The Trail

Each year Lovie is good enough to let me abandon my family and hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail for several days. Some of her friends give me grief about my annual sojourn. They seem to consider it nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to have a three-day bender in the woods with my buddies. If they only knew.

Hours and hours are spent consulting our trusty maps as well as several guidebooks to carefully analyze topography, mileage, water sources, weather patterns, shelters, and campsites before we even decide upon our itinerary. It takes almost as long to organize our backpacks. The last thing you can afford on the trail is too much weight, which means many of the things I might have wanted to take get left behind. That’s okay, though. You get by better with only the things you need.

My friends and I temporarily trade our complicated but comfortable lives for simple, arduous ones. We hike up and down 5,000-foot inclines, covering up to 20 miles a day, armed with nothing more than 40 pounds of essentials, the clothes we’re wearing, and a desire to lead more meaningful lives.

I can’t speak for my companions, but while I’m in the woods, I feel the entire gamut of emotions—from exhilaration after cresting a two-mile incline, to wonder while witnessing the divine beauty at the top, to relief at beginning a much-needed descent, to despair when staring at yet another uphill stretch, to exaltation when I finally see the campsite I’ve dedicated the previous 11 hours to reach. It’s there I’ll rest and replenish all so I can experience another collage of emotions the very next day.

Last year’s trip was to span seven days and cover 106 miles. On the second night, we were right on schedule, camping out along the shores of Lake Watauga, and settling in for a much needed night of recuperation. I headed to my tent shortly after nine.

At ten, I awoke to the rhythmic rustling of leaves accompanied by intermittent pops of breaking wood. Loud pops. Too loud to come from twigs, but rather from thick, fallen branches being snapped in two by something heavy. By something strong.

One of our friends had stayed up and was still outside, reading by the dim glow of his headlamp. He looked up to spy a bear climbing the tree from which we had hung our food. He jumped to his feet, grabbed his trekking poles, and clanged them together over his head while slowly walking backwards, carefully avoiding eye contact with the animal the entire time—a textbook reaction by a true outdoorsman. The bear scampered down the tree, but not before clawing through the tarp that contained our food bags which fell to the ground like candy from a piñata.

We huddled around the coaled-up campfire and decided to re-hang our food from a tree further away and remain there until morning instead of hiking through the pitch-black night loaded down with backpacks containing many-a tasty item which had attracted our four-legged interloper to begin with. With the food even further away, we felt there was no chance he’d come back.

But at two in the morning, our furry friend returned, alerting us of his whereabouts with similar noises to the ones he’d made earlier. As we scurried out from our tents, he slipped away into the mysterious night, scared off by the loud noises we were intentionally making in hopes of eliciting such a reaction.

My friends and I quickly broke camp and began hiking toward a road that was just two miles away. It felt as if we were in a scene from the Blair Witch Project as we made our trek, walking close together in a single-file line to the rhythm of our quickened heartbeats, thin, shaky beams of light emanating from our foreheads, one of us banging on a pot for effect, all of us with our heads on a swivel.

When we reached the new food-hanging tree, we were surprised to discover that one of our bags was missing—mine. The shock experienced after the initial encounter must have kept us from noticing that the bear had gotten away with it. By the time we reached the road and set up our makeshift camp, it was close to four in the morning. A few hours later, we woke up tired and confused. Without my food, it would be impossible for me to complete the section as planned.

Each year, I fight many battles on the trail, but they’re typically waged by me—whether I’m questioning my endurance, challenging my perseverance, or pushing my resolve to the absolute limit. Those battles motivate my body to keep moving through the last two miles of a long day. Those battles motivate my mind to ignore the burn in my thighs as I ascend the final 1,500 feet which separate me from my destination.

The first day back on the trail after our encounter, a new type of battle emerged. This one was not waged by me, but rather by all things outside of my control—things like unexpected creatures, unknown fate, and the morbid curiosity that lies therein. Ordinary noises took on new meaning. Normal shadows took on new life.

I’ve logged enough hours on the trail to know that I’m not in control. The trail is. It decides when to deliver me unspeakable joy. And even if I’m feeling invincible, it can bring me to my knees in an instant if it so chooses, reminding me of my relative insignificance with mocking condescension.

Still, I love the trail, and year after year, I keep coming back for more. While I’m away, it haunts me like a beautiful ghost.

Thanks to the bear and the food he procured, we were forced to change plans midstream last year. We got a ride to a quaint little inn some 25 miles away where we reloaded and spent the night. The next morning, we got another ride to what was originally supposed to be our ending point. From there, we hiked back to the inn where we had left a car, finishing strong by covering over 50 miles in those final three days.

The end result was 80 miles in five days. Our minds taxed, and our bodies spent, we decided to leave the 26 miles between the inn and our roadside campsite for another time. Or, perhaps better put, the decision was made for us.

If you’ve ever hiked the Appalachian Trail, then you’re familiar with the white blazes which are painted on the trees along either side of it. They’re six-inch-high-by-two-inch-wide affirmations that you are, indeed, still on the right path. During an 18-mile trek, these blazes blow by like mile markers on the interstate.

Sometimes, especially when my mind and body are weary, it feels like the hike I’m on is my entire life; each white blaze, another day; and the trail, God. Until I reach His camp, there’s no point in stopping, even when I feel as if I can’t take another step. So onward I go. To finish my hike. The one I spent so much time planning. The one I’m executing to the very best of my abilities. But no matter how well prepared I am, and no matter how effectively I carry out my plan, my steps won’t decide where I go. The Trail will.

Me?

I’m just a hiker.

This post is dedicated to my friend Katie Granju and her entire family.

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About john cave osborne

John Cave Osborne is a writer whose work has appeared on such sites as DisneyBaby, Babble, YahooShine, TLC and the Huffington Post. He was also referenced by Jezebel one time, but he’s pretty sure they were making fun of him. He and his wife, Caroline, live with their five children and spastic dog in Knoxville, TN. Nothing annoys him more than joke-heavy bios written in the third person, with the possible exception of Corey Feldman.

  • Nicki

    Ah, thank you, JCO. I spent a lot of time hiking in the Adirondacks years ago. One of my forestry classes actually involved leaving us at a trail head with our packs for three days. I miss this and love your words about it.

  • Nicki

    Ah, thank you, JCO. I spent a lot of time hiking in the Adirondacks years ago. One of my forestry classes actually involved leaving us at a trail head with our packs for three days. I miss this and love your words about it.

  • jgb

    Very awesome

  • jgb

    Very awesome

  • http://worldofweasels.blogspot.com WeaselMomma

    You may have dedicated this to Katie, but I am sure that you unknowingly wrote it for me.
    I better go check that I am on the right path.

  • http://worldofweasels.blogspot.com WeaselMomma

    You may have dedicated this to Katie, but I am sure that you unknowingly wrote it for me.
    I better go check that I am on the right path.

  • http://wwwjackbenimble.blogspot.com/ Jack

    There are few things in life that can touch you the way an experience such as you describe can. It is a connection that really does come from a different place.

    On a side note one of these days I’ll have to relate my tale of the bear that once served as chaperone for my girlfriend and I.

  • http://wwwjackbenimble.blogspot.com/ Jack

    There are few things in life that can touch you the way an experience such as you describe can. It is a connection that really does come from a different place.

    On a side note one of these days I’ll have to relate my tale of the bear that once served as chaperone for my girlfriend and I.

  • http://allthatcomeswithit.com Dan

    I’m determined to hike at least a portion of the trail before I die.

    And speaking of hikes, there is one place left on our 84 mile hike of Hadrians Wall if you fancy it :) (http://hadrianswalk.org)

  • http://allthatcomeswithit.com Dan

    I’m determined to hike at least a portion of the trail before I die.

    And speaking of hikes, there is one place left on our 84 mile hike of Hadrians Wall if you fancy it :) (http://hadrianswalk.org)

  • http://mobyhomemaker.wordpress.com MH:DG

    Very nice!!!

  • http://mobyhomemaker.wordpress.com MH:DG

    Very nice!!!

  • http://www.buriedwithchildren.com Jen

    You will never find me hiking or camping. Nope, not in a million years.

  • http://www.buriedwithchildren.com Jen

    You will never find me hiking or camping. Nope, not in a million years.

  • http://thesuburbanscrawl.blogspot.com melisa with one S

    Nicely done.

    Speaking to the part about your LITERAL hike on the AT, my husband is absolutely dying to do this with our boys. They’re hoping for next summer. I’ll have to tell him you’re a veteran!

  • http://thesuburbanscrawl.blogspot.com melisa with one S

    Nicely done.

    Speaking to the part about your LITERAL hike on the AT, my husband is absolutely dying to do this with our boys. They’re hoping for next summer. I’ll have to tell him you’re a veteran!

  • lesleehorner

    I love this post! It is so amazing that you do this. It sounds like it really is a true experience of living…feeling all the emotions and experiencing both pleasure and pain. I think we need those reminders because sometimes in everyday life we are running on auto-pilot. I hope one day to be able to go on a week long (or more) silent meditation retreat. And once I find one of those and try it out, maybe it would turn into a yearly expedition. I imagine it would be much like what you described here only all of it would take place within me….

    You are just awesome, btw!

  • lesleehorner

    I love this post! It is so amazing that you do this. It sounds like it really is a true experience of living…feeling all the emotions and experiencing both pleasure and pain. I think we need those reminders because sometimes in everyday life we are running on auto-pilot. I hope one day to be able to go on a week long (or more) silent meditation retreat. And once I find one of those and try it out, maybe it would turn into a yearly expedition. I imagine it would be much like what you described here only all of it would take place within me….

    You are just awesome, btw!

  • Patrick (yeah, that one)

    Brilliantly put, my friend. Ahhh… The mountains are calling me all the more now. Thanks for finding the right words to express how I feel out in nature. Nature is my cathedral.

  • Patrick (yeah, that one)

    Brilliantly put, my friend. Ahhh… The mountains are calling me all the more now. Thanks for finding the right words to express how I feel out in nature. Nature is my cathedral.

  • http://daddyfiles.com Daddy Files

    JCB, keep this post as a link on the front page of your blog. Because it should be studied as a primer for how to truly author a blog post.

    You didn’t waste a single word here. Everything was in its place, the narrative flowed smoothly and the story was beyond compelling. Not to mention you made me miss camping something fierce.

    This was brilliant. I don’t use that word often, but I have no problem saying it here. The fact that you ever asked me for advice about anything is so blatantly ridiculous at this point, I just have to laugh, because you’ve got a stranglehold on blogging and writing and you’re going places. Soon.

    I’m looking forward to witnessing your rapid ascension.

  • http://daddyfiles.com Daddy Files

    JCB, keep this post as a link on the front page of your blog. Because it should be studied as a primer for how to truly author a blog post.

    You didn’t waste a single word here. Everything was in its place, the narrative flowed smoothly and the story was beyond compelling. Not to mention you made me miss camping something fierce.

    This was brilliant. I don’t use that word often, but I have no problem saying it here. The fact that you ever asked me for advice about anything is so blatantly ridiculous at this point, I just have to laugh, because you’ve got a stranglehold on blogging and writing and you’re going places. Soon.

    I’m looking forward to witnessing your rapid ascension.

  • http://lifeofanewdad.blogspot.com Otter321

    This is a fantastic post. I love the outdoors and the way you describe it here is awesome. I had no idea in the end you would turn it into something so meaningful with a perfect analogy for the Christian life. I love it.

    Bears I don’t love so much though. The first time I walked up on one in the woods we got about 30 feet apart before he ran and I had nearly soiled my pants. As long as they run away though they are ok. I had one stare me down even after I fired a shot in its direction once. Not a comforting feeling.

    • http://www.johncaveosborne.com johncaveosborne

      thanks, man. many Christian metaphors are heavy handed. my favorite ones sneak up on you. i’m glad this one seemed to have done just that to you.

  • http://lifeofanewdad.blogspot.com Otter321

    This is a fantastic post. I love the outdoors and the way you describe it here is awesome. I had no idea in the end you would turn it into something so meaningful with a perfect analogy for the Christian life. I love it.

    Bears I don’t love so much though. The first time I walked up on one in the woods we got about 30 feet apart before he ran and I had nearly soiled my pants. As long as they run away though they are ok. I had one stare me down even after I fired a shot in its direction once. Not a comforting feeling.

    • http://www.johncaveosborne.com johncaveosborne

      thanks, man. many Christian metaphors are heavy handed. my favorite ones sneak up on you. i’m glad this one seemed to have done just that to you.

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  • Kate’s mom

    And as we grow older, there are continuing turns, hills and valleys as we travel the trail. There is a lot of beauty along the way too. Lovely post and very meaningful.

  • Kate’s mom

    And as we grow older, there are continuing turns, hills and valleys as we travel the trail. There is a lot of beauty along the way too. Lovely post and very meaningful.

  • http://clarkkentslunchbox.blogspot.com/ Clark Kent’s Lunchbox

    yeah, really poignant post, John. I could feel my legs getting tired with your descriptions. You need to get this one published my friend. It too good to be left up and forgotten in a few weeks.

  • http://clarkkentslunchbox.blogspot.com/ Clark Kent’s Lunchbox

    yeah, really poignant post, John. I could feel my legs getting tired with your descriptions. You need to get this one published my friend. It too good to be left up and forgotten in a few weeks.

  • http://sahdinlansing.com Chris (@tessasdad)

    In a word awesome.

    On a personal note, my second date with my wife was on the Appalachian Trail around the Taconic Parkway in Putnam County, NY. I also found a pair of binoculars that day. Didn’t know then what the real catch that day was.

  • http://sahdinlansing.com Chris (@tessasdad)

    In a word awesome.

    On a personal note, my second date with my wife was on the Appalachian Trail around the Taconic Parkway in Putnam County, NY. I also found a pair of binoculars that day. Didn’t know then what the real catch that day was.

  • http://surprisedmom.blogspot.com SurprisedMom

    Beautiful post. I’ve never been on the actual Appalachian Trail, but maybe I’ve always been on it and never knew. I haven’t faced myself in awhile and this is what you seem to do on your trip. I really loved this post.

  • http://surprisedmom.blogspot.com SurprisedMom

    Beautiful post. I’ve never been on the actual Appalachian Trail, but maybe I’ve always been on it and never knew. I haven’t faced myself in awhile and this is what you seem to do on your trip. I really loved this post.

  • http://www.numbmum.com/ betsy

    “Me?

    I’m just a hiker.”

    Love that last line. Aren’t we all just hikers?

    Reminds me of that song, “The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see.” Of course, “He saw another mountain.” So what did he do? “He climbed the other mountain.” And what did he see? “He saw another mountain.” And what did he do…..?

  • http://www.numbmum.com/ betsy

    “Me?

    I’m just a hiker.”

    Love that last line. Aren’t we all just hikers?

    Reminds me of that song, “The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see.” Of course, “He saw another mountain.” So what did he do? “He climbed the other mountain.” And what did he see? “He saw another mountain.” And what did he do…..?

  • Travis Hall (Shepherd)

    Very Well said! (I think I know that bear:)

    Shepherd ME-GA 00

  • Travis Hall (Shepherd)

    Very Well said! (I think I know that bear:)

    Shepherd ME-GA 00

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  • jeanne

    loved this post. got here thru kate granju’s blog.

    i was a Scoutmaster for four years (yes, a female SM) and support both the NY/NJ Trail Conference and the AT Conservancy so I well know that feeling when you reach a peak on a trail.

    Unfortunately, I became paralyzed from the chest down due to a surgical “accident.” (yes, I’m suing.) i have found a wheelchair that will allow me to enjoy the trails again but I remain conflicted over Leave No Trace principles.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgdob9_Nfjo&feature=related

    there are other chairs out there that are manually powered and require a great deal of upper body strength – which i do not have as i have extensive nerve damage in both arms as well. technically, i should be a quadriplegic considering the damage was done at the c5/c6 level in my neck, but by the grace of god i can feed myself, scratch my nose and type-one fingered! i also need neck support as i have a wobbly head even with my collar on so i have to think the manual one is not for me.

    but somehow, some way, next year, i’m gonna hit the AT again if only for day trips.

    keep truckin’ (and blogging about) your adventures so we can experience these little snatches of your life on the trail, even if only vicariously.

    i thank you for sharing this glimpse.

  • jeanne

    loved this post. got here thru kate granju’s blog.

    i was a Scoutmaster for four years (yes, a female SM) and support both the NY/NJ Trail Conference and the AT Conservancy so I well know that feeling when you reach a peak on a trail.

    Unfortunately, I became paralyzed from the chest down due to a surgical “accident.” (yes, I’m suing.) i have found a wheelchair that will allow me to enjoy the trails again but I remain conflicted over Leave No Trace principles.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgdob9_Nfjo&feature=related

    there are other chairs out there that are manually powered and require a great deal of upper body strength – which i do not have as i have extensive nerve damage in both arms as well. technically, i should be a quadriplegic considering the damage was done at the c5/c6 level in my neck, but by the grace of god i can feed myself, scratch my nose and type-one fingered! i also need neck support as i have a wobbly head even with my collar on so i have to think the manual one is not for me.

    but somehow, some way, next year, i’m gonna hit the AT again if only for day trips.

    keep truckin’ (and blogging about) your adventures so we can experience these little snatches of your life on the trail, even if only vicariously.

    i thank you for sharing this glimpse.

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