Let no man be ashamed to kneel in the woods for they were God’s
first temples. -Ernest Hemingway
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here has always been a balance of conflict and adoration between humanity and wilderness. Originally out of necessity for survival and now out of need for perspective and, at least for me, spiritual renewal. Mosquitoes be damned, it feels good to escape from this thing we call civilization. Sitting by the fire with Oby and my dog Eli, I am reminded of what quiet means. It isn’t silence; the river gargles by, tree frogs make whatever sound tree frogs make, and the fire crackles mirthfully, laughing at my attempts at whittling.
My friends and I consistently talk about trips and seldom make them happen. It is tough to get away. We all have obligations. Bills to pay. Careers to pursue. But on those occasions when we do manage to break free, it is a grand time. It brings back a feeling of fun that escapes most of us as adults. Whether it is car camping or taking a crack at the Appalachian Trail, there is camaraderie that emerges among friends communing in the woods over food, fire, and if I have anything to say about it, whiskey. John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Brothers.
A southern boy’s first introduction to the outdoors is often with a fishing rod, a bobber, and a blood worm. Whether it is by reading books like Hatchet and Robinson Crusoe or fishing off of a dock with a cane pole, those lucky enough to be born and raised in this circumstance carry it with them for the rest of their lives. We hunt and fish, hike and swim, dig holes and build campfires. Our first pocket knife is shortly followed by our first stitches and the experience of watching our mothers flip out and our fathers shrug. We learn a lot during these formative years, first from our parents and later at summer camp while our parents recover from the harrowing experience of putting up with us day in and day out.
My fondest childhood memories centered around Lake James and the Pisgah Forest. Camping on Minley’s Grave Island staring at Short Off Mountain while my dad told me stories about his first trips out of Morganton, North Carolina, into the very areas that we were exploring. The loons would pop their heads up and then dive deep whenever our old Boston Whaler neared, leaving me wondering what world lay beneath the water and whether I could hold my breath long enough to find out. It was there that I learned how to tie a proper fishermans knot, bait a hook, and build a campfire. I would put together my simple tent, crawl into my sleeping bag, and sleep like a stone. Later we sat on the same island eating dinner in a duck blind as a storm crashed around us, lightning flashing across the smoky ridges in the distance.
The summer camp I attended along the Green River focused on ecology and wilderness education. I came in a little ahead of the curve but nevertheless found it enthralling to learn fly-tying and improve my archery. This was the first time I had camped with more than one or two peers. A lot of what I first grasped there was appreciation. Not every kid was able to experience these wonders. My dad would send me postcards from what seemed like a different world. He was as excited as I was. I could see it in his handwriting and the prolific nature of his notes. He missed me, and it felt good to be missed.
The mountains of North Carolina were my playground, and the cool rivers, waterfalls, and lakes my swimming pool. The leg of Wilson’s Creek near Brown Mountain Beach is still very much my idea of paradise. It costs nothing but gas and time to visit there. The frigid clear water is cradled in mercurial pools by massive granite worn smooth by time and warmed in daylight. The bonds I forged with my father and friends branded this world as my home and refuge as it remains to this day.
The nature of this upbringing inspired me so see other places and seek out environments that brought about the same joy. I sought solace in the woodlands of elsewhere. Places with different smells, textures, and sounds. I spent much of my adolescence and early twenties searching for something that felt like home, yet at some point in every one of my adventures I would be reminded of an experience or a place in North Carolina and smile.
[quote float=right]California was a place I had heard a lot about. Movies, hippies, and adventures. Giant trees saddled up to the Pacific Ocean, which I had yet to see, and I needed to see. [/quote]California was a place I had heard a lot about. Movies, hippies, and adventures. Giant trees saddled up to the Pacific Ocean, which I had yet to see, and I needed to see. It was a place to go to find yourself or lose yourself. As a nineteen year old I found a job working trail crews with the California Conservation Corps doing trail maintenance and construction. We cut trails and cleared rockslides. Hauling into remote areas and doing whatever labor needed to be done for the State Parks and National Forestry service. It was hard labor. At the end of the day, body beaten and battered, I would imagine those clear blue Carolina pools, and it would soothe me. We would work long hours for weeks on what they called “spike trips” and then have five days off to stir up whatever kind of trouble we could (spike trip refers to what’s known as a “spike camp”: a temporary or secondary campsite for a forestry crew accessible from the main camp). I hopped around the northern part of the state, driving up the curves of Highway 1 through the redwoods and along the perilous cliffs of the California Coast. These excursions were even more perilous in the mechanically questionable 1972 VW squareback for which I had paid three hundred bucks.
My first interaction with the Pacific precipitated at Shell beach at the far North Coast of California. I saw it, stripped down naked, and ran towards the water. I did not realize that the water was quite as far as it was, and by the time I raced into it I was fairly winded. I hit the water running and came back out running. It was really damn cold and smelled different than the Atlantic. A group of campers previously well concealed by a dune laughed hysterically as I happily shivered and limped by them to my clothes and friends. Had I been in North Carolina they would have laughed even harder but handed me a towel, a beer, and a seat by their fire.
Like many young folks before, the West had called me. It seemed like the right place to go, and it certainly was for a time. I left North Carolina unsure if I would ever return for more than a visit, but as the journey progressed I knew it was just that, a journey. I would return to the East in my own time, but I would definitely return. I felt a longing. I don’t think it was homesickness, just an awareness and understanding that there is a place where I belong. That and nothing makes you want to go to college like clearing rockslides.
I had been back in North Carolina for several years and making good progress in my undergrad degree. A yearning for escape found me once again. This was no surprise. It is a tendency that, for better or worse, never left me. A craving that would call me to step into the unknown. In passing, a friend (Brad) in one of my classes had expressed an interest in hiking the Appalachian Trail. It’s dangerous to make such a suggestion in my company, and my immediate response was “Sure, let’s do it.” He looked startled and possibly a bit upset. That was his own damn fault. With a little debate, we decided on starting at Mount Katahdin in Maine and southbounding our way back. It would eliminate any safety net and appealed to my romantic inclination for ill advised journeys. It would be a pilgrimage home.
As we sat trapped between a washed out river and a snow covered ridgeline in the midst of a Nor Eastern squall, it was apparent that our reach had exceeded our grasp. We had run out of food coming through the Hundred Mile Wilderness due to some ambitious (unreasonable) expectations of progress. Having nearly been torn off the stony shoulder of the mountain while trying to reach a safer location in the midst of the storm, Brad and I descended to a rough outcropping that would block some of the wind shear. We pulled out our bivy sacks and hunkered down for what would be a very long and most likely unpleasant night. I passed him my flask and closed my eyes, listening to the howl of the wind as I harkened back to the thunder and tumult of the storms I had experienced with my father out on Lake James. I saw his face smiling and smelled the onion rings he had fried in the duck blind. I heard the thunder and lightening but saw the familiar ranges I grew up with in Western North Carolina.
As it turned out, I was smelling the hole I was burning in my bivy with the cigar I was attempting to smoke, as well as possibly hallucinating from hunger. But, in all sincerity, it was those early memories that soothed, warmed, and gave me the comfort I needed to weather one of the worst storms of my life. I owe a great deal to the experiences that blessed my youth and the people who exposed me to them. My grandmother, who would take me for hikes and teach me to recognize flowers, had taught me to pay attention to the smaller things. The smells, textures, and sounds which will always transport you home.
Back by the fire Oby and I sip a little nightcap sitting in hammocks by the fire. My pup is snoring behind a tree, having managed to wear himself out for once. This trip will be a quick one, but we managed to pull away and get a little hiking and fishing in, and that I think, is something to be proud of.