I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Chapter 5)
People do for the craziest things and call them “recreation.” Some work on home repairs. Others arm themselves with binoculars and wade into marshes and through thickets in search of illusive species of birds. Doctors recommend certain hobbies to certain individuals; insurance companies recommend against the same.
Tom rid himself of the world and its stresses by pursing his particular hobby. He could ignore them with ease when he drenched in his sweat, the muscles in his thighs groaned, and his lungs heaved. Yes, Tom defined these as having fun.
When, that is, he went backpacking.
Tom was experienced—he’d hiked the Great Smokey mountains, the Blue Ridge, and the Presidentials in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. He’d learned so very much over the years from backpacking by just going out and doing it.
He’d learned enough, in fact, to make rookie mistakes all over again.
His calluses were thick, born of the best blisters new boots could provide. As each pair of boots wore in, so did the calluses. His backpack, securely fastened to his hips by the sturdy hip belt, compressed his back enough to ward off back pain from a certain spinal disc. His backpacking attire had evolved, like his boots, into a meld of exactly the right mix of disintegrating t–shirt, ragged shorts, and beloved wool socks. A faded red bandana crowned his sweating head. Unfortunately, weekend trips did not allow him to acquire the requisite growth of facial hair to complete the ensemble, but, well, that’s the life of a weekender, he reckoned.
Tom didn’t like schedules. His major function at work (that which paid enough to allow him to do things like this) was to schedule projects, meetings, programs, and the like.
For the past two months, Tom’s weekly schedule followed this pattern:
- Each Monday through Friday morning, he drove through suffocating traffic into a cavernous parking garage, rode an elevator to his floor, and worked in a cubicle ergonomically designed to resemble a water closet on a submarine. The space allowed him the ability to contemplate nothing but his computer monitor and the few papers he could stack on the shelf that served as a desktop.
- Each Monday through Friday afternoon, Tom drove out of the cavern and reentered traffic on the mobile parking lot back to his residence, during which he could wonder about the meaning of life while listening to blue grass music on NPR (which about the only place that stuff is played in the metro area).
- Each evening between Sunday and Thursday, Tom carefully planned the next day’s lunch, using packaged foodstuffs stored in plastic zippered bags and collated in a small brown paper bag. Each morning, he retrieved his preplanned repast from the refrigerator.
- Each afternoon, from Wednesday through Friday, Tom daydreamed about the coming weekend and what he would do and with whom he might possibly do it.
- On Wednesday evenings, he’d call one number after searching for the proper (that is, willing) person to accompany him at least one night of the weekend.
- If a number was willing, he reserved Thursday and Friday evenings to dream about the dreamy time the two would have together and how steamy things could be, if she wore a front–loading bra.
If no number was available, Tom turned his mind toward more egalitarian pursuits.
- Veteran backpackers take note of mundane things like the weather forecast—the possibility of rain, temperature, humidity, and so forth.
- Tom listened to the weather report broadcast over his car radio as he drove to the trailhead.
- Veteran backpackers carefully study the guidebook and other sources to learn about the terrain before beginning a hike.
- Tom studied the guidebook for at least two minutes shortly before he set out on the trail.
- Veteran backpackers refrain from the use of perfumes, deodorants, and other silly stuff before beginning a trek—so to not attract the insects.
- Tom wondered why flies and yellow jackets followed him as he hiked.
- Veteran backpackers want to know about the treadway before starting a hike.
- Tom was surprised by the long stretch of rocks and boulders he encountered.
Tom, veteran backpacker that he was, knew that the trail always starts low and climbs up—he stared up from the trailhead parking area. (When he was about half way up the ridge, he wished he had bottled oxygen with him.)
Tom slowly shouldered his pack, buckled the hip belt, and slowly started up. And continued up. The first beads of wet salt appeared on his forehead, followed closely by a torrent.
He pulled the bandana out from the hip belt and swiped at his face and eyes. He kept climbing.
At least the trail was quiet today. Deserted. Good, he thought. His mind’s eye took him away and placed him in another era, a time when few white men, if any, lived near by—when “near by” had a different meaning. Yes, Tom was now Daniel Boone! So what if Boone blazed his own trails? His feet felt their way; he let his mind slip into a daydream.
Tom, meet Mr. Boone. Mr. Boone, Tom. Thank you, thank you. Were there any bears around here? Indians? What news have you of back East? Redcoats are stirring up trouble in these parts again? Or, was that Yankees? Yes, maybe he was mistaken; perhaps he was one of Mosby’s Rangers, instead. Well, only time would tell.
Speaking of time, Tom wondered why he hadn’t reached the tree with the small, white blaze painted on it yet.
He reached the ridge top and stopped briefly, allowing his breathing to catch up with his body. Then, he moved out again. Moved with a purpose. Purpose? What purpose? Of course, to reach the campsite sometime before darkness struck. The flow of sweat slowed to a trickle, one easily handled by the bandana; he could look around and really see things. The rock ledges off to his right. The tall oaks dying all around him. The hornets nest ahead of him.
There was no telling what he’d see today on the trail.
He carefully stepped over the blowdowns across the trail. Where were the trail maintainers, he wondered?
Too bad he didn’t see the snake.
Something hit his right heel with a thud and a smack. He turned too quickly, although it seemed as if he were moving in slow motion. A rusty ribbon sullenly sidled off of the trail from behind one of those blowdowns into the underbrush. Tom, however, was too busy turning, stumbling, and falling backward to much notice or appreciate the copperhead’s movements.
He fell against a boulder, the fall cushioned by his pack. It knocked the wind out of him, though—he lay there, unable to breathe, his mouth and jaws working silently, uselessly.
Panicked, his thoughts panicked him even more. Where was the snake? (He knew snakes don’t plan and pursue sneak attack on things they aren’t planning to eat.) What was that warm stickiness he felt? Did he see blood? Was his blood racing with the deliberate intent to bring the poison more quickly to his heart? Was he fated to die here, within one mile of the road? Would God leave him like this?
“Calm down there, fella. Does this hurt?” spoke a strange voice. “Come on, do it real slow. Yeah, that’s it: just let yourself breathe.”
Tom stared wide-eyed at the stranger and relaxed a bit, allowing oxygen to reenter his lungs. This let him concentrate on other, more important, things. Like pain.
The stranger helped him out of his backpack and had him sit with head between his knees while he checked his back.
“Nasty fall. ’Course, you probably oughten’d walked over that copperhead.”
Tom detected the faint whiff of fresh sarcasm in the air.
He asked for his water bottle. (No, the other one.)
“Snake bite medicine?” Speaking of snake bites, Tom thought of his—something else about which to panic.
“Relax, it only got the heel.” Two marks were gouged on the right side of his right heel.
Tom thanked God and every decent retail outfitter for good polymer materials. Still, he was shook up.
Tom managed to thank his helper, but wondered. He hadn’t, after all, noticed anyone else around. This fellow just sort of up and happened by.
“Well, I reckon I didn’t just ‘happen by’. Sorta figured I’d be here by now.”
Modest was this one.
Frankly, Tom couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a snake, not to mention a copperhead. That bastard just came from nowhere.
“Sometimes things’ll come right up and bite you in the ass before you know what’s going down. You know, experience breeds complacency, and all that.”
“Where you headed,” Tom asked. Turned out the stranger was going south, too, so—what the hell?
“Well, let’s go,” Tom said.
Some backpackers seem to glide effortlessly with nary a bend in the shoulders and without breathing hard. Ever. This fellow was good. He settled into a very comfortable pace and let the trail come to him. Tom was surprised to see a few beads of sweat appear on his forehead. “Humidity’s sorta up there,” his new companion apologized as he reached for the bandana in his back pocket.
Tom mumbled something and promptly stumbled over a rock barely seen through the ribbons of salt encrusted on his lenses.
They pointed out to each other the different birds and animals that appeared fleetingly. The companion seemed to know every plant, even the domestics. This was becoming a real pleasure.
“Say,” his companion commented during a short break, “You’re pretty good. Wish there was more like you.” (He exaggerated somewhat; Tom knew his limitations.)
“Thanks. You’re something else, yourself,” Tom replied.
They moved on and soon came to a cliff offering an outstanding easterly view. The companion sat and drank some water before he spoke.
“We often have skills far beyond those we realize. Has something to do with what we want to believe, I guess. We don’t confuse ourselves with facts.”
Tom didn’t look over; he just nodded. Sun and clouds in the azure sky gracefully accented God’s handiwork below. Tom stared at the boulders of an ancient river bed below and the surrounding forest, wondering how in chaos there’s complete harmony. It’s reassuring how all things find their niche and accommodate themselves amongst others.
“Ever wonder,” his companion asked, “Just where life leads?”
Tom wondered just where this would lead.
“I do, often,” his companion continued. “Met someone recently who’s personally and professionally successful; but, he’s, well, melancholic. Sees no direction to his life.”
Tom resisted the urge to ask if his friend’s BMW had recently broken down.
“Well,” Tom finally said, “Maybe his are milestones without meaning. We get tied up with things, well, like they’re bookmarks in our life. When we just pass time by, we lose it. Forever. We go through the drill of setting a goal, reaching it, and setting another without really knowing the meaning, the why.”
“What ‘meaning’?” his companion asked.
Tom didn’t really appreciate being interrupted from his own thoughts. He’d came here, after all, for other reasons. Or, for no reason at all.
“Oh, you know,” Tom answered, gesturing helplessly to the horizon, “A higher purpose.”
“I get wrapped around the axle of doing things, too. Like being at the right place on time, or as close to the right time as I can be.”
“You have that problem, too?”
“Yeah. Anyway, I try to make the right decisions. Say the right things. Get the job done right.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, of course. But, well, the adrenaline of doing these little things, taking these steps, isn’t really fulfilling. Then, I wonder where the steps are supposed to lead. I forget why I just make them. Then I’ve lost my sense of mission, if you will. It’s really addictive: an addiction to trivia.”
“You seem to know what you want. You’re an achiever.”
“Maybe. Sometimes. Not often.”
Tom leaned back and tossed down another gulp of water.
“Hell, most times I’m just lucky, and sorta stumble on the right path. Sometimes, I ain’t so lucky. I guess life is kind of like a trail…that’s not exactly a new metaphor, of course. You reach a fork, the blazes are washed out, and you remember that topo map reading is one thing you’ve forgotten. So, I spit into the wind and hope I choose well. Sometimes, it seems a complete waste of time and effort.”
“I don’t think anyone wants to waste their life. I often forget there’s a ‘me,’ and who that ‘me’ is. That’s when I bail out, like now. I need to be out here.”
Tom took yet another drink. He thought: we don’t solve the problem because we don’t know either what’s happened or what to do. Ha! We refuse to know. We stop talking. Stop thinking. Stop feeling. We won’t see what’s happening to us. We let things happen, and then we say we “just don’t know.”
His companion straightened up, stretched, and looked out to the southerly peak, vacantly scanning the sky. Tom looked up, then bent over to re-lace his boots. They shouldered their packs and set out again.
The day was a real scorcher with just the sort of deathless “breezes” to guarantee a great (?) time. But Tom picked up the scent of—water. Sure enough, the wind picked up, the sky darkened, and they were lashed by a squall. It hit so suddenly and got them so wet so quickly, that Tom didn’t bother with his poncho. Suddenly treacherous rock and a river thinly disguised as a trail—Nature pointed out some of Her majesties to them. Of course, when the front blew out, the air was clean and cool, and the sun, well…
They stopped on a bald, dropped their packs, and used as recliners a couple of weirdly-shaped outcrops. Soon, they were dry and ready for the next round of sweat.
It was if Tom felt the fields and woods. He swore he saw a grey fox. As steam from the storm rose from the ground, he made maddeningly futile gestures against over-sized, obviously mutated trail bugs, most of whom were just slightly smaller than your average SAC bomber and twice as lethal.
Once again, his “repellent” proved to be concocted from insects’ pheromones.
They hiked over a sag and climbed the next peak. To cross the next ridge. To reach the next spring. To find a campsite. It was fun, and more of it.
Well, Tom reminded himself of the worthy esthetics of the True Wilderness Experience as he picked up litter around a spring. His feet called him dirty names. Still, he caught his second wind (or insanity) and left his exhaustion behind. For awhile.
Even his feet quit their bitching.
They found a campsite by a western-facing overlook above a spring. Tom set up his tarp and put things rapidly into order. Then, he trundled over to the (thankfully) very clean and even colder spring.
There is a God, he affirmed.
Meal time on the Trail: succulent aromas gently wafting across the perfectly sheltered campsite, enticing all who pass to stop and savor the moment. Fresh coffee brewing over the open fire. Tom made supper.
- He took out the small gas stove
- Boiled water
- Cut open the packages
- Added the water
- Folded the packages
- Sat back on a rock and waited—20 minutes or so
He couldn’t remember when freeze-dried stroganoff (Complete meal: Just add daydreams) tasted so good. Yum. Savored his freeze-dried coffee. Yum-mm. He prepared the clincher: freeze-dried blueberry cobbler.
Oh, the anticipation.
He saw his companion munching just on gorp and washing it down with spring water. Tom bade him over for coffee and cobbler.
This took a bit of arm-twisting, not to mention some slightly fictitious claims and promises told with a completely straight face. Yum-YUM.
The Scotch went down very well.
The sky was ablaze in deep purple and glowing reds as evening settled over the forest. Tom sat at the overlook, relaxing with a cigarette and rapidly cooling coffee, and communed with the grandest Milky Way he’d seen. He lay back against the stone ledge as the heavens gazed down on him. The moon rose silently through strands of clouds and cast its light and shadows on forest and fields. It seemed as if his soul—his being—merged with Creation. He felt a melancholy peace born of his need to share that exact moment: combining his own insignificance with absolute grandeur.
Then the moment passed as his mind wandered.
“What’s on your mind?” Tom felt his companion’s gaze burn through him.
“Nothing,” Tom replied. “Nothing.”
Okay, you prying bastard, Tom thought. Life is on my mind. Like when the universe seems to fill you up; fills you up so that you feel so incredibly empty. Your spirit soars and expands in the void, and then—at that moment—a word, a name, comes to mind. Your soul calls out only to hear its cry echo emptily off of the walls of your life—walls reaching skyward as steeply as these mountains and ridges—and your spirit implodes, collapsing back into you.
He grunted. And belched.
Tom thought of her, remembered her smile, her hair, her voice, her touch. He smiled, remembering how they met. Tom rested his head against his hand, feeling her cradle his head in her hands. And, he saw her again, leaving.
“Why’d she leave?” came the question. “Because she wanted to,” he answered.
“How’d she leave?”
“She said goodbye.”
Tom looked away.
“Love is strange.”
Strangers are trite, Tom thought.
“It accepts,” he continued, “It denies. It’s good. It hurts. It fades and flickers, but rarely truly dies. It’s nothing, and it’s everything. All at the same time.”
“Thank you for sharing that.”
Tom exhaled and stared at the burning cigarette tip. He let the hurt take over and comfort him. It caressed him and Tom treasured it. It’s time, Tom knew, to set this thing out with the rest of the garbage; but he wasn’t ready to do it. Neither she nor their brief life together were garbage. Not yet.
“What do you feel?” he was asked.
Tom didn’t appreciate friends who tried to be “sensitive” to him about this; why let this companion in? It wasn’t his problem.
“It’s my problem. Mine,” he said.
Isn’t it enough to look straight at your life and own up to your own business? Tom gestured with both arms toward the stars in futility. He lit another cigarette.
“Isn’t it enough to simply try and be the best man you can be? Who can stand up to the constant scrutiny and criticism? Why must the good within me be forgotten and the shakier side be emphasized? I know I’m not perfect; Christ, don’t I know it.”
He stopped and exhaled.
“It just seems that, sometimes, nothing is ever good enough.”
Tom sighed and exhaled again.
“Now, I just want to be left alone with it. There’s plenty of advice I’ve been offered and left in the dust. No one walks in my shoes.”
The companion nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Most of us must say that when we’re hit with failure or catastrophe. But we’re really crying ‘Stay away—I know that you, too, will leave!’ We don’t trust ourselves, so we trust no one.”
Tom looked up just in time to see a brilliant shooting star, one whose tail creased the whole night sky. He exhaled, again.
“My friend, I trust you’ll come up with a resolution for me.”
He looked down into the valley, watching headlights moving to and fro seeking their way as he stumbled through the deepening shadow of his soul, hoping for the fire of a Spirit beyond reasoning to light his path.
“Each of us finds his or her own way and, with some luck, sticks to it. Grows by it. We lose the path if we fear its challenges. Love and feeling are not easily accepted: they’re too often born of fear and pain. We are truly lost if we cannot accept the gift. Acceptance is not resignation; resignation destroys the soul. Doubt strengthens…”
“Because,” Tom whispered, “in doubt, we seek answers. By seeking, we find truth. To find truth, we must accept. To accept, we must trust.”
Tom crushed out one, and lit another, cigarette and looked to the horizon.
“Doubt is a very shaky foundation upon which to build faith.”
His companion got up, stretched, and went to his camp.
Tom turned in a bit later, reluctantly. The night swept him up, and he slept well. The wilderness, however, did not.
Normally, Tom’s not an early riser. It’s a sinful waste of time and effort, he feels, to break a sound sleep.
He arose early, bathed in the hues cresting the eastern ridge. Maybe the tribes were right, he thought: the Great Spirit treads gentle upon the Earth. The river, enveloped by the forest below, was clearly marked by rising mist. Oh, and the warblers…
Utterly alone, he felt entrusted with life itself. Each mystery seemed silently and suddenly unlocked at his Spirit’s beckoning. He couldn’t describe the feeling, but a deep peace—deeper than he’d felt ever before—covered him with an almost overpowering understanding. This moment did not pass.
Even his freeze-dried coffee and oatmeal tasted great.
The companion had apparently moved out even earlier. No matter. Tom mentally wished him well as he quickly re-packed and hit the trail.
The miles went very well; he didn’t even break a sweat! Then, as he steeled myself for the ‘12–OMG’ climb up the knob, Tom happened upon his companion seated on a boulder.
His companion called out a greeting as Tom stepped over a rat snake sunning itself on the rocks. They sat a bit, laughed, and talked of the trail conditions. Then, they saddled up and got to it.
After awhile, the climbs don’t bother you: Okay, but not as much, Tom thought. You talk yourself over them, and things sort of even out. They spoke of the meal to be had on their way home, and of how comfortable a warm shower and bed would be later. Of course, they’d shun these traps and trappings later for another trail.
Almost without effort, Tom reached his final summit, looked around at the day-trippers, and walked to the parking lot below. As he approached his car, Tom had to chuckle at a couple of tourists who not too-discretely commented on an addle-brained backpacker who talked to himself.
It’s only serious, he laughed, if you answer yourself.
Tom found his car in the same shape he’d left it: desperately in need of washing.
Subtle are the lessons of the Lord.