A frequent quarantine fantasy of mine has been to suit up, shoulder a pack and hike the Appalachian Trail, hoofing it for 2,189 miles from Mt. Katahdin in Maine down to Georgia, cooking rough but delicious, sleeping under the stars and welcoming every dawn as if it were the first day the world was born. Self-sufficient, fulfilled, at one with nature.
Making a bolt for freedom and immersing oneself in wild nature seems to be a universal longing as pandemic boredom grinds on like a hurricane stalled over the Gulf Coast. These days, when the travel bug bites, I stow my passport. It’s time to grab a book and an armchair instead.
I recently discovered a battered copy of Bill Bryson’s hilarious, epic Appalachian Trail adventure “A Walk in the Woods” in my nearby Little Free Library and set off on a literary trek with Bill and his buddy, Katz, shod in sheepskin slippers with a cup of steaming hot tea in hand.
Quarantine fantasies fell by the wayside from page one.
Seems that plodding and privation are an inescapable part of hiking the Appalachian Trail. And boredom. Especially when it comes to food.
Bryson’s evening routine on the trail was unremittingly the same: boiled ramen noodles, followed by reading until the light failed.
On the fourth night, just as I was facing the dismal prospect of finishing my only book and thereafter having nothing to do in the evenings but lie in the half light and listen to Katz snore, I was delighted, thrilled, sublimely gratified to find that some earlier user had left a Graham Greene paperback.
If there is one thing the AT teaches, it is low-level ecstasy – something that we could all do with more of in our lives.”
That one, great line would have been enough to chew on for a week, but Bryson didn’t let up there, describing some all-too-familiar emotions:
Each time you leave the cossettted and hygienic world of towns and take yourself into the hills, you go through a series of staged transformations – a kind of descent into squalor – and each time it is as if you have never done it before. At the end of the first day, you feel mildly, self-consciously, grubby; the the second day, disgustingly so; by the third, you are beyond caring; by the fourth, you have forgotten what is it like to not be like this. Hunger, too, follows a defined pattern. On the first night you’re starving for your noodles; on the second night you’re starving but wish it wasn’t noodles; on the third you don’t want the noodles but know you had better eat something; by the fourth you have no appetite at all but just eat because that is what you do at this time of day. I can’t explain it, but it’s strangely agreeable.
Frans Kafka took it one step further in The Great Wall of China Reflections:
You do not need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen, simply wait.
Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked.
It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
I took another sip of tea, wriggled my cozy toes, gazed at the raindrops trickling down the window and looked around my familiar, lockdown cell, suddenly remembering the ramen I’d stocked up on back in March, and felt hungry.
Freedom is just a word.
Whether you leave or stay put, even if ecstasy eludes you, noodles always deliver.
Check out S.B. Dworski’s past posts here.