The Zen at the Edge of the Path

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Recently, I went One Week With Daily Exercise, and turned into something of a hiking addict along the way. In truth, it wasn’t just the exercise that I fell in love with, but also the nature, the solitude, and the adventure that I encountered along the way. Below is an account of one such day on the trails, revelation included.

I let out an ugly gasp as I reached the top of the ridge and looked proudly at the clearing that lie beneath me. The shadow of the scarlet oak trees painted a second forest on the side of the ridge, and a slight breeze blew from behind me. It was a warm breeze and the air was fine. I’d made it to where I was headed, but that was only the first step.

In the past week I’d noticed a more pernicious streak bubbling up in my psyche. Where I tend to inflict positive thinking on myself, believing that the day is what you make out of it, I’d recently lost the energy for this and found myself too often focused on the negative, feeling as downtrodden as the path that now lie trampled underfoot.

I realized that I hadn’t had a full day off to myself since early January, and suspected I was using my preoccupation as an excuse to ignore the more pressing issue: I had figured out some months ago that I didn’t want to continue down the path I was on for the rest of my life, but excepting some vague wishes for travel and adventure I’d yet to figure out the next step. So, I thought I would leave my phone at home for a day, pack a bag with water, a few books, some energy bars and fruits, and head out into the woods in search of some grander answers.

I sat down on one of the benches at the hilltop, still panting heavily. Ruffling through my bag, I pulled out a worn copy of Shunryu Suzuki’s Not Always So, which I’ve had for too long to recall how I first came upon it. I’ve flipped through these short essays quite a few times, but I tend to read segmented texts from back to front, for reasons that still escape me, so I figured the writings at the beginning would be the freshest.

I read a short passage about feeling life escape through your exhalation, letting yourself disappear a bit more each time, and tucked the book back into my bag, excited to try it for myself. Sitting cross-legged, I fell deep inside myself against the backdrop of sourwood and hackberry trees in the ravine below.

It was hard to tell how long it had been, once I woke back up to my surroundings, perhaps only a few minutes, perhaps longer. I felt more at peace than I had in weeks. My mind was clear, my body was relaxed, and I was glad to be exactly where I was at that very moment in beginningless time. I resolved to saunter down the path a few miles further, knowing that there was a quiet place in the valley near the dam, next to the long abandoned valve house.

The hike down was prime. I was less exasperated than on the way up and was more able to notice the fauna and the deer and Canadian geese that were foraging it. Except for some passing thoughts I kept a clear head, content to be surrounded by the natural beauty and free of the bonds of time which keep us from appreciating it fully. Still, I was troubled.

Sure, I was happy in that moment, as happy as any time in my memory, but that didn’t get me any closer to knowing what I wanted to do. I came for a revelation, a sign from the heavens themselves, and I wasn’t leaving until I had rooted it out of the very marrow of the woods.

The sun had moved another sixth of the way through the blue sky by time I arrived at the valve house. It was a shabby half-preserved artifact. The roof had caved and the wood siding was dryer than bone, but there was a small boulder on the southeast corner, which made a fine resting spot.

I settled down and caught my breath, determined not to leave until I had concocted a master plan for my life. I pulled out every trick in my arsenal, meditation, journaling, even staring straight out into nothing for what felt like hours. None of it worked.

I grew restless and distracted by the sound of rushing water thirty or forty yards behind the little shack. Leaning my bag against the old barn wood, I set out through the crumpled leaves towards the sound. Just over a fallen tree I discovered a four-foot dropoff that led to a small creek with stones popping up through the middle like petrified lily pads. Even though it was created by a damn built for the L&N Railroad a century ago, something about the creek had the essence of the immortal wisdom of nature. It wasn’t enough just to look at it. I needed to immerse myself in the creek and taste the clear water for myself.

I braced myself with a tree that overhung the small gulch and hopped down into the creek bed. The rocks were uneasy but after stepping across a few of them I found my balance. I forged up the creek without abandon, not knowing what I was heading towards but knowing I needed to press on upriver.

Up ahead the creek grew wider and I found myself with two feet on a large rock in the middle of the stream, two or three yards from the shoreline. I looked each way and spotted a few small stones sticking up slightly above the water to the right and decided that they were my best course. I leapt towards the first stone but it gave way under the weight of me, exposing my mesh running shoes to the cool water of the creek, which soaked all the way through my socks as I made the final jump to the rocks at the creek’s edge.

I was seething. I shouldn’t have risked my weight on those small stones. I should have known what would happen.

But, somewhere along the line of the moss-covered rock bed, it dawned on me. Sure I had to deal with wet socks for the duration of the hike, but once my feet were already wet, I had nothing to fear. I could hop from rock to rock gaily, and if my shoes dipped into the water, who cared? They were already wet and I had nothing to lose.

It came upon me that this was the revelation I had been searching for all along. Fearing uncertainty, I had convinced myself I needed a set plan, a system of X’s and O’s for achieving preset goals. But if I would just wet my feet in uncertainty, jump headlong into the grand abyss of spontaneity, I would share in the same freedom I discovered there in the cool Appalachian creek water. Freedom to take whichever path grew wilder, whichever risky opportunity came my way. That is what I set out for, and, on the banks of that stony, forgotten creek, that is what I found.

Soon, I was rustled out of the creek by an orange-shirted park ranger, only forgiven for my misdeeds upon my solemn swear that I wouldn’t leave the trail again. But I lied.

Maybe I won’t trod off to disrupt the fragile ecosystem of the Tennessee wetlands again, but in those very waters I decided not to stick to life’s common trails any longer. Instead, I’ll forge my own. Wandering and winding though it may be, it will be only mine. And, when I do reach the summit of the ridge, I will have my own story to share, and no one will be able to tell it the same way I will.

may we all get better together.


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  1. Trademark MMA says

    Reading this post made me feel like I was reading a modern interpretation of Thoreau’s Walden right there