United States

as in Presbyterian Church in America
Ambivert or something
Self-proclaimed band nerd
Planet Earth nerd
etc, etc
Joined September 10, 2019

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In the Cradle of the Trees

September 19, 2019

PROMPT: Doorways

    We get up, shivering in the cool of the forest, and start to tear down our camp before the sun rises. Often, it is the birds that wake us, their high-pitched, chirruping songs ending the trees' silent slumber; they celebrate the coming of the dawn.
    By the time the sun begins to peek through the shadow of the woods, I am boiling water for breakfast. I always face East while preparing our food, positioned on a high place, watching as morning light illuminates every living creature and each inanimate object. It is only at sunrise, when the light blends with the dark, that one can see the true beauty of the forest.
    We eat as much as we can spare; we will need the calories for the coming day. I dine upon oatmeal and PopTarts, sipping hot chocolate, a pleasant luxury on cold mornings. Dad has grits; I've never eaten them out here, not once. I can't stand them.
    Before we know it, the sun has risen high. With camp torn down and neatly put away, we shoulder our backpacks, readjusting all the straps, clipping our hip belts. And then we're off, trekking poles in hand, striding down the trail.
    No more than five minutes pass before, my throat dry and parched, I reach for the mouthpiece of my hydration bladder and take a sip. I take a long drink, all while still moving, never stopping.
    The Appalachian Trail is a "green tunnel". The term is fitting. Here, the plants never end. There are oaks, rhododendrons, grasses and wildflowers, ivies, shrubs, maples and birches. Even among the endless boulder fields of Pennsylvania, the forest still grows, sprouting upwards from within the cracks in the stone.
    Our legs carry us up mountains, down into the valleys, over the hills, wherever the trail guides us. White blazes painted onto the thick bark of chosen trees remind us of the path beneath our feet, this path on which so many others have walked. Their step mirrors mine, one step out of 4,378,000. My journey seems infinitely small compared to theirs; they follow this path from Georgia to Maine, one foot in front of the other, one tiny step at a time.
    When we reach a landmark, we break for a little while. We study the map, planning the rest of our day. I eat a Clif Bar. Unable to restrain myself, I devour about half of my trail mix.
    The pack is indeed lighter when I put it on again, due to my eating habits, but my shoulders don't seem to realize that; they ache just as much as they did before.
    Only when we start walking again do I understand just how far my feet have gone since we arrived on the trail yesterday. They throb with a type of endless pain I've never felt before. If my body could speak, I'm sure it would be screaming.
    We aim to go around ten miles today, but, over many trips out here, we've learned to be flexible. Some days we go far, up to twenty miles, and other days we go only five. We don't really care anymore. Dinner I keep telling myself. Hot chocolate and ramen noodles. This is the best motivation I have for my hurting body to keep going.
    Some days, I wonder why I come out here, every few months, solely for the purpose of taking one step after another. It seems illogical; why would anyone devote a few days to walking through the woods, to pushing their body to the breaking point? I notice soreness in muscles I never knew I had. The blisters on my feet cannot be overlooked. And for a week afterward, my entire body burns with pain. Sometimes, when I take a snack break and remember what it feels like to not have twenty-five pounds strapped to my back, I wish I could just be home, rested and comfortable, not having to worry about getting up again.
    But later in the day, we see something beautiful: a deer darting through the bush, or a grove of rhododendrons, or a view from atop a sunny peak. Then I remember why I come out here.
    We come across a spring or small stream, and we refill our water bottles and hydration bladders. After we filter everything, through a method developed and perfected over several wilderness journeys, we take a few sips. The water is cool and refreshing. It tastes like the mountains.
    We stop an hour or two before sunset, depending on when we find a suitable campsite. Our space to set up our camp is small, as all the campsites are, but we don't mind.
    I boil water for dinner. Tonight, we have ramen noodles, as usual. Sometimes, we eat mashed potatoes or rice, but ramen is our staple. Each of us has our favorite flavors, but we all agree that the noodles are best when tuna or salmon is added for extra protein and flavor. Our first backpacking trip, we ate shrimp-flavored ramen with tuna. It was the best thing I ever ate, hitting the spot after a long day marching along the trail.
    We eat as the sun sets. By the time we finish, it's nearly dark. We take one last bathroom break; we've started calling it a tree break since there are no bathrooms out here. The beams from our headlamps bounce in the night.
    I settle into my sleeping bag and use my fleece as a pillow. A root is sticking up into my back. I simply readjust my position to circumnavigate it.
    Straight behind me is a small, mesh vent, which I like to use as a window. I roll onto my stomach, turning my head every which way, in hopes of catching a more complete glimpse of the outside world. I take in every detail--from the birds, who have just started chirping again, serenading the setting sun, to the crooked trunk of the tree a few feet away, to the hundreds of ferns surrounding us as far as the eye can see. Every night, I do this. At every campsite, I look out and breathe in the world.
    Between each campsite, I notice the subtle differences. One area may be rockier, another more thorny, and another less sloped. But despite the diversity among locations, when you're out in the woods, some things never change. Each day is the same routine, over, and over, and over again. Sometimes, it feels like monotony. Even so, there is a certain beauty out here that can never be outdone. I wouldn't trade this time in the forest for anything.
4,378,000 is an approximation of the number of steps it would take for a person to complete all 2,189 miles of the Appalachian Trail, based on a pace of 2,000 steps per mile.

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