The Hope MixTape: Side A, Track 1. “Here Comes The Sun”

Earlier this year, I asked a few friends on Facebook what songs bring them hope. The response was overwhelming, and the suggestions they provided allowed me to make a 90-minute audio cassette mixtape, complete with a side A and a side B. Just as I have my characters in Fossil Five explore the process involved in making a mixtape, I enjoyed the process of breaking out the calculator to make build both sides with as little empty tape as possible.

After I completed the mixtape, I decided that it would be a good frame for me to write an essay for each song, and focus on the hope that these tunes provide. This is the first in a series of essays inspired by the songs that all of you helped me create.

Here’s to you, and to all of us, in the hope we provide, and receive, along our journeys.

 

The Hope MixTape: Side A, Track 1. “Here Comes The Sun” by The Beatles. Essay #1

All photos were taken by me. Please provide credit to me and this page if you use them elsewhere.

I’ve always been fascinated by sunrises, and most of my better photo shoots have come at the expense of a rising sun – usually on a mountain top or on the water’s edge. This goes way back to my early childhood where, in late days in July, my dad and I would leave the house at 3 a.m. and head to Wye Mills on the Eastern Shore, where we would rent a rowboat from Shnaitman’s Boat House to spend the early hours crabbing on the Wye River. We’d have the boat on the water by 5 a.m., a good hour before the sun actually broke the horizon. I remember clearly the reverent pause in our crabbing when sunrise was imminent. The taut hand lines that had blue crabs tugging at the fresh bait could wait a minute or two as we watched in silence the first line of light find its way over the water. When it crested, we returned to our work without a word, checking the lines and manning the nets as we culled our first dozen from the brackish waters of the Wye.

Years later, when I was in college, my friend Trina and I would take midnight road trips to the beach, watching the sun rise as we walked the foam line of the incoming or outgoing tide. With film camera in hand, I did my best to capture the moment when the sun broke the horizon line. Some of the pictures silhouetted Trina against the wet, fluid brushstrokes of crimson, violet, and gold. We were tired in those pre-dawn moments, but with the rising sun, we felt renewed, energized by the light filling the sky, and us.

As we got older and established our own families, our overnight trips turned to pre-sunrise walks on New Year’s Day. Our last jaunt, 2014, was to the Concord Point Lighthouse in Havre De Grace to see the sun rise over the upper tip of Chesapeake Bay in northeast Maryland. This time, the camera I held was a nifty digital Nikon, but the result was the same: magnificent hues with Trina silhouetted against the pre-dawn light.

Throughout my life, I have hiked mountains just to get a glimpse of the sun before anyone else. The elevation gave me the edge over the rest of the world, and I would be afforded a few extra minutes to cherish and receive the energy of the day’s new light, virgin rays of life and Chi that few others would receive. For days – maybe years – I would carry that energy deep within me. Even now, I can tap into these very precious moments and feel a new life coursing through my veins as if the rising sun were my blood, my oxygen to live fully another day.

My most recent trip was in 2015, when I hiked the Appalachian Trail in western North Carolina to watch the sun rise atop Big Bald Mountain. The pictures I got were breathtaking, but the personal experience of being there, as witness to the rising, was in itself unforgettable, caught between the full moon setting in the west and the great sun rising in the east. I was in the center of the universe. I ended up writing a longer essay (“14 Hours In Light“) that I published here on my site in a series of smaller reflections. The experience renewed my hope at a time when I was struggling mightily.

It was there that I realized the energy I had in front of me was afforded to all of us each and every day, regardless of where where we stand when that great sun makes its first appearance of the day. The light in our lives promises us just that – and it is indiscriminate, abundant, fulfilling. The sun’s energy and hope, its comfort and warmth, are boundless, unending, and open for all.

And so it is: A new day begins. For indeed, here comes the sun.

Seek hope in light – it is always there waiting to be received… by you, for you. in all ways. There is no greater way to drive out darkness. In patience, we shall always be recipients of the energy that provides hope.

 

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

 

14 Hours In Light: 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 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.”

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photo by rus vanwestervelt. taken 30 july 2015.

 Part 1. The Decision and The Approach

4:47 a.m.

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.