Lately, Mark and I have been spending our weekends in the woods. Saturday mornings found us eating a yummy breakfast, stuffing a daypack with a few necessities (camera, water, granola), and unfolding a map of Maryland. Last weekend we found the first Washington Monument. The weekend before that, we hiked to Cunningham Falls.
Mark loves to hike. Seriously, that boy. He would rather be in the woods, walking a quiet path, than anything else. And of all the quiet paths to be found, he particularly loves the Appalachian Trail. Friday night, he called me to his desk, where images of trail shelters were displayed on his computer screen. "Let's hike to this one," he suggested.
Once again, I found myself lacing my hiking boots and checking my camera's battery. Mark loves to hike; I love to take photographs--it's a happy union.
On the A.T., passing another hiker is a encapsulated moment of kind human interaction. More often than not stooped under a heavy pack, the passerby meets your eyes, nods, and smiles. "Great day for a hike." "Do you have the time?" "Nice to see you." There's no nameless shuffling or eye avoidance; there is no grocery-store aloofness. Whether he's been on the trail for a month or a day, the hiker is happy to see you, to cheer you on, to share a beautiful day.
Leave no trace--the A.T. missive and the mantra of any respectful hiker. At Rocky Run shelter, we met three middle-aged men: the Canadian, Old Guy from Florida, and Tin Can Dan. Each man was section-hiking the trail, alone. Somehow, they three arrived at Rock Run on the same day Mark and I decided to go for an extended walk in the woods. Five paths converged at one shelter, in one moment. They had plenty of ear-pulls and head-pats for Solo.
Tin Can Dan, so named because of his homemade camping gear, shared news of the graffiti and vandalism he had spotted at shelters further north. "All it is, is a rock. Or an old log lean-to. But people feel the need to mark it up, tear it down." Emboldened by his indignation, Tin Can pointed to his baseball cap. "Look for a man with a U.S.S. Ronald Reagan cap on TV, marching on Washington. I'm gonna try to raise some money, see who all I can get behind me. I got six grandkids who I want to hike this trail someday, but there's gotta be a trail left to hike. All this, of course, if this chicken-egg growing in my chest don't get me first."
As Mark and I packed to leave, having eaten our lunch with three strangers, Tin Can's eyebrows raised. "Leaving already? Did I talk too much? I usually do. The woods do that to you, after awhile."
He waved us on, and we wished him luck and safety for his long walk to Georgia. As we walked north, he shouted for us to remember his warning: leave no trace. The Vietnam vet, with his scrappy arms, battered hat, and round glasses, will never cross our paths again (unless of course he succeeds in his Washington dreams). But his last shouted missive followed us on our walk back to the car. Because of him, I stepped a little more carefully, noted the smaller flowers and unfurling greenery, realized the extraordinary resilience and fragility of the trail's beauty.
About a mile from the parking lot, a flicker of blue, underfoot, caught my eye. Stooping, I picked up a single butterfly wing. Why was it lying on the path? Had a wind scooped it up, deposited it here? How it had survived all those men and their booted feet--our booted feet as we strode past? I considered pocketing it and taking it home, to press into the pages of some unused book. I shifted it to my other palm...and noticed a blue stain on my thumb. Glitter and dust--one touch had already damaged the wing's delicate powder.
"More will wear off, the further you carry it," Mark noted.
I tilted my hand and let the wing flutter and fall back to the ground, where it settled on a patch of bare earth. Leave no trace. We walked on.