The Beaten Path


“A journey may begin with the first step but in order to find journey’s end, one can never stop walking.” JSM

Chapter Thirty One

Foreign Territory

During my senior year in high school I was allowed respite from VoTech, and the mandatory studies, to attempt the accomplishment of a difficult task.

Myself and a varied collection of students were given the opportunity to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail. Transported south by bus, we were dropped off at a designated entry point along the mountain pass, and we walked the blazed trail until completion. The route would take us through three states.

The starting line was Irwin Tennessee and the finish line was north, in Damascus Virginia. The adventure was two grueling weeks.

My family was at the apex of a difficult time and my parents believed a “getaway” would help, and give me something else to do, far, far away from it all. Unfortunately, all the spots were filled for the sought after trip, and I was denied entry. Just a little too late. Some of my friends were going south and it was suggested I’d have a great adventure if I joined the gang.

Out of the blue, one of the sign-ups was forced to withdraw from participation, and between classes, I was approached and provided an offer.

“I can’t go. I want you to use my gear. I’ll bring it all with me tomorrow.”

I was supplied with a metal frame backpack, a purple bedroll, a portion of food and a sleeping bag. The generous offer saved some money and I was able to take the empty spot that afternoon.

The remaining space in the bag was reserved for minimal clothing, one extra pair of comfortable footwear, the bedroll, water purifiers and food. No amenities other than personal hygiene products and even they’re limited to small containers and travel sizes.

Thirty percent of the body weight is carried. Being a large guy, I carried seventy pounds. Anything more than seventy was considered a health risk. We packed one week ‘s worth of food for the first half of the trek and at the half way point, we resupplied our remaining food which was air mailed down and stored away in a bunker for our arrival.

The student’s withdrawal from the hike was last minute, and I had one week to fully prepare to become a hiker. Something I was not.

Not far from my old homestead is what might be considered a mountain, but it’s more akin to a large hill. The location is well known by families in the area and over the years had become a popular sliding spot during the winter season. In the spring and summer, it’s only a cow field. It was a quick trip by bike.

I’d fill the hiking backpack with seventy pounds of weight and run up and down that hill until I felt the pounding pulse of my heartbeat, deep within the canals of my ears. I’d push myself until collapsing, then roll on my back panting and wheezing, staring at the sky.  Why are you doing this? This is torture!

Crawling back up on legs made of noodles I’d go further and attempt to be faster. When not jogging, I’d lean into the hill, thumbs above the chest looped into the straps, and take long strides. Anything to get to the top.

Then I’d slow jog down the steepest face and start all over again from the bottom.

For six days, I bolted up and down that hill. For almost a week straight I felt as though I was preparing myself mentally and physically for the task ahead.

Standing at the archway that leads into the thick Tennessee woods, and the first leg of the journey, was a reality I couldn’t be sure I was ready to face. Two students opted out immediately and remained in the passenger van. The initial incline was at a steep pitch and the trail disappeared from sight in the distance around a corner.

The path went on and on, up into darkness, despite the sun hanging directly over us.

The physical and mental complications arrived later on, but it was steeling the mind initially to take the first step into unknown land, which was by far, the most daunting to overcome.

Either walk forward and get moving, or take the bus with the others to Virginia. You didn’t come all this way to stare at the ground. Now or never.

Every couple of miles off the beaten path the trail branched off, leading the hiker to a water source. Blue signs were attached to trees showing the entrance to a water trail and the choice was simple-stock up and purify, or wait until the next unknown stop. Sometimes hiking for water was a two mile excursion off the main route and added extra mileage to the overall day. Most days we walked for eight and upwards of ten miles, and I believe the final leg was a whopping thirteen.

Throw in an extra mile or two for water, and some didn’t arrive to camp until the sun vanished. Once day became night, the hiker becomes a potential target for any creature living in the woods. From bear to diamondback snake, mountain lions, spiders the size of your phone, and bats.

Sleeping outdoors in small one man tents.

The lean-to’s were a first come first serve prize at the end of each day. The small shelters built along the trail could fit up to eight walkers, mashed side by side, shoulder to shoulder, packed inside the elevated wooden hut like sardines. Unfortunately, we were among hundreds of hikers within the mountain, and in the two weeks I was on the trail, I slept in a lean to twice.

All we did was walk and talk.

Under the blazing sun, we hiked, one robotic foot in front of the other.When it rained, we walked despite the downpours.

The backpacks covered with a thin rain protector and despite the muddy rivulets flowing between the feet or startling bolts of electricity striking nearby, we walked the path before us.

One afternoon hail and heavy rain fell through the trees and we witnessed the destruction of a tornado cutting through the valley below. Each of us standing on the edge of a cliff, our packs hoisted up to create a makeshift barrier against falling ice, and watched the funnel carve its way through the trees in the distance.

At the absolute mercy of nature.

Despite the climb, I was witness to the beauty of that nature. I experienced things about myself that were transcendent and pure. When all  you know is stripped away from you and one is forced to adapt or fail, you discover hidden elements of self you never thought you had. I dug into my psyche and forced myself to complete the mission, no matter what.

Some areas were hand over hand climbing, almost ninety degrees up a wall, and stopping every few feet was necessary. Rocks protruded from the face of the range and some were large enough to sit and catch a breath.

The scenery, however, was breath taking.

It was poetry without words. An almost full panoramic view of rolling hills spattered with bright colors and the bluest of blue skies painted above. The clouds seemed low and cartoony, as if it was a figment of my imagination and not fully real. Low to the point where if I stood and stretched to the heavens, I could reach out and grab some and hold it in my hand.

Stunning and surreal.

Other places were more terrifying though, and not for the faint of heart. Not knowing fully what to expect, one can’t ever fully prepare for every journey.

Needless to say, my fear of heights is forever gone.

One stretch of the trail was a two foot wide path. The walking area had been carved into the side of a cliff face, creating a sheer wall of smooth stone above, and a straight wall thousands of feet down to the ant sized trees below.

This was the path connecting two points and walking it’s dangerous edge was mandatory to continue. If one of us decided to head back, it was twenty four miles to an access road where a phone could be located.

With the wall above and the wall below we were forced to traverse the narrow rock trail. Most of us hugged the wall and leaned all our weight away from the cliff’s edge, keeping our focus on the backpack ahead of us.

The wind was the worst.

At the end of the two week journey, when I finally opened the door at home, I slept for sixteen hours without waking.

Everything hurt.

I was sad it was over, but learned from the experience and was a better person because of it.

I climbed mountains and ventured into unknown territory. I kept to the priorities and maintained a structure. Eat, sleep, drink, push forward, rest when possible and don’t give up. I kept my focus on the path and never deviated from the mission. I never contemplated quitting, I pushed to be the best I could be, and earned some rewards along the way. I was able to see things and behold the majesty of the world around me for a short time, and I was able to conquer my fears and pursue the finish line.

I believed in myself and toiled through my problems.

When all was said and done, I rested.

When I opened the door to the safe-house over five years ago, dropping to my knees in the vacant empty building and opening my backpack to find a pillow, I lowered myself to the wooden floor and slept for twenty uninterrupted hours. I draped a jacket across my body for a blanket, propped my head up on a rolled sweatshirt, circled my area with books, work equipment, trinkets and memorabilia and slept like the dead.

The time had come to face a new mountain. A monstrosity of my own creation. Facing the enormity of Everest without any tools, rope, supplies or jacket. At the mercy of a new foe. Myself.

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