Monday, June 6, 2016

Fifth Yearly Pilgrimage Complete

For the last five years I’ve traveled to Arkansas, intentionally. (Please, don’t judge me so quickly.) I go there for the National Forests, and for five years I’ve spent time on the Eagle Rock Loop in the Ouachita National Forest, carrying everything I need on my back.

Each of the last two years I’ve traveled the trail with companions. In 2015 it was my dad, and in 2014 I brought a few of my students along. But this year I hit the trail alone. After all, solitude is the reason I began this yearly trip in the first place.

In April of 2011 my wife and I lost our first child when she was 26 days old. She had a chromosomal abnormality and we knew 18 weeks into the pregnancy that she was sick, so the emotional exhaustion began early on. As new stresses built and life got more intense, the overwhelming feeling of constant tiredness was the norm. Maggie passed away, then grief blanketed our lives, then a miscarriage, then the next daughter was born, then the son, and then the third daughter came along. All of this in five years time, and yes, I’m still tired.

The intention of this trip the first time was to give me the chance to get away from screens and all of the other voices that I cling to when life becomes too heavy and real. I needed an absolute escape where my iPhone couldn’t medicate me. I was in a desperate place and I knew the quiet of nature was the only way to hear the guiding voices my body and mind were truly designed to follow. And it worked. Healing washed over me on that trip, and it’s healing I don’t think I would have found elsewhere.
The grief for our lost daughter is still palpable, our almost-four-year-old is as manipulative as she is brilliant and beautiful, our 20-month-old son is a physical wrecking ball, and our 10-week-old is colicky.

I needed to get back to the quiet.

While the rest of the family went away for Memorial Day I crafted my getaway plan for three nights on the trail. This was only obtainable after 11 hours of driving, but I know where my peace lives, and I would sacrifice greatly to recapture it.

I reached the trail head at 6:30 p.m., filled my water bottle, hoisted my 22-pound pack, and headed down the trail.

Having traveled this route four times before, I know it well. Before my first solo trip on this loop I could have drawn the map from memory, based on the obsessive research I’d done. I didn’t have a plan for a specific place to camp the first night, just more of a general area that I knew had a solid trout population and good hammock trees near the water.

There were people everywhere. Cooler-touting people blasting anthem rock from their wireless speakers floated past my camp every 20 minutes. I could hear a chorus of dogs barking at every moving thing day and night. Now this is not my idea of nature. This was not what I’d signed up for. I was looking for solitude, but it would not be found here. I knew right away that this trip would be different than those before, but I was open to it.

Every person I met was fantastically present. They looked me in the eyes instead of casually glancing up from a phone screen, they were hospitable when a raccoon tore through my highly-strung food bag in the trees, and even shared fire-side conversations in the evenings. 

I went to find silence and instead was reminded of the importance of humans sharing life. Even with strangers in the forest.

Maggie’s funeral was on Memorial Day in 2011, so this trip was over the five-year anniversary. I expected to have the same deep, grief-ridden experience I had the first time out, but instead I found new growth everywhere. I walked through new tree groves that were the charred remains of a fire only five years ago; I crossed new stream beds that have been formed from all of the flooding over the last few years; and I sat around a fire in the dark with complete strangers recounting my history with the trail and how far I’ve come as a human being since my first trip out. Fires, floods, and death. And still, new growth everywhere.

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