Song of the Open Road
Halfway up Springer Mountain I walked up on a man lying flat on his back in the middle of the Approach Trail. At first I wondered if the man was dead, but he shifted slightly on the ground. He looked to be about fifty years old and wore new hiking clothes. Beside him was a clean backpack fresh from a softer life. He did not appear bloodied or otherwise injured. I asked him if he was okay, and he laughed and said, “Not exactly, but I’ll be fine. I just get tired and have to rest.” The man struggled to sit up, but he did finally, and leaned on his pack. We spoke amicably for a few minutes. Like me, he was attempting to thru hike the Appalachian Trail– if he could get there. We had both come eight miles from Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia on the nine mile Approach Trail. The first white blaze would be at the top of Springer Mountain. At that moment, shoulders sore under my heavy pack and my feet throbbing, I felt pretty stupid to have quit my job (which had included a proper office) to go on a fool adventure. Now I stood over another fool. At least I was still on my feet. The man assured me he would see me at the top.
The trees were bare. Late February had brought a little sun but too little heat to the north Georgia mountains. Still, above freezing temperatures and no precipitation makes for ideal hiking weather. I kept moving and kept warm. At the summit of Springer Mountain I found the first white blaze and the bronze plaque marking the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. There were two day hikers, locals, drinking a twelve pack of beer. They had finished off most of it already. One guy inadvertently blew cigarette smoke in my face as I stood there panting and sweating and then asked me, “You want a beer, man?” I had quit drinking years before; smoking more recently. “No thanks, man,” I said, and feeling a little underwhelmed by drunks and a hazy view, not to mention exhausted and hungry, I walked the short distance to Springer Mountain shelter, where I would spend the night.
There was a hiker in her sixties already at the shelter. She talked about her plans for a flip flop thru hike. I set up my bed roll, made pasta, ate and cleaned up my supper. I signed the shelter book and jotted some notes on the day in my journal. By then it was dark, but two young guys had shown up and made a fire. There was still no sign of the man I’d seen lying on the ground halfway up Springer. Everybody had passed him. The woman in her sixties had actually seen him upright earlier in the day. We all wondered if he had set up camp further where we’d found him last. We stood around the fire for a while. I read the following section of a Walt Whitman poem which is etched in a rock on the Appalachian Trail as it passes through the Bear Mountain Zoo in New York:
Song of the Open Road
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient,
do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)
In the morning, I discovered the man lying on the trail had arrived in the night while we slept. The older woman rolled her eyes while rest of us took in a long, lazy breakfast and talked. She packed up swiftly and disappeared into the woods. I never saw her again. The older man told us that he had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and subsequently retired from the Navy. He had dreamed of hiking the Appalachian Trail for years, and despite attacks that left him unable at times to move at all, he felt hopeful he could work around his illness. One hellish day on the Approach Trail had convinced him his plan was doomed. He looked in decent shape for a man his age but the man sounded utterly dejected. Upon discovering he had cell phone service, he called ca cab. He packed up and hiked out. The man’s story had struck me– maybe quitting my job at age thirty six wasn’t such a bad idea. I was the last hiker out of the shelter. I spent a while alone on the mountain listening to the wind.
The AT descends from Springer to a Forest Service Road. It’s not far. When I arrived, the man slung his pack into a cab. I was surprised that a cab would pick someone up in the woods along an unpaved mountain road, but apparently many ill conceived long hikes end that way. The two young guys, who had waited with him, saw the man off with me. He had tears running down his cheeks. We waved as the cab rumbled down the gravel. We were all solemn and quiet for a moment. Then I started walking toward Maine again. A half hour later, listening to the crows in the gloomy Georgia woods, I forgot about the man for a long time.
Later that summer I came upon the statue of Walt Whitman in New York and the words of “Song of the Open Road.” I had come over a thousand miles. I had come through snow and ice, cold rain and hot sun. I had met so many hikers and locals, climbed so many mountains, saw so many towns and fields, saw so many creatures and wonders. I had wandered the open road! And I would wander on to Katahdin! I remembered then, in the muggy New York heat, my first day on the trail months before. I remembered the man we put in the cab. I wondered what had happened to him, and thought how unfairly his illness had appeared. I thought, also, how fortunate I was to still be walking north on the trail. I did not miss my office now, not one bit.
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