A skinny eleven-year-old with a sixty-pound backpack
boarded a borrowed school bus in flat Ohio
for a week along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina.
I don’t know if we left on Friday night or Saturday
or even Sunday afternoon, though we spent part
of one hot morning observing how tires are retread
after one of our own had gone flat
and took a side excursion in morning rain
along a rocky pathway to Chimney View
to look down on the horseshoe bend
and Linville Falls far-off in the gorge
before hitting the Appalachian Trail itself.
We’d already lost our pricey freeze-dried food
to theft at a Scouting exhibition
(trustworthy, honest, honorable)
and were now outfit with heavier canned goods.
What I do remember –
clouds drifting through morning forest
as we began ascending,
trekking single file in the sun
through a high meadow,
pushing on when the spring
listed in the guidebook was instead
tangled over in a thorny thicket,
having to backtrack on one of the bald summits
when we lost the sequence of cairn markers
in a whiteout,
a long rocky descent to the valley
to cross a country highway
and a quick treat (candy, a soda)
at a general store before turning off
on a dirt road in toward the mountains,
a long porch on a small rustic farmhouse
behind a twiggy fence and gate
all covered in morning glory,
a lone barn in tall grasses beside woodlands
where we our upsweep resumed.
It seemed we were always staggering uphill
“Nobody hikes the AT in that direction!”
even for a week.
To end up at Roan Mountain, 6,285-foot elevation
rolling off into open highlands in full bloom,
my first memory of rhododendron
hundreds of bushes across its rounded green crest:
the natural alpine catawba rhododendron gardens
amid moss, heather, and scattered pine.
That night we slept on plush needles
our square tarps no longer pitched
in the traditional double-triangle
(three corners pegged down,
the fourth strung to a branch or trunk,
leaving the face of the tent open)
but as a fantasy of box pavilions
and geometric inventions.
This medieval fair in a tawny grove
lacked only musicians and jousting.
I have no recollection of what we ate
or the reason for our pack-free trek the next day
down the switchback highway
blasted through rock face
to town and traffic.
The relentless punctuation, all the same,
of repeated cloudbursts
on our return.
I escaped the first deluge
by jumping defiantly against a cliff wall
in the horizontally-driven rain
but got drenched the next round.
In the campground, our flat-topped creations
caved under rainwater.
All the make-believe stood trashed.
Sleeping bags, saturated.
Any feasting, turned sullen.
There are lessons I retain:
pack light –
don’t backtrack needlessly –
keep your socks, butt, and sleeping bag dry –
rely on perseverance and effort to get anywhere worthwhile –
trust your guides, maps, and guidebooks
in their fallible realities –
give thanks for cool pure water –
head out in the anticipation of encountering no one else
for hours or days
but be cordial to all you chance upon
along your pathway –
cherish mountain air and sunlight –
find in the wilderness a renewed gratitude for home
To continue, click here.