It’s Tuesday morning when I call you. By 9:00, you and I hang up, and I point the ship westward. This happens quite a bit at our house. We often get pulled in two different directions over the summer. You’ve been pulled to Denver to train for AP Capstone, while I have been pulled by the song of running water and the rustle of trees to go sleep in the woods for a couple of nights.
What’s odd about this week, however, is that it’s our anniversary. Maybe not odd, actually. In the seven years we’ve been married, we have had almost half of our July 12’s with us in different dots on the map. We try not to let it be a big deal, and we try to make something up for not being there on the actual day, but our hearts miss each other nonetheless.
Tuesday afternoon, I arrived at Lake Watauga around 1:30 and hit the AT south just before two. Short time to hike, so I needed to bust it. Over a paved road, the trail begins to climb. I see three hikers coming off the trail—the last three people I would see until I emerged on the other side of the mountain. The area is called Pond Mtn. Wilderness. It is an empty, empty space, one path winding over a mountain and back down it. Once I got off the lake shore, the buzz of humanity came to a calm. Then for the remainder of the mountain—silence.
In silence, the daily chatter, the constant stimulation of modern life begins to fall away, and I begin to hear the truth within my heart. I enjoy the solitude. And while I wish you were with me, I know this might make you miserable—the dirt, the sweat, the bugs. We don’t always want the same thing, a fact that sometimes has us moving in two different directions, and when I move in this direction—out to the nether regions, out in the middle of nowhere–you worry over me. But such is the open space we hold for each other, to let us explore our happiness, whether together or apart.
On the other side of the mountain, my legs are weak and my knees wobbly. The descent is like a rocky goat path, and I take a break near the water. I aspire to push further—at least another four miles by sunset—but as I continue on the path, I realize that a secure campsite for the night is better than a hypothetical one down the trail. It is perfect—secluded and quiet. The dogs rest, I start a fire, and doze in an out, lying in my hammock, reading Alan Watts and staring at the stars.
I wake up on Wednesday. It’s our anniversary. July 12. I’m in no rush to get out of camp. I see if I have enough of a signal to send you a happy anniversary text, but by opening that portal on my phone, a flood of updates and chatter comes to me. I turn off the phone again. I want you to know that I’m safe and that I love you. I don’t want to be distracted by what is on my phone with all this beautiful wonder around me.
It’s Thoreau’s birthday, and perhaps by the accident of chance, I find myself waking up underneath the canopy of trees beside the rushing water on this day.
When we set a wedding date, we chose the summer because we are both teachers. But you suggested this day because of the birthday of one of my favorite writers of all time. I wonder if you knew what you were gettng into, marrying a guy who was honored to share Thoreau’s birthday. After all, Thoreau himself was a notable loner of a crank, a guy who could be stubborn and aloof, a guy who feels like he has to get away from people and into the woods to feel fulfilled, full of contradictions, all qualities that—for better or worse—I see in myself. But after I have broken fast and had my morning meditations, I am off to fulfill the purpose of this day.
I cut out a climb by crossing the water twice and find myself at the base of Laurel Falls, a primeval cascade that over millennia has carved a pool beneath. When I was 22 and living in Boone, this was one of the first places I learned to hike by myself. I would hike here, jump off the cliffs a few times, nap, and hike out. There are already people here snapping pictures of themselves in front. I plan on making a morning visit then looping back for an evening swim.
Transcendentalists are–by nature–animists, believing in the living spirit in all things. Of course, Thoreau was reading Vedic texts by Walden pond, but it’s important to see this as a more primal relationship with the natural world around him. At a basic level of walking through the forest, we recognize our biology as harmonious with those beings around us, and recognize them as beings much like ourselves at a molecular level. Trees, mosquitos, moss, snakes, frogs–we are all the same building blocks. The mid-day sweat and my mind are rolling, and I find myself melting into the sea of green that rolls over the mountain, and over the next and the next, an intricate network of roots and limbs that stretches further than my ability to see but not my ability to imagine. Soon, I come upon a waterfall in seclusion, and as Atticus plops in a pool, I too bathe in its waters to cool me down. I hear you imploring me to be careful, knowing that taking the time to cool down in this heat is the most careful thing I could do. Later up the trail, I find myself crossing deep stream after deep stream, wading knee deep through rushing currents. By the time turnaround approaches, the path has led me to an open and quiet pool embraces by giant rocks, large enough for swimming and treading and sumberging myself beneath the cold surface. We all rest as I wash off the sweat of the last two hours, a final ablution before I return to the mothership.
I return to Laurel Falls around 6, snack, make my sacred offering, and dive in. I’d love to tell you what it was like to swim in those waters, to stand under the waterfall and feel the water pounding on my head. But I can’t. The words are insufficient for the experience. The best I can say is that it filled me with song. A song I know but sometimes forget to sing. A kiss from the heart of God. A song I carry with me today. A thick, rolling song from deep within my chest, exploding to the tree tops and through the sky. As night falls and the fire dies, it is the song that sings me to sleep, infusing my dreams with the gentle rhythms of the forest. I have met my soul on the path I have walked today.
It’s Thursday morning. Time to pack up. Time to go back over the mountain. Time to rejoin the world of paved roads, smart phones, and automobiles. Up the goat path with wobbly rocks, back over the hump, and back down to the Lake.
On Tuesday, I had wondered what I would do when I came home on Thursday afternoon. Somewhere in my reading out here, Watts discussed anxiety over the future as that which disassociates the mind from the body. Plus, I know this will be a strenuous journey. As I climb the rocks, I have no capacity to think so far ahead as when I get home. So this morning, it’s just one step in front of the other. Left. Right. Left. Right. I’ve told myself I’m going to be patient. This mountain isn’t going anywhere. I take a break at the top. And as my foot starts getting hotspots, I consider pushing through, but then wonder why I’m in such a hurry, and opt for self care: I won’t get any medals for getting their quicker with painful blisters
There’s been time in the last few months where our life has had to take this plodding, deliberate pace, when we have had to sacrifice time and planning for self-care. Sometimes it was hard to tell what the next weekend or the next day might bring and we have had to walk our path side by side, putting one foot in front of the other. On the mountain, it is relatively easy, as the mountain isn’t going anywhere. In life, it can be much more daunting, as we have often wondered which hairpin turn or treacherous descent may come next in our path, and we can worry for all the opportunities that may have passed us by. But as we’ve taken this pace down our path, I see your resolve. I see your capacity to care for others. I see your grit and determination. I see your vulnerability. I see your ability to move and adapt to the contours of the land. While we are thousands of miles away as I walk the miles on this path through the Pond Mountain Wilderness, I am and will be your companion and the paths that matter most.
We’ve started daydreaming about where next summer will lead usMaybe next year on Thoreau’s birthday we’ll stand under a waterfall together or traveling foreign lands. Or maybe we will again find ourselves apart in two different points on the globe. But on the path that matters most, I will happily walk with you side-by-side, singing the song of my soul to you.