Being Resolute in 2018: Begin Within

Being Resolute in 2018: Begin Within

If we make happiness our primary goal instead of our secondary goal, then we easily accomplish everything else we desire. ~Deepak Chopra

Across the country and throughout the world, people are asking themselves the same question: What will my resolutions be for 2018?

The “Greatest Hits” of resolutions include weight loss, saying goodbye to cigarettes and liquor, and establishing a fitness regimen.

No doubt, these are all admirable goals to live a better life. But one hardly needs a new year to begin — or resume — being so resolute; in fact, I would argue that many of us are overweight, smoky, and out of shape because we set ourselves up for failure in some other previous new year. Resolutions have a way of making us feel horrible about ourselves before January is even over. Once we fail at keeping our resolutions, we find solace in remembering that another new year will soon be upon us — in 11 months.

I found another set of New Year’s “Greatest Hits” on my friend’s Facebook page. Chris shared the top ten “Words of Wisdom” by the late Wayne Dyer, and it paired nicely with my daily readings of Deepak Chopra.

The resolution we really need to be making is simple, requires no exercise equipment, and prepares us to accomplish any secondary goal we might have to live a more healthy, fulfilling life. It’s so simple, in fact, that we do everything we can to make it harder on ourselves, when we don’t need to.

Are you ready? Here it is:

Embrace happiness and joy in this moment, within you.

And we don’t even have to wait until January 1. It’s accessible, and doable, right now. All you need to do is shift your priorities, see the beauty within you first, and then go after any other goal or resolution you wish to pursue.

You might be asking: What’s the difference, then, if I go for my goals first? Won’t that lead me to the same goal of happiness anyway?

It seems logical that it should work that way, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it almost never does. Here’s why. When we seek things — materialistic or otherwise — to bring us happiness, we allow our well being to become dependent on achieving those things. And, as we are hardly creatures of contentment, we then seek out the next thing that will make us happy.

Thoreau, over 150 years ago, nailed it when he penned those timeless words:

“The mass of men lead their lives in quiet desperation.”

We can’t keep chasing resolutions, thinking they are going to be making us happier. They simply won’t. But, if we begin with happiness, and then pursue our resolutions, that wellness within will keep us motivated throughout the year — and beyond — to make those better choices in our lives.

So here are Dyer’s words of wisdom below, coupled with ten of my own photos from previous years. At the end of this post is a lovely 39-minute sunrise that I have been playing while writing in the early hours. Enjoy.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2018 for each of us. May you discover the beauty and joy that awaits within.

Love, Rus

10. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

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9. How people treat you is their Karma; how you react is yours.

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8. When you judge another, you do not define them. You define yourself.

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7. You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.

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6. Conflict cannot survive without your participation.

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5. Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.

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4. Abundance is not something we acquire; it is something we tune into.

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3. Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.

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2. You’ll see it when you believe it.

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1. Go for it now. The future is promised to no one.

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Memorial Day: Remember The Sacrifice

Memorial Day: Remember The Sacrifice
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All photos taken and copyrighted by Rus VanWestervelt at Arlington National Cemetery, May 29, 2016. Free to share with attribution.

My alarm went off at 2:57 a.m., and three minutes later, I received the text from my friend Trina.

Leaving now to commence with project honor Memorial Day.

Twenty minutes later, at 3:20 a.m., after I had gathered my photo gear and thrown some journals and pens in my backpack, I headed out the door and hopped into her Subaru wagon. We were on our way to Arlington National Cemetery, seizing a rare opportunity to photograph the hallowed grounds at sunrise.

We arrived at the entrance to the cemetery at 4:30, and we weren’t surprised that there was already a line of cars ready to be escorted to one of several areas. When we pulled up to the gate guard, she looked at the list of invitees on her phone.

“Name?”

“Madani and VanWestervelt.”

“We want to begin at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” I added.

She looked up from her phone. “You only get one choice.”

“Make it the Tomb, please.”

She checked our names on her list and smiled.

“Park behind the line of cars in the middle and wait for further instructions.”

We pulled up to the dark SUV at the end of the line. There were about seven cars ahead of us. Trina turned off the car, and the solemn sounds of songbirds filled the still-dark morning air. Here, even in this line, we could feel the reverence; the opportunity we had was not lost on us. And in those 30 minutes before the gates opened and we were escorted through the memorial grounds, we talked about life, about sacrifice, about America. Yet, even as we spoke in hushed voices, there was a touch of anxiety of what we were about to experience.

As the cars in front of us began to roll forward, and we crossed through the gates and turned left at the Memorial Hall for Women Soldiers, it hit us both, and words were replaced with short gasps and heavy sighs as we moved slowly through the magnitude of loss and sacrifice.

Arlington_rvw_14We were immersed in hallowed grounds that seemed to whisper, through the early morning scents of fresh detritus:

Remember our sacrifice. Remember our commitment to America. Remember the fares of freedom.

As Trina drove on, I thought about my nephews, Kevin and Kyle, who continue to fight for our freedom. I thought of my ancestor, a 1st Lieutenant in the Army who fought in World War II, who was buried here. I thought of my former students who have enlisted and who serve to protect and defend, at any cost, our freedoms. I thought of the countless number of friends who have children, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers who have fought, or who currently serve, to keep our country safe and free.

I was overwhelmed by the seemingly unending lines of white graves marking each and every one of those sacrifices. Still, as we drove on in silence, I was haunted by another feeling. We were heading to the Tomb of the Unknowns, protected by United States Army soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, every single minute, of every single day, since midnight, July 2, 1937.

When we reached the tomb memorial, we could already see the sun’s deep hues rising in the east. We grabbed our gear and walked swiftly to the steps that were in front of the tomb, and I felt as if I had lost the ability to breathe. There, just feet in front of me, was the Tomb of the Unknowns and a single Guard standing sentry, silhouetted against the red wash of our Capital’s horizon.

Arlington_rvw_01The few photographers who were ahead of us were already busy setting up tripods and claiming their vantage points for the photo session, but Trina and I took the moment to absorb the enormity of what we were witnessing.

As the sun prepared to rise on American soil, protected for centuries by brave individuals who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, the ritual of remembering them continued on, without missing a beat, for the last 79 years.

Arlington_rvw_02This was why we were here. First to honor, second to document. And although the rush of the sun peaking over the horizon at 5:43 a.m. was not lost on us, neither was the fact that through sunrises and sunsets, humid Summer days and snowy Winter nights, America is standing guard to remember, to protect, to defend, for the very foundation of freedom for all who call this great nation their home.

We found our place a little to the south of the Tomb and began the process of taking photos, trying to capture the essence of the experience.

The routine for the Tomb Guard watching over the graves is precise.

The Tomb Guard on watch marches 21 steps south down the black mat laid across the Tomb, turns and faces east, toward the Tomb, for 21 seconds. The Guard then turns and faces north, changes the weapon to the outside shoulder, and waits another 21 seconds. The Guard marches 21 steps down the mat, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, then turns and faces south, changes the weapon to the outside shoulder, and waits another 21 seconds. This routine is repeated until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.

As I was switching cameras to get a wider perspective of the scene, I noticed another Guard just to my right, walking toward the soldier protecting the tomb. The Changing of the Guard ceremony was beginning, and I lowered my camera and succumbed to the overpowering emotion of the moment.

Arlington_rvw_05The soldier stopped in front of us and said, with an authoritative voice I have only heard in movies, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard is now taking place, and you are expected to remain silent and standing during the duration of this event.”

I removed my hat, and only with the greatest deference in remembering the second reason that I was here, I raised my camera to document the event.

First honor, second document.

When the ceremony concluded, and the sun had nearly pushed its way through the horizon’s line, Trina and I broke away and wandered among the grounds. We spent the next hour away from the camera clicks and conversations and found a certain solitude among the lines of graves that rolled over hills and never seemed to end. With each new ridge that revealed a new vantage point to capture the magnitude of sacrifice, there before us remained a new pasture rolling with thousands of small white graves, each with an American flag in front that seemed to recognize the individual names chiseled into the granite and marble headstones.

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Leon David Sachter. . . Paul R. Greenhalgh. . . Rolland Nyle Davis . . .

By 7 a.m. we left the Cemetery and said little. We were filled with the respect, the honor, and the magnitude of sacrifice in those brief two hours that we had spent among the graves of the men and women who died believing their sacrifices were worth our freedoms.

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I took these photos to document our nation’s most hallowed grounds at the sun’s symbolic rising of another day of freedom. But their colors, their images cannot touch what I carry inside of me. We sometimes forget that these sacrifices were — and are — made for us to live the way we do.

Perhaps I need to live my life a little more closely to the rituals of the Tomb Guard, where, even in my darkest moments, I never forget — even for a second — the sacrifices that were made for American freedoms. Very few of us ever have to make the choice of life or death for another, especially millions of Americans who will never know us personally. I will carry this perspective with me, fortunate for our freedoms, and respective of the sacrifices.

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God bless the 1.1 million American service members who have died for those freedoms. May we remember you every day, every second, the sun rises over this great and free nation.

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14 Hours In Light: Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear

14 Hours In Light: Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We stand in silence and watch the sun disappear.

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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?

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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.

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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.

14 Hours In Light: Part 5. The Descent and The Energy Within

14 Hours In Light: Part 5. The Descent and The Energy Within
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photos by madelyn vanwestervelt, kevin harris, and rus vanwestervelt

14 Hours In Light: Part 5. The Descent and The Energy Within

Once the sun had cleared the mountain, I take one more walk around the perimeter of the summit before heading back to the cabin. The walk down the mountain is, at worst, in shadow. Gone are the fears about bears, injuries, or communication with the outside world.

I had communed with the earth and the heavens; what was there to fear?

When I reach the cabin, everyone is still asleep. I make a pot of coffee and head out to the deck, looking over the mountains I had just climbed.

Distance provides perspective. For days, I have viewed these peaks from the safety of this deck. I have pondered the trails, the dangers, the views. Now that I have climbed them myself, those ponderings are replaced with strength, energy, confidence.

What I am happy about is that the beauty of these mountains is just as rich, even intensified by my morning hike. I know them now, and they know me.

DSC_8117The day carries on, and as we take other walks and consider various trips to Asheville or the oft-mentioned Exit 11 (“See, what you want to do is take Exit 11 to cover just about any need you might have that the mountains can’t give you…“), I carry with me a humble perspective. It’s as if my perceptions, my understandings of every routine, every experience are now filtered through the epiphanic events on the summit of Big Bald. I find that I spend the day doing a lot of listening, a lot of smiling, regardless of who, or what, or where.

I am learning that this is the gift of the Earth and of the Universe. This is The Way, The Path.

Late in the afternoon, my daughter Madelyn joins Cindy and me on the deck. She is 13 and has gone with us on every excursion. She has also spent a few days at the stables on the other side of the mountain, bonding with the healthy trail horses that have been giving rides to visitors for nearly 10 years.

IMG_3612She places her hands on her hips and looks to the far western ridges to our left. Within our sight, if you look closely through the oaks and eastern pines, is the top of the four-person ski lifts from the lodge that is at the base of the mountain. We have already ventured there mid-day earlier in the week, and the vantage point provides an entirely different perspective of the western range.

“We’re running out of sunsets,” she says. “We need to head up to the top of that hill tonight.”

My sister smiles. “Just like you. She’s got her list, too. Once in a lifetime.”

DSC_8129There’s no argument from me. We all have our white blazes that we pursue, where we find our confidence, our strength, our energy. Madelyn, Rob, Cindy — you, me, the stranger passing us on the street — we seek our white-blazed trail, infinitely available to us. It is in our awareness, our mindful way of living, that we see it, follow it, become it.

I open the walk to others who wish to join us, and Rob, my brother-in-law, says he’s in.

I want Cindy to go, too. Rob and I talk briefly about the possibility of taking her with us up the big hill, but we know what the terrain is like from our walk earlier in the week: an unforgiving steep pitch that is rocky in some places with knee-high grasses in others.

Madelyn agrees to help me take pictures to capture the sunset and share it with her. We pack a small bag and say our goodbyes as we head to make the day’s final ascent.

But I know that this trip is different than the one I took just 13 hours ago. I don’t carry with me fear; I carry with me the desire to capture the experience in such a way that Cindy is with us. Maybe we can’t take her to the summit, but we can bring the summit to her in all its glory. She is, after all, the one who encouraged me earlier to walk without fear.

And from this I learn: We can make the choice to live without fear. Every day.

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Next…. The last segment in this series: Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear.

Read Part 1. The Decision and The Approach
Read Part 2. The Ascent and The Fear of Wildlife
Read Part 3. The Summit and The Elements
Read 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 fifth of those six passages in my series titled, “14 Hours In Light.”

14 Hours In Light: Part 4. The Rising Sun, The Falling Moon, and The Epiphany

14 Hours In Light: Part 4. The Rising Sun, The Falling Moon, and The Epiphany
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photos by rus vanwestervelt. taken 30 july 2015

Part 4. The Rising Sun, The Falling Moon, and The Epiphany

These seven minutes I spend on the summit of Big Bald Mountain, waiting for the sun’s first sliver to slip over the eastern mountains beyond Little Bald are, perhaps, the most powerful of my life.

Within the first minute of standing between the falling moon and the rising sun, my phone loses all power. Fear returns as quickly as it dissipates, whisked away by the strong winds as if not allowed at 5,516 feet high. I know I am vulnerable here, surrounded by tall grasses and steep drops that give me virtually no warning if a black bear – or any creature for that matter (except the American Redstart warbler, perhaps) – were to charge me. All of the What-Ifs, as well, linger in my mind (if but for a passing moment), as I still need to descend some 1,300 feet, back through the brush, when I leave. I have no way of contacting anybody. Anywhere. Any way.

I am alone with the elements, caught here between the moon and the sun-to-rise.

Or perhaps, instead of being alone, I am all-one, a part of something greater. Instead of seeing myself apart from this natural world, I see myself a part of it all.

I am surprised at the comfort in this, the absolute release and relief of shedding these chains, of finding myself in the middle between day and night, light and dark, faith and fear, and enveloping myself in complete liberation by the nurturing elements of the earth and the air.

I stare at the very northeast tip of the mountain beyond Little Bald where the sun will first rise. I can feel the energy bursting already from that pinpoint, that precise place where night will become day. The heavy moon behind me bears the weight of a long night’s journey. It is tired and ready to surrender the early morning, if but for a short 14 hours and 2 minutes, to light.

I, too, surrender. I exhale and give myself to the wind, the earth, the sky. I am one with the elements.

And then I feel it. At first, it is a negligible push and pull, an almost indiscernible, autonomous and rhythmic sway that defies the strong winds that whip around me. The pulse, though, grows stronger as I stand there, an earthly beat by two heavenly chambers that carry the energy of all things to and fro, back and forth, around and around.

I am between these two chambers that volley life-energy ceaselessly. And for those final moments leading up to the defining second where the sun rises, I embody dark and light and everything in between. I am the conduit for love, for life, for existence.

The winds steal away my tears as fast as they appear, but that seems right that they should fall elsewhere on the mountains around me. As I am being baptized by the earth and by the heavens, my tears become a part of the ritual, returning to the earth drops of life manifested by such beauty, such energy.

DSC_8427Unblinking, I watch night surrender to day, The sun rises as the moon sighs, and I am filled fully with the energy of both.

In the name of Walt Whitman, I sound my barbaric YAWP from this rooftop of the world and hear the single syllable echo among the ridges that now bathe brightly in early morning hues of yellow and orange.

A single note, a single man, resonating boundless life and love and energy.

I have never felt so alive in my life, and I want to run from this mountain top and tell the world – I want to tell you – that what is in me is in every one of us. We possess the same life, love, and energy that flows incessantly, reverently, across lands, through waters, and among skies.

We are the earth. The water. The sky. We are all one, a part of the ceaseless energy that makes this universe – and each of us – the most beautiful creation imaginable.

I drop my pack and walk the perimeter of the summit, setting my own compass and course to carry me home: fearless, faithful, and fulfilled.

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Next… Part 5. The Energy Within

Read Part 3. The Summit and The Elements
Read Part 2. The Ascent and The Fear of Wildlife
Read Part 1. The Decision and The Approach


 

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

14 Hours in Light: Part 3. The Summit and The Elements

14 Hours in Light: Part 3. The Summit and The Elements
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photos by rus vanwestervelt. taken 30 july 2015

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.

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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.


Read Part 1. The Decision and The Approach
Read Part 2. The Ascent and The Fear of Wildlife


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.”

14 Hours in Light: Part 2. The Ascent and The Fear of Wildlife

14 Hours in Light: Part 2. The Ascent and The Fear of Wildlife
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photos by rus vanwestervelt. taken 30 july 2015.

The night is still too much with me as I cross the final gate on this fire road and continue another quarter-mile to the trail head. The moon – one rise shy of being the second full (blue) moon in July – is still the sky’s main attraction. It hangs heavy over the pines and oaks that tower to my left, as the sky to my right continues to blend with brighter pastel hues of purple, red, and orange.

I sweep the hand-held light to my left and my right as I walk briskly, scanning for scat, or tracks, or fresh-picked berries. All I find are the boot prints of another walker, and I follow the large steps as I listen for the sounds of pushed brush, a flurry of beating wings, or even a heavy exhale of a well-rested bear.

What-If I hear any of these sounds, though? What then? My mind runs movies of dropping to the ground, rolling into a fetal position and playing dead. The bear sniffs and snorts around my face as I hold my breath. He nudges me with his nose, paws at my lifeless arm, even tugs at my sack with his teeth stained blue with morning fruit.

I walk on. Laugh at the fear that loses its grip on me. The What-Ifs turn to So-Whats as I break from the pattern of another walker’s gait, step into the dew-laden grasses that brush the tips of my boots, and follow the old road as it bends to the left and wraps around Big Bald.

DSC_8149I listen to the beat of my own soles on the soft land for another tenth of a mile, until I find the worn path that bears the moniker all hikers welcome: the white blaze of the Appalachian Trail. To my right, the blazes mark the clear path to the top of Little Bald. It is lined with black-eyed susans, Queen Anne’s lace, and yellow coneflowers that capture the pre-dawn colors that brighten the east.

I stand at this crossroad where the path intersects the road and consider skipping the hike through the brush to Big Bald and keeping with the simpler path to the peak of its runt cousin to the right. The view there would be nearly as beautiful, the mountain range nearly as deep, the experience nearly as meaningful.

But you don’t push away the fear of bears and hike in the woods to forego the tallest peak in this part of the mountain range. You don’t battle the What-Ifs and carry your sister’s smile to settle for some safe meadow, where you watch the magnificence of the rising sun with the moon-shadowed mountain behind you, reminding you the entire time that you took the road more traveled, that in the end, you decided that finishing what you started wasn’t that important, after all.

DSC_8115I turn to my left and look at the wooden steps that lead up and into the dark woods. A single white blaze, shrouded in the heavy brush of a mountain laurel bush, tells me this is the other way.

The way I am meant to go.

I look over my right shoulder and see the wind whipping the fragile flowers, where oranges, yellows, and whites sway with sweeping unison across the field. Without giving it another thought, I turn, take a step on the first embedded notch in the earth, and disappear into the dark, abandoning fear and finding faith in pushing through toward the pinnacle of this deeply personal journey.

Next… Part 3. The Summit and The Elements


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 second of those six passages in the series called, “14 Hours In Light.”

Read Part 1. The Decision and The Approach