Beauty in Brevity: Why I’m Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say “Look!” and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.
—Mary Oliver (from “Mysteries, Yes”)
It’s not an exaggeration to say I think about the brevity of life every single day. I can’t escape the urgency I feel to experience everything before it’s over. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed by the urgency that I can’t breathe. What to do with one brief, beautiful blip on the radar?
In Japan, this brevity is symbolized in the sakura (cherry blossoms). Closely watching the forecast for a month, the country anticipates the blooming, which washes over the land in a northbound wave. These trees, silent all year, suddenly burst forth singing. Cherry blossom clouds hang heavy over cities, along the roadways, circling the lakes at the base of Mt. Fuji. After only a week or two, the blossoms fling themselves from the tree, spinning to the ground on a breeze. Tissuepaper petals litter the ground, pooling together and creating swirling snowbanks along the gutters. If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself under a cherry blossom tree when a particularly strong gust hits it—where you yourself will bloom beneath the flurried frenzy, expanding and expanding like a hot air balloon. The petals land in your hair, on your clothes, brush your cheek. Then it’s over. That’s it.
This whole experience. Does it matter? This brief beauty? This brief joy? Does it matter if it matters or not? Returning to this brevity and witnessing this beauty every day is why I’m on the trail.
Who knows why the cherry blossom blooms? Why we find it beautiful? Why it’s worth its unfolding? Like clusters of butterflies, opening and closing their wings. To open, to fly, to fall.
This continual opening and closing of nature—how greedy can we be with moments like this? It turns out, very. There is plenty if you look. It’s available to everyone. How any of us are functioning and not all tear-stained in a blubbery, snotty, awe-filled mess, filled with disbelief that miracles like the cherry blossom exist, how trees stand open to the sky like gulping lungs, will forever evade me.
Fear & Hunger
I am hungry. That is, I have a hunger. I think it’s in all of us—though maybe it bubbles up in some more than others. We keep it satisfied with timely haircuts and clipped, clean fingernails. When we’re done with ourselves, we move to our yards. Then continue down the to-do list. This isn’t a knock on to-do lists. Obviously, we all have things to do. I still have things to do as I walk and arrive at camp: collecting water, filtering it, cooking dinner, cleaning my pot, setting up my tent, hanging the bear bag. But sometimes we praise the busy ones. As if a full schedule is the same thing as a full life. One does not equal the other. Often I feel like Mary from It’s a Wonderful Life. I want to lasso the moon and eat it and have it shine out of my fingers and toes in beams. When people ask, “Aren’t you scared of hiking alone?” I say yes. Of course I am. But I don’t know how to tell them that this is how I quell my fears: My hunger is stronger. I pick the fears up, one by one, and drop them in the corner, where they are to sit. I don’t kick them out; I put them in their place. Which is in the corner, here, present, but not making too much noise. In some ways, fear is invigorating. You can surprise yourself by facing it. As I am falling asleep in the shelter or zipping up my tent for the last time for the night, I still feel the cold, I still feel the fear, but I also feel the moon paint my face in its milky glow, which only leaves me hungry for more.
I’m convinced gravity is evidence of the earth’s love for us. I still believe this despite my pack weighing 40 lbs. (yes, 40 lbs.—no, i would not like another shakedown, thank you for asking) or the risk of falling and breaking an ankle or worse—widow-makers. When I walk and I bring my attention to the earth’s pull on me: the footfalls over fat-faced leaves, stirring the mix of spiced mulch, I feel wild. Tingly. Buzzy. I feel electric. Look up. Gravity is on our side. What pulls you to the earth? Allows you to walk around without roots? What keeps you separated from floating into an ever-expanding universe? What keeps you cloaked in your bubbled, oxygen-rich atmosphere? Gravity is a love letter that says over and over, yes, you have a right to be here. You belong here.
The evening I arrived at Hawk Mountain Shelter, it snowed. I hunkered down with ten other hikers for warmth. All night I was shaking. I wanted to fold in on myself, tucked into a warm pocket, creating the smallest surface area possible touching the cold. A moth lying in its cocoon, wings folded like origami. Or a baby bird, featherless, having to make the effort to push out of my warm egg. If it were up to me, I’d never hatch. I’d stay warm. Protected. With each movement, the cold seared like a white-hot branding. I unfurled myself, finally, from my sleeping bag, retrieved my bear bag, and warmed a pot of water with my JetBoil. Another young woman was shaking as badly as I was. She wrapped her hands around the heat of my stove. I offered her a cup of hot chocolate. She accepted and silently, slowly sipped her cup. When she was finished, she said, “This was the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.” And I know she’s serious. I know what she means. Because I’d experienced the same magic, the same salvation with a Cadbury egg my first night, when it was hailing and lightening and tornado warnings. And in some form every day since. It’s the environment. It’s not the hot chocolate that earns the title alone. After all, it wasn’t even thickened with warm milk. It was water. The difference between a full fat milky hot chocolate and one with a thin watery base is evident to anyone. There is no comparison. And yet. I knew it was the best hot chocolate she’d ever had.
It’s a gift to be constantly mindful. Constantly in the present, whether you want to be or not. Something that occurs only in short spurts in “real life.” Out here, it’s a daily occurrence. What I now call the “Hot Chocolate Effect.” I am thankful for the motion of my body. For a hot meal. For climate-controlled environments. Running facets. Clean socks. Heat from a dryer. Fast food. Slow food. Fruit. The warmth of other humans. The delicate way a Cadbury egg is wrapped in brightly colored, chipper foil. For a roof overhead—despite the dirt, filth, and mice. The comfort of hearing the rain hit the roof of the shelter—where you are dry and warm and in the comfort of strangers that are instantly friends. Or, away from cover, the sting on your face reminding you: You are here. You are alive. The way these trees are here and alive. Both opening up to the sky to greet the rain.
But, here’s the thing about the Trail, or nature in any form. You must go to it. It will not come to you. It will not rap on your door. It will not crawl through your window. Not for sometime, anyway, maybe after you’re long gone. You will not find your trail suddenly rock strewn and tree filled. It will remain, tamed and killed, under the asphalt. Clipped and chided for growing wild, for being as it is. Your surroundings will remain controlled until you get up. Until you leave the couch. Walk out your door. Head into the wild. Where it grows rugged and untamed, save for a small two-foot-wide pathway: your invitation.
This post pairs well with the poem “Mysteries, Yes” by Mary Oliver & the song “Yes I’m Changing” by Tame Impala. And maybe a glass of red wine. Please have one for me. It’ll be below freezing tonight. Cheers!
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