Monday, May 16, 2016

Simple Gifts on Styx Branch (Part 4 of 4)

Hiking and scrambling up the east fork of Styx Branch, I was struggling more than usual. In fact, this trip was the first time I had the thought: Will this be the last time I make this trip? That’s a dark cloud that casts a gloomy shadow, and while I don’t live under that shadow on a regular basis, I do catch a glimpse of it every now and then… like today, on Styx Branch. At the Climbing Wall I almost told Greg that I had gone as far as I could, and I’d head back to the car while he went on to Myrtle Point, but I was afraid that if I did that, then I’d never come back and do this trip again. This would become my final trip to Styx, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of that. So to paraphrase the gladiators in Gladiator: “Someday I’ll make my last trip to Styx… but not yet. Not yet.”

After the Climbing Wall we were still in the scoured rock of the scar, but the incline was about 45 degrees, so we were able to revert to feet-only as we searched for sharp spots to plant our feet as we zig-zagged our way up the fragile, broken Anakeesta rock face. We stopped often, to let me catch my breath but also to turn around and appreciate the sky and the open view that every landslide scar affords. It’s the kind of moment of magnificence that will – if you have any sense of gratitude for life’s simple gifts – bring tears to your eyes.

A photo moment on Styx
Eventually the scar began to give way to soil, grass, and a young, fir forest which produces that “Christmas tree smell” that anyone who has ever had a real Christmas tree would recognize. There aren’t many things that we encounter in the wilderness that remind us of our other, civilized life – which is exactly as we’d like it to be. After all, we go to the woods to escape the trappings of that other life. Planes flying overhead and loud motorcycles on Newfound Gap Road are the most common artifacts of civilization that we encounter in the mountains. So, the Christmas tree smell is an exception to these occasional interruptions from civilization. It’s a pleasant reminder of a pleasant part of our other life.

After weaving our way through the fragrant, fir forest, we arrived at Myrtle Point about an hour before sunset. It was cold and windy, so we donned our jackets for the first time since the Climbing Wall several hours earlier. I had never really thought of it this way before, but Myrtle Point is the epicenter of our Smokies playground. From it we can see from Greenbrier Pinnacle to the Appalachian Trail to Mount Kephart to the Chimneys, a huge bowl of ridges and valleys, places that have become almost sacred in their meaning to our lives. It’s undoubtedly places like this that gave birth to the phrase “mountain top experience.”

As we sat on the open rocks of Myrtle Point we had the same conversation we always have when we sit here: To live simply is to live well; that man is richest whose pleasures are the simplest; if you’ll put yourself in a position for good things to happen, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how often they do.

As I think about it, the theme of that conversation at Myrtle Point has become a prominent theme in our other, civilized life, too. Most of life’s gifts to us are simple gifts, so one key to happiness is to learn to be satisfied with life’s simple, wholesome pleasures, like the fellowship of friends, the innocence of children, the words of your favorite poet, the purity of an azure sky, the song of crickets in the evening or wrens at sunrise, layers of blue ridges piling up to the horizon, or green ridges turning honey-gold from the light of the setting sun. Thankfully, these are things that require an investment of time and attention, but money can’t buy. They are gifts that are simple and free… and abundant, if we’ll but shift our gaze from the dozens of daily tasks rudely demanding our obedience, and focus instead on the thousands of humble, simple gifts, asking in a barely audible whisper for just a moment of our time.