La Sua Bella Mente

Chapter One: Springer Mountain

Date: March 11, 2003

Starting Location: Springer Mountain, Georgia,

Destination: Unknown

Total Trip Miles: 0

Spring comes slowly to the Appalachians. It creeps into the lower valleys, painting the trees in bright green and splashing the meadows with sunny yellow daffodils. White snowbells outline the ghosts of log cabin walls long since rotted and dissolved into the forest floor, forgotten in the graveyard of time––the delicate blooms a lonely testament to their passing.

Redbud trees, their leafless branches lined with purple blooms and pink dogwoods edge the rutted backwoods' roads still rough and muddy from a winter's season of misuse. Hidden in the forest duff beneath them are tiny purple violets, each plant a nosegay of fragile blooms and foliage, seen only by those willing to pause in their wanderings and appreciate the woods around them.

Sometimes spring pauses there, delayed by a late snow or ice storm when winter fights to keep its frozen hold on the valleys and hollows of the ancient mountain range. Inevitably, it finally gives way, and spring slowly resumes its relentless, slow march over the foothills, over the ridges, pushing ever upward until the very tops of the mountains are crowned with the green of new life.

It is spring in the valleys below Springer Mountain but winter still rules here on its summit. The trees are bare and a cold, noisy wind scatters the dead leaves at my feet. The sun is shining, but it's a weak winter sun and refuses to share its meager warmth.

The view is breathtaking, however.

Range after range of hills and mountains march off into a misty blue distance calling the adventurous to come explore them. Below the rocky summit are green valleys decorated with spring's colors and interspersed with shiny ribbons of creeks and rivers.

There are only a dozen or so people with me here on the top of Springer. If this were a weekend in March or April, there would be two or three times the number of people. There would also have been more partying—both here, at the terminus of the trail, and at the nearby shelter last night—as hikers celebrate the start of a long-held dream about to become a reality.

Today's group is a more serious bunch. Most of them are probably planning a thru-hike or at least a long section hike. Several parents are dropping off their sons and daughters. There are plenty of hugs and a few tears as moms and dads drive away, leaving their offspring to start their adventure. Most of them are around my age, twenty somethings who have finished school and want to have a great adventure, before settling down to build a career, get married, or start a family.

A couple of guys, who appear to be in their early thirties, snap a salute to each other when they finish signing the trail register and shoulder their packs. They look fit and buff, their gear and clothing clearly ex-military. "Oorah!" they shout as they head north on the trail, confirming my suspicions they are both Marines, perhaps newly released from their service. I wonder if this hike represents a chance for them to forget, or at least deal with, the horrors they probably saw in the Gulf War, in much the same way Earl Shaffer used his thru-hike in 1948 to manage the trauma of World War II.

I watch an older, middle-aged couple take pictures of each other posing beside the famous hiker plaque embedded in one of the large flat rocks marking the summit and the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. They gladly accept my offer to photograph them together. After snapping a few photos with the plaque, we move around the area so I can photograph them standing at the edge of the mountain, the distant hills in view behind them.

When I hand their camera back to them, the wife introduces herself as Janette and her husband as Jim. "He's Allday and I'm Dreamer." She laughs before asking me if I have a trailname yet.

"I'm Bella," I shout over the increasing roar of the wind. She looks confused for a moment and I can tell she hasn't heard me clearly.

"Rella?" she asks stepping closer. "As in Cinderella?"

I stop myself before I can correct her, realizing she has christened me with a trailname. One which suddenly seems very appropriate. "Yes," I nod stepping closer to her so she can hear me more clearly. "Because I'm living my very own fairytale. Maybe I'll find my Prince Charming out here and all my dreams will come true!" My attempt at humor falls flat and even I can hear the sadness behind my words.

I haven't fooled Dreamer. She frowns for a moment as she studies me carefully before her face relaxes into a gentle smile. "You know, Prince Charmings are great and all," she answers with a wink, before nodding towards her husband, who is busy with their packs, "but you don't really need them to be happy. The fact you're starting this hike by yourself tells me you're a strong, confident woman and you can make your own dreams come true."

"Hike your own hike," she adds, hinting at a deeper meaning to the often used hiker phrase about not letting others' expectations control or affect how you conduct your hike.

"I will." I whisper back with a wan smile, letting her know I understand.

"Good for you!" She smiles back at me. "You'll be fine out here, but," she adds, her face more serious now, "if you ever feel uncomfortable or lonely by yourself, you're welcome to join Allday and me. We're old and slow; better safe than sorry though, you know."

I nod, understanding what she's saying. Although my chances of being the victim of some type of crime were much higher in New York than here on the trail, there are places—especially at road-crossings and in towns—where being a single woman hiking alone can draw unwanted attention.

"Thank you," I reply.

I watch them shoulder their packs and start to leave the area. Before passing from view, they turn back to me with one last wave. Dreamer shouts something, pointing to the boulder beside me. "The register," she says, "don't forget to sign the trail register." And then they're gone, following the trail as it twists its way northward.

The trail register is located in a compartment in a large rock behind the white blaze marking the official route of the AT. For northbounders like me, it is the first of some 165,000 blazes guiding hikers to the northern end of the trail on top of Mt. Katahdin in Maine. For southbounders, who started their journey in Maine, it is the last two by four inch white blaze they will see when they complete their hike here on Springer Mountain in Georgia. The significance of this spot as both a beginning and an ending is not lost on me.

I'm alone now, here on the summit, nothing but gusty wind and creaky bare branches to mar the silence. Taking the register from its protective box, I thumb through the pages of the notebook, glancing at the dates and the thoughts left by the hikers who have started before me. Some of the entries are short, just names and dates; others are longer … wishes, hopes, and dreams left by people I will probably never meet, yet have left a personal part of themselves in this journal, on this mountain.

On one page is a carefully drawn Marine Corps emblem. The eagle, globe, and anchor are rendered in detail above two comical stick figures heavily ladened with huge backpacks. Underneath them are two names, Ghost and M&M, with the date and GAME––the abbreviations for Georgia and Maine––carefully lettered below. As I suspected, they are ex-military planning to travel the entire distance from Springer Mountain to Mt. Katahdin. It will take them five to six months; I wish them well.

Further down the page, I find a short poem left by Allday and Dreamer. I laugh when I read:

Two mid-lifers who found themselves free,

Decided to hike the AT,

Their money all spent,

To Springer they went,

And joined the class of two thousand and three!

They've signed it with their names and good luck wishes to everyone who has gone before and to everyone who will come after them. I'm still smiling as I read through the rest of the entries looking for a blank page to share my thoughts.

Yet when I pick up the pen to begin writing, my mind is suddenly blank. What do I want to say? I don't have any profound thoughts or clever sayings or funny limericks to leave behind and there's really only one person I should be talking to right now, but can't, because I've escaped to the woods rather than face the utter ruin of my life his deceit has caused. I wish I could, if I were strong and fearless I would look him in the eye and tell him … No, I would scream and yell and demand to know how, and what, and where and finally … why, why, why?

If I were strong and fearless, I would never have left New York. When he, Jane, and all the executives from Volturi International Banking left the stage on the last day of our business presentation after the stunning announcement he'd accepted a position with them and was bringing our new security software with him, I would have stormed into the meeting and demanded to know why.

I would have asked him how long he'd been planning his betrayal. Was our four-year-long friendship and working relationship an elaborate scheme to get control of my theories and ideas? Did he really just conveniently forget to have me sign the papers from our lawyer which would have sealed any loopholes in our business arrangement, preventing either of us from selling our software without both of us being in agreement––papers I only learned about after he joined Volturi? And why, why, why, if he'd been living with Jane for two years … why did he lead me on, finally spending the night with me, telling me he loved me even as I gave him my love, my body and all the desire I tried to deny for so long?

I imagine standing before all of them in my righteous fury and getting answers to the questions which have plagued me since I fled the city a week ago. I imagine accusing them of deceit and betrayal and shaming them with their underhanded backstabbing, but I know I would never have been able to do it. My social anxieties would have made me stutter and stammer and my backwoods southern drawl––which I have worked so hard to lose––would have come creeping back, causing those executives to look away in discomfort and Jane to politely try to hide her amused smirking behind her perfectly manicured hand while he sat there tight-lipped and grim-faced, embarrassed at my fumbling, like he did during my presentation when I tried to explain the mathematical theories behind our new system.

For all my day dreaming and wishing, I know that's how it would have happened. Jane was right. Theirs is a world I don't understand, do not fit in, and will never feel comfortable in. So here I am back in the Georgia hills, back where I belong, back where I feel comfortable. I still need closure, however. I still need to ask how and what and why.

I look down at the notebook in my lap and the pen in my hand. Perhaps this is where I can ask my questions, vent my frustrations and leave my thoughts. No one will know who I am; no one will know who he is. He will never read the words I leave here, but perhaps writing them down will help ease the ache in my heart and the despair I carry within me. Perhaps this will be the way I can let go of the sting of betrayal I feel. I adjust my grip on the pen and I begin to write.