I woke up at five this morning, an enchilada surround by five of the most wonderful humans I know, in a tent halfway up a mountain in North Carolina as winter storm Stella began her descent. When I emerged from within my sleeping bag out into the still of the night, fresh falling snow was just beginning to cling to the leaves. Half an hour later over three inches had accumulated. We tore down camp in what was the most haphazard, excruciatingly painful way I had yet to experience. Three pairs of numb, gloveless, hands attempted to shove our temporary home into a roof bag that was buried in snow as the others folded blankets and collapsed chairs around us. It was pitch black as snowflakes smothered our eyelashes and soaked through our denim jackets. That first hour out of Asheville and into the Smokey Mountains was a silent, white knuckle drive, my fingers burning as they regained feeling clutching onto the steering wheel while we fought our way back to the interstate, unplowed and alone.
Last March changed my life. Exactly one year ago I was on a flight back from Las Vegas about to get behind the wheel of a car to drive back west towards Colorado, the Rockies and what would turn out to be the most informative trip thus far in my life. That level of adventure was not in the cards for this March, but Tamrin and I refused to let the month slip us by. With four of our friends we drove east to the Blue Ridge Mountains in a 2001 Ford Windstar: two photographers, two designers, a writer and a comedian.
An eight-hour drive took twelve, frequent stops were due to a lack of space inside the cabin. The Windstar reached our campsite as the sun began to set; we popped the tent, started a fire and prepared for the severe thunderstorm that was headed our way. She arrived around three am, keeping her distance, but waking us up as she brilliantly streaked across the sky. That first night was warm and dry inside of our shelter. We were smart enough to cover our firewood but too dense to hide our chairs.
Friday we were under a wind advisory, gusts up to fifty miles per hours as we headed out into the woods driving south along Blue Ridge Parkway, an incredibly scenic road complete with mountain tunnels and three hundred and sixty-degree views. It was sunny and as we hiked down to a waterfall flannels, gloves and hats were removed. Boots traversed over the rocks and we sat in the sun listening to the rush of a cool mountain stream. Next was the mile climb straight up the side of a mountain to the bald peak that served as a box seat to one of nature’s most beautiful shows: miles of mountains beneath a clear blue sky covered only in pines. They appeared fuzzy like a living creature, friendly, welcoming and wise. The Rocky Mountains stand in front of you, above you, these mountains were different, they stood beside us, a long lost friend. I hopped the fence and for awhile laid atop of the still dead grass, my back to the road and my eyes on the earth, older and wiser than I can ever hope to be.
Camping is survival, cold weather camping especially. Tamrin looked at me, pulling the dinner she had prepared out of the fire I had built and we silently asked one another ‘why are we only capable of caring for ourselves in the wild?’. Friday evening we burnt through our wood, and so members of our party walked into the trees to collect what branches had fallen in the day’s wind storm. Patrick, crazed with a hatchet, chopped large branches into more manageable pieces in preparation for the day to come.
Saturday was cold. Snow lightly flurried and Patrick said it was ash from the fire, ‘campfire seasoning’ he had called it the night before as it fluttered into his can of baked beans. Still, we ventured out determined to set foot on the Appalachian Trail, a trail Tamrin and I dream of someday completing in its entirety. The plan was to drive up the switchbacks of Max Patch, hike a mile to the trail and a few miles either way on it. Halfway up in the Windstar the road grew narrow and the snow grew thick. I turned the van around while I still could, taking a short break to stretch my legs and immerse myself within the stillness of snow blanketing the earth. We watched as it gracefully fell, silencing the creek that once babbled by. Determined to continue our adventure, we loaded back into the van and headed west towards the Smokies. Finding an exit, we drove down a gravel road and stopped to explore the moss covered rocks sitting patiently in the stream. As we wandered and photographed someone ran into a trail marker, a small wooden sign that read ‘Appalachian Trail 2.o’. It was destiny and after a few girlish squeals, we headed to the van, loaded our pockets with protein bars and bottled water and ran blindly into the wild.
Still snowing, we started out on what began as a slight, manageable, incline. A forest of unknown plants (similar to magnolias) sat beautifully decorated in white, growing further and further away as we began our ascent. After a mile or so of this, the trail grew steep, and like any unknown path, we hiked forever while going nowhere. Still we walked; the thought of setting foot on the Appalachian Trail, a trail we are so determined to traverse in our futures, pushing us forward. The trail rose higher as the elevation burned our lungs. After one particularly brutal switchback I stopped, hands over my head to breathe, another daunting climb ahead. In front of me I heard Sukhjit yell ‘I see it, I see the sign!’, and so I ran the rest of the way ignoring the fire in my chest and happily collapsed onto the dirt. The snow had stopped as we looked our futures straight in the eye.
This weekend I needed the mountains. I needed to be away from people, to be among the trees, away from the anxieties of my current day to day. What nails I had were caked in dirt, my face wind burnt and my lips so dry they could crumble. I was happy, so unbelievably happy. In that tent, under inches of snow, surrounded by friends in the mountains away from the world I was once again at peace. No makeup and no pressures to be anything other than myself; it was a weekend that once again solidified my aspirations. There is a need to run that pulses deep within my veins, pulling me forward into the unknown, determined to become my reality. I am not a fair weather vacationer, rather an adventurer against all odds. I love traversing through the sunshine but am capable of so much more – we all are.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”― Jack Kerouac
A special shout out to my parents (who I know are reading this) for loaning us their tent, van, cooler, chairs, etc. and feeding us before we left and once we returned.