In the fall of 2018 I took a two month long sabbatical and I am still trying to figure out what this has done for me, or to me. For part of my time away from Seedleaf duties, I took a long walk on the Sheltowee Trace. What follows is one reflection from my time on the trail.
“You picked a hot day for a walk.” It was a true statement that made me smile. It was also some of the only words I heard spoken on day four of my journey. The speaker was a woman with white hair in a cream-colored Oldsmobile, about to turn in front of me on the paved county road on which I had walked for the past hour. She smiled too. We started to visit.
I had woken up very close to Cave Run Lake and was ready to hike a long way. My pack was heavy with all the food I would need for the rest of the week, but still, I had mileage on my mind. My trekking poles, still a new set of tools for me, seemed to be helping with my balance, and with impact on downhill sections. I didn’t mind the road, as it was not very busy, and I was making good time.
But my neighbor was right: it was hot. I was staying hydrated, but the road was on a ridge with very few trees, and I was looking forward to getting onto a trail again soon, under a canopy.
I told her what I was doing: hiking the Sheltowee Trace for 323 miles from north of Morehead to the Big South Fork in Tennessee, a trip that would take three weeks. “That’s a long way,” she observed. We talked about Morehead, where she and all of her family had gone to school. “What a cool town!” I gushed. She laughed at this, politely. Soon we parted and were moving in different directions.
This brief conversation echoed in my imagination throughout the afternoon. In my planning, I had not considered the amount of alone time I would experience. On good days, with some intentionality, being alone was solitude, something that nourished my soul. Solitude is spending time with, and listening to, someone I respect and care about: myself. This was a new concept in my life, something I am still learning how to articulate.
There were also plenty of times and sections when alone time was just lonely. This is a much more familiar pattern for me. I had cell reception on some ridges and high points, but often I was camping in valleys, near water, and I could not reach out to my usual distractions. Loneliness was something I had to strategize against. The beauty of the landscape around me became an ally in this. The challenge of hiking in a rainstorm, or dealing with minor pains, were other ways to displace loneliness.
But something I couldn’t plan for was a friendly person pausing to greet me. What a grace this was! And how many times had I just endured a bit of small talk, doing everything I could to avoid making a connection, or even eye contact. Now I drank greedily at this fountain: I wanted to tell this stranger all about my previous three nights! But I didn’t. I appreciated the contact, but I did not go on to burden this neighbor, or others with whom I visited.
Besides the gifts of care and greeting, my neighbor reframed my journey for me slightly. I went into the wilderness with my research, my gear, my plan, my trekking poles, ready to hike with confidence, and to push myself, to learn my limits, etcetera. This hike would be some serious recreation, I must have thought to myself. And really, I wanted to be re-created.
My neighbor, however, saw what I was doing. She had seen others doing this. She applied a humbler name: she saw me walking. I was a guy with a backpack and ski poles walking on a hot day on a country road. And really, this took some pressure off. To walk is much more playful, much more of an experiment than a well planned hike. Walking connotes an openness, a curiosity, a willingness to stop for a chat, or a swim, or a view of a waterfall, or an arch.
It was a hot and wonderful day for a walk. I agreed all through the afternoon. I kept using the trekking poles. I kept emulating a serious hiker. But I was secretly relishing this slightly downgraded endeavor. Now I was on a long walk, and I was glad for it.