I went for a walk in the woods recently – a long walk, 52 miles, all told, in five very wet days in the Nantahala National Forest, which they could rename the Nantahala Rain Forest to be more accurate. I made a loop with the Appalachian Trail and the Bartram Trail, named after the Quaker naturalist William Bartram, who trekked into the Cherokee mountains two centuries ago. I wasn’t exactly alone. Bentley, my Golden Retriever, kept me company and hauled his share of dog food in his own saddlebags. He was wet and muddy and shook every time I took his pack off, but he trooped on with me.
I was looking for a vision quest, I suppose, a chance to unplug from the Internets, from cellphones and TV and work and book tours and civilization for a time, and perhaps recollect my thoughts. I had in mind Gary Snyder’s example, the Beat-influenced poet who after a stint on a backwoods trail crew in the 1950s decided to do a meditation walk of 10 days across some wilderness. “During that process – thinking about things and my life – I just dropped poetry. I don’t’ want to sound precious, but in some sense I did drop it. Then I started writing poems that were better. From that time forward, I always looked on the poems I wrote as gifts that were not essential to my life… Every since, every poem I’ve written has been like a surprise….”
I’ve already beat to death the metaphor that writing a novel is like making a long journey, that putting a paragraph down is like putting one foot after the other. But metaphors drain away on elevations presented by the AT and the Bartram with gains or drops of 3,000 feet in a single day. I wasn’t doing much deep thinking when I was climbing up from Nantahala Lake toward Jarrett Bald and onto Wayah, praying the rain showers wouldn’t circle back around. My feet were blistered, but no matter. Every few hours, I would free my pruned feet from their wet boots, doctor my wounds as best I could, wring out my socks, then lace up my boots again, hoist my 35-pound pack, and go on.
But on the fifth day, an epiphany. The sun suddenly started to drill through the clouds, the first glimpse of our planet’s life source in four overcast days. Bentley and I were up on Rocky Bald, about 40 miles through our trip, taking a breather. We had been traveling through dripping forests and the belly of clouds, unable to see much of anything. But now, emerging out of the current of clouds, mountains began appearing and disappearing like the backs of blue whales in a white ocean.
Thoughts are not complex on the trail and not much more profound that my constant childhood whine from the backseat of my parents’ Impala – “Are we there yet?” Instead of novels and writing and bookselling, I thought mostly about how far I should keep going until my next break, or whether that glimpse of light through the trees bespoke the summit. The Appalachians are tricky, fold upon fold, switchback after switchback, up to the elusive ridge line. The clearing is never around the next bend, the next rise gives way to yet another steep climb. Bentley stood atop the trail and waited as I stood bent beneath my pack, leaning on my trekking poles, catching my breath, wet with sweat or rain, it did not matter.
I kept going, and perhaps that’s the only real meat to this metaphor. Writing is a long haul, like hiking a 52-mile loop. You get tired, you fall down, you get up, you get blisters, you keep going. Was it worth it, even with less than optimal weather, or 2 inches of rain? I think back to that dim sun, burning about the size of a silver dime through the veiled sky, and the humps of mountains swimming toward me from the horizon. I had the barest of visions, but I could feel the immensities, benign beings surrounding me, studying a middle-aged man and a wet dog on a bare rock 5,000 feet up in the Nantahalas.
Yes, that’s worth a long walk and the words I carried back.
Novelist, journalist, aficionado of all things Appalachian.