Perched and Pondering

Many hikers are on a mission.  I know I often am.  You have to have a determined focus to reach the set goal when your legs suggest now would be a great time to take a long break.  But when you reach that summit, stand by that waterfall, get your selfie by that marker – then what?  When time allows, I like to spend some time just soaking up the scenery, both distant and at my feet. 

Such is the case at the end of February, as I climb the short trail past the stone fire tower and out to the overlook on Fort Mountain.  It is one of the sentinels of the Blue Ridge Mountains, glaring westward at the low wavelike mountain ridges breaking across the wide valley.

The Fort Mountain overlook is a series of stone outcropping on which the parks department built wooden platforms for people to stand and appreciate the view from some 1800 feet above the valley floor.  Near the platform is a boulder resembling a rough chair.  I fancy it to be my bardic throne, to perch on and ponder whenever I find myself in that corner of the state.  I, who fidgets after ten minutes in front of the television, find new reserves of patience in this place amid the stones lichens and briers at the edge of air. 

When the wind stills a moment, I hear the soft rush of water hundreds of feet below.  I enjoy the novelty of watching a buzzard soaring beneath me.  And shadows lengthen. 

There were reminders of humanity, of course.  The steady roar of the distant interstate and nearer highway carries on the wind.  Much closer visitors to the mountain cough and sneeze, and occasionally thump past on the boardwalk between stairs and platform.  But they sweep the vista with their eyes, and after five minutes they take their selfies and return the way they came.  The disturbances come less often as the evening progresses and dinnertime nears.

To the northeast, Grassy Mountain spreads low and wide with hollows upon hollows and fractalling folds in the mantle of trees. I am content to watch the shadows form in those folds, like the substance of the incipient evening growing in the crevices where the waning sun can no longer reach.

Time passes and the tide of shadow washes across the valley, not as a line on the shore, but in fits and starts.  I watch a level field as the light fades all at once, then follow forest-shaped shadows creeping in a jagged line up a hillside clearing.  At length, the sun retreats from my chair and the woods behind me, while still lighting the shoulders and summit of Grassy Mountain.  

The final moments of daylight are muted as the sun falls behind a hazy cloud cover.  Only the very top of Grassy Mountain shows the faintest traces of sunset’s glow.  After a good two hours, the curtain has gone down on this act; I will navigate the rocky trail before the light fails and the stars begin their dance.

Only a few moments are necessary to “claim” a view. But I’ve climbed this trail many times and  seen this mountain in various moods over the last three decades.  There is much more to see if I devoted my time to it. But if I don’t get up this way for a few years, I can be reasonably sure that the trail, the boulder, and the view will still be waiting should I have an hour or two to spare.

The next time you visit some landmark, set aside time to actually be there, to let it sink into your senses and leave a proper impression.  If you don’t get to know the spirit of a place, can you really say you’ve been there?

A Moment’s Awareness

Walking down a woods road at the night end of twilight, l try to marshal my thoughts.  But my mind tugs away like a puppy unreconciled to the leash.  It chases old remembrances, worries at the cares of friends and family, and dashes towards tomorrow’s plans and future uncertainties.

Leaves rustle to my right.  In an instant,  wayward thoughts return, alert, on point.

I share awareness of this moment with a night-hidden, skittering creature, with no notion of its life on either side of this moment, nor it of mine.

The woods are quiet.  I walk on. Chastened, my mind heels for  a short span.

Green Flash

Next month’s solar eclipse put me in mind of another gem the sun has in her celestial bag of tricks. An emerald, actually – a phenomenon called “the green flash.”

One afternoon, many moons ago, I was walking to my dorm when I spied another student just sitting on a bench and staring across the quad (remember, this was before cell phones and the web).  A freshman and an introvert, I nevertheless was determined to practice this “talking to strangers” thing, so I sat down beside her and initiated a conversation.  She told me, matter-of-factly, that sometimes when the sun sinks into the ocean, it flashes green.  Huh.  Clearly, I thought to myself, this girl was trying to get rid of me with absurd non sequitur factoids.  Nonplussed, I politely left her to her green sun fantasy.

Perhaps a year or so later, I came across a reference in some periodical to the sun flashing green.  My memory reconnected to that afternoon and the girl I totally failed to get on with. Perhaps, I thought, this trick of the light was a real thing after all.  As I recall, the essay featured a brief description of  the sun turning green as it sank into the sea, yet gave nothing in the way of an explanation  – much like one’s musings might be interrupted by a shooting star, and marking it as noteworthy without feeling obligated to explain the phenomenon.  Nowadays, of course, I would have found the nearest screen and performed the instant research we take for granted.  Googling “green flash” earns you a list links of technical explanations on extreme refraction of sunlight, plus photos  and even videos.  But back in the day,  the information superhighway resembled a double-rutted prairie track.   So, the thought slipped to the back of my mind before I could pester a librarian.

Flash forward about a decade, to when my girlfriend and I embarked on a driving tour of Ireland.  After some visiting and touristing in the east, we struck out across the island to reach the western shore.  We explored the grey rocky expanse known as the Burren, but my goal for the evening was to photograph the sunset from atop the Cliffs of Moher.   You know the place, by sight if not by name.  The Dread Pirate Roberts (or at least his stunt double) pursued Fezzik the Giant up that wall of stone in The Princess Bride.  Though it hadn’t registered at the time, we were nearly at the summer solstice, meaning the sun took its own sweet time in going to bed.  Sunsets are beautiful by themselves, but I remembered the story of the green flash and figured if it could be seen then I was in the best place to do so.  After an hour or so of exploration at the hard edge of the island, we staked out a place at the high point of the cliffs.  Before us was open, empty air; seven hundred feet of stacked layers of shales, mudstones, and sandstones served both to keep our feet dry and our blood pumping faster than normal.  Behind us, the grey stone of O’Brien’s Tower tinted red in the evening light. We were joined by a handful of others to watched the sun’s departure.  At a quarter til ten, I set my tripod and began clicking away my carefully rationed  (non-digital ) shots as the sun set the sea on fire;  I had budgeted three rolls of film My beautiful pictureper day, and was down to my last dozen exposures.  At ten o’clock, the disk flattened against the horizon.  As beautiful as the scene was, I wondered if the legendary phenomenon would show itself.   And would I be able to capture it?

The sun was low enough and muted enough that I braved looking through the eyepiece  and the polarized filter at the orb.

*Click* A moment of darkness as red sunlight exposed the film.  Then the sun was back, narrower than ever.

*Click*  Black, then back.


And a green glow washed across the sliver of sun.  I sucked in the cool sea air in wonder.   As my finger stabbed down on the button, the sun reverted to red, then melted away into the ocean.

I saw it.  I missed the photographic trophy, but I beheld the phenomenon.   After a pause, I joined in as the small audience quietly applauded the spectacle.

My beautiful picture