My work colleague informed me that I disappear like a coward, when things become difficult in my romantic life. She is absolutely right. I hold that title as a Red Badge of Courage. I wonder where I can pick up my award?

After every failed amorous prospect, I run to the mountains. I do not do it intentionally. Subconscious alarms start going off in the recesses of my mind, and I know I must get away. My emotions panic once they realize I am swimming in shark infested waters, and one has firmly latched onto my leg—full panic and survival mode. My whole, core being tingles in restless movement, which can only be assuaged in unfamiliar sights, and re-finding myself among foreign landscapes. Then, I suddenly decide to get away, to magically rediscover myself in the peace and ancient history of the mountains, with the peoples and animals each rock has protected deep and far into unimaginable history.

This is how I came to discover the Appalachian Trail personally, after reading A Walk In The Woods. I had fallen in love with the Smoky Mountains as a child. I often went to Tennessee for regional track and field competitions, and driving through the natural wonders of The Smoky Mountains enthralled my developing, childhood mind.

Through the glass of the car window, I felt myself disappear into the fog, joining the spirits of countless bygone Amerindian settlements, sacred forests, and the descendants of creatures carrying the legacy of the Pleistocene in their eyes. My tender wonder imagined the expansive mountains, hidden away from view in the fog of morning, as the rays of sun forced themselves to peer into their secrets. Every rock and raindrop held a whole, holy universe all its own, just waiting for discovery—each different and its own forever. In youth, I fell in love at first sight with the ancient wonders of the Smoky Mountains, and I would lose myself to mountains forever more.

After one girlfriend left me to return to her supercilious ex-boyfriends, I ran away from school over winter break to hike in the Smoky Mountains. I drove through the sad capital of West Virginia, not to be confused with the coastal stomping grounds of my extended family. The two cities of Charleston were diametrically opposed. West Virginia Charleston was hollowed out, like its people, from the coal mining that robbed of father, son, wife, daughter, and land beauty, in an instable greed, which was only a slower version of the atomic ravages seen at Hiroshima. Arguable, its consequences were equivalent in recovery difficulty for land, life, and love, as the digging killed the souls of hard working, rural people, who now watched their livelihoods being carried away, to benefit uncaring strangers, unaware of their sacrifices, never to regenerate or return again—hollow.

South Carolina Charleston was vibrant, like the sea, constantly giving and renewing itself. The tide brought in life, as it took it away, in a daily cycle that healed, instead of only taking. If the mountains were protection and refuge, the sea was self-renewal and constant change.

I drove through West Virginia, depressed by the sad, hollowed majesty of its Mountains to find myself in Tennessee. Winter is an interesting time to decide to hike the Appalachian Trail. Most of the trees were bare, like my soul, and dormant. They helped me remember that in my anguish, spring would return, and I just needed to be like the patient mountain, and wait my turn. Ironically, a lot of break ups occurs over the holiday season into February, so I was surprised more people were not drawn to the mountains in that winter season. I knew that fact statistically, but only now do I realize how accurately it parallels my own life.

I disappeared into the Smoky Mountains, joining my spirit with the spirits of those who came before, and would come after. I leaned on their strength, convincing myself that things go on. In the fog, I lost an old me, to discover a new, which I would also have to lose one day. In the mountain temple, I found the strength to go on, and returned back to my daily life seven hundred miles or eleven hundred kilometers away, depending on your vantage worldview. Reality could be so subjective that it was frightening sometimes.

Years later, after my engagement and subsequent relationship failed miserably, I ran away to a Zen monastery in the sacred mountains of Hyōgo, Japan. I told everyone I was leaving for a month, but in reality, there was a decent chance that I would only return to conclude my lay business, and join monastic life permanently. I was hair’s breadth from being done with the drama that women seemed to bring into my life, or that I seemed to attract all by myself. Chants were simple, but my inner demons were not. Wrestling with them in the safety of the mountain, and simplicity of meditation, was tempting. In the end, I decided the mountains would always be there, but I still had many worldly lessons to learn, away from the rocky bosom of peace and protection. I returned home.

On the drive back to school, I strangely recalled, at eight or nine, being terrified by the idea of my parents having another child. I was the youngest, so becoming the middle child would have been horrible. I asked my mother what kind of birth control her and my father used. She told me they used the rhythm method. I know what you are thinking, but my parents were not traditional in more ways than one way. Going through my father’s sock drawer the next day, I found condoms. He would often take me on trips to visit his very attractive female ‘friends’. Sometimes I would have to wait outside in the car for an hour or two.

One evening, I remember waiting outside in the car of a beautiful home. When my father emerged, for some reason, I was happier than ever before. It remarkably felt like I would never see him again, as if I was already mentally divorcing myself from his masculine presence. I needed him to hold me one last time, as a boy, as I would never allow him to do so, as a man. I threw open the car door and ran into his arms, because I would never see him again, in such godly admiration. This memory has stayed with me forever, because, he handed me a piece of paper. His lady friend emerged, who was not my mother, his wife. I remember that she was more beautiful than anything I had ever seen, and while I hate my father with a burning vengeance, the woman’s mesmerizing face made me feel a dirty kind of sympathy for the difficult position he was in. A firefly landed on the piece of paper he handed me, and then it landed on my nose. I shook my head, and it flew away.

Fireflies have such a short life. It could be compared to an instant relative to the average, developed country, human lifetime. In the end, life seemed to only be a collection of images, captured like frozen picture in time: memories that would seem unreal if you had not personally witnessed them yourself. The memories seemed pointless as well, like a parade that marches past the finish line, to keep going when no one is listening anymore.

I often ran away from home to escape the arguing of my parent’s bad marriage, as well as the fallout of my brother’s mental illness. In my nightmares, I run too. I will likely run until my last breath. In these reoccurring dreams I am kidnapped, falsely accused, yet manage to escape. I climb a steep mountain path, expecting to find another family there who can love me, as I need to be loved, living on the mountain’s peak. However, the peak is always devoid of anything except a maze of more trees. I descend to the other side of the mountain, and find a tranquil sea. Stuck between mountain and sea, I sit, finally away from my problems, and finally at peace. There are no more sharks trying to devour me, or succubi with too many expectations, which I could never live to achieve.

On the mountainside, next to the sea, stands a white, open tholos. I enter. The sticky green moss makes my skin itch, but there is always a blanket. Although the tholos of Athena is wide open and free, inside, I still feel safe. I wrap myself in the blanket, and drift off to sleep, hidden from the cold of night and perils of darkness. One day in the future, I would never leave the seaside mountain, but in the morning, I knew I must.

The sacred mountains would always be there when I needed them, in any form, energy, or time. Appalachian, Smoky, Hyōgo, Olympian, or other, would heal once more through its natural splendor, as an innate waypoint, for the expansive powers of its constantly fluctuating eternity. There, I would always be free to find the energy and strength to continue on.

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