Outdoors Adventures in the Upcountry

Hub City, as you’ll see if you to to the second address below, has wonderful literary goings on in — readings, book shop, press and more. The first link is to an anthology in which I have an essay about being an immigrant and finding my sense of place through the natural world in a new place. The link is info on the book (which is great). The essay is pasted below the links. Hope you like it.



New Way Home

On my first walk through the woods in the Piedmont of South Carolina, I learned that maps weren’t much use if you strayed from the designated trail. I’d grown up thousands of miles away and had been used to wandering all over hills, maps rarely needed. When I tried the same technique on Paris Mountain, I quickly found myself squinting up, shading my eyes against the oak and hickory-filtered sun seeking a sense of direction and finding, instead, trees for what looked like miles. I managed to scramble back to the trail and then to my bike, which I rode just about everywhere, not having uncovered the rule about it not being cool to own a bike with tiny wheels, a bike that folded in half for easy carriage on a bus or train.

The year was 1981 and I’d recently shed my school uniform – grey skirt, white socks, black shoes, blazer and tie – and moved away from the craggy landscape of my childhood. My Dad had earned a promotion and was eager to navigate his new workplace in this land of opportunity. I, on the other hand, had no idea how I would navigate the crowded hallways, lockers or lunchroom of an American public high school. I’d come from single-file lines and rigid rules during the week and from weekend walks across the bare hills of the west coast of Scotland. I’d been navigating those since as far as I could remember. Our headmistress belted out instructions for the uniformed time at school. My Papa at first, and then just a map and my eyes led the way across my weekend landscape.

When I was four and five and six, I’d taken Papa’s hand and walked through Douglas Park to the base of the hill we called the Muddy Mountain. From its foot, I could see the sheep dotting the hillside, the paths they’d made, the bracken around which we’d walk. I could see my destination. An indicator stood at the top, pointing out Arran and other western isles across the Firth of Clyde. On one such walk, when I was six, Papa turned inland, suggesting we walk further instead of turning for home as we usually did, suggesting I lead the way. I navigated us across the moor on the flat top of the hill and then down the other side, finding a new way home.

Later on, whether at the Muddy Mountain or on larger hills – Corbetts and Munros as they are classified there – I’d stand at their feet and see every inch of where I’d tread. I’d mark my way around knee-high bracken or low-slung gorse and heather or through soggy moorland grasses and over rock. I could point my way over miles and then step across the land, every move clear. Maps were necessary only on the occasional long walk over multiple hills to keep my orientation. For the most part, though, bar the odd closing in of cloud cover, I made my way without ever fearing I’d get lost. In this new country, I had no such confidence. The rules of school and friends in this new land, of who was crowned homecoming queen and who got to talk to her and why that might matter, I had no idea how to uncover. Even the land itself was hidden. Pine and hemlock, hickory and oak lined the hills, preventing a view of the actual rock and dirt that held things. I thought this first looking at Paris Mountain, then going for a Sunday drive with my Dad past other hills in the Piedmont.

Although I didn’t plan it, when I began to navigate my way into the terrain of my first American friendship, I also began my discovery of the land. Jeff took me on my first real hillwalk, called a hike here, at Table Rock State Park. The map at the trailhead offered multiple choices, from a simple loop that wound along a small creek, to the one that led to the top. This was the one we took, marching into the woods and soon finding ourselves hiking blind to our location except for the slashes of paint on trees, blazes that told us we were on the right path. The trail rose and curved quickly up and away from the creek. A small burn in my calves was all that told me that something had changed. Even in the woods, on the trail, with feet on the mountain, the land still felt hidden for me. In the middle of the hike, I could see only one curve of trail up ahead and one curve behind. Side to side, trees blocked any potential clear view. I could see neither destination nor origin. I was meant to trust the blazes and keep going. On that first hike, I trusted Jeff, who trusted the blazes.

We stepped on and up, further from the water, deeper into the trees, at last rounding a curve and coming upon huge boulders rising from the land. In the gap between the rocks, with each hand on solid granite on either side of me, I found my first sense of safety. These were a treasure, hidden by the trees, and uncovered on the trail.

Jeff and I pressed on, around curve after curve, quads and calves beginning to shout their testament to our progress as we marked our first hour on this terrain. Soon after, the trail yawned out onto a huge outcropping, Governor’s Rock. From there, I saw hundreds of miles in one direction, the final hump of the mountain on which I stood blocking views of the other side. From Governor’s Rock I felt my first real connection with this new land. There, I had the first inkling that it might be okay to stand in a location from which I couldn’t see where I’d begun. Governor’s Rock held no indicator like the ones on top of so many Scottish hills, orienting walkers to their place in the world. Return trips with maps and compass were necessary in order for me to orient myself to what I saw when my boots were on that rock.

From Governor’s Rock, we hiked on, stopping at open rocky spaces on the top of the mountain, each one offering tree-topped hills, sprawling valleys, lakes that comprised this new land, each one allowing me to uncover a context for this country I was meant to call home.

I was hooked. From then on, I sought new walks in the woods, travelling up and down trails on which only the footfalls of others and the occasional blaze on a tree, sometimes in dire need of fresh paint, told me I wasn’t completely lost. From 8 to 3, I staggered through the halls of high school, still mostly blinded by the forest of students. On weekends, or, when the days grew longer, straight out of the school parking lot, I dashed out, anxious to find myself moving forward, eager for a path on which a blaze showed the way. At 14 and 15 and 16, uprooted from the land where I’d begun, I found solace on those paths on which, after a few minutes, I could see neither where I’d begun nor where I would end. Since I didn’t have to plot my own course on those trails, I learned to pay attention to the small, discovering between each curve bright orange mushrooms nestled at the feet of trees, delicate ferns rolling away into the deeper woods, plants and flowers whose names I soon learned: walking fern, lady’s slipper, bloodroot, sweet white trillium. I found these on trails that wove over Table Rock and around Caesar’s Head and across Sassafras Mountain. And in not so very much time at all, no matter how ill-used the trail or how faded the blazes, I found these to be the clearest markings in my life, teaching me that if I could trust and keep moving forward, the clear view would open up for me in the right time, showing me new ways to find home.

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