I had a nightmare I was back home, and everyone kept asking me why I hadn’t completed the trail. I had made it to the 400 mile mark but suddenly I was surrounded by old friends all looking at me inquisitively. I didn’t have any answers for them, and I felt terrible about it. Why am I home? I don’t even remember how I got here I thought. I began to panic, and I abruptly awoke relieved to find that I was in my tent, still on the Appalachian Trail. I was in the tenting area of Mountain Harbour Hostel, an unexpected but welcome stop the group had acquiesced to after we realized it was only a fifth of a mile down the road and their breakfast was touted as delectable. Now it was time to see if this home cooked meal was worth the hype. I stuffed my clothes and sleeping bag into the bottom of my pack, organized all my equipment into their various compartments, and disassembled my tent and stuffed it into the last available space of my pack. At this point in the day I feel unduly pleased with myself, for having completed the tedious morning ritual of organizing everything. Now it was time to eat.
I regrouped with Muffin Man, Q-tip, Scarecrow, and Sundance, a fellow hiker I became acquainted with in The Smokies, and again at Hot Springs during Trailfest. We both partook in the ice cream eating contest and essentially tied for second place. After leaving Hot Springs he began hiking with our group until it was presumed he would be with us indefinitely. Sundance and I have had several philosophical discussions while hiking together in the short time I’ve known him, and it has been relatively easy to slip into these cognitively stimulating dialogues with little need for small-talk to break the ice. Being able to relate to someone so profoundly that the loneliness once associated with these feelings immediately washes away is a powerful experience. Conversations with Sundance while hiking have given me this avenue. Exercising while simultaneously conferring ideas and shared feelings has been one of the best aspects of the journey thus far. Sometimes I feel as though I’m talking to a mirror reflection of myself when discussing philosophy and spirituality with Sundance, except he is taller and has a far more pronounced beard than me.
We all walked out of the tenting area that morning and up the steps of the Hostel’s kitchen and dining area. We waited on the back porch, salivating over the home cooked meal that awaited us on the other side of the wooden walls. Then, we were called into the kitchen. My eyes scanned the countertop as we all formed a line. I grabbed a plate and began calculating what was worthy of stuffing my face with.
Definitely eating those scrambled eggs. Blueberry pancakes or biscuits? Pancakes now and biscuits later. Damn that sausage and ham looks good. Maybe I’ll grab a biscuit, lather it up in gravy, and stuff it with ham and sausage. Oh, that would be good. Are there mushrooms in these eggs? Yes. I think that’s cheddar cheese. Holy shit look at those cinnamon buns. They look so fluffy and soft. I like how they doused them in icing too. Cherry Danish? Hell yes I’ll take two. My plate is getting full. I’ll have come back later for that biscuit sandwich. Will I have room for that fresh fruit? It looks delicious, but I already know what a strawberry tastes like. What I don’t know is how those cinnamon buns taste. My goodness that coffee smells good. Okay, hold yourself together, I can come back for seconds.
It was the best breakfast I’ve ever had. I scarfed down three plates and wished my stomach was big enough to house more of those cinnamon buns. Returning to the trail I walked at a snail like pace as I was dripping with sweat, but I didn’t regret a single bite. With every burp I could taste sausage and eggs. The meal satiated my hunger for the entire day.
Sometimes I like to hike alone, in the solitude of my own thoughts. I’ll leave the shelter or campsite a little after the group does, staying behind to read or write while they get ahead on the trail. I like to let my mind wander when I’m not trying to internalize what I’ve just read before starting my hike. I always seem to sift through the same ideas, going over the same conversations with myself over and over, or the same John Denver song lingers to the fore. This becomes bothersome at times, and eventually flat out annoying. I simply can’t end the conversation of private responses in my head, I just keep thinking in circles. Sometimes when I let my mind relax I get a sudden flash of insight that I think is worth writing down, but usually I fail to surprise myself. Usually, my thoughts come to mind in a predictably mundane pattern, the same regurgitated notions that are a product of my prior learning and solidified disposition. At these points I fervently increase my tempo in hopes of catching up with the group, knowing that conversation with people I know will save me from my own thoughts.
This makes me appreciate Muffin Man and the hikers I’ve met out here more than ever. When I become tired of myself, I cling to them; their respective dispositions and notions they hold within themselves. What thoughts have they had recently? When my own thoughts no longer interest me, the potential dialogues that await will.
My mood governs all social encounters. Sometimes I’ll feel content, upbeat, happy go lucky. I’ll become gregarious. I’ll talk to you and listen to your words as if you’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met, and my enthusiasm is sincere. Other times I’ll feel entirely withdrawn from all social encounters and I can’t fake enthusiasm. I’ll offer clumsily awkward responses that are usually riddled with a stutter. I can’t focus on what anyone is saying because I’m too preoccupied with feelings of dread. This dualism in how I feel, high highs and low lows, influences everything I encounter in the world outside my own psyche. I’m subject to the arbitrary pull of my thoughts and feelings. My attempts at practicing mindfulness usually go in vain.
The conflicting desire for seeking comfort and seeking challenge inundates my consciousness as another form of dualism to grapple with. I’ve grown to welcome the unpleasant sting of adversity. Change is uncomfortable. The benefits of abandoning comfort now pay off later when we can look back and see we’re not the same person we used to be. Adversity forces us to change, and that change broadens our understanding of ourselves. No pain, no gain. Mental anguish transforms into realizations about the self that would be impossible to discover without the accompanying pains it takes to have said realizations.
Walking over twenty miles in one day provoked a state of mind similar to hypnagogic thought. I began drifting into a wandering calm, paying less attention to thoughts that didn’t concern the forest around me. I ignored the thought that crept up on me and said you need to rest, sit down and relax. It was spiritual in that I felt inspired by my surroundings to keep hiking despite feelings of exhaustion. The protruding rock faces revealing their layers of geologic time, the water current ceaselessly flowing down an adjacent river, songbirds chirping and darting across the path ahead, and the cool breeze against my fatigued body; they calmed me. They quieted my thoughts when the tempest of cognitive woes held me captive for too long. After hiking for nearly twelve hours with minimal rest and food, all internal anxieties had become background noise.
Once this feeling of calm subsided, I became inspired to realize it’s liberating quality again. I began thinking about how I could capture it’s elusive nature in the future, only to realize that it’s spontaneity was found only when I wasn’t looking for anything. It came about when I wasn’t trying to feel anything. Don’t go looking for serendipity. Let it find you.
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