Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking for ways to be helpful to others, which is a new experience for me. At first I joked that it was a way of improving my karma, since I’m trying to buy a house. But karma doesn’t work that way.
As Krishna says to Arjuna in Chapter Three of the Bhagavad-Gita, “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.”
While helping a friend move mid-May we drove an hour back and forth through the countryside and I passed a sign bearing a verse that I’d never encountered, though raised Baptist. It too echoed what I was thinking about in the Gita, but came from Paul’s Epistle to the Galations: “Be not weary in well doing.”
I cannot claim to have ever done work so selflessly, or without complaint. In fact, my desire to hike the trail had a corollary selfish motivation; I wanted to run away from the anonymous “other people” I encounter every day. I wanted to escape our current political climate. Perhaps I also wanted to shirk the tasks of maintaining a household. However, living in someone else’s house combined with parenting a near-adult led me to consider what the true path of this summer might be.
Trying to make a new home come together compelled me to find ways to spend my newly opened schedule. I wanted my new days to be meaningful; perhaps they could even be as worthwhile as hiking the Appalachian Trail had been. And so we come to the reason for this post: sorting out what selfless work is and what it means to be engaged in well doing.
A trail friend I’d met in Georgia needed transportation from Gatlinburg to Davenport Gap, so I drove down to help her and two other hikers get back to the trail. A friend of several years was moving, so I helped drive and carry boxes for three days. It felt good to be useful, and her gratitude made my heart soften in unexpected ways.
Later that same week, several hiking friends needed rides to Trail Days in Damascus, and many of them had made it as far as Erwin, Tennessee. Erwin is a fifteen-minute jaunt for me by car, and Damascus is an hour ride up the road. But I had promised them I’d help once they made it past Max Patch.
I know most of the roads and gaps between Max Patch and Damascus, and I often call this my home area. I am grateful to have backpacked nearly all of the miles in this section and was thrilled that folks I met in Georgia were getting ready to pass through for the first time.
Trail Days is quite possibly the biggest event involving the Appalachian Trail (AT) that happens close to where I live. I usually try to make it up for the parade, and this year was no exception, especially since I was taking Low Gear, On Star, and Eric back to Erwin afterward. (Click here for a brief clip as the class of 2018 walks by.)
Every year Damascus hosts a gargantuan celebration of the Trail with vendors, hiking celebrities, and services catering to thru-hikers, but exciting for anyone in love with the AT.
Tent City, where the hikers make their home during Trail Days, is home to a variety of tribes, such as the Trash People and Riff Raff, the oldest and rowdiest. After speaking with a couple of trail friends, I’m still a bit in the dark about how the groups stack up with each other, but then, I think these are intricacies of the thru-hiking experience that you only gain if you stay with the hiker trash bubble as it makes its way north to Katahdin.
My first introduction to any AT tribe came at Plumorchard Shelter in Georgia on the coldest night of my April hike when I met “Tune-Up.” A spokesperson and leader for the Trash People, Tune-Up explained that the Trash People regularly pack out trash to preserve the trail and generally try to keep a good vibe going. He hung prayer flags inside the shelter, commenting that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) frowns on the practice.
That evening I learned that the ATC is not universally revered by the thru-hiking community, and it opened a number of questions for me that I’ll be working out for years to come.
Around the fire, he spoke in glowing tones about Miss Janet of Erwin, whom most thru-hikers know either directly or indirectly to be a saint of the trail, the Trail Angel of all trail angels. The closest I came to her was picking up Ron Rico from her house on the way to Damascus, and from the car I saw hikers mulling about on her carport, several in fact I remembered from weeks before at Plumorchard, Tune-Up among them.
Over the days I shuttled hikers to Damascus (and those preceding) I experienced frequent realizations that I was not on the trail anymore, that I was no longer hiker trash (smelled too good for that!) and that I could no longer lay claim to belonging in a community that had moved on from Franklin, NC after I had left it.
It was humbling, but also ratcheted up my respect for thru-hikers, and helped me sort out how my next hike would play out, if I could be fortunate enough to hit the Trail again in years to come. (Section hiking is as good as it gets for now, but I’m hankering for the whole enchilada once my kid takes flight into college.)
It’s hard to explain what the appeal is to people who know nothing about the Trail, have never experienced the thrill of knowing that everything you need to make it for a few days is in a backpack that you carry everywhere you go. The peace that I find when I’m in the deep woods is incomparable. When I’m there I trust that the Trail will provide all that I need, and only when it is time.
Off the trail, I am reminded that every day we are given opportunities to help others realize their dreams, to serve a force beyond ourselves, which inevitably sustains all beings. Still trying to work out what selfless means in this context, when it feels so good to be helpful and when my own life is made better as a result.