The Rain, the Trees and Other Things


Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones… God has cared for these trees… but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.

– John Muir, from Our National Parks (1901)

In Austin, Texas there’s a Southern live oak tree (Quercus virginiana) called the Treaty Oak. Its branches stretch 127 feet across and it is believed to be over 500 years old. The tree was sacred to the Comanche and Tonkawa tribes. According to folklore, Texas icons Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston paid respects here. In 1989, a vandal dumped buckets of herbicide around the base of the Treaty Oak. Two-thirds of this monumental tree is now dead.

In Trinidad, California a mighty redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) known as the Crannell Creek Giant stood for an estimated 3,000-plus years. Until a few decades ago, it was the largest living tree known to man, estimated at over 400 feet tall. But in the mid-1940s it was cut down by a logging company.

In Birmingham, Michigan, a patch of woods stood at the corner of Cranbrook Road and Lincoln Street… just across from Seaholm High School. In 1968-‘69, my friends and I box trapped small animals there. Some of these traps we built from scraps of particle board and coat hanger wire. Seaholm Woods was one of the few wild enclaves near our suburban Detroit neighborhood. We formed a “Safari Club” and spent countless hours scrambling through the hardwoods, feeling the scrape of briars on our skin, and peering into a small murky swamp abundant with strange, hidden creatures. But like so many other wooded glens in the ‘burbs, Seaholm Woods fell victim to a housing development. The raccoons, foxes, opossums, crows, grackles, and bullfrogs have long since disappeared.general-sherman

Tree and rock, bird and mammal, swale and swamp. Wild places provide nourishment to the soul. Fraught with hidden activity and complexity, the rainforests, alpine meadows, deserts and rivers also give us tranquility and space. Whether we realize it or not, wildness is an essential antidote to industrialization, commercial and residential sprawl, and an increasingly mobile and high-tech culture that seems to be dragging us further away from not only each other, but also the earth.

Long-distance hiker/folksinger/wilderness activist Walkin’ Jim Stoltz was once asked by the “Wall Street Journal” how he defined the term “wilderness.” Stoltz thought for a moment. He then offered this: “Wilderness is a place where things work the way they’re supposed to work.” I can’t think of a more appropriate definition.

But the term “wilderness” also has a legal definition, at least in the U.S. It was interpreted by Congress 50 years ago, on September 3, 1964. Although it took eight years to happen, eventually the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Johnson. It established the National Wilderness Preservation System and declared that:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.wolf

The Wilderness Act is one of the most significant environmental achievements in the U.S., just as important as the national park system. It designated nine million acres for protection from commercial and recreational use. This has since expanded to about 108 million acres, managed (and sometimes mismanaged) by four agencies: The National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

Designated U.S. wilderness areas contain 157 ecosystems with extensive flora and fauna, including such endangered or threatened species as whales, wolves, polar and grizzly bears, caribou, and numerous migratory birds. The ecosystems encompass national parks and forests, grasslands, wetlands, trails, wild and scenic rivers, monuments and cultural sites.

The 50-year-old Wilderness Act may not have saved the Treaty Oak or my own Seaholm Woods. Had it been around in the 1940s, though, it certainly would have prevented the murder of the Crannell Creek Giant.

But, as significant as the Act is, there are still millions of acres of mountain, forest, glacier, and other fragile eco-habitat without protection; magnificent public lands that are susceptible to drilling, mining, logging, over-grazing, damming, and road-building. And the money-changers won’t rest. If they can’t turn a profit by gouging the planet one way, they’ll find another.

So, if you’ve had the stamina to read this far, and value the concept of “wilderness,” try to make a difference. Sign a petition, make a donation, plant a tree, invest in a rain barrel. Trade in your gas hog for a fuel-efficient car. Avoid synthetic lawn chemicals. Cast a green vote.

America is blessed with some of the most awe-inspiring biodiversity on the planet. We all share the bounties of this ecological Eden: tree huggers, free-market junkies, Democrats, Republicans, top 1% and lower 99%. In the long run, it’s about our own physical and mental well-being, but it’s also about the other 21,714 vertebrates and plants in America who share our “home.”



A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – The Old Man in the Clearing

Bly Gap and historic oak

Today was to be the culmination of my hike.  The zenith.  The raison d’etre.  So in my excitement, I didn’t sleep well at Wheeler Knob (my sticky, salt-encrusted skin was another reason).

I rolled out of my tent at first light, quickly packed my belongings, and slung my pack on my back.  Actually, “slung” isn’t correct; my technique by then was to prop my pack against a tree or boulder, plop my butt on the ground in front, slip my arms through the shoulder straps, then lean forward and slowly hoist myself erect – carefully, or my oversized sleeping bag would spill to one side – then buckle the belt, which became increasingly loose as my waistline shrunk.

After leaving camp, it was a brisk two-mile jaunt to the state line.  I almost missed it.  The indicator was a large tree at the edge of the trail.  It had a rusty metal tube nailed to it, and a simple wooden sign no bigger than a shoebox with “NC/GA” carved in it.

I’d made it!  Goal accomplished.  What a huge relief.  I’d hiked 75.2 miles for this.  The rest of my hike would be an afterthought.  There was a small, worn area opposite the tree where previous hikers had rested or celebrated.  I stood here and took a photo to commemorate the occasion – my own quiet ceremony.  Then I continued on to Bly Gap, just 0.2 miles away.

Bly Gap was on a slight incline at a fairly open trail intersection. About 50 yards from the intersection was a large gnarled live oak tree with its trunk stretched on the ground, as if tired from holding its heavy load.

According to my guide notes, this tree is believed to be the oldest in the Carolinas, used at one time “to spot the line between Georgia and North Carolina.”  I later learned that the colonial line was drawn in 1663.  My God… before the founding fathers were even born!  Two years after Charles II restored the English monarchy.  During the French reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV.  Goodness knows how many years the tree had lived before 1663.

The old fellow allowed me to prop my pack against his withered trunk, and I sat down to savor the moment.  I’d been pushing myself for days, had only occasionally stopped for reflection, so I devoted some time here.  A large meadow dipped into a valley in front, and the sun came streaming in.  A few feathery clouds graced the blue sky.  I thought about the old oak, and the thousands of AT hikers who’d also rested here over the years.  I also thought of how lucky I was to be healthy enough to get this far.  Most of all, I thought of my dad, who’d been gone for almost seven years.  I don’t think of him as much anymore, but I still miss him greatly.  He liked camping and history, also.  I know he’d be pleased with my small achievement.

Just a modest wooden sign in the middle of the woods, but for me it signified 75 miles of hard hiking

Just a modest wooden sign in the middle of the woods, but for me it signified 75 miles of hard hiking

Just before being transformed into Rip Van Winkle, I said goodbye to grandfather oak and immediately began another ascent.  This one was very steep, and I had to stop at least a half-dozen times to catch my breath.  One thing I noticed in NC was the sudden disappearance of poison ivy, a plant for which I held great animosity, and which was all over the Georgia AT.  I wondered if the NC trail volunteers sprayed the poison ivy with herbicide.  But I’m sure this was forbidden.

I eventually reached the summit – the last major summit of my hike – and soon entered Sassafras Gap, a long, flat stretch with lots of overhanging rhododendron that offered a nice, shady canopy.  This tree was pretty common throughout my hike, but it often proved troublesome, because the low-lying branches continually snagged my pack.

Feeling good, I started singing again.  I think I’d already sung the entire second album by The Band (“When I get off ‘a this mountain, ya know where I’m gonna go…”).

Near Muskrat Creek Shelter I took a couple photos, one looking down on a scenic Carolina valley town, and another of the southern range of mountains I’d recently traversed.  All I could see was a sea of blue-green peaks and valleys, stretching ever southward into the mist.  I couldn’t believe I’d covered all that distance in seven days.

But the AT wasn’t going to let me down easy.  After Muskrat Creek I hit another stretch of jagged rocks, which conjured memories of the rock slide at Red Clay Gap.  Near the beginning of this headache, I heard some voices up ahead.  It was two young guys on a SOBO section trek to Tray Gap.  I told them I’d come from there, and that they were the only people I’d seen other than Chester (I later calculated this distance at 25 miles).  They were surprised, telling me they’d hiked the AT once before and come across “hundreds” of hikers.  Go figure.

Another thing I hadn’t seen in a while was a mirror.  I remembered a scene in the Steve McQueen prison escape movie Papillon, and I jokingly asked them how I looked.

“Ya look pretty darn good!!” laughed the one guy.  This made me feel a little better.

Just a few miles ahead I reached USFS 71, at Deep Gap, and had lunch at a small parking lot.  A lone SUV with Orange County, Florida plates sat in the lot.  I assumed this might be the guys I’d just met.

I pulled out my guide and studied the remaining mileage.  Standing Indian Campground was 3.7 miles ahead, at the end of a blue-blaze called Kimsey Creek Trail.  The AT itself, however, looped northeast 21.8 miles, taking in both Albert Mountain and Standing Indian Mountain before joining the campground road.

It was a no-brainer: follow Kimsey Creek.  I’d reached my goal of completing the Georgia section.  I was bruised, burned, blistered, dirty, smelly, and I missed 21st century comforts.  I’d be finishing a day early, on Saturday.  But if I could contact my wife, maybe she could change motel arrangements.

Pretty ground cover

I saw a lot of this attractive ground cover, dark green with beautiful vein patterns. Does anyone know the name?

I popped open my cell phone and again saw “No Service.”  I was running out of time.  This meant waiting till I reached the public campground, which according to the guide had a pay phone.  I’d brought my cell phone only reluctantly, for emergency purposes.  But this was a minor emergency, wasn’t it?

Fiddling with my cell phone, I thought of certain hikers who had no qualms about hauling their electronics with them on the trail.  Here’s my view on that subject:

I understand the mantra “Everyone has their own hike.”  And I know that devices that keep us “connected” can be beneficial.  But some hikers carried not only cell phones, but smartphones, tablets, GPS… one guy even had a laptop computer so he could immediately update his blog!  Doesn’t this compromise the purpose of the wilderness experience?  Isn’t the idea to jump off the grid?  To have a more organic experience by getting closer to nature and celebrating simplicity?

Maybe this isn’t a priority with some hikers.  Maybe for them it’s about the exercise, physical challenge, or scenery.  I think the Appalachian Mountains, and the trail that runs through it, are about this too, but also a lot more.  I was anxious to return home, but while here I at least wanted to blend with the environment.  Not snub it.

I’m not a purist.  Some modern conveniences are almost essential (stoves, fuel, flashlights, packaged food).  And a camera is nice for capturing memories.  But it’s not essential to be “wired in” all the time.  Earlier I touched on my feelings of solitude.  But solitude isn’t the same as loneliness.  It’s part of life, and it’s good because it teaches us to be alone without being lonely.  But constant media diversion diminishes our capacity for healthy solitude.  That’s one of the reasons I did this hike.

Sometimes I think I’m living out of time.  But even 24-year-old Dustin was amazed at how many of his friends back home regularly disappear into their gadgets.  Talking with him made me feel like I’m not the only one, and it’s not just an age thing.

Anyway… off my soapbox and back on the trail.  My new goal was Standing Indian Campground.  And blue-blazed Kimsey Creek Trail would lead me there.  It looked like an easy hike.  Probably a wide, flat path across a few fields.  I’d be like smilin’ Joe with his trekking poles.  Then again, more than a few of my assumptions had already exploded.