Virginia Reflections, Part One

In which I talk about the Camino, allow myself to love the AT, and am honest.

15 May, Chatfield Memorial Shelter, 21:00

I feel a weird kind of clarity right now. I’ve been feeing it all day, actually. Ever since we saw Bubbles at the visitors center and we started talking about the Camino. I remember having these moments in the evening in Spain. The sun would start to set, we’d be showered and freshened up, and we’d either be sitting around with other pilgrims eating dinner, or talking after dinner, or wandering around a city, or drinking or eating pinxtos or writing or drawing. I would watch the sunset and the day fall towards quiet hours. And I would sigh, and think about my life, and feel calm and at peace.

Visiting a wild pony in the Grayson Highlands—still one of my favorite sections so far.

I know I spend too much time comparing hikes. The AT is not the Camino; both exist for different and equally valid reasons. There’s no way they can be the same. Still, I keep holding them up. And I keep finding people who have hiked the Way. Peregrinos y peregrinas. They understand walking but they understand pilgrimage too. And I think, something drives them to walk those hikes, and something drives them to hike here too. There is a through-line that loops between every long trail. We walk because we want to learn from others and about ourselves. We want to share and grow and sit in the fading light by the stream. Here we are, we say. Well, here we are together. On the way. Never quite arriving. Always on the way.

So much of the Appalachian Trail appears to be the same. There are hills and trees and ferns. For miles, it seems, this same forest goes on forever. But look, and you will see the land changing. Ferns and their spores now, larger and more mature. Different hillsides, different rocks. The rhododendrons are the same, but they are blooming now, and little pink polka dots dance about the forest. I sit here looking, listening. Like I did in the field in Triacastela. Like I did at Reposo del Andayón, the magic albergue, hidden beneath the Spanish Cantabrian mountains. Like I did in Llanes, next to turquoise waters. Like I did in Finisterre and Muxía and Santiago. I sighed then and felt right at home. Right in place. Now I feel right in place here too.

We continued past Atkins, VA in the week following Trail Days.

19 May, Sunday, Reed Creek, past the 1/4 way

Today I finally let myself love the AT. I’ve been grappling with the fact that long distance hiking is a privileged and largely white endeavor, and kicking myself for all the times I could have been a better outdoorist and done a better job centering people of color and other marginalized folx. And I’ve spent an even greater amount of time comparing the Appalachian Trail to the Camino. It’s not cultured enough, I think. It’s not full of people who “get it.” It’s full of white hippies and white feminists and people who think their worldview is massive and encompassing when it really just strikes me as colorblind and closed-minded.

But today I stepped back from it. Isn’t it equally close-minded of me to assume other peoples’ motivation? To me they seem like white hippies and privileged people with a lack of politics and a cause. But who am I? What do I know about what they’ve been though, what they’ve seen, who they’ve stood up for and defended? Just because a person has an American accent and white skin, it doesn’t mean that they can’t teach me things and change my mind. Being in a country and a culture for your whole life makes you critical of it when you step out and then back in. It’s so hard for me not to criticize. I see so many issues here and so many things that need to be different, but conflating origin and appearance and first impressions with real meaning is a dangerous game. I’m so tired of zealots in my face and white people acting like they know how the world works, but I haven’t earned any kind of right to act like I know more than they do.

The beauty of the AT is in the details.

I feel frustrated and stuck sometimes on this trail. Last summer, finishing the Norte and the Primitivo, walking alone and thinking about my future and feeling proud of my Spanish, I felt… freer. Happier. Like a better person than I was when I started. I guess this trail is longer, but sometimes I don’t feel like my mental journey is going anywhere. I’ve blamed it on the lack of spirituality here, on the lack of culture and history. I’ve thought, maybe it’s because this trail in its current incarnation is so much younger than the Camino. Maybe it’s the lack of other languages and respect for religious traditions. On the Camino people seem to know what they’re getting into; they expect prayers and religion and St. James and weird Spanish Catholic quirks. Here, it’s about tree after tree and mile after mile. I don’t know. Why is this surprising to me? I like trees as much as churches. I like trees more than churches most of the time, actually. Maybe it’s not any inherent difference between the trails I’ve walked, though. Maybe I’m acting like I’ve done my changing, maybe I’m not putting in the work that needs to be done. Maybe I’m looking for outside excuses.

Dismal Falls, just before Pearisburg, VA

Patches always says to me when I make a comment about a trait of mine that bothers me, “at least you’re self-aware.” This usually annoys me because it comes across as “yes, I agree, you have this character flaw.” But it’s true. I’m a shitty, cranky, pissed off, defensive human for a decent percentage of the time and I don’t like that.

I was thinking today about how, when I was a more committed believer, I spent a lot of time thinking about and praying about and working on the things that I didn’t like about myself: my judgmental nature, my impatience, my anger. I do miss that community of reminders and accountability sometimes. It’s hard to sit and listen to a sermon and imagine that it’s directed right at you. It’s really ego-crushing to think of all the times you tried to be a good follower of Jesus and completely botched the whole mission. Of course that’s the whole thing with salvation; it’s not deserved. In a weird way, I miss being reminded that I am nothing. I am dust. This isn’t about me or my story or my life or anything cool I’ve done to deserve any of the service and grace and kindness I have received, because I haven’t done anything to deserve any of this.

So, all this is to say, I took a step back today and thought about this hike. I thought about my self-improvement and spiritual journey constantly on the Camino, and maybe it was easier to do so there because you’re constantly being reminded of it. The Camino is a path forward but also a path upwards; ultreia et suseia; el camino de la corazón. It’s impossible to miss this dimension of the pilgrimage because that’s kind of been the point of the thing since people stared doing it a millennium ago. But just because there are no overt reminders or spiritual markers on the AT, it doesn’t mean that this isn’t still the goal. Ultreia et suseia just as much here as in Spain. The terrain is different, as are the people, as is the gear, as is the story. But the goals are the same: forward, and upward; to learn and listen and be better.

I’m allowed to love this trail too. It can be different, and still be amazing. I can work on myself and humble myself just as much here as on the side of a path in the Basque Country.

Ultreia.

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