Not long ago, I checked my inbox and found an invitation from Wildroots—a sprouting of free-spirited earth lovers who do the best they can to live off the grid. The group was offering a wilderness camping-and-education excursion focused on wild edibles and medicines. Local experts Natalie Bogwalker and Frank Cook would be the guides.
But the trip was coming up fast, and I had only about a week to make it back from a gig in China and recover from both jet lag and a sinus infection. I made the rendezvous at Devil Fork Gap near Hot Springs, but my body wasn’t entirely cooperative. I have pushed my way through tendon-twisting marathon pains, mountain-bike pedal-shaft stab wounds, and an encounter with a Caribbean man-of-war, but that sinus problem cut me down to a mere day hike.
The weather seemed disagreeable, too. Shortly after we started down the trail, the sky darkened and the rain began. In between calm spells, the heavens unloaded on my new, bright-blue poncho. With each step, my soaked feet sank deeper into the sooty mud. The cloud engulfing us morphed into an ethereal parade of fairies clad in slips of silver rain. But when the sun streaked through the trees, the leaves would emit an intense green.
Despite the weather, our guides pressed their educational mission. Cook did most of the talking, speaking in a deep monotone about plants, bugs and assorted Appalachian lore. He explained the sweet smell of the millipede that crept near our feet as a defensive arsenic leak. I wondered whether a pocketful of those potent thousand-leggers could keep my bills away.
Having long traveled the planet studying medicinal and edible plants, Cook walked the trail as if greeting a succession of old friends. Touching and talking, he pointed out a showy orchid here, a strong ginseng relative there. Then, speaking of the forest’s abundance, he queried: What do you really need, when you think about it, when it’s all out here for free and in abundance?
I, meanwhile, was struggling to process the trail-talk philosophy, one word at a time, through a miasmic sinus haze. Stopping to dig among the wildflowers, Bogwalker pointed out Appalachian osha, explaining that as a member of the large and varied parsley family (which includes everything from wild carrot to the deadly hemlock), it’s a tough one for beginners to identify properly. Sometimes called bear root, osha is said to be useful in treating coughs and chest congestion, I learned. Stripping down a section of grimy root, she lopped off a piece and instructed me to keep it in my mouth for an hour. At first, nothing. Then it started sizzling like celery-flavored battery acid.
Waiting for another sheet of rain to pass, I stooped and lost focus on the neon moss growing on the bottom of the trees. Time truly shifts on the trail. It ticks inside you, not in your alarm clock or the corner of your computer screen. The rain stopped and we did, too, pausing in a grove where bear stories are told.
This is where the rhododendron, blueberry and mountain laurel grow in a tangled maze. Here, too, the parasitic bear corn feeds on the roots of red oak. According to Cook, the plant may serve bears as a post-hibernation laxative. As for the natural maze, he mused, how long would it take to get completely lost and lose your mind, if only for a while? Mere minutes, he maintained. Describing how he’d once gotten a little turned around in the rhodos, the seasoned woodsman recalled his surprise at the effort he had to make to calm himself down amid the anxieties evoked by getting lost.
Naturally, I was feeling better by this point, but I had to turn back anyway. Hiking back to my car, I pondered the adventure I’d planned to have and write about. They say that true adventures aren’t planned but just happen—and that time does not exist when they do.
I liked the idea of being a wild root and living with the land for several days and nights, but that’s not how it played out. Instead, this was my chance to root again in these mountains and let the wild return to me.
[Jonathan Poston lives in Asheville when he’s not busy elsewhere.]