A View From the Top
By Gordon Cherr,
I am running across an open field, under the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge, on the Mountain To Sea Trail, heading south, about a mile south of the Folk Art Center, in Asheville. I imagine that this is my reward for logging so many miles this summer. It is such a long hot summer in Tallahassee and this year has been no different. We always seem to welcome the first warm days of March, but by May and June we are already getting ready for cooler weather. Of course, that is followed by June and then the oven we call July. August is a never ending pressure cooker around here with no respite, day or night, from the relentless fury of summer. By September you may notice the climbing homicide rate, we’ve had about all we can stand. People’s minds start snapping in Tallahassee by September. You see it all the time.
But I’m alone on the Mountain To Sea Trail and it is a foggy morning and about 55 degrees, and this is no dream. This open field is an anomaly, you come down a big hill, out of the forest and there are fences on each side which must be climbed to continue on the trail here. The field is about 200 yards across. The first time I ran it in 2001, I hopped the fence and continued across the field at a leisurely pace, looking to my left at a herd of cows grazing peacefully, also about 200 hundred yards away. It was a dreamy, idyllic scene until a noise from my right suddenly galvanized my attention. The head guy here, a big black bull, had been grazing alone at the other end of the field, keeping watch over his minions, as it were. I had invaded his domain, without invitation. He was picking up speed and was making for me full tilt. Even from a distance I could see the fury in his little beady eyes and, unless I was mistaken, there was definitely steam coming from his nostrils. The phrase “thunder of hooves” ran through my mind, and it was race to the fence, which I won, but not by much at all. I don’t even remember scaling the fence. On the return trip I took my chances with traffic on the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge, high overhead. It took a long time for my heart rate to return to any semblance of normal.
So, when I got to the field this time, 5 years later, I took a good look around before making my move. Instead of cows and a bull, this time there were horses grazing. Horses normally will leave you alone, sometimes they will even run with you if you come up on them, just make a lot of noise if you come up from behind so you don’t get kicked into the next county. The few colts crowded closer to their mother’s flanks but the mares ignored me. A large stallion came over to investigate and escort me the rest of the way across the field. He was a tall, handsome, muscular reddish fellow with a big white blaze between his eyes. His ears were pricked forwards so I knew he was interested and not worried. Just curious as to who had come to visit. And he did escort me across his field, keeping a safe position between me and his mares. I could feel his presence and his confidence. He pranced like gravity played no role in his life.
We ran together for a hundred yards and I imagined being able to somehow draw on his power. What would it feel like to be able to run so effortlessly? A chance encounter on a mountain trail on a foggy morning in my favorite place in the world. I remembered a verse from this song:
“Horses are creatures who worship the earth
As they gallop on feet of ivory
Constrained by the wonder of dying and birth
The horses still run, they are free
My body is merely the shell of my soul
But the flesh must be given its due
Like a pony that carries its rider back home
Like an old friend that’s tried and been true”*
I must have been in a dream state for the remainder of this run. It passed quickly and I remember very little about it. But horses remained in my thoughts for rest of the day.
The Folk Art Museum, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, is a good venue to begin a run. You can go south like I did the day before, the trail is very runnable with a lot of drops and climbs but nothing too terrible or too steep, and it closely parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway for at least for about 20 miles, out and back. If you go north instead, you can run to Craven Gap, where you turn around at a beautiful overlook. The trail to Craven Gap climbs a total of about 1000′ in 5.4 miles, and it has its special personality as it drops steeply away from the Parkway, away from all road noise and into much more wild country. The climbs and drops are more precarious here, many ranging to 16%, some as steep as 23%. I imagine the steepest grade you will find around here is about 6% or less. You can run a 16% grade but your quads will really not thank you for it the next day. I have found that anything over 19-20% needs to be walked. But the real fun is in coming back down. Once you start down a steep grade there really is no walking and definitely no stopping. So look up and try to pick out your foot plant about 2-3 steps ahead. If you slip or trip or a rock gives way, you are in for a skin scraping, perhaps head banging downhill ride.
I have done this run, out and back from Craven Gap, and it is 10.8 miles overall, but it can take more than 2.5 hours to complete. I am not in terrific shape for the mountains, but it is another cool, peaceful morning and I am on the trail at daybreak. I’m in no hurry you see, I just want to see the sights and smell the smells. The trail has a lot of downed trees all around it, new since I last ran it in 2001. I imagine this happened last year from the two hurricanes which made their way up here from Florida. The trail has been cleared so no worries about climbing over downed debris, but this portion of the Mountain To Sea Trail is also locally renowned among runners and mountain bikers for its bear encounters and I’ve got my Whoop Ass strategically placed in my waist pack, for all the good it might actually do me.
The sky opens up on the way to Craven Gap and by the time I make it to the turn around I am thoroughly soaked. I don’t mind that but I know the trail will be slippery on the return trip, some of these downgrades are going to be quite interesting! I hate the loud, squishy sounds my shoes are making with each step from all the rain, it probably is like ringing the dinner bell for a big black bear. But on the bright side, maybe that will wash out some of the stinkin’ Tallahassee summer funk that has invaded my running shoes, never to be evicted. You know the smell, don’t you? The one that leaves birds, squirrels and little children quivering along the side the road after you go by. The smell that stinks up the garage, the smell that has staying power in your house even after those shoes have hit the trash can and are long since buried in the land fill.
By the time I get to Craven Gap, the sun has actually come out, so I stop and find a flat rock to dry out my shirt and my shoes and socks for the return trip. The view from the overlook is spectacular, maybe I’ll just take a nap here. After a while I notice a turkey vulture gliding closer and closer, making good time with a tail wind. Despite our preconceptions, if you take the time to look, turkey vultures are really beautiful creatures who sail the wind without seeming effort. This one gets close, so close I could have heard him flap his wings, but he was riding the breeze. Several more vultures join him and they start to soar up and up and I lay back and look up at them, I am getting dizzy from watching them. The sky is suddenly full of turkey vultures, the sun has created an updraft and they are soaring higher and higher, totally unafraid. Soon some are mere specks against the blue heavens. Oh, to be able to soar like that. A chance encounter on a mountain top in my favorite place in the world. I remembered another verse from that song:
“Eagles inhabit the heavenly heights
They know neither limit nor bound
They’re the guardian angels of darkness and light
They see all and hear every sound
My spirit will never be broken or caught
For the soul is a free-flowing thing
Like an eagle that needs neither comfort nor thought
To rise up on glorious wings”*
The return run to the Folk Art Museum passed without great effort. Except for the steepest climbs, I truly felt like I was flying.
Sharri and I left Asheville later that day and spent two nights at a deserted bed and breakfast near Dillard, Georgia, on Fire Mountain. We were high up in the sky with no human sounds to intrude. The next day we hiked Whiteside Mountain, near Highlands, North Carolina, to the very top. We sat side by side on the peak for a very long time in silence, marveling at God’s creations. It was also our 35th wedding anniversary, I could not think of a better way to celebrate!
That night I had the flying dream again, the one that I often have. I am on the ground and begin to fly through and then above the trees and I am scared about crashing, but the flying eventually becomes effortless and safe and I am confident enough to go where I choose, when I choose. There is no more danger. Do your own dream interpretation if you like, this one is obvious and many people share it. The flying dream is an archetypal dream. But in this one there were horses running and eagles soaring. That had never happened before.
“I had a vision of eagles and horses
High on a ridge in a race with the wind
Going higher and higher and faster and faster
On eagles and horses I’m flying again.”*
I am convinced that there is no such thing as an ordinary run. Nor an ordinary life. It’s all there if you look and listen, just waiting to be discovered. What do you think?
*John Denver, “Eagles And Horses”