A Deer on Kelly’s Knob
My long strides stretch my right hip deliciously under the weight of my pack and relieve the pain beginning to radiate again from my swollen left knee. Slunking my left leg forward so my flat foot lands on the soft mushy trail soil and the fluid collecting around my knee stays right where it is, cushioning kneecap and tendon and staying in just that one position, partially bent but stationary under a swath of wide, bright green tape. Then, following up with my straight long striding right leg. My strong leg. My strong side.
My right side is strong and stable, but stiff and unyielding, while the left side of my body is loosey goosey and flexible as the dickens. I could be a body builder with my right and a dancer with my left. But not together somehow. My two sides do not agree about who I am.
Because of this, when someone says, “I feel this kinda way,” I say “yes, I sometimes feel that kind of way,” and when they say the opposite, I say “yes, I can definitely see that.” Because I can, and I do.
I lope ahead, my strange gait comforting my catawampas spine and muscles, hips and ankles. Liberty Bear and Walkie Talkie are somewhere behind me singing in the deep forest, but soon I leave them far behind and their voices fade, grow muffled, and sink into the Late Purple Astor and White Snakeroot bordering the trail.
The trail opens up down there, another hundred yards, and I descend into Addis Gap and wait, leaning my trekking pole against a tree. It was a great game to try to stay ahead of them—my sister and Liberty Bear; and the game got me up and over the small hump at the base of the mountain between the gaps—Sassafras and Addis.
I wait in the mountain air, at a four-way crossroads of trail; old logging road to my left; blue blaze to a water source on my right; ahead, the Appalachian Trail continues up Kelly’s Knob and disappears into a grove of Mountain Laurel.
The trail is lush and green in September, waist high wildflowers shade black bear and deer, sleeping in late afternoon. Unseen by me, they raise and turn their heads when I do—towards the sweet, high, lilting voice of my singing sister—Walkie Talkie. She and Liberty Bear must be atop the hillside now, their voices no longer shielded, floating down to me like flower petals.
“You were crushing!” Liberty Bear appears atop the hillside and yells down, waving one green walking stick, and they both descend into the gap where I’ve been waiting four minutes or so.
This time, I want to try letting them go ahead of me, up Kelly’s Knob. I will be slow with my sore left knee, and my new game will be catching up to them. If my knee weren’t hurting, I would just hike alongside them, but this way, I have quiet contemplation of steps and endurance. If I don’t catch up to them, I will just have to whine to wildflowers and lay down in their tall cool greenery with the bears.
“Day-O!” They continue through the crossroads of trail and disappear into the grove. We continue for some time, calling and answering in song. The Mountain Laurel, twisted fairy-tale trees, form a sacred tunnel over our heads as we ascend Kelly’s Knob in two distinct groups, my sister and Liberty Bear up ahead already lunging up huge chunks of rock with metal poles balancing their footsteps.
The Black Forest of Baden, where my sister and my ancestors walked, appears as twisted Mountain Laurel in illustrated Grimm’s Fairytales. Just like this grove. I can’t lope up this hill, rocky and steep. I bend forward and shuffle up the mountain.
I’ve caught up with Liberty Bear who is laughing and yelling into her phone at a small flat portion of hillside up ahead. She is speaking so loudly that I think she’s talking to me, and I yell up to her, but she continues unabated, laughing and responding to someone else. Maybe it’s my sister who is just out of my sight or standing right behind her.
But it’s not. My sister has gone ahead up the mountain. Liberty Bear and I are the poky ones, and we continue forward slowly.
I love these woods. Love them. On the straightaways where the soil is packed down and littered with pine needles, I feel the glow of the forest inside me, peace. But not on the uphills. Almost never. Going uphill, I know the forest hasn’t changed. It is still offering peace and shade and green, but my knee hurts and the pain keeps interrupting my thoughts.
I have changed. Just me. My swollen knee. But the forest is the same, quiet and beautiful right now, even the birds are napping in late afternoon. Whether my knee hurts or not, the forest is there with me. Whether I choose peace or not, the pain will be there with me, too. So, I try to accept the pain and move on to other things.
Steps. One step. One shuffle. Each tiny step, some six or seven inches up the hill, gets me closer to the top. It’s only .6 miles away, but it’s likely to take me another 45 minutes or so.
“Mountain Decumbent Goldenrod,” Liberty Bear points with the metal end of her trekking pole. The bright yellow sprigs of Goldenrod line the trail accompanied by their dear friends, teeny white blossoms of snakeroot. These and their shorter sisters, the Late Purple Astor blooms, seem to hang out together always. And sometimes delicate pink sprigs of Low Smart Weed gather with them in their tea party.
“Day-O!” Walkie is so far ahead she can’t hear us anymore and doesn’t sing back. She’s probably on top of the knob now soaking in some sunshine on a bald rock.
Liberty Bear stops suddenly, pointing to a chunked out portion of soil in the trail. “It looks like a hoof!”
“Just one hoof,” I ponder, picturing whatever hiker had transformed into a deer and leapt immediately off the ground, up and over Kelly’s Knob. This is just the kind of forest for that kind of magic to take hold. I hoped I could transform into a tree and stand tall swaying in the fall breeze. Looking over the whole mountain and able to spy my sister on the other side where she was likely already beginning her descent into Deep Gap.
Just because you’ve done Blood Mountain back in April of 2022. Just because you’ve been up and over Sassafras, Cedar Mountain, Frosty Mountain, Springer…does not mean you can roll up on Rocky Mountain, Tray Mountain, and Kelly’s Knob—and do it again like it’s nothing. Hiking muscles do not roll over like sick hours at the end of the year and accumulate when you don’t use them.
Kelly’s Knob drifted by me step by step like each and every other mountain before it had done.
Finally, Liberty Bear and I were coming down again. Down off the mountain and into Deep Gap, looking for a shelter to appear. When we found my sister, sitting peacefully on the front stoop of that three-sided hut in the woods, she had already finished licking her hooves and tucked her tail underneath her. But I knew her secret. I’d seen that single hoof mark in the trail.
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Walkie Talkie here! Rats! They figured me out, y’all. Or did they?