Part 3. The Summit and The Elements
Hiking up the last 1,000 feet to the summit of Big Bald is much like navigating a natural obstacle course – a few switchbacks, yes. But each stretch has its own challenge, the most difficult ones (thank goodness) are in the beginning of the final ascent.
As much as I try to keep my mind focused on reaching the top before the sun’s first thin line surfaces over the far eastern ridges in North Carolina, one tight stretch – a vertical twist in the thickest brush, with no line of sight in front of me imaginable even in a high-noon sun – summons the fear once more. To come this far only to surprise a black bear so suddenly that it strikes instinctively, even before I have time to drop and play dead! The very thought makes the earlier choice to turn right on to Little Bald seem reasonable, sound, and certainly less deadly.
I take another strong step up and to the right, breathing so hard I can feel the beat of my heart pounding in my chest. I know I am near the next switchback that leads to the tall grasses – a welcome challenge from where I am now. I hear a distinct ruffle of leaves about 7 feet in front of me. I freeze, wishing I could somehow silence my beating heart as well. The leaves twist and turn toward me, and I swing the beam of light to my feet and see something moving: a black-brown, jig-jag swag kicking up leaves so fast in brilliant flashes of yellow. I do not know if I should run or stand my ground and try to defend myself. I take another step forward and pinpoint my light on the creature.
And there he is, a small, 2-ounce adult male American Redstart, stirring up leaves in search of some early morning grub. He flashes his yellow tail once more, impervious to my intrusion, before I charge him off the trail. Without hesitating, I push forth through the dark and step into the clearing,
I am rewarded with an almost breathless shot of the bold moon dangling just above the tips of the high grasses. The blue-black sky is dissolving into a periwinkle canvas, and I push through the needlerush and nearly sprint along the length of the switchback that climbs to the low perimeter of the summit.
I turn around, and my breath is taken from me. A strong gust of cold wind blows by and I am bathed in deep reds, purples, and blues as the invisible, rising sun sends its precursory hues that define the deep ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains.
I force myself to breathe and continue my sprint to the top of the mountain. When I reach the peak – a clearing no bigger than the tot lots I played on as a kid – I walk the circumference like setting a compass, absorbing the sky as if it were the premiere event in some state-of-the-art planetarium. The temperature is 43 degrees and the winds now exceed 30 miles per hour.
I don’t care. Here, I am on top of the world caught between the falling moon and the rising sun, the yin and the yang that comprises balance in our lives. Let the elements do with me as they wish, for nothing could be greater than this.
I check the time: 6:29 a.m. I breathe deeply and wait for the sun to rise.
Next… Part 4. The Rising Sun, The Falling Moon, and The Epiphany.
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 to the summit of 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 third of those six passages in my series titled, “14 Hours in Light.”