Are you backpacking?
A lady outfitted with Bermuda shorts, white tennis shoes and wide eyes asked the question as we passed on the trail leading over Round Bald on the Tennessee/North Carolina border.
Her husband, nifty in his own Bermuda shorts, didn’t say a thing. By the sharp look and raised eyebrow he cast my way, I’m guessing he was about to ask, “What the hell are you doing out here? And why?”
I was wrestling with the same question, and I wasn’t winning. It was an octopus, harassing me with too many arms, and I was trying to fight it off while hauling what felt like two tons on my back.
The question of what I’m doing – and why — always dogs my backpacking trips. Head out into the woods hauling 50 pounds on your back, camp in the rain, swallow as many insects as food with dinner, sleep on the hard ground, listen to strange things outside your tent in the black night, get as dirty as you’ve been since you were six and played in the mud all day. Why, in heaven’s name?
This time, going on five months into a fuzzy, confusing new life status – laid-off, career-transitioning, retired, semi-retired??? — the tentacles of doubt were wickedly persistent.
I was seeking something out there in the woods, but exactly what it was, I really didn’t know.
With a lot of time to think about things – precisely one of the things I was trying to get away from – I tried to cast the trip in high-flown intellectual/spiritual terms. I recalled Emerson, vaguely, from the college lit classes I had taken 30 years ago.
Back in the 1830’s, he started a movement called Transcendentalism. This was years before the Beatles ever met Guru Maharishi. (Emerson actually studied Buddhism, but there are no reports of him taking up the sitar or levitating.) His insights prompted his friend Henry David Thoreau to take to the Massachusetts woods and live in a shack for a year. In my funk, that sounded good to me.
Emerson went on to break with the organized religion of his day – another plus in my book – declaring dogma a hindrance to what he saw as the need for a solitary search for meaning. He believed the universe was joined by one central force that coursed through everything, and that awareness of this force was available to anybody, with no need for priests or written admonitions.
There are no reports of Emerson doing a lot of recreational drugs; his appeared to be a “natural” high. Sure enough, he praised what he called “nature,” although he probably did not mean exactly what we would today. “Tree-hugger” isn’t the first image that comes to mind when Emerson’s name is invoked. If you’ve read some of his poetry, well, it’s a product of its times, perhaps a bit stuffy by today’s standards, but certainly classical. I find an easier kinship with Neil Young, but I still can see what Emerson was getting at. He praised the virtue of spending time alone in the unspoiled woods, and that fit the immediate needs of my hike. I would go forth into the wilderness seeking deep truths and profundities, a word Jon Stewart could probably get a lot of mileage out of.
Well, the profundities proved elusive.
Backpacking, simply put, is miserable, or at least it almost always starts out that way for me. After a mile or so, like always, an uncomfortable burn from the backpack’s straps flared in my hips and shoulders and soon became a deep ache. Instead of inspired, I was irritated. I had entered an alluring dark tunnel overhung by mighty trees in deep forest, but soon I was stumbling like a blind monk over rocks and roots only half visible in the subdued light. Later, when I broke out onto a bald under a blazing sun, I sweated buckets and cursed the drops that kept sticking to my glasses. The thin reed of trail was overgrown at ankle-height by grasses that obscured the tread in places. Just as I’d work up a nice pace I’d suddenly stumble on a hidden rock.
And the mountains, for all their glory, were punishing. I huffed and puffed and strained, pausing at times during particularly steep climbs to heave air like a sprinter at the end of a grueling, mid-distance race. My pack, stuffed with all the gizmos I couldn’t bear to leave behind, was killing me. Sometimes I’d gasp for a spell, finally recovering enough to raise my head, only to feel my heart cave as yet another stretch of trail climbed at just as steep an angle, disappearing out of sight around a far-off bend.
Emerson’s almost as big an idiot as me, I told myself. I’m not getting any enlightenment out of this torture.
But I resisted the urge to give up. Somewhere along the line I recalled reading a book about hiking and the joys of the woods, and the author warned that there is no way to get into shape for carrying a heavy backpack other than by carrying a heavy backpack, preferably up steep inclines. The first two or three days are almost always misery, he wrote, so just stick with it. Eventually your body will adapt, the hiking will get easier, the pain will subside or become manageable, and rewards will start surfacing, popping up along the trail like hidden treasures.
And that’s just what happened, although it took some time. On the third day I was still beat and bruised, still battling the octopus. On impulse, I dumped the heavy pack behind a rock, slipped on a light day pack with food, water and rain gear, and hiked several miles out to another peak and back. Dropping the weight by 75 percent was a wonderful release and my spirits soared. The next morning I loaded up and attacked a 1,000-foot climb with the full rig and found my step surprisingly limber and energetic. What’s more, I transferred my point-and-shoot camera to a pocket in my shorts where I could grab it in a few seconds, instead of buried someplace deep in my pack. Suddenly I started seeing remarkable things everywhere around me, and even if I failed at capturing most of them with the camera, I completely forgot about the grind of those pack straps.
The morning light was fantastic, slanting through the spruce and fir trees, turning sections of the trail into dazzling contrasts of light and shadow. Intensely green mosses matted ancient weathered rocks. Tangles of roots criss-crossing the dark trail leaped out in bright pools of light, transforming themselves from obstacles into pleasing geometric shapes. An old stump, overturned years ago by some mountain gale, looked like a Medusa’s head. Slivers of blue sky visible through the palisade of tree trunks took on impossibly deep hues.
Later that day I stumbled onto a wide-open expanse of bald at 5,000 feet. An outcrop of weathered boulders surfaced out of the thick grass carpet, and a few scraggly trees next to the rocks offered just enough shelter to make an inviting spot for pitching a tent. I did that, boiled water for a freeze-dried dinner, sipped a bit of wine, and felt, as the evening fell, an immense silence envelope me. I was miles from the nearest car, house, road or anything man-made. The silence grew until it seemed as deep as the ocean, broken only by the rhythm of my breath and heart-beat. Silence so profound, extending for miles in all directions, is one of the rarest things left in our world.
I know that climbing a mountain seeking enlightenment is a tired cliché, and you can probably find the same thing just going to a bar and getting sloppy drunk. But I can’t abide the hangovers.
It was probably just a mild hallucination brought on by exhaustion, but as I sat on those boulders and surveyed the terrain, I somehow eased into a state that allowed that silence to work a bit of magic. It quieted my thoughts, reducing me to something of a placid, equal participant in the beauty of that fading afternoon. An owl down on the edge of the woods hooted, and the simple call seemed almost other-worldly. A group of coyotes pierced the dusk silence with a shrill chorus of howls, but then almost immediately stopped. A doe hissed a warning, half-hidden over the rise at the top of the bald, and the perky ears of her two fawns just visible on the horizon’s brim bobbed, then disappeared. But mostly there was absolute silence. I felt rooted to that rock, my butt and legs and back joined by gravity to the earth’s center. I was riding the planet as it spun. The rest of me felt marvelously borderless, my torso somehow merging into the deepening sky, the light shafting over the clouds and the endless lines of mountains that stretched to the horizon.
Emerson would be labeled a New Age guru these days, setting up shop with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and probably going on “Oprah” with that mousy little guy who wrote “The Power of Now.” But there’s a thread in what he writes, in what all of them write, that works for me. It turned an otherwise aimless trip into the woods into something of a transcendental experience. It took away definitions and demarcations of time, worry, ambition, ego, and replaced them with a different sense of being, a connection to something I think is more lasting than the ways we’ve chosen to filter our perceptions and define ourselves and the world that surrounds us.
And that, as the wag says, with two bucks will get you a cup of coffee.
Two days later I was back in the drive-thru line at Taco Bell, incensed at something some boneheaded politician was proposing on the radio, worried by bills and uncertainties, light years away from my reverie on that bald. But that fleeting moment remains, and it’s within potential grasp again, although it seems to take both effort and mindful letting-go to catch it. Maybe it isn’t necessary to go through the rigors of a backpack trip to get it. But I’m guessing Emerson’s ghost might still be shifting around somewhere up there in the evening fog, waiting for a visitor. Who knows, maybe he and Neil Young are swapping lines of poetry.
Photos by Mike Williams. From top:
Sunset from Beartown Mountain
View of balds and Roan Mountain from Little Hump Mountain
Birch tree roots on a rock, Beartown Mountain
Appalachian Trail on Roan Mountain
Sunset from Little Hump Mountain