Hiking North Carolina's Mt. Sterling, Smoky Mountains

7:06 AM Life in Between 1 Comments

June 22, 2016

The clock on my unusually bright iPhone read 1:32 a.m. I tied my laces tightlythe hike was about to begin. From time to time, I retreat to a weekend hike to detox from the daily office grind. The earth-incensed air can heal better than any medicine. Starting a hike this lateor earlywas not unfamiliar to me. Most of my weekend treks began around the witching hour.

The group huddled in a circle to glance at the map once more. Our guide scanned the hill before us, anticipating the hike to comeone he'd made many times before. "We have seven miles to hike before we reach camp tonight. Think everyone can handle it?" I nodded my head with muted confidence. Was I going to make it? We held hands, said a quick prayer for safety and began marching like soldiers into the dark.

About a mile in, our eyes finally adjusted to see the ground past our headlamps. A familiar sound, the sound of flowing water, was immediately to our right. A waterfall was illuminated with bright blue hues from the moonlight above, an eerie but beautiful sight. We stood still for a moment on a wooden bridge that overlooked the falls.

Miles went by with only darkness and shadows surrounding us. But at the end of a tree-lined tunnel, we saw the trail open into a field blanketed with wildflowers. I was in the back of the line; I was in no hurry to get thereeven though I was battling exhaustion and in desperate need of sleep. The field went on for what seemed like forever, only to be punctuated by another long dirt path of narrow roads. Finally, we made it to the campsite.

We pitched our tents and hung our bags high in the trees to deter any bears that might want to join our five-person party. Cicadas and the nearby stream lulled us to sleep as we thought about the long hike that was planned for later that day.
Leaves were crunching outside my tent by 9 a.m. Our group's leader had already been up for awhile filtering water from a freezing cold stream to make his morning cup of coffee. He kindly handed me a metal cup with my own caffeine for the day. 
A thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail, our leader rarely showed any signs of exhaustion. He always seemed ready to take on the next mountainhe was fearless. He told me that a bear had visited the campsite after we all went to sleep. "How did you get it to go away?" I asked.
He nonchalantly sipped his coffee, "I told him to get out of here. He listened."
On the trail he went by a different nameJabez. In his unpublished memoir, "The Trail of Jabez", he writes about his time on the trail and what it meant to him. For Jabez, being in nature was one of the most satisfying ways to connect with God. 
"For five months along the length of the Appalachian Trail, I had fellowship. It was quite wonderful fellowship actually, even when no other hikers were anywhere to be found. Now, it is not to say that I did not enjoy the company of other hikers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, I was keen to hike with others...Assuredly, it was a fellowship that I had read about and that I thought I understood. No, this fellowship was with the One who created the wildernessthe Great Artisan. He is the painter who created the masterpiece where I now tread." - Trail of Jabez
Every time I enter a trail, I too search for that connection. In the depths of the forest, it seems that God's voice somehow reverberates, bringing us ever closer to the One we long for. 
After finishing breakfast, we suited up and began our hike to the Mt. Sterling lookout. The plan was to reach the top by lunchtime. I already knew I'd be last in the group to reach the summit. Blazing down a hill is no challenge for me. It's walking up that nearly kills me. And Mt. Sterling was a steep uphill climb for several grueling miles. Expert sources describe the trail as, "a bit challenging" and "a steady climb." For someone who wasn't hiking every weekend, I wondered how I would fare on this rough uphill battle. 
The first few miles were not terribly difficult. The road wasn't steep, and I didn't make the mistake of carrying my whole pack with me this time. I had invested in a day pack, and it was the best decision I'd ever made. Most of the hikers in my group went aheadfar ahead. And I was left behind to bring up the rear. 
It was another mile or so when I discovered I was alone. I couldn't see any of the other hikers before me, and I knew no one was behind me. My back was sore. I perched on a flat rock at the edge of the trail. Below me was a steep drop, and my feet dangled over the edge as I pulled out my water bottle and trail mix. 
Silence had never been this loud before. Other than my chewing, it was as if the whole mountain, including its animals, had been abducted. Being comfortable alone without being lonely is a learned art. Not all can master it. At times it had been a challenge for me, but not now. I felt empowered knowing I could make it to the summit in one piece, and I could do it on my own. I pressed on.

After a few more starts and stops I made it to a beautiful clearing. It was a nice stop to sit while my legs regained their strength. Jabez sat at the base of a wide tree waiting for me. "Rest," he said. "We aren't too far from the top." I immediately tossed my pack and plopped my head on a tree root. There was something bright on the bush next to me. Rejecting my thighs' argument to sit down, I walked over to see what it was. A massive black and blue butterfly was perched on a leaf, showing off its brilliance.

"Let's get going," Jabez gestured to the trial ahead. Everything in me wanted to stay there and not go on. But it was then that we began the steepest part of the journey to Mt. Sterling.

There was no end to the up. Surely, at some point, we would reach level ground. When we finally did I would speed to make up time for my turtle-like accent. I stepped on uneven rocks, slid from loose dirt and took a few much-needed breaks. It was a true test of my tenacity. Finally, a sign that said the top was only a half-mile away! Suddenly, my endurance improved.

Three of our group members had already been there for 45 minutes admiring the scenery and catching their breath. It took me a little longer, but I had made it. The fire tower loomed over me as I approached my last climb of the day. Carefully, I made each calculated step to the top.

The tower is said to have the highest elevation of any true fire tower left standing in the Eastern United States. Built in 1935, the views from its top will take your breath away. It's something even Bob Ross can't recreate. It was, as Jabez had called it, a masterpiece created by the Artisan.

After admiring the landscape and eating a light lunch, we began our decent back to camp. I may not have been the fastest going up, but I was smoking them going down. I thanked dear gravity for allowing me a reprieve after such a long, strenuous day.

As I walked on, I noticed the afternoon light dipping in and out of the forest canopy. A single sunspot gleamed through a break in the trees. Slowly I approached it, trying not to scare it away. Warmth caressed my skin as the light swallowed me whole. It was as if God had turned on a spotlight; he was saying hello.

It wasn't long before I stumbled to the barren fire pit near our tents. We all sat on the logs that encircled the fire at our camp. The boys, still full of energy, jumped in the nearby stream and swam until nightfall. The water was frigid, and I could only manage to dip my toes. 

As I sat on the boulder in the center of stream, I began thinking about God's work in our lives. Outside the protective walls of the mountain our cell phone service would return, we'd get back into our routine and God, for some people, would be harder to hear. I knew I fell into that category. I began to speak to him.

"God," I said. "Please let me bring this feeling with me wherever I go. I want to feel your presence always." 
He kept his promise. 

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