Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker


June 20th, 2021


The northern parts of Benton Mackaye Trail prior to entering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park generally consist of thin, overgrown paths—steep, rutted, rooted, wet, rocky, and usually devoid of other humans (plenty of nonhumans though). Solitude in those circumstances is not contemplative. Instead each step must be taken with care and precision, a mentally and physically taxing process. All trekking involves paying close attention to surface as that, often more than distance or altitude gain and loss, determines the mood of the day. On entering the Smokies, that surface mood shifts. It is a region long inhabited by the Cherokee people and later by Appalachian settlers. Their occupation is most evident by the trails and roads that remain today as current ways or ghostly presence. Doubtless, the road with the most powerful resonance in this part of the world is the Trail of Tears. The settlers who displaced the Cherokee built on their local paths. Today walkers encounter remnants of game trails, washed out logging roads, as well as other roads more carefully built (some still maintained by the Forest Service for access). Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the “Language” chapter of Nature notes, “Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance.” I’ve long found it curious that the etymology of “career” is in part a headlong race, but also refers to a well-built track or road. Traversing well-laid and some not-so-well-laid roads on this part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I decided to think with Emerson a bit, trying to understand career as “material appearance.”

Rummaging around my memories, the only place I could recall the word career used in its earlier sense was The Wind in the Willows where, as I remember, Mr. Toad’s wild ride involved a car careering at high speed (I could be mistaken, but if Grahame didn’t use the word, he should have). It is hard to imagine how the contemporary sense of having a career would relate to a headlong dash like Mr. Toad’s recklessness, but the idea of a well-laid road resonates with my sense of career. Careering on the Lakeshore Trail in the Smokies, I encountered, of all things, cars—slowly rusting hulks of 1920’s vehicles, one with an old tree growing up through it. Not the sort of sight you expect in the so-called empty American wilderness, but also not surprising given the path I had been following was once a fairly well-made road. Heading north not far past the cars other evidence of Appalachian settlers emerges— old sheet metal, beams, axles, the remains of an old mill race and stone mill, and then the Calhoun House, the last standing structure of the Proctor community. In the late 19th century Proctor was an agrarian village. In the first decade of the 20th, a railroad was pushed there, and Proctor became a lumber boomtown, swelling to over 1000 inhabitants until the timber was exhausted. During World War II, the Alcoa aluminum plant needed smelting power, so the Fontana Dam was built, with the lake submerging parts of the town. A promised road to Proctor was never finished, though the “tunnel to nowhere” some miles to the east is now a tourist destination. The remaining town dwindled and then disappeared, with most structures disappearing into the regenerating forest. I would guess that disappearance was also hastened by the National Park service— a whole nother story of displacement.

Emerson opens
Nature with “Our age is retrospective.” Without doubt, the roads around Proctor invite retrospection, thinking about lost human communities—violently displaced Native American people and the later scattering of the settlers who followed. Now it’s only trekkers who transiently occupy that space.

Standing on the bridge over Hazel Creek, it is hard to imagine a town of any size occupying this space, let alone an industrial sawmill or fields large enough to support food production, but at one time the narrow dirt roads and those abandoned cars enabled the transportation of goods— corn or, for greater ease of transport, corn liquor. Present day stock car racing has its origins in these hills, with cars modified for speed and strengthened to carry gallons of moonshine to the flatlands below.  (I grew up with a 50 gallon copper still in my backyard). The railroad was built to haul out the timber, but in those years it likely also carried a commodity nearly as valuable as shine— chestnuts. Another important inhabitant now gone from this area—the American Chestnut—was lost in the early 20th century to the blight. Once the dominant tree species of the southern Appalachians, the chestnut was fundamental to the life of most inhabitants. For humans, the leaves provided medicine, the wood was nearly perfect—plentiful, strong, rot resistant, easy to work (many of those traditional log cabins in old pictures are chestnut). But most important were the nuts. Plentiful in mast years, chestnuts were a key source of nutrition for humans, were used as forage for hogs (another human food source), and, with the coming of the small gauge railroads up into the coves and the opening of markets in the US northeast, a source of income. A generally unrecognized cause of community loss and present-day Appalachian impoverishment is the environmental devastation brought on by the chestnut blight. The loss of the trains parallel the loss of forest, the chestnut, and the life of many small communities.

Thinking about the idea of one’s career as either headlong dash (Mr. Toad) or a retrospective pondering of lost patterns of living (Proctor) does not seem particularly helpful. Generally people’s careers are not sprints, but they do open out onto a future, not to look back to a distant past. There are only two modern careers I’m qualified (somewhat) to use as examples: medicine and academia. My father was a small-town surgeon and ER physician, and later a public health director. In those years I observed him (including observing operations gowned-up at the OR table) and read the many histories of medicine in our home library. Later, for my dissertation I studied the history of medical education in America. That led me to the other career I have some understanding of—though it is a world I find increasingly strange—professing the humanities in a university. (N.B. I entered the academy in the 1980s when it was generally possible to find a university tenure track job. The neoliberal takeover of the American university system has made that path a chimera today, radically transforming any notion of career).

A career regarded as a well-laid road is at best banal, but perhaps thinking about or with the material experience of roads, paths, and trails could bring some insight. Standing on the Hazel Creek bridge looking across at what is now a riot of trees and undergrowth, then turning to walk for a short stretch on the still level abandoned railroad line, doesn’t so much produce nostalgia (deforestation is hardly something to sentimentalize), as it frames the moment in a dense and complex historical context. Modern roads—e.g. Interstates—appear to erase their history through sheer speed (though attention to what is abandoned by such a-historicism can be compelling). Maybe that is a way into the notion career. As those familiar with the current state of the university in America know well, we are currently being transformed into a “knowledge economy,” which defines knowledge as that which can be measured by standardized metrics, emphasizes rapid production and context-free digital dissemination. In addition, the very idea an academic career has been aggressively undermined, shifting much of the professoriate to precarious, adjunct labor where the time necessary to pursue knowledge is compressed or eliminated. However, harking back to some illusory “good old days,” in academic life is a fool’s errand. The professoriate I entered in the 1980s was overwhelmingly white, male, and academically elitist. A naive celebration of that time as a point of pure intellectual plenitude would be profoundly misguided. Nevertheless, as the road(s) to Proctor teach, it is still important to pause at ghostly presences and listen to what they might tell. That site of rapacious deforestation was also a place of human community—one that maintains a fragile continuity as the descendants of Proctor continue to visit the cemeteries annually to connect with their ancestors and with the still-living descendants of those families. In our corporate universities, the knowledge economy commodifies the parts of academic life that submit to metrics and generally ignores those which cannot. Put bluntly, wisdom—the traditional (idealistic) goal of the humanities—no longer has a place or is at best a ghost.

Perhaps a way to contextualize this trend in academia is as a transition from the idea of career traditionally construed—a road well-laid and followed by careful study and understanding over time—to one defined by readily signaled and celebrated waypoints. The Appalachian Trail is often called “the green tunnel” because it (like the Benton Mackaye) rarely offers those celebrated panoramic views. Days are spent in a long trudge, seeing feet, rocks, toads, snakes, and flowers, even as those same hikers tend to represent their walk with selfies on cliffs and peaks. Today’s humanistic academic careers are forms of branding defined by similar selfie moments. Academic brand development uses every tool in the social media arsenal to not just commodify knowledge, but also the supposed bearer of that knowledge.

This essay springs from my hiking the Benton Mackaye Trail, a path starting at Springer Mountain, Georgia (the same point of commencement as the Appalachian Trail which, by the way, was originally conceptualized by Benton Mackaye). It winds northwest through the Georgia Appalachians, crosses into Tennessee, follows the Tennessee/North Carolina border for a long stretch, ending by crossing the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, climbing Mt. Sterling and descending to the end point in a parking lot—all told about 286 miles of difficult trekking in nearly complete isolation. A bad foot forced me off just before the Mt. Sterling climb. In the career-as-brand world that would be a complete failure as I cannot take the selfie and check off the box for reaching the end point. I can’t wave trekking poles, posing for a social media moment, and then tweet about it (incidentally and ironically, cell service is rare on the trail, so social mediation is always delayed). But, to state the obvious, knowledge and understanding comes in the middle of that long green-tunnel trek, what Gilles Deleuze calls the milieu, and that is precisely what is most often left out of brand development. Proctor is learned by a long road(ish) walk in, through, and back out, not through a Google search or captured by a perfect tweet. So what emerges by thinking career via Emerson are these two versions: one of narrowly defined goals, a series of discrete way-points easily plotted on a roadmap, multiplying products (content) rapidly across media platforms, and constructing a recognizable brand (scholarship as hype-house). The other is career as becoming (a Deleuzian Nomadology), the result of engagement with an unfolding process. The latter recalls the Scottish writer Nan Shepherd, whose Living Mountain I discussed in a previous Pointless Essay. On setting out to walk a Cairngorms path, she says, “Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.” I suspect a brand-oriented academic would hesitate putting that in an annual report.

The dark side of all this is a definition of academic productivity borrowed from the corporate world that simply does not fit the job of nurturing wisdom. Not just confined to the humanities in the university, these tick-box, rapid production pressures are felt across most disciplines including the sciences, a point made clear in Isabelle Stengers’s Another Science is Possible. In what I recall as a recent interview, Donna Haraway voices her preference for the term “engender” over “reproduction” or “production.” She is making a different set of observations than I am, so her reasoning follows a different path, but it is a helpful distinction. Put simply, to live and work, to have a career, in a (re)productionist model requires the fabrication of products— closed, packaged things, a list of intellectual entities on a form. Engendering is a practice of bringing into being possibilities latent in the context. A self-reflective example: what you are reading just now is in my walkinghome blog under the category “Pointless Essays.” To me, the title is a redundancy. While most young scholars in freshman composition are harangued about the need for their essays to have a point, the very notion of an essay is actually its pointlessness. An essay is an attempt, a trying out, weighing (assaying) possibilities, exploring a set of ideas or concepts. An essay does not measure out in already established metrics some narrowly definable idea; instead “the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination.” To essay, in its purest form, is to explore, initially with a certain aimless tentativeness, to see what can perhaps be engendered. My initial walk along the Lakeshore Trail was not simply to tick off the 12 miles from Fontana Shelter to Proctor Fields campsite. Instead, the path, the different surfaces, the stray artifacts, but also the temperature, humidity, the angle of light, bugs, snakes, flowers engendered a form of thinking on careers.

Obviously there are plenty of activities in any career that can be captured by metrics, and, at least the way I was brought up, the very notion of having a career means making a positive contribution to society in whatever way one is capable. What the road/career connection helps uncover is that travel— moving through the world on historically constituted paths—will always include some metrics: beginnings, waypoints, measured distances, ends. But no thinking person sees those marks as constituting a career. They leave out everything in the middle which of course is where thinking is engendered.  As readers can easily infer, I’ve never celebrated digital media as a form of liberation, but I’ve found blogging an interesting way to resist the corporatization of knowledge. The conceit of the Pointless Essays section is that the general idea and/or mood of each resulted from material encounters on the trail, chewed over during that day’s walk. This particular essay was engendered June 16, the day after crossing Proctor Field, as I walked from Chambers Creek to Pole Road Campsite, 22.5 miles in the Smokies (also a day I had a disturbingly close encounter with an exceptionally large timber rattler which perhaps will become another essay). My audience, as best as I can infer, is made up of a few colleagues who read the same philosophers. Thoreau, Emerson, Nan Shepherd, Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, William James tend to appear often since my questions are not drawn from reading but instead are posed by my sometimes vague recollection of their work while walking. By far the vast majority of my readers are other trekkers scouring the internet for accounts of different trails (see About Walking Home for a list of trails walked). And then there are some shadow web sites selling essays to undergraduates on nature writing who have appropriated some of mine (end of semester times usually show an odd spike in essays mentioning Thoreau).

What I find compelling about blogging is as an opportunity to treat the essay form as an experiment outside the academy. It engenders serious thinking without submitting it to banal metrics. As a form of intellectual work, it brings me no annual performance review credit. Just like the actual walking, both are practices very much on the margins of productivity or commodification. Sure, some people commodify trekking, creating their own brand and gaining access to equipment and sponsorship. In similar fashion, others find ways to commodify blogs. But neither approach is necessary, and when avoided, both the walking and the thinking take on a different tone, a tone I value. Their ends are not ends, but instead are an ongoing opening out onto novel and seemingly unending possibility. I find that a better sense of what a career should be.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 20

June 17th, 2021

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 20, June 17

Pole Road Campsite (55)  to Bryson City

The day opened in reluctance. I knew I had a 13 mile walk out to get to the road to hitch to Cherokee NC, so it wasn’t a simple stroll, though it was the end of a very long trek (250+ miles in these mountains is no joke). I geared up for the last time, following the rituals of the summer—those that sustain hiking and peace of mind. I had camped in a place where three different sites were closely connected, so soon after setting out, I was passing a site where three men were just about to start their trek out. Ryan, Jake, and Steve— three men finishing a three day fishing, hiking, camping trip— were on their way to the Deep Creek parking lot to head back home to Columbus Ohio (except Jake who was heading back to the main-line near Philly). They happily agreed to drop me at Bryson City on their way to Asheville, so, for the first time in many years, I fell into a walk with three other trekkers, alternately talking and walking in a gregarious and pleasant way— each was a really interesting person to walk with, so the miles melted away and soon, after seeing a number of waterfalls and watching the kids tube down the river,   they dropped me at the Relax Inn in Bryson City. The perfect spot to end this long Benton Mackaye Trek.

T. Hugh Crawford


Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 19

June 17th, 2021

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 19, June 16

Chambers Creek (#98) — Pole Road Campsite (55)  22.5  miles

Right up to the end, a perfect hiking day. I remember moment in Earl Shaffer’s Walking with Spring when he describes how he hit a point where he ate twice what he had been eating. Long distance hiking burns huge calories so there is a point a few weeks into a trek where most of your body fat is burned off, and you have to increase consumption (though you can never keep up as long as you trek hard). I doubled my food last night and woke early (5:30) ready to go. I knew if I were to get in position to finish Saturday, I had to make up miles that my Smoky Mountain permit didn’t support (all part of a not particularly intuitive website inflicted on my schedule).  So my goal was a good 4 miles past my scheduled campsite, and more if possible.

Another experiment was coffee. I had packed some Starbucks instant just in case I wanted to fire up the jetboil stove in the morning before starting. That impulse never materialized (in part because I didn’t have any of that sweetened condensed milk in a toothpaste tube that they sell in New Zealand— a backpacking item worth its weight in its weight). So I dumped some packets in my nalgene for the early morning walk (I did feel a certain spring in my step.

As I said, a nearly perfect hiking day. The Smokies are in some places, incredibly isolated and untouched, but this area shows signs of long habitation, with most paths following what were some decades ago, primary roads to communities, so the trail was usually well-graded and a fast walk (necessary as I walked almost 23 miles). After miles of horse prints and piles of horse shit, I did finally meet two men astride soem amazing animals, so glad to see people following these traditional paths on the critters that made them.

The flowers were also getting dominant. Every shade (and of course the occasional “almost” ripe blackberry regularly appeared, as did, of all things, a long stretch of Day Lilies (the orange kind) lining the path.  I remember wilderness paths in Virginia near West Virginia as a child where those lilies also appeared which I guess is why I’ve never thought of them as a home garden flower. And as always, there were many streams with opportunities to re-water.  Much of the day was on Nolan Creek, a favorite of fly fisherman, and well worth the trek. One thing that struck me when filling my nalgene was the odd bass-drum thump that plays on the stream by the water in sudden holes in the streams. A fascinating symphony.

I made it to Bald Creek camp— which was further than my itinerary—by 3:30 so I decided to push on to the next site which was 4+ miles. Definitely my longest day if the trip, and of course the smooth trail I’d been on all day turned to a narrow, rooty, steep climb. Undeterred as I still felt good I continued on until I ran up on a huge timber rattler. He was coiled across the trail and I didn’t  see him— just heard. First response was to leap away, which was on the downslope side of the trail. There I found myself laid out prone, but I could see the rattlers— at least 10 pairs—shaking insistently. I scrambled to get up, only to discover my backpack was caught under a downed tree, so I watched to see if the rattler moved while I unstrapped in order to move on. Fortunately he stayed coiled— he was much bigger around than my biceps (maybe closer to my calves for those of you who need anatomical metrics). I made my way past his rattling circuit, stopped for a moment to consider getting out my iPad for a picture, then realized the snake needed his dignity too, so I proceeded on to the Pole Road Campsite— another completely empty one, to settle in (after 22.5 miles) for a good nights sleep.

Unfortunately that was interrupted by inspection of my long-sore toe which had now blown up to full-fledged infection. There I had to make the decision to abandon the trek just a two-day walk from the end, but a merit badge is not worth compromising health. My last night on the trail (and the last night in my ZPacks soloplex tent— a tent I’ve pitched on every continent except Antarctica— is now to be retired. The fibers after all those pitchings are now stretched thin (moment of nostalgia)). An uneasy sleep after what had been a glorious day of trekking. At least it was an evening of lightening bugs, a bright moon, and flood of stars— all observed because of late evening micturation.

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 18

June 17th, 2021

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 18, June 15

Procter Fields (#86) — Chambers Creek (#98) 15 miles

The humidity dropped, so apart from some general malaise (just feel like I’m running out of gas), today’s walk was excellent. Relatively steady altitude with sweeping curves up into the coves, rock hopping a spring or stream, then long moderate climb to cross the next ridge. There were none of those points where a steep climb made me sweat through everything and have to put my (already in waterproof case) phone into a plastic bag to avoid sweat-short.

The first bit was on the old turn-of-the-century railroad bed. Rails and ties were taken up long ago, but the bed remains in good condition. Later in the day, I was consulting the Guthook navigation app about upcoming waypoints, and was puzzled that they were all at the same attitude. Later when I got to that part, the trail joined that old railroad bed for most of the afternoon. The Lake Fontana can be seen through the trees, just a few hundred feet below. Was thinking about what it must have been like riding the logging train out from Procter, then realized that the train stopped running before the lake was built, so that was not their experience even as it was mine. I remember reading that, before the chestnut blight wiped out most of the forests here, a National market for American chestnuts was developed by running narrow gauge trains up into the Appalachian coves. I wonder if that train was part of that commerce.

Trying to plan out the end of this trip, and the last days will be brutal— several 18 milers ahead and the ascent and descent will be steep and long. Will just have to see how things hold up— I can abandon over near Cherokee if necessary.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 17

June 17th, 2021

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 17, June 14

Fontana Shelter — Procter Fields (#86) 12 miles

The Smoky Mountain Park service requires permits and a specific itinerary. To finish by Saturday, I need to walk 15+ days, but filling out the form, I dropped five from first day, so my day was as pleasant and pressure-free as possible. Leaving from a shelter (that has a bathroom) is much quicker than striking a tent and digging a cat hole, so I was crossing Fontana Dam at 6:30. Beautiful morning. In the initial days across the Smokies, the Benton Mackaye follows the Lakeshore Trail, which, as you would imagine follows the northern shore of Lake Fontana, ducking down to some of the coves, and climbing up around the various micro-watersheds. As the people I met yesterday who had just walked this section told me, water is plentiful, so even though it was hot, there was no danger of dehydration. And I even stumbled on a patch of early-ripe blackberries.

The path is also designed for horses, which generally means a wider, smoother surface with climbs at a reasonable grade. (That is what makes  long miles on the Pacific Coast Track possible). Much of today’s walk was on old logging or transport roads, particularly as I approached Procter.  Though this area seems long-empty, around the turn of the 20th century, Procter was a logging boom-town with a population over 1000. Today, apart from the road, the most conspicuous evidence is one building—the Calhoun House, built in 1928 and maintained (somewhat) by the Forest Service. In the miles around Procter you can see the remnants of old cars (straight out of Bonnie and Clyde), an old stone mill, and a range of rusting metal debris. I will need to check to see if someone has written a history of this area. It has the poignancy of post-chestnut blight, depression, and federal buy-out darkness about it all.

The GSMP campsites are spacious—I currently have one to myself,  so I took a dip in Hazel Creek, spread my stuff out to dry, and spent a quiet afternoon shooing the flies away.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 16

June 17th, 2021

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 16, June 13

Old Road Bed —Fontana Village—Fontana Shelter 12.7 miles

Except for the lack of water, the old road bed was a good campsite. My tent was pitched so I could watch the sun go down, and a light breeze made for good sleeping. I was up early looking forward to hitting a version of civilization again (this is a busy stretch for towns, etc. ) Initially the trail was clear, but very steep. A lot of turkeys stirred as I passed—a day of ridge hiking straight up and over each knob.  A few hours in, the maintenance gave out and once again I had to plow through greenbrier, poison ivy, and immature trees. I’ve always loved maple trees, but that affection is being tested. I only had a 1/4 liter of water, so I knew I’d be cutting it close. Compounding that, I made a couple wrong turns at an electric meadow road, which put me back an hour— the trail entrance I kept missing was completely overgrown and not well-marked. That seems a characteristic about this part of the BMT.

Happily there was a spring about a mile from Fontana, so I rehydrated and headed into get my Smoky Mountain hiking permit—a singularly frustrating experience since, even though the lodge provides a computer, the GSNP web site is, to put it mildly, crap. Of course the idea of intuitive understanding is often specious, but the various stages are minimally obvious. It took almost two hours to finally get my pass printed, and it’s not the itinerary I really wanted. (Lots of difficulties including not having cell service compounded all this.). Then I learned there is a shuttle from the lodge to the shelter, so I spent a quiet afternoon at the bistro, eating a big salad and drinking a few beers. Great bartender took care of all my needs, and a couple from north Georgia who just hiked much of the stretch I’m heading into were very helpful with suggestions. It was one of those rare afternoons where relaxation, information, and nutrition came together for a moment.

The shelter is a crossroads for AT hikers. It’s too late in the season for thruhikers this far south, but this crew is definitely AT. The first night since my first that anyone has been in camp with me. There are no grass or dirt tent sites, so I’m going to sleep in the shelter with a bunch of hikers. For now, I’m reading, listening to their intense conversations while they cook. So much talking! The crew in the shelter are older men who clearly prize their comfort sleeping (if not hiking) as they have huge packs, loud inflatable sleeping pads, and sleeping bags that would float a king. An early sleep was not in the cards. Hope for a quick quiet exit in the morning.


T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 15

June 13th, 2021

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 15, June 12

Bobs Bald to Old Road Bed 13 miles

Yesterday evening it looked for a moment that the sun might finally break through the fog, but instead the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. Shivering, I had to shelter early in my tent, digging deep into my sleeping bags or the first time on this trip. Soon the lightening came in with the thunder and it poured all night.  Everything stayed more or less dry, but it’s all damp as usual (makes the pack heavier).  The morning hike down to Tapoco lodge for lunch before continuing should have been a walk in the park. Instead I had 11 miles, most in fog and damp, with an overgrown trail— blackberry bushes as high as my head—glad they weren’t ripe given the bear situation. I couldn’t see the trail itself which makes for slow going as did the 7 miles down of washed out path, carefully picking my way down.  Was exhausted by Tapoco, but stopped for mid-afternoon lunch. The place, like everywhere in these hills, was dominated by older motorcyclists. They form a dominant part of the economy.  I relaxed a bit as the sun finally began to dry things off, then headed another two miles to get a bit closer to Fontana Village where I will resupply, and get my smoky mountains camp tickets, in prep for the final push. What a difference a day makes— the tent is hot tonight.


T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 14

June 13th, 2021

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 14, June 11

Tellico Plains/River to Bobs Bald 15.4 miles

Except for the last two miles, I couldn’t have had a better trail for the day’s conditions. Misty rainy all day very little visibility—walking across on of the numerous balds in these ranges, the fog obscured my view of the blaze markers set out to lead hikers through (at a distance I mistook a clump of daisies for a white diamond, but as it turned out they were perfectly placed). North of Tellico River the BMT maintenance crews have been active, so the path wasn’t overgrown (except those last two miles), which really made a difference as I was trying to keep my beat-up feet as dry as I could, a nearly impossible task given how much water is running out of these mountains. I’ve never seen so many streams and springs—little waterfalls, perfect places.  And all that water supports amazing stands of now older trees, many with lower trunks carpeted in green moss. And of course mushrooms of all sizes, shapes and colors. In one area of downed logs, there were shelf mushrooms that looked like mussels growing from the wood.

Most of the middle of the day was following the same ridge as the Cherohala Skyway, a road incredibly popular with motorcycle riders, even on wet foggy days apparently, so things did get pretty loud at times. It reminded me of hiking the Appalachian trail with Bennett in this part of Tennessee and later in Virginia. You could always tell it was a weekend by the roar of the motorcycles. Of some concern are the bears the maintenance folks I met last week warned about. These next miles are a hot spot for bear activity— there are even a bunch of temporary signs tacked up at the trail intersections warning about them. I’m up high on a ridge miles from anyone, so used extra caution hanging bear bag high and far from camp. Let’s hope for a peaceful night’s sleep.

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 12-13

June 10th, 2021

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 12-13, June 9-10

Zero Days at Tellico Plains

Tellico Plains is a small town with a big heart, and none are bigger than Lance and Cheryl’s, the proprietors of Trout Mountain Cafe and Inn.

After arriving I soon realized either I take some time to heal up, or I’d have to abandon the trail, so I added a day and have spent most the time slowly taking care of little details—resupply, laundry, eating pizza at the Tellico Grains Bakery, but mostly drinking lots of coffee with Lance, Cheryl, Ammon and Sydney. Particularly good conversations with Sydney who is finishing a PhD in folklore at Ohio State, studying Tennessee vernacular architecture (among other things), and Ammon who both dives and pilots semiautonomous submersibles in the Gulf of Mexico.

But what I will likely most remember is that Jackson Browne’s music is alive in well in Tellico Plains— I did not walk into a single establishment playing music without one of his songs soon queuing up. Felt like college years.

Here’s hoping the feet are tough enough to continue tomorrow.

T. Hugh Crawford

Mediating a Mountain

June 9th, 2021

Mediating a Mountain—some thoughts on Nan Shepherd and Elise Wortley

After some years of exploring nature writing through actual material practices (e.g., that time we framed up Thoreau’s house using only the tools he could have used “Building Thoreau’s House”), I was gratified to read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways where he encountered Edward Thomas’s poetry by following the paths he had walked. It seems a simple, even obvious, move, but it is one at some distance from much academic writing which tends to comment on other writing. Macfarlane’s approach provides real insight. Thinking back to Walden and our woodworking, it is surprising how few pages Thoreau devotes to actually building his house even though, as we learned, felling those “arrowy pines,” squaring them with an axe, and joining the resultant beams with mortise and tenon joints is incredibly time-consuming (at least for 21st century novices). Walden became a radically different book for us after that experience. It is not surprising that I found myself drawn to the work of Elise Wortley—Woman with Altitude—who studies famous women walkers (e.g., Nan Shepherd and Alexandra David-Neel) by walking their paths with period clothes and equipment. I’ve had the opportunity to trek in the Himalayas though not David-Neel’s path (and I walked with 21st century gear). I’ve also have had a good wander around the Cairngorms and have long thought Shepherd’s Living Mountain is perhaps the best nature writing ever (pace Thoreau).

Usually mediating nature—those mountains—involves movement between text and path, that well-worn distinction between word and thing, a jump that has always troubled me as it seems so stark, a vertiginous abyss between the material world and our sometimes feeble efforts to refashion it with words. Wortley, with her unusual strategy—along with her filmmaking friend from Wilderness Scotland (Rupert Shanks) who made a short film of her Nan Shepherd research—helps show how what seems an abyss is actually a series of short leaps, almost like crossing a creek (or burn) by stepping from stone to stone.  https://vimeo.com/368036090

The short film depicts (and is) a range of incremental mediations, showing many material practices that are part and parcel of what we think of as mediation. The first and obvious strategy is Wortley’s voiceover. She does not speak in her own voice; instead she reads passages from The Living Mountain. At one point she is filmed sitting by the path reading from a tattered paperback copy. The filmmaker integrates images of her walk in the Cairngorms with passages from the text. The viewer is treated with a panorama of the rough peaks of that massif while Wortley/Shepherd exclaim “one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle—as beauty.” The film links closely image and text— very much in the tradition of nature documentary, but that by itself replicates the binaries of word/world, or here image/world.

It is within the action of the film that mediating the mountain gets interesting. Along with the book, another printed text appears— a well-worn topo map (I’m guessing a UK ordnance survey). Again, a distant (scale of miles) representation, but for trekkers, a bit more. They learn to see the subtleties of contour, elevation gain and loss directly correlated to the image the Cairngorms themselves (on a clear day) produce. Those topographic lines are not just seen, but are also felt; they are embodied at a glance by the experienced hiker. Discussing the beauty she encounters, Wortley/Shepherd notes, “A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see.” Here the film shifts from cartography to aesthetics but the two are of a piece. The mountain forms need to be there for the aesthetically inclined eye to find beauty, but they also must be there to confirm the topography represented by maps, seen by eyes, and felt through feet.

The opening scenes, perhaps unintentionally, raise this point. The camera focuses not so much on Wortley in relation to the mountain, but instead on her feet following a rocky path. This of course calls attention to her period attire—she wears a hand-sewn pair of leather boots—handsome, but a far cry from the comfort and stability demanded by today’s trekkers. Something more is going on in this opening scene— another form of mediation makes an appearance that begins to re-articulate the word/world gap. For Wortley (along with so many Cairngorm walkers), the mountain is first felt through feet. The leather soles of her boots are a media form. Sure, eyes and images are important, but so are those feet and all the small muscles in her knees, ankles, and hips, each teaching the terrain in a way more intimate than graphic representation.

In his introduction to the most recent edition of The Living Mountain, Robert Macfarlane calls attention to the similarity of parts of the book with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. One section Wortley chooses to read up on the mountain that day is perhaps the best example. But I have a nagging suspicion that phenomenology with its concern with “consciousness of” the material world can only go so far in understanding Shepherd’s mediation of the mountain. As we will see in a moment, she references consciousness, but as Shepherd states and Wortley’s research reveals, the mountain becomes something you enter into, not become conscious of. There seems in this layered mediation, something that evades conscious apprehension. Here Macfarlane rightly signals Merleau-Ponty’s as a phenomenology that would accommodate this broadened sense of mediation, and yet to me, it seems she is doing a bit more here, that her experience of the mountain is somehow more elemental than the phenomenological. 

Wortley’s boots on that path show that experience—even the experience of reading nature writing—is worked out in the middle, not on the endpoints of a polarity of mind/world or text/object. Shepherd and Wortley understand well the in-between. Many modern walkers— particularly those “quants” with fitbits —measure their movement by specific geographic or numerical goals. They live beginnings and ends. In contrast, The Living Mountain is always in the middle, the milieu. Even structurally, the book works through chapters (often elemental) and does not narrate a temporal sequence. Indeed, I think one characteristic of the best nature writing is a de-emphasis of narrative. As Shepherd says early in the book (and Wortley repeats at the beginning of the film): “Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”

Wortley’s shoes mediate the material world while the path she follows mediates both the mountain and generations of Scottish walkers. The path the film features prominently is both physical and graphic. It is a history of feet and a mark on a map and on the ground—here is a line, follow it! (Footpaths). And it is also a history. Once while walking down the southwest side of Cairn Lochan on my way to Ben MacDui, I looked off to the west and could see in the distance Ben Nevis. An older man stood on the path looking in the same direction. He said he had been walking the massif for over fifty years and there were few days when Ben Nevis appeared. At first I was struck by the visual privilege I had been given that day, but then I realized how his fifty years was very much part of the line I was tracing. Paths are communal and require the ongoing presence of feet to remain clear, open, and legible—to continue to produce meaning. I was talking with a long-term contributor to that knowledge and a source of that mark.

Although the film only makes glancing reference to it (and Wortley’s boots  skillfully avoid it), water is a medium Shepherd explores at length (air gets the full treatment as well). Early in the chapter entitled “Water,” she invokes communication: “Water is speaking.” Of course it is easy to mention babbling brooks (or in her vernacular, burns), but Shepherd’s speaking water is not soporific. It too, like the path, is full of meaning (both interpreted and felt); its sounds guide the walker on her way through those peaks and vales:

“The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower. One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking. But to a listening ear the sound disintegrates into many different notes—the slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate. On one short stretch of burn the ear may distinguish a dozen different notes at once.”

Through sheer repetition over years of wandering the Cairngorms, Shepherd learns to listen to the sounds literally pouring from the mountain, to distinguish various and complex messages. For Shepherd, water as a medium is the message.

Not just sound, Cairngorm water is also taste and a touch that engenders a sense of embodiment: “This water from the granite is cold. To drink it at the source makes the throat tingle. A sting of life is in its touch.” In The Living Mountain, water is a source of physical satiation but also a signal of alarm: “Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me.” Her’s is an interesting fear, one sometimes felt by walkers who encounter what feels to be the purely elemental, that which is devoid of mediation and provokes a thrill, perhaps even the nausea of the sublime (Water). But rather than framing such an encounter as beyond media or prior to it, Shepherd makes mediation itself elemental. Before words, before images, there is water—pure media. In the above quotation, she is regarding water, later she directly encounters it when attempting to ford a rain-swollen burn:  “For the most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength.” Yes, in Shepherd’s world the water speaks.

A body that has learned to fear the strength of the water becomes for Shepherd and Wortley a way into the mountain. Unlike Emerson, a founder of American nature writing, Shepherd’s nature does not symbolize some higher, transcendental power, but instead is, in its very materiality, what we access directly by being in it. She refuses a figure of speech that abstracts—pointing elsewhere—and instead is resolute in pointing toward the experience of the flesh in and of that mountain as meaning in itself, as first writing. Wortley reads at length from The Living Mountain:

“Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body. It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain.”

Like her elemental water, Shepherd’s walking is itself a mediation of her essential body—one that does not stop at the skin, but is made and made meaningful (at the same time) by its and the mountain’s inter-worlding. Her “walking out of the body” is no transcendence, nor is it spiritual in a traditional sense. Nor is it some abstract oneness. Rather it is the aggregate that walkers sometimes experience—the sense of being as there, in all its messy, multiple, plural immediacy. And let’s not forget, immediacy’s etymological root is media.


The film then turns to Shepherd’s phenomenological aesthetics, one that rejects the spectatorial for the immersive—an embodied plunge into a wider, worldly body found through walking (Brutal Beauty). Wortley reads from her copy of the book—the one that has clearly spent time on the mountain itself, absorbing its blows—directly addressing the problem of beauty in a way that reframes or at least points in a direction different from Immanuel Kant’s formulation:

“Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shapes, should so profoundly tranquillise the mind I do not know. Perhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle—as beauty. Else why did men for so many centuries think mountains repulsive? A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind: but the resultant issue is a living spirit, a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead.”

What intrigues me is Shepherd’s notion of “matter impregnated with mind” which seems to re-inscribe any number of traditional binarisms, ones that the book (and the film) are working against. Mind and consciousness are barely categories in this text except as effects of the ongoing unfolding of experience of the mountains and its elementals. She introduces beauty as a category—how could she not?—only to ignore traditional notions of unity, symmetry, balance, etc., to embrace a processual immersion of sights, sounds, smells, and bodies—the “confusion” of being in and with the mountain.

In the immediately following passage, Shepherd turns from aesthetics to ontology, though I think she purposely elides the distinction: “It [a living spirit] is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.” With this Shepherd brings the last binarism—being/nonbeing— back into the middle, giving new meaning to the notion of love (and I think representing the love Wortley is expressing in her taking on a version of Shepherd’s sense of being). Being-in-with-the mountain is the subject of the entire book but she gets there by walking into it, in those hand sewn leather boots and homespun clothes, not seeking transcendence or abstraction but instead a sense of the admixture of being and non-being in a “continuous creative act.” From that perspective, Shepherd is more Whiteheadian than phenomenological. The sentence “Man has no other reason for his existence” is not so much existential—a way of framing individual being (an impulse to demarcate self)—as it is a celebration of our minor selves in the milieu of “the vastness of non-being” which is, as she has been saying all along, the source of the material being that produces meaning, mediates self as mountain. It is a nature “writ” (lived) large.

T. Hugh Crawford