Finding a Magical Japanese Dragon & a Cupcake on the Appalachian Trail

Appalachia can be a magical place – often when you least expect it. For example, a few months ago, while hiking in the Smokies, Tom and I unexpectedly stumbled upon a collection of woodland trolls.

But on today’s hike – roughly 1969 miles south of Katahdin, Maine – the magical encounter was with a burly hiker with the unlikely name of “Cupcake.”

"Cupcake"

Does this man look like a cupcake to you?

No matter. Experienced AT thru-hiker and blogger Evans Prater explains that trail names often describe a quirk, habit, or funny mishap a hiker has endured. These nicknames add to the sense of uniqueness of each hiker – to the sense of escape, personal discovery and soul-searching each individual is on the Trail to experience. Hikers are are given the freedom of a new life and a new identity by the simple act of changing their names.

In the wisdom of Eckhart Tolle, there is a split second when you first look at something, a moment when all you experience is the form the universe has created. And it is in this gap of thought that the key to presence, awareness, and peace exists – an acceptance of the universe just as it actually is – nameless, formless.

And so it was with “Cupcake.” I did not ask him how he got his name or who gave it to him. It didn’t matter.

I was more interested in the stories in his trail weary skin – especially the fantastic, colorful creature crawling up his leg, baring its sharp fangs at me.

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“It’s a Kirin,” Cupcake explained, “a Japanese mythological creature.”

Japanese? I asked.

“I’m a quarter Japanese,” replied the burly, red-haired, Scottish, lumberjack-looking dude matter-of-factly, as if I was unable to tell from his appearance.

Research later revealed that Kirin is the Japanese form of the Chinese “qilin.” The kirin is often depicted as a dragon shaped like a deer with an ox’s tail instead of the tail of a lion. It is also often portrayed as partially unicorn-like in appearance, but with a backwards curving horn.

In the Chinese hierarchy of mythological animals, the qilin is ranked as the third most powerful creature (after the dragon and phoenix), but in Japan, the kirin occupies the top spot.

Kirins are said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler. They are usually depicted with raised forelegs, flames around their bodies and wings to help them fly across the sky – all of which may help inspire weary hikers on a 2,190 mile trek.

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They are extremely gentle creatures and never step on grass and insects as they move around – very much in keeping with the philosophy of nature-respecting, long distance hikers.

A Kirin is also a good omen – thought to occasion prosperity or serenity. They appear when all is right with the world.

And so it was this afternoon, as we briefly crossed paths on the Appalachian Trail and compared body art – one, a day-hiker with flowers inked on her leg; the other, a thru-hiker committed to months on the AT with a Japanese dragon on his.

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A brief exchange stories, the sighting of a magical creature, hours spent in fresh air and the ancient beauty of the Smokies.

Moments when all was right with the world.

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Wishing Cupcake good trail karma over his next two thousand miles …

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… and whatever lies beyond.

 

 

Naked in Denmark (part two) ~ The Magic of Not Being in Control

Come to the edge, he said.
They said, we are afraid.


Come to the edge, he said.
And so they came.


And he pushed them.
And they flew…

Guillaume Apollinaire

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The edge I was standing on that morning was the coast of Denmark. I could just barely make out the silhouette of Sweden across the dark waters.

Be not afraid, I thought to myself. Then, in the midst of a small gathering of people, I took off all my clothes and jumped into the water.

Ohmygod … so very cold.

No breath.

A few long moments later, I emerged from the water.

My skin felt astonishing –

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– like it was lit from within by a thousand fairy lights. A Scandinavian mermaid.

According to Karen (my Danish cousin who does this all the time), I can now say that I am a Viking – and not just genetically – but by virtue of having experienced the polar opposite of Danish hygge (roughly translated as coziness) when I jumped into an icy cold sea completely naked.

Why naked, you might ask? Because, as Karen explains it, it is so cold here in the winter that if you wore a bathing suit, it would freeze to your skin the moment you immerse in the frigid waters, and the only way to remove your suit would be to have it cut off. Being the egalitarian and practical people they are, the Danes therefore decided to do away with bathing suits altogether.

The day I became a Viking began innocently enough with cups of hot, dark coffee and fresh bread with cheese and jam in the kitchen of Karen’s cosy farmhouse –

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one of my favorite places in the world.

Karen looked at me and said – Okay, is this the morning you become a Viking?

I have been coming to this beautiful old family farmhouse since I was a kid. The first time, my mother left me there for several days on my own and not knowing a word of Danish other than the basics – chocolade (chocolate)
kransekage (a delicious almond cake)
farvel (goodbye) and tak (thanks.)

Kristin & karen @ sandbjerg 1963

Karen taught me a few more Danish words – farm, cat, rock, house.

Each morning, we rode bicycles across the countryside to attend Karen’s school – a completely bewildering experience for me, isolated as I was by the language.

At night, I lay in bed in a tiny bedroom up under the thatched eaves of the farmhouse, warm under a Danish dyne (down comforter), listening in the dark to hushed voices murmuring in the kitchen below.

I felt like a Danish version of Heidi.

That was my first experience ‘soloing’ – on my own, immersed in another culture where I didn’t speak or understand the language.

But I was hooked by the exhilaration of the new; by the mysteries and strangeness of it all, and (most importantly) by coming out okay at the end. Ever since, I have looked for opportunities to travel beyond the complacent zone of my normal everyday existence.

The year before I officially became “a Viking,” I had soloed to Ethiopia on a somewhat innocently radical quest to track down some stories for a book I was writing.

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It was an experience that initially scared me to pieces (especially the first night, which involved unexpected encounters with a monkey, a leper and a prostitute.)

But I survived and came back changed in many ways. (You can read more about these adventures @ TheRedMoonLetters.com)

So jumping into the cold sea in Denmark – uden toj, as they say over there – shouldn’t have been something I would hesitate to do.

But I did – at least until I remembered the mantra I had adopted back home in the mountains of Appalachia.

Be not afraid.

And so, when Karen repeated, Kristin – is this the morning you become a Viking?

I said yes.

Off we went to the edge of the sea. It was a small challenge, but I did it, surprising myself in the process.

After it was over and I was reveling in the skin tingling loveliness and the high that accompanies an unexpected flirtation with dare devilishness, it occurred to me that perhaps the magic is really in not feeling in control.

I let that intriguing thought – the relationship between the fear of not being able to control things vs the magic of unexpected outcomes – ruminate in my head for awhile before challenging myself again.

A few years later I tested this idea by signing up for ten days of hiking in Iceland – an adventure just extreme enough to feel I was testing my limits without a reasonable expectation of dying in the process. I didn’t know a soul in the country, or on the trip, and I don’t speak Icelandic. I would definitely not be in control. Of anything.

I booked onto an REI trip –

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and then spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying that I might not be able to keep up with the others.

Visions of twenty-somethings scaling the landscape in athletic leaps and bounds with me slowly trudging through ice and volcanic ash, some distance behind, haunted and taunted me.

Rather than face this humiliation, I nearly backed out of the trip. But just in time, I remembered –  Be not afraid.

Inside my head, an interesting dialog unfolded as the logical, rational part of me was able to calm the emotional, irrational part of me by framing the trip as a photography assignment.

And for some reason, the ruse worked.

Which is a good thing, for had I succumbed to my fears –

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I would have missed ten days of astonishing adventures and new friendships.

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Much to my surprise, I was out-hiked each and every day – not by twenty-somethings (there were none on the trip) – but by three sixty-somethings.

There was also the flat out exhilaration of being a part of a group of intrepid souls hiking an active volcano – each of us hoping we would be able to make a 2.5 hr descent through fields of snow and razor sharp lava rocks in a breathtakingly inadequate half hour window, should it happen to erupt.

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These Icelandic experiences, and others, turned many of my fears and concerns on their heads. My pre-trip jitters had been total rubbish.

A recent post from The North Face outerwear company reminded me of what I had gained from hiking in Iceland: the truest version of ourselves stands well beyond comfort’s perimeter.

Thanks to the encouragement I received from a winter’s night message in Appalachia to be not afraid –

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– I have been pushed at the edge, in the words of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and found I am able to fly.

*****

If you need an image to help you remember to be not afraid, how about this one of my Danish cousin, Karen proving her true Viking ancestry with an icy plunge –

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– something she does nearly every day, even during the cold Scandinavian winters.

*****

photo of me with Óliver & Kjartan in Iceland by Anne-Marie Davidson.
photo credit for the shot of Karen unknown.

Hiking with Puffins – on the Appalachian Trail?

Would you hike with these guys?

If you are an Appalachian Trail hiker, you might be able to do just that if the International Appalachian Trail, a multinational committee, gets its way!

Would you hike with these guys?

If you are an Appalachian Trail hiker, you might be able to do just that if the International Appalachian Trail, a multinational committee, gets its way.

And, if they are successful in extending the path from Maine to Iceland, the additional miles will raise the bar considerably for through-hikers.

At 2180 miles, the AT is already one of the longest footpaths in the world.

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Beginning at Springer Mountain in Georgia, it traverses the crests and valleys of the entire Appalachian mountain range which meanders through fourteen states before ending in Katahdin, Maine.

Geological evidence suggests, however, that the mountains that are home to Appalachia were once part of the Central Pangean Mountains – back when North America and Western Europe were one continent (about 250 million years ago.)

With the break-up of Pangaea, the various mountain ranges drifted apart, eventually becoming different continents and countries.

Fueled by the desire to build mutual understanding between people of different nationalities, IAT enthusiasts propose an extended hiking path that would hop scotch along the ridges of the former Central Pangean Mountains, passing through Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and into Iceland –

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before continuing on through Norway, Denmark, Scotland, and beyond.

Which means, that in addition to looking like this…

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the AT will now also look …

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like this.

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And, in addition to black bears, elk, moose, porcupines, snakes, foxes, and salamanders –

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IAT hikers may also be sharing their trek with puffins and wild Icelandic horses.

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They may even have to scramble across a glacier or two – and camp out on beds of hardened lava.

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But one advantage of having the IAT run through Iceland is the opportunity for 20-hour long hike days –

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because this is what midnight looks like in Iceland – at least during summer months.

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Is this a good idea? Let us hear your thoughts!