On a short section of the Appalachian Trail, north of Hiawassee, Georgia, I discarded the grief of my divorce like one long apple peel flung on top of the poison ivy growing next to the narrow, clay path. The wildflowers and the canopies stretched tall enough to touch the sky. I listened to the sound my boots made, a thud along the path, a kind of rhythm and cadence that helped unclutter my thoughts, allowing me to release the tape I played over and over about why my marriage failed. At night the leaves rustled, and the wind caused the trees to groan. As I settled into my one-person tent, with my sleeping bag pulled tightly around my shoulders, I did not miss the comfort of the traffic zooming on the road behind my house, noise I relied on to lull me to sleep. Nature comforted me then in ways friends, family, and self-help books could not.
Years have passed since that walk, but the feeling of anguish I once experienced has seeped back into my daily routines, like weeds that have overtaken a rose garden. I am haunted by calamity that surrounds me.
I work at a Florida university, where outside the sun beats hard on a red brick building, and the cloudless skies promise a good beach day for tourists. Inside, the governor’s stench permeates the hallways, leaving a black residue on the walls. I slide the key in the door to my office and wonder how much longer I can teach at a university where faculty are required to report the names of transgender students. A place where I will be fired if I discuss institutional oppression in my class, as if this concept is a make-believe dialogue between Daisey and Minnie.
The trail can only be accessed on foot or horseback. My boots clacked hard along the path, over tree stumps and fallen branches, acting as steady vehicles wheeling me from one lean shelter to another, directing me when I did not know if I could climb the steep inclines.
I dwell about school shootings that happen more frequently these days, especially the student from the Robb Elementary School, who hid underneath a desk and frantically called 911. I worry about the anger she is forced to carry in her backpack, next to the colored pencils and notebooks, and I search for better answers for why the policemen waited so long to enter the school.
Months before I left for the hike, I researched boots. They needed to be comfortable and offer ankle support to prevent me from tripping or falling. They day they arrived, I opened the package like a birthday present, pleased they fit perfectly, relieved that I had made a good choice, confident that despite being overwhelmed with too many reviews and too many boot companies, I was not as paralyzed as I thought.
I don’t sleep well most night, tossing and turning from daily conversations on social media, the ones dividing communities about race, gender, and equality, experiencing déjà vu from my teen years, where the nightly news reported school board fights over segregation and flashed the number of causalities from the Vietnam war at the bottom of the screen. The ground was fragile then, as if it might open and create a hole so large, we all might drown from dust.
Most mornings when I walk around my neighborhood, I search in my closet for my Nikes, pick up my headphones, and head out the door, but last week, I took my boots out of the box from a top shelf and laced them up. Cars passed and I turned up the volume, distracting the interference. I put one foot directly in front of the other, like I did on the narrow clay path on the Appalachian. My steps heavy, I decided to pick up the pace, needing to discover a cadence and rhythm. There was a slight breeze, cool enough for a sweatshirt, and as I quickened my steps, my boots searched for something to admire: a new plant, a tree, a blooming gardenia. I was reminded again that nature can center me, that there is something larger out there, something that cannot erase my despair but can guide me forward. One. Foot. In front. Of another.
Debbie Weaver is a teacher, director of a writing center, gardener, and avid hiker. She lives in central Florida and was previously published in Litbreak magazine. Currently, she is working on a collection of essays.