From the small towns of North Carolina and on into the wooded hills of Virginia, rain settled over the road. The clouds took turns drip-dropping their seeds across the countryside as they passed. We took our first stop at Williamsburg, a colonial town not unlike Old Town San Diego or a Universal Studios set, but real. Almost. But for the presence of Coke, Sprite and Dr. Pepper on tap behind a few old timey wooden refreshment stands it might have been believable. Something in me couldn’t help but see the 17 year old behind the get-up, the one who would throw his buckled shoes in the back of his Toyota Camry when he got off work, and speed off to meet friends at the beach, while The Arctic Monkeys boomed from his stereo. And a colonial bakery should have fresh, homemade-tasting goodies, right? Not so in the 1700’s. Back then they bought their cookies and brownies from the day-old tray in the supermarket bakery like everyone else. We walked the soggy streets in the mist and humidity until we saw enough.
We headed northwest and climbed ever so higher into the Appalachians. The country stretched its arms, let out a yawn, and welcomed us with that tired, squinty-eyed smile that it’s known to offer travelers. It nodded hello again and again as we passed through small town after smaller town, populations decreasing as the elevation increased. The hills became twisting, curving mountains and Captain Kiwi shifted into lower gears. Then we were at the gates of Shenandoah National Park, a secret among National Parks if ever there was one.
We turned and drove south onto Skyline Drive toward our campsite. It might have been the glow of dusk, it might have been the music on the radio, or it might have been something completely Other, greater and more wonderful than ourselves, but the place was magic. The setting sun cast long shadows through the woods, where the ferns and brush were thick and soft. The road straddled cliff on one side and sloping hill on the other. We passed lookout after lookout, catching glimpses of worn and ancient peaks across the valley, storm clouds heavy in the distance. And then suddenly there was an open field and the turnoff for our site.
We claimed a spot and paid our fees and hurried back to the general store for supplies before they closed. We parked and hurried past two gnarly looking travelers resting on a picnic table, beards thick and clothes damp and dirty, their backpacks at their feet. As we came out a few minutes later with a new sticker for the bus and some snacks we passed by the table. Something made me want to stop. They didn’t seem like just campers.
“Where you guys coming from?”
“Georgia” one of them said, like the state itself was just the town around the bend. We all got talking and found out they were hiking the Appalachian Trail. The whole thing, from its one end in Springer Mountain, Georgia, to its other in Mount Katahdin, Maine. 2184 miles. They were about two months into the hike with 3 months to go. We couldn’t have been more excited to talk to these two, sharing perspectives about traveling, their experiences on the trail to date, their preparation. Pancho taught in Asia for a while to save up money while Dane, or Great Dane, his travel companion, only saved up for a month. It’s a surprisingly cheap endeavor, we learned, to do the AT. Pancho told me that hikers earn nicknames or claim one for themselves on the trail. Great Dane is originally from Denmark while Pancho earned his because of his repeated and resourceful use of his rain protector. He shared how just the day before he stripped down and hiked with only it as his covering because of the rain and the ravaging effect that moisture and friction can have on a person’s thighs. We spoke about the Pacific Crest Trail, about Dane’s experience on the Camino De Santiago de Compostela, our hopes for future travels, and what possibly lay ahead for us all.
You could tell they were good. Souls with that spark, not content to wait or to drift but to pursue and pursue and rage, rage against the dying of the light. We shared ice cream with them until, satisfied with the connection we had made and each of us eager to get comfortable for the night, we bid each other well on our respective journeys. I hoped, secretly, to cross paths with them again, to hear how their journey ended, to hear if their journey ended. I hoped that ours would crisscross and weave around theirs and those of others like a spider web spun in the branches of a tree.
We made it back to camp after catching the surreal sight of a dear playing with a black kitten in the parking lot and then we cooked dinner. We made s’mores on our stove and let the day settle on our minds. The clouds that skirted the peaks of the mountains earlier in the day had crept closer and closer as the sun set so that as I went out to brush my teeth I saw a massive thunderhead formed in the distance and the sky between it and the trees was an eerie white against the deep blue of the night. The thunderhead lit up, miles and miles wide, and again and again. Thunder rolled like a freight train in the distance. I told Jamie and the two of us with Eliot sat out on the road and watched, silent and rapt with awe. The clouds morphed and grew toward us, first lighting up like lampshades and then exposing the giant streaks of lightning beneath as they traveled across the sky. We were powerless and microscopic compared to those clouds, that storm coming closer. We were nothing.
But in the great scheme of things, neither was it. It was a tiny speck of cloud mass on the face of this planet. The heaviness of that sense of perspective both sank and lifted my heart. We are nothing but we are so much, each of us an individual. So much has been given to us and so much is possible. We are possible.
[Godspeed and blessings, Pancho and Great Dane.]