Morning. Western North Carolina. I followed a two-foot wide path through the woods. One end of the path leads to Maine. The other end leads to Georgia.
The Appalachian Trail is where human hamstrings go to die. You are looking at the world’s longest hiking footpath, period. The trail traverses 14 states and carries hikers through elevation gains/losses equal to climbing Mount Everest 16 times.
And I am hopelessly out of shape. Like a walking advertisement for Hostess.
Still. At least I’m not lost. It’s pretty hard to get lost on this trail. You just look for the trees painted with a white mark, and you keep following them, uphill, until you have a heart attack and die. There are approximately 165,000 marked trees throughout the entire trail.
I began my hike in the wilds of North Carolina, somewhere near the French Broad River. The River was my constant companion. It stayed with me. Like an old friend.
The French Broad is the second oldest river in America. Five times older than the mighty Colorado. Seven times older than Old Man Mississippi. Granddaddy of all rivers. Older than the North American continent itself.
Today, the river was the color of chocolate milk, charged by the recent rains. And it was loud, too. Deafeningly loud. Frothy. The currents roared in the distance like the drone of static.
As I hiked forward, ascending Hot Springs Mountain on my pale, shaky chicken thighs, I paused at an overlook to stare at the river, miles below me.
I was hungry. So I ate a chicken salad sandwich. Then I kept walking. That’s basically all you do on this trail. You walk.
But it was a good day for walking. A pristine day, with an ultramarine sky.
The underside of the forest’s leafy canopy was neon green in the sunlight. At times it felt like I was stuck inside the world’s largest green Chinese lantern. The color green was everywhere. All shades. All hues. All values. From the luminous greens of lichens. To the dark, rotting greens of a dead Mountain Dew bottle.
And the smells. Oh, Lord. The smells. Do you remember those old Herbal Essence Shampoo TV commercials? In the commercial, a lady shampoos her hair and is so overcome by botanical scents she starts moaning carnal, joyous noises no Baptist has ever made.
Then, as if the commercial couldn’t get any more immodest, Doctor Ruth comes on camera and suggestively says, “If you think that’s great, try the body wash!”
So that’s what it smelled like. It smelled like the forest was on the phone with Doctor Ruth. It smelled like I was intruding on a private moment between trees and flowers and shrubs.
There was the smell of damp moss, pine resin, decaying vegetation, rotting wood, wet rocks, moist soil, acrid bark and the overwhelming stink of the guy hiking ahead of me.
Up ahead on the trail, I met a man who was maybe mid-60s. He carried a thick backpack, and hiked with a long, knobby shillelagh. I could smell his briar pipe radiating through the trees from six miles away. He was seated upon a rock, smoking.
His hair was white. He wore a Creedence Clearwater Revival T-shirt. He wore a Dodgers ball cap, but hey, nobody is perfect.
“Morning,” he said to me.
Below us was the noisy French Broad, shouting its loud anthem.
I sat down and unzipped my backpack. I wiped the film of sweat from my face and tried to catch my breath. I removed a bottle of water from the backpack and found that I was too winded to drink. I had to wait until my heart slowed down or else I would have ralphed all over.
We sat in stillness for a full 15 minutes while a few thousand birds sang above us. Nobody said anything. He smoked. I ate. The river ran.
Finally, the old guy stood. He tapped his pipe against his thigh and left a black, sooty mark on his cargo shorts. He hoisted his pack onto his shoulders. He grasped his walking stick in his veiny hand. He took one final look at the show-stopping vista and let out a long sigh.
In a thick rural accent, he spoke. “If the Appalachian “Trall” don’t make you believe in God, nothing will,” he said.
And that is why I misspelled the title of this column.