Hiking up a Mountain, Which Sits atop a Famous Cave

Cardwell CollageHalf-an-hour or so after noting that this particular hike, taken on a chilly early-March morning, may be the quietest one I had yet experienced in Middle Tennessee, a vicious rumbly roar issued from an indefinite distance.  This was not an animal’s roar.  It was manmade–the product of explosives.  The big sound shook me from my reverie, and I searched for its source.  Through an opening in the bare-branched canopy I watched a wide cloud of gray-brown smoke disperse upward off a faraway hillside and take slow flight on the breeze.  A dynamite explosion, perhaps, for some mining or quarrying process, was my first assumption.  Unexpected outbursts often startle, but in this wooded sanctuary, it was plain unnerving.  After a period of bemusement, there was nothing to do but trudge onward.

 

An ominous air had already insinuated itself upon the morning, beginning when, en route to the trailhead, I turned onto a narrow, shoulderless two-laner named Dark Hollow Road.  It seemed the kind of remote rural backroad that has some grim legend attached, the details of which the locals are familiar but outsiders are regrettably unaware.  Once on the trail, the total absence of other hikers lent its own eerie charm to the labyrinthian limestone, and a fresh, sizable set of canine pawprints, big as my forefoot, was a nice touch.  I measured a print at four-and-a-half inches long, which is well within range of a mature wolf’s.  The tracks may have belonged to a large, friendly dog, but being in a spooky frame of mind, I was picturing a red wolf that had migrated west from the Smoky Mountains, hunting these very woods.  All of this just adds to the enjoyment of a solitary hike, however.  These dangers are mostly imaginary and provide the same brand of innocent thrills one may experience on a trek through a haunted forest during the Halloween season.

 

Later, having lunch on the mountain, in a sublime natural amphitheater made of enormous boulders, the earlier disruption was becoming a memory.  Peace had been restored.  Buzzards circled overhead, their shadows crossing the ground endlessly before me–yet another spooky element.  But in spite of these things that may seem scary to the imagination, the very real and present danger seemed to be the explosion that had occurred that morning.  It carried a violence that the backroads and rocks and wolves and buzzards did not.  A question came to mind:  Is this progress?  Is this the way to steward the earth’s resources?  It feels like a perversion of stewardship.  It seems that as our kind advances with its technology, the goal should be to come into harmony with nature, not to destroy it in an attempt to take what it does not readily give.

 

It is naive to think we have reached a place in our collective journey where we are ready to stop taking resources from the earth.  But maybe there is a better way to do it than by blowing up vast tracts of wilderness.  Maybe a mind more technical than mine already has the solutions, and maybe those solutions will plod through the muck of bureaucratic special interests and come to light before our wild places disappear completely.  Maybe.

...having lunch on the mountain, in a sublime natural amphitheater made of enormous boulders...
…having lunch on the mountain, in a sublime natural amphitheater made of enormous boulders…

 

 

 

 

Embracing the In-Betweens

Overused expressions from popular culture are to be avoided in general, often repeated as they are to the point of becoming trite.  But I can think of no more appropriate phrase for this post than that of John Lennon in his song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”:  “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  An unfortunate side effect of the holidays (which begins for me the moment Halloween decorations hit store shelves) is the occurrence of lulls in the in-betweens.  The three month period for which the Halloween season and New Year’s Day serve as bookends may be viewed as an imaginary mountain range.  The peaks in this range are the calendar holidays themselves, and they are connected by a lengthy trail which requires time and patience in the ascent of each peak but then plunges precipitously down the other side, dipping into the mundane.  An irony of this festive time of year is that what is considered mundane–the ordinary chores, the routine tasks, the minutiae of the workday–begins to feel even more so.  Jobs become drudgerous with much clock-watching.  Occupations that allow for little time off during the holidays can even become sources of bitterness.  We who appreciate this part of the year juggle conflicting feelings of eagerness for cherished traditions with the fear that they will end too quickly.

 

So here is a challenge to myself and to anyone else who struggles with finding a balance between these special days and all the tedium-laced, unremarkable ones that surround them.  Let go.  Halloween, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve will take care of themselves.  The embedded psychological weight of each of these all but insists on their prominence on the calendar.  Keep traditions, but understand that they will endure without excess of effort and anxiety.  The preparation of food or the purchase of gifts may be necessary, but fretting over making the day memorable is not.  Instead, direct that energy into embracing the in-betweens.

 

Nature is a worthwhile place to start.  Fall colors peaked weeks ago, and a majority of hardwoods have lost their leaves, but throughout Middle Tennessee there are little pockets of color–solitary maples clinging stubbornly to their bright reds and yellows, which appear all the more dazzling amid the encroaching browns and grays of the surrounding trees.  To a willing mind, even the browns and grays have their charms.  A line of bare branches, when positioned opposite the sun, has a way of softening the waning rays of dusk into a mellow red-orange glow, which in turn is complemented by a paled and deepening turquoise sky, quilted with magenta-pink cirrocumulus clouds.

 

Cold nights are here, yet there is an alternative to bemoaning the onset of early darkness.  When the premature sunset fools us into thinking the hour is late, shift focus to the comforts of home.  Home can be a loaded concept, but hopefully it is a positive one.  Perhaps it implies family, but it also can imply warmth and refuge.  In the abstract, home may imply a place inside ourselves, where we are able to retreat regardless of our physical environment.

 

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, the mountain peak at which we arrive this week, I suggest one last way to ease the anxiety of the mundane (and I do it with another potentially overused phrase):  count your blessings.  Loosen your grip on tomorrow’s ambitions and take stock of what you already have.  Everyone has something, and most of us have much.  Inevitably, the in-betweens will be sweetened, and an impulse toward generosity may just reveal itself.

The Superior Season

“Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it, which comes at the two changes of the year.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Fall is my season.  Somehow–and this is something I cannot quite put my finger on–the artistic/intellectual interest I developed at a tender age lined up with the changing of the seasons, and autumn took on a significance which has grown steadily in the years since.  The whole range of fall’s attributes are attractive to me, from the loss of leaves to metaphysical meditations on the waning season of life.  Halloween plays a part, too.  The trappings of the Halloween season have sparked my imagination from earliest childhood.  In the decorations and colors and allegedly haunted things, I see mystery.  And it is mystery that draws me, not evil or gore.  It is the mystery of what is behind these things, hidden and nameless, the unknown.  Non-creative explanations that anything Halloween-related is evil are not sufficient.  That is simply a shortcut to thinking.

Something about this time of year draws me aesthetically, intuitively, and intellectually.  The imagery of fall serves as the vehicle for a sense of mystery that will enhance our lives if we let it—a way to hold on to younger sensibilities.  There is something inviting about the color orange when it is found in nature, whether on a pumpkin or a leaf–especially orange deepening into red, and its inherent contrast with darkness, such as you see in a sunset.  There is mystery in a sunset, a summation of what the day gave us and a curiosity about what the night is bringing, whether that sunset be viewed through the branches of trees or reflected off the backs of ocean swells.

To be honest, I became enamored of both fall and winter, but fall edged ahead on the strength of its sensory accoutrements.  For sight, there are the changing leaves and ripening fields.  For smell, there are smoky bonfires and pumpkin-scented candles.  For taste, there are various hearty, spiced, and sweet edibles.  For sound and touch, there are cool breezes bending branches and twirling leaves.  The artistic education taking place at that impressionable age merged with the pleasanter aspects of the changes taking place in nature.  The exhilaration of a brisk day that whispers of winter–under a lustrous blue sky, with leaves at peak color and twigs barely clinging to their trees–commingled with the elation achieved when a painting from the pages of an Art History textbook would suddenly reveal itself as a thing of complicated beauty.  Every year, when this finest of seasons rolls around, my excitable imagination becomes even more so, and I cling to each day in a vain attempt to make it last longer.