The AT is something I’ll never take for granted. I didn’t move to Western North Carolina six years to sit in my house all day. I came here to immerse myself in the never-ending natural beauty of this ancient, sacred landscape. And the AT remains one of the greatest creations by humanity, this 2,200-mile long meandering trail stretching from Georgia to Maine. And as the summer heats up, like clockwork, I’m finding myself on the AT more often. Three times in the past week, actually.
Recently, I felt frisky for a hike on the AT. Actually, I was craving it. That unrelenting urge to simply stand up at your desk and walk out the door without a word uttered to your co-workers, only to get into your car and rumble towards the mountains on the horizon. I felt that, and did that, with the truck nose aimed for Tellico Gap, an AT crossing on an s-curve road (S.R. 1365) between the Nantahala Gorge and Franklin, way off N.C. 28.
It’s approximately 1.7 miles from the AT crossing on S.R. 1365 southbound to the top of Rocky Bald. Though the trees provided shade from the sun, the air in the woods was heavy and moist. Sweat everywhere. But, it was a glorious sweat. The kind where you feel human and, most importantly, alive and in-the-moment. I stood there on top of Rocky Bald, overlooking Franklin and parts of North Georgia way down below. I wondered who was in all of those tiny buildings so far away, and also who was possibly looking in my direction from other nearby peaks. With a mindset of thankfulness for the world before me, I headed back down the trail, back to civilization.
Whenever I’m in the depths of Mother Nature, I start to recall the words of Jack Kerouac’s seminal 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, which chronicles his life and times as a joyous Buddhist Zen lunatic, running around the mountains of California and (what would later be named) the North Cascades National Park in Washington:
“The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”
By this past Saturday, I had yet another urge to get back on the AT. I was cruising down Interstate 40 towards Knoxville, Tennessee, to spend the evening with my best friend and his wife, running around The Marble City and all its curious adventures. I pulled off Exit 451 at the state line. But, instead of wandering into the Big Creek entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I pulled over right after the Pigeon River bridge, a lesser known AT crossing, barely noticeable except for the two white dash marks on a roadside tree signaling the crossing.
After a few switchbacks, the trail flowed along a shallow creek. About a mile in it began to rain. I got caught in the rain, and I smiled. My hair dripping wet, I jogged and purposely splashed through the mud puddles, finally entering a clearing near the top of a ridge. I stopped, looked up, and thought of my late grandfather, wondering where he was in the ether. I thought of old friends, and also friends not yet met, somewhere down the line it would all become clear.
The next day, following an evening of shenanigans in Knoxville, I found myself once again on Interstate 40, though this time heading east back to Waynesville. And amid all the traffic through the Pigeon River Gorge, I saw the sign for Exit 451 appear. I immediately said “screw this” and yanked the truck towards the off-ramp. Instead of heading towards Big Creek and the AT crossing from the previous day, I headed left and jumped onto the AT about a half-mile up the gravel road. Not a soul in sight, at the parking area or on the trail. I launched onto the AT for another hot and humid trail run. Forty-five minutes later, I returned from the beautiful silence of the trail, back to my truck, and back to the noise of I-40, of tractor-trailers and rumble strips.
I was “back to reality,” as they say. Though, for me, reality is what I think, feel and see on the AT. I stood within earshot of the highway, and within a hop, skip and a jump from the AT, with the ending of The Dharma Bums rolling through my mind:
“And in keeping with Japhy’s habit of always getting down on one knee and delivering a little prayer to the camp we left, to the one in the Sierra, and the others in Marin, and the little prayer of gratitude he had delivered to Sean’s shack the day he sailed away, as I was hiking down the mountain with my pack I turned and knelt on the trail and said ‘Thank you, shack.’ Then I added ‘Blah,’ with a little grin, because I knew that shack and that mountain would understand what that meant, and turned and went on down the trail back to this world.”
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 Boojum Brewing (Waynesville) will host Grayson Jenkins (Americana) at 9 p.m. Friday, July 20.
2 ”The Liars Bench” will return at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 19, in Room 101 of the H. F. Robinson Administration Building at Western Carolina University.
3 The Historic Cowee School, Arts & Heritage Center (Franklin) will host Carolina Blue (bluegrass) at 7 p.m. July 21.
4 The Lake Junaluska Singers will perform a “Lakeshore Goes Broadway” dinner theater night on July 17-18.
5 Harmons’ Den, the Bistro at the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre, will be presenting a special five-course dinner with beer pairings from Lagunitas Brewing Company at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 25, in Waynesville.