Some of the first hiking and camping experiences I remember take me back to an ambient palette of blue skies cast out along the ridge of the Shenandoah Mountain Range. We wandered trails that zigzagged over Skyline Drive lugging around far too much gear over a multi-day trip that ended sooner than expected. The trepidation from an unexpected encounter with a black bear and her cubs will always bring back nostalgia of my friend beating his chest like a gorilla, and screaming so loud that the echoes of his voice yodelled off the mountaintops.
I also vaguely remember the endless peaks of the White Mountains as we hiked hut-to-hut through the rugged terrain, stomping in muddy slop, slipping over the steep, rocky, grade that led to each peak as it rained like a calm mist over the course of a week.
There are subtleties, nostalgia that flares up spontaneously when my mind drifts and wanders through doors of my past; but as such, with age most of the experiences from my adventures over the years have become mottled with time.
That’s completely normal. It’s impossible to remember every detail, place, or face from my travels, but I could have gotten more out of the experiences if I had just slowed down and opened my eyes to see what was around me.
In those days, I spent more time rushing through the hike, looking down at my feet, following the maintained path and the signage and the only goal was reaching the end of the trail or my final destination. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a feat in itself to complete a strenuous hike, to scale the peaks of a fourteener, wander the depth of a canyon and rise up on top of its walls, gaining some 10,000+ feet in elevation. In the northeast it’s an accomplishment in itself to complete some of these scrambles with steep grades, boulders, and no switchbacks, tearing up my knees, but leaving me with a Polaroid view at the top.
Not everything is about reaching the destination, the end of the trail, its peak or even the city mapped out in my head, which I realize now, but it took years for me to slow down. It’s alright to get lost in the woods or grab the wrong train or have no plan and just roam around. It’s alright to just get away from the normal grind of life, but there is so much out there to appreciate in nature, to learn about, to identify and cherish and I’m only just starting my education in that regard.
The old growth forests of the northeast with trees older than our constitution, standing tall through years of Q10, Q25, Q50, and Q100 storms, hiding in the background of bloodstained earth through the many wars and watching the “progress” of America over time, the change in architecture, fashion, and shifts in government, they’ve been through it all. During which time they’ve held years of carbon that we continue to pump into the atmosphere from living in the fast lane, that American hustle and bustle of life. As such, these old growth forests are diminishing with time and getting wiped out from logging since preservation in some areas is not a priority. Replacing old growth with new growth forests is futile if logging takes place every sixty to seventy years. These younger trees don’t hold as much carbon as their elders and never get a chance to because they get wiped out since commodities are more important.
After all, you would think National Forests were created to protect and preserve old growth trees, but it’s the contrary. The forest service builds roads to log forests. There is little sustainable action taking place and even though conservation is more of a priority now than ever, it always comes back to lack of funds. Logging roads comprise more than eight times of America’s interstate highway system, roughly ~378,000 miles. So now when I’m out and about in the woods, I try to appreciate the old growth forest that still exists.
I never appreciated their beauty, the way their leaves curl under pregnant clouds as the sky depresses to tears, the way oak trees fruit plethora acorns one season and little to none the next to wipe out populations of squirrels and chipmunks, the interconnectedness of the life stream and its plants and creatures is a whole different world; and I’ve often overlooked it.
I have learned a lot in recent years when the pandemic struck and I had little to do while looking for work other than walk in the woods and learn about everything around me, absorbing information in field guides and books and anything freely available on the internet (libgen) to identify trees and my fungi friends. The mycelial network splayed out underground is like the Internet for mushrooms, a way to communicate, waiting to fruit and spread spores at the surface, and lately, the rain, and the humidity this summer has given me something to do on those gloomy days, days I would normally look at as depressing and a waste of time.
Now it’s an opportunity for me to identify species I have never seen, to classify, take samples, do spore prints, and on some occasions consume, but mostly, just seeing these creatures in the wild, their relationships with the trees and milieu around them is enough for me to just appreciate a new aspect of hiking and adventure. Distance and pushing myself no longer matters much to me. I have done that countless times over the last decade and missed out on the hidden gems around me.