My favorite hiking trail was laid down many hundreds of years ago by the ancient inhabitants of our southwest. These agrarian people, probably numbering in the tens of thousands, disappeared about 900-plus years ago. Anthropologists have yet to determine why they totally abandoned this area.
For all of human existence there are those that go before us laying down the way so that we don’t need to keep blazing a new trail every day and expending all the energy necessary for new discovery. Admittedly discovery can be exciting and fun but to keep moving forward with daily life, having easy paths to follow makes life bearable. Some paths like interstate highways can take us thousands of miles with almost no planning of route on our part; how easy compared to our ancestors that rode in a wagon to their new home in Oklahoma. I cannot count the number of trail miles I’ve walked in beautiful places such as Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains or our own beautiful North Carolina, but they are many. Some trail blazing hikers made all those memories possible by creating good pathways to follow. I am in their debt.
My most fun pathway experience came on a long trail, or series of trails linked together by stacks of rocks called cairns. People leave these cairns to point the way at trail intersections or difficult to follow paths. When the terrain is so hard not even the largest number of pounding footprints would leave even a slight impression on the ground, stacks of stones point the way. These are to hikers like “Interstate Highway” sign posts.
On this particular hike of 35ish miles, one 40-foot section provided a thrilling experience. This short section of trail was only about 20 inches wide and carved into a cliff face. On the left, a steep vertical wall reaching all the way to the bright blue sky, on the right a drop of about 250 feet to a rocky dry creek bed without a single soft landing spot. Near the middle of this narrow walkway was a small boulder jutting out from the cliff face, about knee high. To navigate this obstacle was easy, just face the cliff wall and with both arms out-stretched grasp whatever was available as a hand-hold, your back turned to the exposed danger. Lift the right leg over and then move forward a bit before lifting the left leg over the boulder. Easy, no problem, I watched several of my companions do this. My turn, I face the wall, lift my right leg over the boulder, then begin moving my left leg over. I hugged that boulder with my left knee just a little, but it did not want to be hugged, it dislodged from the rock wall and fell 250 feet making noise like a sever thunderstorm as it landed. I survived unscratched, and a little giddy as my hiking buddies waiting on the far end of this crossing, looked on in horror. Their eyes following the noise for a moment, thought it was my body plummeting toward the rocky creek bed. A second later, we all laughed — nervously.
Recently I was looking at a Google view of some property near my home because a friend had asked me to help her establish its value. After the view of that property, I scrolled over to my home just a few miles away. Our home lies on 18 acres of mostly southern forest, with a large hay field in front of the house. From that satellite view I saw something I had never noticed from ground level. Running in a nearly perfect straight line through the middle of that hay field was a path.
I walk almost every day to keep the demons of old age at bay as long as possible. My walks take me across our property to roads and trails in the neighborhood. For years I’ve been doing this but had never seen the effects my feet were making on that thickly grassed field. That satellite view made me realize that I was leaving a path in my wake even if I was unaware of doing so.
I was reminded of something I read years ago by an author I do not remember. “Everybody walks down the road to hell just one step at a time,” so I had better make sure the paths I create in life don’t lead to hell. I do think about this often; I am not sure there really is a fiery place “down below” where folks must spend eternity for crimes of passion, greed or hatred. But, I do believe in hell. It exists in our soul, our thinking, in our remembering. It comes in the form of guilt and shame — the absence of peace of mind. It shows up when we take the easy way out of a difficult situation. Or when we make a selfish decision that fails to consider the well being of others; when we fail to demonstrate compassion.
I certainly hope most of the paths for living that I have created lead to good places, because I know my children and grandchildren have been watching my journey.
Rod Hunter lives in East Bend and is an avid hiker, biker, photographer and nature lover. He is the past state chairman of the Sierra Club of NC. He volunteers as a court-appointed children’s advocate for children in foster care and with Cancer Services Inc. He is a two-time cancer survivor. He has backpacked in Alaska, Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Georgia, Virginia, and of course North Carolina.