Recently, I awoke from a nap on a sun-warmed rock 3,970 feet above sea level with the unshakable feeling that everything in life is contrived.
Like this editor’s note, for instance. Here, at the start of the last six weeks of my college career, I feel as if I can’t possibly write another genuine one of these. While writing my other notes, the process was easy. I always started by asking myself: What do I love in the arts? And then I would write about why I loved it. When I was in a particularly sour/frustrated/jobless mood, I simply wrote a note complaining about why it sucks to try to make it in the arts, in the “real world.”
Now, after spending my final spring break backpacking—the same way I’ve spent all of my spring breaks—I can neither get myself to write about something I love nor complain about something that frustrates me. It’s not that I have nothing to write about. I love Full Frame, for example, and it’s coming up in two weeks (!). Alternatively, as a soon-to-graduate non-investment-banking arts-lover, I have plenty of things I could rant about. And yet, my mind drifts back to the tall pines of Pisgah National Forest, where just last week I was climbing mountains, occasionally eating peanut butter off the ground and sharing Nalgenes with contagious freshmen while singing “Wagon Wheel” beneath the Big Dipper. It sounds slightly miserable, but somehow it was just the opposite.
While I was in the woods, I met a young woman doing a solo backpacking trip. My group of seven students ran into her after hiking all day during a relentless rainfall, just as the sky was darkening with the promise of freezing temperatures and hypothermia. The girl—I will never know her name—had set up her tent inside a small wooden shelter built by angels in the middle of the forest. My backpacking mates and I, in our rain-soaked misery, introduced ourselves and asked if we could enjoy a brief respite under her shelter. As the rain continued throughout the evening, the girl invited us to stay with her overnight, and we accepted without a second thought, offering in exchange the chance to eateth of our seven-pound block of cheese (which, as a vegan, she politely declined).
The day could have ended in a horror story, each nightmarish possibility taking shape in my head as I curled up in my wet sleeping bag under the shelter. Instead, the night passed inconsequentially. The girl told us about her frequent camping trips and her job volunteering at an animal shelter. She was on spring break from UNC Asheville, and she wanted to do a solo hike in order to recharge and reconnect with nature. She went to sleep early, and we tried not to disturb her. In the morning, the girl bid us adieu and headed on her merry way as my group spread everything we owned on the ground like we were holding a garage sale, hoping to dry off our warm layers in the tenuous sunshine.
The experience of sharing shelter with a stranger in the woods connected me to something I cannot easily articulate. When I think of connection, I think first of technology. But living in nature and putting all that aside makes me feel like I’m one part of this big, real, pulsing source of life and energy. I can only describe this as an awareness of living, a realization that life exists beyond the realm of graduation and the “real world.” As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”
In the woods, I don’t worry about trivial things—job applications, midterm grades, where I’m going to be next year. I only worry about if it will rain tomorrow, if one of my group members will have an allergic reaction to a bee sting or if a bear will eat all our food. I appreciate survival. Everyone I’ve ever met on the trail seems to be gripped with this same kind of awareness: we all just want to be alive.
In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature,” he writes: “In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth.” There’s something to this. Childlike appreciation of life, connection with self outside of contrived societal pressures—it’s something we lose with time as we become more and more focused on the things we “should” be doing in our adult lives. Or maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, clinging to my childhood as graduation draws near.
The hardest part about returning to the “paved world” after spending time in the woods is figuring out how to make things seem alive. I think, for me, writing helps with that. Art helps with that. And yet art, or at least a career centered around it, exists in the realm of cities and collaboration and multimedia, not in isolation. If I want to pursue writing, I have to give up Pisgah and “perpetual youth.” This May, at the same time that I lose Duke, I fear that I will also lose nature and all the ways it has connected me to myself.
Since I returned from the woods, I’ve tried to adjust one day at a time, slowly becoming part of the “real world” once again. I often wonder how I will take new steps in my adult life while maintaining a childlike appreciation of it. I think of the people who have figured it out—some of my peers, my mentors. I think of the girl under the shelter. And then I think of those of us who have nothing figured out at all, and I realize that at least we’re all here, in whatever “world” this is. We all just want to live and be alive.
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