Your New Hiker Correspondent: Reflections On 2020 and the Call of the Applachians

Picture by Laura B Photography.

It was 12:05 AM on New Year’s Day. I had briefly stepped away from my home desk to walk out on my front porch. Wrapped in a warm fleece blanket and sipping on a cup of Darjeeling, I leaned on the corner column next to the old porch swing, staring out across the street into the dimly lite parking lot of the looming, brick, Methodist church as a small, black, stray cat scampered along the asphalt and into the darkness. Its eyes flickered momentarily before vanishing into the shadows.

The air was brisk, but not frigid, as might be expected on an early January morning in Northeast Tennessee. Dew had already collected on the leaves of grass in the yard, and a mist had wandered in, settling on the street, bathed in the muted light of lamps lining the sidewalk. It was a quiet and inviting neighborhood, located within the historic district of Johnson City, nestled between the local university and the downtown district, close enough to walk to, but just far enough away to be out of earshot.

On an ordinary New Year’s Day, you might still expect to hear the distant sound of cheers and howls emerging from the numerous bars, clubs, and music venues ringing in the new year. Instead, the faint sound of a light breeze whispered in the wind, as if the world had taken a deep breath and all at once, exhaled a collected sigh of relief.

2020 was a year that felt like a lifetime and yet seemingly passed in the blink of an eye. Like every year prior, we entered it wide-eyed with wonder and promise with newfound resolve and ambition. In the end, we were dragging ourselves across the proverbial finish line into the next one; tired, weary, and perhaps a bit apprehensive. With the onset of the global pandemic, the past year was one without festivals, without cruises, without parades, and without flights to far-off island getaways to sit on beaches sipping fruity mixed drinks with tiny little umbrellas, living our best lives. No Bonnaroo. No 4th of July Celebration at Freedom Hall. No Oktoberfest!? Our attempts to curtail the spread of Covid-19 left us divided, bewildered, but even more so left us feeling isolated and alone.

I was staring beyond the porch into the night, but my gaze had landed on inward thoughts, memories, and reflections. It had been a difficult year for many. In droves, businesses had been shuttered, some permanently. Unemployment began to skyrocket. Hospitals began to fill up and sadly, so did the morgues. By the end of the year, Covid-19 had stifled a growing economy and the death toll was approaching 500,000 in the US, alone. It felt as if the world had been turned upside down, and every day, across every channel and in every newspaper, we were constantly reminded of the direness and bleakness of our circumstances. And it wasn’t just Covid-19. Every month seemed to bring forth some sort of new traumatic event, whether it was the death of someone admired, or some sort of cataclysmic event such as a wildfire, a city-decimating explosion, or the introduction of some invasive species (can you say murder hornets?).

As for me, though? Honestly, I felt somewhat fortunate. I had been largely shielded from the impacts of what was occurring around the world. When many people were losing their jobs and livelihoods, I remained at the financial institution of which I had been employed for over 8 years. I was comfortable, financially secure, and lived in a nice apartment in a peaceful neighborhood. My best friend, Alex, lived directly above me. We would often sit outside to catch up with one another, laying in hammocks in the front yard while sipping on hard seltzers as we watched the world and its worries pass. There were plenty of wonderful people that I shared my life with, and we were often diligent to stay in touch, even given the circumstances, adhering to safety precautions as much as possible. I was still able to do my photography to some extent, and I enjoyed frequent trips into the woods, providing me an escape from the hustle and bustle of ordinary life. In all honesty, 2020 was a great year for me.

Though while I had been largely shielded from those tragic losses incurred by so many others due to the global pandemic, my family would experience its own loss early in the year. In January, while I was walking into the office, I would receive a phone call from my stepmother. It was my nephew, Gunner. Early that morning, Gunner had been rushed to the hospital after experiencing severe pain in his chest at school, and sadly, he had passed.

He would be laid to rest next to his mother, on a snowy Saturday afternoon on a hillside overlooking the small town of Roan Mountain. Gunner had been a nephew with whom I had developed a strong connection, as we had both lost our mothers at similar points in our lives- in our early teens and near Christmas Day. His mother, Joy, had passed just 6 years prior while giving birth to his little sister, Hannah. I had felt a strong obligation to be there for him when I could, as it would’ve been the same thing I would’ve desired at his age. He was only 17. The whole world was ahead of him, and just like that, he was gone.

Death is certainly an inevitability, but it still has a tendency to shock and leave those that remain to carry on searching for consolation and meaning. For myself at the time, it just felt pointless. There wasn’t any meaning to be derived out of Gunner’s death. It simply transpired and eventually, it would happen to us all. I suppose my initial reaction had been to dull the pain for myself as much as I possibly could so that I could be strong for both my stepmother and father, who had born the burden of having to bury a daughter and now a grandson.

It wouldn’t be until June that I would begin to contemplate further on Gunner’s passing. It was a Sunday afternoon and I had just signed off from work early. Wanting to unwind for a bit, I started the bathtub water and laid down until all but my head was submerged in the steaming water. It had been a particularly stressful day at work, but I couldn’t for the life of me begin to tell you why. To be completely honest, it just felt like any other day- monotonous and tiresome. For having sat in an office chair for 6 hours, it seemed strange to feel physically fatigued and exhausted, as if I had spent a day laying casted iron pipe into the ground. For a moment, I thought of sleep. I didn’t wish to dream though, just to close my eyes and well, not do anything at all. Even dreaming seemed to require too much work and effort. No, I wanted to lay suspended in the black weightlessness of unconsciousness.

How easy would it be to just simply not worry about anything at all? Working in the world of global finance was stressful in nature, but so did everything else seem to be, as well. The world in its current state seemed just as, if not more intense and tumultuous. And here I was, so fortunate and privileged, wanting to just tune out and turn off.

“Maybe next year will be different,” I uttered to myself.

As soon as it left my mouth, I began to wonder. “Jesus, how many times have I said that?” Sure, things would often change, like the car I was driving or the furniture I was buying, but was it enough? I had a savings account, a 401k, a steady income, a roof over my head- It wasn’t a matter of what I had, but what I was doing with what I had. My mind immediately went back to Gunner. So young, so much potential. Gunner was immensely intelligent and had a knack for creativity. He thrived in academia and had a love for history. He could’ve been anything he wanted to be.

It didn’t seem that long ago that I had the same thoughts regarding my own future. “You can be whatever you want to be. The world is your oyster.” At the age of 31, was life everything I expected it to be? Was I utilizing my every resource to pursue those greater ideals that embodied my innermost being? If so, why did I feel so… lost?

I decided that I needed to go for a walk. I dried off, got dressed, and walked down to the local park. It had just rained and the clouds had parted just enough to allow a few sparse rays of light. A cool and comfortable breeze carried the fresh and lively scent of summer blossoms and freshly cut grass. I would take a brief pause at one of the park benches not too far away from the amphitheater, close my eyes, and take a slow, deep breath.

Eventually, my anxieties subsided and I returned home. Alex had just pulled up along the street in front of the house.

“Hey, want a Truly?” She tossed a hard seltzer my way as we sat on the porch steps at home.

As the week progressed, that very seed that had planted itself into my mind had begun to grow into a vine and spread like wild kudzu. Work was becoming increasingly difficult to focus on as I felt further and further disconnected from my duties and obligations. I had never intended on working in the world of finance. Hell, I studied psychology when I was in college. Why was I issuing lines of credit for businesses, and to have been doing this for 8 years now? 8 years I had been making plans to get out and start anew, but those plans always got pushed back. There was always an excuse, a justification to the continual monotony that had overall, left me tremendously unfulfilled. I felt like I had squandered so much time, time that had been allotted to me that wasn’t granted to others. Time that wasn’t granted to Gunner.

If at the blink of an eye my life were to end and if it were to be examined in its whole, would I be able to say that I was fulfilled in the end? Did I, at the very least, try, succeed, and/or fail in those dreams I had held in such high regard as to pursue them to their fullest extent. Would the cup that held the waters of my life be pouring from the brim? Would it be empty, or perhaps half full? Did those things in which I invested large portions of my life and time toward move me closer to achieving those personal goals?

The truth of the matter was that I had conned myself. I had convinced myself into a way of life that provided me complacency, but not satisfaction. I desired something more, but it wasn’t going to simply just fall out of the sky and land in my lap. I had to seize the opportunity and make it happen for myself.

Photo by Laura B Photography.

“Time and tide wait for no man.”

For all intents and purposes, I was born and raised along the Appalachian Trail in the Roan Highlands of Northeast Tennessee. From my parents’ house, the trail was just a short walk down the old gravel road. Over the years, people would share tales of thru-hikers embarking on that epic pilgrimage spanning 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine. It was a test of will and endurance. For those that completed the journey: adventure, renewed purpose, or perhaps a spiritual awakening awaited them.

Growing up, I didn’t quite share the enthusiasm for the outdoors that my father did. I would’ve rather have been in front of the tv playing video games. However, in my teenage years, when I was full of angst and frustration, the trail was often where I wandered off in order to get away from my anxieties. After my first year of college, it would be where I’d go to clear my thoughts and quiet my mind, and after work on weekends, more often than not, the Appalachian wilderness would be where I’d go to escape the stress of work. It had become my personal sanctuary, my temple- the trail the aisle, the fallen trees its pews, and the tree canopy the ceilings of my cathedral.

And now here I was, feeling the trail calling to me, beckoning me to take my place amongst those that were bold and crazy enough to make the arduous journey, traversing 14 states across mountains, valleys, forests, and rivers, passing through numerous towns and meeting many new people. I felt fairly competent in backpacking. I knew how to navigate through forests when I needed to and had partaken in a few multi-day excursions into the outdoors, whether it be camping, rock climbing, or just hunting for some waterfall or mountain vista overlook. However, I also knew that this would be unlike any trip that I had sought to endeavor upon into the wild. It was a daunting task. In some aspects, frightening. To do so would mean that I would be leaving behind every comfort that I had come to know: job security, a roof over my head, the familiarity of a town that I called home- I would be giving up all these things to brave the trail for over half a year. Would I rediscover my passion for life? Would I find newfound meaning and purpose? Was this absolutely insane?

Picture by Steven Gibson.

Possibly all of the above, but the fact remained that I would never know unless I chose to finally take that first step. What I did know was that I was immensely dissatisfied with what I was currently doing and to continue down that path was simply unsustainable for my personal well-being.

And now, here I was, on the doorstep of a new year, knowing that in a little under 4 months that I would be embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. So much uncertainty lied ahead, but for once, I was okay with it. For the first time in years, I felt free. A new world of possibilities seemed to have opened up for me, and through the good and the bad, I would embrace them.

Having drunk my tea, I returned inside my home and sat at my desk. I stared at my computer screen, revising and finalizing my formal letter of resignation to my boss. I took a deep breath, hit the send button to my manager’s email, and exhaled a sigh of relief. At this point, there was no turning back. My first step had now officially been taken.

Hi, my name is Perry Winters, and together we shall hike the Appalachian Trail.

Photo by Gregg Searles.

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Comments 6

  • Avatar
    Jeannina : May 2nd

    Wow, it’s like I was right there with you. Thank you for sharing part of your story. Can’t wait to hear more!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sammy : May 2nd

    This article was more than a journey. It was a window of understanding, truth, and sincerity. Beautifully written, and much needed in a time like today. Thank you for sharing and even more appreciative for you willing to take the journey so many of us are scared to confront.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Linda B : May 3rd

    Wow! Great writing and beautiful story. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to following you along the trail.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Kathy Whitehead : May 3rd

    So proud of you Perry. You have started a dream and making it come true. Stay true to yourself. Loved the article!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Janet Jhanel Shipley : May 5th

    Awesome Article and Photos! Continued prayers for you on your journey

    Reply

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