Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian
The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.
When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.
The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.
I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.
As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.
The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.
Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.
By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.
On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.
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