This past week I went backpacking with two old friends who kindly agreed, some time ago, to teach me the skills I need to survive. It was my second real backpacking trip and it sounded a bit daunting… 30 miles of trails, 10 waterfalls, with predicted temperatures under 65 and a 50% chance of rain. Projecting into the future I imagined being winded and overloaded, cold and wet. I was telling a friend that it would be strenuous and tough and he asked me a great question: why do this if it’s not fun? I tried to explain that the goal was less about having fun than it was about expansion… expanding my idea of who I am and what I can do.
Now safely home, with a long hot bath, a high fat dinner and a 13 hour sleep under my belt, I can honestly say it WAS fun. It felt like watching a really gripping film unwind its plot, only it was brighter than technicolor and bigger than the big screen. One subplot was my own fear and inexperience. Even though I’d planned and shopped and packed with care, hoping to get it all right, I didn’t. On the fourth or fifth mile of hiking I realized my carefully chosen and broken-in boots were wretchedly uncomfortable. This was the second backpacking trip where I didn’t get it right with the shoes. Crossing a creek, one of the rocks I stepped on twisted and dumped me and those boots into the water. There followed a squishy hike back to our vehicle where I traded for some sneakers.
The thing I love about about getting out into nature is the element of surprise. I have an idea of its beauty, and of what to expect, and then something breathtaking will happen that startles me and renders it spiritual. In nature it’s direct and very personal. I have this unexpected sighting, and that’s followed by my recognition of a vast creative spirit spinning a momentary spell of which I am the only observer. There’s no filter between me and the universe, no scrim, no interpreter.
We pitched our tents beside a wide creek. At day’s end I leaned against a tree to watch the moving water. The sun slanted through the leaves, the water slipped by, and two wood ducks startled me with the loud rush of their wings, flying fast and low, down the channel cut through the woods by the creek.
We took water filters down to the edge to fill our bottles, near a huge fishing spider with an egg sac larger than its body and not far from a yellow fringed wild orchid. Nearby I even saw a hummingbird. When I poured some of our filtered creek water into my black cup, micah particles sparkled in the bottom.
On our second day we hiked to three waterfalls and returned to our camp late in the afternoon. Nearby we had discovered a sandbar where tons of snow white sand had been deposited in the bend of the creek to form a wide beach. We decided to come back to our beach that evening after supper to build a driftwood fire. The sand was made entirely of white granite and micah, and the little bonfire we lit reflected against the micah particles so the ground magically glittered around us.
Early morning we were back on the trail, wandering through enchanted forests of wild magnolia, maple, fir and rhododendron. We identified blue lobelia, trillium, lady’s tresses and nearly every time I looked down I saw Indian pipe. We hiked to two more waterfalls. At one I decided to ford the stream barefooted, so I removed a sneaker which slipped down the bank and into the rapidly moving water. In the time it took me to panic, Jim had both hiking boots off and waded far downstream to grab my sneaker which had become a boat headed for the Mississippi River. Images of hiking with one bare foot flashed through my mind, but Jim’s quick reflexes spared me the reality.
In the afternoon we decided to rest on our beach. Dick had brought an 8 oz fly fishing rod that collapsed into a small cylinder. He went out into the creek and started casting, pulling in brook trout of every size. We photographed many of them, and admired their lovely markings before he released them . After yakking for years about wanting to try fly fishing I finally got the opportunity. Holding the rod for a half hour, getting my first strike and overreacting insanely, I came to understand how keenly a fisherman has to observe the habits of fish in order to catch one.
The beach afternoon was delicious. I found a banded water snake near the edge of the beach, who slipped into a little hole under a rock. We sprawled out on the warm sand and slept. I painted a small watercolor of the deep pool we were fishing. As evening arrived we walked back to camp to fix supper. A bit later I went back to the beach to see if it was still uninhabited. A lone camper and his dog had claimed it in our absence and had created the perfect vignette: dusk’s lavender light, warm yellow bonfire against white sand, big black and white spotted dog, curled up nearby. It was as lovely to observe them in that place as it was to be there ourselves. We settled in for the evening alongside our bank, and watched the coming night, hoping for a cloudless sky and some stars. Dick’s phone is equipped with a mountain identifier app, and a constellation app, so when one big fat star appeared we were able to research its name as well as the names of each of the mountains in our view.
The guys have a tradition. After the exertion of backpacking, they reward themselves with beer and burgers. So, when you’re on your 7th uphill mile for the day, and your shoes hurt, and your lunch is dehydrated, you obsess over that burger and beer. It may be three days into the future, but it’s the beacon toward which you hike. So it all ended at a great little joint called Daggy’s in Brevard, with delicious food and the question “what did I learn?”
I learned so many things I can’t list them, about simplifying and traveling light. I went into the woods carrying sad thoughts. The inhumanity of current North Carolina politics has tainted the summer. A dear friend’s beautiful mother had just died as I prepared to leave town. Another friend spent the week at the bedside of his mother , who died while we were gone. I went hoping to expand myself but I think, instead, I shrank myself so I fit neatly as a small brown water snake into a tiny hole in the universe, spangled by glittering micah and far away stars, shaded by old trees and tall ferns, into unfiltered communion.
Paintings inspired by this experience…
A second painting of a very different waterfall