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

DSC_8194

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.

IMG_3626

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 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.”

DSC_8326

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.