Tugged by the Trail

I turned from the park path onto the Appalachian Trail, and felt it immediately, even after an 11-year absence - the familiar, exhilarating tug north, an almost palpable sense of being drawn toward the next shelter, the park boundary, the Virginia state line, ultimately a mountaintop in Maine. My son strode ahead of me, his long legs eating up the green, serene miles with an ease that caught my breath, making me suddenly aware of how he's shot up this past year.

Our day hike was his first contact with the Trail, and he took to it quickly. After the first spurts of energetic joy, he found his natural rhythm and fell into it, the steady, sane pace of the long-distance hiker. We reached Rock Spring Hut just before noon, ducking inside as a fine drizzle needled through the birdsong and filtered light.

Unpacking our cheese, crackers, bag of trail mix, and water bottles, Tim asked about the tall pole - a kind of inverted tripod - erected in the clearing. I explained about hanging your food packs overnight, to keep the grub safe from bears. His eyes widened. We'd seen deer, accompanied by their fawns, plenty of rodents, even a snake as we'd hiked. But the possibility of bear was something else again. Walking the trail in 1986, I'd actually seen two - a cub who made me smile and, not far behind, the mama who'd made me jump. She did, too, and the encounter was over almost before my pulse quickened.

I MET and fell in love with the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 1969, when I and several college chums drove to Vermont to walk and camp along a particularly spectacular 20-mile section of its upper reaches. That's less than one percent of the whole AT, which stretches mountaintop to mountaintop from Georgia to Maine; but I'd seen enough to know that I wanted someday to walk it all, start to finish, south to north. What I felt was something between a yearning and a compulsion to slip into the green and keep on moving. A through-hike, though, requires five to six months, and graduate school, career, marriage, and motherhood all crowded my schedule in the years ahead. I never managed to block out the time.

I've settled for short visits with the AT now and then. Tim was born the week I hiked 80 miles through Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia, the very section that he and I now were sampling together. It was no herculean feat. My adopted son and I hadn't even met. As I'd hefted my pack and hit the trail day after day, I had no way of knowing that he was starting his own singular journey, many states away and three weeks early.

I've told Tim since his toddlerhood about the AT, tracing its sinuous line along the ancient spine of Appalachia on a map in my study. He seemed to sense its significance to me long before he understood maps or miles. As he grew and began to relish hikes in the state parks around our Bloomington, Ind., home, I nurtured a hope that he'd become old and strong enough to take on the Appalachian Trail while I was still young and strong enough to realize my dream of a through-hike. More to the point: Would he want to?

And so, over a recent school vacation I arranged this trip to give him a taste of what the AT is all about. I needed to know if the fragrant ribbon of wilderness would speak to Tim with the same urgently inviting voice I've always heard, through my very boots.

His absorption and curiosity in the topographic map we carried was promising.

"What's the symbol for 'meadow,' Mom?" he asked, as we skirted one. I showed him on the key, and he grinned as he matched map to landscape and saw how far we'd come. At Spring Rock Hut, he found the trail log in its wooden cubby. Taking it from its plastic pouch, he read avidly the entries of other hikers who'd stopped to rest and sleep here; each encapsulated a trial or tribulation, a bit of homespun philosophy or some musing born of wilderness solitude. The authors signed with their trail monikers - not given names, but evocative identities adopted for the journey: "Stargazer," "Moonwalker." You choose who you are on the AT.

Tim was beginning to sense for himself the profound distinction between this and your ordinary footpath. I watched and munched my cheese and crackers as he took the pen from the pouch and bent over a fresh page, leaving his own quiet mark on the Trail. He wrote of our hike and our plan to walk the AT in its entirety when he was 16 (18, I mentally corrected: after high school, before college). He penned a final, flourishing "Good luck, fellow hikers," and signed off, for reasons of his own, as "Jack-Be-Nibble."

I echoed, in my own entry, our future plans, and repeated Tim's anticipatory greeting: "Good luck, fellow hikers!" We'll be back.

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