Freedom, consciousness, and wildness are all around and ever present as our feet lightly jog across an old wooden dock. We move gently in the golden light of an aging afternoon sun. With each stride I sense everything. Blushing coral clouds travel as vessels across a cerulean sky. Brilliant flowers, their blue, yellow, white, pink, and purple bracts blossom and pop along the sandy lakeshore. A full lush green of developed trees, brush, and ferns sway all around. Their leaves and leaflets, simple and compound, rustle an ovation across a vivid and aureate hour. Tall grass moves, dispersing floating seeds in a light breeze. A bright reflection across our mountain lake, dancing in brilliant soft ripples, shimmers as an apparition of something unexpected and remarkable – a bright Mind Essence unique to this place, this terrain, this floating pale blue rock across all the heavens. The cool soft wind, the sounds of spring, comfort a warm humidity on a pleasant Mother’s Day weekend in 2016. I feel weightless as my body leaves the Earth, in a leap, for just a moment, as we seemingly fly. I feel as if I could reach upward forever. A sudden splash into the waters of Lake Santeetlah is rejuvenating, grounding.
The water is very comfortable. I open my eyes briefly on my swim back to the surface. Rays of sunlight pierce the oscillating waves above. The sun illuminates a clean, organic rich mountain lake – like a twilight sword with all the powers of our galaxy. At the surface, Santeetlah feels refreshing and smells of iron. I hear laughs and giggles all around.
“Come on now, boy! Hop in, we got you!” I holler out to my two-year-old.
“Yeah! Jump in Elijah, the water is perfect!” Katie echoes.
The boy just giggles and squeals. He ran the dock with us, in his life vest and all, but stopped short of jumping in the water. With his parents beckoning, he turns back to run again, and again, and again down the dock – each time stopping just short of a jump with hearty laughs and expressions of joy. Katie and I laugh right along with him, enjoying pulses of warm and cool water. We are free, in tune with our lives and all the wonder around us – we’re experiencing some wildness as we laugh, hoot, and holler about.
Lake Santeetlah is surrounded by the wild and mystical Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina. The lake, part of the Tennessee River watershed, was produced in 1928 when the Cheoah River was dammed by the Alcoa Corporation to produce hydro-electric power in Graham County, North Carolina. Surrounded by the Nantahala wilderness, though, the river, lake, and broader reservoir are still relatively unspoiled. Under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, swimming, camping, pick-nicking, fishing, boating, and hiking trails are readily available for public recreation.
Santeetlah, often covered in a cool mist, is beautiful. Vegetation is abundant, diverse, full, encompassing, and musical all around. The lake boasts roughly seventy-six miles of shoreline. Her waters provide necessary habitat to trout, muskie, crappie, bass, and numerous other species of fish – not to mention the algae, fungi, herbaceous and woody plants, along with all other invertebrate and vertebrate communities supported by the system. Observing Santeetlah, the raw umber lake, bronzed by dissolved organic matter, is clean and pure enough to shimmer and reflect the environment that envelops the waters. Surrounded by healthy forest, the dense vegetation provides plentiful organics to seep as tea in her waters. In turn, the nutrient dense lake, through evaporation, transpiration from plants, and with the help of predators carrying off aquatic prey into the surrounding forest, serves as a nutrient source to the surrounding ecosystem – resources are acquired from Santeetlah and distributed throughout the Nantahala.
Our afternoon slowly, but noticeably, begins a turn toward early evening in the waning light of the afternoon. The air feels cooler, our spirited colors muter, our clouds lucent. This change in environment signals our time to get back to camp – we’ve a kindling fire to build and food to cook.
Back at our spot in Horse Cove Campground, I prep and ignite our charcoal tower. As the smell of charcoal wisps around camp, silver grey smoke curls and shifts like a ghost in the breeze as I arrange kindling in our fire pit. The boy plays with his favorite toy, making engine noises as loud “vrooms” as his tiny red racecar explores camp. Katie sits at our picnic table, finely slicing an onion and dicing a green pepper as I join her to chop a few strips of bacon into small pieces. We’re having what I like to call our “fancy cowboy dinner” this evening – fixed up baked beans and ribeye steaks.
With the charcoal hot, the fuel has turned from black to ash gray. Time to empty our chimney atop the kindling. Our fire dances as the grill grate cranks and clashes in a heavy fall over the flames. In our cast iron Dutch oven, rubbed with olive oil, I add the bacon. Almost instantly, the meat begins to sizzle. When crisp, I add our onion and green pepper. I stir in garlic powder, celery salt, cracked pepper, cumin, chiles, and mustard seed before placing the food over the fire. Our plants swelter as our spices crust. As the bacon renders, our flames die down, so I crack a can of homestyle baked beans and mix them into the pot, adding more spices as everything blends. Once I see a simmer, I cover the food, leaving just enough of the lid cracked for steam to escape. Now, time to focus on the steaks.
The trick about cooking a good piece of meat over a campfire is to let the flames disappear so we’re left with only smoky, smoldering red embers. Most folks rush the roasting process and singe over a tall flame. One risks charring their food with this method, or worse, their own limbs as they move about the fire. Waiting for hot embers provides several benefits. For instance, there’s a much lower risk of injury, burned hands for one, or worse, a burnt meal. Plus, dripping juices and fats create wafts of smoke to flavor the meat – a fire too hot will simply singe this process away immediately.
With the embers just right, I pull our three richly marbled steaks from the cooler. They’re brined in a generous dry rub of kosher salt, cracked pepper, garlic powder, dried thyme, and a liberal coating of butter. The ribeye’s sizzle and pop immediately as their protein unwinds and fat sears. Drops of butter, fat, and juice drip onto the embers, causing tiny flashes that dance and puff smoke towards the meat. Another common mistake folks make when grilling is fidgeting and flipping meat far too many times. The goal is a solid sear – best to simply let the cut lay over the heat. After about seven minutes, I flip the steaks and add a dab more butter to the cooked side. Another five minutes pass before I pull the bean pot, then the steaks, from the fire. We then let our meal rest for roughly ten minutes. Finally, time to eat.
I won’t bore folks with savory, smoky, spicy, sweet descriptions – ember roasted ribeye’s and bacon laden beans are damn tasty. My small, speckled, enamel mug, solely used as a vessel for twelve-year George Dickel whisky, helps wash everything down perfectly. With our bellies full, and our cleanup routine now down to a science, camp leisure comes together swiftly. The calming afterglow of dusk settles in on our ka-tet. The air, growing continually absent of light, grows cooler. Nearby, the soft pulses of a rushing stream, Little Santeetlah Creek, award hypnotic ambiance – time for a roaring bonfire.
I pull on my Baja and set the boy on my lap as Katie, the fire wizard, gets to work on building our flames. I pull a sweater over Eli and wrap him in my arms as I begin a story to lull our son to sleep.
“Once there was a boy named Eli, and he has started a grand adventure.”
Hearing his name, the boy looks to me with a smile. His eyes droop as he lays his head on my chest. I continue with the tale.
“The boy with curly hair races through the forest; his bearded dad follows. The forest is everything and everywhere.” I gesture my hands calmly but widely all around. “Their trail is deep within the Great Smoky Mountains. The boy and his dad are on a quest – one hundred miles together in the Appalachian wilderness to celebrate the centennial birthday of the park service.”
With this simple introduction to a bedtime story (another long tale for another time), I look down and find the child fast asleep in my arms. I stand and carefully tip toe the sleeping boy to our tent. I snug him tightly in his pintsized sleeping bag and return to the fire. Katie and I talk very briefly about our plans for tomorrow – breakfast then a hike or two. Tired, my wife quietly settles into a book. I pour myself another mug and enjoy the cracking fire, melodies of night, eerie moonlight, and a mysterious Appalachian dreamscape.
Campfire cooking, along with campfire stories, are engrained into our primate brains. Fire and tectonics – heat energy and the power of changing climates to force migrations – bore our unique human linguistics. Fire and good ole story telling made us human. Our mammal bodies, all things considered, hardly distinguish us from other primate species in any way. We can run long distances, helpful for persistence hunting, for sure, but other than that, there is nothing all that special about our physical form. The mind, however, allowed our hominin ancestors to view signs and listen to sounds in the environment. They turned these signals into thoughts, language, and meaning. When our ancestors learned to harness fire we cooked, and our brains grew.
Around 200 million years ago, right at the end of the Triassic period, when the early dinosaurs roamed the Earth, our distant mammal ancestors first appeared in the fossil record. When we think of mammals, particularly noteworthy evolutionary advancements, many scientists point to the placenta. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time discussing the importance of the placenta in regard to kinship, gestation periods, and our reproductive fitness in my lectures. Another great evolutionary advancement, however, an enlarged cerebrum, paved way for our intelligence.
An enlarged cerebrum is mostly unique to mammals – birds, our still living dinosaurs, have enlarged cerebrums as well. This adaptation helped our furry mammal ancestors with social organization, kinship, and care for the young. The age of the mammals really began with a bang some 65 million years ago with a bolide impact that finished the reign of the big dinosaurs. This extraterrestrial impact loaded the skies with a thick dust. Temperatures in the deep-sea, and across a rifting continental world, climbed as greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere. But, with the giant predators gone, mammals explored the world. Our ancestors left their safe havens in the limbs of trees, as others left burrowed ground, and experienced a grand development of new forms. Our human place in Earth-system-history was on the horizon.
Geologically speaking, climate change is the norm of our Cenozoic era – an era punctuated by regressive and transgressive seas. The Cenozoic is perhaps most famous for the ice ages and periglacial intermissions. Each progression and recession of glaciers molded the landscapes we experience today. Furthermore, one can argue, these geologic processes allowed for our chance existence, crafting the conditions necessary for human civilization. Some 56 million years ago, plate tectonics isolated Antarctica over the south pole. The other continents continued their tectonic migration toward the geography of today. With Antarctica fixed at the pole a long cooling trend advanced. The conditions were ripe for animal life to continue rather unique genetic mutations. Cloven-hooved herbivores, for example, the early ancestors of our agricultural species of today, adapted to the new landscapes.
A common principle in ecology is that diversity breeds more diversity. This grand radiation of fauna was preceded by an even greater ecological shift in flora. Plants boomed. Angiosperms, the flowering plants, came to dominate the global system. Color erupted across the cool Earth. Radiant yellows, reds, purples, greens, and so much more, appealed to animal species. Nectar filled the air. I am envious of our mammal ancestors, witnessing for the first time in our planet’s history, a true explosion of color. How wonderful a feeling to have breathed deep of the sweet, lucid air.
Then, some 36 million years ago, a mutation occurred in one of our primate ancestors – one small part of a single gene changed. This change in our genetic code programed our cerebrum to grow larger still. Another piece of our evolutionary puzzle fell together.
For a species to maintain a larger cerebrum, the whole brain must grow because a large surface area is necessary to support a growing consciousness. This, in turn, changed everything – the brain became an incredibly hungry organ. The growth of our cerebrum is likely linked to the selection pressures for a higher metabolism – our brains and food intake increased in unison. This showcases greater cooperation with kin groups for food. As intelligence heightened, so too did social harmony. Mammal groups are social, we need each other – individuals build a prosperous collective.
Further still, some 125,000 years ago, another mutation allowed a gene to fix in our direct human ancestors. The Fox P 2 Gene mutation allows control over thought and tongue. For the first time, our species, Homo sapiens, could translate thoughts into words. Knowledge was passed down from generation to generation. Our species began using a voice, then writing words down to teach ideas. Our species, by evolutionary chance, has built a network of minds that transcend time and space – this is immortality in the mortal realm.
Our consciousness rises from 100 trillion connections and is fueled by electrical signals from 86 billion neurons. These nervous system cells initially developed as an environmental response for the need to move, to navigate an environment, sense food, and escape predators. Now, neurons are used for thinking, memories, sensations, dreams – we’ve used our brains to explore space, cultivate civilization, produce music, literature, and so much more. We are no longer sole individuals alone in the dark.
This strange rock we float on, our very planet, shapes our senses. Our mammal bodies evolved for planet Earth. Our home has no borders, everything is interconnected. Our Earth is varied and dynamic, same as our populations, communities, and ecosystems. Experiencing life is beyond emotion, understanding, comprehension – beyond any and all words of poetry, science, or mythology. In ourselves, the universe found a way to express itself. We’ve a rare cosmic existence in the cold darkness of interstellar space. Our lives are beyond imagination. Here, together in the 21st century, we continue an odd, grotesque, beautiful, human journey. We are souljourns. We are Earthlings.
“Ha, ha, ha!” I laugh loudly, out of nowhere. Katie has long gone to bed. I’m surrounded by the sounds of chirping insects, stealthy mammals, croaking frogs, rambling waters, and the ovation of leaves. My fire is but a flicker, the air is cold. I take a final pull from my mug to finish off the brown water within.
“The landscape of our origin provides the canvass for our ingenuity,” I mumble to myself. “These are the whisky soaked ramblings of a dreamer. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! I should write that shit down.”
I pause for a few moments, look around at the night. With a sigh and a smile, I acknowledge my time for bed.
The tent appears a little blurry, I must admit, as my eyes wrinkle open. I peek out our tent door, in a fresh morning glow, to find Katie cooking breakfast by the fire. Scratching my eyes, I reach for a water canister and take cool refreshing gulps. Elijah, still in his sleeping bag, is fidgeting, but he’ll be awake soon. I pull on my Baja and join Katie by the fire.
“Need any help?” I inquire.
“No. I’m good here. Instant coffee is made, just heating up the leftover steak from last night with cheesy potatoes and eggs.” Katie is smiling as she works, she’s just as much an early bird as I am a night owl.
“Had myself a little party last night,” I giggle scratching my beard. “Was a nice night.”
“I think I heard you come to bed. You were quiet though. I was just in and out all night. I think there is a hole in my sleeping pad.”
“That sucks. We can trade tonight.”
“No! I don’t want you to do that.”
“I don’t mind – I’ve more whisky to help me sleep. Plus, can’t have you waking up on Mother’s Day tomorrow morning all out of sorts.”
I take a small sip of instant coffee swirled with hazelnut powdered creamer. The hot, sweet, and bitter liquid is a delight camping. To up the coffee game, I sprinkle and mix just a little bit of hot chocolate into my thermos. I take another pull and relax as breakfast comes together. Seems everything tastes better when camping. Must be the air, or perhaps the setting just allows us to slow down a bit – savor the moment. I’m not sure how the senses change really, but I do know there’s no way we’d look forward to instant coffee at home.
The pull of a zipper tugs at our tent door. On all fours, our wild, joyful boy crawls into the morning before standing and beaming a smile our way. His long curly hair rests as a mop on his head, his face still covered in sleep.
“Bunny!” Katie hollers to Eli as he waves. She walks over to him and places the child on her hip. “How are you doing this morning?”
Acting silly, the boy simply sticks his tongue out like a dog, nods his head in an agreeable fashion, and pants.
“You are so goofy. Go see your daddy while I finish up breakfast.”
Still groggy, Eli clumsily, but quickly, pitter patters over to me. He wipes some sleep dust from his eyes as he stumbles over. I pick him up by the arm pits and hoist him into the air. Holding him over my head, I gently wiggle the boy as we laugh together under the shade of hemlock, tulip poplar, and sycamore.
“Here’s breakfast, Eli! Mind cutting it up for him, Dad?”
“Sure thing.” We move to the picnic table to cut the kiddos steak into small pieces. I enjoy a “taste test” of my own of course. As his ribeye, scrambled eggs, and cheesy potatoes steam in the cool morning air, Katie cracks our eggs into the cast iron – we’ll take ours hot and over easy.
With breakfast done, we tend to our morning chores – get the boy dressed for a hike, brush our teeth, clean up camp, apply sunscreen, and tend to the trusty red backpack. I, by the way, love our trusty red backpack. I carry Eli on my back in this sucker when the boy tires. There is a surprising amount of cargo space underneath, and a nice seat at the top for the boy to ride. Today I’ll carry snacks and a picnic lunch, an overkill supply of backup diapers, extra pairs of shorts, t-shirts, a sweater, and a rain jacket for our little one. I’ll also strap up with bear mace, a snake bite kit, a couple emergency blankets, pop-up shelter, and roughly five liters of water – always travel prepared. With our chores done, we hop into the family wagon, and travel a quick ride to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
Joyce Kilmer is one of my favorite destinations in the Southern Appalachian rainforest. The hike around the small wood is not very long, nonetheless, the towering grove is very impressive. A walk here is a journey back in time – a magnificent journey across ecological timescales to the Appalachian forest of some 450 years ago. Tulip-poplars first catch the eye, some more than twenty feet ‘round. They stand as sentinels over one-hundred feet in the air. The old-growth calls to something primal in the human animal. I find the virgin growth grove inviting and chanting. Below the canopy, an array of wildflowers, ferns, and moss-covered logs of some fallen giants all glow in morning glory. Capping all of this wonder off, the only way to see this old growth sanctuary is on foot – no automobiles will bother our world anymore this morning.
The forest is named after New Jersey born poet and soldier Joyce Kilmer. Kilmer was killed in action during World War I as he led a team to scout a German machine gun bunker. A bullet tore into his skull and split his brain. Kilmer was a respected soldier, with a renowned love and admiration of nature. Thus, the Veterans of Foreign Wars asked the United States Government to set aside a tree stand as a memorial. The forest tract was officially dedicated in 1936. A plaque inscribed with his famous poem, “Trees,” welcomes visitors as they enter the grove of giants:
“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast.
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray.
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair.
Upon whose bosom snow has lain.
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.”
We begin our hike through the memorial forest. Almost immediately, Katie and I are struck by the cove-hardwood wonderland. This grove is one of the most beautiful living beings in all of time’s creation. Tall, looming, ultimately comforting, this old forest escaped the plunder of loggers. Laden with rich, nutrient dense soils, constant smoky moisture, and a dizzying abundance of plants, a piece of Earth most holy and heartbreaking still breathes.
In all the grandeur, one can easily recognize these old trees are in danger. Today, invasive Asiatic insects are rotting the giants. The trees die slowly, losing their limbs with each creak, break, and thunderous crash to the forest floor. Here, there are two worlds thrust upon each other – an old grove as mystic and special as Appalachia herself, pitted against habitat loss, invasive species, and a creeping ecological crisis. The grove was first protected by humankind for her beauty and majesty, only to fall ill, even on accident, from human trespass.
We are a global, planetary species. A bolide collision is the least of threats we now face as a population. All of our biomes are immediately under attack from climate change, environmental pollution, habitat destruction, and other risks associated with human dominance over this global system. In our age of the Anthropocene, we’d be wise to carefully consider the threat of nuclear war as well – a much more pressing State issue than many of us care to realize or even think about. Our planet is beautiful, isolated, and in ominous times.
Humans are wonderfully absurd. Progress always ensures the best of humanity. Advancements do not stem from State edict, but sprout from human potential. In times of stress and consequence, individuals come together to link our collective minds, dreams, aspirations, hopes, fears, ugliness, and shortcomings. As a result, as years roll on, we’ve plenty stories to tell of ingenuity and inclined labor. Here in the beginning of the 21st century, I cannot help but think sometimes change is moving too slowly. Perhaps too many opportunities are being missed – we’re too tribal, partisan, too focused on the here and now. Our labor is split by policies that stem from systems of power and domination – such edict is very often a hurdle to adaptive governance and collaboration. However, I know the open possibilities of human labor still call, like the distant memories of childhood, the comfort of a grandmother, a song, memory, or feeling of belonging that pulls us out of the darkness. For all our vulnerabilities, selfishness, failures, anger, pain, and despite our biases, limitations, missed opportunities, we humans are capable of greatness. A spark is coming, the fire will burn.
Today my family and I wander, laugh together, sing songs. The boy falls a few times, cries, and we calm him down. We hold each other, link hands, take time to smile under the sun. A gentle breeze moves through trees. Towering above, their leaves sing, rustle, wave, bow, and breathe. The ferns dance. The moss is a brilliant green. We stop to hug the largest of the giants. Our hands feel the bark and glide across the leaves. We look at the phantom nature of these respiring organs under the golden light of the sun. Our trail gently ascends into a staggering complexity of yellow-poplar, oak, basswood, beech, and sycamore.
We miss the American chestnut, though. Once the dominant tree in this forest, the chestnut fell victim to an invasive blight from Asia. Though their presence in the canopy is missed, their massive logs and stumps still decorate the understory. Just as the chestnut, the dead limbs of hemlocks, infected with the invasive woolly adelgid, appear spooky and lonely as they droop from the corpses of these once living evergreens.
In the tall ferns that decorate the windthrow of fallen limbs, on a gnarly, twisted trail, roughly halfway through our voyage, Eli tires. I carry him out of the loop in our trusty red pack as the late morning sun rises further still.
“Time for lunch?” Katie questions as we reach the car.
“Not sure.” I slowly turn around and show her the boy, “Is he awake?”
“Aww, sweet boy. He’s out cold.”
“Well, let’s drive up yonder to Little Huckleberry then. He might sleep long enough for me to carry him up there and we can picnic with a view.”
I’ve been visiting Little Huckleberry Knob in the Unicoi Mountains since my senior year of high school. The Unicoi rise along East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. These rolling monuments of fortitude are a part of the Blue Ridge Mountain Province of our wild and wonderful Southern Appalachians. Most of the range is protected as National Forest land – chiefly within the boundaries of the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, and the Nantahala of North Carolina. True to form, the Unicoi here in the Nantahala region are primitive, eerie, spiritual, and full of wild, inspiring, unimaginable beauty.
At the base of these mountains, river valleys and creeks travel across ancient rock, forming deep hollows and a mix of forested ecosystems – most notably to cove-hardwoods of Joyce Kilmer fame. As elevation gains, coniferous temperance, rolling grassy meadows, accompanied by heath balds, decorate the higher elevations. The Cherohala Skyway, a renowned and beloved National Scenic Byway, takes travelers across the Unicoi, just past Robbinsville, North Carolina, into our Appalachian Highlands. There is no place on Earth I love more than any rolling Appalachian vistas above 5,000 feet.
We park at the entrance of Little Huckleberry Knob and prepare for a short but rewarding hike. As I load our still sleeping boy into our pack, Katie organizes our picnic of summer sausage, French baguette, brie, olives, apples, and berries. She places our lunch, and a bottle of red wine, to wash everything down or course, in her pack as we start our hike.
We start just before noon. Fitting time to start our hike, as in the Cherokee language “Nantahala” means “land of the noon day sun.” Our sky is blue, marked with scattered, streaked, cumulus clouds. Our wind is chilly, but the sun, in still air, is hot. Lower elevations are so forested that noon is the only time of day the sun can reach the forest floor through the protective canopy. Here, as we make our way to the bald, however, the sun is ever present.
When we reach Huckleberry, we’ll stand at 5,560 feet and enjoy expansive, never ending views of the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests. Every time I climb this pass, I think of all the youthful adventures I’ve had up here. Highschool, college years, my roaming twenty-somethings, and my time as a graduate student – all the days, start packed nights, friends, and experiences always flood right back. Admittedly, I don’t come up here as much as I used to. Over the years, the spot has become increasingly popular – as have many once lightly trodden destinations in these primitive mountains. This highlights the great paradox of preservation – we must inspire the need to save wild lands by inviting, evermore, trespass. Today, I am relieved to know our car sits alone in the small parking area.
Our hike travels a tunnel of mountain brush shaded by a high elevation beech forest. We feel cool and wet in their shade as we trek along an old dirt road. The beech appears haunted. Fog laden mornings have produces lichens and thick mats of moss across bare rock and exposed tree trunks. Just past this wonderfully ghostl-like forest, we traverse an open meadow full of native grasses, pale purple vetch, fleabane, and an array of more wildflowers and mountain herbs that I’ll lever be able to learn. The colors pop and fizzle, patch and glide, creating a colorful mosaic against a tranquil sky. As our old road narrows along the crest of Oak Knob, I hear Eli yawn. This part of the jaunt is easy, but the remaining half mile or so is a bit tougher – best to hurry before the child wants down.
Our trail turns upward, as we shift through patches of isolated, scrubby trees. Our climb grows in intensity, but soon enough we reach the base of the knob. The boy, now fully awake, is wiggling and kicking his legs back and forth. I let him down and sigh with relief with his weight off my shoulders. As we breast Huckleberry, a white cross stands firm in swaying meadow grass. This monument is very familiar to my eyes. The old cross marks the grave of a pair of loggers who succumbed to the elements up here in the December of 1899. I always acknowledge the cross as I pass and move on to the bald. Under the warm sun, in a cool breeze, with green grass and mountain herbs dancing and jumping about, we take in an impressive, unobstructed, 360° view of the Unicoi, Great Smoky, Snowbird, and numerous other mountain ranges across East Tennessee and North Carolina. The blue and purple mountains roll on as waves of Earth across an immortal land. We are enveloped in the gold, green, white, and purple colors of Appalachian majesty. We walk on our planetary rock and feel as if we can fly away and escape towards all of eternity, space, and time – if only we could leap and just keep our feet of the ground, we’d explode like fire across the sky. This is a great reward for only a little over a mile worth of labor.
The boy runs free as we lay a few blankets and prepare our picnic near the communal fire ring that has long persisted on the summit. As Katie uncorks the wine, I slice our summer sausage, brie, apples, and bread. We arrange the food on a wooden chopping board I’ve carried up, and pour our wine into two “fancy,” short, stubby, stemmed, plastic wine glasses. With open olives and berries, we chow, hungry from a full morning and early afternoon in the woods. Delighted, Eli joins us as we pour water from my pack into a small glass for him to enjoy. His favorite part of the meal are the blue berries and sausage – demanding I slice “more, more” as he feasts. Hard not to smile as he smears blue berries across his face, and belches summer sausage readily.
We’re having fun, but we’re also experiencing extremes in weather. When the air is still, the sun burns down like furnace on our skin. As soon as the wind picks up, though, gusts of bone chilling air shiver our very cores. Such is the weather up here. In the past, even in the deep heat of mid-August, I’ve camped up here to awake in freezing temperatures on the bald. At any visit, travelers are vulnerable and exposed. There are no trees to block the wind, no canopy to find shelter from the sun, no place to huddle from the elements. In this wide-open meadow, we find an environment that is inviting and savage all at once. Despite the weather, we kick a soccer ball around with each other and have a merry time.
The plan was to spend a few hours up here, but as we play, the wind picks up impressive gusts. We put a warm coat on Eli, I pull on the trusty Baja over my flannel shirt, and Katie wears an old fleece. My wife’s hair dances in the wind, across her freckled cheeks, as my beard continually slaps my face in the cold breeze. As for the boy, though, the gusts become so strong his face reddens and the wind pushes his tiny body over. As yet another gust blows him backwards, we can only watch as he tumbles through the grass.
“Well,” I notion, “time to pack up.”
The kiddo’s been whipped by the Appalachian environment so much he falls asleep yet again in his pack as we hike out of the knob.
“Let’s just build a fire and hang out at camp for the rest of the day,” Katie pitches the idea as we reach the family wagon. “After a full day, he’ll just want to play with his car and kick the soccer ball around.”
I agree and look forward to what I like to call our “not so fancy cowboy dinner” of leftover beans and all-beef franks. Tomorrow, Mother’s Day, we will stick around camp, explore small trails, and likely take another dip in Lake Santeetlah.
The afternoon readily gives to evening, which passes on to starlight. As my family sleeps, speckled mug in hand, I sit warmly next to our fire wrapped snuggly in a sarape. I had a good time today, in one of my favorite places on Earth. These old forests and rising ridges stand on Precambrian, metamorphic rocks. As the smoke from the fire swirls and puffs into the air, the fire cracks and burns on a landscape over a billion years in the making – one composed of ancient deformed ocean sediments, thrown and thrusted toward the sky some 250 million years ago during a continental collision that would give rise to the greater Appalachian Mountain range. Under a mixed hardwood and pine forest, I peek through the singing canopy to a sky pierced with burning stars and glittering cosmic dust. Here in the cove hardwood, along the gurgling Santeetlah creek, in the soundscapes of night, surrounded by dense rhododendron thickets and mountain laurel, I lay still in wonder.
In the mountain lake built by dams, in the grove of giants infected with invasive insects, next to a cross on a mountain bald, we escaped the burdens of human civilization only to be surrounded by our persistent ecological disturbances. Perhaps a renowned, new preservationist movement, one that examines our place as an animal on this dynamic planet, will raise enough awareness for our species to realize our very survival, our very preservation, is at risk. Protecting wilderness areas, connecting with our origins, may just ensure the survival of the human race. With great risks to our own survival here at home, perhaps the real possibility of needing to leave Earth will give our population a new perspective – one that can unite our species in a common, global cause. Just as Earth holds no boundaries, neither does human potential. If we reach for those stars, we may just protect this very rock.
Our planet congealed out of gas and dust to produce brimstone and water. In this environment, life grew. These pioneers adapted, evolved in complexity over eons, survived several mass extinctions, and put together chemical pathways to award a mind as gifted as ours. In times like these I can only revel in the breeze, admire the burning glow of outer worlds, imagine time across the heavens, smell the iron and lucid sweetness of the natural world, and become overwhelmed only to weep in gratification and grandeur. Our bodies exist in fleeting moments of a mortal realm. Spinning along, our planet glows as a beautiful world, breathing and full of life. Adrift in the void, across an interstellar space composed almost entirely of nothing, an ever-present truth exists: Earth is our home, and our home is good.
A fire is coming. Another world is not only possible, but, in the words of author and advocate Arundhati Roy, “she’s on her way.” In the still of the night, hugged by these Appalachian Mountains, deep in the coves of long-standing tress, I can hear her breathing.
Note: This post first appeared on AppalachiaBare.com