14 Hours In Light: Part 5. The Descent and The Energy Within

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photos by madelyn vanwestervelt, kevin harris, and rus vanwestervelt

14 Hours In Light: Part 5. The Descent and The Energy Within

Once the sun had cleared the mountain, I take one more walk around the perimeter of the summit before heading back to the cabin. The walk down the mountain is, at worst, in shadow. Gone are the fears about bears, injuries, or communication with the outside world.

I had communed with the earth and the heavens; what was there to fear?

When I reach the cabin, everyone is still asleep. I make a pot of coffee and head out to the deck, looking over the mountains I had just climbed.

Distance provides perspective. For days, I have viewed these peaks from the safety of this deck. I have pondered the trails, the dangers, the views. Now that I have climbed them myself, those ponderings are replaced with strength, energy, confidence.

What I am happy about is that the beauty of these mountains is just as rich, even intensified by my morning hike. I know them now, and they know me.

DSC_8117The day carries on, and as we take other walks and consider various trips to Asheville or the oft-mentioned Exit 11 (“See, what you want to do is take Exit 11 to cover just about any need you might have that the mountains can’t give you…“), I carry with me a humble perspective. It’s as if my perceptions, my understandings of every routine, every experience are now filtered through the epiphanic events on the summit of Big Bald. I find that I spend the day doing a lot of listening, a lot of smiling, regardless of who, or what, or where.

I am learning that this is the gift of the Earth and of the Universe. This is The Way, The Path.

Late in the afternoon, my daughter Madelyn joins Cindy and me on the deck. She is 13 and has gone with us on every excursion. She has also spent a few days at the stables on the other side of the mountain, bonding with the healthy trail horses that have been giving rides to visitors for nearly 10 years.

IMG_3612She places her hands on her hips and looks to the far western ridges to our left. Within our sight, if you look closely through the oaks and eastern pines, is the top of the four-person ski lifts from the lodge that is at the base of the mountain. We have already ventured there mid-day earlier in the week, and the vantage point provides an entirely different perspective of the western range.

“We’re running out of sunsets,” she says. “We need to head up to the top of that hill tonight.”

My sister smiles. “Just like you. She’s got her list, too. Once in a lifetime.”

DSC_8129There’s no argument from me. We all have our white blazes that we pursue, where we find our confidence, our strength, our energy. Madelyn, Rob, Cindy — you, me, the stranger passing us on the street — we seek our white-blazed trail, infinitely available to us. It is in our awareness, our mindful way of living, that we see it, follow it, become it.

I open the walk to others who wish to join us, and Rob, my brother-in-law, says he’s in.

I want Cindy to go, too. Rob and I talk briefly about the possibility of taking her with us up the big hill, but we know what the terrain is like from our walk earlier in the week: an unforgiving steep pitch that is rocky in some places with knee-high grasses in others.

Madelyn agrees to help me take pictures to capture the sunset and share it with her. We pack a small bag and say our goodbyes as we head to make the day’s final ascent.

But I know that this trip is different than the one I took just 13 hours ago. I don’t carry with me fear; I carry with me the desire to capture the experience in such a way that Cindy is with us. Maybe we can’t take her to the summit, but we can bring the summit to her in all its glory. She is, after all, the one who encouraged me earlier to walk without fear.

And from this I learn: We can make the choice to live without fear. Every day.

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Next…. The last segment in this series: Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear.

Read Part 1. The Decision and The Approach
Read Part 2. The Ascent and The Fear of Wildlife
Read Part 3. The Summit and The Elements
Read Part 4. The Rising Sun, The Falling Moon, and The Epiphany


During the last week of July, we were fortunate enough to join my sister and her family at their mountain cabin in western North Carolina. It was the first time that our family had been together in six years, and the first time I had seen my sister since she lost her left leg in her battle with osteosarcoma.

In the pre-dawn hours of July 30, I wrestled with the decision to hike to the summit of Big Bald Mountain along the Appalachian Trail and see the sun rise over the Great Smoky Mountains along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. I have selected 16 photos from that day, spanning a 14-hour period of light, where I remained focused on the energy of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. Mingling among these 16 pictures are six short passages that chronicle my thoughts during that day. This is the fifth of those six passages in my series titled, “14 Hours In Light.”

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