Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Musings of a Novice Travel Writer: NYE in the Woods
Popular culture over time has taught us to believe that in order to achieve great heights, one must ascend to the highest peaks in the Himalayas or dive to the deepest depths of the sea. There is a belief that for travel to be truly adventurous, one's journey must extend across exotic and romantic locations, dipping down into fjord and across arid uninhabitable deserts and great glaciers. There is much romanticism in what is completely foreign to us, when in truth; much adventure lies much closer to home. So close in fact that it need not even be the Grand Canyon or the gushing geysers of Yellowstone National Park.
As I contemplated the life of a travel writer, I found myself, like so many others longing to spend a week on a freighter observing penguins in Antarctica or pondering evolution on the Galapagos Islands. When my editor called and gave me my first travel assignment, I was taken back when she suggested a small state park in Georgia.
I had just completed “A Walk In The Woods” by noted author Bill Bryson. The book centers on a man not particularly suited for the outdoors who decides to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. The park I found myself in just two months later served as home to the southern terminus of this legendary 2000 plus mile hike spanning all the way to Maine.
I arrived to Georgia, relatively naïve to hiking, but eager none-the-less to spend some time in the woods. It was the end of 2009, and while my tendency would usually be to ring in the New Year with friends over cocktails, this year, I was to do something different. My mandate was to trek into the woods, stay at the remote Hike Inn, accessible only by foot, and ultimately to hike to the top of Springer Mountain where the great Appalachian Trail began. More challenging than the hike itself or brutally cold and untypical weather was the fact that I would be doing it by myself.
As I set off into the woods, underneath the shivering Hardwood and Hickory Oak Trees, I began, as would be typical at the turn of a decade, to take an inventory of my life. The hike itself wasn’t particularly difficult. It was three hours to the Inn and from there, another three hours to the top of Springer Mountain. The battle was a mental one.
Because you must be a registered guest of the Hike Inn to enjoy this trail, the forest takes on a silence much different than that of a park where the trails are available to everyone. Aside from the low grown of the wind or the periodic tapping of a scavenging woodpecker, the only sounds to keep me company were my feet crunching on the dead leafs, and my breath and heartbeat, which intensified as the climb grew steeper.
Though the air was cold, the sun effortlessly danced its way through the twiggy canopy of the forest warming me as I made my way up the gentle accent deeper into the woods, creating a tapestry of shadows crisscrossing across my path and the rest of the forest floor.
Despite the mostly arid and brittle nature of the plant and tree life along the trail, upon occasion, my journey would descend into stream beds where I crossed storybook-like bridges over small waterfalls that carved their way through the leafy rhododendrons whose green foliage provided sharp contrast to the otherwise gray-blues and browns that surrounded me. A multitude of mushrooms and colorful fungi housed themselves in hollowed out trees and along the shore of the gently moving water.
The deeper I got into the woods, my personal inventory began to deepen and grow in specificity. I thought about accomplishments and I thought about failures. I thought about the two shows I had worked on that had been cancelled and contemplated that fact that somehow, miraculously I still had a job. I thought about my divorce from the previous year and the residue of a broken relationship and with each step, with each snapping of a twig underfoot, with each catching of a bramble on my shirt, it was as though those memories began to transmute themselves into a peace that rivaled that of the quiet of the woods.
After a rest at the Inn, what was one blue sky turned into a bleak gray brought in by slicing winds that raced through the trees like angry knife-wielding ghosts. Despite the warm fire and ample reading material available at the Inn, my mission was to make it to the top of the summit and so I began again, this time, warmed by a fleece neck-warmer and additional sweatshirt purchased from the Inn’s gift shop.
The cold was penetrating and the terrain became rockier. Now, as I pushed forward, my thoughts simply went away, shifting my focus to the placement of one foot in front of the other. Uplifting songs played through my head like musical mantras, my feet moving to their gentle and persuasive cadence.
The higher I went, the colder it got and the stronger the wind blew. Ground that earlier would have taken me a minutes to climb took lifetimes, though strangely, it also felt that time had stopped. The water in my water bottle froze, despite its proximity to my body.
I thought about the Internet and how in no time at all I could find pictures of the summit and accounts of the Appalachian Terminus. Accenting my misery was the fact that I had no out to express it, spare the occasional squirrel or woodpecker, so in my head my thoughts swam until they swam out.
In the final ascent, the trail winds up; tacking back and forth for what, at least that cold day seemed like an eternity. I simply wanted to get to the top. I wanted out of the woods, whose rugged beauty now, despite my emersion in it was a footnote in my experience. I pushed myself up determined to arrive so that I could get back down. I wanted to be with my family and friends. I wanted to be somewhere warm and fun and festive on this last day of the year, and yet here I was stuck in a strange state and I began to resent that mountain.
I passed a sign warning of mischievous bears that liked to dine on the food of campers as they rested for the night before beginning their three-month journey on the Appalachian Trail. A hundred yards ahead of me was the summit. I had made it.
The last steps were like walking through hot tar, slow but with the brevity that comes only with great discomfort. I made it to the top and looked out over the entire state of Georgia. A white Blaze marked the first tree of the AT. I took a picture and headed back down the mountain pondering where my next assignment would be.
I walked down a couple of hundred yards and suddenly my heart started racing. I had made it to the top and somehow I had missed it. I had turned my back on what was to be the high point of my journey, this first travel assignment, this first step in a career I had dreamed about for years, and all because in my discomfort I wanted to be someplace else. Someplace warm and familiar. As I pondered that warm familiar place, I thought of some of the conversation that would take place. Talk of adventure. Of travel and of dreams and then in that moment, I felt foolish. It was a New Year and there I had been at the high point of my journey, at one of the high points of my life and at the trailhead of one of the longest journeys a man can take…
I turned and this time ran to the top of the mountain, losing my footing and regaining only because my momentum was such that gravity couldn’t force me fall. I passed the bear sign and the white blaze and breathlessly and joyfully made it to the top of the mountain. My eyes, watery from the cold wind into which I had ran, I looked out over the mountains that I had climbed, and at the epic trail ahead of me and in that moment was grateful for every climb and every descent in my life. It wasn’t the Himalayas and but the experience was mine. It was challenging and purifying and I stood on top of my prize, eager to start a new year.