After reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I often fantasized about being the kind of woman who would do a grand thing as she did in 1995, walk 1,100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail over ninety-four days solo. When I spent a month in the Basque Country in Spain a few years ago, sipping my coffee from the front porch of the house we lived in set on the trail of the 500 miles spiritual trail called The Camino de Santiago, I admired the spindly kaleidoscope of walking sticks belonging to the trekkers who passed by the house daily. I imagined what it might be like to walk a part of that trail too.
This is why I knew I had to tackle a part of the Appalachian Trail (AT) that crosses over what is called, The Newfound Gap. This, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also the highest point in Tennessee. And while hiking the Appalachian Trail had never been on my list of fantasy solo adventures, as the mud-covered and bedraggled hikers passed me on the Trail, I imagined the story each one of them might tell years from now of his or her transformation while on the Trail.
While I walked I wanted to perseverate on my recent fears and frustrations, to problem-solve the weather and the broken dryer. Instead, I trained my eyes on the deep green of the moss, savored the feel of each step in my boot as I navigated over thick tree roots while I climbed, and took deep gulps of the air mixed with a smell of dirt and mud caused by the heavy rains. While my husband walked ahead sure-footed, I slowed my pace even more, delighting in the patches of Ephemerals I noticed pushing their way through the groundcover.
Ephemerals are so named because they appear above ground only in late winter and early spring when full sunlight streams to the forest floor in the brief time just before the deciduous trees leaf out. Their time to flower, fruit, and die back into the ground is short. In just a week or so they would be gone. I marveled at these brilliant tiny flowers, able to grow, stretching towards the sunlight they need to flourish in their brief opportunity to live.
It reminded me of the parts of my life and all of its seasons, how each of us flowers and then dies back into rebirth into new cycles and seasons. And while my reinvention was not forced by a sudden unexpected loss like divorce or death, it became clear to me that this new thing that I wanted to birth, the flowering that is my evolution, will not happen if I do not reach for it, now.
Two and a half miles later as I came upon the highest point in the hike, straddling the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee, I realized I had been stuck between the life I had left, the one that was safe and familiar, and my own trek into becoming who I am meant to be. This had been my newfound gap. Taking in the beauty of both states on each side of me, I felt my shoulders relax, the heaviness that had been living inside my heart becoming lighter. The clouds of the last three weeks had been my period of darkness and while I felt dormant, in truth I had been growing.
The sun peaked out behind the clouds just then and I knew what was most important to me now was the journey itself, not necessarily the destination.
“It is the walking that’s the point of it all,” I murmured out loud as my husband snapped a photo of me. “It’s the movement my soul needed,” I thought watching another set of hikers ascend the Trail beyond the overlook. “The act of being in discovery was what my soul had been craving.”
We had spent the Friday before at Dollywood. I turned to head back down the trail then, thinking of our day at this wonderland in Pidgeon Forge, Tennessee, just twenty-five miles or so away from the Appalachian Trail. Dollywood. While it sounds like Hollywood, it’s not. I’m discovering Radical Living is like that. The things that you think you are meant to see or experience are not the point. And when you focus on trying to make Dollywood, Hollywood, you might miss the beauty in what the Universe or G-d or Divine is trying to teach you. Like the Ephemerals, exploit the conditions that life is giving you, now. The upset you are feeling, the disappointment, or the impossibly long list of things you are tolerating. You have one moment to flower and to fruit. We all do. The sun is there behind the clouds, waiting.