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The Beauty of Unexpected Trails

Smith Creek Bridge

Today was a day for me to get some much-needed nature therapy. In the summer months, I struggle to get into woods because of the hellacious Southern heat and humidity. And August is truly one of the cruelest months. However, yesterday, I experienced a panic attack that took me by surprise. My daily medication usually helps, but when I don’t mind my thinking and neglect my body’s need for the outdoors, I get easily knocked off balance.

It certainly wasn’t one of my worst panic attacks, but it was strong enough where I needed to take a knee and regroup.

Committing Self-care
Well, I say I needed to take a knee, but I had every intention of going into work today. It’s a Friday and things are usually a little more chill so I could just gut it out. But when I woke up at 4:30am and couldn’t go back to sleep, I knew something still wasn’t right. My thoughts were swirling around in a spiral and my body would not unclinch in spite of the breathing and relaxation exercises. Nope. Gutting it out wasn’t going to happen today, no matter what my always unhelpful Inner Critic was whispering. So I did the self-compassionate thing and called in for a sick day. The salaried workaday tasks could wait until Monday. It was time to start looking for a trail.

For those of us living in North Georgia, we are blessed with hundreds of trails within a reasonably short driving distance. On my list of “future hikes” was Smith Creek Trail that starts at Unicoi State Park and ends at Anna Ruby Falls. So after downing a few cups of coffee and a plateful of scrambled eggs, I packed my hiking gear and headed north to the mountains.

Forest Mindfulness
Once on the trail, all the forest scents, sounds, and other sensations washed over me. There is actually a term called “forest bathing” and while it might conjure up images of people streaking through the wilderness buck-ass naked, it’s quite a bit more chaste than that. The term is roughly derived from the Japanese Shinrin-yoku and has been advocated by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries as a form of meditation. It’s slowly gaining attention in the U.S. as our society’s ever-increasing technology addiction, rising healthcare costs, and overall life satisfaction are all out of whack.

With a renewed sense of calm, and the tranquility that comes with no fellow hikers, I could let go and just be with the forest. And as I did, my attention was drawn to all the life around me, both large and small. Towering trees above me. The soft trickling of Smith Creek to my right. Mosses, ferns, shrubs, rocks, and mushrooms at my feet. I’ve been reading natural history books on the Appalachian Mountains and there are chapters devoted to the multitudes of plants and fungi that thrive in these ancient landscapes. With our recent rains in North Georgia, I got to see and smell exactly why some folks are fascinated by the world of mushrooms and lichens. With few flowering plants on the trail, the various fungi provided much of the color and transformative life.

Spider Webs
Dammitall, I knew that August brings insects of all varieties with its heat and humidity. I even had the foresight to stop by the grocery store on my way out of town to power up on some industrial-strength bug spray.

What I totally forgot was that all those active bugs mean dinner for some other critters. Namely, spiders.

Unfortunately, my one weakness when it comes to being in wilderness is an aversion to spiders. I’m perfectly comfortable with snakes, millipedes, and other crawly things of the forest. Not so much with arachnids. And definitely not so much with arachnids who build their webs spanning the width of the trail.

Not to scale (maybe)

That’s one of the negative trade-offs of having a trail pretty much to yourself. There’s no one else to knock down webs that hit you full in the face. You’re on your own. And I’m certain that at times I looked like some hysterical extra from a battle scene of Game of Thrones who decided a more productive use of a trek pole was slashing and parrying with whatever was 4 feet in front of me. Well, better that than having a face full of web with a larger than necessary spider dangling from it.

Strange Pathways
A funny thing happened on my way to the trail’s end: I accidentally meandered off the path by what could have been a quarter mile. I’m still looking at trail maps trying to figure out exactly where and how I could lose the trail in such a spectacular way. Perhaps I was overly entranced by the magnificent array of ferns that covered the forest floor. Perhaps it was just bad trail management by the usually reliable U.S. Forest Service. But as I moved further into a mountainside covered in lush ferns obscuring what could no longer be defined as a path, I knew I went astray. I was no longer hiking a trail…I was blazing a path to somewhere unknown. Every time I thought I backtracked to the proper trail, it turned out to be more of the same non-trail.

Somewhere near Smith Creek Trail

Shit. But here’s the thing. Even though I was alone and off trail, I wasn’t afraid. I knew I wasn’t truly lost since Smith Creek was still to my right. As long as I had that point of navigation, I could find my way back. Now don’t tell anyone, but I did a wee cheat and used my phone’s GPS to locate my position in relationship to the trail. As I zoomed in, I saw that I was so close…just a little further up the mountainside and I’d be back on the right track. So I continued my blazing and within a few minutes I saw what appeared to be the lip of the trail 25 yards above me.

I climbed up, dodging a few more spider webs, clambering over wet and decaying wood. There was the trail. I did notice it curving back around the mountainside in a slightly different direction than I expected, but my U.S. Forest Service map indicated there was only one trail in the vicinity. This had to be the right path. So I followed it for the next hour or so and it took me all the way back to the initial creek crossing near the trailhead. Instead of my waterfall destination, I merely looped back to the truck.

Confused? Yep. Disappointed? Sort of. Yet, by this point, I was in a space of appreciation for my day’s nature experience. Plus, I was to gain a sense of perspective that I misplaced after my earlier panic attack.

Today’s hike was somewhat like this past week. I started on one path with only one destination in mind. Along the way, I temporarily got lost and was no longer as certain about my surroundings. But eventually, I found my way back even if it was on a trail I didn’t expect.

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