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Field notes: Woodlands, water and ouroboros

By Erik Hogan

Day 5 of a backpacking and photography thru-hike of the 76-mile Foothills Trail in South Carolina

Boom! I jolt awake in the night to a crack of thunder so loud I think a tree snapped. Repeating flashes of lightning illuminate the green conical peak of my tent like a flickering light bulb. Rain hammers down from above.

I roll over and cover my head, trying to sleep through it. Boom! The thunder is concentrated directly overhead, exploding again and again. I flip over and curl up tightly. It is 1 am. The torrent unleashing from the violent skies strains my shelter to its limit.

I flinch in the pitch blackness as a spritz of water hits my face. It happens again. Above is a vent at the teepee tent’s peak, covered but still open. That is the likely source. But, then I hear the trickle of running water all around. Oh no! In a sudden horrific flashback and realization, I think about my chosen camping spot. I reached Cantrell Campsite on the last evening of this eastbound thru hike of the Foothills Trail. Other campers already occupied the choice spots at either end of the location. I chose the best of what remained, a low, perfectly flat spot clear of any debris. Now I see that this spot was flat and clear because it is a collection pool for storm water run off!

My tent is pitched high for ventilation. The driving rain is striking the pooled water surrounding me, splashing underneath the tent fly and over the bathtub floor. Rain is actually sprinkling inside of the tent. Gear check. Everything important is off of the floor and on top of my pack. I am mostly dry lying on top of my air filled sleeping pad. However, the empty part of the tent floor is floating on the water, as squishy as a water bed. A small amount of moisture has gotten under the sleeping pad. I cannot tell if this is from the splashing or if it is seeping through. Either way, this tent is putting up a valiant fight in my defense!

The storms keep coming. Just as one drifts into the distance a new eruption of lightning announces the arrival of the next. Wrapped in restless worry, I lay awake and do not find sleep again until after 3 am.

At six am my eyes crack open. I survived the night. Inside the tent is a bit damp, but it is far from a disaster. A hint of thunder still rumbles weakly in the distance. The encircling pool of water has drained away entirely, as if it had only ever been a storm induced nightmare.

It is coffee in the tent vestibule as wind moves the tree canopy in the darkness above. Bittersweet drizzle falls lightly outside and birds begin to sing softly of farewell. This is the last day. A few more miles and my thru hike of the Foothills Trail will be complete. I crave pizza and miss my family deeply. Still, I am attached to the brutal yet beautiful simplicity of this existence and do not want the trail to end. Very soon this journey will be behind me as the thing I did in the past. A deep sigh, and I somberly pack up camp.

The trail unfolds in the gray morning light as an easy downhill walk. Wet living earth surrounds me. I walk through tunnels of rhododendron. Small birds flit through the branches above. The ground is covered in ferns mixed with viburnum, Solomon’s seal, false Solomon’s seal, bloodroot, yellowroot, jewel weed, and sassafras. All bend towards the ground in the light rain, loosing drops of water onto the soil. My poncho flaps behind me in the wind. My shoes are again soaking wet. It does not matter now, they will dry when I reach my truck. My truck. The sudden thought of it chokes me.

The trail passes beneath me, step by step by step. I started this hike knowing that the experience would change me and wondering how I would embody that at the end. The transition within myself has already occurred, and it was not brought about by reaching any destination. In an indescribable way, I have been changed by the path itself. Now see that the path itself has been the destination all along. Soon I will step back into ordinary routines, slightly more worn from my travels. I will return to work and family life as normal. Yet one of my children is leaving for college while the other is learning to drive. I continue to grow older. Just as I have changed, life continues to change. Everything continues to change. The path goes on.

The Foothills Trail has thrown physical challenges at me, pain, and the full harshness of the elements. Yet, for all of these trials, things have worked out in the best way possible. Wet and overcast skies have provided perfect conditions for photographing the stunning waterfalls along the route. Had I decided to camp before Sassafras Mountain I would not have seen the clearing storms yesterday, only the flat and rainy dawn this morning. These sublime experiences are inseparable from the adversity that accompanied them. Nature demands an acceptance of both, and in doing so I am learning to revere all that fate brings. The best light comes after the rain but paradoxically, I am beginning to love the storms. This is the unruly beauty of life.

Whatever lies ahead of me back home and in life, I will experience it as a man who has lived this trail. The agony of feet soaking wet for 20 miles, the beautiful music of mountain streams, sleep interrupted by thunder and rain, fiery red newts in the trail, the grueling exertion of climbing stairs, patchy mist on mountains dappled in broken sunlight. I carry all these experiences within me, and will forever more see the world with eyes that witnessed them. In a very real sense, the wildness here has become a part of me.

I approach a stream and come to find the only water crossing of this journey without a bridge. Water courses across a wide and sloped rock face. Only a cable spans it. Perhaps under normal conditions there is only a thin trickle of water to step across, but with so much recent rain it is ankle deep. I step cautiously into the forceful flow, clinging tightly to the cable lifeline.

Large boulders and rock prominences become frequent beyond Bald Knob. A noise behind me causes me to turn to see Tom approaching. Tom is the thru hiker I encountered yesterday, cheerful and talkative, undampened by the weather. He greets me cheerily. Mentioning a noisy group of hikers behind us, he wants to talk as we hike. He speaks of the couple last night at Cantrell Campsite, his hiking experiences, the apps he uses, and the research he did for this thru hike. As he mentions wanting to hike the Art Loeb Trail in North Carolina I readily join the conversation. I cannot hold back from describing its beauty in detail, as that is another trail embedded into my being.

We hike together for a while, eventually reaching a bend in the trail and a lull in the conversation. I step off of the path onto a nearby boulder.

“I’m going to take a water break here and wait for the group behind us to pass. I think I’d like to finish out the trail alone.”

Tom smiles, wishes me well, and walks down the trail out of view. A short time later two young ladies pass by, engaged in steady conversation. I wait until their voices have faded into the forest and step back onto the trail.

What has this experience amounted to? It has been only five days. This is not remotely comparable to reaching Katahdin or the border of Canada. My sentiments from the first day of the journey hold true now. The profoundly simple fact is that there is no return to the beginning. I have crossed the miles, from end to end. The man who walks out of these woods is not the same as the one who entered, and never will be again. This is the truth of thru hiking.

The path follows along a rushing stream that grows in the descent. Then the trail becomes paved. Then the paved path reaches a building. On the other side of the building stands a sign for Table Rock Foothills Trail Access. My breath catches below the lump in my throat.

I stand still and see the end of the trail. I see beyond the end of the trail. I see a lifetime on earth, with all of the unknown mysteries it entails, stretching out as an unexplored trail ahead of me. On a path that does not return to where it started, I have ended at the beginning.

I place my palm on the smooth wood of the sign. The journey is done.

Erik Hogan is a photographer who primarily shoots landscape, wilderness, and nature scenes in the Athens area.

Follow on Instagram @erikhoganphotography Erik's sketchbook includes a look behind the scenes, with an option to purchase a limited number of prints through the link in his bio. htttps://erikhoganphotography.com.

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