Making friends with mountains

Between Georgia and Maine, the Appalachian Trail winds its way along the spine of the mountains, cutting through Eastern towns and highways, bringing people from one edge of their lives to the next. Between Georgia and Maine—almost smack in the middle—is Virginia—and in Virginia is McAfee Knob, an overlook that is apparently the most-photographed spot on the AT. (You may recognize it from this movie poster if you have not had the pleasure of visiting.)

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McAfee Knob is just outside of Roanoke, where I went to visit an old friend and take on the trail alongside her. By which I mean this section of it, starting in Catawba and ascending to the apex in question. The whole AT? No, though that may have to be an adventure for another time.

There is not much I can say here to do justice to the state of flow in which we found ourselves. In movement, in ascent, in a criss-crossing wind through the rocks and trees and flora and fauna, there was a sense of moving closer to authenticity, to purity of thought and speech. Our words flowed as effortlessly as a river after rain, our thoughts unencumbered by the physical and mental walls that surround us from day to day.

And we sweated. The southern Virginia summer is back, in all its humid presence, and so we sweated. In so doing, we also sweated out at least a few of the hot-blooded demons trying to drag us down—the kind that try to drag you from direction.

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When we reached the peak, we were immersed in blue and green: sky above, rows of trees below on the sloping Blue Ridge mountains. That old growth, humbled by time, was welcoming. We breathed it in: relieved, joyous. So far from where we started, and yet so at home.

This surprised me, feeling so at home, when I thought about it. Sometimes arriving at such a peak or point brings incredulity—a sudden sense of being thrust into the unknown. Yet this was one of those other times, when you arrive and something in your spirit settles down. It says you were meant to be there all along. The place seems to have been always waiting for you. You are here, or there, and you can believe it.

Maybe, perhaps, it is related to awe. Though rather than coming from a fearful reverence, it comes from a place of respect, one that acknowledges the obvious nature of a place’s beauty and majesty. In this case, that of the Blue Ridge, and the Appalachian trail, and southwestern Virginia’s beauty. It’s funny—I grew up driving through it often enough, yet so easily I forgot how striking it could be, this environment. Standing on that overlook was such a poignant reminder of what is here.

But it made me wonder: am I taking something for granted in this here that I know so well?

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I wondered, because, for a contrast, on my first trip to Utah, which was also my first trip to a non-coastal Western state, reprieve and calm were not what I would say came over me. Rather, the sheer bigness of the sky, and the majesty of the red rocks and canyons, overwhelmed me. I was overjoyed, unable to contain neither that joy nor my enthralled girlish squeals of it.

(My apologies to Dave Blakkolb, wherever he is; he had the job of driving the car in which I, riding shotgun, did so incessantly. May your ears be at peace.)

Utah is a gorgeous state (yes yes, pun entirely intended, &c.). There’s no denying that. Yet I found it interesting that, when I visited O’ahu for the first time a few years later, it was the calm that came instead. My gut instinct was a sigh of relief: the ocean met the sky, and then they both met me, and it was as if they were expecting me all along. How kind of them to be so hospitable.

So, what changed? Did anything change? Are these reactions really so different?

Yes, the overlook was a place of rest. Yet while we hiked, everything seemed eye-catching and marvelous; verdant, green, and bright. As I write this, I am reminded of an oft-passed-around quote on living as if nothing is a miracle versus living as if everything is. (Attributed to Einstein usually, but I’m doubtful about this, just for the record. I’ve spent enough time on That’s Not Shakespeare.)

It seems maybe there is a middle place of knowing the extraordinary lives within the ordinary, and of being at peace with those extraordinary elements.

It seems simple. But simple ain’t easy. Everything ordinary seems exhausting sometimes, and I wonder: do I do this? Do I let my days be intruded upon by small marvels?

The Utah experience was one of amazement, and typical awe. I was less accustomed to what the earth had to offer then, in all its shades and shapes and varieties. Yet becoming more accustomed, surprisingly, has not meant losing this sense of joy. Rather, it’s granted the privilege of being able to appreciate beauty from a place of stability. A sustainable, un-drainable place.

Do I do this? Do I live there now, even when the marvels are smaller, less noticeable?

Am I grateful to the forests and the flowers for being there? Are we friends? Do we live alongside one another, as if both of us can belong?

Is this something some of us know how to do? And if not, how do we start to learn?

Maybe it starts in this sustainable, un-drainable place, emptied of ego and full of love for what pulses with life all around us. Open to it, unafraid of it, authentic in its midst, and immersed. Inside, outside, wherever, in every circumstance.  It seems simple. Maybe it is that simple.

Awe-importance

Lately I’ve been magnetically drawn to the idea that, as humans, we need to regularly experience awe: it has a positive – even transcendent – effect on our perspectives, lives, and relationships. It’s heartening to see that this eternal truth – something poets, writers, great thinkers, and outdoorsfolk have taught us through the ages – getting more of an intellectual and scientific platform.

Awe: what is it? Per this Psychology Today article on the latest studies, it can be defined as  “that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.”

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Yeah… that.

In literary terms, this is what is called the sublime. The sublime is the counterpart of the beautiful. It is greatness: something bigger, deeper, and more endless than anything else.

And what is most compelling about sublimity, and about awe, is that it does not necessarily have to be inspired by something physically big. No: connectedness, too, creates awe.

I’m convinced that one of the biggest contributors to hopelessness is a shrunken sense of the world. In the context of inner depression and external oppression, it’s an apparent enough symptom. Or, perhaps it is a cause; or, perhaps it is both, causing a vicious cycle of trying to escape from that gloom and failing to, something all too familiar to anyone who has experienced either depression or oppression (or both).

But seeing and trying to comprehend anything massively sublime is enough to radically alter your perspective.

This is what happens when we see the ocean after months of being landlocked, or find ourselves beneath a deeply starry sky free of city lights. Unexpectedly, knowing that we are very small – a piece of a larger puzzle, one design element in a larger framework – somehow makes life more meaningful; more manageable.

To me, mountains and oceans have this effect every time. But this symbolic act of atonement at Standing Rock also had made me realize how much beyond-ness there is, even on a daily basis.

This week, I turned 26. The gravity of that number – of moving past my mid-twenties into the late ones – was weighty. But perhaps I let it be heavier than it was. As a symbolic act, I chose to visit the town where I effectively grew up, and absorb that energy.

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While there, I chose to walk along a favorite trail whose expansive view – and steepness, mind – never fails to take my breath away. As for the drive itself, somehow I had forgot about the way the mountains framed the journey, just peripherally but all the same, extraordinarily, too. The traffic I waded through, and the time it took to finally catch a glimpse, was well worth it. For what did I feel filling my heart but this true sense of awe, this sense that the tiny crowded spaces are not all there is?

For some reason, it prompted me to remember these words:

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, dont know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

Emily Dickinson

While we don’t always recognize the exact what beyond our awe, part of its compellingness is that intangible quality. We see the mountains, and cannot help but stare at every ridge and shadow, slowly comprehending, and yet never coming close to true comprehension. It comes in waves, in moments; it washes over in its complexity, but does not stay, and that is life – to continue to seek it out in completion. Someday, perhaps.

 

Those miles, to me, represented a vastness that ties us together. And beyond that, the human capability of enduring even in difficult circumstances because of our connectedness to one another.

That is awe-inspiring. That is worth remembering, always.

How to get free: step one is to run

I run quite a lot. Not to an ultramarathon extent, or, frankly, even a marathon one, but maybe a little more than what’s considered average. It’s the path I’ve chosen for over 12 years now; while there’s no real physical reason to have kept with it this long, it’s proven to be mentally and emotionally stabilizing, so there it stays, a mainstay of my days. Give me a quiet morning, a riverside trail, and a solid pair of trainers, and I’m at peace for the rest of the day. Or at least a few hours, anyway.

Over and over again, this is about overcoming inertia. Not just of my physical self, but of my mental and emotional selves, too. It takes trying (and/or trials) to get something new out of running, and likewise, out of life. We alone contain our brightest ideals and shadowiest fears, and the work of overcoming inertia is that of choice. Do I choose to believe in the bleakness, or in the brightness? Do I choose balance? What will it be today?

Running through the woods is beneficial, yes, but only when I choose to (a) actually do it and (b) put my heart (and lungs) into it. Or, as some say, “embrace the pain.” What I mean is, even though it’s a habit, sometimes it’s still a hard choice to make. But it’s rare that I regret choosing it.

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Sometimes that pain-resisting instinct – the one that makes decisions difficult – is part of my running and regular life at the same time.

For example: have you ever used physical pain to try and numb the emotional kind? I have, more times than I can count. The worst time was a sunny spring day in Southern California – mid-morning, dusty, and hot. Deciding to go far and fast enough to escape seemed helpful at mile one, but by mile four or five, there was a sinking realization that I wasn’t getting anywhere good. Just angrier, thirstier, and more confused.

It’s too easy to forget that pain can have purpose, and so much of life can be redeemed from its dark corners. Avoidance, resistance – can there truly be resilience when those two lead the way?

No, but a hard look at oneself – embracing that pain – can change everything.

Sometimes when you face the hard things, you come out on top.  There was another run on the North Shore of O’ahu, where I was living at my hanai aunt’s and dogsitting for the summer, on a gut-wrenching trail frequented by those who want to reward their physical efforts with a gorgeous sweeping view.

The day before I took on this steep switchback had been a tough one, workout-wise, and my legs were zapped. Yet somehow it seemed right, on this particular day, to get submerged in the thick greenery, choke down just one more bite of challenge.

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It was a rainy morning – not a rarity here, but still captivating in a gentle way. Permissive, not foreboding. It said, “Go ahead. It’s okay to feel this. This harsh uncertain feeling. It will be useful to you.” The grade was steep and the rocks were slippery, but the end of the climb did not disappoint. Gasping for air, already tired after three miles straight up, I looked across the expanse, to the ocean and the trees and the island rolling out in its majesty.

The challenge was redeemed. As they always are, even though it’s hard to see in the thick of it.

I like to think that’s what is so compelling about the natural world, even in a time when we live in houses and apartments and, generally, places with walls and roofs. Our spirits – they belong to the forests, the oceans, the rivers, and we can see ourselves more clearly there. Through the refracted light of the clerestory and canopy. A long trail jaunt, instead of a means of running away, becomes one of redemption.

Here are some of the places I find that respite in the city:

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  • Pony Pasture (pictured above), a beautiful quiet place by the James.
  • Buttermilk Trail, for when you want to disappear for a few hours and be absorbed in the natural world. The ups and downs and obstacles make for a better adventure than I ever dreamed I’d find here.
  • Monument Avenue, aka the street where we live. Can’t get better cushioning than eight miles of straight grass.

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  • Bryan Park (pictured above), not for mileage but for peace. This is a gem.
  • Byrd Park, a quick jaunt south on Boulevard from us. Makes me feel like I’m in a bigger city, and the fitness loop is pretty fun!

And for you globetrotters, some faraway faves mentioned in this post: