Slow and Kind, Like the South

As I’m writing this, it’s been almost exactly a month since I’d flown from Minnesota to Atlanta to start the trail — watching the landscape slowly change beneath me from frosty fields to warm southern browns, and talking to the preacher next to me on the plane as he gripped his armrest with any bounce of turbulence. It’s so strange to think back on that flight a month ago and feel that duality of “It’s only been a month?” and “It’s already been a month?”

I’m realizing that one month is enough for your life to change entirely, and also long enough for you to settle into it. That settling has come with a spate of lessons learned, realizations, and moments that I hold really really dearly. Here are some of them:

Be Kind to Your Body

In the first few days of my hike, I was running off adrenaline and the naive notion that hiking fast all day and not really taking breaks was just my style of hiking. I’d heard all the advice to start slow —  I really did think that I was starting slow enough —  until I hit the descent off Blood Mountain and knew that my knees were not taking kindly to the steep downhills. After two more days of trying to hike on bum knees, I knew and hated the fact that I needed to take a zero. Luckily, I’d been hiking with some people who were feeling the same way I did, and we ended up in Helen, Ga., for a chunk of zero days to heal up. Taking a bunch of zeros that early on in my hike was humbling in the best kind of way.

Once our knees were feeling OK enough to try some really low-mileage days, we hitched out of Helen with a man named Larry. He spoke with a Southern drawl that was slow as molasses and he drove even slower, winding up the highway to Unicoi Gap to drop us off. That’s something I’ve been loving about the South: it’s slow and kind. We learned to hike like Larry’s molasses words — slow and kind, slow and kind. Take the time you need to be kind to your body.

 

New and Familiar

I’ve been thinking about how the trail has this beautiful tension between what is new and what is familiar. Before starting the trail, I thought that everything would be overwhelmingly new, but honestly, it’s felt a lot like coming home. The trail is something that I’ve dreamed about for the better part of a year, wondering what it would feel  like to stand in certain places and look at certain views. Now that I’m here it feels like maybe part of me has always been here, waiting for me to find it in the places I’m seeing and people I’m meeting.  It’s all new all the time, but it all feels like home.

There was a moment when I was brushing my teeth at Tray Mountain Shelter and looking out through the trees at the blue silhouettes of the mountains around us. The moon was shining above them and you could see constellations of light from some towns nestled in the sea of blue. It hit me all at once that this is exactly the blue of Lake Superior from my hometown of Duluth – and the little lights could be ships anchored in the bay. My soul ached a little bit at the beauty of it all: that collision between the new and familiar. It all feels like home; it feels right.

Mental Pictures

It’s hard to find the right words to describe what it really feels like to be out here – the walking, the aches and pains, the extraordinarily wonderful and kind people… so here are some mental snapshots of moments that I thought “I’m here. I’m doing this. This is real and strange and wonderful.”

–The first sunny day we had felt electric – all warm and buzzing with anticipation of summer. CapCap, Pinky, and I had just stopped at Top of Georgia Hostel for some lunch and a bit of a resupply before heading back out. The sun was shining and we were walking in a line along the side of the highway to get back to the trail. I just had this moment where I felt like the freewheeling thru-hiker I had dreamed about being.

–On our first zero day we all piled into a hotel room in Helen with a bottle of Fernets and did what we called a “music circle.” Each person would take a turn to play a song that they love for everyone else and we just sat and listened. I’ve said before that being outdoors is a “strange human glue” and thru-hiking has proved to be the strangest and the strongest.  It’s a space where each person allows the others to be who they are and are willing to just sit and listen and learn alongside each other. It’s a sweet, sweet space to live in.

–I was hiking over a ridge in freezing rain and winds that almost knocked me off my feet a few times, and I felt small and miserable. But even then, I never thought, “I don’t want to be here.” It’s a really beautiful thing to love something in spite of yourself and how you feel about it, and I’ve fallen into this kind of love with hiking. Even on the bad days, I’d rather be here than be comfortable.

–There are moments that I call “tree with the lights in it” moments, based off some words from Annie Dillard’s book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: “Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek and thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells un-flamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”

I’ve had so many moments like these on the trail that I can hardly explain. Sometimes it’s a view, sometimes the music I’m listening to opens up just as the clouds part and the sun shines through, sometimes it just hits out of nowhere, for no reason at all. It’s that feeling that I am so so small, that I’m not just seeing the things around me but also being seen by it. It’s a feeling that I’m being overcome and consumed by some beautiful unknown that’s bigger than me and I crave that feeling, always.

Happy trails,

Mandar

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Comments 1

  • Jason : Apr 27th

    This is great, I love reading blogs, and at the same time I hate them. Sitting over here in the Middle East for the next two years, reading about all the fun and pain people are enduring on the AT is really getting me excited and anxious for my trip when I return. Keep it up Mandar don’t give up and have the time of your life!

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