During the last week of July, we were fortunate enough to join my sister and her family at their mountain cabin in western North Carolina. It was the first time that our family had been together in six years, and the first time I had seen my sister since she lost her left leg in her battle with osteosarcoma.
In the pre-dawn hours of July 30, I wrestled with the decision to hike Big Bald Mountain along the Appalachian Trail and see the sun rise over the Great Smoky Mountains along the North Carolina–Tennessee border. I have selected 16 photos from that day, spanning a 14-hour period of light, where I remained focused on the energy of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. Mingling among these 16 pictures are six short passages that chronicle my thoughts during that day. This is the first of those six passages in my series titled, “14 Hours In Light.”
Part 1. The Decision and The Approach
My alarm goes off after a restless sleep, and I head downstairs to step out on the back deck overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains. I am staying in a cabin on the North Carolina side of the border, facing west, at an elevation just above 4,200 feet.
The world in front of me is black. I know the mountains are there, the ripple of ridges that, in sunlight, fade into the distance some 40 miles away from where I stand. Even the moon – just hours away from becoming full – is hidden among the trees to my right.
It is only in faith that I know the mountains will soon return with the rising sun, emerge from this black, pushed along by the strong winds that ride the high hills and bring chilling temperatures to me in waves.
I want to be a witness, though, to that rising, that lifting of the blind-black veil draped over this early morning.
The sun is set to rise over the high tips of the mountains at 6:36 a.m., so there is little time to ponder the dark hike to the summit of Big Bald Mountain at 5,516 feet.
Still, I wrestle with indecision and sit on the weathered bench, resting my elbows on the dew-wet marble table where we have shared most of our meals. There are so many reasons not to go, and the What-Ifs line up in my mind and introduce themselves, each making a convincing case to stay, brew a fresh pot of coffee, and watch the first morning rays light the western ridges one at a time.
What-If your knees should give way and you injure yourself and you are unable to walk? Or worse, those cramps in your legs are paralyzing and will stop you dead in your tracks.
What-If the bears are feeding on the wild blueberries along the trail before the first clearing? You won’t have time to see them, even with that powerful little flashlight. Then what? Can’t outrun a bear.
What-If you suffer a heart attack? Even with all of the weight you have lost, you are still 50 years old, you know.
What-If, in the dark, you trip upon a timber rattler along the path and he strikes? Wouldn’t you have just minutes to extract the venom and get emergency help?
What-If you cross paths with a lone hiker who is unstable, hungry, and perhaps even armed?
The What-Ifs stand so confidently in front of me, but behind them is my sister, bound to her wheelchair. She moves forward, and they step aside.
She smiles but says nothing. She has already said everything essential earlier in the week when we pondered another hike to see the sun set. Her words resonate within me now:
“No regrets. These chances come along so infrequently in our lives. Go.”
The What-Ifs groan and collectively look at me, a final effort to woo me away from the climb. But they know it is futile. As they fade into the black mountains in front of me, I lean down and lace up my boots, keeping my sister’s smile close to my own.
I walk inside and attempt to wake my son, who stirs enough to pull the covers over his head and offer a resigning groan. My nephew, who expressed interest the night before in a pre-dawn hike, chooses sleep as well.
Resolved that I am making a solo trip to the summit, I pack my bag with some fresh water, flashlight, fully charged phone, camera, journal, and pen. At 5:35 a.m., I head out the door and begin my approach to the trail.
The temperature is 53 degrees, and the winds whip around me at 25 mph. Besides the tactical gear on my back, I carry the fear of hiking alone in the dark through the woods. I might have dismissed the What-Ifs back at the cabin, but the fear resides within me still.
I march on in the dark, a humble return to the Appalachian Trail and my first walk along the white blazes since 1994 when I completed my last section hike through Maryland. I push the fear aside as best I can in this communion with the Earth, this reunion with my own inner spirit.
This is where I belong. I resonate with the Earth, the soft feel of fresh detritus under my feet, the cool scents of sweet pinesap and mountain laurel carried by the winds, and the echoes of the songs of dark-eyed juncos, yellow warblers, and Carolina wrens.
I look to the east, and the silhouettes of the ridges emerge in the foreground as hints of purple and red replace the dark night. I wonder if I will reach the summit before the sun reaches me. In a wash of desperation and delight, I pick up the pace as I approach the trailhead to Big Bald Mountain.
No regrets. This is why I am here. Go.
Next… Part 2: The Ascent and the Fear of Wildlife.