Thursday, June 30, 2011

Commitment issues

I've been thinking about this blog, its purpose, and all the slacking I've been doing. I've read so many great books lately and when asked about them I can only utter a mild, "duh..." I'm sure I'm really instilling confidence in folks who know I've spent the past year teaching AP English. What can I say? My brain is on summer break.

In June I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail, which was quite possibly the coolest thing I've ever done (note: coolest, not the choicest diction out there. See above for summer break disclaimer). I had been planning this trip for six months prior, spending spare hours in REI after tennis matches and tournaments, rehabbing my bum left knee after practice, and reading for all the trail info I could glean. The best and worst thing that I read in preparation for the hike was Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. Let me say right now that this is the WORST account of hiking the AT out there. Having finished/skimmed to the end, I'm not sure why Bryson hiked it. He was not in it for any good reason, and the entire text of his book confirms this. Most of his trip was spent hauling himself to the nearest Motel 6 or steak dinner off of the trail. I'm not sure he experienced a single moment of transcendence on the trail, which is impressive in a soulless sort of way. The best reason for reading this book was to accidentally discover key information that changed the course of my hike: there is no camping in the Great Smoky Mountains. Now that you too know this crucial information, you never have to read that bestselling piece of junk.

The best book that I read - and serendipitously found in an Asheville bookstore the day I came off the trail - was Jennifer Pharr Davis's Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail. I loved loved loved Davis's story. In 2005 in her early twenties, she bravely and somewhat blindly set off to thru hike the trail. She hiked in sneakers and an ill-fitting pack; she never once filtered water; she ditched her stove about a month in; and she out-hiked just about everyone else that season. I loved the lack of pretension in her narrative voice and in her aspirations. I also loved reading her self-revelations, some of which I could relate to after my one piddly week. One habit she developed later in her hike which I admired was to sit for an hour on a rock or by a stream to listen and watch. I've realized recently that moving through woods (running or walking) is not the same thing as sitting in them. It is amazing how much I miss even when I'm surrounded by nature. Being still is the way to catch the best of what the woods has to offer. My hiking partner already knew this: he hunts, and so he sits for hours in the woods at a time. As a result he hears things that I am only just starting to hear.

There are many passages I shoulda woulda excerpted here if I had decided to blog sooner, but here is a section from Davis's Maine stretch:

"I ... knew that something deep within me connected with nature, hard work, and simplicity. I learned that I was both stubborn and tough, a lot tougher than I thought I was, especially when I let other people help me. I knew that I was beautiful, despite what other people said, and I appreciated my body based on what it could do instead of how it looked. I also knew that I was truly blessed, blessed with wonderful family and wonderful friends."

I felt tremendous gratitude on the trail, mostly for my childhood and my parents. When I was little my sister and I built forts relentlessly. We built them wherever there was a pine tree and patch of moss. We were obsessed with moss; we collected it to make carpets and pillows. We knew what made a good tree: the sturdy branches of magnolias or dogwoods or cherries. Pine branches were best for sweeping out the fort. Willows made the best curtains. I must have spent a lot of time walking in the woods as a child, because the feeling of deja vu swept over me the second we started our Appalachian Trail hike. "This is familiar," I kept thinking to myself. What a gift.