“Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights.” ~ Khalil Gibran
A year ago today I started my morning as I’ve started a few. Alone in my car, in the cold and the dark. This morning just happened to be at Woody Gap. Facebook reminded me of that fact today as I braved yet another cold and dark morning, very much not alone this time as I herded three small humans on their various ways. With everyone in their places now though the memory of that day and that run have blossomed in my mind. Great runs are fertile soil for great memories.
My plan that morning rough drafted as it might have been was to run the AT unassisted from Woody Gap to Neels Gap and back, a 22ish mile run including a double summit of Blood Mountain. I was training for Georgia Death Race so this sort of thing seemed to be expected. Also I’d totally stolen the idea from creeping one of my friend’s Strava accounts who just happened to be training for the same race as me (hey Chantal!).
The enormity of the thing was lost on me in the moment as I started heading up the ridge towards Preacher’s Rock. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and it was only by sheer self-confidence and dumb stubbornness that I even thought it possible. The fact that I was alone wasn’t even factored in to the equation by default. If I’m going to stroll my way into hell best do it alone and unencumbered by the guilt of dragging anyone along with me.
The morning glow was already fading the stars by the time I made it to Preacher’s Rock but the sun still hadn’t come up. Standing there on that big rock staring alone I could feel the remaining darkness around me anticipating the Sun’s arrival just like I was. I don’t want to ever forget that sunrise. In that moment I felt the humbling knowledge of just how small I was, but at the same time the comforting wisdom of being connected to all that sprawling greatness. The mountain is a part of me and I am a part of the mountain. I boxed that memory up with care before running on.
Just up past Preacher’s Rock I started to run into snow. All we’d had the day before had been cold rain at home so running in snow hadn’t been on the agenda. I will say the shock of seeing snow when you aren’t expecting it is undervalued. It would be long gone at this elevation before I passed back through. From there I remember running past not one but two different campsites, the campers themselves presumably still tucked in their tents. I hope the sound of my stealthy footfalls rushing by unexpectedly gave a peaceful start to their day.
Moving on is a blur until my first summit of Blood Mountain. The real beauty of reaching the summit from this direction is not being able to really see it until you’re almost on top thanks to the topography and some especially thick rhododendron. It’s not entirely unlike that scene in Monsters, Inc where Mike and Sully get thrown through the closet door into the Himalayas. Guess what surprise you’re on a mountain.
Including the time driving up to Woody Gap I’d been alone for hours. I hadn’t heard a voice in all that time, neither anyone else’s or mine. I’d run the miles there in silence as is my natural state. Standing there taking it all in I was appreciative of that silence because only by silencing my own voice could I hear the voices around me. I live in a small house with a lot of heartbeats. I know this to be true. So I stood there in my silence, listening to the mountain speak, taking in all I could get. It was hard to move on from that moment but I knew my time there was limited. Already the anxiety of making it back on time was creeping in. The school bus waits for no one, just like the mountain. Picking the trail back up and starting down towards Neels Gap it felt like I was leaving a piece of myself behind. A little part that never wanted to leave that place, in that moment. That was a hard feeling to grasp and an even harder thing to explain. The idea that moments and places can take a piece of you, and the question of what comes back to fill that space in return. Nature abhors a vacuum. I couldn’t stand by and wait for an answer though. Whatever I was being given back in trade I’d have to unpack in time.
The bomb run down to Neels Gap from the top of Blood Mountain is breathtaking as is the climb going back up but it’s for two entirely different reasons. Negotiating North Georgia scree while going downhill as fast as possible but also making time to look for trail blazes will move your ticker 20 years one direction or the other based on your disposition. I was feeling years younger by the time I made the store. The store clerk was busy helping a hiker get outfitted but I managed to break my vow of silence long enough to buy a bunch of extra calories before slipping back out. Just looking back up the trail felt uncomfortable, but a glance at the watch reminded me of the places and I had to be and the people that needed me to be there.
My memories of the run back are a lot like the run out, only played back at a hire speed and only hitting the highlights. My mind had already started to turn towards home at that point. I was still present in the moment but not all of me. My thoughts had already started to attach themselves to the world I’d left behind. At the start my mind had been untethered as I ran off wild into the wilderness but I suspect that’s by design. If we could stand there at the beginning fully aware of what lay ahead and fiercely conscious of the sacrifice involved how many of us would step over the line? Not for necessity or need mind you but for sheer recreation. Who wants to get thrown down a dark hall for fun just to see what happens? This guy apparently, but now that I was at the far end and the dark laid bare my mind wasn’t on the mystery but on just getting back.
I do remember the second summit though because as I came up towards the top I could feel that old familiar silence coming back. This was my natural state, and this was a place that commanded it. The second summit was a reset of sorts, realigning myself with where I was and what I was doing, the tertiary interruption of human interaction fading out as my focus on just covering ground set in. Something I think about often is my ancestors, growing up in these mountains, having no way to go from point A to point B other than the very means I was using now. Want to go to town or see your sweetheart? Walk. Don’t want it to take as long? Run. That was it for them, and often times when I’m running alone I can feel those old ghosts draw near me. As I run and walk the mountains I wonder what that silence must have been like for them as they walked and ran these same trails alone that I’m alone on now. I find their voices speak the loudest when I speak the least. That sense of connection wasn’t something I expected to find when I started trail running but I can honestly say it’s one of the things that I cherish most about trail running.
Finally making it back to the car I got myself back together and got myself moving on back toward my life. The run was done and life needed to be lived. A lot went in on the year that progressed. There were good runs and great miles spent with awesome friends and a few rough runs along the way. But as the year progressed the special nature of that run became more and more apparent, and now looking back writing about it I can appreciate just how special it was. It wasn’t just the views though or the visceral experiences as great as they were. It was that much needed reminder of the value of silence and the sanctity and connection it can bring that helped make it mean so much more.
Several years back my wife and I were in a third wave coffee shop and as we sat down with our lattes that had clearly been exquisitely made with love and skill I was overcome. I had to speak. I had to make words. This place and this moment and these amazing coffees and her company all warranted and deserved all these things I had to say about how awesome this all was. But as we sat there, me and this woman who has taught me so much, and as I started to speak she shushed me. I was taken aback. But then before I could protest or get my feelings hurt she said, and I’ll never forget this, “Don’t talk. Just let it happen.”
So as I sit here hours later from the time I started writing this and still lost in thoughts and memories I give you those same words as we part. The next time you’re out on a run, or just want to take in the moment, “Don’t talk. Just let it happen.”