For all the outdoor activities I do, camping, hiking, living on a deserted island for days by myself, I’ve never really considered myself an outdoorsy person. Okay, I tend to favor outdoor clothing, and I do shop at REI; I display my lifetime saltwater fishing license on Beans (my truck) because we should all hunt or gather some of our food, and I’ve got a bright orange hunter’s vest stowed behind the driver’s seat (not because I hunt but because I shoot butterflies or wildflowers in game lands).
But really, I’m an indoor person: plucking away on my laptop, looking up words and spellings and grammatical rules, which I usually break or get wrong anyway, reading long-dead mystics and other susurrating voices. Legs kicked up on the desk, my second cup of cinnamon-sprinkled caffeine steaming on my distressed coffee stand, window blinds opened, watching joggers, walkers, and school buses go by: right there, that is my perfect day. Why is it, then, that last week I packed up my tent and hiking gear so I could climb Mount Mitchell?
I suppose I could say that I enjoy the outdoors for the beautiful sunsets, or the dew drop mornings, or campfire smoke curling lazily-like through branches and leaves, or some other granola and mindlessly tired platitude. Don’t get me wrong. Sunrises, clear skies, and beautiful vistas are hypnotic and compelling. So, compelling they’ve grabbed the attention of everyone passing through this veil; they’ve become somewhat shopworn. For me, though, the splendid banality of an overly saturated horizon, glowing artificial fiery hues, stabbing clarity, and enameled contrast—the high dynamic range of spritzers and dabblers—hardly merits days of sleeping in a cold tent on hard ground. There’s a reason we decided to live in houses with mattresses.
I may change my mind about the great outdoors next week but here’s why I think I like the natural world: I’m sitting at my desk, plucking away at these words. I can’t feel my toe. We’ll say the big one on the left foot. There’s nothing wrong with this toe. It hasn’t been injured or numbed. To the best of my knowledge it has fine blood circulation. I can’t feel my toe because I’m simply not thinking about it. And that goes for my elbow, the back of my kneecap, the center of my scalp that probably just lost another hair. Did I even notice my last breath? I take about 24,000 breaths a day. How many do I even notice?
For all the times I’ve come across a deer in the woods or glided into meditation by a gentle tide, that time I watched the sun come over an African grassland or the time I hiked around Crater Lake, every time I’ve gone to the woods a part of me that doesn’t get near enough attention comes straight forward. I have a body.
Mount Mitchell is about forty miles northeast of Ashville, North Carolina. My campground, some three thousand or more feet below the peak of the mountain, wasn’t a lot to look at. But I wasn’t here for the pretty. I was here to climb the mountain.
The trail up and down was a 12.0-mile roundtrip. Given my recent fixation with walking, counting steps, and modest weight loss, it seemed doable—even with the ascent labeled “Most Difficult” and/or “Strenuous,” and the decent called, “More Difficult.” Twelve miles, easy as falling off a log. What I didn’t consider, however, was the change in elevation, a more than three-thousand-foot elevation change. Living on the East Coast, I’ve never thought of up and down as dimensionally important as, say, north or south. But that took less than half a mile to figure out.
Every single step, from the trailhead to the summit, was up. There were mileposts every half a mile. Normally it doesn’t take me too long to walk a mile, maybe 12 minutes. Not here. Each half mile was taking me twice as long as a mile at home. About halfway up the hike got worse. It went from going up, one step after another, to climbing up, to scaling up, to crawling up over boulders, crossing moss-slicked rills, balancing log acts, cold breezes stinging the sweaty spot between my back and my pack, the never ending switchbacks.
That’s when I noticed my body. This is a common event for people hiking. They talk about breathing in the fresh mountain air, the vigor of being alive. What they specifically mean is what I experienced. My legs bathed in lactic acid. My ass hurt. My pack started to weigh more and more. I started slipping and tripping on tree roots. My head hurt. I coughed or vomited—who can say which? Spewed yellow snot and mucus along the trail. The leftover bits were wiped away and smeared against tree bark or my pants.
And all of this felt wonderful! I knew my fingers and toes and arms and legs like old friends. The inner turmoil, the screaming man, who is my brain, had been silenced by crunching leaves. The conscious effort to keep going, one foot after another, a singular focus. When I realized it was taking much longer than I planned, the thought of cold rain and getting caught in darkness, getting lost, or hand-to-hand combat with bears, surges of panic wanted to overwhelm my amygdala. I squashed my alarmist nature by taking breaks rather than speeding up, breathing deeply, noticing the tart texture of the green apples I brought with me. I refused to give up. I defeated every stray thought of turning around. Each step was measured: my left arm and the hiking pole I carried in my right hand acted as ballast. When the pain neared overwhelming, when my body wanted to quit, I made myself go faster, make it hurt more. And it felt great, every time.
Belden C. Lane puts it this way, “The body’s fatigue is experienced as a “high,” opening the soul to an unexpected fluidity and immediacy of presence.” “We were not born for pavements and escalators,” writes Jay Griffiths, “but for thunder and mud.” I’ve come to love the frailty of the human body, the sheer vulnerability of it. Alone in the woods where that liminal space between the inside and outside of your body vanishes. Celluar signals attenuated, your belongings strapped to your shoulders, the sky: your ceiling, the trees and shrubs: your walls—Jesus lived on Mount Mitchell without a pillow. Step one, step one, each step: step one. Each step: the most important step.
You remember, anamnesis-like, the untrampled soil that made up your constituent ingredients. That’s the same ground and rock that builds mountains to hike. Everything is made of stars, and billions of years after an exploded star made me and Mount Mitchell, we were merging back together. It occurred to me, as it did Thomas Traherne, that if the inside of me and the outside of me are vaguely distinguishable places, “The visible world is the body of God,” in as much as God is in all things. Who can tell the difference? The unknowable God graced us with mountains to feel. God’s skin to crawl upon. Gods, all of us, walking on God’s body, one step at a time.
Have you looked for your keys to find them already in your hand? Or search the house for reading glasses that are on your head? Last night I searched the office for a favorite pen. After ten minutes of looking, I found it clipped between the buttons of my shirt (where I always put it).
For at least two decades now, I’d lived in my head, unaware of arms and fingers, legs and toes. All that talk about the mind-body connection had seemed like a bunch of crystal-healing hokum. Give me books, that’s all I’d wanted. I’d read this philosopher and that theologian. I’d accumulated degrees like raked leaves.
Somewhere on the side of the mountain, however, I saw a glimpse of what it means to be mind and body. My throbbing calf muscles, an elevated pulse rate, the manner of locomotion. I stood before an undiscovered country, a new avenue to explore. I was observing mentally and physically just one thing: Now. That present moment, as I scaled down the mountain, calculating one step, then another, each step so completely different from all the steps in my life. This step, this step, this step, each step was the first step, the only step in a mindful life.
Had I never been mindful at all? I’ve probably written about mindful moments and pretended to know what I was talking about. But now, even the sense of writing in the past tense feels like a betrayal of mindfulness. (I should be writing about the rhythm of keystrokes, the miracle of each fingering knowing where to go. Stream of conscious coagulating into letters and syllables. But I guess it is spirituality’s irony that negates mindful reflection.)
Those steps, especially coming down Mount Mitchell, were the most important steps in my entire life. And maybe that is a better idea of what mindfulness is. Not an epiphany or a realization. Not communing with nature or living a life of simplicity or spiritual longing and desire. Though, I believe all those things are mindfulness’ extended family. This moment, now, is the most important moment of your life. Your past and future are abstract concepts that have no tangible meaning. Separating your mind from your body sounds like it’s mindfulness. (I mean, it is called mindful.) But it’s not. Separating your mind from your memories, severing thought from anticipation, leaning into your body to still your mind, can mindfulness be more oxymoronic? My definition for mindfulness today is the nexus where mind, body, and this moment flow as one current. That’s not what I would have called mindfulness a couple of weeks ago, and it’s not what I will call mindfulness a year from now. What I am doing now is the most important thing I can ever do.
I made it up and down the mountain. Climbing Mount Mitchell came with an extended reward beyond its intrinsic prize. My legs and back have been sore for a week—ibuprofen sore. Now, I’m thinking of getting out of this mindfulness business, too many unanticipated consequences.
*A confession: All of the pictures below were taken on my trip to Mount Mitchell...however, none of them were actually taken on my hike (did you really think I was gonna haul up 60lbs of camera gear?). The shots below were taken either in Mount Pisgah National Park or some mountains I found in eastern Tennessee while visiting my foggies.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Well, it is called the blue ridge parkway.
Below is Rattle Snake Pointe (somewhere in Tennessee at a state park whose name I forget).
Moccasin Bend, Tennessee, facing Lookout Mountain
I found this guy on "Indian Land," outside of Cherokee, North Carolina. I asked permission to be on the land, and the guy said, "Hell yeah." This elk seems to have tangled with a cowboy and won.
The shot below is the Tennessee river winding its way around the Prentice Cooper State Forest just to the west of Chattanooga.
I have no idea why people photograph abandoned cars in rural areas. But apparently it is a thing. So here is my contribution to the rusted-out junked car to photographic art motif.