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 the best 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 pictures are my thoughts during that same time.
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.
Part 2: The Ascent and the Fear of Wildlife
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
She 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.”
There’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.
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.
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.