Every step broils ungodly pain in my legs. Up – Up – Up. I’m quite certain death is near. First there are beads of sweat, then trickles of salty water, next I wonder if I’m capable of lifting my foot and pushing forward. Up – Up – Up. That is the course of the Bote Mountain Trail, and my truck is just now barely out of sight. It’s iffy that I can make it. I am less sure how badly I want to try. I could turn around but I won’t. A camping backpack is actually fastened and tied around me as though I’m a pack mule. The Smoky Mountains belittle my best efforts, chiding me with schoolyard taunts. “Fatty.” “Pudgy.” “Bowl of jelly.” And when I round one more curve thinking the trail surely must reach the summit soon, I see the footpath just continues to crawl around itself, bending and twisting further up. And the mountain whispers, “Get off me; you’re hurting my back.” I unsnap my pack, hoist it off my shoulders, and sit on the ground. The cool breeze instantly chills my sweat-soaked back. I look at the rocks and twigs and well-tromped-on leaves. A blue, green shine filters through the canopy like a kaleidoscope of fuzzy Christmas tree lights or a broken prism. I figure I’ve hiked nearly to the peak and check my phone’s pedometer. Nope. I’m not even close. The mountain continues to fat shame me. “How’s your health?” it asks without any real concern. “You sure you’re up for this?” I sling my pack over my shoulders, clip and tie it back on, pick up my walking stick, and tell the mountain to go to hell.
I finally reach the summit. It isn’t the summit of Everest or K2 or Kilimanjaro. In the world of mountain climbing, all I’ve scaled is a foothill. But I am proud of my accomplishment, and the mountain goes quiet. I take off my bag again, go over to the side of the trail, piss on the mountain, and give it the finger. I recite the 1980’s pop poet Matthew Wilder, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-a my stride/ Nobody gonna slow me down, oh no/ I got to keep on moving.”
We’ll make peace later, the mountain and me, but right now I want it to know that it couldn’t fat shame me into giving up. My campsite is just down the slope of the West Prong Trail, where a cool mountain stream will come trickling down the rocks. It doesn’t look to be an easy trail down, but it is down.
When I reach the campsite, I set up my tent, throw my sleeping bag inside, and hoist my donkey-worked shirt on the bear cable system so it will dry out.
This is called backcountry camping. There are no bathrooms, no showers, no electricity, no cell phone signal, and a lot of other no’s, including no other people. But for the entire line of no’s, there’s a lot of things that can only be had in the absence of what we take for granted. For three days, I sit beside the mountain stream, listening to its constant rumble, and nap on the bank’s mossy beds. A normal person would go crazy here. (And by normal, I mean someone who watches cable news or reality TV or Little Big Shots.) There is nothing to do but be present.
The paradox of being present is to be absent from normality, the domestication of our day-to-day lives, the holy importance of ourselves. Here, I am absent from my computer, my coffee pot, my reclining chair where I put my feet up on my desk and write. With me I have two books, a pad of paper, and about three pens. I’m not trying to be Wendell Berry or Henry David Thoreau or John Muir. I wouldn’t presume any sort of communion with such famed nature writers. I’m not even here to ponder deep thoughts that somehow only reveal themselves in natural solitude. I am neither here to do battle with the demons of the wilderness, as Jesus did; nor am I here to escape the crowds and pray – mostly because I don’t have crowds. I am here to do nothing; and doing nothing is the most important thing I can do.
In the woods, there is no narrative or plot or dramatic tension, no swift reversal, conflict, theme, or irony. The woods consist only of setting and characters. The characters are rocks, bugs, creeks, weather, and time. The bird must eat the insect. The water must erode the rock. The rain must put out my fire. This isn’t conflict. It’s an understanding that the woods are not made up of different parts. Sure, there’s the trees that grow tall, the shrubs that grow above the ground, and the snail that crawls on the forest floor. But these different parts of the woods are like the different parts of my body. My heart works with my lungs and my hands work with my feet. But it’s all just me in the end. And the woods? It’s the same thing – just the woods in the end. That’s the bliss of the nothingness accomplished in the woods: I am in the bear’s home as much as he’s in mine. The creeping things, the mossy rocks, the leaves flittering down from above, I cannot think of myself without also considering this world that I live in. I am in the woods as much as my kidneys are in me. If I am a part, I am smaller than the whole – a part that serves and/or works with the rest of this single living organism. “If [I] said, because I am not a [bear], I do not belong to the [woods], that wouldn’t make [me] any less a part of the [woods]” said the Apostle Paul…sorta.
There is no lesson or moral to this non-story. Only a reminder. I am small, nearly inconsequential. Just one piece of the universe’s ecosystem. And such a reminder offends my intermittent bouts of hubris and ego and holds them in check. I am just a leaf falling to the ground; a drop of water sliding over a stone. I will pass through these woods, this life, and get out of the way. This is a wonderful and liberating thought. Worrying about making a name for myself, creating a sort of legacy, or being important is unnatural. John Steinbeck wrote, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” I respond, “And now that I can be unimportant, I can have an abundant life.”
When I sense that the sun has gone down and come up three times – my very own mysterious triduum – I know it is time to pack up and leave. I roll up my sleeping back, break my tent down, collect my trash, and hoist my backpack over my shoulders again. I cross the bridge over the creek and start up the mountain. I listen carefully for fat jokes but hear none. The mountain embraced me days ago as a part of itself. Fat jokes or not, my pack is still heavy and while only the first part of the hike is uphill, it is straight up.
I sit down once to drink some water when the index finger on my left-hand lights up in pain. I pull the bee out of my finger and retreat from the swarm. The woods are pitching a tantrum, mourning my inconsequential exit. “Where, O death, is your sting?” Paul taunted.
Oh, there it is. I found it on the way out of the woods, on the way to being important again.