A simple kindness can have a profound impact.
White-capped, high water swelled the last creek crossing on Cucumber Gap Trail before the Little River Trail Junction. It had rained and then snowed all week. Now, the clouds cleared, a balmy 41˚F, and the snow began to melt on the sunny side of the Smoky Mountains. The day was Thanksgiving, 2013.
“We made it across. So can you.” Was that encouragement? Or contempt? A man with a sallow and droopy face sat beside two pre-teen boys on the trunk of a fallen tree. He spoke with a thick accent that sounded as though it may have originated in Eastern Europe. (I completely base this assumption on his accent’s resemblance to how Barney Stinson’s “simple street performer from Estonia” doppelganger spoke on How I Met Your Mother.) The man spied a woman, a boy, and a girl (presumably the woman’s children) as they tried to cross the creek.
An elderly couple (the lady in her late 60s and the gentleman in his early 70s) waited on the east bank as the mother and her children, on the west bank, mentally mapped each possible route over the slick rocks to the other side.
Expressionless, unceremoniously, the sallow-faced man leaned on his trekking poles and hiked away. His boys trailed close behind.
The mother called to me, “You go ahead.” She had that same accent as the sallow-faced man. What are the odds that these two hikers—presumably, a father and a mother—were strangers who had similar simple-street-performer-from-Estonia accents and just happened to cross paths on this day at that creek in Tennessee? My guess is they were together in some fashion. But the man had left her and the two smaller children behind.
Well, if he made it across…
I scouted the easiest route and began to cross. Remembering myself, I turned to help the elderly couple. But they wouldn’t cross completely—not until the mother and her two children had made it themselves.
Together, we formed a link of three spanning the creek, each taking post on the widest, sturdiest rocks. The mother crossed—first supported by me, then by the elderly woman, and then by the elderly man. The boy followed. Lastly, the girl crossed with considerable difficulty. Her little legs could hardly stretch the distance between the few rocks that protruded above the tumbling water. Wearing running shoes, if she hadn’t had our hands and arms for support, at very least, she would have soaked her feet in the frigid water. The trail ahead was cold, shady, and still powdered with snow.
The elderly man then crossed, supported by the elderly woman and me. Then came the elderly woman. And, finally, I hopped to the west bank.
Right place. Right time. I felt lucky to be part of that bridge. Too often, I find myself lost in my own head—only aware of my own needs.
Cucumber Gap Trail is an over-easy, 2.3 mile trail that, along with the first 2.3 miles of the Little River Trail and a sliver of Jakes Creek Trail, forms the roughly 5-mile Cucumber Gap Loop (aka Little River Loop). The trail is densely wooded and lacks the epicocity of the Smokys’ more alpine trails. A stroll-through-the-woods kind of hike, Cucumber Gap’s most notable obstacles are the thick roots that poke through the soil and occasionally snag the boots of daydreaming hikers.
No lives were imperiled by the swollen creek or the yawning 400-foot descent from Cucumber Gap to the trailhead in Elkmont. Still, with so many parents opting for televised babysitters over quality, active time spent exploring and learning, helping those two kids to the trailhead with little unnecessary discomfort may have saved a future hiker. Who knows? But I like the odds.
I tell this story as something like an outsider because, at the time, I felt detached. In truth, the Good Samaritans of Cucumber Gap were my Aunt Carol Jean and Uncle Walto—two individuals who have had a profound impact on my life. They were reared in a time when air conditioning was uncommon, when people sat on their porches and saw and spoke with their neighbors, when “free-range children” were called “children.” I was brought-up indoors and interacted with video games or with neighborhood kids my own age while playing video games. I learned to avert my eyes when passing bigger kids on the streets. To this day, greeting my neighbors while walking my dog feels awkward; I can never guess who wants to be left alone and who would happily share a “hello.” I am more comfortable interacting with things than with people. I think that’s why, when I escape the digital world, I prefer to hike alone and, maybe, why I took to hiking in the first place as opposed to bar-hopping or clubbing.
When given the opportunity, after hiking several miles through snowy mountains, Aunt CJ and Uncle Walto did not hesitate to aid strangers in need. A small kindness—an unexpected kindness—in the forest and far from most civil comforts and conveniences, seems to highlight just how far we’ve diverged from neighborly comradery—to paraphrase Dickens, how our shut-up hearts have forgotten that we are not on other journeys but are all fellow passengers to the grave.
This Thursday is Thanksgiving and here begins the season when things war with the spirit, when people debate the meanings and reasons for holy days that span cultures and for traditions that pre-date their current applications. ‘Tis the season of confliction, a season in which joy sparks ire yet the cold melts icy hearts. May these holidays (whoever you are and whatever your holidays) and all the year be happy and lived with goodwill toward all.