At the pinnacle of the AT trekker hierarchy are the through hikers, those souls with the temerity to challenge the AT from stem to stern in one epic slog. Next, stand the segment hikers who devour the AT in multi week segments. These are the men and women with jobs who attack the daunting AT during bouts of vacation. But, I set off, with my friends, as a duffer, one who merely plays at the solemn task of casting off a watch, hygiene, and any care for the outside world for the solitude of over a thousand miles of forested trail. The AT is, indeed, a world apart with it's own nouveau hippie culture complete with peculiar customs and courtesies; chief of which is the primacy of the through hiker. To me, the distinctions are pretensions; most everyone is there for the same purpose--to experience an ancient simplicity. The experience is not imparted based on the duration of one's pilgrimage but is granted to those who measure their plodding steps with care. The exertion that the AT exacts and the staid majesty of the forest's ancient wooden sentinels quickly divest one of all but the most necessary and elemental burdens.
And, so, we set off North bound on a portion of the AT which meanders along the boarder of North Carolina and Tennessee. In three days time, we were to emerge from the verdant wood in Erwin, TN at Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel and Outfitters. For the first day, we were scheduled to trek 8 miles from Sam's Gap to the Bald Mountain shelter. Sam's Gap lies at approximately 3,800 feet above sea level. Between me and the first shelter lay Big Bald, another 1,716 feet in elevation at 5,516 feet. It might as well have been the summit of Mt. Everest.
I quickly discovered that I was incontrovertibly a duffer at this business of AT trekking. My pack, including a fanny pack, tipped the scales at 55 lbs. I had everything one could ever hope to use in the deep and dark woods. Items that I still consider essential: a S&W model 686, stainless steel finish, chambered in .44 magnum (for use against disagreeable four and two legged mammals, or against any surviving dinosaurs that may still be lurking amongst the trees); 18 rounds of additional .44 magnum ammunition (six rounds in a speed loader); head lamp (invaluable as I relocated my tent during the middle of the night); and my Sweet Water pump (which rescued me from perishing of thirst on the second day). An item which I wish I had carried: a portable cardiac arrest machine for use during my near heart-stopping assent to the Big Bald.
Big Bald was breath taking. The summit is kept bald of trees and offers a panoramic view of the Smokey Mountain Range. I reached the summit, long after the rest of my cohorts, in a stiff wind that gusted to 30 mph or so and in fading light. So, I didn't have long to appreciate the view of the blue-grey rolling hills and mountains under a grey and blustery sky. I synched down my boonie hat and plodded on. I reached the Big Bald shelter about 30 minutes after the rest of my group. I consoled myself with the thought that I was lugging about a much heavier pack and was, de facto, much tougher. Never mind the stupidity of carrying about items that I would never end up using, such as an extra cooking pot and lid or 10 extra lithium batteries for my 107 lumens surefire flashlight--bright enough to permanently blind a charging grizzly bear at 100 yards. Light was fading fast, so I set about setting up my tent in a stiff wind, bending the trees in creaking groans. My journal entry for that evening was, "8 miles + 55 lbs of gear=PAIN."
That evening, I was exhausted but could not find sleep. I felt anxious, uncomfortable, with a vague sense of foreboding. The trees groaned uncomfortably, bending painfully in the buffeting gusts. I unzipped my tent and stuck my head out to gaze at the sky. It was then I noticed that I had expertly placed my tent next to a dead tree, slumping 40 feet from the leafy loam to a precarious rest on an adjacent tree. For me, this became both a moment of appreciation and understanding. Appreciation for the still small voice of Providence and a wider understanding of the nin-po principal of Juppo Sessho.
Juppo Sessho no Jutsu means literally, "contact in ten directions." "One can interpret this as indicating that Budo and Ninjutsu exist both inside and outside the box; indeed at a level totally beyond everything else." Masaaki Hatsumi, The Way Of The Ninja: Secret Techniques. Juppo Sessho is a vast idea that suggests a different mode of thinking and perception. It includes the idea of foresight and perception. Soke Hatsumi says that the vast majority of people go through life "sleep walking." People move through their daily lives insulated from those about them and the environment they live in. This is death. Modernity propagates this sleep walking as it limits man's potential by ignoring the Divine, the spiritual, and limiting man's experience to a shabby and primitive materialism. There is a connectivity between humans and to fail to realize this leaves one vulnerable. There is a connectivity with our natural environment and to fail to realize this isolates man from his natural possession. The Ninja maintained a vigil, a conscious communion with God's creation and, therefore, were able to sense a reality hidden from men of lesser awareness. For me, there can be no complete Juppo Sessho apart from Divine enlightenment. How can one be truly aware if you do not enjoy an awareness of the ultimate reality--a personal relationship with God?
The tree did not fall. It would certainly make a better story if it had. Perhaps, it did not fall because I moved. Who can say? I moved my tent in the middle of the night. And, I fell into a restful sleep, lulled by the breath of the Divine, whispering to me through naked branches and rustling leaves.
"For in him we live, and move, and have our being." Acts 17:28
"In other words, the combination of the two great elements of the Dragon and the Tiger, having foresight and being certain of victory, is seen to be an important aspect of Budo. Martial artists who cannot develop this natural ability to predict, sense, and see through things will never achieve the proverbial '100 victories in 100 fights,' let alone '100 lives in 100 lights' (i.e. gaining enlightenment in each existence.)" Masaaki Hatsumi, The Way Of The Ninja: Secret Techniques pg. 176