The Park Ranger parks his truck and steps over to my tent as gingerly as he could in his heavy boots. “Hello? Hey.” I poke my head out and look up to see him sporting the beige uniform of woodsy authority. The light behind him, dappled through the trees, is fading from gold to dark blue.
He stoops to see me, but comes no closer. “Didn’t want to scare you there, Miss. Headin’ home. You’re the only person in the park tonight. You all set? There should be a college student out here, ran into him this morning, high outta his mind.” He looks off into the woods. “Can’t find him now. Sure hope he doesn’t fall into a gorge.”
Just a few short weeks ago, I was sitting in the studio apartment I’d moved into following the breakup of my engagement. No, let me revise that: following my breakup of my engagement to a good man I realized didn’t want to marry. Life alone was strange and thrilling and confusing; four months into singledom, however, I had no idea what I was doing. I wanted to hit some kind of reset button. I’d run a marathon a few years before and loved to hike the LA mountains. The idea to go on a long hike occurred to me after talking to a friend about Cheryl Strayed’s account of her Pacific Crest Trail hike after her divorce. I loved to hike through the mountains around Los Angeles, but I also knew I didn’t want to hike for miles and miles like Strayed. Nevertheless, I wanted to be somewhere brand new, somewhere beautiful.
A few pages into Wild, I decided I was no more ill-prepared to venture into wilderness than Cheryl Strayed. I resolved to take a weeklong hike along the Appalachian Trail’s southern end, along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. After airfare, I reasoned, the trip would be cheap, healthy, and give me confidence in my newly single life. What I did not count on when I bought the tickets was a government shutdown that closed down every single national park and thus prevented entry onto the trail. Undaunted and itchy to hike something, I flew out to Tennessee without much of a plan beyond camping by myself in a place I’d never been before.
My flight arrives in Knoxville, Tennessee. From from Tennessee I plan on driving to North Carolina and stopping at Gorges State Park, which has primitive camping (no showers, restrooms, or trailer spots) not far from the ranger station. Beyond that, I plan on doing day hikes at state parks until, hopefully, the national parks reopen and I can hit the Appalachian Trail.
The first thing I notice in Knoxville is orange, orange everywhere. The University of Tennessee colors and logos adorn everything from people to pets to the entire front window of a residential home. I am staying with my old friend Brian’s* parents, Mindy and John, before I head into the woods. I have heard many sweet stories from Brian about his parents and brothers; I picture a happy home with parents and family photos on the walls. My fiancé and I didn’t put family photos on the walls, but this only seemed odd to me after we had broken up. Mindy and John’s house—sweet and old, on a tree-lined street—is full of pictures. They cover the walls of the entryway, the upstairs hallways, even the bathroom. Mindy and John are lovely; they take me to dinner that first night, asking about my friend Brian, who’s the only one of their three sons to live farther than an hour away. I tell them Brian resembles both of them, and together their faces turn warm and break with laughter. Hungry for a home I don’t really have but spirits buoyed by these good middle-aged people, I feel my confidence swelling like music. I’m ready for the trail.
I get up early, but Mindy is already up. She offers me coffee and granola bars. I tell her I will be back in five days to meet up with Brian, who’s coming home to visit from California. I drive across the border into North Carolina to Gorges State Park, named so after the river gorges hidden within. The park rangers take my camping fee and direct me to a path that leads into the woods. I hitch up my backpack and head down the trail, where it’s soundless but for the damp leaves underfoot. It’s warm for the middle of October, but the sun is low in the sky as I start to set up my tiny tent one-person tent. I sling the bag of granola bars and apples I have brought along over a tree branch to protect myself from nosy bears coming in my tent for food. I try to light a fire, but everything in North Carolina is wet; even the dry paper I stuff under the wood snuffs out after a moment or two. I give up on the idea of dinner and settle into my tent with a copy of Heart of Darkness I picked up at a thrift store on the way to the park. I feel like I am still playing with the idea being alone, reveling in the novelty of sleeping here in the dark in North Carolina, a move that feels so bold, in a state I’d never been to before.
I wake up to the damp woods, get dressed, and hike out to my rental car. I have a two nights planned at the campground, but I want to explore the area. I drive to South Carolina just to say I did, and to get some hot food. It’s raining lightly as I walk through the trees at a small park near the border between the states. The drops fall on my plastic hood, drowning out all other sound with their patter. The air smells of wet leaves and bark. Midweek the park is empty, slightly dark, and full of chipmunks. (I will see many chipmunks on this trip, more than I ever have in my life.) I drive back to North Carolina and my little tent in the woods, listening to Christian rock on the radio. Maybe this would be a normal day if I lived here, I thought, perhaps not the camping part, but being out in nature. I would be used to these trees and roads. I’d take them for granted like I do the sunny days and beaches back in California. I won’t take this freedom for granted when I get back, I resolve.
Before returning to my campsite, I check in at the ranger station at Gorges. The ranger on duty tells me the national parks are open and I’m free to hit the Appalachian Trail if I wish.
I get up, stow my camping gear in my rental car, and drive towards the part of the trail I’d planned on hiking. Brian told me to climb Mount LeConte if I got a chance, so I plan to start my hiking inside the park there. Either side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a tourist trap town, but I have been warned by Mindy and John to avoid Gatlinburg, which sits just north of the park, so I find a hotel near the Cherokee Indian Reservation, where Native Americans sell imported moccasins and extra-large t-shirts emblazoned with wolves. Over biscuits and grits served at a cafe by the side of the road, I meet a man named Percy who asks me where I am from; he tells me the places to visit nearby. He is a preacher at a church down the road. I tell him I broke off an engagement and came out to here to reboot, and he looks at me with kindness and says that all this is brave of me. He tells me his wife ran off with another man, but he saw the shortcomings that led her to that choice and forgave her long ago. He tells me we are all deserving of forgiveness. When I left, he blessed me and wished me safety on my solo travels. I think, as I will throughout on this trip, the distinction of “red states” and “blue states” does not accurately describe living, breathing people in those places.
Belly full, I hike to the top of Mount LeConte, look out over the green and violet mist, and weep. It’s beautiful. This place was here before I was born and will exist long after I die. If I were married I wouldn’t be here. If I’d made any one of thousands of different choices I wouldn’t here here. If I were afraid of being alone, I wouldn’t be here, but here is exactly where I am.
Today is the day I will actually set foot on the Appalachian Trail, I think as I shower in my nondescript hotel room. I head out to Newfound Gap, right at the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. From the trailhead there, I hike to Charles Bunion, a rock outcropping on the Appalachian Trail named for its resemblance to the bunion on the foot of a man named Charlie who hiked it long ago. At one of the shelters along the trail I stop to rest and meet a man named Lyle. “Hello,” he says, “I saw you yesterday on Mount LeConte.” He’s impressed that I’m hiking all by myself; I’m excited to see someone excited for me. I don’t feel particularly brave but I very much want appear like I am, so this is a success. Each person I speak with is kind and gives me hope that perfect strangers can become friends, even back in Los Angeles. Lyle tells me his hiking partner is from Orange County in Southern California, but he lives in Knoxville now. They drink Kona coffee, which Lyle brought from a trip to Hawaii. I tell him I flew into Knoxville and stayed in Mindy and John’s neighborhood. “That’s right where my store is,” he says, “Bikes and outdoor equipment.” He tells me next time I come to Tennessee, give him a call and he’ll tell me all the trails I should hike, no charge for the advice. “You’re real brave for hiking alone,” he reiterates. “Keep it up.”
Before I check out of my Cherokee hotel to return to Mindy and John and my friend Brian, I find a flyer for Tuckaleechee Caverns in Townsend, a bit outside of Knoxville. I drive down into a flat, grassy area of Tennessee, check into another generic hotel, and go looking for the cave. A small gift shop marks the cave’s location a bit off the main road. A geology student leads us down underground for a group tour. Back in the day, he tells us, the cave was used as a potential fallout shelter. We enter a long, low space in the lower reaches of the cave. “The water is ice melt and perfectly clean,” he says. “Go ahead and drink if you want.” I get down on my hands and knees, the red dust of the cave coating my clothes, and drink from the stream like a deer. Later we go into a cavern that’s been lit; we see that we are surrounded by stalagmites. The guide turns off the lights and there we are, in the deep impenetrable dark, waiting for the lights to come back on and show us the way out.
Back at the hotel in Townsend, in my nondescript room by the side of the road, I jump for joy in my underwear. I am not alone in a frightening or lonely way, I am free. I am buoyed by the kindness of real strangers. The people I have met have been good to me and I have accepted that kindness without judgment.
From Townsend, I drive back in Knoxville. My friend Brian has returned to his childhood home, to Mindy and John, and we’re meeting for dinner at the house later that evening. When I arrive at the house, Brian’s two brothers—along with their wives and children—are already there to see Brian while he’s home. We sit around a fire in the backyard drinking gin and ginger ale. Though I have stayed in this house already nearly a week ago, Brian shows me his room, the trophies he and his brothers won, the merit badges they received. He fills in the stories and I feel warm in the world of his family.
Later in the evening Brian and his brothers get out a box of old Halloween costumes and tell stories of Halloweens past. It is a scene out of a movie—not mine, my family was never like this, the family with my ex wouldn’t have been like this—but that doesn’t make this family any less real. Brian and I stay up late into the night talking; I thank him for suggesting I stay with his parents while I was traveling in the area. He says he wanted to show me a happy family and share it with me.
In the morning everyone is gone but Brian. We have breakfast in the dining room. It dawns on me that I have not had breakfast, at a table, face to face with another person, in a very long time. My ex and I just never did that, but it’s something I’ve always wanted. Now it’s no longer out of my reach; someday I can have breakfast with someone. Who that someone is will be up to me; what kind of life I will have with them, my choice as well. I am open to infinite possibilities, and it feels wonderful.
I pack up my things and hug Brian goodbye in the doorway. He bows his head and rests it on my shoulder; I can tell he was flattered I came to his home and appreciated it. I didn’t hike the Appalachian Trail for a week as I had originally planned, but I got exactly what I needed. The story wasn’t quite so tidy and accomplished, it was not quite the life-changing experience of a days-long hike. It was important to me nonetheless: I had felt the kindness of strangers in a place I’d never been. I felt safer in the world. I felt cared for by the kind strangers made the world a safe place for a girl on a hike through the woods. I leave Tennessee both happily untethered and totally grounded.
*Names have been changed.
Image via Shutterstock.
Anne Rieman is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter: @raisinland.
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