AT Lessons: I’ve experienced that you don’t have to have the experience to experience what is most important to be experienced
I went on an Appalachian Trail section hike this past spring – the approximately 200 miles from Damascus, VA Southbound to Hot Springs, NC. This was my second to last section hike of the Appalachian Trail, or rather, the second to last section hike of a section I haven’t hiked before. The above photo is from that hike, a small moment chosen to go along with the theme of this post, but the rest are not from the AT. I haven’t written about that hike yet, because every time I start, I get stuck, which is unusual.
But I think I know why. It was an amazing hike for me personally. I was able to finally settle in, to find a comfort with the trail that could only come to me from developing a relationship with the AT since 2019. This is my fifth year returning to the trail, and with that has come a great attachment and emotion, like when a friend becomes more like family over time.
I love this trail, and this trail has shown me things. These are important things that can’t fully be conveyed through a recount of my last hike. These are things that I have felt rather than learned, as I was able to pause and reflect on what was around me, on the trends I was seeing in the hiking community over several years’ time, on the sounds the earth around me was making on the nights I chose to camp alone.
This feeling is a desperate love and caringness for something so precious, the natural spaces we have left and the lessons they teach us, and I almost feel a deep sadness and emptiness when I look around and realize that I’m not doing my best at preserving them, and I don’t know how or where to begin showing others how to see this too who might not have the same access that I do. The reality is that not everyone can come to the Appalachian Trail to be struck with compassion for our planet or for life, and the other reality is that coming to the trail won’t necessarily do that, either.
The one thing I do know, that I’m absolutely sure of, is that we take ourselves wherever we go, and the Appalachian Trail is not an exception. Sometimes it’s easy to stare at a screen following other people’s hiking adventures, longing to be there, for something else, for this epic escape.
It’s true, some settings are more conducive to being at peace than others, hence one of the reasons why I love the trail. Yet, I know for sure that if we can’t appreciate what is in front of us at any given moment, the Appalachian Trail is not going to do it for us. I’ve seen it, in other hikers and in myself – a long hike always turns into a swirling culture about how far we’ve gone and not what we saw. As much as you may be reading this and want to think that that won’t be you, I have to let you know that it just might, because you’ll be surrounded by it. It’s okay that that happens, and sometimes that’s the goal. But while an epic adventure or escape might help a little, we have to learn to appreciate it in our own way, or we’ll feel empty wondering why this escape we hoped for doesn’t seem to be happening.
Our attitudes and practices at home translate to the trail. That houseplant, or intricate pattern on the carpet, or the reflection in a retention pond next to the parking lot of a business park, are all there for us to notice and appreciate on any given day. If we don’t practice stopping and noticing, we’re not going to stop and notice things while we’re on the Appalachian Trail either. We have to choose to do it on the trail, as much as we have to choose to do it at home. Somehow, I feel desperate to get this message out, for anyone who might need it, but also because I often need this message myself.
I don’t have mountains in my hometown, and sometimes I long for them. But that also doesn’t mean that I need mountains to appreciate and love my surroundings, and it doesn’t mean that moving to the mountains would cure any mental ailments I may have from day to day, even if it might help sometimes or I may love being there. I have to choose to notice the beauty of the mountains when I’m there, the same way I have to choose to notice the beauty of a sunset from a backed-up suburban road during rush hour. One is easier than the other, but they’re equally important.
We have to choose to notice wherever we are, and love it and care for it. The Appalachian Trail is an old friend turning to family, and the Appalachian Trail isn’t separate from any other place on this planet. It’s a place to go where our earth can speak to us more clearly, yet we don’t leave her when we leave the trail. We’re a part of her wherever we are.
Not everyone can get to places like the Appalachian Trail, so now it’s my duty as someone who’s been able to go there to translate the emotions about life that I so desperately care about sharing. It’s almost as if I’m saying “Trust me, I know this seems like it’s easy for someone like me to say, because I’ve been able to go on these adventures, but you don’t have to go on them to appreciate what’s in front of you. Because if you do finally go there, you might be expecting the trail to do something for you that you must do yourself. Trust me.”
The ultimate challenge in writing is figuring out how to share an experience for those who aren’t there in the experience with me. Well, by having this experience, I’ve experienced that you don’t have to have the experience to experience what is most important to be experienced. (I left that in there just so we could try to say it three times fast!) Anyway, I think I need to sleep on that one for a little while.
I promise there is beauty in front of where you are now, even if it’s a dandelion in a sidewalk crack or a glass of clean water quenching your thirst. And I also promise you that I, too, need reminding of this, even though I’m the one currently saying it.
The Appalachian Trail will be there waiting for us, a wonderful place that we must protect, and waiting for us to open our appreciation to it in the same way we’ll open our appreciation to the earth wherever we go when we’re not on the trail. It’s waiting for us as humans to remind each other what we have around us at any given time, and to remind each other to be thankful, to notice, and to treat it with compassion.
This is why I can’t just recount my last section hike in journal format. I had to do this first, to show anyone reading this what the trail has helped me to think about, and to pass on that we must start our appreciation for our planet and our lives wherever we are in this moment and not when we leave to go someplace else that isn’t where we’re currently sitting.
So in honor of this practice, I’m going to post a bunch of photos from over the years of some of my favorite hidden gems near different places I’ve lived, which you’ve already been seeing. Most of these are pieces of little forest preserves that dot the Chicago suburbs, surrounded by roads and developments in a land that can seem like nothing but pre-planned subdivisions and strip malls, until you take a closer look. They’re a beautiful oasis, but those of us that live around here have to actively seek them out, notice them and make time to go to them, and then learn to appreciate them in the same way we would if we were on vacation in an exotic place, taking pictures of every little rock and tree and creature that has a life, and a spirit and a name. (Ten points for whoever gets that reference, couldn’t resist).
I want to do better. The trail helps, but it starts inside ourselves. Only then can we be fully open to its lessons. How cool would it be if we could remind each other of this, whether we’ve been there or not?
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