Something About A Mountain

INTRO MUSIC begins

JAY: You’re listening to “Hidden Language,” a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Jay Varner.

SCOTT: And I’m Scott Lunsford. In today’s episode, Jay takes us along on a climb up a mountain in search of nature, solitude, and perspective.

JAY: When I was a kid, I spent many weekends at my uncle’s cabin in Central Pennsylvania with my cousins and our grandparents and our friends. Propane-powered lights and oven, an outhouse up a mossy path. It’s one of my most favorite places on earth. 

And yet, even today, when my cousin and I make that long, slow drive down the gravel mountain roads toward the blacktop, I feel the ache of modernity sink into my bones. That crisp ozone dissipates into diesel and gasoline, engine and cell phone chirps drown out the birdsong. One time, after my wife and I went hiking in Shenandoah National Park, we descended down the winding Skyline Drive. I remember thinking that sometimes, there’s nothing worse than coming down a mountain.

On the Riverside” by Lobo Loco plays

JAY’s footsteps again… 

JAY: I discovered my mountain at the start of the pandemic. My regular hot yoga studio had shuttered its doors, moved all of the classes online. My bedroom floor, along with some space heaters, became my home studio. The university had gone online as well, and that meant also teaching from my home office. I love our home, but there’s really only so much time that I can spend inside any house.

So I went outside and started walking. The short road that we live upon turns to gravel for the final quarter mile or so, and stops at a lone house that sits inside the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. On the left-hand side, just before the road ended, I noticed what appeared to be an old service road cordoned off by a heavy-duty logging chain strung up by two fence posts. But I also saw the no trespassing signs and thought, well, there go my ideas of exploration…

But, not long after that day, a neighbor shared that he often stepped over the chain and hiked up the road. The owners didn’t mind if neighbors used the route for exercise so long as they were respectful to their property. I double-checked with a few other neighbors just to be safe and, sure enough, they confirmed it was true.

So, around Easter of 2020 I walked what I now affectionately call my mountain. Of course, it’s not mine at all–the real owners live on the other side of the state and only visit this spot a handful of times each year. They have a vacation house at the very top, but I’m going to keep those details private. The least that I can do is to be a good steward to this land, to be courteous to those who’ve granted me this access.

The first hundred yards or so are an old access road. The rutted tire trails are still visible but fading back to weeds and thorns. There’s a stream nearby and, in the summer months, I take cautious steps through the overgrowth, aware that copperheads and timber rattlers might lurk underfoot. But the old road soon turns to a paved, smooth blacktop that ascends up the mountain. All told, we’re going to gain about 800 feet in elevation in about three-fourths of a mile. Who needs a stairclimber when you have a mountain in your backyard?

Here’s the powerline. Last summer, on a clear and sunny day, the power at our house suddenly cut off. And then I heard the unmistakable rotors of a helicopter grow closer and closer. I stepped onto the front porch and saw a helicopter hovering over the mountain. What looked like a cross between a giant chainsaw and a pendulum dangled from the chopper and cut back the trees so that the wind and snow wouldn’t cause them to fall onto the lines. I saw the spotter on the side of the chopper, watching the giant churning saw and giving instructions to the pilot. They cut along the powerlines for fifteen, twenty minutes and then flew away. After it faded from earshot, our power was restored.

There are three switchbacks along this road, and we’re about to take the first, a ninety-degree right-turn. My calves are still burning from the initial climb but the stretch around this bend isn’t as unforgivingly steep, Still, my heart is pumping hard. In fact, my heart and my breath are the only sounds until I stop and listen. Traffic on the far-off state road has faded away. The only noises, aside from my own, come from the woods. A gentle breeze high up in the trees, a squirrel pattering across the leafy forest floor, a woodpecker jackhammering a far-off tree. A few weeks ago I spooked a flock of wild turkeys who’d taken refuge in the mountain laurel. They clustered together and hurriedly walked in the opposite direction.

I mean, I wouldn’t like some stranger walking into my house either. I always think about this on the mountain–I am a guest here, and I cannot take that for granted. Yes, the owners gave me permission, but I am also a guest amongst the flora and fauna. I am a guest amongst the rocks and boulders that were formed millions of years ago. I am on land that the Monacan Indian Nation once lived on and tended to. How many others have climbed this mountain, have hunted this mountain, have logged and tried to tame this mountain? Being here, breathing the air, walking this ground.. I feel rooted to this place, as if I can reach across time and history.

Blue Mountain” by Lobo Loco plays…

JAY: The second switchback is next to the remnants of an old spring house. Much of the rock-walled structure has collapsed though the stream still trickles down the wash. If I’m to see a deer today, it’ll most likely be at this spot. I’ve jumped several over the years, usually only spotting their white tails as they crest the mountain and then dip from sight. But nothing of the sort today–just quiet. I don’t know who used this spring house or how long ago it was built. But I wonder what their life was like when they lived on this mountain, wonder what they saw amongst the trees.

I continue up the road, hugging the eastern side of the mountain which shields me from the wind at this elevation. Oh, look–here are turkey tracks on the blacktop. You can see that the bird walked down this little hill, across that red-clay mud, and then crossed the road. Maybe it was part of that flock I saw a few weeks ago.

Walking here, I always think about Henry David Thoreau or Aldo Leopold, about their deliberate attempts to surround themselves with nature. Thoreau championed the “indescribable innocence and beneficence of nature.” The higher I go, the more I feel as if I am shedding the skin and speed of our modern world. The mountain asks for stillness, for patience. I stop walking and survey the forest. I see a dead shortleaf pine, and the trunk is lined with a dozen or so holes that woodpeckers have bore into the tree. ​​“Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” Thoreau asks. “We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.”

This mountain is a lovely spot to dream, to imagine. I think about Wendell Berry and his “long-legged house.” I pine for a modest mountain cabin, for a place to escape from wifi and technology and constant push notifications on my phone. I could build some type of writing cabin here–and each day, I’d leave the house with the sunrise and then walk up the mountain, build a fire in the woodstove, and get to work writing.

The final switchback turns the road sharply right and it continues to the private home. But I think I’ll stop here for now. There’s a small landing or turnaround. And on this first day of March, with the trees still bare, I look down into the Rockfish Valley, look all the way south toward Lynchburg. And to the west, I can spot the backside of Humpback Rocks, a local favorite trail that’s as steep as the road I’ve just walked. Humpback Rocks is lovely, but there are always other hikers along the trail. In all my years on this mountain, I’ve only ever seen two other people, both neighbors. They, like me, were walking. Because there’s something about a mountain…

But you know what comes next. When you’re at the top of the mountain, there’s only one way off: Down. And coming down the mountain is the hardest part. But I can always walk back up here tomorrow. 

OUTRO MUSIC plays

JAY: You have been listening to Hidden Language. This episode concludes our first season. Scott and I will be back this summer. For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit hiddenlanguagepodcast.com.

Theme music by Jay Varner. Other music for this episode was provided by Lobo Loco.

If you enjoy this podcast, please spread the word using whatever language you see best fit. . . .

NOTES:

Music was provided by the following artists through Freemusicarchive.org, with the respective Creative Commons licenses.

We Ants Can be Friends” by Lobo Loco CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

On the Riverside” by Lobo Loco CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Blue Mountain” by Lobo Loco CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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