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John pointed north

I decided to keep with the theme of who inspired this journey. The other day it was Phil, and his dog (now mine). Tonight I’m jumping further back. To when I was a kid.

I’m a product of divorce. Such a thing was unheard of and scandalous up until the 1970’s. Well my parents got one. I won’t go into the catastrophic depth charge that divorce can be, but life does have simple but significant harbors and refuges. That was John Langley.

My mom was a nurse, working at a hospital. Anita, Jo, Dot, and a host of others worked with her. They were definitely extended family. Anita’s husband was John and he was the quintessential “Good Ol” Boy”. He was raised in the midst of the Great Depression, served in the military during Korea, and was blue collar. I’m not sure how it came about, maybe I was entering a difficult adolescent phase or something, but I was introduced to John.

He was about six feet, with dark hair streaked with gray, and a full beard. He was a brick mason. He drove a Chevy Silverado, had a Saint Bernard, and made his own beer and wine. John began taking me hunting and fishing with him. He was a member of a hunting club that owned property above Dahlonega.  There was a large lake on the property and we went there at least twice a month during the summer to camp and fish. During the fall we hit the woods, stalking deer, collecting shed antlers, or pocketing buckeyes (the nut, which I am told brings luck).

Suches, Georgia, the area John had me stomping about, was the birthplace of one Arthur Woody. Woody was credited with bringing whitetail deer back to North Georgia. He was a U.S. Forest Service ranger and conservationist. That local legend was also coupled with the fact we were only one mile from the Appalachian Trail at any given time.

On one of our excursions he walked me over to it. In my head today I consider it a monument of a footpath, something close to sacred. When I first saw it it looked like a game trail. A good place to set up and jump deer. Muscadines were in abundance, as were acorns. I did not see any hikers. I stood there wondering what was so special about it.

“If you walk that way,” John said pointing up the trail and towards a hill covered in more trees, “you will eventually get to Maine.”

All the way? This dirt path leads all the way to Maine? It does. He explained the bulk of it was completed during the Great Depression by the CCC Works Project. I knew what that was, as I was in the required Georgia History class at the time. But all the way to Maine? Walking. Why?

As time moved on I made it out of middle school and into high school. The trips with John became infrequent, and I discovered females and a pressing need to get a drivers license. John was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his health plummeted. I went off to bootcamp after high school, and the disease brought John all the around, full circle. From infant to self sufficient, and back again. He died.

In all honesty the closest I have ever been to the Appalachian Trail is that one time. Standing there, holding a double barrel shotgun, staring at a dirt path, and wondering why anyone would walk the entire length of it through fourteen states.

Last month Bailey and I were in the same area. Blood Mountain to be exact, in the Chestatee Wilderness. We were on a deer and bear registered hunt. I had the inclination to grab his arm and lead him through the valley below the mountain we were on, towards what I knew was the AT. It was less than five miles from us according to the topographic map. A series of creeks and formidable hills separated us from it. I wanted him to see it, possibly just as I did that day. It winds away from what you know and towards what you don’t. You are sufficient, and responsible for yourself, maybe alone, maybe in the company of others.

Why hike it in one go? I’m not sure. I know I want to do it. Not for any existential reason. I’m not trying to “find myself”, I know who I am and I’m not moping about attempting to restart my life. I am however compelled to engage in moderate adversity while simplifying the clutter. Sometimes people need to look at what is needed, instead of what they want. I hear thru-hikes are notorious for putting that on display. Maybe I have bumped into the thing so many times as an accident it seems only natural to follow it? Kind of like seeing a novel left at a series of locations over a period of weeks. On a plane, discarded on a bench at a park, and then on a nightstand next to your wife’s side of the bed. The universe is telling you to read it.

The day I scrambled up a leaf covered hill at John’s side are well behind me. I’m not sure the route he led me on to show me the trail was the most expedient. I don’t know if he ever hiked on it any more than using it to get from one prime spot for deer hunting to the next. What he did was show me something insignificant, a dirt path, but by pointing north it became something else.

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