I wake up in a mansion-sized, 4-story house near Inglewood, TN. The places I find myself sometimes, I think. I’m in a room decorated with fairy paintings and statues, the kind Amy Brown is famous for. I lie on a bunk bed under a velvety, indigo blanket, with charms hanging from above me and magical glyph-like symbols hand-painted onto wood just beside me, inches away. A 13-year-old boy marches into the room, helping my eyes open a few more degrees. There are feet hanging off the bunk above me. Lorien is up. Where’s the dog? Time for another day in my life of adventure.
My friends Joannie and Lorien did most of the work, but my job during the horse feeding was to chuck bales of hay over fences from the back of a white pickup truck. I was wearing a moisture-wicking, turtle-necked base layer and shirts under a large coat. I had donned two pairs of pants and gloves. Despite the hat and hood, my face was already freezing. I need a mask, I thought.
I watched River the Daschund walk across a frozen pool of water only to to fall in up to her neck and climb back out. I remembered my dip at Chimney Tops last winter. But while River ran around like Bear Grylls trying to get warm after ice swimming, while she shivered, she seemed much more at home in the cold than the girls and I did … or maybe just me.
From valley roads we could see thin woods and high, snow-covered fields in the Cherokee National Forest. That’s one great thing about winter, the sky is so clear you feel like you can see forever, into places it would take you days to get to. We first needed to visit Lorien’s house, a 50-acre mountain retreat with deep streams, more horses, a treehouse, and its own large island among frigid mountain watercourses.
I walked a plank across the kind of babbling stream these mountains are famous for, with 3 dogs and the girls in front. We explored the island briefly, then headed back to the brief warmth of the house.
Buck Bald sits atop a long, steep road with frightening switchbacks, the kind of road that really should have sturdy guardrails to prevent vehicles from rolling down 40-foot drops to a lower piece of road below, but as it’s gravel, it’s a long way from getting rails. I really wasn’t worried. I’d ridden buses in rural China, after all, and I found that you can bet the most broken down bus on the oldest, most treacherous road will never break down or succumb to disaster. They’re like dead trees that never rot or fall.
14 DEGREES OR LESS
I don’t know how cold it was up there, but it was 14 down in the valley, and we were well above the valley. Buck Bald had the kind of austere beauty I associate with great adventures, like summitting Everest, where despite total discomfort and impending need to leave danger before it’s too late, pure intellectual enjoyment enters the mind through the senses of a thoroughly unhappy body. I’ve experienced this on Mt. LeConte, when the whipping wind made the summit unbearable and 5 miles of ice-coated downhill trail separated me from warmth — I was able to sit for a few minutes under a low, iron-gray sky enjoying in my head a beauty and sense of victory my body was utterly deaf to. And blind to. And numb to. Just the cold on my face and the wind made it hard to open my eyes enough to take in the sight, but it was worth it. The body just wanted to go home; the mind wanted the body to shut up so it could soak up the sights very few would ever enjoy. In fact, probably no one but my companion and I ever saw it. There’s something incredible about reaching a place that it feels no one would want to be, because it’s so inhospitable, so far from any source of protection or human comfort, like the moon or the bottom of the sea, or the deepest coal mine. It’s the enjoyment of the rarely experienced, of being somewhere remote. It makes up a great genre of adventure.
Buck Bald was like that — a heavenly place — an exposed grassy mound with 360 degree views of gorgeous natural creation. And I think I associate heavenly places with a harshness and almost intolerable power of purity and cleanliness that the winter embodies so well. The biting wind, the bright sunlight, the absence of flies and pests, all markers of the intense power of nature, almost too much for a person to take, but true and unyeilding. It makes one revere nature as greater than human power, untamed and unstoppable, even unreasonable. I like that. Inside me, I know that it is good, and sometimes good is too much for me to take.
As expected, the dog, being better equipped for nature, seemed more comfortable than we did, even with our ultramodern coats and thermal gear.
I have evidence:
The next part of our plan was to head down to Tellico Plains, then catch the Cherohala Skyway into the mountain snow. But Joannie’s jeep decided it didn’t want to shift gears anymore. The transmission stopped working. Fortunately, we had downhill all the way back to Tellico, where we could pick up cell phone reception and get a tow truck. As we waited for rescue by Joannie’s brother and then the tow truck, the afternoon caught up to me.
The jury is still out on whether Joannie’s jeep has had its last adventure or will live to drive another day, but I’ll remember it for taking me to Buck Bald, that’s for sure.
That’s the thing about adventure, though: you lose things. You ruin clothes and get holes in them, beat up and burn cookware until it can’t be used, rip holes in backpacks and tents, go through shoes like Nike Corporation, destroy cameras with water, drop gear off cliffs, etc. Matches run out, lighters burn up, hydration hoses need new bite valves, and don’t even get me started on socks. Sometimes a really nice video camera bites the dust or a car breaks down or gets a window smashed out, but that, after all, is the nature of life — like everything else, adventuring makes it that much more clear.
You also lose fear. You lose the barrier they call a “comfort zone.” You lose your addiction to the man-made world, lose your pride and sense of greatness, lose your false friends, lose your false self. You lose interst in things that don’t matter in life, and you lose your wonderment about what is important. You lose cell phone reception and minute-by-minute schedule. You lose the need for money out in the wild.
And that, I think, in the end, is worth a broken down car. Especially because it wasn’t mine this time. :) (Sorry, Joannie. I’ll help you get where you need to be).