By Marina Richie
Step Away – Step In
July 30, 2021
The Nature of Beauty on the Appalachian Trail
This article was originally published in our Spring-Summer 2021 issue of A.T. Journeys, the official membership magazine of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Placing my hand upon a furrowed trunk, I tap the familiar white blaze signaling the wend and wind of the narrow Appalachian Trail ahead. I begin the journey of stepping away to step into beauty.
Above, sunlight frisks through emerald layers. Each illuminated leaf reveals a singular pattern and a defining tree name—tulip poplar, basswood, sugar maple, horse chestnut, cherry, or ash.
Within this North Carolina June fecundity, I breathe in the exhalation of oxygen from the photosynthesizing forests. I thank the great trees for sweeping our excess carbon from the air. I hold up my hands, spread my fingers like leaves, gather the sun’s energy, and take the first step. I am contemplative, reflective. A newt, as radiant as the rising sun slips beneath a decaying log that yields new life. Every visible root on the Trail snakes downward into the soil, where trees are conversing and aiding one another through an interlacing network of soil fungi.
Beauty may unfurl like a fern or pounce like knock-your-socks-off joy upon a bouldered summit.
Here in the Cherokee National Forest, hardwoods brim with song and wings. Listening to a sharp “Choo-ink” call, I track the origin through ferns and grasses. A male eastern towhee, natty in a feathery suit of black, white, and orange tenderly stuffs an insect into the open beak of his fledgling. With each footfall, I’m one step farther away from pavement, to-do lists and worry. I’m one step closer to the nature of the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. I hope to engage an open heart and a curious mind.
No matter where you hike, run, skip or saunter on the A.T., each lift and fall of your foot is a step away and a step in. Find your mantra at any pace, season, or place within this intricate tapestry cloaking the ancient north-south mountain range. Step away from wrapped food on shelves, from tap water, a roof and four walls, and skies dimmed by streetlights. Step into the ways of foraging animals. Feel hunger pangs when the pantry is only what your pack holds or a berry bush offers. Filter water from streams. Feel this stripping away of all that stands between you and the essence of life. Come into your animal self. Take off your shoes and walk barefoot, if only for a few minutes. Kneel to trace a line of tiny white mushrooms twining their way up a trunk. Step with care to avoid a snail that carries a shell, spiraling like a galaxy.
What scents waft toward you? Perhaps you catch a whiff of licorice or the nose-wrinkling musk of a skunk’s passage. Breathe in balsam fir after a rainstorm in New England or the orange honey of black locust blossoms fringing a May morning in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Everything is home, yet everything is unfamiliar. Beauty may unfurl like a fern or pounce like knock-your-socks-off joy upon a bouldered summit. There is delight in the hard-earned vista and the long green tunnel alike.
Where the mountaintop is sky-touching, the forest is enfolding intimacy by design. At the core of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s principles is a call for the Trail to be “narrowly passable” and one that “shall pass lightly over the land.” To preserve this delicate balance between a well-marked and maintained trail and one in “harmony with the natural environment” starts with appreciation.
The Maine journals I kept from a Monson-to-Katahdin backpack trip with my father spill over with accounts of the downward view. Because the footpath is narrow, wild gardens come close—pitcher plant bogs, red bunchberries glistening on moss, and wild blueberries. Such is the power of the pause. Sometimes, when a quick and steady pace feels right, the woodlands, meadows, streams, cliffs, ascents, and descents form a flowing stream of colors and textures. And then? A great blue heron lumbers from a marsh into elemental flight. Pause then. Coming to a river sparkled in sunshine, the currents reflect molten silver. Pause here, too.
Whether moving, resting, or camping, be attuned to all that glimmers. Waking at night to unzip the tent, your headlamp may shine upon spiders unspooling silk, their webs shimmering silver. Dozing at dawn, the “dee-dee-dees” of a chickadee signal your awakening.
To step away and into beauty also requires a few practicalities. Prepare and practice for adversity. Test raingear, heft of pack, or new hiking shoes. Misery is a poor companion. In my Maine journal, I wrote this entry about Nesuntabunt Mountain when a growling beast of a lightning storm overtook us: “Downpour. The new sensation was exciting at first, but soon became soddening and slimy.” And yet, I also scrawled these words: “Still, we could not resist the beauty. Rainbow Stream rushed down smooth clefts of granite, funneled into raging chutes, then swirled into pools. Always the moss, the frogs, the forest.”
Where the mountaintop is sky-touching, the forest is enfolding intimacy by design.
Do not resist beauty. Let it seep within like cleansing rain. Let hardships heighten the spectacle of a rainbow. Let the full experience be like friendship that deepens by exploring shadows and light. Step away from acquaintance and into a relationship with nature. When dazzled by bear track, hawk glide, dragonfly zip, kingfisher dive, squirrel leap, or wood thrush serenade, feel that desire to exclaim. Or turn to another to witness your delight reflected in their eyes. The A.T. is storied in shared astonishments and comraderies. When alone, why not express exuberance in a twirl, tree hug, or coyote yip?
Upon your return home, let your gratitudes tumble like the pure headwater springs. Tingling senses sharpen to moon phases, dawn chorus, a bee buzz, or light spangling through leaves. Feel a tenderness for this greater home, even as you dream of the next time. Keep memories close in photos, journals, sketches, and other art. Investigate maps and plan for the side trails, too. To know and to name, you might study trees, flowers, wildlife, geology, and history, beginning with the Indigenous tribes who have long held a culture of reciprocity within the Appalachian Mountains. Step up to preserve the Trail’s wild natural beauty, for as Henry David Thoreau so presciently penned, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Let the A.T. be our collective love story.
Nature writer Marina Richie is happiest on trails leading away from the noise of cars and into the symphonies of bird song. She says that to write about the nature of beauty on the Appalachian Trail felt like an “invitation to delve more deeply into joy.” “On every trail near my home, I strived to be as sensory as possible, asking myself: What glimmers? What draws me in? I began to notice a rhythm that would become the theme for the essay,” she says. To apply the question to the A.T., she turned to her journals and quizzed former A.T. thru-hikers Renee Patrick and Liz Thomas. Residing in Bend, Oregon, Marina’s ties to the Trail run deep as the daughter of Dave Richie (the first A.T. project manager for the National Park Service). She is a frequent feature contributor to A.T. Journeys and recently published the article “Big Bald Banding Station Releases Hope into the World” for BirdWatching.