When considering a weekend backpacking trip within a 4 hour drive of home, there are several locations that always percolate up to the top of my list. Earlier this year, one of them was calling to me louder than any other. Almost as if it had been tapping me on the shoulder whispering “You need to get back out here” quietly in my ear. I was able to answer that call twice this summer, while co-leading beginner backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail. I finally made it back to the balds of the Roan Mountain highlands, what is often called one of the most scenic stretches on the entire AT.
I have not done a lot of backpacking this year, so I welcomed these beginner trips. With a leisurely 2-night, 15-mile itinerary, they were much less than my normal hiking pace. But the miles were not the goal. It was leading and educating the participants in backcountry skills and Leave No Trace ethics so they could become confident and self-sufficient backpackers. It also allowed me time to reflect on why nature pulls me back to the mountains time and time again and why I find it such a cleansing and fulfilling activity.
Towards the end of these hikes, there was a section of trail that weaves in and out of very lush hollows. The terrain is very steep and the vegetation so thick, your only option is to follow the trail and trust where it leads you. Leaving the trail in these areas is not an option. Some of these hollows are so steep and have so much vegetation, it is quite possible that many of them rarely get direct sunlight most of the year.
Hollows of this nature are common deep in the southern Appalachians, and I have hiked them many times, in almost all weather conditions: cold and snow, heavy rain and fog, and sweltering heat and humidity. As I hiked through them on these trips, I reflected about my prior experiences in them. I realized that each time I have hiked in conditions similar to the hollows, the same emotions and thoughts began to arise. Feelings of doubts and uneasiness began to surface and I had no explanation why or where they came from. Why am I hiking this? Do I really enjoy this? Is this something I want to do again? What else could I be doing if I weren’t here? These questions and more like them kept swirling through my head. What did it all mean? With all the hiking I have done, why did these thoughts only appear on trails that traversed deep hollows?
In the past when hiking through the hollows, I have just pushed through the thoughts and the miles and mostly dismissed the questions that arose. But on these trips, I listened and attempted to understand what they were trying to tell me. The hollows are beautiful and unique. An ecological wonder, these areas of the the southern Appalachians are biologically diverse and are home to some plant and animal species found nowhere else on the planet. Not taking the time to really notice and appreciate these ecosystems is truly a missed opportunity.
Despite the beauty and uniqueness, I felt they were a bit mystical and held some sort of secret. Almost like voices and stories from the past were hiding behind the beauty and grandeur of the forest. Maybe they were from the early settlers trying to create a sustenance life in the rugged terrain. Maybe from the Native Americans that were pushed out by those settlers. I didn’t know where they originated from, but I did know there was much more to them that what lie on the visible surface.
After miles of contemplation and reflection on past hikes, eventually I made a connection between the hollows on the trail and life. The hollows are similar to the places inside of us all where we bury the emotions and feelings we don’t want to deal with. We all have them. Few acknowledge them. Relationships, family, jobs, co-workers, victimizations, failures, actions we regret, etc. We must all interact within these realms of our lives. We want to be there to bask in the beauty of these hollows, but by doing so, it creates anxiety and apprehension. We are afraid of what we have subconsciously hidden there. But at some point in our lives, we must face them. If not by choice, life has a way of forcing us to face them. Suddenly, I realized the stories hidden in those hollows were mine.
I am still trying to understand my stories and decipher their meaning. But I no longer fear them. I know that by dismantling the false beliefs that created them, I can have the peace in those hollows that I find on every other part of the trail. Have you ever experienced the same thoughts arising time and time again? They are not random. Take the time to explore. You may be surprised at what they are trying to tell you.