It was winter of 1979, and I was in the middle of a college degree at a large university. Things weren’t going well. Oh, academically I was doing okay, but socially, emotionally, spiritually, I needed a break. I recall returning to my dorm room one afternoon after class, tossing my books on the floor, and heading back out for a walk, to help clear my head from all the thoughts that were crowding it. I wound up wandering High Street, the main commercial drag. The scent of stale beer wafted from the open doors of the many bars that lined the street, calling to mind the hangovers I had experienced during my two years there.
I wound up in an outfitter’s store, perusing its bookshelf. I came across “Appalachian Hiker II,” the book by Ed Garvey first published in 1971 about hiking the Appalachian Trail and how to prepare for it. I bought that book. It changed my life. Barely a quarter of the way through it, I decided to drop one of my classes and use that freed-up time to prepare for an AT section hike that spring. On April 1, this fool began a memorable eight-week journey that took me from Springer Mountain, Ga. to Cloverdale, Va.
In retrospect, that journey was a pilgrimage.
In a book entitled “Fumbling,” a tale about her journey on an ancient Catholic pilgrimage trail in Spain, author Kerry Egan cites anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner, who “suggest that the pilgrimage experience is one of liminality, a time in which a person is separate and apart from everyday life and expectations, apart from the normal patterns and strictures of society. A pilgrim is in an in-between space for a little while, a time of both great transition and great potential. In this place you can learn and experience things that it would not be possible to learn while not on pilgrimage.” That AT time/space/place helped me understand who I am.
The AT also allowed me to experience other wonderful people – trail buddies and trail angels. As Egan puts it, “a pilgrim experiences communitas, the elimination of differences between people of different ages, classes, and nationalities. Barriers between people are thrown aside as a great feeling of unity and connectedness brings people together in a way that seems impossible within the regular structures of society.“
As well, I experienced for the first time in my life extended vistas of deep forested mountains. Until then, I did not realize such views were possible in the otherwise-populated eastern United States – blue and smoky, ridge upon ridge, extending to the horizon, unmarred by houses, roads, or cell towers. The Southern Appalachian Mountains are truly a unique and, for me, a sacred place. So much so that, after numerous other adventures elsewhere, including the Andes and the Himalayas, I found my way back here 11 years ago to make this area my home.
Last week, I was once again up on the AT, enjoying the pristine view from Standing Indian Mountain, and recalling that pilgrimage time of 33 years ago that, as Egan calls it, “is transformative, cleansing and purifying.”
Let’s help maintain this type of AT experience for others.
While the construction of a new cell tower in the Rainbow Springs area by Pegasus Tower is a certainty, having been approved by the Macon County commissioners in July, let’s encourage the company to take steps to reduce its visual impact, through simple measures suggested by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), such as setting the tower down off the ridge top, no or subtle lighting, and a non-illustrative finish.
Also, let’s not make the same mistake again of failing to notify the Appalachian Trail Conservancy before such telecommunication tower permits are issued. Let’s encourage our Macon County commissioners to change our telecommunications ordinance to require notification to the ATC for any proposed tower within four miles of the AT.
Dennis Desmond — Franklin, N.C.