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.)

overlook 3

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.

trail view

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?

overlook 1

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.

Eastward expansion*, part 2

*My filmmaking friend (and fellow East coaster) Brittany gave me this phrase, in case you’re wondering. She a forward-thinking, fun, and talented producer/photographer/videographer who is also kick-ass at life and at being a friend. I do not exaggerate when I say that I would not have survived California without her.

Today, she came to mind because I am thinking about the ways we need each other, and especially how being honest about that need makes it possible to experience what may have seemed very not-possible.

This part of the story is a little longer, but only because I don’t know how I could extricate one part from the rest. But I do know that Rogerson Service came first.

idaho h2o
Rogerson is also apparently home to the second best water in the country. Coming from Cali, ya, I’d say it was pretty righteous

That place is the best dang gas station in the United States (probably). But, I imagine that if you’re reading, you’re wondering what a service station/café/convenience store has to do with anything. That’s not unlike what I wondered when we stopped there to look for firewood on our way to Lud Drexler Park.

It turned out to be more relevant than relevant – a piece of Magic Valley magic, perhaps? – as it was where an amazing, hardworking woman named Terri hooked us up with two nights’ worth of logs, no charge, courtesy of her friend who had just chopped it that day. Magic, indeed. Not sure I’ve ever slept as well as I did that night.

Everything took a turn after that encounter. For one thing, since our campsite was a different one than I’d initially planned, we were slightly ahead of schedule. Eastern Montana was the intended stop, for no real reason other than the romanticization of Montana. So why not, instead, pass through part of Montana on the way to Yellowstone?

yellowstone pines

yellowstone stream
cleansing in every sense

Why not? It’s only the most unparalleled preservation of beauty in the U.S.

It was rivaled, though, by Granite Pass. As we continued on to Sheridan, our route included this tricky, treacherous path through the Bighorn Mountains, and layers of ancient (truly, beyond ancient) sedimentary rock. It was terrifying, steep as the grades were, but fascinating and fun to learn about the different ages of the rocks that surrounded us. I guess, technically, most of the rock out there is prehistoric, but every section of it was marked here. Plus, how many areas can claim to be the home of certain dinosaur fossils? That alone was worth the danger. We might have missed out on a real marvel, otherwise.

granite pass
Photo courtesy of another blogger at Lincoln Highway Ride (http://www.lincolnhighwayride.com) because my hands were gripping the steering wheel too tight to snap one of my own

I read after getting back that the Bighorn Mountains are considered sacred to the Cheyenne. It’s easy to see why.

We skipped camping that night in favor of knowing where exactly we were. Even that had its unexpected pleasures, albeit smaller in scale. Java Moon was the main one: should you find yourself in Sheridan, this place and its DIY oatmeal are a must. And maybe finding yourself in Sheridan is a good idea in itself – we loved what we saw of the small town. It seemed like a remnant of a West that maybe only exists in our collective memory.

Or maybe it’s real, and vibrant, and filled with the most unexpected of people and places. That’s what will stick with me, anyway.

Places in this post:

Eastward expansion, part 1

Now that I’m about 2700 miles away from where I spent the last year, I’m sort of swimming in the retrospect. It almost feels as if that year in Orange County was an extended road trip. Since getting back to Virginia, I’ve kept stumbling over this sense that almost no time has passed, and I’m just picking up where I left off last October. That maybe, after my mom and I drove to Irvine and she flew back to Northern Virginia, my dad met up with me in Thousand Oaks just a week later, and we drove back together.

It’s an idea I find interesting in a lot of contexts: what if the reality you think you’re living is not entirely … real? If perception is reality, then this is both true and untrue.

This sense also may be a sense that comes with the territory when you travel through a thousand towns in the space of a week or less. And at a time of year, too, that drags along with it a particular breed of nostalgia that no one can seem to escape.

Road trips, man. They make you think. (Maybe too much. Or maybe not enough.)

abandoned train

My dad (Tom!) and I left Southern California on a Friday; on that Friday, we landed in Mammoth Lakes. We had our first (gentle) encounter with plans and un-plans there. (For this trip, anyway.)

It started with our campsite, Lower Deadman: I found out just a few days before our departure that it was closed. Apparently, it likes to snow in the mountains. That was easy to solve, though: we just decided to look for a new one once we were near Mammoth.

hot springs sunset

Once we arrived to the beautiful gorgeous place, no exaggerations, we started asking around about the Hilltop Hot Springs. We ended up finding not only the route, thanks to the clerk at the health food store, but also the Mammoth Brewing Company. Not exactly a secret spot, but not a place either of us had heard of, either. In an age of Internet research and experiential travel, that’s kind of refreshing. Serendipitous.

We didn’t taste but a few, but if you get the chance to try the fruits of their labor, I heartily recommend their seasonal beers, especially the Owens Valley Wet Harvest Ale. I thought it was the perfect fall beer – a black IPA with just enough bite and a warm, toasty finish. Just be sure to be really hydrated if you’re drinking it at altitude. (Another new lesson I learned…)

As for the Hot Springs, they can be found by turning off the 395 by a green church just south of the Mammoth Lakes airport. If you drive down the dirt road and pass two cattle grates, at the bottom of a hill, there they will be. Not to be missed if you’ve been hiking, skiing, or sitting in a car all day (ouch).

hot springs folks

And you probably will be sharing the space, so get ready for good conversations with strangers, which was what we got, too. I always get nervous at those kinds of situations, anticipating what people will think, but maybe everyone gets like that. Either way, there was no need: our group was wonderfully relaxed, welcoming, and happy. We even got to meet the Internet-famous Anais + Dax (pictured above!).

Planning the trip was exciting, perhaps only because I didn’t have much else to do at the time, but each day, I learned again that the best parts are the detours that you could never plan. A platitude? Sure. But a true one. Maybe that’s why it’s a platitude at all.

Part two to come!

People and places in this post: