It is true that hiking the Appalachian Trail is hard work. It is physically and mentally demanding. That said, since “all” one does each day is walk, eat, walk, eat, walk, eat…and sleep, hikers’ playful imaginations are also well exercised.
When I come across the work of such imagination, I attribute it to the forest imps, and forest whimsy is one of the unexpected delights of the day.
Much whimsy happens with the white blazes we follow each day. Where they are placed can make you chuckle. Their usual spot is simply on the tree trunk of a well established tree. This is an ordinary experience.
So when the blaze fills the side of a tender young tree, or shows up on a round where a branch has been cut off, or on a rock on the trail, you smile. My hat goes of to the person who painted it on a tree that came down next to the trail, giving it one more AT job as it lays there for the next 30 years.
More fun happens when a hiker has paused to scratch something into the paint of the blaze. Sometimes it is the A over the T Appalachian Trail symbol. “N” for “north” is always helpful outside a shelter as it is easy to get turned around in the morning when you head back out. (“Midway” was saying that one day she simply stopped to tie her shoe and ended up heading back in the wrong direction when she stood back up!) But other times you might find full instructions scratched in. “THIS WAY NOT THAT WAY” with an arrow can be very helpful at a confusing crossing of multiple trails.
Blaze aid aside, most whimsy is not helpful, just fun. Like when someone places a pretty rock in the “Y” of a tree. Often it will be joined by a second or even third in a friendly competition of who has found the prettiest rock. As you come across such things you can almost hear, “Sure that one was pretty but look at this one!”
The other day we came to an “empty” kiosk near a trailhead. Scribbled on a scrap of paper put up with hot pink duct tape was a sign that said, “Free Rocks” and a sweet little carefully arranged pile of rocks sat in front of it. Another forest imp passing by was further inspired and added to the sign, “Free Sticks” and a sweet little carefully arranged pile of sticks sat next to the rocks.
Our imaginations are perhaps the most ever-present forest imps around. From a distance “that tree” looks like a bear and you gasp; “that tree” looks like a dragon and you laugh.
Toward the end of a long hiking day, boulders up ahead look like tents and you are sure you are hearing the voices of folks setting up camp, but it will be at least another mile before you actually get there and see and hear these things for real.
It is at times like that when forest whimsy is most appreciated, giving us that little added nudge to keep on keeping on toward tent, dinner and a good night’s sleep – so that the next day we can start all over again.