I step out of the car, ready for a short hike. Immediately soft, warm air wraps itself around me; a silky hug as if to say “welcome back”. I take a deep breath of cedar-scented air and smile. This is home. This feels right.
This is my first hike since returning from a vacation out west in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s beautiful there and we had such a great time. Every turn as we drove and hiked those mountains was awe-inspiring. We used words like “dramatic”, “breathtaking”, and “majestic” to describe what we saw. I think of those mountains as I begin my hike.
The trail here begins with a bridge over a mountain stream that has made its way down from high in the Smoky Mountains. Its icy cold waters flow swift this time of year and a layer of fog has formed, clinging in pockets just above the water. The stream sings a familiar song as it moves over mossy round rocks. I will follow this stream the entire hike as I climb higher up the mountain towards its source.
As I hike, I think of the differences between this hike in the Smokies and my hikes, just last week, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Here in the Smokies, everything is subtle and soft. Light trickles in from a thick canopy of green and plays on the forest floor, creating moving shadows and patterns.
Out in the western U.S. though, the hikes are bright and sharp and in focus. Light is intense as it hits grand mountains creating brilliant colors and deep shadows. It’s a world of contrast- light and dark.
The trail now grows steeper as I climb higher up the mountain. Mountain Laurel is dense here and creates a tunnel to hike through. The path twists and turns through the thick vegetation and I feel like the final destination is a mystery; unknown until my last steps around a bend reveal a view of mountains that seem to go on forever.
Contrast that to out west where the destination is seen; looming majestically in the distance. We hike on a trail along a lake flanked by tall mountains whose rocky faces drop straight into its crystal clear waters. Nothing is hidden here, just beauty to watch on the entire trail. Two vastly different hikes, yet two wonderful pay-offs.
On my hike in the Smokies, I stop and stand in a section of dense forest. There’s a sense of mystery here. Of things hidden just around the bend that I cannot and will never see. The dense vegetation holds secrets tight. The ground beneath me is spongy- I can feel the history beneath my feet. Here, the mountains are a place to get lost in and slowly fade away. There’s a sense of timelessness here. Standing in the forest, modern day fades away and I feel the past all around me, unchanged for generations.
While in California we visited the ghost town of Bodie. It’s preserved, forever in a state of “arrested decay”. Life here must have been rough; left exposed to the elements. The cold and driving snow of long winters and intense sun and dry heat of summer. The town has the feeling that its inhabitants just stepped away. Everything is still in place and exposed, just waiting to be explored. It’s easy here to imagine the lives before us eking out a living in this lonely mining town.
I finish the hike and return to my car, ready to head home. Happy to be home in my mountains. I love to travel. I love visiting those dramatic mountains out West. But I never feel at home there. They are too grand and awe-inspiring; too bright and intense. I am a spectator looking in.
In the Appalachians, though, I am home. The mountains are soft and subtle and enigmatic. The forest here wraps around me when I step into it; quietly drawing me in until I am one with it and the generations before me.
So, what are your favorite mountains? What is your favorite place to be outside? We all have that one place that feels like home. What is yours?