Max Patch, NC

Long ago, a patch was cleared on a 4,000 foot mountain in the Appalachians of North Carolina.  A horse named Max used to graze there and keep the forest from taking it back.  He also gave the place its name.  After Max passed on, biplanes used the bald as a landing strip, as it was the largest clearing anywhere around.  But for us, a band of dirty thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, it provided quite the place to spend one beautiful and rowdy evening.

The Appalachian Trail runs 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine and each spring thousands of hikers attempt it in one fell swoop, or a thru-hike as it’s known.  People shed their lives beyond the trail and form a migratory band of pilgrims headed north.  By the time we reached Max Patch we had been walking for over a month, and the twenty people gathered on that hill were no longer strangers.

However, one mysterious man had recently come onto our scene.  His name was Mala and he followed the hikers around with gifts of beer and conversation, interested in the company of our ratty honesty, I suppose.  He was a Vietnam vet and seemed to feel at home amongst our kind.

(It seems appropriate to mention here two things about the Appalachian Trail.  First, everyone has a trail-name, given by other hikers, and hardly anyone knows anyone else’s given name.  My trail name is ‘Gravy.’  Second, there are a disproportionate amount of vets on and around the trail.  All I can say is good people, especially the ones who are most down and out.)

In any case, we saw Mala driving down a road a few miles before reaching Max Patch and he said there was going to be a party up there that evening.  Party?  Okay.

As we topped out on that bald mountain there were already people gathered, dipping into a pile of box wine, playing Frisbee, and basking in the final rays of the day.  It was the 360˚ panoramic view of the mountains changing colors in the mist.  The sun grew large and burned deep orange and crimson, casting the land in greens and purples below.  The scene appeared straight out of a Chinese watercolor painting.

Focused on the sun, we hardly noticed the full moon rising in the east.  But after seeing her it was hard to sit in any one direction, as we were caught between our two celestial bodies, shining at their best.  The sun slowly sank and the moon took over lighting duties, and then Mala called us down to the edge of the forest.

At tree-line stood a large tipi, twenty feet tall.  Mala waited at the doorway and I could hear a Grateful Dead show playing from within.  It drew us in and we sat Indian-style, naturally, around a small fire in the center.  Conversation is a pastime on the trail, without any modern distractions, and stories filled the spaces.  Then Mala produced a piece pipe from his bag, hand-carved by an Ozark Indian in the mountains of southwest Missouri.  He made it sacred by blessing the four cardinal directions, the sky and the earth, and only then connected the male bowl to the female stem.  The smoke drifted into the air and washed over our laughter.

I walked out to find the moon high overhead, brightly illuminating the rolling mountains we all called home, if only for our long walk.  Many times that full moon came and went throughout the journey.  I rolled out my sleeping bag on a bed of leaves and stared at the stars.  Quietly, I whispering my thanks to another night on the trail.