Contemplating Terrorism and Trump on the Appalachian Trail

At Dismal Falls in Pennsylvania, just off the Appalachain Trail. 

At Dismal Falls in Pennsylvania, just off the Appalachain Trail. 

In the old days, the days before the smart phone, news spread slowly out here. As difficult as it may be for some to fathom, there was a time when hiker hostels on the Appalachian Trail did not have a flat screen TV with access to a thousand channels.

I suppose that I now officially qualify as an old geezer for fondly recalling a time when the most frequently asked question on the trail was, “how far to the next shelter?” as opposed to, “how far to the next outlet to recharge my phone?”

In the modern hiking era the smart phone is a more essential item than a spork. In fact, most any hiker would prefer to eat with their hands than not have connectivity. The app Guthooks provides a hiker’s exact location, making it virtually impossible to get lost. The website provides current forecasts for each trail section.

What brings us to the trail anyway? The appeal for me and countless others is that the trail offers the promise of a new life, call it an alternate reality if you will. On the trail we connect with nature, ourselves, and others in a way that we simply can’t back home.

For this experience to be possible, we have to withdraw from our family and work lives, and from the news, that perversely seductive 24-hour cycle of doom, gloom, horror, conflict and controversy. By getting “away from it all” we can, in a sense, “come to it All.” That we even have this opportunity speaks to our good fortune. For hikers, it is an opportunity that absolutely must be seized.

But the Appalachian Trail no longer offers the same sanctuary that it once did. For better or worse, you can now text your spouse or kids from a mountaintop. At a primitive campground where I spent a night, a young hiker was face-timing with her parents from her tent.

The next day, at the Angel’s Rest Hostel in Pearisburg, the television was tuned to the news of a terrorist bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. There were 22 dead, mostly young girls, with many more injured. Naturally, there was footage of when the bomb detonated, which I could not bear to watch.

Then came Donald Trump's response. He would not refer to the perpetrator of this horrific act  as "a monster,” he said. Instead, he would call him “a loser,” “which is the absolute worst thing you can be in Trump’s adolescent worldview. Rosie O’Donnell and George Will are losers. The Huffpost is a loser too, which makes me a loser by association. Sad!

It is a tradition on the Appalachian Trail to take a trail name, which is reflective of letting go of your ordinary self and assuming a new identity. Having a trail name codifies and in some sense sanctifies one's relationship with the trail. My trail name has long been "Bandana Man," but on this hike, I decided to have some fun by signing the shelter logs, in which hikers leave notes and musings, as "Donald Trump."

My first entry at Pine Swamp Branch Shelter: "No one knew that hiking the Appalachian Trail could be so complicated." My next entry at Rice Field Shelter: "We are going to build a great big beautiful wall around the trail to keep out Mexican hikers." And my final entry at Docs Knob Shelter: "The trail is a mess and only I know how to fix it."

I mentioned that I was doing this as a satire to a fellow hiker, who obviously did not get the humor. "It would be an honor for me to walk the trail with the name 'Donald Trump,'" he proudly proclaimed.  I soon learned that he was from Texas, not far from San Antonio, and that he felt grateful to Jesus for keeping him safe as he hiked. When I told him that I was from New York City, he asked how many people lived there.

"Around 10 million," I said.

"And that's not counting the illegals," he shot back.  Refusing to take the bait, I said nothing.

It is a wet and chilly May here in the deep Virginia woods. Every day it rains, the wind whips and the forest is bathed in mist. Yet, one can see with astonishing clarity. There is truth beyond politics, beyond one's opinion. 

Wild rhododendrons delicately bloom as innocent girls are murdered in cold blood across the ocean. That is as undeniable a fact as is Trump's unfitness to be President. There is actually nothing political about observing this, for it is as obvious as the mud on the trail. But blinded by ideology, be it political and/or religious, many can't tell the forest from the trees.

Imagine for a moment, Trump, whose idea of wilderness is a golf course, hiking the Appalachian Trail. The very idea of it is ridiculous, because Trump clearly has no interest in nature other than as a potential construction site. Trump is not a natural man; he is all artifice and facade, the very embodiment of an empty-suit. 

In the 30+ years I have been hiking the Appalachian Trail, I have always carried one book: the Tao Teh Ching, the ancient book of Chinese wisdom. Each night, before bed, I randomly choose one of its 81 passages and read it out loud, even when hiking solo. Last night, I chose passage number 24. As I read it, I could not help but think of Trump: 

One on tip-toe one cannot stand. 

One astride cannot walk. 

One who displays himself does not shine.

One who justifies himself has no glory. 

One who boasts of his own ability has no merit.

One who parades his own success will not endure.

In Tao these things are called "unwanted food and extraneous growths,"

Which are loathed by all things.

Hence, a man of Tao does not set his heart upon them. 

(Translation by John C.H. Wu)

I have 489 miles to go to finish the Appalachian Trail. Whether I ever make it to Springer Mountain, the trail's southern terminus, remains to be seen. But as the Buddhists are fond of saying, "the path is the goal," so in that sense I have long arrived and there is no destination to reach. Still, a walk in the woods offers no promise of an awakening, spiritual or otherwise. 

One must keep pressing on until the inner fog lifts.