I know I’m in trouble when N. starts saving for a tent and sleeping bags. Then she brings home a book with the ominous title, North Carolina Hiking Trails. Actually, I’m fond of hiking, especially if I can relax at the end of the day with a bed and a bath. But to my wife, this is like washing down a gourmet dinner with a Dr. Pepper. She wants an experience of nature unmediated by civilized comfort. She wants to show me and J., her thirteen-year-old son, how to rough it.
I’ve been camping before. But never, she insists, have I experienced the real thing: the thrill of trekking up a mountain toting a full pack, pitching a small tent in the middle of nowhere, no toilet, no shower, no friendly park ranger to answer my dumb questions, just a night sky ablaze with stars, and the hand of nature upon my heart, soothing like a mother.
It’s raining when we get to the mountains. We sit in the car hoping to wait it out, but the rain doesn’t quit. Finally, we give up and get a room for the night. J. says this is his idea of camping: HBO and an indoor pool.
Under clear skies the next morning, I swap nervous, tasteless jokes with J. about the dangers that await us. This is, after all, an environmental habitat for bears and cougars; we’re packing a snakebite kit; we’ve brought iodine to decontaminate the water. Since Mad is J.’s favorite magazine, he’s a great straight man. Alas, N. was never a subscriber; she wants a weekend unmediated by adolescent humor. Shouldering my frayed canvas backpack, I vow to be serious. I, too, believe in the pioneer virtues, I remind her: this is the same backpack I used when I hitchhiked coast-to-coast twenty years ago, searching for the perfect commune.
But the trail is steeper and muddier than I expected, and I’m surprised how quickly I tire. Hitchhiking on the interstate was less strenuous than laboring up this rocky mountain footpath with nearly fifty pounds on my back. Shoulders aching, legs weary, I soon regret having brought the extra food, the extra clothes, prepared for all emergencies except the most immediate: the bruising weight of my necessities.
Unsure of my footing, vexed that N. glides along so gracefully under her heavy load, I step gingerly around slick rocks and small puddles. At a sharp turn in the trail, I lose my balance and fall, scraping my knee. N. asks if I’m all right. I shrug off her question, tell her to be careful. Minutes later, clambering over a sprawl of huge rocks, I lose my balance again, flail desperately for an overhanging branch as N. and J. turn to stare. I suggest we stop to rest.
We ease out of our packs. Around us, nature chatters amiably, the air filled with the stubborn hum of insects, the trilling of birds, the splashing of a nearby stream. J. deadpans, “It sounds like one of those meditation tapes.”
We hike past stands of birch and oak, dense thickets of rhododendron, waterfalls, brooding cliffs. Finally, about five thousand feet up, in a wooded grove with a dramatic view of the summit, we set up our tents. I’m exhausted and sweaty, and my new boots have given me blisters. But we have to hike farther to fill our canteens from a spring.
I’ve never been a soldier, but it dawns on me how miserable an infantryman’s life must be, even when no one is shooting at you: plodding through mud with a heavy pack plus a weapon and ammunition, day after wearisome day. This is why war is hell, I think. It’s like camping, only worse.
The water is supposed to be safe to drink; we add iodine just in case. Then, the sky growing cloudy, we gather kindling for a campfire. But all the dead wood is wet, and our fire hisses indifferently, giving off more smoke than heat. While N. fans the flames, I boil some water on our one-burner stove, eager for a cup of coffee. The coffee tastes like iodine. Dinner is dehydrated vegetarian chili, which tastes like it sounds. We’re barely finished eating when it starts to rain.
I’ve heard that this mountain has some of the region’s most severe weather, that hikers have died here from falls, lightning, and exposure. What if the wind picks up? What if a tree near us is hit by lightning? We were warned to get off the mountain during bad weather, I remind N. No, she says, we were warned not to stand on a ridge during a lightning storm. It’s not lightning, she says, and we’re not on a ridge.
The sky turns darker. J. crawls into his tent with a book and a flashlight. N. settles into her sleeping bag to listen, contentedly, to the rain. I listen, too. I’m worried about bears, about snakes, about the weather. I’m worried that if the rain keeps up, our descent will be treacherous, that we’ll tumble down the mountain like boulders in an avalanche. For all the splendor of our surroundings I’m miserable, and inexplicably lonely even with N. beside me. Soon, she drifts off to sleep. I want to sleep, too, but our air mattresses are wafer-thin; the hard ground pummels my aching body every time I turn. Startled by the smallest sound, I sense menace everywhere. The night, like an endless hallway, stretches before me; I try all the doors in the darkness, peering into each one.
Nature laughs at me. She’s an animal with shining teeth, a mother who doesn’t love me. Smoothing her dark skirts, her wild hair blowing free, she asks if I recognize her. No, I murmur, I’m a city boy. When my wife was learning to love the outdoors — as a Girl Scout, in the 4-H club, on camping trips with her family — I was learning to love winding boulevards and tall buildings. On darkened streets, in dingy neighborhoods, I can read the writing on the wall, but I can’t make out nature’s wild scrawl. I confuse rustling leaves with the looming presence of a madman; the smell of black dirt with the hot, moist breath of a bear.
Large drops of rain hit the roof of the tent as the wind picks up. Staring wide-eyed into the darkness, I remember the words of anthropologist Richard Nelson. Nature isn’t merely created by God, Nelson writes, nature is God. When we walk in the woods we can experience the sacredness with our entire body, breathe it, drink the sacred water as a living communion, touch the living branch. Yet here, in the darkness, on this billion-year-old mountain, it’s not God I crave but the safety of home, the way a drowning swimmer craves land. I feel as if I’ve been stranded in an immense and alien mind I’ll never understand, lost in a billion-year-old story in which human history is a footnote.
I have no idea what nature is, I think glumly. I imagine I can apply human qualities to it, as if it were one Big Personality, one seamless something, as if it were an it. Interestingly, those who seem most at home in nature also seem to know it by specifics, not as some transcendent symbol. Maybe Richard Nelson can talk about finding God in nature because he sees the wild world around him in intimate detail, because he watches animals go about their living and dying — in the same way Mother Teresa can talk of seeing God in the face of a starving child.
Is that distant thunder? Nature clearing its throat for some awful announcement? I toss and turn, waiting for daybreak, dismayed at how easily defeated I am by a bad night in the rain. At the first glimmer of light, I wake N. Let’s skip the coffee, I say, rolling up my sleeping bag. We break camp in silence — N. knows how unhappy I am; I know she doesn’t want to hear about it — and hike down the mountain along a different trail. Descending by switchbacks, then crossing a lush valley, we pass giant ferns, dark ravines, huge fallen trunks covered in moss. It’s a scene of unspoiled natural beauty, but my feet are sore, my back aches. I have to concentrate on every step to keep from falling.
Shafts of sunlight illuminate the forest floor, a vision of paradise; I might as well be stuck in traffic, honking my horn. Behind my desk, behind my locked front door, I give thanks for the world. But when the gathering darkness calls to me, I want running water. I want police protection. I want all the wonders of the industrial revolution, never mind the cost.
It’s a humbling admission. For years, I imagined I could do without civilization: leave it all behind, hitchhike into the wilderness, live without electricity, wear my exile with pride. I never really lived that way, never found the commune, yet I held on to the dream as an emblem of distinction.
In the tent last night, I was reminded that the modern world was created by people just like me, out of their deepest fear and longing; that civilization isn’t a mistake someone else keeps making. What would it mean, I ask, to accept my responsibility for it, without excuse or apology, without distancing myself ever so slightly from the poisoned oceans, the acid rain?
We cross a river on broad, flat stones. I hesitate when I come to a crooked, moss-covered rock; N., already on the other side, assures me it’s safe.
I glance at the swirling water, take a deep breath. What would it mean, I wonder, to stop pretending I’ve dropped out of the twentieth century, when I’m hurtling with everyone else toward its end?