April 4, 2016
I am confronted by ethical dilemmas every day of the week. Rarely does that bleed into my private life, but such was the case on a casual, after work hike.
Nestled in between Shining Rock Wilderness, Middle Prong Wilderness and Nantahala National Forest in the Pisgah Ranger District is a great family hike with amazing vistas. Monday was a wonderful day outside, and with the impending cold weather, I left work early to take advantage of the sunshine and warmth.
The trailhead for Flat Laurel Creek is off Hwy. 215, shortly before crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway. Heading from Waynesville, you take a left into a designated camping area, which is quite difficult to spot from 215.
Flat Laurel Creek is a rocky, level path, most likely a former logging road. It steadily gains elevation from beginning to end, but it is a manageable hike. The trail winds around and between Little Sam Knob and Sam Knob.
The weather interchanged between hot air and the cool pockets wafting into my face. The northern terminus of Flat Laurel Creek ends with the Black Balsam parking lot, intersecting with many trails. I went northwest on the Sam Knob Trail.
Sam Knob Trail bears the marks of being heavily traveled and it is where I saw the most people. Shortly after the parking lot is a wonderful, large pasture area with great views. A ½ mile later I took the short, but steep hike up the Sam Knob Summit Trail. The views from the summit were amazing. I stopped and gazed in the distance at Chestnut Bald, Little Sam and Devil’s Courthouse.
Amazingly, I had the mountain to myself. As it was starting to get late in the day, and significantly cooler, this was no surprise. For the next forty-five minutes to an hour I hiked alone. The sun was starting to set behind the mountain, a long shadow cast on the trail. From the shade further down, two men appeared, walking up towards Sam Knob. Immediately, my senses were heightened. It was 6:30 pm and the low that night would reach the 20’s. These men were not carrying any packs, were not carrying any bags, water, in fact they were not carrying anything. They were dressed in nearly brand new street clothes, not hiking. One man was wearing new shoes. This didn’t set right. We were two miles from the trailhead and they carried nothing, not even a flashlight. I smiled as I passed and said hello, one mouthed hello back. They said nothing that alarmed me; they did not do anything malicious or even worrisome.
I pondered these men as I was heading back to the trailhead. As I arrived at the Jeep, an SUV pulled into the space next to me. I opened the trunk and sat down to change from my boots to my camp shoes. A middle-aged woman stepped out the car. “Hello, there! Have a nice hike?” We exchanged pleasantries, I told her I was just getting in a quick hike after work, and she indicated that she was going to hike for a while and camp somewhere up trail. She was incredibly nice.
It was at that moment that I had an ethical dilemma. Should I tell this person about the men? Should I put someone on the defensive, for possibly no reason? It is likely that these men were not up to anything nefarious.
I looked down, and then looked back up. “Listen, I really don’t mean to scare you or put you on edge, but since you’re camping, I wanted you to know that there are two men hiking further up the trail.” I detailed to her my concerns, no packs, not camping. She asked if that was their car, pointing to the green Honda-like street racer next to my Jeep. “I would imagine, but I’m not sure.” I looked at her, “all I know is that these two men were clearly not hikers, and something about them did not sit right, and I would want to know if it were me.” She thanked me for the information.
We talked about the impending cold weather and I finished putting my stuff away. I wished her a great trip and got in my car and drove home.
As I was driving, I thought a lot about two things: Did this woman go out hiking and camping, and was she safe? Secondly, did I do the right thing by telling her this information, when in reality it was not based on anything other than intuition?
I called my wife from the road and told her. She has a way of calming my worries and setting my mind straight. As we talked, I realized that I didn’t tell her this information because she was a woman; it was because she was solo. I would have done the same to a man. My wife assured me that we have to trust our intuition. At least this person could make an informed choice. Lastly, I had to trust my instinct. It is rare for me to get spooked in the woods, but something about the scene made me uneasy, and it was this worry for a fellow hiker that made me share the information. I do hope she was ok.
Total mileage is 7 miles.