Poor Pennsylvania: her forests are crisscrossed with power lines, petroleum pipelines, access roads. Her mountains are scraped bare, blown up, developed into ski resorts and condos. As we hiked through the state, we heard explosions from the nearby military reservation, and gunshots from shooting ranges sometimes so close that we tied brightly colored shirts and surveyor’s flags to our backpacks. And the other day, Zippy and I hiked through a Superfund site, a barren hillside ruined by extraction, then terraced like an old landfill. Below was a former zinc smelting plant, still visible in the hacked-up valley, still making exhaust and alarm noises. In the pits where minerals had been removed were factories, churches, and houses. Rivers ran through all of it, making us wonder what was in the water besides water.
A few days ago, I observed some similarities between the worn state and my own state of mind. It actually surprises me that it took this long for me to get a bit run-down. Long-distance hiking, much as I love it, is not a lifestyle that naturally balances me. I’m at my best when I have an even mix of solitude, J., friends, and strangers, in interactions both deep and superficial. (Don’t knock small talk, it nourishes sometimes. It is a simple way to establish a human bond.) But out here, it’s mostly conversation with J., with my own brain, and with nature.
Earlier, I had thought that this might encourage enlightenment or insight. But I realized that my own thoughts aren’t necessarily the best constant company. And when the portion of nature one chooses to traverse gets especially rocky, cold and windy–or, alternatively, rocky, hot, and muggy–nature isn’t such a pal, either. So I get irritable and, well, have been observed to curse at rocks and stab an innocent leaf or ten with my trekking pole. You can ask Zippy about all this.
As for him, he was wearing down too. I could tell he was in need of a break because the moment he sat down anywhere indoors, his eyes glazed over, his shoulders slumped, and all energy drained from his body. He erodes physically; I erode emotionally. So it’s time for a break. A restorative effort.
Fortunately, I’m writing from a quaint, surprisingly affordable Poconos bed-and-breakfast about three miles off the trail. We’re taking a zero day: that’s when a hiker doesn’t hike at all, just rests them bones. Yesterday, we let ourselves sleep in, lounging in the tent until the sun and a perfect breeze through the blueberry bushes roused us. We took our time with morning chores, and ambled down the trail. We laughed and breathed and lacked rush. We strolled into town mid-afternoon, immediately locating a shower, laundry, and pie. We found a meeting. We slept in a kind church-basement hostel. Today we ate strawberries in a local bakery, went to the mall to watch “The Great Gatsby,” and cuddled in our little rented cottage-for-a-night. I massaged J.’s sore legs, caught up on emails, put in a few calls to faraway friends. A couple days ago, we met my high school friend Vicki and her husband and little boys at a road crossing, to catch up at a McDonald’s PlayPlace and to let the little ones hike around in the woods with us for a few minutes. And… I am going to have my mp3 player sent. It’s time to surrender to the joys of technological enhancement of natural surroundings.
I cannot speak for the Superfund. So far the restoration efforts there seem like just a bit of topsoil, a few brushy trees, and the cessation of further pillaging. Maybe my efforts at self-restoration so far are only this much, too. Much restoration will happen while walking, just as nature must slowly heal herself through growing and wilting and letting the seasons turn. But, so far, it has felt heavenly.
Tomorrow we hike again. We hope that when we wake up, our feet will feel just a little less bruised, and our spirits will be refreshed for the next part of the journey.