Monday morning, after Miss Beverly dropped us off at the AT trail head, we had only a six-mile hike from Winding Stair Gap to Siler’s Bald—but that hike was six miles of steady climb. Still, we were rested, and we were excited to make camp at the summit. Siler’s Bald is the first in a series of high mountain clearings that some believe are natural occurrences, but which others believe are man-made clearings for high-country cattle grazing. In any event, having read about Siler’s Bald in our guide books—and having seen videos by hikers who emphasized the magnificent views from the top—Alexander and I looked forward to camping at the summit on Monday night.I arrived first, to survey the location, while Alexander stopped on a side trail to fill his large water bag, which we call “The Dromedary.” (The Drom has proved invaluable. Its six-liter capacity ensures we have enough water in the evening for cooking and washing up, and still have some left over to filter for drinking water to start out the next morning.)
Siler’s is situated on a quarter-mile side trail, which, from the base looks quite unassuming. When I arrived, I could see someone had recently mowed the high meadow, and a long serpentine path wound its way out of sight towards the bald. I started up the path, but quickly realized making it to the top would be no easy feat—and knew it would be even harder for Alexander, under the burden of the filled Drom. However, upon cresting the bald, I found the effort worthwhile. The world spread out before me as generously as if I had entered an open air cathedral, a sacred place where the beauty of the land was revealed for all to enjoy.
You see, the Appalachian Trail winds its way through a continuous canopy of forest. Although Siler’s marked mile 114 for us, since departing Springer Mountain, we have had just a handful of clear views. When you’re hiking the trail, most of the day, every day, you’re making your way through forest, the sunlight filtered by branches and leaves that brush your skin as you pass them. This biological buffer protects you, hides you from the hustle and bustle of the world that exists beyond the trail. You feel cradled by a benevolent primal force that speaks to you, should you care to listen, through the rustle of plants, birds songs, the intricate babble of brooks, the ancient wisdom of rocks, and the soil beneath your feet. Then, every so often, you emerge into bright light and blue sky, as we did Monday afternoon at Siler’s Bald. When that happens, you feel clean and renewed, as if you have been blessed by the spirits of the forest.
By the time Alexander (and the Drom) arrived, my tent was pitched under a perfectly clear sky, and we stood together, side by side, humbled by the majesty of the 360-degree view. It promised to be a spectacular, star-filled night.
We had been there for no more than twenty minutes when a couple from Ocala, Florida, arrived with their young daughter (who seemed less than thrilled with the steep hike). Fifteen minutes after that, a trio of campers from the University of Florida appeared. The Ocala family left, and we struck up a conversation with Ian, Morgan, and April—engineering and finance students respectively. As it turned out, these young hikers had divorced themselves from two others in their group, who, it seems, had a rather militaristic idea of a hiking trip. For that reason, Ian, Morgan, and April decided to go it alone—and at a much slower pace, so they could “smell the flowers,” instead of zooming past them. The only problem was the other guys had taken the stove, leaving Ian and his tribe dining on Clif Bars and dried ramen noodles.
Upon hearing this sad news, Alexander and I exchanged a quick look of compassion for our new friends. Then Alexander let them know we had plenty of food and that he would be glad to cook them a hot meal, should they decide to camp on the bald for the evening. They were overjoyed! The expressions on their faces showed as much delight as if he had handed them a winning lottery ticket. But realizing they had no water, the trio retreated back down the trail to resupply. Frankly, I thought we had lost them, but an hour later they made it back up the steep trail and pitched their tent about fifty yards below ours.
The rest of the evening counts as one of the most magical of our trip. Having shared a meal—and having cemented bonds of friendship I have no doubt shall continue long after our trip is over—the kids laughed and told tales around yet another of Alexander’s spectacular fires, while I busied myself with taking some of the best photos of our journey to date. The sun was setting as I snapped a beautiful panoramic shot of our promontory on the summit. But I failed to understand the significance of the billowing line of clouds on the horizon—a failure that would come back to haunt me.
* * *
Around two a.m., I awoke to flashes of light and the distant rumble of thunder. I was shocked. The weather hadn’t mentioned the approach of a thunderstorm. I reached for my phone, opened my weather app, and took a long, cold look at the radar on my iPhone’s screen. There it was. The hard red line of a cold front almost on top of us—and an unbroken line of thunderstorms rapidly approaching.
In less than a minute, the deluge began.
I yelled to Alexander at the top of my lungs. Suddenly, Siler’s Bald, a place that had seemed like a blessing from the spirits of the forest just hours earlier, was dangerously exposed. There was no cover from the driving rain. We had to decide—break camp and move off the mountain? Or ride out the storm? If we broke camp, our clothing would be soaked—and with temperatures in the low forties, hypothermia was a deadly concern. On the other hand, the lightning strikes had gotten ridiculously close—close enough to raise the hair upon my arms.
At that, Alexander suggested we squat on our feet inside our tents to minimize contact with the ground, a position we hoped would protect us from a deadly lightning strike. So for the next hour that is how we sat—balanced low on our feet, heads down, hands clasped behind our skulls. It was a scary, lonely feeling—and an unnecessary one. I had failed to read the signs that had been right in front of me. Signs that I had photographed. The building clouds that had stretched so beautifully across the horizon were all the sign a more experienced hiker would have needed to make a good decision—when their was still plenty of time to shift camp.
That hour, the one I spent squatting on my heels between two and three a.m., with the storm crashing around me, was the longest, most anxious hour I can remember. What did I think about besides my own stupidity? Well, to be honest, I thought of Miss Beverly in her leopard print velour pants. I wondered what Miss Beverly had seen as we flew up the mountain earlier that day. How far down the trail had she been able to see? Did she sense the storm was coming? Did she know that with her “life phrase” from the Book of Timothy she was giving us a tool to fight the fear that would challenge us?
Whatever vision or premonition Miss Beverly had, while I was cowering beneath that violent storm, I repeated her life phrase over and over to myself in earnest.
* * *
When I opened my eyes the next morning, I realized the storm had extracted its price—I was depleted and weak. While I couldn’t move from my tent, I was glad to hear Ian, Morgan, and April talking as they prepared to leave. Their tent had been stripped of its rain fly during the worst of the storm. As a result, everything they owned was soaked—their shoes, their packs, and most of their clothing. It was a miracle they did not freeze. But by the sound of their voices, I could tell they were simply happy to have survived the ordeal, and that their youthful exuberance had saved them any serious regret.
When I was finally able to emerge, I found the top of the mountain a solid cloud—I could see no more than thirty feet in any direction. But there was Alexander, busy over his Whisper-Lite stove, making us coffee and his signature oatmeal in a soulful affirmation of our daily routine. Alexander looked up, and for a long moment, caught in the illuminated whiteness that swirled all around us, we just held each other’s gaze. Then he asked what I had thought about during the storm. But before I could answer him, he said, “I repeated Miss Beverly’s scripture and prayed a lot!” I nodded in agreement, and then we both laughed long, nervous laughs. It was a release that said we were glad to have made it through the night safe and sound.
Then with that big, beaming smile of his, he asked, “Dad, How about a cup of coffee?”
So my son and I stood together, watching the clouds clear around us and the shapes of mountains re-emerging from the mists. Before our coffee cups were even empty, the warming rays of autumn sunlight shone upon our faces. Order had been restored to our world, and the violent threat of the night was now just a distant memory.
The storm has helped me see that there is a flip side to every coin we tumble. Alexander and I have been living in a perfect dream for weeks—but sometimes there is a price to be paid for the joy and beauty we experience in this life. Our awakening atop Siler’s Bald reminded us of the power of nature—and that we do well to be a bit more humble in its presence.
* * *
I haven’t yet reached out to Miss Beverly, but when I do, I will tell her that her scripture sustained us. That it brought a sense of peace to the maddening fright of the storm. In fact, during the worst of the flashes of light, when the lightning was crashing into the earth less than a second from where Alexander and I crouched, I found myself smiling briefly—because, even in the most fearful moments, I felt we had our own angel looking out for us. I may never know much of what resides in the Bible, but I will never forget the Book of Timothy, chapter one, verse seven. . . .