As he departs the thicket of Big Creek Trail, Chris’s mind lingers for a few moments to (re)evaluate some more personal and interpersonal reasoning.
by Chris Stokum,
I am lying on the trunk of a fallen tree, head toward Chaim, who sits on the root ball suspended ten feet above a gently moving pool, a pocket of serenity framed by virulent waterfalls in the middle of Big Creek; feet pointed at the bare branches that David and Mark climb on, seeming rather simian in their chattering and swinging; back directly above the boulder that the tree rests against, the pivot that keeps it from tumbling further down the creek. When a thought with the slightest shadow or negativity surfaces in my mind, I look upward, squinting against the dappled sunlight making its way through the leaves and onto my face, and I watch as hundreds of butterflies swarm elaborately above me. I am almost disgusted by the tranquility of the situation; it could easily be on the front of a Hallmark card or a travel brochure. Almost disgusted, that is, because I look at the butterflies again, hooked like an addict to the satiety I get from the sight.
It is the annual northern journey of monarchs, the only butterfly to regularly migrate as birds do: south for the winter, north for the warmer months. Judging by general migration patterns, it is likely that these monarchs spent Christmas in Florida, though some may have drifted east from Louisiana, even Texas or Mexico. The butterflies above me are primarily monarchs, though the Smokies are home to just over 700 species. I know none of this at the time.
After our failed attempt at Mt. Sterling, we decide to return to Big Creek Trail for our last day in North Carolina. This time, we move from the trail to the creek at the first opportunity, stash our bags and shoes on a broad rock and start uphill, hopping from boulder to boulder, occasionally resorting to the stream bank to progress past a particularly watery stretch. Unlike standard hiking – in which one must convince oneself that Mouse Falls will be grander than the name implies – this style provides its own motivation to the peripatetic. From any given point on the creek, upstream looks indubitably better: loftier vantage points, mightier waterfalls, etc. It is only when one reaches the place that looked so sublime from below that one realizes the back of those towering boulders are nearly level with the water, and that the waterfalls are not so impressive when viewed from above.
How my manner of thinking takes on the form of surroundings. I leap from idea to idea, avoiding the churning confusion flowing beneath me, full of the sticks and sediment of false convictions.
Mark and I decide that the chief problem of Eastern thinking is its isolationism; its tendency to advocate personal advancement rather than collective understanding, to encourage one to seek understanding for oneself rather than combat widespread ignorance and suffering. The archetypal sages are always reclusive, meditating alone in an isolated mountain hermitage. This holds true for Bodhidharma and Hakuin, Gary Snyder and Lao Tzu. The exception is the bodhisattva, the ideal monk of Mahayana Buddhism, one who delays reaching nirvana to aid the unenlightened in their quest for satori. Only when all beings have attained enlightenment will the bodhisattva exit the circle of life and death. According to the sutras, at least.
Hence the appellation I gave Jim, the bodhisattva of the South, who teaches understanding by example, without ever trying to teach. From a writer’s perspective, this is significantly more essential than private realizations. What’s that Whitman line? “These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they/ are not original with me,/ If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next/ to nothing.”
The important thing to remember is this: the story always gets good when the hermit debouches from the mountains into the people he once renounced.
Tragic when I imagine a friend slipping and their corpse tumbling awkwardly over waterfalls; comedic when I imagine myself.
A final word on the ongoing empathy debate between Mark and David. The latter’s position that one cannot perfectly understand another because one does not share the same experiences, the same history, is agreeable and thoroughly trivial. Of course you will not finish reading this travelogue with a complete portrait of my trip. I have chosen which details to include and which to pass by, which conversations and characters to exaggerate or underplay; if you are inclined to take this as the whole truth, I can offer a contradictory account, another narrative drawn from a bottomless reservoir. It is not really an option for me to explain myself in such a way that you know as much as you would if you had taken the trip with me. Fine.
But to take the impossibility of absolute empathy as a reason to stop trying to understand another or to make another understand you is, well, misguided and foolish. Faulty as this travelogue might be, it grants you more access to me than you previously had. If David prefers to burrow into himself and brood alone, stricken by the sense that no one understands him, that he is an aberration, a freak, an outcast – then he precludes the possibility of anyone understanding him, even in the most limited sense of the word. And so the misunderstood soul perpetuates itself.
Can we assume just for a moment that the idea of li is not bullshit? And that it is not simply accidental, a chance feature of evolution, that monarch butterflies mate in the north, where the climate is colder and food is scarcer than around their southern winter homes?
I will have to drive back to Pittsburgh tomorrow and resume my life as an academic. I could, of course, forget that part of myself and stay here in the Smokies, removed from philosophical discourse and gossip and all the things that seem needlessly difficult when considered against mountain streams and flocks of butterflies. But it is in the midst of those northern difficulties that one finds connections and a strange sort of healing, and that is enough to drive me back.
Which is why monarchs lay their eggs in the stems of milkweed, of the genus Asclepius – a name taken from the Greek god of healing. Incidentally, Plato tells us that the last words of Socrates referred to the god, suggesting a poignant similarity between what is often taken to be the zenith of human suffering, isolation, and hopelessness, and the prospect of health.
 Though not quite chaotically. In Taoism, li is the indefinable order of nature – wood grain, muscle fibers, the movement of clouds, the flowing of water. If the idea that nature is transcendently patterned in a way that we all perceive but cannot express is anything but utter bullshit, then these butterflies exhibit li.
 That was the sentimental part; we’re in the clear now.
 They’re not, really.
 A brief meditation on the properties of hills – mainly, the property known as ‘slope’ – would certainly have dissolved this illusory motivation. But who has time for meditations when that super-looking boulder is just upstream?
 This is not to say that the ambit of Western philosophy doesn’t include plenty of solipsists and seclusionists of all shades. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, for example. An argument could be made for tossing Wittgenstein into the same bag, but it would be shaky at best.
 That’s two Zennists, an American poet, and the legendary founder of Taoism, respectively.
 A bit dramatic, but of what use to anyone is a piece of writing if it is merely a diary entry, relevant to the writer alone? As a font of gossip, perhaps, but that’s not so much my bag.
 This is an ascetic point and has something to do with hiking, and with the maxim, “Those who walk until they are dehydrated, famished, sore, exhausted, and miserable together, stick together.
 Enough, that is, when grouped with a functioning car and gas.
 As long as we’re running with our hypothetical mysticism.
 I.e., death.