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.