I was hiking the Nantahala National Forest, near the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Landon and I were taking our first vacation together. We were enjoying our first day working our way up Whiteside Mountain and often stopped to admire interesting rock faces or to identify a new plant. I was happy. I felt most at home under the sky and among the trees. I wanted to revel in every moment of the hike, to savor everything this little haven from modernity had to offer.
Near the top of the mountain, I spotted a small path off of the trail. It was nearly hidden by an overgrown shrub. “I want to go check that out,” I said. Landon, a lifelong resident of the Midwest and rather unaccustomed to such high cliffs, decided to stay back.
I held on to the rock face and pushed back branches, inching toward the light at the other end. When I emerged, I was in awe. In front of me, the cliff dropped several thousand feet, and below in the valley an emerald sea of trees gave rise to distant blue peaks shining through the rising mist. The world fell silent as the breeze lightly touched my face, welcoming me into a long-forgotten peace.
The beauty of this place awoke a part of me I had never met. And for one eternal instant, I was able to see the expanse before me like the gods would have seen it. Stars have exploded into life and fallen billions of times over, and planets have formed and crumbled. And what could only be described as destruction, transformed into the birth of a universe pure and wild--so alive with light that to even glimpse the immensity of its possibility would set your soul aflame. And mine was. I could feel the infinite fire of creation, and no wind would extinguish it.
I realized then that the universe is infinitely ancient and will persist long after humans have ceased giving words to describe it. And yet, despite the unimaginably slight chance that I should be born into existence in the first place, I was allowed this moment of beauty on the mountain. I was alive. I was awake. And more than anything, I was enlightened with the knowledge that the trees around me had known for millennia: that we are all siblings in an impossibly complex and beautiful creation. The earth is our mother, the trees our sisters, and everything that lives and exists is our kin. We are neither more nor less than fallen leaves of oak trees, or the brightest star in a distant galaxy. We are One, unstoppable energy, even when our souls depart from existence. There is no true end. Every atom of my body will continue to give life long after I have ceased to exist in this form. At that moment, the inevitability of death created no fear in my heart because I knew I would live on. My life would be no more than the blink of an ever-watchful eye—and yet I am celestial; I am eternal.
I was crying, not from pain or fear, but from the deepest sense of peace and joy I have ever known. I belonged here, in this instant, on the mountain. I looked out at the noble trees below and marveled at the depth of gratitude I felt toward our Mother Earth for sustaining all life. I looked toward the unknowable forces of the universe that had placed me at this moment. I was no longer searching. I had found all that I ever truly needed: acceptance of my place in this wondrous evolution. My heart rested, knowing I had felt the cadence of unending time, and it had resonated it every corner of my soul. I held on to the rock and bush and allowed myself to feel their energy pass through me as I came to understand my home in this world--in the wilderness, where the light of the universe can always guide me.
I was coming down from the elation of this epiphany when Landon joined me. I extended my hand to him, an offering to share in the goodness I had seen and felt in every fiber of my being. He took it, and when he looked at the expanse at his feet, I hoped he had felt it too.
As of right now, thirty-seven days have passed since that moment. I’ve started a new job, and I’ve seen six states. My body has kept moving onward, but I know a part of my soul has stayed among the trees and cliffs of Whiteside Mountain.
Photos by author
Sarah prefers to spend her time outdoors and exploring new corners of the world. One day she hopes to be a dirty old hippie if she isn't one already.
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