Honoring The Present
After waking up on the dirt road and remembering where I was, I looked to my right and saw WildCard on the porch of the bunkhouse rolling a cigarette. “What’s going on? What’d I miss?” I asked sleepily. “We’re staying here for the day, go pick out a bunk homie,” he replied while still focusing on his handy work. The torrential downpour turned out to be overrated. We stayed at Standing Bear Hostel for a day watching a steady drizzle, lounging around the bunkhouse and recouping from our long hours of hiking through the smokies.
Sometimes I wake up and I think, what the hell am I doing out here. And then I’ll begin my hike for the day and I’ll start thinking that this is one of the most badass things I’ve ever done. Crossing over one of the grassy knolls of Tennessee, gazing out at the mountains all around me provides instant gratification for all the grueling climbing that led to it. Max Patch, a bald that led to quite possibly the best view yet, was the perfect place to set up camp for a night under the stars. The beautiful part about coming upon these knolls or balds is that they’re few and far between. A vast majority of the hiking is spent entrenched in dense forest, surrounded by lush foliage and evergreen and deciduous trees. Ambling out of the shaded woodland onto a mountain covered only by grass is an interesting contrast. One easily welcomes the change in scenery. Per usual, I feel as though I’m walking through a scene in The Lord of The Rings when trekking up a mountainous grassy bald, wind blowing against my face as I squint and brace myself with every step. When you finally reach the top to witness the panoramic vista, it’s awe inspiring. It never gets old. We awoke to a beautiful sunrise on Max Patch. I hastily unzipped my tent to see the life giving orb of colliding hydrogen and helium atoms we call The Sun rise above the mountains, with shades of orange and yellow covering the sky, accompanying it’s arrival.
We would reach Hot Springs, North Carolina a couple days later. The trail goes directly through Main Street, leading you past a local diner and a welcome center for hikers passing through. It’s a small town with not much to do, but it felt like an oasis for the three days we stayed there. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday we lived at The Garden House of Mountain Magnolia Inn, all expenses paid for by Muffin Man’s Fiancé, who came all the way from Maryland to see him. She was even kind enough to pay for the rooms of his smelly hiker friends. Definitely a keeper. That weekend in Hot Springs was preoccupied with the festivities of Trailfest, which mostly consisted of vendors set up all in a row up Main Street, selling everything from hiking equipment to garden plants. There was also a rock climbing wall set up behind all the vendors, adjacent to stage of musicians playing bluegrass music. The rock climbing wall immediately captured my attention, and I made it all the way to the top. I reached out for the last hold and my sweaty palms and pathetically tepid grip strength gave out on me as I slipped and came crashing back down to the earth. If I were rock climbing in the wild I’d be dead. Freestanding rock climbing walls made of plywood and metal are much more forgiving though; I only scrapped my shin on the shameful fall down. There was also an ice cream eating contest, which I took second place in. It was an odd affair, with ten other hikers and myself standing against a white building facing an audience of other hikers and locals seated in collapsible chairs with arms folded. Holding a half pint of strawberry flavored ice cream that was frozen solid, I was awaiting a plastic spoon that never came. We had to dig the ice cream out of the container with our hands and shove it in our mouths as fast as possible. At first I tried to savor the sweet flavor but then I began swallowing chunks of frozen ice cream in a desperate attempt to finish first. I didn’t, but at least I ate ice cream for free.
We spent our last night at The Garden House sitting on the back porch drinking beer and listening to John Denver songs on my phone. We all sang along to Country Roads and it gave me butterflies in my stomach. Then we shifted gears as I became DJ with my friends calling out song requests. It was funny to listen to the arbitrary songs that had been stuck in their head all week long. “Play the song Convoy!” Scarecrow called out from his rocking chair. “Who’s it by?” I asked. “I don’t know, it’s the theme song to the movie Convoy. It’s about all these truckers, and they’re just… Trucking,” he sipped his beer then continued, “it goes like CONVOY!” He belted out with gruff inflection, and everyone burst into laughter. It’s difficult to articulate why this moment was so funny. It had me laying on the porch howling with tears of laughter in my eyes, gripiping my abdominals, continuing to laugh until no more sounds would escape me. I played the song, a YouTube video, and it was one of the most bizarre productions I’ve ever seen. Like he said, it was just a bunch of truckers… Trucking. And singing into their CB radios about trucking culture, ostensibly. I’m not sure, it was hard to concentrate on the theme while laughing myself into hysteria. I don’t think it would’ve been nearly as funny if we hadn’t all been drinking ourselves silly that night.
The next morning we had to check out of The Garden House and Scarecrow was heaving in the shower. Not a good sign of things to come. He laid down on the couch in a sickly manner afterwards before summoning the strength to gather all his belongings. We turned in the key and made our way up Main Street, back on The Appalachian Trail. Our group would once again reconfigure itself. WildCard would stay behind in Hot Springs for another two days, camped out by a river, and Scarcrow went missing somewhere along the way on Monday. No one could pinpoint his whereabouts. He had left for the trail a few minutes before me and WildCard, but after Muffin Man and Q-tip. I didn’t pass him and Muffin Man and Q-tip didn’t see him on the trail either. While it was strange and a little unsettling, we pigeonholed it as him feeling sick and stopping, and me passing him without noticing. He must’ve ended his hike early on Monday and set up his tent, too overburdened by a hangover to hike.
Three days later I heard a voice calling out from behind me, “Hey Romeo!” And I turned around to see Scarecrow walking up the path smiling. It was like I had seen a ghost. A dead man walking. Holy shit I thought, he’s alive. Turns out our compartmentalized presumptions were pretty close to being correct. He had spent Monday in a period of convalescence; puking periodically, trying to hold down water, and laying in his tent waiting for the debilitating hangover to fade away. Then he spent the next couple days gallantly covering the ground that had been lost on Monday, hiking nearly twenty mile days, several days in a row. What a way to come back from a hangover. It was almost as awe inspiring as the panoramic view on Max Patch.
On the first night out here, I was shivering in my tent, terrified of the incredibly unlikely prospect of being mauled to death in the middle of the night by a Black Bear. I would toss and turn all night replaying this grizzly scene endlessly in the movie of my mind. Now I’m walking through the woods under a full moon, surrounded by darkness and hearing nothing but my breathing, the cracking of branches and twigs under my boots, and the nocturnal fauna of the mountains. I’m essentially alone in this wooded darkness. The other hikers of my group are spread so far out that the white glow of their headlamps is no where in sight. I’m potentially being stalked by a mountain lion, and I’d never know until it pounced for my throat. But somehow I feel relatively safe in this environment, despite how spooky it is. The prospect of being mauled to death by wild animals on the Appalachian Trail is roughly the equivalent of getting on a plane and fearing a fatal crash. It would be illogical to worry about something so unlikely. Out here hikers worry about the weather, or how far the next water source is.
I find myself running through the same thoughts over and over, singing the same songs over and over in my head, plotting when to cook my next freeze dried meal, my next day of rest, or what I’ll do when I finally return home. Sometimes I miss my life before the trail. I’ll miss being around my family and friends, martial arts training, I’ll even miss working in the Costco bakery, of all things. When I was back home, I would think about how exhilarating it would be on the trail, in a mountainous wilderness, and I would long for the moment when I would finally set off. And now that I’m here, I miss home. I suppose it’s normal, perhaps a fault of being human. It always seems to be that when we’re in it, whether it be school, work, or what have you, we don’t want it. We reach for something we don’t have, or we’d rather be somewhere else. Then when it’s gone, whatever we thought we didn’t need, we begin to miss it. We relish the memory of it nostalgically.
This has been a vital lesson the trail has taught me; honor the present. Even if you’re having a miserable day, make the most of it. Take it all in, every external stimulus provided by your environment in each passing moment. Appreciating the little things goes a long way.
I don’t want to allow myself to be bogged down by incessant planning and plotting, because eventually I’ll look back and realize that’s all I ever did; set goals, became complacent, and eventually uninspired in realizing them. The present moment is all we have, and we should cherish it. Spend less time planning and more time acting, moving forward, and achieving what we set out to do. I feel as though I would look back and be much happier if I spent more time in the present moment actually going for it, instead of dwelling on the past and preparing for the future in a vain attempt to control things that aren’t presently occurring.
We would hike seventeen miles in the pouring rain going into the lowly town of Erwin, Tennessee. There was no way to avoid the downpour this time. But quite honestly, it wasn’t so bad. The forest inundated with rainfall was a lovely aesthetic, and appreciating it’s beauty was entirely unplanned. I was cold and soaking wet, but I felt honored to experience it.
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