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An Epiphany
by AARON<><

In the back of the classroom I slumped forward in my desk with my head propped up in an open palm. With glazed-over eyes, I stared ahead at the blackboard pretending to pay attention to Dr. Klein as he lectured about some irrefutable laws of physics and the equations necessary to arrive at some rock solid scientific conclusion. It was half way through my junior year of high school, and I was dog-tired, tired and sick of it all. The monotony of the same classes day in and day out plus constant pressure of the whole social hierarchy that many spend their four years trying to claw up notch by notch now plagued me to the point of utter apathy. As I lackadaisically glared off at really nothing at all, the walls began to close in and the thick air reprocessed again and again by the schoolís air conditioning system weighed heavy in my lungs and was a stench in my nostrils. I had this itching for fresh air and freedom from the confines of that cramped classroom. Then all those thoughts and feelings that were flitting around in my head began to focus on one central memory and I slipped into a reverie. Sitting there my heart began to long for something, something that I could not quite sort out, something that did not make sense.

On June 25, 2000, my sixteenth birthday my dad presented me with my first backpack and hiking boots. To put it lightly, I was not too enthused about his gift selection. Being the die-hard competitive bass angler that I was I could have thought of several other uses for the two hundred and twenty bucks it cost him. However, all along I knew it was coming and exactly what it was that Iíd be getting that day. It had been in the works for years. My dad had some deep-seated love for backpacking since his first trip on the Appalachian Trail with his best friend after their high school graduation. Throughout my childhood and growing up dad would occasionally regale me and my younger brother with tales of his many backpacking adventures. Then he would always tell us excitedly how it would be when we were old enough to join him. For years he yearned for the day he could share his passion with us. Then early that year dad decided it was time. He made all the necessary arrangements for our five day 120 mile trek up the Appalachian Trail, setting a date for late June through early July. I just didnít get it. What could possibly be so much fun about walking up and down mountains in the middle of the woods where everything looked the same just for the sake of doing it, not to mention the joys of having a forty pound pack strapped to my back? Needless to say, I was hardly looking forward to it. Donít get me wrong, I am an outdoorsman, and I loved the outdoors. I always had, the forests, trees, lakes, streams, rivers, all of it, but my idea of a good time was hardly plodding step by step, hour by hour, day by day down a seemingly never ending trail in the Appalachian Mountains. My thirst for nature was quenched primarily through fishing. Whether camping at a riverside, wading an icy mountain stream, or standing on the deck of my boat with rod in hand on a gorgeous lake, the mental strategy involved in outsmarting my aquatic query was what held allure for me. What I could not understand is how something as seemingly boring as hiking or backpacking could be so intoxicating to Dad. I could not tell him how I felt though; he was so excited about the whole ordeal for us and himself, heíd be crushed if he thought we didnít share his enthusiasm. So every time dad would come proudly into the room to display some new stove or some other essential item for the trip, Iíd do my best to force a smile and say something along the lines of ďthatís great, dadĒ or ďcanít wait.Ē

It was a day or so after my birthday that my dad, my brother, and I crammed into our Toyota Corolla with our gear and headed north for Tennessee. As I sat in the passengerís seat watching the landscape outside my window fly by, I was already looking forward to seeing that same landscape going the other way on the return trip.
We arrived at a friendís house in Tennessee late that night. He would be the one dropping us off at the trailhead and bringing us back to our car when we were through. Then before I knew it, the three of us were posing for pictures in front of the Newfound Gap trailhead sign then waving goodbye as our friend pulled away. Looking up from tightening my sleeping bag in place, I groaned as I gazed up a narrow path of packed mud and rock that sliced its way into the lush forest ascending steeply up the mountain that loomed before us. Then at Dadís command, we hoisted our packs into place and were off. This first section of trail rose to five thousand feet in six miles making this an extraordinarily precipitous grade. Then the bad got worse. About a half hour into the trail we took a quick breather on an area that flattened out for a bit. Upon resuming our ascent fierce clouds began to roll in and swallowed the forest in darkness. A bolt of lightening split the sky a few miles away sending thunder reverberating through the forest. Soon after, the storm unleashed all its fury on us. The once dry trail had now become a muddy brown river raging its way down from the peak. We worked our way slipping and tripping slowly up the mountain and several exhausting hours later, we summated. After an eternity of descent, we staggered into our first campsite utterly drained, feet blistered, and sore. As Dad whipped up a quick meal of rice and beans, he joked to Matt and me about how that day had been a ďtrial by fire.Ē He was loving it, and I had no idea why. That night as I lay in my sleeping bag staring out into the inky blackness of this primeval forest listening to some owl pierce the deathly silence of the night with his lonesome call, I asked myself over and over again what I had gotten myself into.

The next morning found me refreshed and in better spirits, and the following days proved far less horrible than the first. Each was filled with much of the same: hiking, climbing, ascending, descending, ad infinitum. As my body started breaking into the routine, I could start focusing on things other than the initial physical strain. As we plodded along, I found myself staring off into the forest and marveling at its beauty, but the climbs were still always despised just because of their grueling nature. During a climb I would look straight at the trail in front of me very intentionally placing each step and trying to control my heavy panting. This left very little room for taking in my surroundings. However, once a peak was reached with breathtaking view, the tortuous ascent melted into the back of my mind and all I could think about was the vastness of the wilderness before me. I remember one day after a long uphill climb, we summated a mountain entirely devoid of trees; a thick meadow of yellow waist-high flowers covered the entire peak. Soon, however a large cloud had settled in and covered the area with the most impenetrable fog I have ever experienced. I saw a large boulder rising out of the yellow carpet. I walked over, lowered my pack and scrambled on top. I stood up trying to peer through the dismal gray blanket but to no avail. Then, just as I turned to hop off and rejoin my dad and brother, I noticed the fog lifting. Within five minutes, the golden sun shone through the haze, and the fog had lifted. Awe struck, I gazed across vastly beautiful expanses of land seemingly untouched by humankind. Standing atop that rock, lungs filled with the most crisp clean mountain air imaginable, I found myself relishing this most dazzling panorama, and I felt utterly free. As we turned down the mountain and into the woods I looked back and saw that the fog had returned. It seemed the breath of God had lifted the dense cloud just long enough for us to see that sight and allowed its descent the moment we were down the mountain.

That evening we camped alongside a crystal stream that originated straight from a small crack in the side of a mountain. The next morning I washed up in that stream before we made our descent down the mountain to a small town in North Carolina named Hot Springs which was a little less than our half way point. We had come fifty miles. Then we started up the mountain at the other side of town. Near the top of this mountain, however, my brother Matt started feeling queasy; since Hot Springs was the closest town for another seventy miles we discussed whether or not to keep going. I, still not overly relishing the backpacking experience as a whole, tried to make as convincing a case as possible for turning back without sounding too eager. My brother, on the other hand, still wanted to press on despite feeling sick. Dad finally decided with deep regret that it would be better to turn back and be on the safe side rather than risk Matt coming down with stomach flu once we were too far in. We hiked back into town in silence. Dad and Matt both had dejected looks upon their faces. I was doing my best to fake mine. It had not been as boring or horrible as I thought it would be, but the memories of the several uphill climbs were seared heavily in short term memory, and I had no plans on any sort of backpacking endeavors in my future. Once back in town, Dad called our friends who lived about two hours away to ask if we could be picked up early. I could tell he was a bit embarrassed. While waiting for our ride to arrive, we sat on stone wall that lined a sidewalk at the edge of a small street and talked. Dad asked us each how we liked the trip even though it was cut short. Matt being very positive gave an enthusiastic response on how much he enjoyed it. I, on the other hand, could not lie. I told Dad that I had enjoyed the time we spent together but to not expect me to be setting off on any graduation trips similar to his. It was an experience that I could say I had been through and that was it; I had no intentions on furthering my backpacking career. He seemed a little disappointed, but I knew that deep down he had understood my feelings toward the issue all along.

Meanwhile, back in my desk with all these memories swimming around in my head, something startled me out of my daze. Maybe it was the drop of a pencil, a cough, or something else. Whatever it was, it yanked me back into reality. Then it struck me. I missed backpacking! It did not make sense. I had hardly thought about it since the day I thankfully returned home after it was all over. However, now that the once deeply ingrained memories of hellish mountain climbs had faded to merely a trivial relic of the over all experience, my lungs longed to be satisfied with a deep cleansing breath of mountain air. My whole being ached to be freed from that classroom to the utter solitude of some lofty peak. After school I drove home to tell dad of my change in attitude; he was quite that I wanted to go back. That summer we picked up were we had left off and finished the last eighty miles. Then this past summer one of my closest friends and I hiked fifty miles of the Ozark Highlands trail in Arkansas as a senior trip.
Now backpacking is an escape from the everyday pressures and hassles I go through. It helps me to draw a total blank on life and start fresh when I return. Itís kind of like hitting a reset button. When Iím alone in the middle of nowhere, the facades I put up while engaged in our complex social society melt away. It allows me to re-center my life on who I am without the pollutants of messy social agendas, and I come back with a fresh start. Itís just me, my God, and his unblemished creation, and itís intoxicating.

peace fills us, by hope we steer, our dark hearts salvaged, we live without fear