An Ode to Mountains

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The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure. Joseph Campbell

When I moved to Asheville in August 2009, I didn’t forsee the impact the land would have on me. There were so many wonderful parts of living there, including good friends, good food, and good beer. But the lasting impressions on my life have resonated in the landscape. In four years there, especially with literally thousands of miles spent on trails and rivers, I felt as if I got to know the land itself. The bend in the path, where the water drops and swirls, and the trees bend low to block your way. So please forgive this deviation from my normal writing, after our recent move I want to present the five pieces of land and water I’ll miss the most.

Camp Rockmont

Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong! - John Denver

Our home for four years, and the gift of walking out the door and on to the trails. 580 acres of trails, if you’re keeping track. The land sits in a valley at roughly 2000 feet elevation, and climbs up to roughly 4000 feet at Eden Rock. In between are miles of trails that connect and re-route in a myriad of ways, ways that I came to know well over hundreds of days putting foot to earth. I was lost at times early on, with one memorable detour on my 26th birthday.

The leaves were changing and falling, creating a new pattern on the trail in a way I was not accustomed to, and I walked forward instead of turning left. I learned how to keep on eye on other markers, and see a bigger picture of what was happening around me, including the arrow pointing left!

I came to love that land as closely as I have loved many people, awaiting the change in each season and the change in life which it brought. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Screwtape Letters,

God gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme.

And so I seemed to embrace each season and each drive down Lake Eden Road more and more as my residential time came to a close. I’ll return from time to time and greet the trails as an old friend, and I know they’ll do the same for me.

Montreat to Mitchell

Have you gazed on naked granduer

Where there’s nothing else to gaze on

Big mountains heaved to Heaven

Which the blinding sunsets blazon

Then listen to the Wild… It’s calling you

- Robert Service

The only place to hold a candle to Rockmont would be the trails at Montreat. The training ground and race site for the Black Mountain Marathon and most of the Mount Mitchell Challenge, here was another place I cut my teeth on ultra-running, all-day hikes, and personal challenges. I have spent more time on this mountain than any other, having ascended from the town of Black Mountain to the summit seven times. Whether a hike with friends or a run with strangers, each opportunity to stand on the summit and gaze across the Blue Ridge Mountains and in to Tennesssee (on a clear day) was a brief encounter with the beauty of creation. I’ll remember my friend Shawn, and the number of monstrous 18-mile hikes he planned for our little band of oddballs, keeping us all safe and watered over the course of the day. I’ll keep close in my memory the countless runs Morgan and I took through all the seasons and all the colors.

I’ll miss Rainbow Road, it’s particular steady climb, dodging mountain bikes and families out for a hike. Trestle Road and the speed you can attain, along with little streams for Abby to drink from and stay cool. The Toll Road, all seemingly endless miles before spitting you out suddenly on the Blue Ridge Parkway. How careful steps needed to be when the trail iced over, or how joy over snowfall was replaced by frozen feet and plodding steps. Then, even in the cold, to look around and realize how small I am, how beautiful life is, and how lucky I was to be out in the woods and see the trees as they have been for many years.

Mountains to Sea

Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you’re driving the Blue Ridge Parkway somewhere within Asheville city limits, you’d have the opportunity to pull your car off the road and walk on one of America’s great state trails. Our little part winds through suburbs and state roads, over I-26 and the French Broad River, and offers well-kept trails for whatever your speed of foot traffic. I first ran Mountains to Sea with my friend Jay, who introduced me to many of the better trails in the area. The relatively steady elevation shifts make this a wonderful place to chalk up your big runs without the beating you take going up and down the mountains. I completed several twenty mile runs on this trail, breaking at the river to ice my sore legs and cool off before knocking out another ten. Morgan and I made this trail a reliably fun place to chat, let our legs roll out, and spend time in the woods while not too far off the path.

I’ll miss the rolling trail and towering pines, the little creeks for Abby, the ability to stumble over towards the road if needed, and the way certain sections made me feel like I was in Oregon and not Carolina. The big hill at I-26 and turning around at the river to face the trials of miles ahead will have their place in my heart as well. I know peaks, valleys, turnarounds, and turning stomachs are all a part of the journey, and I should embrace and learn from them just as I did fleet footed descents and perfect days.

Bent Creek

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn. - John Muir

Bent Creek is the first place I got good and lost, then found, and felt comfortable with the ordeal. Without a map, Bent Creek is a bit maze-like, even if you do manage to remember that most things connect at some point. The challenge is being able to wait for the right connection. Taking trails named Hard Times and Shut-In won’t help your mental state, but at times they were exactly what I needed to return to where I had to be.

My friend Jay and I had many a fine run looping around the many trails in Bent Creek, talking at a pace I would have previously deemed ludicrous. There’s a back way in to the Arboretum, by the way, just don’t be in there after dark, or you’ll have quite the fence to climb! After the sinking feeling of dread that arrives with the realization of being lost, it’s actually rather nice to be tucked away in that place. If I have the time and the water, it’s nice to settle in to the beginner’s mindset of being in a new place for the first time, seeing the trees and trails as never before.

French Broad River

The river called. The call is the thundering rumble of distant rapids, the intimate roar of white water… a primeval summons to primordial values. - John J. Craighead

The best new skill I picked up in the past four years was whitewater kayaking. The river I was able to play in the most was the French Broad, one of the world’s oldest rivers. I feel wonderful peace when gliding along the gentle current, sweeping me closer to thundering rapids of whitewater. I feel the craziest sense of excitement, fear, and challenge upon approaching the rapids, knowing I need to be fully present in the moment.

When I’m running, I can put myself on auto-pilot for a while and allow my mind to wander. The river will not allow this, or she will break me. The rapids are named S-Turn, Big Pillow, Sandy Bottoms, and Kayaker’s Ledge, and they are playful but serious. Kayaking is a wonderful practice in being present, prepared, and light-hearted all at once. I’ll miss the wave train on Sandy Bottoms, running the green tongue on Big Pillow, and trying to surf or stern squirt. I’ll consider the mountains rising up on either side, the warm sun and chilly water, the plunge in to each frothy bit of water thrown at my boat.

Ever and On…

Western North Carolina holds more earthly jewels than I could write about in a lifetime. Worthy pieces of land I came to know included such jaw-dropping scenes as DuPont State Park, Gorges State Park, Garden of the Gods, John Rock, Linville Gorge, and Craggy Gardens. The little Tuckasegee River holds a special place in my heart as well, though only a few paddling friends know why, and may or may not read this little essay. They are welcome to share if the mood strikes them.

I was blessed to call these places and people my kin for these years, and though my state of residence is now next door, they will always have a special place in my heart. I do not know when it may be or in what state God returns me there, but I left the land believing and feeling I would return to it and become a part of it. Though God has never taken much stock in my own plans, and may see fit to take me other places and learn other trails. If that be so I will be ever more grateful for the miles, trials, and joys that I found beneath the sky, in the water, above the ground in these lovely mountains.

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. - John Muir

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  • Mae Beth Ragland

    I am grateful as well that you took me to some of these places, Matt. That I was able to run trails at Bent Creek and Mountain to Sea. Also to take the hike to John Rock one October. The mountains hold a special place in my heart as well. Perhaps one day I will live and experience the mountain life as you have and I believe you will again one day.

  • Joann Hunter-Kemp

    It was my privilege to live in and experience Asheville from 2009-2011. I was free to be. It is amazingly beautiful. My heart yearns for it’s missed beauty, wonderful people, true friends, the food, the air, the water, the snow, the artistic culture, and the freedom to explore my own creativity. After years of city living, I discovered peace in a place that claimed my heart immediately upon arrival. Now after returning to city life, I truly realize that it cannot compare in any way to the gift of Asheville, NC. I will return.

  • Shawn Marler

    What a good read! Thanks so much, Matt. I still have so much to discover. I’ve only ever encountered the Mountains-to-Sea Trail as it is in the Mt. Mitchell State Park. I need to wonder down and explore more of it. Your article makes me want to get outside right NOW! Looking forward to seeing you again before long. We’ll get the hike with the oddballs scheduled soon.

  • Tom Dixon

    This reminds me of the year I spent in Charlotte. While we didn’t stay in NC, it was a beautiful place to live if only for a short time.