I have a lot to unpack right now. I spent a couple of days at a lovely retreat center with One River Foundation. Then I did something a little different and set out for a personal retreat: an embodied experience to follow up the spiritual and intellectual pursuits of the weekend. I went for a solo hike at South Cumberland State Park, in the Savage Gulf area.
This was an absurd undertaking.
Rather than taking the safe bet of camping at the entrance to the park and exploring inwards during the day, I set my sights on a cabin several miles in, planned the time between the Healing Circle at Sewanee and sunset as driving/hiking time to arrive at my destination.
I snapped pictures of several signs along the way, to remind myself I was making progress. “It is only 6.3 more miles now that I’m on this trail!” “It’s only 5.9 miles now!” “Down to 3.4!”
There are certain things about solo hiking that appeal to me: I can take whatever breaks I need whenever I need them. There’s no one to laugh at me when I stop to hug every tree. EVERY TREE. I can spend twenty minutes trying to line up a good picture of a single spiderweb, and no one is shuffling their feet trying to hurry me. I can – for no reason at all – start chanting a comforting mantra as I walk, and no one is around to hear me.
The downside to solo hiking is mostly having no one to help in an emergency and being more vulnerable to attack from strangers. I realize that for some people “being lonely” could be added to that list, but I’m very busy hugging trees and never quite succumb to loneliness in the woods. I’m sure long backpacking trips could be different, but that’s not something I’ve experienced yet.
The first strangers I encountered on the path expressed surprise when I mentioned I was headed all the way to Hobbs cabin and inquired as to how much water I was carrying, informing me that the trail was quite dry. I did a bit of math and assured them I was all right, that most of my pack was water. This was a slight exaggeration as “most” of my pack was probably my puffy blanket, but I did have a hydration bladder, several bottles, and a handful of canned drinks. I didn’t think I was going to dehydrate any time soon.
The first few miles were actually pretty great. My mind had a lot to do, still processing concepts like “non-dual” and my personal reactions to the mix of Christian imagery and Buddhist imagery in the same space. Once I was done thinking, there were some great views to be had. At one point, when I emerged into a gap between trees, I looked up into the sky and realized the clouds were hanging there suspended, moving not at all (or more likely, too slowly to be noticed by me.)
There were plenty of bluff views, as well, and most of those will probably eventually show up on my Instagram over at Hil Hoover. Along with more spiderweb pictures, of course!
Then I hit a point where my fitbit was telling me I should have already arrived at my destination – in terms of distance – and I had to confront the fact that without GPS, it just wasn’t the best distance tracker. I stumbled and fell, smacking my knee pretty hard against a rock. My ASICS trail runners were still not causing me any blisters – thankfully! – but I was incredibly worn out, and starting to believe that going on a long hike after a morning of seminars was a bit much for one day.
I kept looking around and wondering if I had somehow managed to miss a whole campground – with a cabin on it no less! – and whether I ought to go back a little ways to make sure. But it seemed utterly ridiculous to consider, and I kept thinking “this place will be right around the corner”.
I still had a 20 ounce bottle of water and the coffee drinks I had brought for morning to alleviate any desire to carry a stove, so I was still pretty confident about hydration. I hadn’t honestly brought enough food, but that wasn’t something I was terribly concerned with in the moment, having had a ridiculously large breakfast at St Mary’s at the start of the day. My crushing exhaustion even felt GOOD in a certain way… an embodied experience, as I said. One where I could feel every part of myself settled into this imperfect sack of malformed/diseased organs and scarred skin.
A sign pointing toward the campground appeared before the cabin itself did, and I laughed out loud to see it. I nearly ran the next half mile or so, flopped down on the little porch of the cabin, and rolled around giggling for long moments before even opening the door to go in. There wasn’t much to see, anyway. The wooden bunks were stacked on top of each other on two walls, covered in very thin pads. Some previous inhabitant had moved a pad to the wooden table along a third wall to sleep on, leaving a bunk bare. A mailbox I hoped held something useful or interesting contained only trash. A fireplace lay dark, would continue to lie dark for my short stay.
The only real interesting part of the cabin for me was that someone had repurposed a trail log originally labeled PCT – “you aren’t here” it said next to the words – for a log for cabin dwellers. I paged through and read several entries before depositing a short poem.
I meant to stay two nights. I’d reserved for two nights. I can’t really say why I decided to leave after only one. There was nothing particularly “good”or “bad”about the night I spent in the cabin, and I remember thinking that I might use it again someday. It fulfilled its purpose of ensuring I had no need to carry a tent, though truly the night was so nice I could have spent it under the stars instead. An empty streambed stretched behind the cabin, but a tiny muddy puddle provided water that came out of my filter reasonably clear. The one campground inhabitant I encountered – a man with a dog who came by way of Stone Door and had thus hiked further than I – was a little startling but didn’t come back to bother me after our initial meeting by the spring.
Everything was okay. Just okay. I didn’t manage sleep until around dawn, and when I woke a couple hours later, I realized that I was more excited for the hike back than for spending a day journalling or reading or poking around near the cabin. So I did that. I gathered up what few things I had unpacked, double checked my water supplies, layered most of my clothes on (experiencing a morning chill), and started walking.
I took a different trail on the way back from the way in. There were fewer overlooks, but many spaces where the trail passed close between two trees that leaned toward each other. (These spaces are sacred, and I can not tell you why.) I made a game out of finding my way around spiderwebs without walking through them, after the first few times I had picked bugs off my glasses. Sometimes this was harder than it sounds, when the webs spanned the whole trail.
I walked. I munched on peanut butter balls and sucked down fruit and veggie puree packets. I stopped to change out of the cargo-pocket joggers and into my rainbow long johns when I realized I wasn’t encountering much that I felt my legs needed protection from. I redressed the wound on my knee. I shared a laugh with a hiker who caught me pantsless – the one person I saw that morning! – and gave him one of the fruit packets.
I chanted and talked out loud to myself. It was a strange experience, not bumping into people all the time like I do on my city’s greenways. For me – the most approachable person in the world – it was kind of awesome not being “on” for a while. No moments in which someone needed my help, no slurs yelled after me, no concern about what I might need to explain to someone. Just being. Just walking. Becoming simply “the one who walks” and nothing more.
Hours and miles and trees. I didn’t encounter another human until I was almost entirely out of the woods – two women who seemed supplied only for a short walk who were probably doing the day loop. They informed me the parking lot was empty, and that was why I hadn’t seen anyone.There was a sign that said “ranger station 1 mile” at some point around that time. I had known I was close by bumping into signs for the day loop, so I wasn’t terribly surprised to be almost there.
But by this point, I’d been walking for the entire morniing and much of the afternoon. This, for a healthy fit person, isn’t that impressive. The man I met at Hobbs Cabin certainly didn’t find it impressive, considering he’d come much further. Aside from surprise that I was traveling alone, fellow hikers I had spoken to previously didn’t find anything interesting or impressive about the mileage. Thru-hikers on the big trails often make 20+ miles per day. What I was doing was nothing, really.
For anyone who hadn’t seen me unable to walk for months on end, or coughing up blood at the exertion of getting out of bed, there wasn’t anything interesting about a walk in the woods. For anyone who didn’t know – intimately – that just putting on clothes often brought me to tears because of the intense pain involved, it was nothing. For anyone not aware that I have to be careful about long workdays because they lead to fevers and a whole mess of associated symptoms, there was nothing to see here.
I was wrecked. I kept checking my fitbit, and looking at the trail again. I started counting the little metal plates that served as trail markers, and taking a break for water after I’d touched a certain number of them. I finished my water.
I checked to see if my cell service was on. It had been coming and going – I’d texted back a coworker during a brief window an hour or two ago – and was now allowing me to look at google maps. It cheerfully informed me I had gone .2 miles in the past quarter hour.
So, what to do? One foot in front of the other. More markers, more counting. The shaky steel cable and plank bridges that I had photographed on my way in to get across. A stumble there gave me a bit of a scare, but everything was still attached, body and gear alike.
More chanting, softly in case anyone else should appear on the trail. No one did.Another quarter hour. Another… .3 miles? That didn’t make any sense. I didn’t walk that slow, right? I did often do quick spurts of walking and then pause for meditation, when doing my greenway walks, but I hadn’t been doing that here. My little breaks had been a minute or two long each, not twenty minutes.
One foot in front of the other. Laughing aloud because… ? Tap those trail markers.
Then the ranger station, and no fit of laughter this time. Just stopping in the bathroom to wash my face and then moving to the vehicle, getting in. Opening the windows. Arranging all my stuff for the drive home. Mapping it out.
No “I did it!” No celebratory post to FB or Insta. No selfies of my red face or messy hair.
It took me an hour to walk a mile, and that’s okay.
It took me two days in the woods to finish a thought process, and that’s okay.