What is a hero? To me a hero, against better judgement, knowing there could be dire consequences to themselves, and because a situation arises that brings few options to the table for solution, the hero acts. Such was the case yesterday. Mark proved to be a hero in what could have been a tragic situation.
The day here in paradise followed the lazy course set by the previous days, he taught his students and I luxuriated in the pleasure of sipping tea and jotting down my blog scribbling. After lunch again with our friends, we sat for a while doing a cross word puzzle by committee. I got to getting itchy about doing something more adventurous for the afternoon and again we mulled over options, finally hitting on the idea of hiking down to a remote water fall nearby, with the name of West Rattlesnake Falls. The name should have given clue, but off we went for a bit of exercise, fresh air, and a chance to see some of the hidden beauty of these hills.
We borrowed some walking sticks at the lodge and drove maybe twenty minutes across a high ridge drive over looking deep valleys below. We crossed over into the state of Tennessee and soon found our pull in for the trail head. Mark and I had been told that this was a two mile in and two mile out hike ahead with a bit of very steep scramble at the end close to the falls. After covering ourselves with an herbal sort of bug repellent to ward off no-see-ums, and other various flying sharks, we marched on down the trail ahead.
It was nice and cool under the canopy of giant yellow poplars and an unidentified orchid like flower paved the side of the trail. Ellen led the way and set the pace, and we all jabbered about this and that along the way. Mark and Tom raked over the upcoming football season, the players, the coaches, and the chances of their favorite teams winning in the fall.
At long last our relatively gentle descent changed to a narrow and very steep trail, where the roots of the beech trees provided much needed steps so that one’s foot didn’t just slide for distance. I had wondered before we came as to how much my right knee was going to take on a hike, after a horse related injury last year, left a nagging twinge to one of the crossing ligaments. So far on the downward journey it was holding up ok, but as I grabbed tree after tree to let myself down the path, I gave serious doubt as to how well it was going to do going back up this incline.
Finally we heard running water and came to a small stream with huge boulders. I noticed two caps sitting on a shrub by the water and we all had a chuckle speculating about who had left them there and why. We had also just recently been chuckling at the prospect of getting seriously hurt in a place like this and how the devil one would get out. With the current health care chaos, we speculated that the forestry service would have to come in and take down the trees surrounding the injured, so that the medivac helicopter could land and retrieve said injured, and then the patient would be flown to a distant hospital, to be followed by a bill for over two million to cover the cost of all above, plus the replanting of the area that was razed. We laughed and crossed the water and headed towards the tall waterfall to our right that we could just see through the trees and boulders.
Ellen, still our leader, scrambled her way up through a steep pitched path between two halves of an enormous stone. At the top of this the path leveled for a bit, and we paused to assess which direction to take to get up to the base of the fall, as there were several options here. Then Ellen bent over quickly to see something in the edge of her sock and said that she had been stung and wanted someone to come see what it was. When I heard the word “stung” I was already leaving in a hurry. I heard Mark say “There’s the hole”, and then “they are coming out. Run!”.
I was fleeing and fast despite the terrain. I am highly allergic to the stings of bees and hornets and carry an epinephrine pen and a tablet or two of benadryl where ever I go, but I knew that the thought of being in a swarm of what just came out of the earth in front of me would simply kill me. I was running up this root covered steep incline for all I could, and behind me I heard horrific screams from Ellen. She was being stung by the entire nest and from Mark’s retelling later, she had gone into a fetal position with her entire back and legs covered with these super aggressive bugs. More screams, desperate, and in panic, followed. Then Mark started screaming obscenities as well, a continued chorus of “RUN”. They were both getting nailed, and running in my direction, trying to escape this nightmare, and my only choice was to run ahead of them and hope that I could keep up a pace long enough for them to escape the fury of the swarm.
Tom was with me as he had been the last on the trail and was further away from Ellen. We ran and listened, helpless, to the screams of both Mark and Ellen. It was just horrible, not knowing how long it would go on, knowing the pain and terror they were going through, hearing Mark encouraging Ellen to keep moving, and their continued screams. My lungs were burning and I was surely beyond my heart capacity but there was no choice for me but to keep scrambling up this monster of a hill. My knee was no longer at doubt and my adrenaline was pushing me on.
At long last Tom and I made it to the top of our two mile uphill wind sprint and waited. We kept yelling at Mark and Ellen to check their progress as they came up the hill. Finally they were in sight and not looking well. A final check of clothes and backpack showed they still had a few hornets stuck in the fabric of the backpack and with a few swats these were killed, all the time with Mark hollering at me to get as far away as possible. When we felt that we were safe to get into the car we began our trip back to the lodge.
I have long followed my hunches, and on this case, my hunch back at home before we left, to take an entire bottle of Benadryl with me, was a very good thing. Both Mark and Ellen were covered in angry whelps that were swelling fast and so I handed out some to both, hoping that the use of the Epinephrine pen would not be needed if one went into an allergic shock.
Mark was stung over thirty times and Ellen somewhere around eighty. Mark knew he would get stung when he had seen Ellen covered in the swarm, and knew in her panicked situation, that she needed help and did what he could do to get her out of the mess. It was a horrifying situation and proof again that a pleasant day can turn very serious very quickly, and Mark’s quick action to help get her out of there may have saved her from a much more serious ending. Both of them are taking the antihistamine every 4-6 hours still, Mark is still quite itchy and the stings hurt, and Ellen is sick from
the poison and also hurts from her many more whelps.
There is one more hat left on that trail, hers, taken off to swat the bugs, and perhaps we should have taken the other two we had seen as a clue to the danger ahead. In the parking lot before we drove home, I found a cartridge of a bee sting kit, the kind of topical ointment for after the sting. We were not the first apparently to have encountered these pests, and probably won’t be the last.
Today, I think we will stay in a less adventurous mode. Even paradise has its yin and yang we have seen both now.