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This must be the place: It was the work of the quiet mountains, this torrent of purity at my feet

Martha Sundquist State Forest. (photo: Garret K. Woodward) Martha Sundquist State Forest. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

Walking out of my apartment this past Tuesday, the morning sun illuminated the mud plastered all over the side of my ole Toyota Tacoma. It was time to edit and put out the newspaper, but the only thing I could think about was when I could once again escape into the wildness. 

In the last six days, I’ve gone on six adventures into the woods. Mostly in a quest to go trail running, I’ve found myself in the depths of Western North Carolina and East Tennessee, each time as awe-inspiring and invigorating as the next.

Being out in the elements amid a jog along a meandering ridge or hike up a steep mountainside is a Zen zone of sorts that I continually seek, as I can imagine is the same kind of feeling for many of y’all reading this column. 

But, during this quarantine, the urge to disappear into the forest has amplified in my heart and soul, where once I’m done writing (and my assignments) in the morning, I’m immediately jumping into my pickup and taking off for the hills, only to return back to my humble abode sometime around dinner. 

It all started last Thursday afternoon. Looking outside the office window of the newsroom, the clouds were dark and ominous, with raindrops soon hitting the roof of the building. 

But, no matter, just throw on another layer of dri-fit and hit the trails behind Western Carolina University. It’s just rainwater, who cares? And besides, splashing through mud puddles never gets old, didn’t you know?

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By the next morning, my legs felt great from the WCU run, so I decided to find another trail. With an empty afternoon in front of me, I took off in search of a remote access point on the Appalachian Trail. 

In an effort to purposely get lost and find myself in the process, every-so-often I’ll fill up my gas tank and try to locate these AT access points on desolate Forest Service roads. 

Aside from the simple fun of discovery, it’s a wild thing to track down these far-off trail crossings where one can head up the AT and reach certain spots that would normally take days to hike towards. 

Jumping off Exit 451 on Interstate 40 at the state line of North Carolina and Tennessee, I took a right down the gravel road. It was about an hour and a half drive to the access point, where I lost cell service a half-hour into the jaunt. Pavement turned to gravel turned to dirt turned to mud. 

Eventually, I wound up passing through the Martha Sundquist State Forest way out in the middle of nowhere. Kept going. Didn’t find the AT access point (not this time, at least), but did stumble across another trailhead. The Brown Gap Trail. Screw it, this’ll do, eh? 

Three-mile roundtrip trek up the mountainside along a roaring creek. The trail was unkempt, where I was probably the first person to traverse it in years. Wandered by small waterfalls and through thickets. 

Back down to the truck. Grabbed my ukulele and my copy of Studs Terkel’s seminal book Hard Times (quite a poignant read for our current era, by the way). Soon realized the dirt road I was parked on was the state line. Plucked my uke and read a little out of the book. Surreal scene, physically and emotionally, as I sat there. 

Hopped in the truck to head home, but took my time. Slowly cruising by vast, untouched meadows and evening sunshine peering through old trees high above. At one point, I even came across the burial site of a Civil War soldier, up near this creek, all by itself. 

Continued on. Saw an old abandoned homestead in a field. Stopped the truck and walked across the field to it. Stepped inside and saw the handmade stone fireplace, the beautiful wood hammered in decades or centuries ago. Thought about all the meals cooked over that fireplace. Thought about the long-gone faces that called the place “home.” 

Walked back across the field to the truck and pondered the infinite sunsets that have fallen over this landscape. Crossed back into North Carolina. My heart and soul vibrated, as always when in the presence of adventures held close.

And that’s been the theme of the last week, which is trying to make every day into some sort of adventure. Take off and find a new road to wander down, a new river to sit by or trail to immerse yourself in. Get your shoes and your ole truck muddy. Enjoy the moment that Mother Nature has provided you for that day. 

These last six days have realigned my deep love and passion for the backwoods, something I’ve been too busy as of late to dive into, where the only time to go for a run — between assignments during the week or being on the road during the weekend — usually involved jogging atop some pavement in some downtown. 

This “new normal” we find ourselves in has been difficult for many to navigate, including myself at certain junctures of this isolation period. 

But, I’m finding that this time alone has been ideal for self-reflection, and for personal healing. It has been an ongoing process of cathartic thoughts and actions, of which I hold my head high and in optimism for what the future holds — for all of us.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all. 

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