As I See It

Shadow self portrait on the Trail by Harry Deitz

It is late in the afternoon

when we emerge from the canopy of the tall trees and thick woodland that has sheltered us from the strong spring sun. We have been climbing for three hours, stopping only occasionally to catch our breath, rest our heavy legs and sip water that has long since lost the refreshing chill from the stream in the valley far below.

The Trail seemed to go on endlessly as we looked ahead and up. Always up. The mountaintop, our destination, seemed to be just steps or minutes beyond us. But each time the path leveled off, it brought into view another climb. Another challenge. It’s always that way on the Trail. You hike along, not knowing what lies around the next bend or over the next crest. You desperately want to reach the destination, and you know you will, but then the journey will be over. So, in spite of the struggle, you try to focus on enjoying the present. Every step takes on the significance of another milestone reached. Each mile brings with it a special sense of accomplishment, but only briefly, because the next mile waits for you.

The next mile — often steeper and rockier than the previous one — stretching out ahead, challenges you not to quit yet, daring you to go a little farther along this lonely, narrow road — even as your legs ache and the bottoms of your feet burn. Sometimes you wonder why you put yourself through this — the walk from one point on a map to another — especially when the rocks beneath you slide and force you to catch yourself just before you stumble off the path.

Then, as suddenly and sharply as a twig snapping beneath your boot, the pain disappears. You feel a new mixture of energy and calm. For a moment, you stop, but this time not because of exhaustion or a need for water. It just seems to be the right thing to do. All around, the world seems to stop with you.

Your mind, which had been so occupied with your struggle, now is consumed by the momentary silence and bathed in the beauty and peace that surrounds you. You notice the sounds of nature begin to build. Birds communicate from their hidden perches, possibly announcing your arrival. Gentle gusts of wind occasionally kiss the new leaves of spring. A tree branch falls in the distance, a late victim of heavy winter snows that had weakened it until it could hold on no longer.

Just as suddenly, the sounds of the forest fade. You listen to the quiet of the woods. Then you take a step, and another, and your journey resumes. But those few reflective moments stay with you. Something has changed. Almost without warning, the trees around you are gone. The soft blue sky of this late afternoon opens above you. There before you, is the reward for all your labor. You stare in awe at the view of the valley below and the far-off mountain ridge. You try to find the words — majestic, breathtaking, magnificent, captivating — but none will satisfy you because there are no sufficient words. Only seeing it can describe it. This is why you climb. This is what made the struggle so worthwhile.

You sit and stare across miles for what seems like hours. At this moment, there is nothing to distract you. There is nothing more important or pressing in your life. The colors in the distance start to fade, so slowly, so subtly that at first the change eludes your detection. The light dims as the sun starts to drop behind the next mountain in the distance. Your exhaustion returns, but this time more peacefully. You’re almost too tired to eat. But you force a little nourishment,
prepare your shelter, and soon are wrapped in the darkness that is broken only by a few stars on a clear and almost moonless night. You call them heaven’s night lights. Sleep comes quickly. Soundly. Completely.

Then, you hear the birds again, and you pull back the tent flap as the first rays of light break through the trees behind you. You watch as the sun rises. Just as you knew it would, because it always does. You can count on it. And ahead of you lies the next section of Trail. A new day awaits. Another journey calls to you. It’s always that way on the Trail. It’s always that way in life.

Harry Deitz is the winner of the myATstory essay contest. Check back for the runners-up for the myATstory Essay Contest as well as the Photo Contest and Video Contest winners in the Summer issue of A.T. Journeys.

“As I See It” is a column
from guest contributors representing the full range of ATC partners, members, and volunteers. To submit a column (700 words or less)
for consideration:

[email protected]
or write to Editor/As I See It
Appalachian Trail Conservancy
P.O. Box 807
Harpers Ferry, WV 25425