Post Beer Ramble

Sitting down to a cold beer after a hearty afternoon hike is quite possibly one of my favorite indulgences. Feet pleasantly sweaty with the heat of friction from that last two-mile stretch back down the mountain. Head and heart still halfway to the summit, pulled back to the carved black peak in awe. Eyes still alert to the formation of thunderclouds overhead.

My favorite local trail climbs Colbert’s Ridge without hesitation or want of switchbacks. One hour at a confident pace rewards me with today’s destination, Viewing Rock, which is about two-thirds of the way to the summit of Deep Gap (the lowest saddle in the Black Mountains). I lie on my back, curved like a soupspoon into the granite outcropping and gaze at the clouds. I watch their lightweight shadows ascend the opposite wall of foothills like daytime ghosts, covering distances it takes me hours to complete.

Some folks around here say “Spring happens all at once,” but I never quite saw it that way. From Viewing Rock I can see most of the valley, speckled with barns and greenhouses, some pastures but mostly undeveloped forest. In the distance is Roan Mountain, host of the North Carolina-Tennessee state line and the ever-popular Appalachian Trail. Wind ripples across patches of spring-fresh forest like waves on the ocean. After four years I am still astonished at the individuality of each tree. Spring pops up slowly here, as the occasional red oak, then maple, then white oak bursts into new life. It is not like the mountains back home, where tree lines are distinct and dark green year round, dense trunks lurching sideways with inches of alpine bark to hold against the snow. Here the trees grow healthy and strong right to the summit of mountains, and come springtime, they birth new clusters of leaves according to their own individual clocks.

But the ease of living right up against the wall of these mountains was not something I had in Portland. Today I hike in old soccer shorts and a cotton t-shirt – something I never would have tried at higher elevations or two hours from the city. Make no mistake, in my backpack I carry a first aid kit, a fleece vest, rain gear, a bit of food, and two-and-half quarts of water. All the same, when I day hiked and backpacked out west, the adrenaline rush of actually having the land underfoot was simultaneously accompanied by a sense of hesitation. I wore poly-pro and rugged shorts, hiked with survival kits and space blankets, my Swiss Army knife, and a signal mirror.

When I left those high-elevation peaks for the pleasure of living right next to the Blacks, I also left behind a lot of my fears. Getting to know the Blacks has been like earning the trust of a horse – an animal that both has the power to love you and kill you in one breath. It is invigorating and satisfying. Some days it feels like an accomplishment and other days it feels like the ignorance of one tiny hiker clambering up the back of these magnanimous beasts. I am lured by the notion that I might actually come to know them as my own backyard, a task that seemed impossible with the Cascades.

As someone who has been backpacking since I was ten years old, the freedom of hiking in a cotton t-shirt is more than just a convenient maneuver, it is symbolic of my comfort level and my commitment to understand this place that is my new home.

I can hike in cotton first, because I know how thunderclouds break on these mountains and trust my gut, knowing I won’t freeze if I misjudge and get caught. Second, because I can haul ass back down the mountain and hitch home in under five minutes in the case of an emergency. And third, because I know where and what direction the water flows and to which river it joins. If I were to get interminably lost, all I’d have to do is seek out a drainage and follow my instincts downhill until I landed on the shores of the South Toe.

And forth, because the mountains out here are “small” by west coast standards, there is no need for switchbacks. One simply hikes straight up, sometimes at a forty-five degree angle across granite slabs that shimmer like river rocks in the sunlight. The blessing in this rationale is that for the first time in my life I have actually been able to fashion a sense of direction for myself. Switchbacks don’t allow for a mediocre map-reader to gain any confidence in the lay of the land. In fact, they confuse the hell out of me – especially in evergreen forests where even winter does not allow a clear line of sight. Trails that go straight up and straight down allow me to sink deep into N-E-S-W (Never Eat Soggy Waffles) and with every step, my confidence in my sense of place swells.

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