulating in the rear of Outdoor Mission Community’s lumbering 15-passenger van, and after a brief exchange of names we buckle in for a 36-hour wilderness adventure.
It’s a diverse group, ranging in age from 28 to 70 and in backpacking experience from complete novice to Odvody, who has section-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. Some have known each other for years, and others have never met before. But the trail has a way of turning strangers into friends.
‘Anyone is welcome’
It’s a maxim that’s proven true over and over again, and it’s also a metaphor for OMC itself. Until last winter, OMC stood for Outdoor Mission Camp. An affiliate of Youth for Christ, the Maggie Valley-based nonprofit’s primary emphasis was on creating outdoor camp experiences for kids and teens. Then, founders Ruffin and Jamie Shackleford decided it was time to shift focus. As Outdoor Mission Community, OMC is an independent nonprofit that functions as a support organization, helping equip other groups and organizations to provide wilderness experiences to people of all ages and backgrounds.
“We hope that’s what we’re doing is providing a vehicle so many people could come in and have a greater impact on our community,” Ruffin Shackleford said in a February 2020 interview discussing the change.
In pursuit of that goal, OMC is building a board of directors that will bring diverse skill sets, experiences and partnerships to the cause. Odvody chairs that board and organized the OMC Gals Beginner Backpack trip, a type of adventure that’s right in line with her interests and expertise. Odvody completed her A.T. section hike in 2019, 16 years after she started in 2003 at the age of 52.
“We’re going to do hopefully more beginning backpacking trips if people are interested,” she said.
Caley Tyler, a new board member who went on the backpacking trip, said that she’s optimistic about the organization’s future, especially after attending a recent partnership meeting that OMC hosted to bring a plethora of local outdoor-focused nonprofits together.
“We all have different skill sets, a slightly different population that we work with,” she said. “And it was so cool to meet and talk about what we have to offer each other and what skills we have and how we could come together and support our community.”
Tyler hopes that she’ll soon be adding her own organization to that list of partners. In early May, she sent in IRS paperwork to form a new faith-based nonprofit called Wild Intent, hoping to create opportunities for preteen girls to experience the outdoors while also building a self-confidence and sense of worth they will carry with them into adulthood.
Megan Hauser balances during a creek crossing. Holly Kays photo
“In the outdoors, you can be a little bit more vulnerable and you don’t necessarily have to worry about what you look like or a lot of the pressures that preteen girls or women in general live with every day,” she said. “I think a lot of that is reduced in the outdoors. There’s something very special about being outside.”
But at 28, Tyler doesn’t have much experience dealing with the paperwork and technicalities involved in leading an organization. She doesn’t have a vehicle capable of carrying a large group of girls, or gear to loan them, or insurance to protect against accidents.
She expects that a partnership with OMC will go a long way toward addressing those challenges. The nonprofit wants to lift up burgeoning efforts like Tyler’s, whether that’s by loaning out the van — and the insurance that covers it — lending gear or simply offering mentorship and advice on how to run a successful organization.
“What drew me to OMC is that they want to help all people get outside,” said Tyler. “They have a faith-based mission too, but anyone is welcome.”
Into the woods
The wilderness begins shortly after Swain County’s Lakeshore Road passes the sign for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The freshly green leaves and high grasses of late May hide turkeys and turtles until the van is nearly upon them. Small explosions of color erupt every time a wildflower manages to peak around its grassy curtain.
With just days to go before the Memorial Day weekend, I’d expected crowds, and though the small parking lot is mostly full, the trail is mostly empty. I can count on one hand the number of groups our party of five passes this Wednesday morning as we echo through the graffiti-covered tunnel of the Road to Nowhere, descend a trail encased with blooming mountain laurel, and pitch our tents three miles later at the backcountry site Odvody had reserved through the park’s permitting site.
We open up our packs and take out lunch — for me, that means tuna and tortillas — and then set up camp. The novice campers in the group need some help turning hunks of canvas into shelter, so we work as a team. Everyone pitches in to help Megan Hauser put up the tent she’d borrowed from her brother-in-law and to assist Phyllis Woollen with her brand-new tent, an interesting set-up that uses trekking poles as tent poles. There’s a minor emergency when Woollen discovers the kit didn’t come with tent pegs, and that one of her trekking poles is missing the spike at the end that’s necessary to work with the tent, but the problem is quickly solved. Between the five of us, there are enough extras to make it all work out.
By the time we finish, it’s still pretty early — not quite 3 p.m. — so we ditch our backpacks and set out to explore some of the trails crisscrossing around the site. A short walk brings us to a finger of Fontana Lake, a swirl of tiger swallowtail butterflies rising from the beach as we arrive. We snap some photos and dip our fingers in the warm water before reversing course, deciding to walk a ways up the Forney Creek Trail before returning to camp for dinner.
It’s a good plan, but one that’s very nearly thwarted when a giant rattlesnake appears along the trailside, just as I’m about to pass. I hear the rattle and jump back instinctively, long before I’m able to fully appreciate the size of the coiled reptile, easily the largest snake I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo. We all stand back, watching and wondering what to do next, but then the snake unfurls itself and begins to slither — across the trail, down the other side and into a patch of sun some distance away.
The group works together to raise any items capable of attracting animals on the campsite’s bear cables. Holly Kays photo
We breathe, and then we walk.
Just a couple weeks earlier, I’d camped out overnight on an unseasonably cool May day when the high never cleared 55. Today, though, the air is humid and the afternoon sun beats a heat rising into the low 80s. Sweat rolls down me as I walk, and I wonder if it will be too hot to sleep.
I shouldn’t have worried. A cool breath enters the air as we eat our OMC-provided meals a couple hours later, eventually growing strong enough to demand a campfire, gleaming coals, and the kind of conversation that’s unique to the backcountry — long, meaningful and 90 degrees deeper than what you’d expect from people who mere hours ago were complete strangers.
The darkness deepens and the fireflies emerge, lanterns of yellow, blue and white blinking across the forested hillside, the now-invisible creek still roaring with gusto.
The fire burns down, and our eyes grow heavy. It’s time to sleep.
‘Now I know’
We return to the van around 5:30 p.m. the next day, and though I’m sweaty, sore-footed and badly in need of a shower, if given the choice I’d gladly avoid civilization a while longer.
I replay the day in my mind — the leisurely wakeup, the warm breakfast, and the 6-mile hike we took along the base of Pilot Mountain while our gear remained at the campsite. A flame azalea in full orange splendor, a ghostly bank of Indian pipes nearly hidden beneath a coat of leaf litter, spidery white Bowman’s root blooms at waist height, a strange purple-gray orchid that I later discovered is called large twayblade. Another rattlesnake, smaller than the first but also sitting right along the trail at the time we found it.
The sun, and how quickly its warmth made these cool coves humid and steamy. Then the grueling 3 miles between campsite and car — miles 7 through 9 for the day — all uphill and with a full pack on.
Odvody starts the car, and then she starts the conversation, asking us each to fill in the blank: “Before this trip I thought. Now I know.”
“I thought I could make it, and now I know I did make it,” said Woollen, 66, one of the two first-time backpackers on the trip.
“I thought I knew what I was doing because I’m a runner. I’m in shape. I hike all the time,” said Megan Hauser, 38, the other first-time backpacker. “But then I learned I had a lot to learn.”
The lessons learned were small things, mostly. Hauser wished she’d thought to bring a pillow with her — instead she slept with her head on a folded-up pair of pants. Woollen said it took her half the night to figure out that staying warm in a mummy bag involves a lot more scooching and cinching than she’d initially thought. Both women said the pack was heavier than they’d anticipated, that they’d underestimated how much more work it would be to hike loaded-up like that than with the lighter day pack they’re used to.
But Woollen learned another important lesson too.
“I learned that I would enjoy doing it again,” she said.
Both she and Hauser had an easy answer as to why.
“The camaraderie,” said Woollen. “Sitting around the campfire, talking at night.”
In particular, talking to other women.
“That’s what I would say for the ‘before I thought, now I know,’” said Odvody. “Before I thought it would be awesome being with women, and now I know, I continue to know that it’s awesome being with women out in the woods. Because we know how to help each other. We know how to share openly, and we trust each other. It’s just different being with women.”
“I’ve got into more intimate conversations with women in the woods,” Woollen agreed. “I think some of my closest friends are people I have met hiking, because you talk the whole time you’re out there — or, not the whole time, but so much. You really open up and get to know people.”
It’s true, I think. On the trail, there’s no agenda other than putting one foot in front of the other and drinking in the beauty. The words come easy. So does the listening.
“I love going out in the woods because you realize what’s truly important is that quality time with people and hearing those stories, rather than checking off a to do list,” said Tyler.
When I get home, my to do list is there, still waiting to be checked off. But my mind is clear, my breathing easier than it had been before my night in the woods. I feel at peace — from my time outdoors, and from the knowledge that OMC’s work will make it possible for other people in my community to have their turn for a restorative backcountry adventure.
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This is a great article! I love your writing Holly.