There are so many things in life to be grateful for, but old friends have to be at the top of the list. A couple times a year, my husband, Mike, goes hiking with three childhood friends. In the great outdoors, they reconnect over old stories and create new ones destined to be told time and again. 

“You gonna make it old man?” Chris asked Rick, to the laughter of Mike and Lee who waited a hundred feet or so further up the trail. The four men, friends for more than forty years, were hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains, camping three nights along the way.

Red-faced and huffing uncomfortably, Rick peeled off his loaded backpack and it set on the trail. Hoisting it off the ground, Lee said, “Man, no wonder you’re tired. What do you have in this thing?” They distributed some of Rick’s gear between them to lighten his load. “Ricky made someone the REI employee of the month,” Mike joked.

“Before we go on,” Chris said, “I think we all need some trail mix.” By trail mix he meant the Tennessee whiskey they bought at a Gatlinburg distillery. The boys each took a grimaced swig from a flask.

A park ranger appeared from a side trail, “How y’all doing today?” he asked cheerfully. “Have you seen any bears?” They knew there had been plenty of recent bear sightings, prompting them to reserve a fenced shelter each night.

“No,” Rick said, “we haven’t seen any yet.” The ranger asked for their backcountry permit. Returning it, he said, “Y’all don’t have any firearms do ya?” As the group’s unofficial leader, Chris answered firmly, “No sir.”

“Well, y’all be careful and have a good time,” the ranger said as he headed off on foot the other direction. “And keep your eyes open for bears!” Later that afternoon they spotted a mama bear and two cubs on the mountainside, a comfortable distance from the trail. 

After dinner and tomfoolery around the campfire, the four friends settled into their bear-proof cage for the night. “Look who’s laughing now, boys,” Rick said as he snuggled into his thermo-insulated sleeping bag for subzero climes.

Well past midnight, in the darkness of the Great Smoky National Park, Mike heard Chris whisper, “Mike…Mike, man, I gotta go.” Mike understood. With the possibility of bears, his friend needed a spotter. As long as he was up, Lee decided to go, too.

Mike was sleepily standing guard with a flashlight when they heard something in the woods. “What’s that?” they whispered in unison. Tree limbs and sticks snapped and cracked as heavy breathing neared closer. Hearts pounding, the three were motionless.

In the moonlight, they saw a figure emerge through the trees. Rick came into view turning slow circles and holding a gun in front of him with both hands like he was the leading man in a police drama.

“What the…” Mike sputtered releasing his breath. “Ricky!” Chris shouted. “What are you doing with that thing?” Lee asked. Still in his protective stance, Rick said, “If you knuckleheads think I’m comin’ out here in the woods with bears and no gun you’re crazy!”

Just like all the stories they’ve been telling since they were kids, this one has only gotten better over the years. And it always ends with Mike saying, “I was never that worried. I knew I didn’t have to outrun a bear, just one of you guys.”

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