The Fellowship of the White Blaze
I just came down off the mountain. That’s about 6200 feet in twenty-four hours, and I’m still decompressing.
On Friday last week, my wife and I drove to Fontana to meet my son, who is through-hiking the Appalachian Trail. No dogs allowed in the Smokies, so Desiree picked up Cooper (and an another dog to boot, the travelling companion of a friend he has made along the way). I slapped on a borrowed pack (thanks, Don Rose!) and tried to keep up with the young bucks who’ve had three weeks to get their trail legs. It was a heck of climb that first day, from Fontana up past Shuckstack to Mollie’s Ridge. After lunch at Shuckstack, it started to rain, and by the time we had hiked up to the shelter at Mollie’s, it was storming pretty hard. Quite a baptism for this novice.
The next day was glorious. A Sunday, and I had some time alone up past Russell Field and Spence Field, singing hymns and remembering Scripture. Lunch on Rocky Top (I hadn’t even realized that there was such a place) was so wonderful we didn’t want to leave. Views 360, resplendent and clear for miles. I could see Cades Cove and Clingmans. And the best was that I got to sing a couple of verses of “Rocky Top” just to get the goat of Teddy’s friend, Florida grad Phil Sloate, aka Groundhog. We ended up at Derrick’s Knob Shelter and enjoyed a beautiful evening, warm and clear.
How things change, especially at 5000 feet. The next day started misty and got worse. Rain by the afternoon, as we climbed up to Clingman’s Dome. My son, Teddy (aka Rip Van Winkle), and I climbed the observation tower, only to take pictures of each other in the driving wind and blinding fog and rain and then march right back down. No views that day. The trek down to Mt. Collins, through the water that turned the AT into a creek bed, was harder than any of the climbs we had. We arrived at Mt. Collins shelter by mid-afternoon and spent the rest of the day trying to build a fire. We got ‘er done, but it was a chore in that rain-drenched wilderness. I don’t remember when I’ve been so cold. I got in my bag right after dinner and didn’t emerge until the sun came up next day.
On Tuesday we had a relatively easy hike to Newfound Gap, though it started hailing and when we emerged into the parking lot I was overjoyed to see my parents waiting for us, as planned. My son Rip had asked five other hikers to join him at my parents’ cabin, for good food, a washer and dryer, and a big fire. You would have thought those hikers had won the lottery. Simple pleasures loom large to those who have lived long on spartan rations and the deprivations of the trail.
The spring flowers were coming out. Fellow hiker Lady Slipper, well-named, showed me Solomon Seal, Trout Lily, Wood Anemone, Purple Trillium, Star Chickweed, Mayflowers, and the ubiquitous Spring Beauty. Ridge Runner Flying Squirrel, a birder, showed us the Jenkos and the Chickadees. She promised more birds up on Clingman’s, but we couldn’t see further than five feet.
I haven’t shaved yet because there’s still a lot of me left up there on the trail. I can see why people do it.
I completely unplugged. Haven’t read email in five days. I haven’t been thinking about school problems or home challenges. I’ve been thinking about where to put my left foot next and how I’m going to stay warm. And praying a lot, for folks back home and for folks on the trail. It’s a purifying kind of experience.
Things are simpler on the trail, but that doesn’t mean they’re easier. It’s hard, but not stressful. At the end of the day (which comes early, with the dark) one sleeps the sleep of the just.
The trail is the great equalizer too. Nobody knows what you’ve done or who you are back home. It doesn’t matter how big your house is or whether you’ve written best sellers or who your daddy is. What matters is that you put one foot in front of the other, over and over, and treat your fellow hikers with respect and affection. Back home, I can’t even go to the grocery store and not be Headmaster. It was an unexpected pleasure to be, simply, “Rip’s Dad,” and to have no resume to go before me or to live up to.
But perhaps the greatest blessing on the AT is the fellowship of the White Blaze. Those who travel together develop a natural affection for one another. When a companion emerges from the woods into the shelter, her fellow hikers rise up to greet her with unfeigned joy and genuine delights. Trail names are given and accepted like knightings. There isn’t a lot of competition on the trail—it’s not a race. It doesn’t matter who gets to the shelter first; it matters who gets there. Hikers know well those who are two days ahead and two days back, as they pass and are passed, back and forth, enjoying one another’s company. And they share. They trade fuel for toilet paper. They fetch water for one another, hang bear bags for each other.
It was a privilege to be an adopted member of this fellowship, even if only for a few days. When they dubbed me “Chip Van Winkle” on the third day, I was happy and proud. You have to earn that.
By the way, my son, Teddy-Rip Van Winkle-Denton, has joined a “Hike for Haiti” group. For every mile he hikes (just over 20 so far, over 2000 if he does the whole trail), pledges multiply and go to Haiti. Check out the website at //www.hikefor.com/haiti-2010-PTDentonIII. I know he’d be encouraged to know that his miles will add up to help for this incredibly needy country.