Adventure 6 (Out of Order): Finding the Top of the World

I didn’t quite make it to Mount Everest.  I’m not even certain that I really want to try and tackle that mountain.  Anything that requires me to spend six weeks acclimating to the altitude is just not high on my priority list.  Nope.  I think I’ll stick to my happy, little Appalachian Mountains.

At least…for now….

I’m writing about my summer adventures out of order.  The anal retentiveness in me is screaming to go back and write about New York first and then my drive on Shenandoah and then my AT hike.  But I don’t want to right now.  Right now, I want to write about yesterday.

I took the Girl to McAfee’s Knob in Catawba Valley just outside of Roanoke.  Twenty plus years ago, my brother took me hiking in this valley and I fell in love with it.  Yeah, I’ve seen incredible mountains and sites throughout the western world, but the quiet peace and slow paced world of Catawba Valley spoke to the chaos that constantly swirls through my mind.

Wednesday, I learned that my tutoring appointment for Thursday had been cancelled.  Immediately, I started thinking…although I had come off the Appalachian Trail a week ago and my knees still feel like they’re splitting along the edges, I could feel the sirenic calling of the mountains.  I needed to return.

It’s kind of like being homesick.

McAfee’s Knob is one of the most photographed sites of Virginia.  I know that I have been on the hike, but I couldn’t remember anything about the actual rocky overhangs that characterize the peak.  So, I made my decision, time to go to the Knob.

The Girl is not one for hiking, but she’s wiling to try out adventures.  We checked temperatures; the hike from the parking lot is close to an eight mile loop and my geriatric dog could never make the hike.  But home was not going to be sweltering and thanks to the Invisible Fence and big water bowls, I knew that my dog was going to be okay.

A phone call to my brother who lives not far from Catawba Valley and I had a dinner date for after the hike.  And so…I finalized my plans.  Pulled out my AT bear spray and started filling water bottles.

Thursday morning dawned with me sleeping in and being awakened thirty minutes later than I wanted by the Girl (bless her).  I skipped breakfast in favor of getting my meal at the gas station (I heard they had pretty good bagels), and truly enjoyed my gas-station bagel and coffee.

And then, we hit the road.

Some people think I’m crazy for driving hours to go hiking.  But I don’t have mountains where I live and the process of driving to the mountains is like following the Odyssey path home.  As the Girl and I drove past corn fields, cattle-filled pastures, and forests that were saturated with unexplored stories, the Girl and I talked about life, philosophy, religion, equality, politics.

I’m serious.  We talked about those topic and more.  We talked about the Stanford rape case.  We talked about the treatment of men and women and the role models each gender is expected to fill.  We talked about love, about having children, about her possible future as a teacher.

Eventually, we left the highway and drove down a road that spliced through the valley and along the edge of a mountain.  We arrived at the parking lot and strapped on our hiking shoes. I pulled on a knapsack carrying roughly ten pounds of water (not exaggerating), and we crossed the road to enter the wilderness.

The path to McAfee’s Knob can either be a fire road or the Appalachian Trail.  And though I could have taken the fire road which would have been sufficient and rather nice, I chose the road that might have been more travelled on by others….

Oh Robert Frost, your poem has been completely mangled by me, but I still love it so….

Following the white blazes was a twenty foot continual reminder of last week, of last year.  Yes, I am going to write about my trip last week.  I promise.  But I need to write about my hike with my daughter first.

I love the Appalachian Trail.  I love how it wended through the woods.  I loved the primitive shelters I found tucked into a tiny cove at the edge of the forest.  I loved how the roof of the second shelter was covered in moss and looked like something constructed by the elves.  I loved the birdsong and its echo through the layers of leaves.

At one point, the Girl and I were feet (no more than six) from a doe who was wandering, nibbling at the undergrowth.  To reach the top, we were going to have to pass the deer who, at every step, lifted her head and stared at us panicky.  We talked to her, our voices soft and cheerful, and though we didn’t have a  Disney princess moment in which the doe didn’t run away and might have even allowed us to touch her (come on, I can dream), we still were awed at how she trotted across the path, leapt over a small bramble bracket, and joined another deer deeper into the woods.

My poor girl, though, was not happy with the path.  The AT to McAfee’s Knob alternated between soft sand and hard rocks that were tipped on their sides. Additionally, neither of us are in pristine shape and the Girl is growing….so she ached.  Thankfully, she didn’t complain…too much.  But I did my best to let her complaints fall into the forest and, when needed, we stopped and caught our breath, drank water, and snacked.  I did my best to keep positive without being overly-sappy.  I did my best to be encouraging and motivating.

Confession time:  I did my best not to throw her over the edge of the mountain when nothing I did would assuage her darkening mood.

Thankfully, water and Cheezits are a magical combination for attitude adjustment and, eventually, we summited the mountain, broke through the rhododendron, and stood on the edge of the mountain, staring out at a gorgeous world that humbled and enthralled me.

Two months ago, I took the Girl to Humpback Rocks and humbled myself by falling victim to my fears, breaking into ugly-cry-sobbing and panicking that my daughter was going to tumble over the edge and die.  Yeah, I’m being hysterical and over-dramatic, but that was the reality that I can not and will not deny.  As we were driving to the trailhead, I talked with the Girl about my intention on not being scared, on not fettering her.  I asked her to respect me if I said “Uncle.”

And then I had to teach her about what “Uncle” meant and then she tried to explore the history of the world “Uncle” which didn’t last long because I had no idea about the word history of “Uncle.”

When we arrived at the peak, I expected the panic to set in.

And it didn’t.  I really didn’t feel any fear.  My beloved daughter respected my nerves and didn’t challenge me by dancing along the edges.

But I challenged my fear.  I laid down on my stomach and shimmied to the edge and felt the tilting sense of vertigo before sprawling away from the cliff.  And then my daughter said “Uncle.”

I scared her.

We ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  We chugged water and made jokes and talked about how we had beaten the path.  I took pictures and laughed with my daughter about fears and our frustrations and then, we dropped our pack and walked further along the rocks.

You see, the rock-line followed the edge of the mountain and my daughter and I explored a world that was Earth and Sky and a fine line of rock that held us to the world that challenged us to think beyond ourselves.  We stared off at a distant city and watched airplanes taking off, the tiny white specks almost looking like children’s toys in a cheap b-movie.

Eventually, the reality returned, the clock struck twelve, the fairy-godmother waved her wand and we had to return.  To the valley, to my car.

We walked along the fire road and we talked about…life, about philosophy and religion and the world.  We talked about her hopes and fears, her dreams about her life.  She decided that she might not be an English teacher and will, instead, become a science teacher.

We met my brother and his daughter (I love my niece) for dinner, an amazing family-dining restaurant with incredible fried chicken.  And the four of us talked about…life, about the ability to make one’s own choices.  We talked about art and Rome and vacations.  We talked about Star Wars and my niece and daughter made butterfly impressions.  And life was just…wonderful.

On the drive home, my daughter took pictures of the sun set.  We sang along to songs on my iPod and we danced in our seats.  I think the most frequent thing I heard from her yesterday was laughter.

But what I will take with me was when she literally threw herself on me, wrapped her arms around me, and hugged me.  Even better was the time she kissed me on the cheek.

My daughter is twelve and alternates between pulling away and tracking me down for a hug.  Yesterday, I saw a possible friendship that I dream will be real in ten years, when she is an adult, when the boundaries that separate us will be relaxed.  For now, though, I look forward to next week’s hike.  I think I might take her to Blackrock Summit and let her sit on top of another world.

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