The Mountains are calling, and I must go.
~~ John Muir
I am a Capricorn. The sign’s symbol is a Mountain Goat. Mountain Goats thrive in rugged terrain, but ground with a strong foothold even when hanging in thin air. I have long recognized the same tendencies in myself. Only once did I see a real mountain goat in the wild. I was driving along a highway in Seward, Alaska, and I looked up and saw mountain goats. I’ll never forget it. I wished I could have gotten closer. Capricorn is an earth sign, and I’ve often been paired with water sign partners in relationships. My love of the mountains and the earth has often gone un-indulged with vacations planned around oceans and sand for my water-loving counterparts. I even forget myself how much I need the mountains and the fresh air.
When I was a kid, my parents and grandparents took us to the mountains. We went to Colorado, the Appalachians and the Ozarks. We spent time outdoors and often camped, but we didn’t do a lot of hiking. It wasn’t until I lived in Knoxville in close proximity to the Smoky Mountains that I started to connect with my mountain home. The first real hike I took was with my first husband up to Mt. LeConte. Mt. LeConte has a lodge at its peak, but we didn’t stay overnight. We took a day hike. We were woefully unprepared. I packed up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a quart jar (yes, glass) of water. We hiked the Alum Cave Bluff Trail which is 5.5 miles each way. It was summertime, and it was hot. A quart is 32 ounces. We were two people with 11 miles to travel up the side of a mountain and peanut butter on our sandwiches. It was not a good combination. In addition, a thunderstorm crashed our party. We had no rain gear. We hung out at Alum Caves under the overhang until the storm passed. We learned a lot on that hike. And we went back numerous times. Hiking in the Smokies became our favorite past-time, and we brought lots of friends along.
There is a big difference in seeing the mountains from a car and seeing them on foot. There’s the obvious activity level difference. For some reason back then we never worried about how long the hike was going to be. We’d tackle a 19 miler with no qualms. Most of those were out and back so the walk down was not nearly as strenuous. If we had friends in town as we often did, we’d always plan hikes. We hiked all over the Smokies. I learned to pack the right amount of yummy trail food, and we spent long days hiking in the blissful serenity deep in the rain forest. Often, we’d fight massive traffic jams in Sevierville for hours to get to the woods and then see no one at all in an 8 hour hike. People don’t hike, and they are missing the true essence of the mountains. I loved getting to the top of a peak, having lunch and looking out at the mountain range below. It felt like I was at the top of the world. The sound of the breeze and maybe some birds chirping were all I could hear. It was so peaceful.
One time we hiked to a meadow and sat down to rest. A fawn walked up, and we glanced at each other in joy at seeing this peaceful creature so close up. We didn’t move at all. It came within 4 feet of me, and we shared a moment of connection before it bounded off. We met a bear coming down a trail one day, and it must have been one that had been fed by humans because it wasn’t scared of us. I looked at my husband and said, “You know I’ve been thinking I should probably read up on what to do if we see a bear.” It was too late. The bear was coming toward us in the middle of the trail. We turned around and started walking in the other direction hoping that he would veer off. My ex ran back to see at one point, and the bear came right around the turn where he was standing. We walked up on a couple who told us we just needed to make some noise, and he’d veer off into the woods, and that’s what we did. I was afraid this bear was going to chase us all the way back down the trail, but we did get to finish our hike. From then on, we carried a “bear pack” with all of the food. We carried one pack with our valuables. If worse came to worse, we could throw the bear pack to the bear. They are not predatory to humans, but if they have been fed, they see us as food sources and can harm us looking for food. Most of the time our animal sightings were limited to Copperhead snakes, birds and chipmunks.
Devil’s Den State Park
When I was in Michigan, we went to the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula. That is a pristine wilderness up there. Down here with all of the traffic and people vacationing in the mountains, a vacation in the mountains can be more like a vacation in the city. It’s practically a tourist trap unless you can get in the wilderness. But, in the Upper Peninsula, it’s a different story. It’s at the top of the country and covered in deep snow for most of the year. There are a few little towns, but it’s wilderness for the most part. Snowmobiling trails follow the main roads because in the winter travel is too treacherous by car. Power lines are non-existent except in the few towns that exist. We spent some time in Hiawatha National Forest in McKeever Cabin. It was $45 a night, and you had to hike for about 1000 yards to get back to it. In the winter, you can’t even park that close. You have to sled about a mile just to reach the front door. It sits on McKeever Lake, and there is nobody back there. My husband ran around naked most of the time, and we skinny-dipped in the lake. There was a log in the cabin, and we spent some time reading about the other visitors that came to McKeever cabin. Most were skiiers coming for cross-country skiing in the winter. The summer was deserted except for a few of us.
The Ozarks are another one of my favorite mountain ranges. Arkansas, too, is less developed than the East Coast mountain ranges. I went to a place called Devil’s Den State Park one summer with a girlfriend. We hiked all day in the woods and then drove into Fayetteville for dinner. When we returned on that weeknight, the campground was deserted except for us in our tent. I walked across the meadow to the bathhouse around midnight. When I walked back across the clearing, I looked up to see the night sky. There were so many stars it was dizzying. I stopped and looked for awhile at the shimmering lights that made an otherwise totally dark place a festival of sparkle. It was so beautiful, and I took a snapshot in my mind. I woke my friend up. She was from Chicago and had never seen stars like that before. Until you really get out in nature, you don’t realize what the world must have looked like before we had cars and lights and cities. I always imagine what it must have been like to ride up in a covered wagon on the top of a mountain range … not knowing what comes next. It must have been an adventure to end all adventures.
There are so many things I love about the mountains. When hiking, every turn brings a different experience. A gentle stream trickles into a violent waterfall. A trail lined with white rhododendrons in bloom looks like a King’s Wedding. The color green takes so many different hues deep in a forest. Blankets of soft lichen, rivers of fluttering ferns and showers of the densest forest canopy saturates me in every color green that God has imagined. I love a rain forest. Lush, moist vegetation grows in a natural pattern that requires no manicure. Quiet so deep that it haunts my ears is only broken by the woo-hooo-h00 of an owl or the keer-keer-keer of a hawk. Under a rock in a stream, an orange salamander shows his beautiful colors before disappearing in a rippling pool, a hidden gem that only a few human eyes will ever see. I often wonder when I’m deep in the mountains if any person has ever stepped in this place before. It is one of the few places that it is possible that I may be the only one that ever saw this bird, this tree or this frog.
I miss the mountains. I’ve been wanting to get up to Sylamore Creek in Arkansas for the last few months. I have to make it there this summer before the ticks get too bad. The water is high in the creek in the spring. It crosses the road just before the campground where I like to camp. You can barely drive through the water in the car if it’s too high. Campsite #20 is the one I like. It sits right beside the creek and on the edge of the woods. Ashok runs in the stream and cools off before we head out on a hike that leads right from the campsite. We climb up rocks and through a somewhat dry terrain before we get to a lush forest. Up the trail is the little pool where I like to swim. After a few miles of hiking in the summer, it will be hot, and I’ll be ready for a dip by the time I get there. I’ll strip off and jump in right where the water is deepest and crystalline green. The limestone cliffs shore up the sides of the pool, and the top of the mountains tower over the trail. It is quiet and clean. My heart stills just thinking about it. I can hear the breeze. I feel the coolness of the water on my skin. I can see Ashok sitting on the bank watching me after she takes her dip. There is nothing to do but be. Like the mountain goat, I am grounded in the moment in the middle of a mountain. Ahhhhh….. I’m already there. One trip is fodder for a thousand moments. I’ll take a refill, please.