Recently I took a day long road trip to the North Carolina mountains, my dog Wrangler along for company, and on the way up had a very strange and unsettling sensation.
I had left the main heavily trafficked highways to take smaller roads through the hills, following the many twists and turns and always with the expectancy of great views around the next bend.
About halfway to my destination I began to sense that somehow I was making a return. It was not the déjà vu feeling we all sometimes have, but rather the emotions I might have in returning to a place I had known and loved a long time ago, and toward a reunion with someone who had been a special companion many, many years ago.
What would it be like? I wondered. What did I expect? Would it be the same as it had been before?
It was unsettling and disturbing. After all, I have come to these mountains so often. So why this feeling of regaining place and time from the past?
The final miles wound through a lovely valley, marked by old houses and small mountain farms, an ancient general store where I stopped to get a cold drink and a chocolate bar, a church called Grace and a road named Pumpkin Patch. On one lovely small piece of a long grassy yard there was a tree that had been bent double, no doubt from many fierce wintry gales, and then grown had straight up again
The parking lot at Carver’s Gap was full, so I parked by the side of the road, gathered hiking gear and lunch, and started up the path toward the ridges of Roan Mountain.
The first hundred yards or so up the graveled path to the initial rise were meandering and easy, leading into a small woods which reminded me of a stand I once saw in Poland. The path led past a few clear springs through a host of sheltering trees and out into a large open expanse.
From there the way up looked both steep and inviting with the promise of spectacular views in all directions. So we made our way up, Wrangler scouting the way ahead with two other dogs from another party that had joined, and sniffing out the most pungent and interesting odors off to the side.
It was not a difficult climb. The path was solid and well laid. At one point we all made a stop on an outcropping of rock, for a nourishing bite of lunch, and a cool drink. fter that although the path became steeper, narrower, rockier, and at stretches very damp, it took no more than an hour to complete the thousand foot hike to the high ridge.
At the bald top was a fenced and electrified enclosure for goats, a project started to help save the grassy bald places that top the mountain slopes. These balds are critical habitats for many rare and dying species of plants. Nineteen goats imported here for the warmer season are kept in a moveable paddock, as an experiment to see if they will target and eat the larger invading plants which threaten the ecosystem.
A brochure invites visitors to adopt and name a goat. But, alas, not a single goat was to be seen this day. And the goatman also had disappeared, his tiny tent vacant.
Since goats were not to be seen, I decided that I would be quite attentive to what else there was to see, especially the spectacular far views. Off to the south was the small valley through which Wrangler and I had wound our way, pieced and parceled here and there with bright green patches of small farms, a quilt of beauty like the pattern of creation.
To the northwest were the mountains of Tennessee, and off to the northeast another range shrouded in mist, a faint blur suggesting the far-off witnessing presence of Grandfather Mountain.
The sky was a parade of every imaginable shape and shade of cloud, a quilted patchwork with hints of cerulean blue, very bright and fast shifting whites. Moving more deliberately toward us across the valley were several large ominous dark masses, so, not wanting to be caught in the open in a drenching mountain storm, we began moving down.
On this descent I found myself stopping, again and again, not because of weary feet, but out of a hungry soul. I was eager to take in every moment, every changing view, every glimpse of glory in these hills, to have them imprinted not only on my eyes but in the deep places of my being where memories live on.
I recognized then that this was at the core of the unsettled sensation I had earlier.
It was as if all the places I had visited and loved, all the companions I had traveled with and cared for, all that had entered into me, all the gifts that I have wanted never to leave or forget, were translated into this one vivid slice of space and time.
When I looked across the slopes of the mountain to the waving green grasses and the mauve and ochre plants, I felt as if I were again looking at the lake country of England, the Coastal mountains descending over Vancouver, the green hills of Ireland, or perhaps the gorse-covered braes of Scotland. I could have closed my eyes and sworn there were Scottish thistles growing like ground cover in the Carolinas!
The old Scottish ballad came humming into my mind.
O’ ye’ll tak the high road and I’ll tak the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie bonnie banks o’ loch Lomond
I found myself singing my own version.
O’ ye’ll tak the low road and I’ll tak the high road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye,
But me and my true love will surely meet again …
On the bonnie bonnie slopes … of Mount Roan.
It came to me then that underlying my earlier disturbance was that ancient quest: is this the place? Is this the time? Will I come to the end of my ever and ongoing search: to know and cherish and keep always the love of beauty, and the beauty of love?
Yet for all the beauty that touched me, there was still a beauty I could not touch, one that was beyond my reach, whether a hand’s distance or a heart’s distance away, that left me with an unutterable longing, for an incomparable voice.
I walked on down, questions still lingering even in the loveliness of late afternoon.
The clouds above moved on and about. The grasses leaned away from the winds that blew stronger and lesser. Toward the end of the path we all sat for some minutes by the large root of a tree, the dogs laying their heads down on the pathway, as in companioning silence we watched the shades and light filtering through the tall and slim trees like the cover on a book of Rilke’s poetry.. As we hikers rested weary legs the trees seemed to stand even more erect at the closing of the day.
Shortly we were at the bottom. We waved goodbye to all the fellow travelers we had met, and drove off in a different direction than we had come.
I had descended several miles when after one sharp curve I suddenly saw the most beautiful fawn off to my left. Standing totally still, its unspoiled youngster’s coat appeared as if the mild late sun had patched a scrap of tan against dark green bushes.
Our eyes met just for an instant. Then speed took me away.
I wish I had stopped. To see if perhaps another message was being sent.
August 11, 2009