We had climbed strenuously to the 2500 foot level and the trail had turned into a gentle incline. We were entering a thicket of laurel “trees” which my brother Dave identified for me. Too bad we had missed them in bloom, he said. They were gorgeous in bloom. I usually think of laurel as a shrub, but these were 15 to 20 feet high. The branches were thickly intertwined, forming a wall closing in on either side of the trail, which zigzagged through the laurel, so that one could not tell what might be ahead more than twenty feet or so. Then I remembered what I had read in the notebook in the shelter the night before. Some hiker had written about his experiences the day before, seeing a bear in the laurel hell.
A bear could be just a few feet away, and we would not know it was there unless we stumbled upon it. Among the worries we shared when we started, of course, were bears, poisonous snakes, swiftly flowing rivers crossed only by logs for us to balance on, and trails that were nearly washed away on steep slopes. So far we hadn’t found anything that matched our fears, but this laurel thicket made us wonder.
But why did they call it a “laurel hell?” Then we realized that if there were no marked trail through this area, which reached perhaps a half mile in each direction, we could wander around for a long, long time before ever escaping. At any point we could run into one of those fears we had imagined. At any point we could run into un unclimbable rock face or cliff or river bed, and we would have to turn around and head another direction until we would be completely turned around, which means, we could be lost forever, if there wasn’t a trail. But there was a trail, which someone had conveniently cut through this maze ahead of us.
We didn’t come upon a bear, but later that day we were walking through a “rodie hell.” There the rhododendron formed the same kind of maze that the laurel had formed alongside the trail we had walked through earlier. But the rhododendron were in full bloom, masses of white flowers and lightly sweet fragrance filled the air. We didn’t expect to see these in full bloom in mid-July, but the altitude had delayed their blossom season. It was a marvelous sight and the blossoms just kept on going for hundreds of footsteps, and yet, without the trail, we would have been just as hopelessly lost.
Someone had been there ahead of us, maybe only a few years, maybe generations back, lost in time, finding a way through this beautiful maze. They had blazed the trail. Now we just followed it and enjoyed it … mostly enjoyed it, as long as we didn’t find the bear.