There are crowds at the bottom. But, only a few at the top.
The wind is steady, but not to the extent where it disrupts the peaceful calm of the Mt. LeConte summit. A mist rolls in on the breeze, and soon I am in the clouds. It took four and a half hours to get here, and a day after running 50 miles, I am ready to enjoy being at the halfway point of my mini journey. At 6,593 feet, Mt. LeConte is only the 5th highest mountain east of the Rockies, but from its 1,292 foot base, it has a rather jaw dropping 5,301 feet of vertical rise. That's more than any east coast mountain, and more than many of Colorado's famous 14'ers.
The spruce and fir are thick, and when the wind blows I pick up a familiar scent like that of a Christmas tree farm. Operant conditioning at it's finest, as my mind is now filled with the thoughts of Christmas mornings past. Then my mind drifts back to the rocky mountain and to the towns below.
A mile below the summit, in stark contrast of the solitude, is the flashy and noisy tourist trap of Gatlinburg, TN. Tens of thousands of people travel from far and wide to pack into restaurants, bars, mini golfs, and stores. In the heart of such a scenic backdrop as the Great Smokey Mountains, it's almost unfathomable how such a deluge of pop culture consumerism are most folk's destination. My destination, however, is the 20+ miles of single track that lead to the summit of Mt. LeConte, which ominously looms over the Gatlinburg skyline . Like others who had come before, I wanted experience the flavor of one vertical mile of pure Smokey Mountain bliss.
Thunder echoes in the distance, and a gray vail of rainclouds draw near. I welcome the rain and winds that follow and consider the world of mountains and men.
What I learned was merely an affirmation that there are those who enjoy the view of the world from below, and there are those who yearn to obtain the view of the world from above. A majority of the masses would rather whip out their cameras, point, and click at some far off summit. Their view is limited by the focal point of being grounded amongst the many. However, if one should choose to step beyond the bounds of the civilized comforts, then the journey to the top of the mountain will provide them with a view of the world below that few will ever know. That is the view I seek, and why like so many others I answer the compelling call of the mountains.
But, let's be realistic here. I am by no means a self proclaimed mountain man, or Bear Grylls. I don't have a beard, I've never hunted any wild animal, and I spend 40 hours a week at my air conditioned university desk job. Even when I am on the trail "roughing" it, I am usually doing so in a nice pair of trail shoes, wearing the latest hydration pack, or using my gps to keep a steady eye on my distance and eleavtion. But, I'd like to believe if you took that all away and looked into my personality, that's where you'd find the bearded, unshowered, and primal mountain man howling at the harvest moon.
The trail is rocky, the storm has passed, and the sun is dipping lower on the horizon.
I believe at the base of all mountains, literal and metaphorical, we are covered in our Clark Kent style reflections of the material world. But, with each step rising slightly higher than the one before, we slowly peal ourselves down to the person we were born to be. It's stepping out and away from the manifest destiny of the deus ex machina where man's conceivable autonomy falls into linguistic folk lore. We begin to really think for ourselves and not how we're expected to think under the wiley guise of societal standards.
The night is fully upon me, and I am forced to turn on my headlamp for the last few miles back into town. In a short while I will be back amongst the glittery lights, spewing mufflers of large trucks, and throngs of people going from one momentary satisfaction to another.
It's all quite pure and simple. I love mountains. I still enjoy people, though collective IQ's drop the more crowded the setting, but I still enjoy interpersonal connectivity. Afterall, relationship is a lost art. The world is getting faster, but we commonly mistaken increased technolgical speed for increased intelligence. Quicker, easier, user friendly, now, now, me, me, me. There's always a trade off, and like falling asleep at the wheel, you are never fully aware when that trade off happens. Until you crash. When I tag a summit, I trade some of that load back, and begin to wake up.
Mt. LeConte, Mt. Elbert, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Mt. Rogers, Pike's Peak, Mt. Whitney, Rainier, Spruce Knob, Clingman's Dome...Everest, Annapurna, Shishapangma, Cho Oyu? Where I've been and where I want to be.
After eight hours on the trail, I am back at my car. In it's entirety, the weekend boasted over 72 miles of mountain trails and over 14,000 ft of vertical climbing. By far, not the most I have ever done, but a satisfyingly full weekend none the less. Like the thousands of others in Gatlinburg, I too am a tourist. A tourist of the mountain. While they take home their gifts, Hard Rock cafe t-shirts, and coffee mugs, I take home not a single piece of tangible goods. It's the intangibles that I carry, and will carry with me the rest of my life.
I reflect a few moments before turning the key to start my car.
A mountain is a living, breathing sub ecosystem of life that one can fully have a relationship with. It's not all that different than having a relationship with a person. It's hard work, it can break you in the worst ways, but in the end you'll know the mountain in a way those who settle for the bottom will never understand. The mountain is one of God's great allegories for the human condition.
Good night and good summitting.