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Shining Rock Southern Loop, Day 3
Field Notes XXIX: Backpacking and photographing the return home from Sam Knob through Graveyard Fields in the Shining Rock Wilderness, NC.
Welcome to Field Notes!
You guys, I had some hard learned photography lessons on this day. This was a cool and pretty chilly morning, but clear. I was photographing the sunrise for a while before I realized the front of my lens was fogging up. It was hard to notice in the dark. I began wiping it frequently, but as I photographed the sunrise, pointed directly at the light, all of the streaks showed up in the images. I got some excellent lighting for the last image, but I was tired and looking forward to heading out and my focus was slightly off.
In this issue I will share the best photos that I got. And, after an enormous effort, I did finish the film of this trip. Its a bit long, at just over 20 minutes, but that’s distilled down from 3 days of footage. I don’t know about ya’ll, but I really like this kind of film and I’m proud of my final version, given my limitations. I hope you’ll check it out!
In case you missed it, here are the links to days 1 & 2 of this trip-
Anyway, on to the adventure story. Lets go!
A gentle flapping of the vestibule of my tent wakes me, still early enough to be the end of the night. As I lay down last night I expected to again wake up in cloud cover. Now I crawl stiffly out of my warm sleeping bag into the darkness to find crystal stars above, only sparsely scattered with high clouds.
I never knew I needed them in this way, but the mountains grant me a cathartic release. Recent hardships nearly derailed this adventure before it began, but ultimately the logistics of this trip to the Shining Rock Wilderness of North Carolina were possible. The last two days have impacted me in unexpected ways. October in the mountains is usually a time of excitement and anticipation. Brilliant foliage, upcoming holidays and feasts, and outdoor adventures before the dark winter settles in make this time of year a favorite. This year, these trails force me to contend with sadness and grief, left raw and exposed by the physical hardships of rucking in the mountains. The events that cause them are beyond my control. Rationally, I love what fate deals to me and know that life is a cyclical journey, repeated for all creatures. The pain still hit me on the first day here, but day 2 and now day 3 in the wilderness have allowed me to view my own life as if from a distant mountaintop.
In the darkness I find the rock outcrop where I watched yesterday’s sunset. The wind here is constant and strong. I need to find an eastward vantage for the sunrise, but only briefly scouted it the day before.
There is time enough to pack up camp in the chill pre-dawn dark. It was a nice spot, flat and sheltered from most of the wind. I want to have all of my gear, and more coffee, close by when I find my spot for photography. I have no need to return here.
I pursue a side trail from camp. My site had actually been on a smaller knob, slightly offset from Sam Knob’s peak. Though easy to follow, many small trails weave across the peak to various rock outcrops and views. In the dark it is very hard to know where each one leads. I stumble onto the main trail down the mountain and have to turn around. I locate a view that looks good, but a check of the compass shows that I will not be able to see 105 degrees east. Up again to more rock with a better angle. A GPS check reveals I am now on top of Sam Knob.
Daily life in the modern world hides the sublime behind distractions. The business of careers, television or social media, alcohol and junk food all work to turn down the volume of our senses and make this constructed reality bearable. To navigate it, we all wear masks. Mine are many. I have worn the mask of the hardened professional who has seen recurrent tragedies and the mask of the parent who must know the course ahead. I have taken off the mask of the child, comforted in the knowledge that it is nurtured and protected, and now don the resolute mask of a provider for one who once provided for me. Over all of these I wear the mask of a Stoic, still a work in progress, calm in its demeanor of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.
Alone in the mountains, all of this is stripped away. The cold, the exertion, and the threats of animals, getting lost, or getting injured all quickly erode every defense. The inner self stands exposed to Nature. Every emotion is stands raw under the wind blowing from across distant peaks. There are no masks left to protect me here in the dark cold solitude.
Dawn grows quietly behind the mountains. Deep purple hues evolve into yellow and orange behind the lurking hump of Black Balsam Mountain and the more distant Mt Tennent. Darkness and shadow begin their retreat from the land.
Here is the cathartic gift of the wild. Only by feeling pain fully can we know it and come to accept it. This does not make it easier or less. However, by knowing it, it becomes familiar and navigable. It becomes a trail we have followed before. With that insight comes the profound peace of being in control of oneself.
Embrace your grief. For there, your soul will grow.
As the sun crests the Appalachian mountain tops, lighting my eyes and warming my face, I turn to make a photograph.
Here is the film of this 3 day trek though the southern portion of the Shining Rock Wilderness, NC. I hope you enjoy!
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