My long walks with Josie grew into longer hikes in the Smokies, and the mountains, too, had things to teach me. First and perhaps most of all, patience. You’re here to see things, not to get to the end of the trail in record time. Second, stubbornness. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. What you need may just be around the next bend. And finally, spontaneity. What you really need will almost always be a total surprise, so expect the unexpected.
I was climbing Mount LeConte in the Smokies for the first time a few years back. It is one of the most popular trails in the park, but having spent over thirty years in the area I had never made the effort. I was determined to summit this steep and somewhat strenuous Appalachian peak. Hiking alone in the early morning, I had the trail seemingly to myself. Three quarters of the way to the top, the trail narrowed to a cliff hugging vista, a two thousand foot drop off to my left, and a sheer escarpment to the top on my right. Imagine the picture below, taken three hours later on the way down after summitting, enshrouded in fog around 8 am.
Suddenly, around the corner and emerging from the mist, came a doe, perhaps two years old, on a stretch of the path barely wide enough for one. She halted, looked behind her and then over the edge of the drop off, and then lowered her head and took one or two hesitant steps toward me. I stepped back against the escarpment, looked away from her back down the trail, and said “go ahead, sweetheart, go on.” Out of my peripheral vision I saw her approach, soundlessly, and walk by so close to me I could feel her warmth in the morning chill.
I could have stretched my hand out and touched her. She walked slowly past, hesitantly, for perhaps twenty feet, turned back and looked at me, and commenced eating some grass on the trailside. I found my camera and captured a view of her a few moments later. At that moment reaching the summit became superfluous. I was given a huge dollop of grace again, and I knew in a moment where the path always leads. Where all paths lead.
They lead to now.
Next week, a conclusion of sorts; a photographic tour of Josie’s Hollow.