Spring fever strikes a visceral yen to strap on boots and hit the trail. All signposts point to rain. I check the weather daily and decide that the portent of an hour of rain here and there are not enough to dissuade me. I need the woods.
Despite the protests and better judgment of my friends, Chuck and I venture west to memorialize the weekend among the trees. I know this loop well. It has a special place in my heart from a solitary trek two years ago on a long Memorial Day weekend: that weekend, the weather was perfect and I found a harmony within the self as I hiked the trails, a harmony I was sure I’d find again. Even so, the naysayers were right, as the heavens opened five minutes after we set foot on the trail, reminding me that you never step on the same trail twice. We shuffle through nightfall and down a wet, dark trail, finally crossing the bridge over the creek and into camp around 10:00. We make camp just in time to survive the next deluge, huddled under a tarp motionless, until shoveling dirt to avoid the flooding of the ground beneath becomes a task to distract from the darkness.
Dinner and comfy hammock time probably come around 12:30 under another two hours torrent. You would think I’d be too tired to do much, but I did bring a trail library this time: a journal, The Essential Yoga Sutra, and Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, in which Kerouac fictionalizes his cross-country enlightenment-seeking life as Ray Smith. It was a good choice, as I found myself with ample time under a rainy sky and a thick tarp.
Kerouac’s book fit the weekend as Smith and his mountain climbing friend Japhy bopped over western peaks, painting broad strokes on the world with a decidedly Buddhist brush. By morning, the rain stops, and we’re able to dry. I read on the balance of the quick cleansing of meditation and the deep opening of a lifetime of discipline. I am prone to stay and swim the day away in the expansive, ever-loving womb of Lake Jocassee, but Chuck prods me on, agreeing to a compromise of a swim and creek exploration before we hit the trail again, allowing for the nascent morning sun to crest and dry us a bit more.
Baptized in the waters, the crud of a muddy night’s camp falls away, and the mind fills the expanse of the gorge, the universe, the void. The meditation and the discipline held in balance. All the ideas of a four-dimensional mind, limitless in their embryonic seeds, gush in the rushing waters at the mouth of the Toxaway joining the open, reflective infinity of the lake. In an hour, we towel and reassemble packs, making our way across the 65-foot wooden swinging bridge, and up, up, up the side of the gorge. As the trail levels, we summon the strength to trudge mightily to our goal for rest—Cobb Creek.
Here, a small, unassuming outcrop becomes our salvation. We stop to snack and all four mammals de-pack. But as I remove boots and aim to change socks? Cats and dogs, once again. With just enough of an overhang, we keep the packs and ourselves under the cliff, holding what little headway we had made against the encroaching dampness. In ten minutes, the sky returns to the color of nectar—rich, baby Carolina blue. We hike on. Soon, we cross over the trail intersection and roll into Bear Camp with afternoon to spare. We sit in a valley beneath the rim of the mountains as thunder cascades. We are not sure what will come of all of this. We are not sure of anything. When we say we are, we often lie. However, we are sure enough to know a nap would be in order. I find Kerouac—in the library, still dry in my backpack. As we fall into slumber, Chuck could hear me yucking it up in my tent as Ray claims he wants to stay in the beautiful valley while Japhy eggs on to heart-stopping height atop the mountains.
The book falls on my chest, falling in and out of conscious thought. A low grumble pulls me out. It’s Atticus: two campers and their dog near. We agree they can share our site if they find nothing else, and I de-hammock to secure my canines. It’s fine. They’re too tired to move, but sometimes a Leviathan must step in to maintain the peace and tranquility for everyone, especially when dogs are involved. It’s time to collect firewood anyway. Then, we sup with two young Atlantans who are surprised that you can bring a block of cheese on a trail. It’s the little things. By nightfall, we are resting, well-fed, by a baby fire we’ve coaxed out of wet wood. Soon, we feel the familiar trickle, perceive the familiar percussion of water dropping on leaves, dropping on dirt, dropping on us. We bid good night and make our way back to the hammocks, and I join Japhy and Ray again. Their third friend Morely, who has tried to find them in the night, now waits below in the meadow, as they climb higher and higher, now speaking only in terse haiku between heaving, ecstatic breaths, scrambling to the top. Soon, Ray finds his moment of fear, panics, and climbs no longe, clinging frightened to the side of a mountain, Japhy finishes the ascent; Ray finds something profound in the order of the universe, and sleep steals me into the night.
The morning comes as a falling tree breaks the silence, crashing to the temperate, rainforest floor. Our guests leave—they are set to make it to the parking lot and drive home. We are more leisurely as we seek only to take a side trail a couple of miles after crossing the Toxaway, the one bugaboo that Chuck had fretted. We climb knee to chest for a couple of miles. I relay the trail info as we hike. We would reach a small creek crossing under cascades, custom-made for rock hopping but a breeding ground for ticks. There are rumors of side-trails to waterfalls, and if we reach the river in the early afternoon with plenty of time to spare, we may go exploring. The sun, now almost hot for the first time all weekend, glares as we cross under power lines in open Piedmont clay.
The cascades should’ve have been a harbinger, but we were on the dark side of the moon at this point. Where once I had hopped bunny-like from rock to rock, the water now swirls in bowls, carving fresh stone as it rushes downhill. These waters are dangerous, and I creep carefully to get the obligatory money shot of the stop before climbing back down with equal trepidation. Back on the trail, we climb back into the silence of the wood, the rush of footsteps, the jingle of bear bells. Then we hear the faint rush of the river in the distance. Soon we are on the valley.
I had assured Chuck that he river was shin deep, knee-deep max. But as I search the area, all the signs point to a different river than the one I had slept beside two years ago. The campsite, carved from a small river beach and idyllic in the haze of my memory, stood susceptible to flooding with one more inevitable rain. The rock where I had laid cat-like mid-river in the sun now glistened in the constant clash of a rapid formed over its top. The river was high, mighty, and fast. The loop back to the car was over 15 miles, the hike out was 5-6. We really had no choice but to press on.
First, the dogs. We each take one. Chuck takes Juno; I have Atticus. Juno makes it across easily, but Atticus, closer to 100 pounds begins to sway in the current. I crouch for stability as he his mass threatens to roll around my hip. Juno now safe, Chuck jumps back in and lends the hand we need. Now, all dogs are save on shore.
Now the packs. We had left them on the other shore to navigate the dogs. If worse came to worst, I had a car key. We had the vital cargo and could leave. Chuck crosses, re-packs, and makes it 2/3 of the way across before he stepped in a hole, putting a precarious portion of his pelvis below the water, ceding dangerous high ground to the mighty Toxaway. Adrenaline—he says—pushed him up and he scurried to the shore
I am less fortunate. I can’t find the smoothest path, and three times I try to cross, only to be rebuffed by the chest-deep river. On the third, my ankle falls in a hole deep enough that my body began twisting in the river like a flag in the wind. Years of tree poses and half-moons save my bacon as I find a way to enough balance to push back up and waddle to the shore.. I stare long and hard at my backpack, facing the reality that I may have to do without all my possessions if I can not fjord the Toxaway. We look for other routes, scrambling over rocks and around trees. Nothing. It’s the river or nothing.
At school the previous week, a student project asked, “What can you make with paracord?” Apparently, a daring and perhaps fool-hearty river crossing, in which we loop a fifty-foot line on a tree and hang on with one hand while crossing the river, learning finally to crab-crawl laterally. Then in a stroke of madness, we hang the paracord across the river and clip my backpack on the line. The weight sags the tree, the backpack now inches from the rushing water. With a second line, I tie a safe-bag style to a Nalgene and huck it at Chuck. The first two failures remind us of the stakes, as the bottle jets down the rapids, only to be pulled back with great effort. On the third time Chuck retrieves it with a stick.
Then the caper took a wrong turn at Albequerque. Chuck pulls the pack across the river, but the tension threatened to cut off all circulation in his wrist, and as he struggled to re-adjust, the rope slips, dipping the backpack into the river, grabbing it for a quick swim to the bottom of the Gorge. The pressure rips the cord from the tree on my side of the river. Somehow—my Spider-sense or whatever—I grab the rope out of the air and drag it back up the stream, keeping with all my might this bag from heading down stream. Chuck re-establishes his grip, and soon he had pulled my back, now filled with the loving, maniacal kisses of the Toxaway, up to the safe bank.
After that ordeal, re-crossing the river seemed a dream. Our journey of 50 feet, like the really old riddle of the goats and the wolves, had taken us an hour and a half. I applied necessary first aid, changed back into boots, and we were back on the trail.
Not five minutes later—WHOOSH—the gentle symphony of rain now burst into the fifteen minute monsoons that had punctuated our trip. Everything squished. But after nearly being lost in the river, we were less bothered, as we were mostly soaked anyway
A mile later, we stumbled into camp. We had snaked back to the river for the third time: once we found its bloating mouth filling the gorge, once we wrestled its mighty current, and now we set to rest and take of its water. The sun retuned and all parts of the pack were spread for evaluation. Everything dripped with the borrowed river. Miraculously, the library stayed dry and we hammocked for a brief afternoon nap. Ray and Japhy descended the mountain, again trading haiku the whole way. At one point, he and Japhy sit on the edge of the mountain and pray over the whole valley, wishing a happiness devoid of meaningless desire to all of existence. Ray tells Japhy about his prayer, where he imagines looking into the eyes of someone he loves…so he can see them.
All love to Nicole
All health and light that is coming to her.
May she become the Buddha she is destined to be.
He chants for his friends. Then for those who frustrate him. Then his enemies. Japhy loves the prayer, and promises to take it with him as he goes further west to Japan. After the trip, Ray would leave the west coast on a bittersweet note and try to hop a train heading east to Rocky Mount, an hour east of Chuck’s house.
It seemed a fitting pause point as our trip wound down. The rain fell again as we slept, but I had the foresight of stowing dry wood under my tarp. As the night fell, we stoked a fire. I went to look at the river, so peaceful and lullabyish two years prior, now seemed to rage, swollen and malevolent under the setting sun. You never step in the same river twice. But it’s not just the river that changes drop by drop, rainfall, by rainfall, season by season. It’s the you. That night, as the rain drops fell sporadically, we ignored an impending storm, like a growing no-hitter, refusing to mention it by name for fear of breaking the spell. Our fire, our outpost against the storm, burned as a two-level conflagration well into the night, and soon we entered our hammocks, this time of our own volition, and slept through the dry night.
It would seem an idyllic ending to the trip, the proverbial rainbow after the rain. But the water cycle had other ideas. Morning would only send us off with the best. As we assembled packs, the condensation resumed and followed us out. I repeated Ray’s prayer for friends and foe alike as the trail climbed monotonously toward the car. It brought a strange joy, a momentary diversion. Soon, I encouraged Chuck to play the haiku game, and we mostly conjured dumb koans over the muddy dogs. And even after all this distraction, the rain and the trail ground us down one last time, incessantly falling on the never-ending trail. We willed step after step, hoping corner after corner would bring the trail intersection that would show that soon, very soon, within a mile’s even-grounded walk, we could ride in comfort, remove slimly clothes, eat warm food cooked with love in a quasi-civilized manner. But these phantasms faded one after the other in to another corner, another rainy stretch of trail. All the hope drained. All the distraction disappearing.
Finally, an imprecation erupted from deep within.
Around the Corner
A game that hopes for signposts
Hiking though the void.
Eventually, of course, the intersection, the signpost, the car, the warm breakfast wrap and tea. There is nothing in this trip I would plan to happen like it did. There is nothing in this trip I would trade for any other experience. By the time, we returned, the loop through the rain forest had ground me, molded me, humbled me. We came back right to the place we started; we were all the different when we returned.