As a family, Ann and I always set going on a summer vacation as a priority. My parents did the same thing when I was growing up, and the tradition has continued in the same place — Pawleys Island, South Carolina. As a result, Pawleys Island has become a blissful place for each member of my family, and there have to be exceptional circumstances if one of us misses our usual two weeks there. It's a somewhat expensive luxury, but I feel like it is an investment that has paid rich dividends over the years in providing shared experiences that hold our family together.
This summer I was also fortunate to spend the week before our annual Pawleys Island get-together in the Appalachian Mountains along the North Carolina/Tennessee border hiking 6 sections of the Appalachian Trail, in my role as an AT "section hiker." It was a week of great hikes — about 85 miles worth — with stays in Erwin, TN and Hot Springs, NC, the latter lacking cell phone service for 4 days — a mixed but welcome blessing. On 3 of the 6 days I hiked, I ran into no one all day long, a contrast to the spring when the area is inundated with thru-hikers making their pilgrimages northbound from Georgia to Maine. That horde of hikers had passed weeks ago, so the AT was now largely vacant.
At first, after I'd hiked several hours and run into nobody, I felt a little spooked. I don't consider the AT hazardous per se, but there are plenty of treacherous stretches that require concentration and sure-footed-ness to avoid trouble. I knew that a simple twisted ankle, let alone a major injury, could easily leave me stranded overnight. (I'd packed a flashlight, a jacket, and a little extra food as a general precaution; yet I also avoid setting a mindset where I expect the worst.)
But the spookiness quickly left me as I contemplated my wilderness surroundings and thought: "This is all mine today, and I don't have to share it with anyone."
The timely juxtaposition of mountains and beach also reminded me of what I love about each. There is a moment (after the 500-mile drive from Maryland) every summer after we get to Pawleys Island when I cross over the wooden walkway and see and hear and feel the sand and the surf for the first time; I smile and take a deep breath and release it, and the cares of the world are magically released from my being.
Similarly, there is a moment (after catching a ride to the trailhead for an AT day-hike and winding round the switchbacks of rural roads up the mountain) when I step into the woods, and I see the path stretching before me, and the green canopy blocks any harsh sunlight, and the cool of the woods rises up; I smile and take a deep breath and release it, and the cares of the world are magically released from my being.
There is a certain pattern to a day at Pawleys Island and to a day on the AT. At Pawleys, I wake around 6:30 AM and walk on the beach to the north inlet and back, climbing over the wooden groins, passing under the fishing pier, taking note of the loggerhead turtle nests that have been staked off by the SCUTE turtle volunteers, reciting poetry to myself, and watching the sun rise ever higher over the Atlantic. Later, I'll nap and read, read and nap, and partake in one of the extended family's annual traditions scheduled for that day — creek float, sandcastle build, Hog Heaven lunch, talent night. Two weeks linger by and two weeks fly by; we head home to our regular lives.
On the AT, I try to get to the trailhead by 9:00 AM. I set a relaxed but determined pace, sucking on Vitamin C lozenges, reciting poetry out loud, listening to songbirds, admiring mushrooms, taking time to visit with whomever I cross paths with, limiting my breaks for water or lunch. The miles plod by and the miles speed by; I reach my car and re-enter the regular world.