For five months last year, artists Sara Edwards and NKO hiked the Appalachian Trail—2,200 miles through 14 states—exploring American pathos, psychogeography and the topographies that connect us.
September found us somewhere in the middle of nowhere attempting our first marathon day. Progress was slow over the notoriously treacherous terrain of Pennsylvania, famous for rocks and rattlesnakes. A full moon and headlamps kept us going an hour after dark, but eventually we cut our losses and stopped at 23 miles.
We discovered an enclosed, unheated cabin. It was 35 degrees and the temperature was rapidly dropping; we were grateful to spend the night inside. The space was inhabited by at least five shelter kittens (some who would later sneak into our sleeping bags) and one surly British ex-pat. Just finishing a five-day section, she bombarded us with banter, mostly about her many accomplishments and finer qualities. When she found out we had walked 1,000 miles to get there, she proclaimed, “I would love to thru- hike, but I just simply don’t have the luxury to take time off.”
It was a sentiment we heard many times (though none so smarmy). Veterans, public servants, business people, contractors, grocers and postal clerks all shared with us their dream of hiking the entire trail in a single season. They also shared the same regret: They just didn’t have the time.
We quit jobs, lost apartments, missed friends’ birthday parties and holidays with families, put art projects on hold—so we could deal with sore feet and farts. What were we looking for? Was this luxury?
We were in search of a genuine American identity—a community outside the insistence of social media, existing parallel to consumerism, advertising and a life defined by productivity; a chance at true immediatism.
Divorced from the distractions of the Internet, cell service and cultural amenities like flushing toilets and the chatter of polite society, we quickly learned that time is the true currency of the trail. Managing time becomes an art.
The end of the hike is too far away to contemplate, due to the expanse of days and weeks ahead. You create schedules and deadlines but at some point realize progress is an illusion. How many miles can you walk in a day? Does it matter? And what are we racing towards?
In Shenandoah National Park, abandoned during the government shutdown, we started finding ways to slow down. We hiked extra miles to climb peaks off the AT, ending days early because we found a campsite beside the most beautiful brook. We spent extra hours on mountaintops normally crowded by “leaf peepers” but now strangely abandoned. We chose to make each moment ours.
Returning to Seattle we realize there’s never really any return. Everything feels familiar, but a season of intentional homelessness and exhaustion has left us forever changed. As we return to the comforts of civilization, time is no longer our currency. But it remains our most important gift and our only true possession. —SARA EDWARDS
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Somewhere in the Smokies, long after we’d forgotten what day it is, the frozen sun descends behind a row of crumbling teeth; old mountains chewing clear air. Multiple horizons fade into blue-grey distance—a hearth holding the final fire of fading light, the clouds torn apart, a shroud hung on purple hills.
The scarlet suture of sunset barely hold the days together; long silent hours of tumbling thoughts, unspoken endless nights. A satellite inscribes an arc across a night sky populated with an improbable number of stars—a reminder of human hands that draw the lines on maps. Drinking in the night, open eyes fill with darkness; dreams arrive unexpected.
In the morning, dawn outlines the bruised fingers of barren trees. A cold wind draws us back into our bodies. As we wake, we can see our breath like ghosts or dreams made manifest in frigid air.
Traveling a ridge that rims the sky and falls away into the depths of nothing, of everything—the fetid smell of fresh earth, death, the acid secretions of lichen slowly etch an unconcerned patina. Nothing here is art, nothing is new.
An occasional road leads inevitably toward the confines of architecture, the bright lights of looming cities, words whispered and shouted, lists and litanies, a soliloquy of heavy-throated engines traveling unseen highways, the drone of invisible planes. A world where everything is useful and nothing is wasted.
But this moment—a new day bathed in honey-golden light—this is the Accursed Share. Nothing but blisters, an empty belly and innumerable miles ahead. A hundred cascading horizons define a distance continually unfolding, a topography to be traversed, a present of continual arrival.
We’ve chosen a way chasing the south wind, winding between tattered clouds and behind disused colonial stone walls. Our shoes lined with dollar bills, we walk a path pebbled with broken bits of mica, which look like diamond dust. Architecture is helpless to hold us and our feet find a way toward freedom—thoughts falling away—unconcerned as dead leaves littering our path. We continue onward, outward, our indomitable spirits communing with wishful ghosts, ever upward. —NKO