A few years ago, my wife decided to give me a birthday present in the form of abandonment in the wilderness. To be clear, this was what I wanted. My version of a vacation is fairly Spartan. Give me a sleeping bag, a hammock, a tarp, and some basic necessities, and leave me to wander. This is distinctly different from my mother’s version of camping, which involves things with agitators—a washing machine, a hot tub, and cable television, for example.
My sweet wife dropped me off at Cosby Campground, where Cosby Creek churns down a mountain gully in fresh cascades of whitewater. The trail from there to Low Gap averages a thirteen percent grade. I was newly thirty-two years old. Surely sixty additional pounds up a mountain posed no problem. It hadn’t done so when I was eighteen.
Yet by the time I was halfway to the backcountry shelter on the other side of the continental divide, I was nearly doubled over with my chin pointed at the ground. Sweat soaked every feasible inch of my clothing. I walked like someone whose shoes have been tied together. Then, down the mountain came a middle aged woman, looking thin and well-manicured in her trim black yoga pants and black smart-fabric top. On the bill of her spiffy white runner’s cap was perched a pair of aviator shades. She carried a little baggie of presumably tasteless baby carrots and wore a charming smile.
“Hello there!” she beamed, as if we were old school chums at the mall.
“Murninphh,” I grunted.
I briefly considered pushing her off the mountain.
A little while later, I saw an Asian couple. They smiled awkwardly and offered thickly-accented hellos. I was feeling better at the time and said hello back. My body had started to fall into the rhythm of walking up the steep terrain. It always takes a little while to settle back into a good pace.
The next day, though, I had to tackle Mount Guyot, which in four miles rises about fourteen hundred feet, and which had proved, according to accounts, to be one of the toughest sections of Appalachian Trail to cut through the national park. That area wasn’t as affected by late nineteenth-century settlement as the southwestern peaks, where herders once grazed their livestock out on the balds. Instead, the trail climbs between endless stands of muffling evergreen, often threaded through with chilly fog. It’s wonderfully picturesque, if, like me, you appreciate that sort of thing. My knee, however, would have none of it. While the rest of me was rather sanguine about being thirty-two, my left knee had decided that the muscles around it, once as limber as limp spaghetti, would now tighten to resemble mandolin strings. In the process, they would begin to pull the cartilage out from the joint, leaving my bones to knock together over the course of eight million steps or so.
This was beginning to be different than my hiking experiences of yesteryear.
I used to lead little trail classes at a summer camp where I worked. They were my absolute favorite. A gaggle of knobby-kneed boys between eight and fourteen would string out between myself and another counselor, and we would march them up the hills around the camp, or down the infamous Swamp Road. That trail ran northwest along South Prong Waldens Creek. Mostly it was mud, punctuated by ice-cold creek fordings. At one point, we would be up to our chests (or our necks, after a rain) in a deep pool, where young trout lunged and darted and crawdads crept spindle-legged over the bottom. The other staffer and I would park ourselves in the middle, our skin screaming with the cold, and help kids make it past to solid ground. It was wonderful fun.
When I was in college, my schoolmate Jonathan Rester and I once drove down to Fontana and hiked alongside a rushing cascade from the Twentymile ranger station up to the Appalachian Trail. Our plan was to loop around Doe Knob and Long Hungry Ridge, but we took a small detour southward to Shuckstack Fire Tower, one of a number of Roosevelt-era structures that were assembled on mountaintops by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
At the bottom of the fire tower were the foundation and chimney of the old fire marshal’s cottage. The idea of living alone at the top of a mountain appeals to me, but perhaps only in a theoretical sense. I once read Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, in which the Beat Generation author ends up on Desolation Peak in the Cascades, working alone as a fire lookout, eating meals of plain rice and enjoying the company of a mouse. That was the only part of the book that held any delight for me, portraying as it did the enforced silence of isolation and the company of snow and rocks and grand vistas. Perhaps the fire marshal on Shuckstack had been that sort of hermit, a rough but quiet man whose problems were simplified by their absence.
I romanticize about such a life, but I don’t think I’d be good at it. When I hike alone, the refreshing novelty of solitude wears off after about five miles, and I find myself longing to enjoy the experience with someone else. Contrary to my hopes, my brain, when removed from internet access and movies, is filled not with pastoral poetry and Franciscan wisdom, but with my own mental noise. Film quotes and irritating song lyrics—why it’s only the irritating ones, I don’t know—erupt in my mind like geysers of trash from the wells of my subconscious. When I drive alone out of state, I can occupy myself for about thirty minutes with good music or a recording of a sermon, but sooner or later I’ll start arguing with either the preacher or the person whom I imagine would do well to hear the preacher. Then I’m forced to turn the recording off and finish the imagined conversation until I arrive at some concluding premise—usually, the premise that it is better to shut up and enjoy the road. It actually makes me glad for the millions who now have tiny cell phones attached to the sides of their heads as they drive. A person with manifest neuroses can easily blend in when everyone else appears to be talking to themselves as well.
Above Fontana, Rester and I climbed the fire tower, hoping to have a snack and take a few photos before moving on, but as often happens in the Smokies, there came a storm. With surprising fleetness, our views of Fontana Dam palled into a colorless mass of wet cloud. It began to lightning and rain, and a gale shook the precarious wooden box that constituted our shelter. The metal framing and radio batteries wired to antennae on top caused me some consternation, and I made efforts to keep my rear off of any exposed metal, in hopes of surviving a lightning strike. The floor offered precious little real estate for sitting regardless. We hunkered and ate M&Ms while the squall raged outside and sent thick dribbles of rain through a gap in the ceiling. I reasoned that the fire tower had stood through decades of meteorological punishment and was not necessarily likely to collapse with two dopey college students in it. Theoretically, it was not closed. At least, there had been no sign, but I still had visions of local headlines saying, “Undergrads Dead, Failed to Read,” or “Park Service Fines Lightning-Struck Idiots.” Fines have been levied on park-goers for lesser misconduct than default electrocution, I’m sure.
These sorts of excursions were once simple pleasures for me, but now, back at thirty-two, I was forced to reckon with my half-used bodily joinery. Mount Guyot offered little encouragement beyond the faceless pines and firs. I began to question the wisdom of bringing a nice camera and to assess the benefits of activities such as stretching. It was good to find out I was a mere mortal, relegated to limitations I did not choose, but I longed for something to spur me onward. Then, past the other side of the mountain, it came to me.
I reached a long eminence leading up to an unmarked place called Eagle Rocks on the map. The walkable land narrowed to a thin spine, of which I could see little beyond twenty feet. To my right and left, obscuring Carolina and Tennessee, were thick banks of restless cloud that drifted upward and soaked everything. It was a kind of dreamspace, one in which nothing exists save that small circle of which you are the center.
Halfway up the hill, the clouds broke to my left, and North Carolina broadened out before me. It was like a visual breath, and I actually felt strengthened. It wasn’t that my knee remembered its old skill, mind you, or that I suddenly gained a glorious second wind. It was as if I had reached a point where, seeing the beauty before me, I remembered the reason for it.
I like hiking because of the simplicity. Unlike the cereal aisle at the grocery store—that variegated bane of my first-world existence—hiking leaves you with three choices. You may go forward, you may go back, or you may remain in place until you either die or some third party comes to remove you. Everything else is peripheral.
The reason, however, is something else entirely. I’m willing—at least, I think I’m willing—to slog miles upon laborious miles up into the clouds for that one chance to see the world from a distance, to step out of where I normally stand and gain a little perspective, to be brought to a place of wonder. It makes everyday life a little more bearable to gasp at beauty once in a while. It’s even worth a left knee. Probably.