What I know about love, is that it exists in surprising forms. Perhaps nature is the easiest one for me to access. It feels like all I have to do is breathe, or step. Yet, it turns out to be the thing on your mind, or the thing in your pocket, or the memories that walk with you. Then it picks you up on the side of the road or swells with joy when your voice comes through the tiny slots in your phone. Of all the things I’ve gained from adventure, it’s this appreciation that means the most to me.
Yesterday, I was getting ready to walk back into the woods in a raging storm, on the south boundary of the Smokies. If you’re an A.T. lover, you might have a bone to pick with that. The Smokies are the highest point on trail and they are unique and beautiful. Its a place to take your time and to properly take in. My plan was to move quickly in the rain to catch my cousin who is half a day ahead and then meet Sara-Tide at Newfound Gap the next day for some classic Gatlinburg fun (mini-golf and tacky museums, if we should be so lucky). I had taken the previous day off, because I found a beautiful distraction in Franklin, NC. Jess was ready to slow down a bit, too. No hard feelings, we both like being alone and we have different paces.
I called my family in Franklin and talked a lot about how much I love hiking with my cousin and how rich it is, for the laughter. I missed her, and was second guessing my decision to go faster. I do like to move, and it feels like celebrating who I am and what I know how to do. Still, a good cousin is worth their weight in gold. The built-in friendship, the context of a shared upbringing, the wiring that is genetically similar…these are things you can’t build. I had already felt a new calling to slow my shit down while I’ve got Jessie’s company. That’s why I came here, afterall. And there I was, standing on the side of the trail in the pouring rain, with my back turned to woods, saying goodbye to a man in the classic, beautifully consuming way, when I heard, “Hello” in a familiar voice behind me.
“Jess!” I squealed. I was equal parts concerned and thrilled. “Are you ok?” She was smiling and walking, so there was that much, but she was more than ok. She was chipper and laughing at life, with stories of getting rocked in the woods the night before. Her sleeping pad had become a lifeboat in her tent, filled with water, and a branch had landed close to her head and put a whole in the rain fly. She spent hours of the night holding the walls of her tent out while the wind whipped it around violently. And here she was, smiling and sharing the song she wrote about it with us.
“Let’s get lunch.” Zen said. And the three of us walked back across Fontana Dam with a gait of giddiness. Jess and I were laughing so hard that we keeled over and I had to work hard on not peeing myself. We played our family game of shanghai last night and made a non-plan plan, which we will kick off today. This means that Sara-Tide can’t meet us in the Smokies, and that’s a bummer, but it means we’re going to walk slowly and together through some beautiful stuff.
It’s funny, the ways we change as we get older. It’s equally funny, the ways we stay the same. I’m getting exactly what I came here for.