All alone in the forest . . . yet not alone at all
Saturday morning, alone in the mist and drizzle. Stillness envelops me. No sound but my footsteps, the drip of the moisture from the trees, the occasional songs of the birds. How blessed I am to live in this part of the world—hundreds of miles of mountain trails, all within easy reach.
Though I usually run with a group of folks, including my wife, Shonnie, today I’m on my own. Perfect. No one to keep up with. No one to slow down for. Just a nice, steady pace—my pace.
I’m running on the Shut-In Ridge Trail, a single-track trail that parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway. Departed from Sleepy Gap and heading south. Last year I ran on this trail for over four hours. Today I’ll do about an hour and a half, still a stretch beyond my comfort zone. It would be easy enough to run around my neighborhood or to do some laps at the local college track. But this trail challenges me to be present in the moment as I pick my way through roots, rocks, and limbs. And while I expend a lot of energy, I am somehow energized in the process.
All uphill for a while. But then the terrain levels out, more gently rolling than the precipitous slopes frequently found along the Shut-In. Colin Fletcher, the guru of American backpacking, once said that it takes a few days in the wilderness to shed the overly-domesticated part of yourself and to reclaim your freedom and authenticity. Today it happens more quickly for me. I notice a lone rhododendron aglow in pink flowers. I stop and soak in the beauty of a single bloom. The thoughts and worries I have burdened myself with melt away. My body relaxes. In a flash of insight, I understand what’s been gnawing at me. In moving from human-made structure to human-made structure, from air-conditioned space to air-conditioned space, I’d lost my connection with the other animals and the plants of my world. I’d lost my connection with the best of myself. I’d lost my connection with Life. And now, I’ve come home, home to who I truly am, home to my God.
I reach the halfway point, and I stop for a drink of water and to drink in the beauty around me. I am soaked through and through, shoes included, from the rain, the humidity, and my sweat. My legs are covered with mud. I smell like the human animal I am, and I revel in it. Why do we Americans spend so much time and money trying to avoid our natural scent? Is it to somehow separate ourselves from the other animals, a vain attempt to show that we’re not animals at all, that we have the right to dominate the world at other species’ expense? Or have we just become ashamed of our natural scents out of a shared belief that there is something wrong with the human odor? And, if so, where did this belief come from? Thousands of Irish Spring, Tabu, Secret antiperspirant ads? Antiperspirant. What a concept. If you ain’t perspiring, you ain’t alive.
I run faster on the trip back to Sleepy Gap. The rain pelts my face. I lose my footing, stumble, but rapidly regain my balance. To be able to run through the forest, strong, quick strides, uphill, downhill, breathing in my surroundings, fully present, conscious of my connection with the web of life. No concern for money, or possessions, or my standing in the social pecking order, not even my own mortality. Just me alone in the forest . . . yet not alone at all.
Originally published in the June 24, 2000 edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times.