When I consider the attraction we humans feel to nature—“the call of the wild”—it boggles my mind. Considering the millions of years we have spent emerging from Homo-erectus and his kissing cousins, I suppose the magnetic pull is intrinsic. We must be genetically coded for it. I feel certain that those scientists that devote their lives to sequencing our genetic code and isolating the specific functions of our DNA will someday find, tucked deep down inside that helix, the smiling face of “Mr. Green Gene.”
Having just emerged from a four-day stint in the woods, I am overwhelmed by my desire to slip back into that ecological cocoon, where I felt as if I were a living cog in the natural system. Even as the complete novice woodsman that I am, I feel I belong in the land of the turkey, chipmunk, and bear. Don’t get me wrong, I miss all of the comforts of home—the hot showers, the abundance of food, the warmth of my soft bed, and the company of my wife, pets, and friends.
And in truth, I am still tethered to that world by the internet, by my cell phone, by Facebook. But significantly less so than before I hit the woods. And I have enjoyed sharing this journey through those marvels of technology and am thankful they are available to me as I move slowly along the Appalachian Trail. Without them, I would feel more alone, more isolated in a foreign world, more fearful of those things I hear each night, when I am sequestered in the confines of my delicate tent. Certainly, without the digital connection, I would not have the sense that every one of you is traveling with me as I trudge up the rocky slope of each wickedly steep north-Georgia mountain and stumble down its equally steep and slippery other side.
Yet even as I make these confessions and concessions, I find I am still thrilled to be in the great outdoors and on the Appalachian Trail. For example, I find a special satisfaction each time we stop to collect water for the miles ahead, knowing with a startling clarity that this liquid we take so utterly for granted in the “real world” sustains our very lives. Frankly, it tickles the hell out of me when we coax liter upon liter of clear H2O into our plastic containers. Finding the mere dribbles and drops of a small spring along the path becomes a huge cause for celebration in our day. Standing with heavy packs and dry mouths before such a source, we understand it is nothing short of a miracle, and I feel as if nature has favored our journey, provided a blessing so that we may continue onward on the trail—a blessing without which we would simply wither and die.
My son, Alexander, has become the water gatherer on this trip. He has displayed such great ability at keeping us supplied from the minute trickles that I feel an immense pride in watching him at work. I realize, as he displays his ingenuity, that my young son has grown up, become self sustaining in the ways a father hopes for his son. I have realized too, that he is at his best here in the forest. Where many might be daunted by the challenges of nature, he excels. And of course, all of this makes me wonder about the round holes into which we force the square pegs of our own and our children’s abilities in “regular life.” I think this is the beauty and higher purpose of places like the AT. They help us bring order and clarity in a way that no measure of higher education or counseling can ever achieve.
Tomorrow, Alexander and I once again slip behind the veil of the forest and prepare to follow the trail for another four or five days before re-emerging to resupply in Hiawasee, Georgia. For those four or five days, I’ll be back into “trail consciousness”—a state in which I look both forward and ever inward. What I have found there so far are things that like to replay themselves on the stage of my life.
For instance, once again, I have jumped with both feet into a strange world, unprepared and grossly out of shape. Five years ago, I made a similar move, deciding to ride my bicycle two thousand miles, while having never ridden farther than a mile or so around my mid-town neighborhood. Now, I have plunged into the wilds of nature with a fifty-pound pack on my back, bound for Damascus, Virginia. I am not entirely sure why I choose to do these things, but when I cogitate a bit, I see there is something about it that appeals to me. For starters, I think I enjoy embracing the opposite of myself. I am clearly a “fat boy in the woods” on this adventure, as I was a bit of a “bear on a bike” five years ago. The humor here is not lost on me—but when it gets down to it, I believe there is an Olympian deep down inside my corpulent soul that aches to come out. It is a better version of Hugh, one who, every so often pulls me aside and says, “Hey, Sport, don’t you think its time to take a look at things! I mean, really, you have let yourself go. Again. Blood pressure is up. Cholesterol is up. What’s with the chest pain? Let’s face it, you ain’t getting any younger, and a drool cup and cane is not a good look.”
The good thing is that I tend to listen to the my inner Olympian. It’s like a switch trips, and I lift my head out of the mire of my life and say, “OK, I think you are right.” The bad thing is I choose something crazy: “OK! I will hike 450 miles of the Appalachian Trail! Will that shut you up?” I shout, when what Olympian Hugh might have really meant was, “Why don’t we go for a walk, Sport? Or go on a diet and join the gym?”
Too late, Oly. I have moved full speed ahead, fully engaged with my new adventure.
The decision to jettison everything for a journey like this is really a decision to let go of everything that is strangling you. It’s not just one thing, not just the job, or the house, or the bills; it’s the whole big, ugly beast out there—the world we have created. Because, when I stop and think about it, I like my job, I enjoy my co-workers, I love my wife, and I kind of like my place in the world. But when I break it down, I feel the world is killing me. I feel lost, I often feel alone, disconnected from my community, and I wonder with a hopeless angst what we are trying to achieve as a society. The bigger part of me likes—no, loves—people, and I work in a job where I see a lot of pain and hopelessness. It’s a new thing for me to see so much suffering so close at hand. I guess at the ripe age of fifty-nine I am opening my eyes.
The more I study my condition, the more I think it’s one we all share. Maybe some experience it to a higher degree than others, but I believe that in those lonely long hours of the night we are all visited by these same thoughts: What are we doing? Where are we heading? Why can’t we come together in ways that make us feel whole? For me, these questions tend to bring me down, and I just spiral further and further inside myself, turning the screw of my own condition tighter and tighter as I go.
Last night, Alexander asked me why I was making this trip. His question caught me off guard. I should have expected it because that is the kind of young man he is. He’s a thinker, and he wants to know what motivates people, especially his father. So I gave him the bullshit answer: “Well son, I want to lose weight and clear my head and get focused on my life.” OK, so this is not entirely BS, but it’s close. I will have to read this to him later. I think it’s a more honest answer to his question.
As I sit in the cabin this morning, I am preparing to let go. Alexander helped me cut my hair—buzzed my head in fact. I look in the mirror and am not sure who is looking back. But that is the way I want to be: unsure, and separated from the person who left home just a few days ago. I want to be open to discover something new when it occurs. If I thought it would help, I would strip off my clothes, coat my body in mud, and run headlong into the forest. It is my hope that I can re-emerge lighter in form and spirit so that I am better able to deal with the world as it is—and maybe out of all of this, be better prepared to help someone else when they are considering making a journey of their own.
* * *
As we crossed Blood Mountain yesterday, I could feel an energy emanating from the earth. There is wisdom there and a voice to be heard. I believe you just have to listen.
These are the thoughts of a fat boy as he enters the woods.