The Primal Sanity of Nature

Many years ago, as an enthusiast for day-hikes in real wilderness, I had lived in various places–but always the proverbial stone’s-throw from the Appalachian Trail, which stretches over 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine.  Had I been young, I might have fervently embraced the thru-hiker’s quest–to complete the whole journey.  But, well into middle-age, my intention was a more modest one: daily walking, in forest surroundings–not unlike Thoreau’s simple credo in his own essay “Walking.”

An anthropologist by training (Ph.D., Columbia), I found my interests (largely psychoanalytic) disparaged in the then-ideologically confused climate of academic rivalries.  I wrote two books, but to my surprise found teaching more satisfying.  As an adjunct at several universities, I was free to teach in my own way–without the usual harassment of departmental committees, departmental factionalism, and the customary low-profile cowering that precedes the award of tenure.  As an unexpected benefit (since adjuncts receive no material benefit-coverage), I found my intellectual horizons continually broadening and deepening as I volunteered to teach classical sociological theory, sociology of religion, “social problems,” and interdisciplnary Core courses which  included Plato, Montaigne, Huxley, Kafka, Camus, Buber, and Annie Dillard–just to name a few.

But my enthusiasm was eventually worn down by the ridiculously low-wages (nowadays well-documented by innumerable good books, as well as successful union representation).  Living in New Jersey was expensive.  I taught at least 15 courses per year, and was “lucky” to make $30,000.  I decided to move to the northwest corner of the state, the New Jersey Highlands, where my beloved Appalachian Trail stretched across ridges from the Delaware Water Gap to a cliff offering a panoramic vista of the 10-mile long Greenwood Lake (the “Grand View”).  (Standing at that spot the day after 9/11, I saw giant plumes of smoke drifting upward from a pile of debris.)  So, up on the Bearfort Ridge (where bears were a not uncommon sight), surrounded on all sides by forest and ascending trails, 100 yards from the AT, I rented a small, non-insulated house (where I nonetheless survived the snowbound winter).  Wildlife encounters were frequent and fascinating: not only bears, but foxes, turkeys, porcupines, and timber rattlers.

I greeted every day with a quick climb up a ridge trail, which ascended even further to a remote lake which overlooked many towns and distant highways.  Not unlike Thoreau, I found a sufficient variety of trails, some rarely frequented, to make my afternoon treks full of the unexpected.  In those days, physically well-conditioned, I often felt a peace-of-mind and sense of freedom on those hikes which I now find sadly elusive.

True, on most days, I was still teaching–traveling congested interstates to my courses, which were becoming more frustrating and less satisfying.

After 15-plus years of “earning my living” in this manner, I had come to a reckoning.  I resolved to resign, leave New Jersey, and try a year of “conscientious non-participation” from the mindless consumerism and vulgar careerism I despised.  A year for open-air, daily expeditions, mostly on different sections of the AT, was what I envisaged.  I had $10,000 to work with.  Could I live for a year on that?

Selling off my few sticks of furniture and packing my voluminous supply of books and CDs, I headed South.  My destination? Damascus, Virginia, little more than a hamlet of 900 folks, nestled in the southwest edge of the state, on the southern flank of the Blue Ridge.  “Trail-town USA”, former thru-hikers had chosen this pleasant little town as an annual meeting-place, a couple of days to renew acquaintances and share reminiscences.  The town itself is little more than a short main street, occupied by small businesses and small churches (as well as a few bungalows reinvented as “B-and-Bs” for the hikers).  I rented a tiny house where, stepping outside every morning, I could cross the rickety Beaver Dam bridge and instantly find myself climbing the steep, winding trail of Holston Mountain, which led to a gently ascending ridge which followed the AT all the way to the Tennessee state-line (about 4 and ½ miles).  Resting on a log and eating apples, I reveled in the peaceful silence, mountain breezes, and distant views of cows grazing languidly across vast open pastures.

Hikers descending from Tennessee into the town found that the AT followed the main street, where they could stop to eat as well as buy any needed gear at the trail-goods store.  Then continuing, they would quickly climb a rickety, wooden staircase back into the forest–many relentless in their quest to make it all the way to the end-point at Mt. Katahdin, Maine. On very hot days, I would drive up the adjacent steep, winding highway of what is known as the Mt. Rogers Recreation Area (Jefferson National Forest), said to include some 400 miles of hiking trails.  It was not only much cooler up at 4500’, but the mountain top was a “bald” — a vast, sprawling grassland where wild ponies of unknown origins were sometimes sighted.

After several months, I decided to move some 50 miles northeast, where the Roanoke area converged with some of the most scenic stretches of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Appalachia.  I rented the top floor of a long-defunct college building, drafty but solid granite.  In the 1970s, a young Annie Dillard, recent grad of nearby Hollins College and something of a nature-poet, effectively captured moments of wondrous observation, often on the micro-level of the local creek.  Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1975) won the Pulitzer Prize, and, teaching a literature course for many years, it was a book I regularly assigned.  Now here I was, serendipitously, looking down at the gently flowing Tinker Creek from my third-floor window.  (It constituted the boundary of the backyard.)  Looking straight ahead, I could see the sprawling Tinker Mountain–since Dillard’s time, defaced by cell towers–which is really an AT ridge trail linking the Blue Ridge with the Alleghenies some 20 miles away.  (Macafee Knob, a flat-rock overlook of the valley below, was the spot where Redford and Nolte ate lunch in the movie Walk in the Woods, based on Bill Bryson’s humorous if somewhat sophomoric book.)  I tried to find the approximate spot where Dillard had lived in those days–some small house, in the backwoods between Hollins and Daleville–but found the general locale now heavily suburbanized with houses.

On some days, driving down the abandoned US 11 (replaced by the interstate), I would venture onto gravel or dirt side roads, some of which went nowhere and some of which ended in tiny settlements of simple shanties, collapsed barns, and decaying 1940s roadsters which no one had bothered to remove.  Other times, studying old ordnance maps, I would try to pinpoint remote, forgotten trailheads which, with some strenuous climbing, might lead to the top of the Blue Ridge (generally 3000’ to 4000’ elevation).  Instead, I ended up driving the roadway which led up to the Parkway–which, on weekdays, was empty of car traffic.  The AT followed alongside for dozens of miles, affording pleasant day-hikes with 360-degree panoramas of checkerboard farmland stretching into the far distance below.

My year had ended.  Thoreau, visiting Concord and his mother for a fresh-cooked meal almost daily, did not noticeably suffer loneliness.  But his Walden, inspirational and exhortatory, remains surprisingly relevant in its critique of unnecessary “business” and the consequent loss of a pantheistic (eco-psychological) sensibility.  In my own way, I had tried to live an open-air life, exuberantly affirming the free play of nature in the wild.  I sought escape, not only from a crass, exploitative system of daily “spiritual pollution” (especially the media), but from my own self-obsessed “problems.”  My delightful, ever-varied observations of wildlife in the Appalachian mountains and forest constituted, I believe, a consciousness transcending the daily detritus of human folly and deluded desperation.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.