photos by rus vanwestervelt and madelyn vanwestervelt. taken 30 july 2015

Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear

Braeden decides to join us at the last minute, and he and Madelyn lead the way to the top of the hill. Their energy is boundless, and Rob and I take our time making the steep climb. The sun still seems high in the sky, but the crash into the mountains is inevitable. We maintain a good pace.

Already, though, through the clearings in the trees, we are treated to a beautiful show as the sun makes its descent.


During these breaks, Rob and I pause, unsure if our breaths are being taken away by the view or the climb. We look to the west and dare not blink, as the clouds and the light continue to shift like watercolors absorbed by the most natural vellum. We are not the artists, though; it is our pleasure and our honor to observe, to be the witnesses of such beautiful art.

We resume our climb, and when we reach the top, Braeden and Madelyn are walking around the mechanisms of the old ski lift.

“Can we get in one of the baskets?” Braeden asks. I shake my head, and he doesn’t argue. Instead, he runs to the little office shack and peeks inside. Two office chairs are pushed against the wall, and old magazines and food wrappers litter both the desk top and the floor.

“Creepy,” he says. “It’s like they all just vanished in the middle of whatever they were doing.”

I tell him places like these are breeding grounds for ghost stories and mysteries, and I can see the creative wheels churning in his head, moving ideas and images around to form a possible new story.


Madelyn leaves us and finds her place in the field to watch the sun set. She is as much a part of this landscape as the mountains themselves, and seeing her in the field, focused intently on the show that is playing out before us, allows me to remember how we separate ourselves from our natural land. We build walls, cities, and structures that “protect” us from the elements; we see land and nature as something to be tamed, domesticated to fit our needs, to reduce to names and distinctions, boundaries and property lines, as if we ever had the right to claim any of it as our own.

This morning, I reflected on the beauty of the land itself, the push-pull, yin-yang nature of life outside of the human experience. But here, seeing Madelyn so assimilated with these natural surroundings and her so comfortably immersed in them, I realize that we grow away from our natural environment. We spend our years “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth writes.

We need to return to such innocence, where we were once this close to the earth. We need to find our place in our field and bond once more to this great Earth.


As Braeden continues to explore, Rob and I remain speechless as the sun begins to fall at a faster pace. We know this is impossible, but as it approaches the tips of the mountain ridges, it seems to be pulled from the sky against its will. We mutter something about appreciating life, taking nothing for granted, wishing Cindy and the others were with us. All of this is a feeble attempt, though, to capture the ineffable moments that we are all sharing. We do our best to put in to words what we are feeling, but when you are a witness to such beauty, words fail.


We stand in silence and watch the sun disappear.

sunset 073015

The speed with which it sinks now makes me panic. I feel the fear swelling inside. I want to run across the field and somehow pull it back up, slow the process down, but I am helpless to its falling. I don’t want the sun to go down. I know I cannot be some “catcher in the rye” who saves it from sinking, but the fear is so real, so strong for the symbolic fall of all of us.

I look at my daughter and son, who are now silhouettes against the red sky. I see how tall they are getting, how, as they enter this middle phase of what it means to be a kid, stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, I want them to treasure these moments more, cherish their place in the earth, see the worth of the natural world around them, and grow up immersed in infinite energy, love, faith, and service.

I want them to know these things and keep them close, wherever they go, whatever they do. But how can I stop them from growing up and growing away from such beauty?


Madelyn turns around and she gives me the answer, the assurance without saying a single word. She is the one who pushed to be on this hill. She is the one who wanted to witness this sunset. She is the one who led the way to this sacred space, 5,000 feet in the air.

My fear disappears like the sun itself, as I realize that the energy, love, faith, and service I wish my children to feel and to own is here, and it has just touched them both. The spiritual relationship we have with the earth is so deeply personal, as my own experience 14 hours earlier proved to be. No friend, no parent, no mentor could have led me to such a moment.

And so it remains. Our ventures into the wilderness will continue with plenty of opportunities and space to connect, both as a family and individually, with our natural environment. We hold closely to these sunrises, these white-blazed walks, these sunsets as we journey onward in our day-to-day lives, knowing that the deepest connections made with the Earth are all we ever need to sustain us when the light might dim in our lives.

Like the falling moon or the rising sun, we keep our faith. We will get through, and light is always but a few hours away, for each and every one of us.



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 final installment of those six passages in my series titled, “14 Hours In Light.”

If you missed the previous five posts, please visit my home page at www.baltimorewriter.wordpress.com and scroll down to read the complete series.