I lit out for the territories on May 11, 2011.
The first time you venture into the forest with only yourself for company can be a bit of a shock. I carried a journal and wrote at the start and end of each day. I didn't keep it. I didn’t want or need a reminder of the demons playing bumper pool in my head; this was the why of the trip in the first place. The thing I didn't see coming was the amplification of the noise and the voices. I'd just turned forty-seven, and those are a lot of years of unpacked stuff. It's the unpacked stuff that amplifies the top layer, and you think the top layer is all there is.
The first night I stayed in a well populated campground and thought nothing of it. Apparently I was the only person thinking nothing of it. The nice couple running the campground came by twice before nightfall to make sure I was OK and didn't need anything. I didn't get it. I was in a row of sites that seemed to be occupied by just me and a dozen solo bikers sleeping in identical green sarcophagi. I guess that makes sense if all you've got are the saddle bags on your bike. Car camping is weird. Campgrounds are weird. The last campground I'd occupied was in 1971 on the Vineyard. I didn't understand the nature of pop up communities. It's not a room you've rented; the platform might be yours but you’re still in common space. I didn't get it.
I was in a new tent; big enough for two very small people. I'd field tested it in the front yard for a full week. It went through rain and hot sun and huge buckets of water. It did just fine. The high winds, lightening, and golf ball size hail were unexpected and it was OK until the wind went sideways. I watched the walls bow in toward the center. Lightning struck a tree not twenty feet from my tent. I smelled ozone, smoke, and charred wood. There was a ripping sound I recognized as a tree splitting from stem to stern. I'd heard it before, but nowhere near that close. A run to the car wasn’t an option.
I sat up on my crash pad, wrapped my arms around my knees, tucked my chin to my chest, and turned myself into a tiny, upright ball and tried to count the seconds. There weren’t any; crash and strike, side by side. I don't remember falling asleep but I woke up in the morning, still wrapped in a ball but flopped over on my side. The side of my face was pressed into the tent floor which was pitched on a gravel platform. I called myself lucky as shit and exited the tent. About five minutes later, the husband and wife pulled up in their golf cart to check on me. Yes, I'm fine. Yes, that was some sort of storm. I looked up at the split tree and stopped breathing for a minute. The husband said, yeah, we were a little worried about that too.
You got no man out here to take care of these things. We would have come got you, but it wasn't safe to leave the trailer. I looked at the row of men crawling out of what remained of their shelters and said, honestly, I was kind of worried about those guys.
Oh, they're old pros, they know how to take care of themselves.
I shut up, smiled, and excused myself for want of coffee.
Later, I approached the guy closest to me and asked if he had a map of the parkway, specifically the last exits in Virginia that would point me at Route 58 toward Damascus. He didn't blink, just pulled out his laminated itty bitty map and showed me where to go. I asked how he'd done last night and got a sheepish look. Don't get freaked out, OK? I thought very seriously about scootching my tent to your front door and asking for sanctuary. I said I'd have let him in and he said, then you're the only woman on the face of the earth would do that. Shit. Dude, you're a person. Yeah, and you're a woman. That's a line you just don't cross unless you hear screaming. I didn't ask about screaming women in tents.
When it was time to leave, he asked if I wanted to follow him back to the Parkway because it was a little wiggly. You bet I do. My sense of direction can get a little haywire. And you're going to drive, map-less, from here to Bristol, TN without getting on a single highway?
Yessir, I am.
Do you have a navigator?
Yessir, I do and I threw it in the back before I left home. I don't want any of that business just now.
How are you going to navigate when you get off the Parkway?
I'm going to stop and ask directions as often as needed.
I bumped into him periodically, at overlooks, and one time at a resurrected shack with a historical marker but not much information. He'd gone back to pee and was startled by my appearance. Later, I found a Pitbull cross. Bitch looked like she’d whelped maybe eight or ten weeks ago and then been disposed of in the mountains. She was nothing but ribs, skin, and nearly dry teats. I pulled over, opened my door, and offered half my sandwich. She took it delicately but never took her eyes off me. I was hoping she’d get close enough I could get her down that mountain to a shelter. In the end, I satisfied us both by feeding her my entire lunch and not chasing her into the woods.
There is a campground across the street from the Harkening Hill loop. I pulled into an empty site. This is a self-pay station; the Ranger is elsewhere. You take an envelope from the box, write your name and address with the date, insert the fee, and slide it into what seemed like pretty empty box. Apparently, the middle of May is not hiking or camping season on this part of the road. I felt horribly exposed, but made camp anyway. Later I wished like hell I'd driven the quarter mile to the parking lot across the street, but these were days I could walk ten to fifteen miles before I felt it.
There was a woman inside the information building, but she seemed shocked to see me. They'd literally just opened for the season. She said trail maintenance was finished, but not trash pickup. I asked for a bag. She gave me a long, hard look, and said, you be careful up there. I bristled for a minute, and then realized I was looking at a woman in her early seventies, more likely than not, to light out for the territories on her own. I asked if there was something I should be looking for and she said, yeah, same as any trail. You're alone and you're not going to get back down before I leave for the day. There's nobody to help you if you fall.
Am I going to fall?
You like the woods, don't you?
Yeah, I really do.
You look like the back country exploring type.
Yeah, I can be.
OK, back country exploring can get a little dangerous here. You don't see the overlook until you've stepped off a cliff. That just means if you leave the trail, you carry a stick and you hold it out straight. Like you’re blind, see? Because you are blind. We've got enough foliage to hide the drops.
Good to know. I'll pretty much stick to the trail.
Thank you. You're a nice lady and I like you. You're picking up other people's trash. If you decide to leave the trail, for any reason, you drop that red pack right on the trail. Take your water, but leave your pack. We'll know where to start looking. You tie this trash bag to the front door and I'll know you got back alright.
And you have a good time out there. We've got some beautiful switchbacks. When you come to the farm, turn left and do that loop too. Spend some time at the farm. They do good work there.
Harkening Hill is one of my favorite hikes in the world. It's short; no more than four miles if you include the Johnson family farm loop, and no less than three and a half coming through the field. The switchbacks were astonishing. That I stopped to collect trash is probably why I made it off the hill; gave my knees a rest. I was jumping a like mountain goat from one rock to the next and took that hill on at a near run in some places. I was ecstatic. All the noise from night before and the first part of the day were quiet. You haven't much time to engage with the demons when your whole body is moving.
There is a fairy bower about halfway up. I've three photographs, one year after another. You walk though it to continue on the path, and because I am me, I stopped just before and just after to think about what I'd just passed through. Maybe it was my joy. Maybe it was the communal joy of every hiker who passed under that bower. When I came to the steps I remembered bits of my childhood. Long hours alone can leave a kid bored as shit, or that kid assesses their surroundings, takes stock, and invents a whole new world. I spent a couple years galloping around, over, and on top of those old stone walls built by farmers clearing their fields of un-tillable rock. I was a horse and sometimes a rider, but mostly I was a horse, and these old steps put me right back in the world I invented. I galloped up the steps and shouted up at the sky.
I dropped my pack on the trail and climbed to the top of a good size boulder. I wanted to see the valley. The valley was not to be seen through the trees. I crawled on my belly toward what I hoped was a clear drop, but it wasn't. That boulder had a gradual drop and I couldn't see the end of it. I think it's a 2,200 foot drop but maybe not a straight drop. I think I'll fall mostly to the bottom and be broken in too many pieces to move. I think I'll die of exposure before anyone finds me. So I'm getting the fuck off this rock right now. And I did. I was at the peak of the Peak and that was good enough.
The first step down dropped me. When you fuck up your knees, up isn't so bad, but down can be damn near impossible. I was astonished. I took another step and the other knee cackled, and whispered, yeah, we got you bitch. Go ahead, run and jump uphill like a mountain goat for more than a mile and see what happens. I took another step and the first knee said: What part of fuck off did you miss the first time?
I'd lost my stick.
Turned out crawling wasn't great but they didn't scream. I crawled around in the underbrush looking for another stick, but the forest was stickless. I crawled back to the trail and stood up. My knees said: go ahead, just try it. I tried it for dozen or so steps and sat down. I didn't want to spend the night up there in the middle of the damn trail for the woman to have to find in the morning; but I had at least twenty ounces of water between the two bottles and surrendered. Thirty minutes later I un-surrendered and stood up. Nope. OK, fine. Sliding down this hill is a perfectly fine option. I came down to the Johnson family farm on my ass, bypassed the loop and stood up when I got to mostly flat ground. The knees said, good luck with all that. It was less than half a mile back to the parking lot; a wide open field with spring grasses reaching for the sun. I walked very slowly and stopped to rest now and then. Out of panic, I think, I drank most of my water. When I got to the parking lot, I tied the bag on the locked door and wished I could leave her a note.
Having concluded my hike, I turned and addressed a section of the Parkway which is more like a highway. I don't know if it's really a four lane bit of road, but it's wide enough and there was an unlikely flow of traffic. In the end, I chose to step into right lane traffic with enough visibility that I might not get creamed. I waited at the median and did the same. I returned to the Blair Witch Campground. I think if my knees had permitted, I'd have thrown everything into the car, gone back to the parking lot, and camped at the trailhead.
In the morning I felt great. I stood up and both knees said: Fuck you, bitch. I hobbled across flat ground toward the bathrooms. I really should have peed by the tent but I needed water too. The first step down hill sat me right back on my ass. I made it down and all the way back up. I threw the tent, bag, and pad, all wadded up, into the back of the car. I made coffee before I pulled out of the scary place and said, fuck it. I'm heading to Tennessee today.
Here's what I learned at the Blair Witch campground. Once you are in your tent, can't nobody tell for sure who is or is not in that tent. Most people still do not expect a woman to be out there on her own. There must be a man around here somewhere... probably on his way back or maybe even, already in that tent. This informed my later decision to sleep off trail and not in the shelters. I was not afraid.
I had to ask directions a couple of times because our accents, theirs and mine, were too thick to understand easily. I'm not good at asking directions. I think if I just keep driving the way I think I should be driving, eventually I get where I’m supposed to be. This is mostly not at all true.
I was looking for the Road to Damascus because I was looking for the World Tree which is called Yggdrasil. I knew it had to be there, somewhere off my left shoulder in a great open field. I don’t have the language to tell you why in a way that made sense. I also can’t tell you why it was meant to be just off my left shoulder, in a great, open field.
If you ask the Nordic Gods, the World Tree is Ash, not Oak. If you ask the Druids, the Tree of Life is Oak. They are not the only two, but these are mine. You can find them all over the world. The trees are different, but not really. I know far more about the Ash tree than the Oak, but the similarities are hard to miss. Both trees are the intersection of light and dark. The great towering boughs equal to the roots below the earth. The bottom half of the Ash is the way to the underworld, and yet, those roots are what feed the tree that lives in the light. The light, see? It’s a perfect symbiotic balance. Neither are intrinsically good or bad. Makes you question what we’ve made up about light and dark, no?
The story of Odin’s sacrifice which culminated with hanging upside down for three or nine days, depending on who’s doing the telling, is Christ-like in its recorded events and motivation. We don’t really like to think about that and so each story is told a little differently; including each version of events leading up Christ’s death. You just can’t miss this stuff if you’re willing to look. So. If I can be expected to accept Christ as a Truth, why then, would I brush Yggdrasil off as a myth? After all, the story of the World Tree came long before the Prophet with the spear in his side. The reasons and the resurrections are the same, when you get right down to it.
We can walk the stations of the cross through the four quarters of Jerusalem, so why, then, would we not bear at least a part of Odin’s burden? A journey to the underworld, is a journey to the underworld.
I find it far easier to understand and accept the World Tree than the Cross. The Cross is shrouded in mystery. The Prophet, far too perfect. Should Odin even attempt to fill out an application for sainthood, the paper would spontaneously combust. And yet… the knowledge he wished to possess for himself belonged to everyone. And don't for a minute think he didn't know that.
I don’t know if I was looking at Ash or Oak. The leaves are very different, but from two or three hundred yards back, it’s hard to tell because the tree shapes are awfully close most times. They speak different languages, these trees, but what they have to say is always the same.
I don’t know if I was looking at Ash or Oak. It didn’t matter. There, in the middle of a farmer’s field left fallow for the season, stood that tree. There are no photographs. I didn’t dare.
From there on out it was an easy shot to Bristol, Tennessee. I made one last stop because I needed gas, and this part is hard for some people to understand or accept. Yes, even harder than the World Tree, because it hits so close to home.
I stopped at a station with one kind of fuel. It was a pump and pay, not a pay and pump. I went in to pay first anyway. The store with the pumps out front had a great wide covered porch with a rocking chair and bench. An old man sat in the chair, and the County Sheriff stood against the open door. He stepped aside to let me in, and again when I came back out to pump. We did the same dance when I went back to pay except on the way out, he asked me how I was and where I was from and where I was going and he was an easy sort of man. You see a woman driving a BMW with Connecticut plates heading into the mountains, you kinda got to ask yourself why.
In his case, he just asked and I told my story, right up to the World Tree. He gave me a look and then looked at the man in the chair. The man in the chair looked at me and just nodded. Then we talked around the tree in the farmer’s field, but we got to the same place. He didn’t seem so bothered by my camping alone because he’d made an assumption. What woman in her right mind would travel anywhere alone and unarmed? He didn’t ask if I was armed, he asked what I was carrying purely out of politeness.
Oh. I don’t own a firearm other than my pellet gun which won’t do much good in a small tent. It’s just for taking care of my chicken thieving raccoon problem.
Ma’am. It is your God given right to carry a firearm – as if that might be the reason why not
And people, I swear to all the gods, counted and unaccounted for, I felt that thing spring up at my right hip. I looked down and there was nothing and I couldn’t breathe much. I chalked it up to an over active imagination and damned tired. When I looked back at the men, the old man on the rocking chair said:
It's there, ma’am. He never misses. You’ll see it when you need it.
I am happy that he did not suggest I might shoot myself in the foot or put my eye out. These older gods, they don’t carry so much gender bias. Perhaps they've gotten past it; or maybe haven't reached it yet.
But really, what’s the point? Either way, I'm still walking into the woods alone.