Progress On The Path
Some hikers harbor trail names that lead you to contemplate on how they earned them. Some give you the impression that they gave themselves that trail name. Sometimes you hear them introduce themselves and you immediately recognize why they hold that title. Tarzan was one of those guys. He had long brown hair that reached down to his chest, and had a slender, athletic frame to match his mastery of the thousand mile stare. He began his hike of the Appalachian Trail with Sundance, as they were good friends who graduated from the Recreation and Park Administration Program from Eastern Kentucky University together. I became acquainted with them both in The Smokies, and we hung out at the Magnolia Mountain Inn in Hot Springs after the exit of that great national forest. Tarzan eventually fell behind when our groups coalesced after the hike out of Hot Springs. He stridently kept up with us for well over a week while nursing several lingering injuries until they eventually got the better of him, forcing him to rest. Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel in Erwin, Tennessee was that place, and it marked the last time we’d see him until after Trail Days. While we were off partying in Damascus, he was hiking with an iron will to catch us. His timing was near perfection, as he arrived at our campsite just outside of Bland just as we were returning from our long weekend of binge drinking.
My face lit up with excitement upon realizing his return. I hadn’t really gotten the chance to get to know him too well for the brief time he was with us, but I held a tremendous amount of respect for him. Hiking with shin splints and a damaged knee isn’t easy. Whenever I asked him about his injuries, he offered succinct responses of keen optimism. He seemed to know he would have to fall behind eventually, as he did, but not for a moment did he ever hint at a desire to abandon the hike. His quiet toughness was admirable. I looked over at Sundance, who was smiling brightly upon seeing his friend return. We welcomed him back and asked about his travels between sharing stories of our own.
Our group of goons was now fairly large, six of us in total, Muffin Man, Sundance, Q tip, Scarecrow, Tarzan, and myself. It felt good being around these people, the dynamic was a fine balance between raunchy humor and serious determination to push one another to their limits. I was still the slowest starter in the morning, but my pace was fast enough to allow me catch up to them usually by mid afternoon. Until that time, it’s just me and the thoughts that shape my mood that morning.
I look down on the trail in front of me as I walk, sometimes because it helps me think, other times because it helps me maneuver over the rocky terrain. I tend to lose my footing whenever I gaze ahead for too long. The sounds of chipmunks and lizards scurrying away into bushes or piles of fallen leaves as I pass usually catches my eye. The sound of a grouse taking flight catches my ear, and I feel enlightened that I can actually recognize the powerful rumbling sound of it taking flight. For at least the first two months of being on the trail, I would hear a deep humming, starting slowly and then increasing it’s tempo rapidly until it faded away into the ambience of the woods. The source of this mysterious sound eluded Muffin Man and I for weeks on end. Several times a week, we would hear it penetrating the quietness of the woods, and we’d stop suddenly to face each other with eyes widened, then we’d look around frantically in a attempted to calculate the direction of it. We pondered what it could be endlessly, as we always heard the grouse taking flight without ever actually seeing it. I even conjectured it could’ve been an earthquake at one point, which is rather embarrassing considering it just an oversized chicken flapping it’s wings. When we finally found out that the source of this powerful hum was in fact only a bird, we were perplexed. How could an animal of that size make such a bellowing, mighty, sound? Now that we were enlightened, it was nice to be able to hear the bird taking flight without stopping dead in our tracks to look around in horror, not knowing what the source of such an uncanny sound could be.
The sun shines brightly on the ground below as I walk, reflecting and smiling to myself. I can see my shadow over to my right, and I observe it curiously. Then suddenly the shadow of an American Crow flying overhead darts across the sun covered path. I look up and see the bird gracefully gliding as the wind carries him east. It’s beautiful to observe the wind by seeing how tree branches sway and vigorously change direction in space. It’s as if the wind allows the branches and their leaves to move and jockey for sunlight, dependent on it for movement. This thought led me to think about the symbiotic relationships found all over the forest, from bees and the flowers they pollinate, to the fauna that feast on the flora only to eventually die, becoming fertilizer for the flora that once supported them. This symbiosis can be extrapolated further to help explain the nature of everything. Simply put, everything connects.
Think about the forest as a great machine with many moving parts. Think about the role mycelium plays in this great machine. Without mycelium, the fungi wouldn’t be able to absorb nutrients from the soil, and they wouldn’t be able to sustain an existence, and neither would the forest for that matter. Well, what is Mycelium exactly? It’s an essential part of the fungi that allows it to eat. It is the primary means of fungi and flora alike in consuming and utilizing nutrients. How does it allow fungi to eat? Mycelium releases the enzymes necessary for the consumption of these nutrients. Without the production of these necessary enzymes, the energy in the nutrients can’t be broken down. In other words, nothing eats. Trees wouldn’t grow without this process. Mycelium manifests as a branching cobweb of hyphae, which are the filamentous structures observable in fungi(microscopes may help with this observation). Picturing it as a branching network of intertwining webs helps me think it in a more tangible way.
It plays an invaluable role in keeping this machine moving, contributing to all organic processes in the soil, acting as a vector for all nutrient consumption, and the eventual release of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere after the nutrients are broken down. This vital role mycelium plays in the carbon cycle makes all life on Earth sustainable. Take mycelium out of the equation, and Earth as we know it doesn’t exist; remove one cog and the entire machine collapses. These implications extend even further when thinking about the role other cogs play. Take a couple animals out of the food chain and the balance is indelibly and dramatically shifted. All the pieces have an indifferent purpose, and all represent a particular balance that we can observe all around us. It’s an honor to be able to exist in this space, one that caters to our possible existence.
The more we come to know about our world, the more we feel apart of it. Whatever we’re learning, we think about it’s meaning in relation to us. What does this shit have to do with me anyways? We think about how it influences us, and our place in relation to it. I think that’s one of the most incredible things ever, whether you’re learning about the sciences, history, or art, we see it through the lens of our own psyche, connecting us to our world more intimately with each new learning experience. Knowing this makes me want to embrace each moment I’m alive and breathing as fully as possible. Whenever I feel bored or unenthusiastic about the day, I try to harken back to these thoughts, hoping they’ll guide me away from boredom and into the inspiration that can be found in the beauty that surrounds me.
I continue to hike until I stumble upon my friends at a spring, drinking the fresh spring water and conversing amongst one another. “Hey guys!” I call with a predictable grin. “Romeo. Where art thou Romeo?” Q tip shouts poetically as I’m walking up the path. I take off my pack and sit down by the stream to fill up on water with them. It’s a good day to be alive, I think to myself as I share a conversation with my friends about what lies ahead on our journey north.
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