Outdoors: Walking sacred paths

I walked from Asheville to Mount Pisgah and back. It was a 60-mile journey that took 52 hours. The trip started and ended at the UNCA campus where, for a year, I have glanced, almost daily, upon the distant mountain and said, “I want to walk there.”

One can see Mount Pisgah from the steps of Ramsey Library. One can, in fact, see Mount Pisgah from many parts of town: At 5,721 feet, the mountain dominates the southwestern horizon of Asheville, and a broadcast tower at its peak adds to its distinction. Mount Pisgah had for ages awed the Cherokee, who called it “Elseetoss,” and it equally impressed the European settlers who referred to it, and the views it offered, in biblical terms.

I had prepared for the journey for a year. Late one July night, I slung a 25-pound pack on and, from my room in Montford, headed to UNCA. Although, at that dark hour, I could not see the mountain from Ramsey Library, I could see the blinking red light that crowns the 339-foot tower.

I kissed the exposed rebar on the library steps, tapped my walking stick on the concrete, and set out. It was just after midnight on Friday, July 23.

To reach Mount Pisgah, I had to reach the Shut-in Trail. To reach the Shut-in Trail, I had to reach Brevard Road. To reach Brevard Road, I had to reach West Asheville. I started by heading south on Riverside Drive, where I walked the bike lane and skirted the Norfolk Southern tracks.

After crossing the French Broad River, I entered the workaday neighborhoods west of the River Arts District. On Waynesville Road, I encountered a white cat sitting pensively at the end of a drive. “Hi, kitty,” I said. By the time I reached the intersection of Haywood and Brevard roads — six miles into the trip — I was drenched in sweat. I took off my shirt and kept on.

The next section of the journey took me over interstate bridges and by big-box stores, restaurants, hotels and parking lots — all well lit. A star-gazer here, that night, had but a bolshie moon to consider.

Soon enough, I reached the Shut-in Trail, which winds through the mountains for 16 miles, climbs some 3,000 feet, and terminates at a parking lot near Mount Pisgah’s summit. I took rest along the river, awaiting dawn.

At first light I stepped on the trail. The morning was hot and made hotter by a steady climb. By afternoon, the sky had grown overcast, and I soon heard rain kindly falling on canopy leaves. Then — hot damn — I heard thunder. I donned my poncho just before the downpour began. When rain went soft and the dark clouds drifted, the sun reappeared in patches and then in full. All about the mountains rose the steam, and in the mist I walked.

I ambled through the Elk Pasture Gap and was on the daunting rise up Little Pisgah Mountain when I finally felt tired. Short breaks aside, I had been walking 16 hours. I no longer thought of reaching Mount Pisgah; instead, I fixed my eyes on a tree 50 feet uphill and said, “Make it there.” When I reached that tree, I hunched and caught my breath. Then I found another tree. “Make it there.”

I did this until the forest suddenly gave way to sky. I went downhill awhile until the trail dumped me on pavement, and I was standing before my destination. Less than two miles and 712 feet until I would reach the summit of that impossible mountain, that primordial bulge, that peak older than man.

There were two cars in the parking lot, which meant there were at least two parties to be encountered. Before I came upon man, I came upon his markings, in the form of scratches in the sandy trail. They read: “John 3:16.” My first thought was to rub my boot over the graffiti. One should leave the wilderness as one finds it — a leave-no-trace ethic. Lackaday, I skipped over it.

A little ways ahead I came upon a kid and an elderly man, both descending. “How’s the view?” I asked the kid.

“It’s great,” he said.

I was glad for him and glad for me. I spoke with the old man awhile and he bade me good journey. I was a few feet gone when he called, “With Jesus, the journey is perfect.” I turned to see him thrust an erect thumb in the air. Evangelicals.

I kept strong up the mountain, steep and steeper through switchbacks and on rock steps, until at last I reached the mountaintop. I was greeted by a young couple who soon left, and I had the view to myself. It had taken 30 miles and almost 20 hours to reach this high ground. I looked from whence I had come and could make out but a few gray blocks — the high-rise buildings of downtown. The city seemed so remote, so silent, so serene.

I took one more glance at the ancient, royal-blue ridges and then returned into the dark recesses of the deep green earth. Off federal parkland, I spread an air mattress and took rest under our fair portion of this starlit heaven.

I awoke Saturday morning to the sounds of a chatty couple out early to see the sunrise. It was a new day, hot and pink. Time to venture home. Down Little Pisgah Mountain, aloof and light-hearted, healthy and free, I spied a companion on the trail. “Hi, froggy,” I said.

Along the way I came upon a patch of ripe blackberries I hadn’t noticed on the way up. They were delicious, the juicy ones, so heavy you need but gently shake the vine for the sweet rewards to come rolling into your hand. I love nature. I love life. Someday I will be dead, and I will be dead 10,000 years.

By evening, I made it back to the French Broad, where I once again sought rest; but unlike the previous day — when I had waited for the sun to rise — now I was waiting for the sun to set.

Birds sang; children skipped about; a spined Micrathena silently made her web. “Hi, spidey,” I said. I awoke just after twilight and started back toward civilization on the grassy embankment of Brevard Road.

I walked through the night and made it back to the steps of Ramsey Library at 4 a.m. Sunday, a holy day, day of rest. The horizon was hazy. I couldn’t see Mount Pisgah. I couldn’t even see the blinking red light.

I fell back on the warm concrete and spread my arms. Sixty miles. Fifty-two hours. With my eyes on a few faint stars, I exhaled. “I just walked to that mountain.”

Man.

— Daniel Hobson student-teaches English at Erwin High School. He can be reached at hobsonksu@gmail.com.

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