I just finished setting up my syllabus for the year. Last school year, I crafted out the skeleton and over the summer I managed to work my way through most of my lesson plans for tenth grade.
But I’m sitting at home, my computer on my lap, and I’m dreaming about the trail. I’m dreaming about putting one foot in front of the other and moving down a long stretch of sand/mud/rock. I’m also remembering those points when every step hurt, when every step literally had my body trembling with agony. But I kept on walking. I kept on putting one foot in front of the other and ascending and descending mountains.
Literally, I hiked up a mountain and then hiked down the other side.
In my classroom, I hung a map of the AT going through Shenandoah National Park and adhered post-it note flags to the starting and finishing points from this year’s and last year’s AT hikes. I have thirty mile block of path that has been unexplored. Next year. This fall. Next spring. Maybe the winter. I don’t know.
I have time. I have time. I have time.
I retired from senior class and this has been a painful but perfect decision. I am ready to move into another part of my life and being outdoors, being in the world is a part of this. As a child, I hated hiking. I hated the climbs up a mountain at a punishing pace while having only soda to quench a miserable thirst.
Now, I dream about those mountain paths….look at my camping sandals or hiking boots with a quiet sigh of desire.
When Owl Singer and I were on the trail, especially starting on the third day, I found my rhythm and pace. As we scaled possibly the steepest section in the park, I wasn’t close to tears. I wasn’t questioning every step and wondering at what point I would emotionally collapse and call my husband.
I counted my steps. I sang under my breath. I chanted encouragement to myself. I paused at the switchbacks and stared at the fog that swirled across the ridge of the mountain and broke through the trees.
At the peak, Owl Singer and I found the AT shelter, Byrd’s Nest 3, and I finally found enough cell signal that I could call my husband.
My Beloved is wonderful, but he isn’t high on the emotional communication scale. Even his family will agree with me on this point. But when I sat on the edge of the shelter’s platform and waited for lunch to cook, I managed to call my husband.
His voice rose with joy when we connected. In quick, excited phrases, I narrated the hike, told him about the encounters with bears Owl Singer and I had experienced (yes, I am absolutely serious about the fact that we had encountered bears…plural). I shared with My Beloved the joys and pains of the hike, the success I was feeling having summited one of the highest peaks in the park.
And he laughed with me, congratulated me on the thrilling joy I was feeling. He told me he loved me first. Without prompting. My Beloved loves me, but he’s not the one to say it first. And by this point, I had received several text messages from him….each punctuated with a statement of his love for me.
Yeah, I’m mean and evil. I’m also a romantic.
On Day Three, Owl Singer and I chose to skirt one of the mountains and took a trail to Skyland Resort where we spent the night. The trail seemed to be easy, at least based on the topography on the map.
It was the worst trail in the world. Every rock seemed to be tilted on its edge so that I was, once more, stepping on rocky angles, the hard corners pressing into the arches of my feet. I swore, someone had decided that this was the perfect torture.
Every step, I worried about falling, worried about losing my balance and just pitching forward. I worried, once more, about holding up my partner. I worried about being a failure.
I did fall. Fortunately, I had the tent on my pack (strapped under my pack) and I ended up landing on the tent, cushioning the blow. But then, I “stubbed” my toe. Actually, I pretty much kicked my foot against a rock. A week later, I realized that I had caused my toenail to become separated. I’ll spare you the details.
Owl Singer and I arrived at Skyland Resort, a totally different oasis from Pass Mountain Shelter. At Pass Mountain, I found my peace with the trail.
At Skyland Resort, I found rest. Owl Singer and I rented a “cabin” which is really a fancy word for a small, two-bed, musty room with a tiny bathroom. And I swear those beds were the most comfortable beds I had ever slept in. When I made the reservation, we had just come off the trail and the one thing I asked of the clerk was to put us in the room closest to the reservation desk (I was that tired).
The clerk started jotting down names and prices on a post-it note, going over the different options I had. Firmly, I stared at the man and he stumbled into silence as I firmly but laughingly repeated that I really didn’t care about the cost. I cared about the distance. And the bed. And the shower. Definitely the shower.
By the way, that was the best shower I had ever taken. I think I might have washed half of Shenandoah down the drain given the amount of dirt caked around my legs. Dinner that night was a hamburger I barely tasted. I tried to eat slowly. I tried to chew. I just inhaled.
Putting on clean clothes, sleeping in a luxurious bed, taking a long hot shower….those were the luxurious moments on the trail. But before I fell asleep that night, Owl Singer said something that was powerfully encouraging, life-altering to a degree.
She told me that she was grateful that I had chosen to go with her on this adventure. She was grateful for my pace. She was grateful for me.
I didn’t know Owl Singer very well before the trail. But, in so many ways, her shadow is layered on top of mine. At school, I have an AT sticker in my window, next to my name, next to my credentials. Our principal encouraged us to “brand” ourselves, as in show the world what we represent, what has made us.
I have my AT sticker next to my name. In so many ways, at this point, this is my brand. This is my….logo. I don’t want to sound crazy and faddish. But I know that after a summer that was wonderful and difficult, beautiful and painful, the AT was the perfect way to close the summer. It stood as the ultimate trial. The ultimate victory.
It gave me my name.