hiking the blacks

We shoulder packs in the rain, resisting those first sensations of getting wet, eventually surrendering to the inevitability.  We are getting our feet under us again.  We find a campsite near the road, just a quarter mile from the car, an old familiar spot from our college backpacking days.  We begin to set up our tent — always strange, this need to find shelter and make home wherever we are, especially in the wild lonely of the wilderness in the rain and growing dark.  No one else is here, the fog settles heavy over the parkway, the last lingering cars making their way home to the city below the clouds.  Good, let them go.

We are in good spirits because we know an adventure is ahead, whatever may happen, and we are in need of a little adventure.  A little unpredictable.  We soon find we cannot get a fire going, can’t even get a light for our stove.  The prospect of a cold meal on top of being now near-hypothermic and wet is dampening.  Our pride is a bit wounded — such things used to be second-nature, and now we find ourselves fumbling and making amateur mistakes.

But the wilderness is no place for the proud.

We swallow it, leave our campsite in tact and head the quarter mile back to the car, warming up there and cooking on the ground outside our car door.  The rain beats relentless, we peel off soaked layers and lament that we didn’t bring a few more backup layers, while we wait for our first sacred meal.  It’s amazing the hunger that comes over you in the wilderness.  The unexpected exertion, the cold, the yawning expanse, it stirs up something in us.  We laugh and talk about how happy we are, despite all that’s already gone wrong.  This is still fun.  If we’ve learned anything in ten years of marriage, we’ve learned that things will go wrong, and that you can either ride it out with some measure of joy in tact, or you can let it sink you.  The windows are fully steamed over now.  A wet night backpacking together somehow still feels like a vacation to parents of three children ages five and under.  Any time you retreat into the wilderness and come back alive, no matter what the circumstances or foolhardy mistakes made, is still a success of some kind, we say.

Back to our dark little wet tent we go, hurrying inside, listening now to the sounds of the dripping forest.  Just the pattering of rain now, no wind.  I am anxious — I am unpracticed at being out here in this environment again, and it takes time to give way to sleep.  I’m listening for bears, or some footfall, I suppose.

At first light we get up and get moving.  We left our food in the car, not wanting to deal with hanging a bear bag in the raining dark, knowing we would be driving to the next stop anyway.  We pack up quickly, and see some promising first rays of sun.  We expect the mist to burn off and hope to dry out our layers soon.

We debate now about whether or not we should head out to our next campsite, 4 1/2 miles away, or just keep car camping for the weekend.  It feels more uncertain now, and a lot more effort than it may be worth.  We brew coffee and oatmeal again by the car in the spitting rain and wind as we discuss and try to check the radio for the weather.  Brandon is resolute, I am questioning.  We decide to go for it, register our car at the top of Mt. Mitchell, streamline our packs and reorganize from our helter-skelter night, and head out.  It takes us four hours to hike those miles.  We forgot how strenuous this ridge line hike is.  We last hiked this range when we co-led a 21-day wilderness trip in our early years of marriage, and when thinking about how we wanted to celebrate our tenth anniversary this year, we thought of hiking the Blacks.  Six of the ten highest peaks in the eastern US are found on the Black Mountain range, four of which we would hike up and down during this trip.  Down from Mt. Mitchell, up to Mt. Craig, then onto Big Tom, Balsam Cone, Cattail Peak, Potato Hill, and finally a steep descent downhill to Deep Gap.  Our packs are heavier than necessary, we decided to forego lightweight in favor of having a few choice luxuries: a tent, coffee, books and journals, some knitting, fancier meals.  Brandon ended up carrying most of the weight, being my pack was smaller.

We make it into camp around 2 pm, fighting spits of rain and wind off and on all day.  We never seemed to break out of the clouds for very long, but had gorgeous views at different points on the hike this day.  I had wanted to go onto Winter Star Mountain originally and make camp there, but we are completely spent and Brandon tells me in no uncertain terms that this is the farthest we will go today.  We feel at home in this little spot on Deep Gap, and something in us relaxes and quiets and unwinds in a way that only the wilderness seems to do in us.  We chatter on here and there, but now we get busy with the work of shelter, fire, finding water, scouting around.  We nestle our tent under the three great spruces that line the campsite, their windward sides all blown naked.  We are very desperate and hopeful for a fire tonight, and labor for a good few hours getting it started and going in the increasing wind with all the wood soaked.  Still, it is not raining now, and we finally get camp settled.  I am reading, Brandon is nursing the fire.  It is silent out here.  It is vast.  It feels terribly good to only have to care for ourselves and tend to our essential needs, when most of our hours are spent caring for and watching over three little ones and their constant needs.  It feels like a necessary fast, a spiritual act of ceasing from the work of care taking.  Out here we don’t have to think about who needs a diaper change or a snack, who needs a book read or hurt feelings consoled.  (A special thanks, by the way, to Brandon’s parents for affording us this peace of mind while keeping our little ones happy and well-engaged!)

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Life for us has become domesticated where it was once wild.  We’ve forgotten the ways of the wilderness — the immensity that overtakes you and silences all human bravado.  A quiet that is almost deafening after so much noise.  The swallowing reality that you are not in control here — this is not your domain, this world belongs to the wild things, you are merely a visitor here.  You cannot control outcomes, you can only respond to what the natural world presents.  You are limited here, limited by resources, energy, the natural bounds of night and day, by weather, conditions.  Very little is sure.

The tenth anniversary is supposedly the “tin” anniversary, representing both the durability and flexibility of your marriage, and so B and I clinked our tin camping cups over steaming Tikka Masala with chicken.  It is one of the most satisfying backcountry meals I can remember having.  We tell some stories, remember some other wilderness moments when meals ministered to more than just our bodies.

A couple of guys hiked in just before evening, we chat with them around our fire for a bit.  They are two marine friends stationed in another part of NC, and they drove six hours to camp out at this spot, craving the wilderness as we were.  The wind is howling now and we finish off our hot chocolates, then pack up the last of our food into bear bags, head off to our bear hang, just two beams of light bouncing in the dark.  Back in our tent, we zip our bags together and whisper thanks for the warmth and our few dry clothes.  We hope for a sunny, lazy morning with another campfire and coffee.

I sleep at peace this night, happy in the wilderness, though the winds now whip the tent mercilessly and the rain assaults the west-facing side of the tent in regular surges, like an ocean wave hitting again and again.  I wake up again and again, as the tent sides bowl over with the wind, praying for our marine neighbors who were sleeping in hammocks in a grove of trees nearby.  Somehow it doesn’t seem awkward now to invite them into our tent if they are out there in the elements freezing.  The wilderness will do that to you, break down the usual barriers and make you pull together when necessary.

We wake in the morning expecting for the calm that usually comes with the sunrise, but it is as wild as ever.  There will be no fire and no sunshine and lollygagging today.  We cook quickly in our vestibule, pack up, and head for home.  Our bodies are sore and blistered and the road ahead seems longer than our strength.  But we begin, as we must.

I am watching this husband of mine and I can’t help thinking how much this trip is like marriage.  You make these plans and you have all these dreams, you imagine all the sunshine and the sprawling in a hammock by a gurgling stream.  But here you are taking one laborious step after another under a load far heavier than you could have expected.  Here you are keeping pace with another while fog closes you in on all sides, erasing the trail ahead of and behind you, obscuring all sense of perspective.  Here you are, helping each other as you rise and to fall in the muck and mire over crest and trough while the rain pelts and the wind howls.  You didn’t think it would be like this, you didn’t think it would be this hard, this much of a fight.  Is everything against us?  And all the while you are lamenting this rain and fog, you cannot see that you are hidden in the cloud He has spread over you.  You forget that sometimes He makes the clouds His chariots and walks on the wings of the wind.  You forget that many waters cannot quench love, and that He comes to you like the rain.  In all this raining and all this wet, I remember again His words to me at the crown of the year, and my soul smiles.  Yes, He reigns supreme over the rising waters.

I am watching this husband of mine carrying an incredible load, carrying all his own gear plus the tent, cooking gear, bear rope, water pump, med kit, etc.  He bears the brunt of the burden.  He does this for me.  He cares for me, he is protective for me in a way I don’t often notice at home in our usual life.  Even after all these years, all these careless and hurtful words between us in our uglier moments, he hasn’t grown callous with me.  He is still tender toward me.  He asks if I’m doing okay, he asks about my bum knee, he reaches out a hand on the steeper sections, he lends me his dry clothes.  He will give me anything he can to keep me safe.  He offers to do most of the work so I can relax and read.  At the end of it all, he rubs my back in the dark.  This man is neither saint nor villain, though I often try to pin him as one or the other.  He is both, as we all are; imperfect, a mixture of grand failure and peculiar glory.  I spent so much time in our early years “looking for the music in the music box, tearing it to pieces, trying to find a song” instead of opening my hands to receive this mystery of a man, giving thanks for what is and isn’t there as unto a good God who knows best.  Finally I’m seeing that that’s where the fireflies are.

Even after all these years, when we strip away the noise, and the busy, and all the responsibility, we find that there is still love left here.  It’s beautiful, the way we move back into this space of being just us two.  It is a whisper to us of seasons that are to come, where our rhythms and our busy will change, but for now we stretch thin and strain hard.  For now we share weary smiles and winks over early morning coffee and children with tousled hair clambering all over us.  We cannot believe the goodness of the life we have been given in these past ten years.  We look ahead with confidence because of the faithfulness of our God.  When we pass through the waters, He will be with us.

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