I call it the “marginal season.” That melancholy period past mid-October that reaches into late November. Hikers and backpackers accustomed to more temperate days forsake the Appalachian Trail for creature comforts. Yet it’s not quite the season when hard-core winter wanderers strike out with cross-country skis, snowshoes, or crampons. I suspect it may be the span of days when the trail is most desolate, left to wildlife responding to the drive into hibernation. It’s a mellow time, when the fire at the shelter finds its only companion is yourself and something daring and brave inside you is stirred to live much like the sparks which spiral heavenward. The slate skies and lowering cloud-cover add loneliness to your walk. The earth hardens. Ice formsin the water bottle. Hot soup and a down sleeping bag become a part of your daydreams as you trek a frozen footpath. Even “trail angels” seem to have abandoned their errands of mercy. You are…alone. It’s a meaningful season, the “marginal” one, even under the cover of sadness or sense of isolation. Tree limbs crack. Winds bite. Snow squalls crest off the ridge and envelop you just enough to raise an alarm. You stumble from cairn to cairn filled with apprehension and danger threading your heart and soul. The risk is not yet life-threatening, but it could be. Though things can turn for the worse along the Appalachian Trail at about any time, the “marginal season” brings things closer to home.
Thoughts turn from the mundane and you consider what’s really vital in life. What’s important and what is not? You dwell on “things left undone,” and resolutions arise whose motivation you hope remains with you just long enough to provoke positive action after you’ve returned home. There are lessons here. Bleak, yet filled with purpose. Even the specter of depression may appear, like a black dog which follows you for miles, only to disappear with the short light of day. Such is the experience of the “marginal season.” There is little space, less light, less time devoted to mulling over decisions to see if they’re the right ones or not. You simply act. With purpose, which clarity, with hope. This time of year may be a brief window for off-season walkers, but it may hold some of the most essential lessons to be learned. If the head is clear. If the heart is open.