By Ford Boozer
I sought contentment up the spine of Appalachia in the summer of 2015. I stood at the southern
terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Springer Mountain, a nearly inaccessible, craggy hillside
in the Chattahoochee National Forest of north Georgia. It is a place where many thick-headed travelers have stood, thinking it a reasonable prospect to traverse from Georgia to Maine using only walking sticks and a stubborn pair of feet. On the trail I heard stories about feet almost continuously. Toes, toenails, the stories spanned the entire anatomy of feet, the entire history of aching and pain. People watched their feet intently, scrubbed them, stretched and tugged them beside the campfires that flanked the trail.
On my back was a sleeping bag that wasn’t warm enough for the Smokeys and a travel guitar meant to charm an unsuspecting Appalachianette. My camp rations of ramen and oats, I purchased for quarters at The Pig. I had a journal, three pounds too-many apples, and a half pound of instant coffee that I drank in the first week. I was scared to death of hungry bears and the hungrier voices in my own head. And mice. On the first night, it rained sideways for nine hours.
We were a ridiculous outfit, the community of hikers that I found myself so intertwined with. Thousands start the trail each year with hopes of “thru-hiking,” or trekking the entire 2,200 mile length of the trail. We shacked ten deep with perfect strangers in $40 motels. We were given “trail names.” One guy’s name was “Snart.” It was awarded him after a night in a lean-to shelter in northern Georgia, in which he simultaneously snored and farted the whole night through.
Let us imagine for a moment that we are looking at a map of our United States of America. Pretend now that we are standing near the bottom of the map, on Georgia, and that it is our great aim to walk to the very top of the map, to Maine. The distance is but a few inches, maybe half a foot. Standing atop Springer Mountain, looking into the twisted woods that framed the two-by trail, I couldn’t have known that in six inches of piney backcountry I would meet a girl, begin, later, the process of slowly undoing a relationship with said girl, fall prey to dysentery and its incarnations, get rescued by some kindly firemen from Indiana, provoke into action (standing on her hind legs) a grumpy Black Bear sow in Shenandoah, and come to know my disgraceful spirit animal.
Spirit animals are the creatures that one so embodies, intended to guide and to protect a person on his journey. It is a silly notion, really, given that we are a myriad of beings. None of us fit so well into an overarching grouping of traits. But for the sake of prose and cheap symbolism.
What is your spirit animal? A Grey Wolf scouring for winter-killed buffalo in Yellowstone? A Peregrine Falcon patrolling the Alabama coastline? Mine is a bat. A blind bat that wouldn’t suspect an oncoming steam engine, blowing aloud her foghorn, from ten feet. At least I think they were bats, the animals I so embodied that whipped around the night sky in Appalachia like hellbent banshees. They flew straight at my eyes and at the last second, by some miraculous means of sonar, would veer into the leaves. It was as if, behind every pine, stood a cruel child with a slingshot and a bucket full of winged stones.
A bystander may have thought I was shadowboxing with trail ghosts. Rocky goes camping.
There was a hillbilly we called Lumpy who worked a hiker hostel outside Pearisburg, Va.
“Dem bats is blind,” Lumpy said.
It is that they came in the night. It is, too, that they couldn’t see the forest that teemed around them that made me relate so deeply to the creatures.
There was a deep desperation that clung to me like river mud through my teenage years and early twenties. I tried as hard to fit in amongst the renegades as I did to draw breath. At fifteen, my psychiatrist prescribed me therapy and something that made my eyes heavy, 20mg for depression and sleep. At sixteen, 5mg of something to wake me back up. By twenty-one, I had washed up for three months at an inpatient treatment center for those of us that wrestled without success against different flavored narcotics and Jim Beam. Can you wash up at twenty-one? I noted earlier that I was seeking contentment up the trail; this was the life that left me discontented, the life from which I was walking away.
I was loved as a boy; I was sacrificed for immensely; I rode the Tower of Terror at Disney World and got stomach aches on Davenport’s pizza; and then I couldn’t find my way, lived life from the sidelines. Perhaps it would make more sense if I could insert here a list of the horrible traumas that I suffered
at Crestline Elementary, but such a list does not exist.
I can’t explain why, but something else, too, happened on the Appalachian Trail; the missteps that led to my undoing became ever clear. I dreamed to play guitar at Red Rocks Amphitheater so I drank and used into the morning, nightlife as sport. It was the closest I’ll ever come to living like Gregg Allman.
I burned every inch of my wick trying to fit in, searching for a way to dull the pain of living an unspoken life, looking for midnight satisfaction on the wings of Miller Lite. What happened? I provided momentum to a life that needed none at all, to a life that was built on fear and staying. It wasn’t particularly revelatory to have seen the things that I did do that led me astray, for those things had been covered in great detail in the treatment center. I once believed that my addiction was immoderation; somewhere along the trail I saw that it was something else entirely, an ignorance of my purpose. My addiction was unsung music, an endless list of things that I didn’t do, and was too scared to try. Leaving behind the joys in my life left me joyless.
I remember being heavy headed and hollow, dwelling in a moonless world without a light for my path. But I must take a moment to thank addiction for what little it provided me. I learned
how to seek like a desperate man. It was later, after I cleaned up, that I hankered to join the Peace Corps and hike the Appalachian Trail. I’ve made but few adjustments. The most important:
I sobered enough to listen for what in life was calling me and followed, albeit with frequent misgivings.
Somedays I prefer to stay lost, to admit that I’ll never have the answers to my biggest question, which is what to make of the canvas that is my new life and how to paint beautifully upon it. This question, I thought a lot about on the trail, fumbling. Did I say that I tried to hike to Maine? That isn’t true.
I tried to fumble my way to Maine, for fumbling is the only way I know how to travel. I ended up getting off the trail a few miles shy of Pennsylvania, with such a tremendous aching in my feet that, for the next week, I crawled around my girlfriend’s parent’s apartment on my hands and knees. I stood to meet her father, braced against his kitchen counter. I got to know them from down there, from on the ground, gimpy and half-proud.
And still I fumbled, to Montana where I found work building Gibson Guitars. I fly fished the Madison River and skied with my brother and sister, making memories that won’t fade. I cried there often, in Bozeman, mostly when the falling sun was backlighting the Bridger Mountains, relieved to be living a chosen life. I have been in recovery for long enough to have known hundreds of people that no longer get to choose. One of them was my best friend.
I’ve been clean and sober now for nearly eight years. Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned: it is crippling for me to not heed what calls, be it the Appalachian Trail or otherwise, even if the call leads me down twisted roads.
I am serving in the Peace Corps now, as an education volunteer on an island nation called St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I joined because I have something to offer and because the voice in my head, that called me to serve, wouldn’t relent. I play Wheels on the Bus for nine-year olds and for the coconut trees behind my apartment, the Ryman Auditorium of the Caribbean. This is a far cry from Red Rocks, but I strum on, for the joy that I can sometimes muster can be given as freely as rain. This doesn’t always feel like a success story. If we must consider it as such, it is only because my mother sleeps much better now. It is because, too, I have set out looking for reasons to know a deeper peace.
I must constantly remind myself that the world is mostly water and opportunity, a fine place to be. I am grateful to no longer be flying circles in the night like a lost bat, in the face of every living thing that passes me by. It took me most of my life before, finally, I landed for long enough to listen.
What’s on my mind is a vision, of a life more attuned to the moment. I hope to find a way to make new footprints in whatever sandpit or mud wallow in which I find myself. For the paths that weren’t my own rendered me tired and hollow, and never did I find there what I was seeking.