The Eight-Legged Thing on Katahdin, end of our thru-hike, from left: Cay, Phil, Chris, Nat. Photo by Cowboy Paul Lybarger.

The thin paperback’s cover bent back. My friend Phil held it up above his head in his left hand and tipped the page toward the beam of his tiny flashlight. He lay on his back next to his wife, Cay, on the dirty wooden floor of the open-fronted shelter. Three of us stared up into the dark rafters, listening, as Phil read “Burnt Norton,” the first part of T. S. Eliot’s work, Four Quartets. “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future.”

I lay on a flimsy sleeping pad next to my husband, Nat. Four days earlier, we had started walking the Appalachian Trail through the tree-covered mountains of northwest Georgia, four of the hundreds of middle-class American pilgrims redeeming the regrets of bad jobs or undevised ambitions. We would push ourselves through this adventure, and (we predicted) change. We would live in the present. We would walk with heavy packs for as long as we could—we hoped for 2,100 miles, through the ridges of Tennessee and North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. We had quit those jobs and vacated our apartments. Only we thought that what we were doing made sense.

Burnt Norton

“Footfalls echo in the memory,” Phil read. “Down the passage which we did not take/ Towards the door we never opened.” My shoulder blades ached. I smelled. The soles of my feet felt smashed and bruised. And on this early night of a four-and-a-half-month slog, I strained to understand T. S. Eliot. In a few weeks, we would hardly have time to glance at the cover of The Four Quartets paperback. But its somber truths matched the painful march.

* * *

I have finally figured out what thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail—in a group of four, carrying all our provisions, in 1987—meant to me. The rest of this story appears in the next Appalachia journal. Subscribe and get the print edition! More of this story will post here in coming weeks.

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