On Tuesday night, I updated my tracking log where I mark which Smoky Mountain trails I have completed as part of my journey to hike them all. I have just over 200 miles left to go and close to 600 miles finished. I haven’t been the greatest about documenting each of the trips up to this point. Photos shared never seem to do justice to the internal journeys each trip takes me on. But, on this last hike, I decided I wanted to capture more of this experience—for my own memory when years from now I wish I could hold these moments close again, for the sake of writing (even if imperfectly), and for the practice of being honest about what sometimes lives behind a nice photo. And so, for these remaining 200+ miles, I plan to write some little trail songs to go along with my photos—unapologetically sentimental and oftentimes bittersweet snippets of what make these final hikes sing.
On Monday night, I struggled to sleep, so when my alarm went off at 5am and I fumbled out of bed into the darkness, I thought of all the excuses I had to cancel my hike. I thought of my workload, of my tattered heart, of my sleep deprivation, and then I put on my hiking dress and shoes, packed my bag, and hit the road to meet some fellow hikers in Townsend for a key swap. Despite anything else, I knew that day, it’s where I needed to be.
When I met Debbie for the first time in the parking lot—who I’d been corresponding with through a hiking group to coordinate this route—she exclaimed: “Well, I could just pick you up and carry you!” This gave me a good early morning laugh. We traded cars and I drove myself to Cades Coves, along with another woman, Jennifer, and her two impressive littles—a 7-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl—whom I’d hiked with once before. Debbie and her crew headed with my car to the other end of our route. Jennifer and the kids didn’t need the first mile of Wet Bottom Trail, so I dropped them at its junction with Cooper Road Trail on Cades Cove Loop Road before continuing to where I would—I assumed—quickly hike the mile-long Wet Bottom Trail to meet back up with them at the junction before continuing on together.
The night before, I read about synchronicity, a concept Carl Jung coined to describe those little tidbits in life that occur and seem connected, but where there’s no real way to track or affirm their connection. They happen across time and space and can look like a word you see written on a page, a song you hear in a café, the way a person laughs—they come in so many different forms, but they always, always whisper something to your heart, hold you and say you’re where you’re supposed to be, let you know that the Universe is always conspiring in your favor.
I followed Wet Bottom Trail with confidence until I realized that it had turned into more of a marshy tangle of fallen branches and poison ivy than an actual trail. But before my feet were sinking into the mud and I was flicking ticks off my legs, I had stopped abruptly on a stable, solid path in the grass when a familiar song wafted from the meadow. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about a half-mile off-trail. I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. And yet, the enchanting melody of an eastern meadowlark—the first I’d encountered in Tennessee, but whose song first captured me in the Florida Everglades—told me I was exactly where I was supposed to be. It sang of everything I once knew, all that I never will and may never understand, and maybe, just maybe, a delicate hint of what someday I may know again. Synchronicity.
When I realized I’d followed a social trail away from the main trail, I turned around and hustled to get back on track so as not to leave my fellow hikers waiting for too long. And I felt alive. And I felt creative. And I felt like somehow, I could heal again. And again. And again.
And when I saw the faces of my trail mates when I joined up with Cooper Road Trail, I felt rejuvenated by their company. We began a steady climb up the mountain, and I relished the heavier breaths and the deeper pounding of my heart as we did.
Along the way, we saw an abundance of ephemeral wildflowers, their impermanent beauty heightening the joy of being in their presence. Purples, pinks, yellows, reds.
And, as it goes, it was when my mind was wandering elsewhere that I met the acquaintance of a yearling black bear on the trail. It stood with its round rump facing me about 20 yards away but turned its head back to give me a stare. Jennifer’s daughter was behind me. Jennifer and her son hadn’t yet rounded the bend. I put my hiking poles in the air, clacking them together and yelling the old adage, “Hey, bear!”
I glanced back at Jennifer’s daughter who was wide-eyed in what looked like a combination of horror and excitement. She raised her poles up too and the bear scurried down the holler. Jennifer and her son then rounded the bend and we got to share our sighting with them, not yet knowing the encounter wasn’t quite over. As we continued down the trail, we spotted the bear now with a much larger mama bear heading up the hillside adjacent to our trail. We made noise, but the bears simply stopped, sat down, and stared at us, a bit too close for comfort. So, we backtracked to give them space, hoping they’d continue up the mountain.
After about a 20-minute standoff, Jennifer and I concurred that we should try to move forward again. We put our own two cubs in between us and walked forward with big mama bear energy, making noise, looking big, singing “hey, bear, why don’t you boogie on down the trail” original tunes. As we neared the turn where the bears sat, I blew my air horn and they finally started to make their way farther up the mountainside away from us. We all stayed close for the next mile or so to be safe, and as the distance grew, we were back to swooning over patches of dwarf-crested irises and listening to the littles’ excitement over bugs, toads, and other forest creatures along the way.
The day was hot, and I tried but at times failed to keep up with my hydration. My feet had been wet all day from my early stream crossing on Wet Bottom Trail. We ran into Debbie and her crew as we started on Beard Cane. They shared stories of all the blowdowns and bugs and poison ivy we had to look forward to up ahead, but it was good to see them and to share in that moment of connection, to know they’d be waiting to hear that we made it safely off-trail, just as we would be waiting for them.
As the day stretched into the late afternoon and our covered mileage grew, my body kept asking if we were done yet. But I was pushed forward by the motivation of a 9-year-old sister to beat her 7-year-old brother back to the car. We made a secret pact to keep moving together to the end, and with her in the lead, I had an energy I knew I wouldn’t have on my own.
But when her feet ached on the final two miles, she so naturally, so perfectly, fell back a bit to rest in her mother’s love and company.
Meanwhile, my own burning feet drove me forward. As I moved back into a solo space on the trail, my off-trail heartaches crept back into my consciousness. And so, I put a hand on my heart as I hiked and I whispered, “I’m not leaving you.” And then I listened to the dry crunch of pine needles under my feet. And then I whispered, “I’m here, darling, and I’m listening.” And then I took in the songs of a worm-eating warbler, chipping sparrow, and red-eyed vireo. And then I whispered, “I am loved. I am loveable.” And then I heard once again the determined footsteps of a 9-year-old girl putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again, to the finish line—a 9-year-old who had managed to remember from our last hike over a month ago that I was a writer, and who remarked that maybe I could write about our bear story one day. There’s a synchronicity sometimes with what we can learn from children.
When the two of us spotted my car at the end of the trail, we gave each other a celebratory look. We had completed our quiet mission. Jennifer and her son followed not far behind us, and we all rejoiced in taking off our hiking shoes and getting into the familiar, air-conditioned comfort of my car.
After dropping Jennifer and her kids off back at their car, where they were poised to get some ice cream at the nearby store, I put back on a podcast I’d started that morning at the recommendation of a friend—a conversation between Brené Brown and Susan Cain about Susan’s new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. Brené talked about how during her own research she had spoken with a parent who had lost a child, and how that parent appreciated when people talked about their own children around her rather than avoiding the topic. She appreciated it because in being grateful for what they have, it helps her know that they understand the magnitude of what she lost.
I let that sink deep into my sore, post-hike soul. I thought of how bittersweet every bit of life truly is when we stop to realize its ever-changing peaks and valleys, its unavoidable connection to loss. And I let myself cry on the drive home, holding all the beauty of that day and each that had come before it in my heart, missing things that had been, but also treasuring the magnitude of all I’ve had—and all I will have, and all I will still lose.
I marked the trails I’d hiked that day on my map with my magenta Sharpie when I got home. I looked at all the others I had already marked. Each one has its own story of joy, loss, rumination, hope, apathy, solitude, connection. Each one has gotten me right here.