Goin’ to Carolina

Hannah and I spent last week driving to and around Lenoir, North Carolina, visiting my parents and my sister’s family, and walking up, down, and around various topographical features that you can’t see in Florida outside of Disney World.  The trip also offered Hannah a terrifying glimpse into her future, because it seems I’m well on my way to becoming my dad.  She’d already suspected this from her previous meetings with him, but spending a week at my parents’ house with my dad nearly constantly around only underlined the path I appear destined to walk (if I’m not on it already): cheesy jokes, shouting at inanimate objects, and intimate and freely shared knowledge of local surface routes.

The thing that stands out the most about driving in the mountains of North Carolina — aside from the frightening necessity of the thing known as the runaway truck ramp — is that you can’t seem to drive anywhere without ending up on a road named after a dead Senator or highway patrolman.  It’s almost as it they figure you might drive a little more safely if you think the ghost of a deceased authority figure is watching over you.  As if the prospect of driving off the road and falling a few thousand feet isn’t enough to keep you in line.  There are a few NASCAR drivers thrown in for good measure, although I’m not quite sure what the message is supposed to be there, as getting above anything like 55 MPH seems like a really bad idea.  And of course, you’re usually either going up or coming down a mountain wherever you drive, which means either standing on your brake pedal until smoke comes from under your car or wondering why you’ve got the accelerator to the floor but don’t seem to going any faster.

But oh, those mountains.  I’ve written over 200 posts on this blog, so I like to think I know how to put a word or two together.  And I have never felt more unable to describe my thoughts than when we stopped at an overlook and I got my first real look at the Blue Ridge Mountains.  These weren’t the plaster and fiberglass wanna-bes Disney’s so proud of; these were literally giant chunks of rock hurled into the sky by the earth’s desire to be one great big happy continent again.  They sprawled off into the distance like waves at high tide, one after the other, all rock and tree and haze.  And what got me most was the absolute quiet.  No laughing crowds, no ambient noise, only the occasional car passing by on the highway, a whoosh that seemed almost embarrassed to be intruding.  It could have been 1711 instead of 2011 for how unspoiled it all was.  It was a magnificent view that we never got tired of looking at the whole time we were there.

Now, admiring a mountain and walking up the side of one?  Two different things entirely.  The latter featured plenty of noise, mostly in the form of me panting for twenty minutes.  And the giant chunk was me.  We made two separate ascents on two separate days.  The first was a half-mile walk to the summit of Grandfather Mountain.  We could have driven up, but hey, I was feeling adventurous.  About five minutes into the walk/climb, on a path littered with rocks and roots that weren’t so much steps as they were obstacles, I was starting to think we should have left the adventure to someone else.  We were close enough to give up and go back, right?  They’d built that lovely road, it would be a shame to see it go to waste.  But Hannah pushed me on, and I have to admit, the sight of small children coming back down the same path triggered a bit of stubbornness in me, so we pressed on and were rewarded with a spectacular view from a mile up.  Then we realized we had to walk back down that same path to get to our car.  Sometimes nature is so damned inconvenient.

The second climb was a roughly two-mile round trip to the top of Linville Falls.  You’d think we’d have learned that, on a mountain, “path” means “twisting trail over rocks and trees designed for goats and Sherpas,” but no, there we were, wheezing our way along, this time with my parents in tow.  As much as I teased my dad earlier, I have to give him credit for getting as far along as he did.  He’s had a couple of surgeries in the last year and was on two replaced hips and bad knees, and didn’t seem any more out of breath than some of the much more experienced-looking climbers who had proper climbing things like floppy hats and fancy backpacks.  He got about two-thirds of the way up before deciding to wait for us, and actually pressed on a little more once we’d left him behind.  But it still means he missed it when I nearly became a permanent part of the local flora by slipping and almost falling off an overlook into Linville Gorge.  I had no problem putting a word or two together at that moment, let me tell you.

But reaching the top was another one of those sublime moments that knocked the sarcastic bastard right out of me.  It wasn’t so much the view, as breathtaking as it was, but the fact that I had hauled my overweight ass up the side of a mountain to see it.  Sure, I was out of breath, and again, nature and gravity had cruelly conspired to make it necessary to walk back down, but in that moment, I felt I was being rewarded for pushing myself past the easy excuses and the first pangs of tiredness.

Naturally, both times we also rewarded ourselves with large plates of Carolina barbecue afterwards.  All that heavy breathing works up an appetite.

We also walked through caverns and got caught in a hail storm and saw fireflies and rainbows and watched lots of free HBO and Cinemax and celebrated my wife’s 25th birthday and spent plenty of quality family time, but dragging myself up those two mountains will probably stand out as the lasting memory of the trip.  In the grand scheme of things, they’re a couple of pretty miniscule victories, but damn it, they’re my victories, and I’m going to hold on to them.

But would it kill them to build an elevator for the trip back down?

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One Response to Goin’ to Carolina

  1. tmso says:

    I love going up mountains. Can do that for days. But going down – ug. Knees are not happy.

    I would love to see the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’ve read a lot about them. Mostly via Bill Bryson and Cold Mountain. One of these days I’ll make it back east…

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