Monday, June 04, 2007

To Tread the Spine

It was June 2nd. I drove east up 441 towards the towering Continental Divide, listening to Garrison Keillor on the stereo. Stopping at Newfound Gap, I stared at the thickness of the air, beset with smoke from the fire in south Georgia. Making my way to the southern side of the gap, I found the sign: Appalachian Trail. Seven miles to Clingmans Dome, past Mount Collins. Five more after that to Siler's Bald. That's twenty-four miles round-trip for the day, give or take. It was already 8 o'clock. I couldn't make it that far, so with some dismay, I drove the spur out toward the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, wondering if it was actually worth it. The gloomy morning brightened a little when a large bear lumbered up into the woods from the road with surprising agility as my car blew past (somewhat above the 30mph speed limit, I must confess, as I am used to mountain roads). I stepped out of the car into the nearly empty parking lot (so odd to see at the top of a mountain), and walked up the road to the tower at the top. There was nobody around at all, and I loved it. I climbed the ramp to the concret viewing platform, which rather resembled a WPA project, and stood in the eerie quiet. A host of skeletons of Fraser Firs kept sentinel watch from the top of the mountain, and gave testimony to the swiftness with which this world is passing. I thought of Ezekiel.

Son of man, can these dry bones live again? You alone know, O Lord.

Plaques at the tower told me how transplanted insects and acid rain had devastated the evergreen forest. I walked down and began a long day's journey into the woods.

When you walk along a footpath clearly left by human steps, and you don't see or hear anyone for several hours, it becomes either pleasant or unnerving. In my case, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed simply walking in the quiet. And as I told Kat later on, it wasn't really the absence of people that made it wonderful. It wasn't the miles of nothing but green canopied tunnels and wide ample patches of blueberry bushes and blackberry brambles that would feed the unseen mouths of bears later in the summer. It wasn't even walking the spine of the land, with a vastness on either side that I wished I could leap into like a falcon. All these were wonderful in their own rite, but they weren't the beauty of the trip. It was the simplicity of the thing. Once you're on the trail, you have but one goal: to walk. Your only care in the world is forward motion, punctuated by the occasional drink of water. There are no phones to answer, no cars to drive, no errands to run. There is only the one directive: go forward, or go back.

I got to Siler's Bald around 11am, after about two or three hours of hiking, thinking to myself with slight dread about how much I had walked downhill in the past morning. Eventually, I would have to walk back, but that was not a worry for now. As the morning had progressed, I had passed a few thru-hikers heading north from Siler's Bald shelter. They all carried the same story about the ridiculous crowding at the shelter the night before. As I sat on top of the bald and ate my lunch (a pop-top can of cold Spaghettios), I hoped to escape the crowd (given the hour) and the gnats (given the roof) at the shelter. The gnats were the first to oblige.

I found five folks left at the shelter when I got there a little after 11 o'clock. There were two moms, their daughters, and one daughter's boyfriend, who didn't take off his headphones the entire time I saw him. Sitting and talking to them as they were packing up, I found out that, for the most part, they were from the Knoxville area, although one of the moms was originally from the UK, so we enjoyed a bit of conversation. Then they wanted me to take their picture together with all three of their cameras, which I did (although I prefer a manual 35mm as opposed to a digital camera). It was interesting though, since, standing ten feet away from me, they conversed about me in third person while I was setting up the shots.

"He looks Amish."
"No he looks like a farmer."

I laughed to myself and felt like saying, "He's also standing right in front of you," but I didn't. I took the pictures, they packed up, we said our goodbyes, and they left. Then I began to pick up kindling and such to coax the smoldering log in the fire-ring into a blaze again, since the wetness of the trail had reduced the lower half of my jeans to a soggy mess, thanks to my lack of gaiters. I got the fire going, and the shoes and socks came off to dry. Eventually moving the fire into the fireplace in the shelter, I sat down in a forgotten chair in the silence to read.


and Blogger Adam addressed the Senate...

you do look amish. hehehe. glad you had some time away in the woods, man. always a recharging experience...

5:14 AM, June 05, 2007  

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