So I wrote a book.
It took five years, and the process was messy and magical, frustrating and joyous, arduous and effortless. It made me feel competent one day, helpless the next. It wracked me with guilt sometimes, blinking cursor mocking me from that blank screen; other days, I lost track of time bouncing between iPhoto, the reverse online dictionary, my journal, Google-searching synonyms for the word eerie, and http://www.funnycatpix.com
In fact, the writing process eerily (sorry – couldn’t find any good ones here on easysynonym.com) mirrored the journey about which I was writing: the 158 days Owen and I had spent hiking the Appalachian Trail.
I loved remembering those days. Back then, everything was, although remarkably uncomplicated, a study in contrasts. Trying to voice what it had been like was a labor of love.
I’m learning that writing a book is the easy part. Getting published is a whole ‘nother…well…story.
Anyway, one day, Owen and I had hiked 22 miles in the rain. We were cold, wet and miserable when we reached the shelter where we were planning to spend the night. Inside, we discovered a group of camp counselors-in-training who had hiked five miles and had called it a day because their stuff was all wet. It was raining. DUH. The shelter was littered with their soggy gear, and they begrudgingly let us in, pointing us to a corner of the structure that was small and puddled and dark.
When we had arrived, the four of them had been arguing whether or not to brave the night. They were supposed to, for their training, but one of the girls lived close by and finally, after a long contentious debate, convinced the others that having her dad pick them all up was a better alternative. They were whiny and rude and completely clueless about shelter etiquette, so we were not disappointed when they decided to leave.
Here’s an excerpt from that chapter….
In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous. -Aristotle
Chapter 12 – Two Days in Dixie
June – Maryland
Owen and I made ourselves small, voicing sympathetic noises as gear was grabbed from above our heads and out from under our feet; we were not worried about them taking anything of ours, of course, since we had not been afforded any space in which to unpack in the first place.
At last, ponchos on, they headed reluctantly out into the weather. Given the spectacle in front of us for last two hours, Owen and I had not taken any time to orient ourselves to the shelter’s surroundings – the location of the privy, for example – still, it was with surprise that we watched the camp counselors turn left out of the shelter, away from the AT and the approach trail we had come in on. Perhaps they knew an alternative route to their meeting place? Left sure looked like the way to the privy to me, but I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to impede their departure in any way by an uninformed comment. They disappeared, and Owen and I busied ourselves by unpacking into the cavernous space they had left behind.
It was no surprise, therefore, when five minutes later in the dusky light, the sorry group came cursing back and marched silently past the shelter in the direction of the AT. By then, we had not only made ourselves cozy, but had discovered a few odd items they had left behind in the rush to bail out. Wordlessly, Owen held them out, relay-race baton-style, and each item was snatched out of his hand by the passing pilgrims without a backwards glance. It must have taken a lot of practice to become that helpless.
We waited until they were out of earshot to raise a cheer.
Settled comfortably into our down cocoons, Owen and I began listening to Adventures of Jimmy the Skunk by Thornton W. Burgess on my iPhone. On the nights when we were too tired to prop ourselves up and read, we were working our way through many of Burgess’s delightful animal adventures. We were particularly enamored of this Audiobooks narrator. Headlamps off, rain pinging lightly on the roof, we snuggled close together, dry and content.
“Hey. Look, Mom,” Owen’s voice rose drowsily from the dark. “Over there.”
“Over where?” I said, leaning up on an elbow and straining to peer over his fluffy bulk to where he was pointing.
“Over there, down low,” he breathed. “On the other side of the shelter. Do you see it?”
“Well, I’ll be darned,” I whispered back. “Let’s turn off Jimmy and watch what happens.”
In the perfect blackness of the quiet night, a tiny life and death battle was being waged on the opposite wall of the shelter. How the spider’s web had remained intact through all of the earlier commotion I could not fathom, but there, entwined in its silken grip, was a lone firefly. Like a heartbeat, the orange glow of its tail pulsated rhythmically as it thrashed to break free. As Owen and I watched, the intervals between blinks began to grow longer as the firefly’s strength waned.
“I’m going to see where the spider is,” Owen said.
“Okay. Just don’t disturb it.”
He inchwormed his way across the floor of the shelter, sleeping bag still attached to his nether regions, flicking on his headlamp only as he neared the far wall.
“I see it, Mom!” he said in a stage whisper. “It’s down here, by the floor.”
“It’s probably waiting for the firefly to tire before closing in.”
“Everyone’s gotta eat.”
“But what a way to go. Do you think it knows it’s doomed?”
“What do you think?”
“I think it’s probably going to keep fighting till the bitter end. That’s what I would do.”
“Me too,” I said. “But why don’t you c’mon back over here and shut off your headlamp so you don’t interfere with the laws of God and nature.”
Obediently, he scooched his way back to me. We repositioned ourselves head-to-head, two exclamation points stretching out toward opposite ends of the page, so that we could both turn our faces toward the combatants.
Owen’s breathing gradually slowed until its cadence melted into the dying glimmer-beats of the firefly.
As he drifted off to sleep, I considered our four former sheltermates.
Perhaps that night they had dined on real plates, washed their grilled steak down with some iced drinks, brushed their teeth in tap water that did not need to be doused with chemicals or filtered through a pump. By now, they were probably showered and changed, lying clean-clothed in crisp sheets, alarms set to waken them in the shade-drawn darkness of their private rooms. No doubt they were congratulating themselves on their good fortune.
But what had they forfeited?
To begin with, the opportunity for competence. I pitied them their eagerness to take the easy way out, their inability to work through the uncomfortable, their lack of belief in themselves to stick with something despite the cost. But it was more than that. What of true value had they really lost when they had packed up and fled?
The genuine measure of a mile.
The sound of rain tickling the leaves.
The patient watchfulness of a spider.
The quiet wonder of a little boy’s heart.
This is what I knew: something pure and honorable and sacred had been sacrificed, and I would not have traded places with them for all the comfort in the world.