Bring Me All the Astounding, Ordinary Things, or: The Teachings of the Tick

We wanted to hike on the holiday weekend, but we didn’t want the crowds and the fierce competition for campsites. So we shunned the popular spots and headed for a quiet section of the trails that crisscross the Great North Mountain area, a ridge that straddles Virginia and West Virginia. There are many popular overlooks and hikes here, but we headed for the lesser-traveled Opa Overlook on the Tuscarora Trail.

Our hikes are usually high-mileage, high-energy endeavors, but this time we planned a shorter, more relaxed hike, traveling just 6 miles before making camp near the overlook. An early start and low miles meant there was plenty of time to walk slowly and absorb deeply. We noticed several intriguing holloways, paths worn down for so many years that they begin to sink into the earth as it embanks alongside them. The Old Mail Path, apparently long trod by horses before it became a hiking trail, was one of these:


Arriving at camp around 2:30, we inflated our air mattresses, set up our tent sans fly, and laid down for a short siesta under the sunlight filtering through high branches. A light breeze moved through the tent, but beyond the rustling of the leaves there was complete silence. It was astounding–and utterly ordinary. Later, we prepped dinner and carried it up to the overlook:


The evening was a leisurely affair of gathering wood, enjoying a fire, and retiring early. In the morning, we were awakened before dawn by a light rain pattering on the tent, and which tapered softly as the light arrived. Then it was oatmeal and time to pack up, and a quiet trudge back down the mountain through the dawn’s early light.


Ticks (which were aplenty on this hike) engage in a behavior called questing, in which they grasp tall grasses with their back legs and reach their front legs forward into the air waiting for a mammal to pass by so they can latch onto it. Given the relative passivity of the behavior, it’s an interesting use of the word quest, so often associated with journeys. It’s a reminder that some journeys can be quite still endeavors that take place entirely within a very circumscribed realm. A tick may live out its entire life cycle in the forest in which it was born, “questing” for all those years.

For the last year or so our hikes have all been in our home realm of the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. The quiet intimacy of these woods is an inward journey every time, and the slow pace of this weekend’s hike was a reminder of how rewarding it is to simply enjoy being in the woods, without any particular thought or intent about what the hours to come may look like, without worrying about making time, without movement, even. We chose a quiet, simple hike to avoid the crowds, and we ended up on a quest–for stillness.

In the end, of course, despite any insights it may have to offer, the tick is a bloodsucking buzzkill whose suggestions about how to live life should be taken with a grain of salt. A slow saunter on the Great North Mountain Ridge was just the right balm for a busy mind this weekend, but I’m not about to stop printing out boarding passes. Next stop: Rocky Mountains.


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