If you could be anywhere at all on the planet at this moment, where would you choose? As for me, I have no hesitation: the Blue Ridge.
If there is an Eden on this Earth, it must be among the Appalachian Mountains. More specifically, the section in North Carolina and Virginia. When I am away from it, I pine.
This time of year, the black-eyed Susans and the ironweed play their orange and blue against each other, and the asters line the road cuts with yellow irises in their violet eyes. At the higher elevations, the bite of autumn is already on the dry grasses.
The smaller waterfalls have slowed with the drought of summer, and the green oak leaves have begun turning leathery. In my mind’s ear, I can hear the cicadas and redwings, the caw of a crow in the cornfield and the buzz of the distant chain saw cutting through the corpse of a tree downed in the last thunderstorm.
The Appalachians run more than 1,500 miles, from the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec southwest to northern Alabama. The range is seldom more than 100 miles wide, and it is made up of a whole series of smaller ranges: among them the White Mountains, the Taconics, the Adirondacks, the Kittatinnies, the Blue Ridge, the Smokies, the Black and the Nantahala mountains.
Each range is a pearl with its own colors and beauties, and the string that ties them all together is the Appalachian Trail, which wanders for 2,034 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The wilderness trail crosses 14 states, eight national forests and two national parks. It varies from just above sea level at the Bear Mountain Bridge in New York to 6,634 feet at Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies.
Each year, hundreds of eager hikers attempt to walk the whole thing or large sections of it. It can take three to six months to do, depending on your speed and fitness.
Large sums went into buying a lightweight backpack, tent and down sleeping bag. I learned to weigh the quarter-ounces when deciding which things were necessities and which I could do without. Even so, my pack weighed in at about 65 pounds, including the complete Milton I took with me. Necessities are necessities.
It was early spring when I took off, and the spongy forest floor was covered in trilliums and geraniums.
My goal each day was to make the seven or eight miles between the simple wooden shelters that were provided for sleeping. When I woke in the morning, the dew would drop from the trees like rain.
Early in the morning, the redheaded woodpecker rattled in the oaks and the phoebe tweeted his name 20 or 30 times a minute.
But hiking does something to you. Physical exertion propels your appetite and lowers your standards: At lunch, a Slim Jim and a chunk of Velveeta tastes like ambrosia. And at an icy mountain spring, I would mix Tang in a tin cup and slurp it down like the finest German beer.
I had little time to read Milton.
And after a few weeks, I recognized that goal-oriented hiking was qualitatively different from a weekend hike or a day in the woods. Because I had to make a certain distance each day, the hike soon ceased being a celebration of nature and wilderness and became a dutiful trudge, watching for the paint blazes on trees or rocks that marked the trail, plopping one waffle-stomper down in front of the other, watching out for roots or stones that might twist an ankle. It became work.
I took a day off here or there to enjoy the woods, but it didn’t blot out the need to make up miles.
So I — in the greatest physical condition of my life — quit the trail before I even left Virginia and spent the rest of my six months traveling by other means.
Many years later, I met and married my wife in the Blue Ridge and continued hiking smaller sections of the trail, among the magnolias and witch hazels, beech trees and hickories.