Mid-August , 1995

Darkness was setting in as I sat by a fire facing Pretty Hollow Creek in a remote section of the Smoky Mountains. I sat munching my trail mix and  was lost in thought.  As the bear crept closer I was remembering the first time I came to these mountains twenty years earlier.

I was 25 years old in September of 1975. It was seven months since my divorce was final and I was searching for peace of mind. It wasn’t going to come easily.  My mind was racing and the rain made trudging up Spruce Mountain difficult even for my young legs.  When I arrived at the top of the mountain I sat exhausted under a red spruce.  I was sitting some time before I noticed the miracle that was right before my eyes.  An ancient tree had fallen two thirds of the way to the ground. It was held up and alive by virtue of a smaller version of itself that propped it up like a crutch.  I had found my sacred spot.

Every five years for the next twenty years I returned to visit. The large tree fell and the little tree was obliterated by time. I witnessed the remaining tree grow smaller as it began its journey back to the earth. Much of the bark was gone and it was cool to the touch the last time I was there. The insides were  rotting and someone had carved his name onto its bones but the tree could not be shamed. New life was growing out of the bits of itself that fell to earth…

Now, two decades since that first trip, I was one day’s hike away from returning to the site.  What would I find?

I was startled out of my reverie by the snapping of a twig. I turned around found myself face to face with a black bear not four feet away. I yelled, “HEY!” and the bear ran 50 or 60 feet under the light of my flashlight. He then abruptly stopped, looked at me and slowly sauntered  into the thick woods.  I knew he had made a decision. He would be back.

I tied a rope to my bag of food and tossed it over a branch a good 15 feet up and 4 feet away from the trunk. I lay in my tent wide awake listening to the insects and the creek and the wind.  I was clutching my pocket knife when these sounds gave way to loud cracking branches. Something was circling the tent. The sound faded then erupted again with a louder CRACK and then a thump.  I gathered myself then went out with my light.  The food was gone. The bear had climbed the tree and snapped off the branch that the food was hanging from.  He had bit off the rope where it was tied to the bag and run off with his loot. I was left with a choice of either turning back or proceeding for what would be two nights and three days without food.

I decided to fast.

It was very hot and the little stream I remembered on the way up Spruce Mountain was dried up.  Water was also going to be a problem.  When I reached the top of the mountain I wiped the sweat from my eyes and stared in wonder. I couldn’t believe what I did not see. There would be no touching my old friend this year. The tree was gone.

What remained visible was impressive. Yellow birch and red spruce reached high into the sky and all around me and other fallen trees lay in the dense growth repeating the cyclical journey.  I knew, however, that my time with the site had come to an end.

Clearly a ceremony for the tree was called for.  I started out tamely by saying a rosary.  I then retold my history with the tree to the woods. Candles were lit to honor the four directions.  To the sound of squealing wild pigs I danced around the campfire waving a lit smudge stick of sage and cedar.  Filled with gratitude… even for the bear that asked me to fast, I blew out the candles and said goodbye.

The hike the next day was grueling. It would be at least ten miles to my next campsite and there would be no more streams until I arrived there.  The path was rarely used and overgrown with tall bushes and fallen trees.  A third of the way there I had a stare down with a wild pig. By this time I was as wild as he was and he blinked first.

When I finally arrived at the stream I threw myself in. One hundred small moths rose into the air creating infinite patterns of flickering blue. I had found my new spot.