Legendary Gratitude in the USA

 

When I go out to do something my wife considers dangerous or foolish, I call it “growing the legend.”  Sometimes, I “grow the legend” when I come home with a bloody leg after mountain biking.  Sometimes, it grows when I face a stormy weekend with only a hammock and a ragged sheet of 4-mil plastic. I am thankful for surviving these experiences, but, oddly, my mind most often returns to one ordinary event that did not grow my legend at all.

Instead, it grew a private legend I can tell myself with absolute certainty, one that has left an enduring imprint of gratitude.  Maybe the passing years have aged the memory into a fine nostalgic vintage, a full-bodied memory of thicker, blacker hair and youthful vigor pushed to the limit.  I’ll let you decide. Back around 1995, I joined some friends for an Appalachian Trail “tag team” hike.  Teams signed up to hike various segments of the trail, meeting the previous team on the first day, accepting the log book, taking a photo (with film!), and hiking to meet the next team several days later.  Our segment covered four days worth of significant North Carolina topography.

On Day One, we met up on schedule, chatted a little, and accepted the log book.  We also accepted a small dog that had unexpectedly joined the adventure a couple of teams back.  And off we went. The Autumn days passed according to plan, and we fell into a natural rhythm.  As it happens on long hikes, we each found our pace and slowly pulled ahead or slowly fell behind.  It was common for me to see my faster friends only once or twice during each day as they stopped to filter water, cross a stream, or have a light lunch.   We would individually drift into camp each evening, eat, and chat about the day, the little trail dog making her rounds, promiscuously accepting water and food and lavish belly rubs.  It was most unseemly how she chose a different partner each night to snuggle with as we burrowed into warm sleeping bags, the night chill settling over us. On our last full day, we were a little behind schedule, and we knew we needed to make it up.  No worries, just walk faster, right? We separated as usual as we hiked, and I was at the back of the line.  Since we were all heads-down, moving with a renewed purpose, I never caught up with anyone.

Without a meetup as a reminder to take a break, I didn’t eat anything.  I went a little faster, determined to catch the guy ahead of me. And then it happened.  Out of nowhere, I suddenly got dizzy and shaky.  In scientific terms, I hit the wall.  Hard. It was the first time I had ever drained my reserves so low, and it was an alarming experience.  Here I was, alone in the woods on a rugged trail with no immediate prospect of rescue, no friends following behind to find me, and I was weak as a kitten. That first unsettling chill of panic crawled on spider legs up my spine.  What was happening?  Was I going to die out here?  Dispensing with backpacking etiquette, I shed my gear right in the middle of the trail and broke out my camp kitchen, which consisted of a trioxane tablet, an aluminum pot, and a DIY stove made from a metal junction box from the hardware store. Hands shaking, I made a hasty meal of hot water and dehydrated teriyaki chicken, and soon I was feeling better.  But my near-miss with catastrophe is not why I remember this legendary event with such gratitude. Instead, I distinctly remember the cool Autumn breeze that blew over my sweaty back.  I remember the warm sunshine, giving off just enough heat to keep me from feeling chilled.  I remember the primitive satisfaction of a full belly.  But mostly, I remember how my body had finally convinced my busy mind to simply be still. Until that moment, the entire hike had been about goals and plans and schedules.  Sure, I had enjoyed some of the scenery, but I had not actually stopped and breathed.

Over there was a hawk soaring high above, almost invisible, passing across those fluffy clouds and vivid blue canals of sky.  And over here was a chipmunk, tail erect, sprinting bravely across the open space of no-chipmunk’s-land and vanishing safely into a brush pile.   This was the true freedom I craved from the wilderness.  It was the priceless gift of emancipation from the whip-wielding clock, the liberty to sit all day and watch the sun reveal the truth of that place to a brain finally ready to receive it.   And maybe, in a way, I am still sitting there, decades later, letting it all soak in.  Alive and grateful.  Legendary.

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