Thoughtful in Vermont
Just south of the town of West Hartford, Vermont, at the top of a mile long climb from the road, sits a small bench. The words “Relax and enjoy” are carved there. In front of the bench is a beautiful view, and I could see the trees starting to disrobe from their summer affair and slowly putting on their finest fall gowns. My heart and mind are filled with indecision and frustration though.
I’ve been struggling the last few weeks with the decision of whether or not to continue with my hike. Issues at home both for family and friends, and well as personal concerns and drives have arisen that leave me questioning if this is really where I’m supposed to be. I should say, this has nothing to do with the Trail itself. I can honestly say I have never enjoyed hiking so much as I have these last few weeks. Vermont in the fall is an absolutely magical place. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so completely at home as I have here. The trail goes over beautiful grassy hills and along wide open fields. Almost every street crossing has some small farm store, holding dear treasures of fresh cheeses and organic sodas that taste like they come directly from Olympus itself.
I don’t think I’ll ever have words to describe how wonderful it is to be hiking along and have a fresh apple hit you in the face because the tree is right next to the trail and the fruit has ripened and is heavily weighing its branch down, seemingly just to make sure you can reach out and enjoy it. The sun is shining bright above you in an open rolling blue sky, and the trail gently waves away in the distance. When we talk about trail magic, this is probably the most glaring example of just how wonderful it can be.
So how does one make this kind of decision? I think I’ve explained before that for me, the decision to come out to the Appalachian Trail was based first and foremost as a spiritual decision made through a process of prayer and what is typically referred to as discernment. This initial process involved not just praying alone, but also researching the trail itself, and several conversations with friends, most of whom had no idea what I was considering, who said things that helped me ascertain exactly what I was to do. I had one friend who told me the story of her trip to Africa and how it had changed her life, then transitioned to telling me how I needed to go on my own journey. Another friend at a prayer meeting at church began to tell me that God was calling me to go over mountains and valleys. The fact that this person did not know I was considering the AT, had never spoken about it with home before, nor had even told him I was considering a life change at all made this particularly impactful.
But ultimately, such things can easily be explained away. Life advice to take a journey is not necessarily specific, particularly when germaine to the conversation at hand, and poetic descriptions of mountains and valleys are not necessarily unheard of in the prayer life. These are all common themes and motifs that one may find anywhere, but taken as a whole context, for me they began to be decisively pointed. There was still however room for faith in such a decision. I was interpreting these signs and motivations through my own personal lens. What’s more, I firmly felt at the time that I was only being an indication to “go” but nothing about how it was to end. For all I knew, I’d get to Springer and break my leg the next day.
So all of this has been kicking around in my head and heart while I’m wandering out here. Again, I cannot stress enough how perfect northern Vermont in the fall is if you need to think. I have had some excellent moments of contemplation going over hills. Climbs that are just steep enough to get you working out, but not so hard to leave you begging for home. I don’t precisely look forward to town the way I did in New Hampshire. A shower and bed are nice and all, but I have had some amazing nights sleeping in a lonesome wood, a thick bed of leaves under my tent providing more cushion than anything Thermorest could manufacture. Wildlife has apparently picked up on my mood, the squirrels and chipmunks are actively running around as much as my thoughts.
My pace has slowed to a near crawl simply because I keep finding myself in spots that don’t invite me to sit and rest in my ruminations, but rather demand that I do so. You find these places a sense of the genius loci, a spirit of the being of the location, and you can’t help but feel a connection that both anchors you but also lets you fly a bit. I may not hike more than a handful of miles, but I can’t help but sense that I’m traveling far more than I would if I simply lowered my head, gritted my teeth, and pounded on.
In the end, the decision will come to me. I have no doubt that I will find the opportunity to continue reveling in the trail in the meantime. As I do, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming gratitude and humility for where I am. It’s been 1,486.3 miles, but it feels like so much more.
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