Maybe the only thing we have in common is that we’re all here for a ranger-led hike to end the year. Mind you, I am not a hiker. I prefer to mosey or amble or saunter. I’m here because, on a whim, I signed up for the Hike ’em All challenge, a quest to cover, on foot, every mile of the trails in the park. What was I thinking?
My only previous experience at this park was a half-mile excursion with a friend on a different trail one January day nearly three years ago. It was my way of going dark—deliberately ignoring media coverage of the day’s big story. Spending time in nature and avoiding media are both good for sanity and the soul. Fresh air and plants encourage calm contemplation, oak trees lower blood pressure, and anything that tweets in the woods—except a human with a cell phone—can be trusted.
Ranger Aaron welcomes us to the park and gives us the gist of his plan. “This trail is about a mile long. It goes to the top of the ridge then loops back down to the road. We’ll stop at the top for a view you only get when the leaves are off the trees.” He’s talking about the lights from the Tennessee Valley Authority power plant on the other side of the river. He adds a few safety instructions, and we shuffle off to the trailhead.
The trail takes me by surprise right away, rising steeply and continuing up, up, up. In no time, my quads burn and my lungs strain for breath. The others are breathing hard too—which assures me that I’m not a wimp, or at least not the lone wimp in this group.
The “pretty steep hill” continues to rise. Every time I think that we’ve crested the ridge and the worst is over, the terrain throws us another incline. We take turns stepping aside, allowing others to pass as we pause to recover, swapping the lead like geese on a long-haul flight. That we manage this as smoothly as a well-rehearsed dance troupe suggests that we might be part of the same tribe, after all, and not strangers from rival clans.
The ranger’s light bounces from ground to tree. He tells us how far we’ve come, what we’re passing—sometimes warns us of jutting roots or loose rocks. The rest of us keep quiet; we may still be shy or wary of each other, or perhaps we’re just putting all we’ve got into the hike.
A mile turns out to be much farther than I imagined. We’ve been trudging uphill for what seems like hours when it occurs to me that, even if we all turned on our flashlights right now, we probably wouldn’t find our way out of these woods without Ranger Aaron. I don’t think there’s a hardcore hiker in the bunch, not one who could recognize trees as landmarks or an obvious path beneath the fallen leaves. I wonder briefly if Aaron is really a ranger, or if he’s a lunatic with some nefarious motive for luring us into the wilderness. Maybe all the other hikers are his minions, leading little-lamb-me to slaughter. It’s not the craziest conspiracy theory around.
I focus on the sound of my feet hitting the ground, and on my next step and next breath. The hike becomes a walking meditation; the earth beneath my feet becomes my north star. I breathe into the discomfort and the dis-ease. One foot then the other: it’s the only way I’m going to make it through to the end.
At last Ranger Aaron brings us to a halt as we reach level ground. He promised a spectacular sight, and he’s delivered. The multicolored lights from the TVA plant across the river are reflected in the dark water below. It’s an unlikely source of beauty—a massive power-producing industry best known for forcing people from their homes and polluting rivers with coal ash—and it gifts us with a marvel, an unexpected masterpiece of jewel-lights glowing and twinkling like magical beings.
For a few minutes, we enjoy absolute silence. Then someone in the group calls our attention back to the park and to the holiday decoration atop the visitor center—a star, shining in the distance. Jaded as I am these days, I still can’t help but take this symbol of hope and rebirth as a promise that everything will get better soon, an optimistic prediction that we are moving toward a brighter future, an easier world.
The rest of the loop isn’t all downhill, but it’s made more bearable by the knowledge that the hike is nearly over. We’re almost out of the woods, and we’ve got the promise of light in our near future. Sure, it’s been tough, but we’re headed for home now. A new year is only a few hours away. Soon the world will change for the better. Soon we’ll be normal again.
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