The road wound endlessly through the grey, fuzzy mountains. I was curled up in the backseat of my parents’ Accord, shifting to avoid the tingling in my feet as they fell asleep ahead of my head.
It would be six more hours to go, and we were going to try to make it through the night. I’d put away my pitiful booklight, squeezing it into my Judy Blume novel in lieu of the bookmark I’d left at home. Exhausted from squinting at the barely-lit page, I tried to sleep by contorting my body around the seatbelt.
My parents were always impressed that I could even read in the car. They got nauseous if they tried it.
We made this trek from Georgia to Pennsylvania every year, usually staying at a Microtel or Hampton Inn in North Carolina or Virginia. I so strongly associated the Microtel logo with relief from the constraints of the car that years later, when it was shown at bar trivia, I was the only one on our team to correctly identify it.
We ate every meal on the road at Cracker Barrel, which meant I was horribly familiar with their battered catfish, fried apples, and warm biscuits. The Cracker Barrels traced the endless highways as the graceless Georgia Piedmont gave way to the gently sloping, then alarmingly dramatic, mountains.
When the “rocks falling” warning signs is always when I knew that we were almost home. Those country roads, as the John Denver song goes. Back to the mountains.
We passed my childhood home, set near the edge of a cliff, with the railroad-lined mountains in the background. The three stories of the house were each painted a different color.
It’s been many years since I’ve seen that house.
Years later, I was kneeling in dusty orange soil at the base of a mountain, combing the soil as tiny fossils spilled into my fingers. My inner paleontology geek was alight with glee as tears spilled from my eyes and sweat from my eyes.
“Those are crinoids,” said my professor, as I rolled the ridged remnants of an ancient organism between my fingers.
I glanced up at the face of the mountain and it struck me with its majesty and promise of so many stories captured in its layers. We would have to destroy it to obtain all the secrets it held.
We wouldn’t do that.
I stood at the edge of Cloudland Canyon and immediately understood how it had gotten his name, as mist rose from the abyss and danced with the fading light.
My professor said that we were looking at Tennessee and Alabama. Those arbitrary state lines didn’t seem to matter at that point. This was all America.
I awakened from a deep sleep to discover that Tim was gone. Our rickety white cabin at the edge of a Belizean jaguar preserve was secure, they promised. He’d been showing some erratic behavior. Typical me, always falling for the unstable boys.
He must have gone up the mountain.
I got dressed as quickly as I could. Boots. Hat. Clothes. Bug spray. And I took off for the mountain that loomed over our cabin.
Fearing the worst, I ran up the trail, taking each bump in the knotted trail with enormous pumps of my strong legs. Anyone who judged me by my 5’3” stature hadn’t seen me run or jump.
I reached the plateau at the top of the mountain. It was smaller than you might imagine, with a quick tumble to death threatening me at every turn. The ground was bare from countless other hikers reaching the summit. As I caught my breath and realized that Tim wasn’t there, I caught sight of the range.
And it took my breath away.
Miles and miles of jungle-coated, jaguar-filled mountains stretched across the horizon. The blend of green, grey, and blue composed a gorgeous symphony of colors as the melody of birds rose to match. Under a brilliant sky, the mountains released their ancient magic and captivated me. I stared for a countless amount of time, mesmerized by the astounding array of nurturing trees, weird and wonderful wildlife, and sweeping rolls of so many experiences that I would never know.
After witnessing this, I would never be the same.
I had learned the secret of the mountains: to keep most of your stories hidden in your depths, letting your wisdom rise with the mist as time goes on. To honor your time on Earth, sweeping your beauty across the range of your experiences. To provide a platform for others to grow and celebrate beautiful moments with them.
The mountains spoke to me. And for once, I shut down my chattering brain and listened to them.