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Just like your Old Town

​A group of 8 older gentlemen trampled into our deep backcountry campsite on our second day in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Nolan and I used our young blood to help them gather firewood and crack limbs to logs. We shared food and conversation over the roasting timber as the night turned the sky from apple to plum.

As I got to know the group of old friends a little better, I asked Daryl if he enjoyed living in Mississippi.

“Well of course,” he said, “you can enjoy anywhere you live, that's up to you.”

He said it in such a way, as if where we live and enjoyment were two completely separate concepts - on reflection, they are.

“There's a story from around where I grew up,” he said.

Back in our old country town a new couple moved in on a quiet street with stretching yards - plenty of space for everyone to hear the crickets and corn wind blow. In effort to settle in and make friends the new family went to all the homes on the block to introduce themselves.

Af the first door an old farmer answered who was born and would die in this very house. The new family introduced themselves and expressed their joy of moving to a quiet little country town. For the sake of making conversation the Husband asked the old farmer, “so what's this town like, having lived here your whole life?”

The farmer looked out over the fields with splintered eyes for a moment before responding. “What was your old town like, son?”

The husband lit with enthusiasm, “oh, well we really wanted to get out of there. The weather never really fit us, work wasn't always the best, cars drove by late and disturbed us and the old lady down the block always gossiped about everyone in the town.”

The farmer nodded in what seemed like agreement and responded,

“Yup, you’ll find this town just like your old one.”

When I worked for Starbucks Coffee Company I would always hear a particular coworker say, “this place is so stressful. There is such a gossip problem here and nobody does their job.” I also remember overhearing another coworker say, “this is the best job I've ever had. Everyone here is so helpful and positive! What a great company to work for.”

Both of these people worked at the exact same place! Perception is everything.

Whether it's where you live, where you work, who you’ve married or who your friends are, you will see the world you want to see.

This Daryl’s friend, John Mac, overheard that I like to read and write. He asked what I typically read. “Zen,” I replied with hesitation. I never know how people will react to my liking of eastern philosophy. I don't consider myself a Buddhist, but I've found so many benefits to the practices, so I feel I should be a little open about it.

“Oh,” said John Mac. I grew antsy, sitting around 8 southern men in a predominantly Christian country, out in the woods. Alone.

“I think everybody out here practices Zen whether they know it or not.”

I didn't expect to hear that.

He continued, “a walk out in the woods, not too much on your mind but each step ahead. You look around and take it all in just as it is. There ain't much out here in these woods, just a sense of peace and calming. It gives you time to take it all in and just be a part of it.”

Here I am, a yoga and meditation teacher, and I want to sign up for this guys class! We chatted about all the great philosophers, from the east to west. I sat and listened as he recited off more of the classics than I ever heard of.

John Mac hit one of the most important keys of Zen, or being present; it doesn’t matter what you know or believe as much as what you do. The true understanding of life comes not from intellectualizing it, but rather from practicing it. An actual walk in the woods is infinitely more peaceful than reading about it. All teachings are meant to be practiced, not theorized.

Earlier that day,

before we met this group of gentlemen, we swung in the hammocks by 11am. That is particularly early to set up camp for the day. My typical attitude of the more miles the better was forcibly transformed to the more leisure the better by a heavy cold I caught on day 1. The food in my pack was barely touched, only to be replaced by constant snacking of ibuprofen and cough drops. As I slowed my restless mind I watched the leaves start to turn and drop from the branches.

Not everyone sets aside sufficient time to sit and watch the leaves fall from the trees like rain. Maybe most of us will notice it for a brief moment driving our cars to the next destination. There will be a thought of, “that's really beautiful.” But it's quick to pass as the green light turns yellow and we punch the gas.

It takes a good investment of time to sit and watch the leaves turn. To witness the changing of a season rather than noticing that it already passed. Most of us will read about it in books or see it on the television - the romantic slowing down of time. It's a real privilege to let it all slow down, but it's an investment.

It took two days to ascend out of the valley up to the Appalachian Trail. We met two firefighters from Dallas at the shelter we stopped at for the night. One of them stepped away from the fire and disappeared for a good half hour.

“Sorry guys I had to webcam my two kids. Pretty amazing I’m able to do that though, up here on the mountain.”

It is amazing, but to me the most amazing thing to me was seeing a good father. Taking a little moment out of his peaceful escape in the woods to check in with his little ones.

A group of 8 college kids stumbled in just before dark. Rather than being bitter that the night was no longer going to be a quiet one in the woods, I watched the two Texan men make sure these novice hikers felt welcome. We sat around the fire as a new big family.

Things don’t always go as planned, but the enjoyment of life is being pliable with your expectations and plans. I watched that campsite swiftly transform from quiet and low-key to a great fellowship of storytelling and laughter. It was all taken as it came.

The last 2 days Nolan and I had the privilege to hike with a Delta Force Veteran along the Appalachian Trail. Steve was 2 weeks from finishing the entire 2,200 mile expedition! We summited the Appalachian trail’s highest point together on the final morning of our trip.

So many great people gave Lydia and I a hand across Europe on our bicycle adventure, and as luck would have it Steve needed a hand! It was finally my turn to give back a little of the big karma that was graced to me. Nolan and I drove Steve into town for his resupply of food and grabbed a nice country style breakfast together. Steve was such an interesting guy that a whole article could be written about him, which it is. My interview and experience with Steve will be posted separately from this article.

When I set out to backpack a week in the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, I anticipated a wild isolation from mankind. Travel is always a learning experience for me. Not for a second did I imagine that most of the beauty I'd gather from this trip would be from meeting other people. Especially in places that are only accessible by a two days walk.

My dear friend always says that most gifts never come in the wrapping paper we expect. The last thing I thought would be filling my mind and heart on my drive home from the Smokys was some new friendships I made. Sure, I saw a bear, hiked 70 miles and summited the highest mountain in Tennessee, but those friends and moments of slowing myself down in the wild create a much larger impact that any accomplishments. I left for this trip with goals of distance and elevation gain in mind and came home with the goodness of others in my heart.

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