Dear Smoky Mountains—

We weren’t the same people when we finally met again. The distance, the stillness had changed us. It was good to see you calm and coming back to life. I knew you needed a break from the constant social pressure, regardless of how much I ached to say. When we met again, it was indeed your spring, always your favorite season, watching the icicles drip away.

What makes a place God’s country? I’ve traveled these states far and wide and have heard the phrase again and again. “This is God’s country,” they tell me. It always seems to be one of those places that looks barren if you’re travelling too damn fast. It always seems to be one of those places where you can see the most sky, where the land stretches so far you see the curvature of the earth. It always seems to be the places where we can feel the most alone, that kind of loneliness where even non-believers are drawn to speak to God.

But I felt God seeing you again, far from those places that felt so alone. Could God’s country also be here in the thick biodiversity of the Great Smoky Mountains, where light just barely punctures through the dense canopy to reach all the way to the forest floor? Maybe God’s country is also in the places where we feel the least alone, those hugs from every loved one longing to soak up a piece of your pain, to share your burdens, to remind you to rejoice in being a child of God.

We weren’t the same people when we finally met again. The aches, the sorrow had changed us. I was able to stand in the mud, and count my blessings this time as I did. I stood still in your forest and noticed each detail, listened to the magic unfold. When my tears fell, they were different, too. Tears of reverie, of healing, of hope.

But, I still loved you just the same, like I always knew I would, but how all those years ago I didn’t know I could. I hadn’t yet traveled through God’s country back then. I didn’t know how to pause, how to pay attention, how to surrender. I got distracted by the distractions and chose to turn my back to foreign lands.

My dad and I have ruminated on the meaning of life for several years in handwritten letters mailed back and forth, back and forth, stamped and smudged and bent with their travel. Sometimes we don’t have answers. Sometimes we face those roadblocks where we just don’t know what life is all about. Sometimes we have answers. Sometimes we remember that love conquers all, that at the end of the day all we have are the stories we can tell. And, then, sometimes we have to quote one another back to each other to remind us that once upon a time, we had known, and that sometimes, we forget.

“Your entry on March 8, 2018,” he wrote. Service. Wilderness. Whiskey. They don’t give you immortality, but, in the right doses, I think they can give you a taste of everlasting life—existence without worry. I want to make more room for them again (maybe just a little whiskey). I have no idea what I’m doing, and at some point, the whiskey wears off. But maybe that’s the point—we can feel the high of the buzz because it doesn’t last.

In my time away, I had let the whiskey burn my tongue until it dissolved into late night dance parties alone in my new apartment—just me and the cat and all the great unknowns. I had given my time in service at the food bank, repackaging bulk pasta until I felt weak in the knees with the repetition. But it was still you I was missing. Wilderness. Your wildness. That unique passion you evoked in my heart.

And so, seeing you again after all this time, everything changed and everything still the same, ushered in the healing, let me taste, for just a moment, existence without worry. But returning to you had not been easy. It was a side of your park boundary I didn’t yet know, whose roads I had not travelled, whose trails were still dark, scary places on a map.

John Prine died while we were apart. It was a full moon that night. A John Prine moon. I went outside and searched the city streets trying to find it. I paced city blocks, trying to dodge streetlamps, always looking up. I once searched for another moon in another city in another frenzied attempt to find wilderness amidst concrete, knowing this was not a worry of yours. Repeating this now felt like a long-lost souvenir.

I couldn’t listen to his songs after he died. I couldn’t imagine what they’d sound like knowing he was no longer here. But I sang them to you in the forest.

Memories they can’t be boughten. They can’t be won at carnivals for free. Well it took me years to get those souvenirs. And I don’t know how they slipped away from me.

I wish the walls in my new apartment weren’t so thin. I wish they weren’t so thin so that I could sing to you with reckless abandon, without the dampening brought by listening ears. I would sing to you from afar as my whole being does when we’re together. It’s not easy missing someone, and so I wrote you letters since I’ve been away, all the things I wish I’d said, all the things I’d tell you now. There were times I turned to tell you these things, but realized I couldn’t, and even maybe that I shouldn’t.

While we were apart, I attended an online talk by a mindfulness practitioner. She provided an array of tips for finding the ground again in such uncertain times. She made us sigh in different pitches, each time getting a little higher. We had started with one of those low, exasperated sighs your body releases after a trying day at work, an annoyance that just won’t quit. By the time we had finished, our sighs were high and light, those kind your body releases in pleasure while making love.

Those relaxed, high-pitched sighs come effortlessly here amongst soil and moss, branch and leaf. I can’t not smile being together again. Even the stinging of my blisters brought me joy on the trail, a body worked and pushed, its tenderness tested.

“I realized that in depression, nothing matters,” Gloria Steinem remarked on the loss of her husband. “And in sadness, everything matters.”

Even now, even after our reunion, the only constant is that everything will change again. I can feel the high of the wilderness whiskey buzz only because it can transform back into sadness with any twist, with any turn. But I feel them both so acutely. They matter. We matter.

I wonder how long this moment will last. I wonder which of our moments are closer to the truth. I’ve learned these are the wrong questions to ask. I’ve learned to lie down in the grass.

And there’s still so much more to say. But as the haze blurs then and now, somehow, I know our moments will meet again.

Unreasonably yours—

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