Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thanks Mom.

My wife mentioned something to me the other day that I had never thought about. She was trimming the dead leaves off one of our house plants and told me that this was the original planter, dirt, and roots that came from my mother, who died over 20 years ago. That’s a simple, unplanned connection to the past. My mother didn’t buy this small plant with the idea of passing it on to her one, immediate descendant. No, it was just one of the houseplants that remained after her rather sudden death. It was a remnant, an after-thought, just a plant in an empty apartment that needed to be cleared out by the end of the month. Thankfully, my wife had the foresight to save it.

Most of our connections with the past are like that. Yes, there are statues and plaques and other memorials to help us remember those that went before us, but most of our “memorials” are old plants, old dishes, old pictures, old tools. Stuff that you find in the attic.

And, of course, memories.

One odd memory that sticks with me is my mother’s habit of reaching over to hold me back every time she suddenly hit the brakes. In the days before seat belt laws, my mother made it a habit of protecting me from injury by reaching across and putting her hand on my chest. She continued to do that all of her life, even when I was nearly 30. At the time, I was embarrassed by it, but now I think of it fondly – a mama protecting her child to the very end. Car seats and seat belts have eliminated this endearing reflex from our culture, and although I know our children are now safer in their seats and belts, I still mourn the loss of such an obvious sign of love and protection.

One of my vivid, childhood memories involves the Smoky Mountains. I was about five years old, and my mother and I were traveling from our home in Florida to visit relatives and friends in Ohio. Because there were only a few interstates at that time, we generally drove US 441 from Orlando through Georgia, western North Carolina, and most importantly, through the Smokies. This was my first real road trip, and it was all great because it was all new and different. But the highlight, by far, was the night that we parked our Studebaker in a small, gravel pull-out next to the Oconaluftee River in Cherokee, NC. We slept in the car that night with the wild, relentless sound of the river filling our heads. (Florida’s rivers don’t make noise.) It took me a long time to fall asleep. The sound of the river mesmerized me. That night by the river was magical… and probably illegal. Although, those were simpler times, so maybe there wasn’t yet a law against sleeping in your car on the side of the road.

Did I say that night by the river was the highlight? Well, it was the highlight of my life up to that point. Remarkably, the next highlight of my life came the next morning. How lucky can a kid be to have the two highlights of his 5 years of life happen within 12 hours of each other! That foggy, cool, early morning drive through the Smokies was a step into another, better world. It was love at first sight. I learned new place names as my mother showed me the Chimneys and took me to Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome, all places that I would visit many times as the years rolled by.

My mother wasn’t a very outdoorsy person in terms of camping, but she did love the outdoors enough to make sure that most of our family vacations involved America’s national parks. And somehow, some way her love of the outdoors managed to rub off on me. She and I never talked about that, and I don’t think I ever thanked her for it, but I think she must have realized that the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree. Most of my family vacations now involve national parks – the same ones she took me to – but only in recent years have I come to see that as a memorial to her. Those times and places sunk deeply into who I am and were so important to me that I wanted my two kids to have those same, wonderful experiences: bears, buffalo, geysers, redwoods, birds, red rock canyons, deserts, mountains, cacti, rivers, even the long hours in the car watching the fields and farms pass by. I love them all, and I have my mother to thank. That love and those memories are an unwritten memorial to her.

Thanks Mom.

Freedom on the AT, Parts 1 & 2

Freedom on the A.T., Part 1
Not long ago I did a quick, one-night backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in the Nantahala Mountains of North Carolina. It was a “bucket list” kind of thing – a section of the AT that I’d been intending to do for about 20 years but hadn’t gotten around to. So my wife and daughter kindly dropped me off at Wayah Bald, and I hiked down to Wallace Gap, spending the night (with half a dozen Boy Scouts from Florida) in one of those old, three-sided shelters that are scattered along the entire 2,100 miles of the AT.

This is probably the moment where you are expecting me to whine a little bit about the crowded shelter and having to share it with several others, mostly kids, from Florida. (They might have been Gator fans for cryin’ out loud!) But, believe it or not, I didn’t mind their company. First of all, they were mostly Juniors and Seniors in high school, so they were beginning to show subtle glimpses of maturity. (If they had been middle school boys, then yes, I’d be whining right now.) Second, they were Boy Scouts, so they were interested in the outdoors and didn’t talk about video games and reality TV the entire time. And finally, crossing paths with kindred spirits (we all were hiking the AT, after all) in these shelters usually has a good, communal feel to it. It’s a reminder that the world hasn’t gone completely crazy, and there are still people who can sit around and be entertained by the wind, stars, trees, campfires, and civil conversation. There is hope for the future, and you’ll sometimes discover that hope in these old shelters on the AT.

Oddly enough, my 20 hours on the AT between Wayah Bald and Wallace Gap started out unenthusiastically. It was raining; the trip was a last second, hurried decision; the scenery and topography would be average. In short, I was doing this mainly to get it done, not because I was drawn to the magnificence of the scene, but after an hour or two I began to get my groove back. I began to feel an old familiarity that I hadn’t realized that I had ever lost.

It soon occurred to me that it had been quite a few years since I had hiked on the AT outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Since we live only an hour from the Smokies, I’ve spent the past 20+ years fishing and hiking mostly in the park. Sure, I fish some other rivers, and I’ve also visited Maine, Michigan, and the Rocky Mountains a few times, but most of my regional camping has been inside the Smokies – mainly because the Smokies are higher, more majestic, and wilder than anything else in the south. I keep going back to the Smokies for the same reason that you keep returning to your favorite restaurant and ordering the same meal. It works. It ain’t broke. Don’t fix it. It’s not quite an obsession; it’s more like a habit, but a good habit. And since so many of our habits are immoral, fattening, or just plain stupid, whenever you develop a good one, it’s in your best interest to ride it as long as you can.

But it was good to be on the AT outside of the Smokies again. Part of the familiarity that I was recovering was the rural feel of the surroundings. I was reminded that most of the 2,100 miles of the AT is not raw wilderness. On the AT outside of the Smokies, you will encounter more roads, towns, farms, and fences. Not enough to be annoying, but enough to remind you that you are on a carefully planned trail that twists and turns not only because of the lay of the land but also to avoid roads, private property, and “no trespassing” signs. There are glimpses of semi-civilized, rural America scattered all along the AT.

Another part of the familiarity that I recovered on this trip was a sense of freedom. There’s absolutely no paperwork, no itinerary, required to hike the AT outside of the Smokies. No park ranger will arrive after dark and check your papers – because there are no papers to be checked.

Freedom on the A.T., Part 2

On a recent backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in the Nantahala Mountains, a few miles south of the Smokies, I was reminded of the freedom that is an essential part of that experience.

When I’m camping or fishing in the Smokies, I don’t resent being checked by park rangers occasionally because I’m always legal. In fact, I’m glad they stop and check, just as I like the cashiers at Lowe’s to check my ID when I use my credit card. If someone steals my card and tries to use it, I’d want those cashiers to refuse the purchase and to notify the authorities. Likewise, I want the park rangers to catch guys who are (illegally) using corn and worms to catch trout in the park. Tennessee has very, very few rivers with any sort of “artificial only” fishing restrictions and absolutely no “fly fishing only” rivers, so in those rare places where there are a few, meager restrictions, I want those restrictions to be enforced. Otherwise, the rivers would be emptied of their fish pretty quickly.

On the other hand, the one time I was checked by a park ranger, my joy that he was enforcing the rules evaporated pretty rapidly as he continued to ask me what kind of vehicle I was driving, where I was parked, whether I’d be spending the night, did I have a fishing license, and was I carrying any live bait. I began to wonder if he would be taking out the waterboard to extract information on my links to al Qaeda. But once he was convinced of my innocence, we chatted awhile about the mountains and rivers. We both loved the Smokies, so we had that in common. We parted amicably. (But not as buddies. I pointed out a hornets’ nest in a nearby tree and said, “Hey, you wanna throw rocks at it?” He didn’t realize I was kidding and began to lecture me about our responsibilities to care for the natural world, and of course, the dangers of aggravating hornets. Note to self: Guys with badges and guns have no sense of humor.)

My overnighter on the AT in the Nantahalas was fairly quick and routine – walk on the trail, sleep in a shelter, finish on Old US 64 just west of Franklin. But as I walked along the trail, I would occasionally see a simple, worn path leading off to the side, ending at a small, worn campsite. These obscure campsites don’t show up on any maps. There are no cables to hang your food bag on, no facilities of any sort, unless you call a spot worn thin by previous hikers and a simple rock, fire-ring “facilities.”

These side trails and campsites are 100% unofficial, unsanctioned, undeveloped, unauthorized – and completely legal. And pleasant. I’d turn off on one of these short, side trails and find just a worn spot in the grass and a campfire ring – and a good view, or a level spot, or a small spring, or an opening in the trees providing an unhindered view of the stars. There was always something there to attract a hiker. There was always a reason why the path led where it did. I’d walk down the path, arrive at the campsite, look around, and think, “Yeah, I see why people camp here.” Then, at that moment, I’d realize that my footsteps had just added to the worn path. It was a great example of many different individuals making separate, individual decisions, yet making the same decision. That’s how these unofficial trails and campsites are made and maintained. You see the same thing – informal paths in the grass – in cow pastures and on college campuses. Students and cows voting with their feet. Simple, primitive, laissez-faire democracy.

It’s funny, isn’t it, that a small, worn spot in the woods can provide a taste of the fundamental American values of freedom, choice, and even a little risk. Those worn spots aren’t just a metaphor for freedom. They are the result of freedom. They are freedom. Not the crazy, selfish, irresponsible freedom that harms self and others. No, it’s the simple, healthy liberty that enables you to relax and breathe because no one is looking over your shoulder. There’s no one in a suit or uniform to exert their authority, to check your papers. There’s also no one to protect you because freedom entails risks. It’s just you and that haphazard campfire ring. That, my friends, is a good reason to get out of the Smokies every now and then and bask in the harmless, healthy anarchy of the Appalachian Trail.