A young man sat by a small fire in the Pisgah Wilderness. Near nowhere and no one, thoughts of what was going on in society still pestered him along with the mosquitoes buzzing around. These would pass with more time and the pleasant tired feeling that comes with long days walking, rock hopping through streams, and flicking a fly rod around without catching much of anything. On the north side of a ridge, darkness had come early, and he wondered whether he had enough firewood to keep the cold at bay until the sun reappeared.
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]lassrooms had never suited his disposition. The fluorescent lights would beat down on him grinding away with their unpleasant hum, and closed eyes would result in reprimand even on the days when he wasn’t actually sleeping in class. In between school sessions, an opportunity would arise allowing a window of escape to pursue some kind of existential resurrection. Though not dissatisfied with life, a yearning for something different was ever present. Uncertainty with what this educational path would lead to did not prove as inspiring as the uncertainty of new terrain or a test of courage.
The fire dwindled as he nestled into a sleeping bag. It was not cold enough to be dangerous. He knew that he would wake up with cold toes and aching legs, but he also knew he would wake up. None of that Montana madness again, where maintaining the same toe count seemed unlikely. The instant potatoes he had filled his stomach with sat heavy and warm. Focusing on his own breath and the wrestling canopy above him, a fitful sleep set in.
A LOUD SNEEZING SOUND in the direction of his bear bagged food stores brought him back to consciousness.
Do bears sneeze? Maybe.
Do I care enough about instant grits, couscous, and mashed potatoes to find out?
This thought passed quickly and, while he hoped his food would still be intact in the morning, a dark encounter with a black bear seemed unlikely to produce a positive outcome. Head went back to pillow and a similarly, unruly sleep found him again.
SNAP! The pop of the branch startled him. That was much closer. He popped an eye open. Daylight. From his rolled over position, head covered by the hood of his sleeping bag, there was not a good angle to see what was going on.
“Hello. Hello.” A deep tenor echoed off of the trees.
Dammit, he thought. Are the park rangers here to give me a hard time again? He sat up, wiping his eyes, and looked around.
“HELLOOO.” The voice boomed again. “Hello.” The young man replied uncertainly. A group of about eight brownish figures came into view and the young man felt around for his glasses in the lining of his sleeping bag. The figures were too broad and billowy to be Ranger uniforms, and while bears might sneeze, they definitely don’t talk or hang out in groups. His fingertips finally grasped his glasses and he brought them up to his face. Men in brown robes approached and chorused more “hellos.” Unzipping his sleeping bag and rolling awkwardly out of it, the young man rose to his numb feet to greet these unusual woodland creatures.
Wizards aren’t real as far as I know… Monks… They have got to be monks.
“Hello fellows.” He coughed. Not having spoken much in the previous days words felt strange on his tongue. They did look like bears in their brown robes, especially those with beards.
He introduced himself with an outreached hand. “I’m Jackson.”
“Hello, Jackson.” They chimed back in discordant unison.
He looked at them quizzically and they chuckled, one of the younger looking Monk Bears bursting into laughter. The eldest gave his younger charge a stern look. The laughter subsided after what seemed to be a little over a minute. The young Monk Bear wiping tears from his eyes.
The elder Monk Bear turned back to Jackson. “I am Father Robert and we are Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. We are on a pilgrimage to Graymoor.”
“It is a monastery in New York.” Father Robert explained. He looked tired.
“Will you be walking the entire way?”
“No.” He looked towards the heavens in thanks. “No, we are not. This is just a part of our journey for walking and meditation.”
Father Robert introduced the other Friars, the youngest last, Brother John, making clear that he was the rookie. Jackson excused himself to go see what, if anything, was left of his bear bag in the distant trees. The bag was intact and still hanging where he had left it. Whatever had been mulling about underneath it was either unsuccessful in reaching it (hang ’em high) or decided the bouquet of freeze-dried food was not worth the effort.
Trudging back up the hill, he saw monks re-stoking the fire and pulling out some bread and water bottles. A heated (for monks) discussion was going on about wool versus polyester robes.
Jackson set about making coffee, some breakfast, and chatting with Brother John and some of the other Friars. He did not know if Friars drank coffee. He had never met any Friars. The only monks he had met were Buddhists in California and their robes were a different color. He offered the coffee anyway and a few of them accepted.
The monks did not have much in the way of equipment, but had not forgone all comforts. Where one might think there would be rope sandals, there were Chacos. In most cases these men had sought and found simplicity, solace, and service within the realms of their faith. Several spoke of an anxiety in the modern world that left them in need for a higher calling. Regardless of empathy between Jackson and the Friars, they did not seem interested in recruiting him. This was probably for the better. Perhaps the fluorescent lights had been too much for them as well.
THE FRIARS WERE PLANNING TO HIKE and camp for several nights, but were not as well equipped, as they are not allowed personal possessions. Brother John, the newest addition to the order, turned out to be an experienced minimalist backpacker. He told Jackson he had gone so far as to make his own packs and tarps out of parachute material. He was understandably still coming to terms with his most recent choice of what seemed like a much more serious type of minimalism: A life of abstinence and selflessness.
With some friarly help Jackson packed his gear and, with little regard to his original destination, began to walk, accompanied by his ill-prepared but jovial friends. They did not move with any urgency and yet seemed purposeful with every step. They walked in silence without speaking for several hours, their steps gradually finding a rhythm. The day was hot and Jackson imagined the brothers must be boiling in their robes. At a stream crossing they splashed water on their faces to cool off, but when the brothers began to fill water bottles he stopped them before they drank. “Hold up, fellas!”
Brother John looked over and nodded. “Probably best not to drink that straight, it looks cleaner than it is.” He said, looking happy to be the one imparting wisdom for once.
Jackson rifled through his pack pulling out a bottle of iodine tablets, distributing them among the brothers bottles. “Shake it well and wait a bit.”
Giardia could make you s–t through a screened door, he remembered an old mentor telling him. It seemed better not to share this bit of the advice with the group.
HAVING COOLED OFF, the merry troupe continued on its way. The midday heat had tempered as they crested the ridge that had taunted them all day. Stopping, they gazed off over the mountains along with the speckles of houses and towns. “Glorious,” murmured one of the brothers. Jackson agreed in silence.
The ridgeline ended and a rocky descending trail stood between them and the shelter. As they took their first few steps, a strong gust of wind whipped up the incline, revealing more of the brothers than Jackson had any intention of seeing. As it turns out, Franciscan Monks do wear underclothes—most of them. It was a moment of hilarity that every one of them realized at once. “How’s that for your Marilyn Monroe!” Brother John quipped. This time even the elder of the group, Robert, fell into a booming laugh. As the voices echoed throughout the ravine, Jackson felt a camaraderie with a group that seemed like it would be so distant and stoic. Beneath the habits they were human. Kind and dignified in their decision to serve and live in chastity and poverty, yet still unashamed to laugh brazenly into the wind.
A SIDE TRAIL RUNNING OFF to the lean-to was posted with various signs warning the prevalence of bears in the area. Several of the brothers looked worried. Jackson did not. While his encounters with bears had been frequent over the years, mostly he had just seen their backsides as they lumbered off away from him.
“Have you ever seen one?” Asked one of the Friars.
“A few, on and off, a lot of people carry bear mace to fend them off, but I honestly haven’t had the need for it,” replied Jackson. Bears had managed to dislodge and destroy a lazily placed bear bag a time or two, but, then again, he often picked blackberries and the mushrooms he could safely recognize. He figured he and the bears were about even. Should a bear come upon this group of big brown bear monks it would likely be very confused. Jackson certainly was.
AS THE FRIARS SCUTTLED ABOUT enthusiastically collecting firewood, Jackson pulled out his camp stove and began boiling water. The three brothers carrying backpacks unloaded some bread loaves and freeze-dried soup packs. Several of the friars had wine. Jackson broke out the last bit of pre-cooked bacon to supplement the soup, and a solid meal was scratched together. The younger friars enthusiastically discussed contemporary movies through the meal, quoting Will Ferrell and doing their best Christopher Walken impressions. This was a sight to behold. Seclusion and meditation were important to them, but there was something refreshing about monks laughing their habits off.
[quote float=”right”]If I ever make it to the pearly gates I am going to have a lot of explaining to do already, I better not let these friars turn into Monksicles, Jackson thought. [/quote]Dusk set in and it became obvious to Jackson that the friars only had blankets and a few sleeping bags between them. It was going be a long cold night for them. Temperatures fluctuated drastically in these mountains. Jackson began passing out all of his clothes. He had a tarp tent shelter that would cover all of them. The lean-to, basically a half cabin, would keep the wind off. Layers, layers, layers. If I ever make it to the pearly gates I am going to have a lot of explaining to do already, I better not let these friars turn into Monksicles, Jackson thought. He looked in his pack and doled out the last of his clothes. Hopefully the layers beneath the robes would suffice. The friars on the polyester side of the debate would be converted to wool by 2am. With everyone crowded into the sparse structure of the lean-to it seemed that these measures, while not ideal, would be just fine. Nestled in his sleeping bag Jackson felt grateful for the company in this den of snoring bear monks. He had done well. Maybe there was some margin of redemption in that.
THE COLD OF THE NIGHT LINGERED well into the morning. A light frost covered the tarp canvassing the length of the friars. The sun had summoned fog as it gradually scoured trees of crystalline dewfall. Rubbing his hands together for warmth, Jackson looked on towards the ridgeline of the previous day with a satisfaction. The monks had seen his religion and appreciated it. He had witnessed their devotion and begun to understand their sacrifice. This was all accomplished without mention of the differences between them.
The monks saw their breath as they gradually woke. Jackson assumed that in most contexts monks rose early for prayer. The vigorous climbs of the previous day and the lack of church bells gave them a chance to wake of their own accord.
Breakfast commenced and ended quickly. Not in a rushed sense but Jackson was heading South and the friars North. They were meeting a fellow friar in a van to continue their pilgrimage. He was making up for a worthwhile day in the wrong direction and had a long leg of hiking to make up time and meet a friend. Thanks and farewells exchanged. Addresses given. Jackson doubted they would meet again, but it is always best to avoid such negativity when saying goodbye. Jackson smiled as he began his walk. Behind him the monks stopped on the incline and waved as Jackson traversed the narrow winding path. He did not see them, but his mind was clear as he continued on, only thinking of the path before him.