We were finishing up dinner at the 501 Shelter when Coach popped the question. I laughed. That’s the question John and I asked hikers all along our journey.
More often than not, they were standard replies. “I was bored and had no job prospects,” “I just got out of college so I wanted to do it now,” “It’s been my lifelong dream.”
We fell, largely, into the last category. Independently. John picked up an interest in the AT from his years with Boy Scouts; I fell in love with the Appalachian forests growing up in them as a kid, and connected with the long-distance hiking community at my first ALDHA Gathering in 1995. I’d planned a thru-hike in 1997, but my sister’s illness and death put it off my priority list.
Coach started section-hiking in 2006 and he was finishing up the final stretch, from his Pennsylvania home to the CT/MA border. His reason for hiking the trail was poignant:
“I wanted to experience God’s creation in His cathedral.”
It resounded with both of us. Immersing in the woods – not wilderness, as the AT is too close to civilization to ever, truly, be a place to commune with the wilderness – we’d each found our own spiritual path, our time to talk with God, our ability to share those discoveries with each other. And it was good.
We’d come to the AT for pilgrimage. We’d expected Eden, and found humanity instead. The trail community echoed the world at large: mostly good, with just enough troublesome people to mar the experience. The juxtaposition of disrespect – grafitti-covered shelters, piles of trash, entitlement attitudes, excessive drinking and smoking – against the backdrop of God’s cathedral was jarring.
Eden still lurks between the blazes: in the swirl of a snail’s shell, in the multitude of trillium nodding in the breeze, in the sweep of a grassy bald reaching for the sky. But you don’t need to thru-hike the AT to find these things. Coach knew.