Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
"Come by the hills to the land where legend remains.
The stories of old fill the heart and may yet come again.
Where the past has been lost
And the future is still to be won,
And the cares of tomorrow can wait
'till this day is done."
We pass our days consumed by the pressures of commitment and requirement. Our vision becomes restricted to the time between now and the next place we have to be. Thus chained, the hours pass unnoticed; life goes by unheralded, until the moment when we stop, look around, and mourn the waste of the gift of time.
That was me. I was trapped on that treadmill. I watched the days slide by, frantic to lose them, but utterly unable to stop them from their inevitable fade. But I found a way to pause time. I found a place where clocks were irrelevant, where the very air carried the scent of serenity.
Last year, I took a walk in the woods. It wasn't very far or ambitious, but I found that in that relatively short space of life, I was able to let go...and just be.
Virginia is full of such places, but my best days have been spent on parts of the Appalachian Trail that passes through this Commonwealth. From Harper's Ferry in the north to Damascus in the south lies 550 miles of meandering trail lined with dense forest, bright meadows, imposing rocks, and wildlife.
Several of those hikes I've chronicled on this blog, an admittedly foolish attempt to capture in words and pictures the magical spirit of those unforgettable days. To describe these hikes as communing with nature tells only half the story. It's also a series of tests. The AT does not have very many flat stretches. It's mostly up and down, sometimes as much as a thousand feet of elevation change in as little as three-quarters of a mile.
In the summer, it's hot and oppressively humid. Storms will sneak up on you, and bathe you in a torrent of bath-warm rain, muddying the track and creating raging streams that a few minutes before were just shallow depressions running downhill. Lighting flashes in the trees, thunder roars and echoes between the hills. The winds set the trees to swaying, their groans heard above the noise of the storm. And then, suddenly, it ends. The clouds dissipate, and amid the dripping from the leaves and branches, the sun returns and the air becomes heavily humid. In the city, we'd sprint for cover. Out there, however, there's no place to hide. In a really bad storm, one might seek the shelter of a rock overhang, but usually, we just break out the poncho and keep going. Out here, nobody cares what you look, or smell like.
In the winter, the trees are bare, clearing a line of vision that stretches hundreds of yards. The forest, with the songbirds long gone, is silent except for the occasional sad crow. The wind plays hide-and-seek, barely perceptible behind the ridges, then assaulting with frigid aggression when you crest the peaks. When the air is still, and flakes drift from the sky, it is so still you can hear the snow fall.
But in either circumstance, I am filled with a serene kind of joy that I can find no where else. Here, my spirit is freed.
I may hike for several hours alone. Then, I hear the snap of a twig, the brush of a limb, and the steady clink and clank of gear. Around the curve of the trail, another hiker will emerge. In the spring and early fall, they might be the dedicated, the committed, the indefatigable: The through-hikers. These are those remarkable folks who put in at either Mount Katahdin in Maine, or Springer Mountain in Georgia and hike the entire 2,200 miles. They are readily identifiable by their enormous backpacks, 50 to 75 pounds of the bare necessities for survival. They are strong and bulky at the beginning, and rail-thin towards the end. Then there are the section hikers, those who will do parts of the trail for anywhere from three to 10 days. The last group are folks like me, who steal a few hours on a rare day off for time on the trail. Regardless of which group we are, all are welcomed with a warm smile, and a cheery greeting, after the initial shock of seeing another human. You share information, water, whatever is needed because if you're on the trail, you're family.
While the trail is of nature, there are those reminders that others have passed this way before. Those reminders are not piles of trash, because the trail is pristine, kept that way by hikers who pack out everything they bring with them. No, these reminders are subtle and hard to see. A curious geometry discovered in the forest that reveals itself to be the foundation of a long-forgotten cabin, a place where people tried to make a life in the woods. Sometimes, it's a marker or a placard that designates someplace of historical note.
For a short period of time, there were people here; humans living out a portion of their lives. And then they left. In their wake, the forest re-took the land. Viewing those ruins, we are soberly reminded that however many years we are here, the mountains will outlive us all.
There is some level of guilt that I can't get out there as often as I'd like. But the AT doesn't really care how long it's been, or why I've been gone. I am welcomed back, and encouraged to enjoy myself. Despite the rare human encounter, most of the time I am alone with the wildlife, the birds singing joyfully in the trees, the graceful deer, the startling snakes suddenly appearing athwart the path ahead. And the awesome, fearful, yet magnificent sight of a bear. I am a guest here. I know that. This is their home and I must respect that ownership.
This day, I hiked a segment that started at the intersection of Virginia routes 55 and 725, but it could have been almost anywhere. Because on the trail, I'm at the same time somewhere and everywhere. The exact location doesn't mean a whole lot, as there's just as much in front of me as there is behind. I am on a journey that has no real ending, each step a gesture of discovery and adventure, where time, really, has no meaning.
It is where my spirit whispers, "I am home."