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March 19, 2014

The Beaten Trail

The mountain was dying. This saddened him more than anything else. He had hiked its trails for much of his life, beating the ground with worn-down shoes that occasionally allowed the Earth to sneak in and dirty up his skin. This sensation only made him happier. There was something about feeling the soil and having rocks jab against the soles of his feet that made him feel alive, and not in the cliched sense. It made him conscious of his humanity. Spending time with this mountain made his existence tangible. It was something he could feel, and that only encouraged him to make something with it.

He had known this mountain for all of his life. Ever since he was a kid, he and his friends would play in the backyard with its round peak visible against the horizon. Even before that, it was prominent in more than a few of his outdoor baby pictures.

The mountain didn’t stand out among the other identical formations that rolled alongside it, for it wasn’t the tallest, nor was it the rockiest, nor was it the greenest. It didn’t even have a name, despite the abundance of man-made trails that worked their way up, along, and around it.

The location was a place of many firsts for him. It was there, after months of embarrassing timidity, where he found the nerve to bring his first girlfriend on a date, and in a quiet wooded outcropping of rock overhanging a stream along one of the trails, he experienced his first kiss. His relationship with the girl wouldn’t last, but the one with the mountain did.

For whenever he had to deal with anything stressful, this was where he ended up. With his favorite pair of worn, tan running shoes strapped to his feet and a pair of earbuds in his ear, he took to jogging up and down the mountain. These trails calmed him as his second relationship fell apart, and as graduation approached, they kept his nerves steady through SAT tests and college applications.

Only after one of the schools said yes did fear creep in. Like most of the top students in his area, college meant leaving their Appalachian home, and it was unlikely that any job would bring them back. The region was big on mining coal, or shooting water into the ground to draw up gas, or slicing the landscape to harvest salt, but it didn’t particularly care about degrees. Living off the land was something humanity had done for millenia, and though the tools had changed, the ease with which it came remained the same. Our species was born intuitively knowing how to take what it needed from the planet.

But he had always been a thinker. That was just another in a series of many reasons he was sad to leave the mountain behind. Whenever he needed time to his thoughts, he knew there was a trail nearby whose gravel he’d again pound further into the ground, the familiar rhythm calming his mind and giving him the space to foster his imagination. He feared leaving for college, a place where he would be challenged to think even more, without having his everlasting fortress of solitude nearby.

As it turned out, he would think harder in college, but not more often. Between the excitement of finding like-minded friends his age, the pressure to be social, and the constant consuming of material, there was little time for much more than responding. He would cram his head full of material for one test, meet up with friends for lunch, pour the half he could remember into the three essays the test demanded, then hit up the stadium to watch a basketball game and wind up at the lounge at night to watch a West Coast comedian joke about constant traffic, smog, and occasional earthquakes that were relaxing distractions from all of the real issues she had with living in LA.

By the time he fell into bed, he was too tired to think. He found his intellect growing, and he understood the world in a whole new light, but he had less time to himself to do anything with that knowledge. His imagination, his creativity, was leaving him, and though he didn’t have the words for it at the time, he felt as though his humanity was going with it.

This realization, unsurprisingly, came to him when he returned home over breaks. He’d lose himself running up the mountain for hours, only to find himself somewhere in the journey. It would take him many more trips to work out if his experience away was filling him more with gratitude or regret.

His time at college was more social than any period before, and he managed to form friendships that would withstand the strain of time and distance. He watched the news with greater understanding and turned away from most of it with frustrated disgust. He had never been big into television, but even the historical and exploratory channels he used to consume now felt too artificial to digest. These four years had molded his mind in ways he would never undo. He continued to question whether this change was good or bad, but as he eventually found work out of college paying more than anyone he knew made back home, the question became easier to ignore. It doesn’t take much effort not to think when you’re profiting off your brainpower and spending the rewards on food, drink, and travel.

But there was no denying the sadness he felt accepting that his job had pulled him even farther from home than school had. Something inside him ached when he returned home to find that his feet didn’t remember the shape of the trails the way they used to, that they didn’t quite have the right movements down, that each impact felt harder, and during his breaks, he felt more strain on his joints and muscle than he could ever recall.

Then, as he made his way to the less public-facing side of the mountain, he saw that much of it had gone away. The mountain, the most permanent fixture he had ever known and the only thing he regarded as immortal, was anything but. Large machines had found their way alongside it, removing trees, mauling soil, and blasting through rocks that he could never have imagined leaving their home. Now the landscape, ever tranquil and alive, looked like a devastated warzone, cordoned off and lifeless, ripped apart for resources.

He wouldn’t fight for the mountain, and while he didn’t realize it at the time, this moment represented who he had become. In a way, it was who he always was. He preferred to run away from things rather than endure the struggle necessary to save them. He would live to make most anyone who knew him proud, progressing far enough to build a family and eventually a new home, but nothing would replace the ground he lost.

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“The Beaten Trail” by Bertel King, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.