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Friday, August 14, 2020

Visiting Old Friends at Hanging Rock State Park

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The afternoon sun was beaming, breaking through the tall pines of my campground at Hanging Rock State Park in North Carolina. I was in my mid-twenties, with a mid-twenties mindset. My plan was to camp alone, get up in the dark — say around 4:00 a.m. — and climb the rocky twisted path up to Moore’s Knob. I wanted to be at the top by the time the sun’s warm fingers were reaching out for another day.

I’d visited Hanging Rock so many times I’d lost count. However, Moore’s Knob was unknown to me. I rented my campsite and brought just enough food for the night. I hung a heavy canvas tarp over a rope to serve as my tent and my pillow.

It sounded adventurous, but not dangerous.
It sounded uncomfortable but fun. It was something I‘d never done.

Connecting with Nature

I was also looking for a connection. One with the moon and the sun — two folks in the sky with which I hadn’t spent much time. Living in a dorm, attending school and working in a warehouse meant I had very little time for God’s creations. These mountains had been a part of my life since childhood. Living in Greensboro made it convenient to come up and camp with the family, or just visit for the day to picnic and climb.

There was a familiarity with the rolling hills and low mountains of the Sauratown Mountain range that still to this day live in my spirit. Even today, the hills strum the strings of my heart and their songs echo through me. The many hours of struggling up the twisted rock-strewn paths left the sights, smells and energy of these old tree-lined peaks in my heart. It makes me wonder which comes first. Is it the love of the mountains or the mountain’s love for us? I’m not sure, but a piece of my heart resides in these pine-covered peaks of North Carolina.

The Adventure Begins

I checked in and a ranger showed me my camping spot. Our chat was brief. He reminded me I was the only one staying for the night. It was still early spring and there weren’t any adventurous souls who would be populating the mountainside with me. I had just enough wood and food to get through the night.

Food… good ol’ fashioned chili in a can. Water and clothes to sleep in.

This was before the days of cell phones. When the sun shimmied its way down to the horizon through the jagged, tree-lined mountains, it was dark. Really dark — and with nothing to do. I had planned ahead and brought a flashlight. I needed to conserve its limited light and power for my climb. The moon broke through the empty hardwoods and filtered past the evergreen pines. It casted shadows about me everywhere, like curtains hung from the heavens. I hadn’t expected this, and it would greatly affect my ascent early the next morning.

The chill invaded the night. I started a fire, finished setting up camp and got ready for bed. In no time the aroma of a crackling hardwood and pine fire filled the air. There was more smoke than heat, but it didn’t matter. I strung up my rope between trees and hung my tarp, excited to have this new home for the next few hours.

Dinner was warm, the kind of warm you get when it’s chilly outside. A welcome warm like an old friend or a good book. It stayed with me as I made my way up the path to the bathhouse one last time.

The night wasn’t what I’d planned. As the temperature dropped, the wind picked up. I was buried within the pines and hardwoods of the camping area. However, the wind whipped up and through the trees at a pace that kept moving around my fire and camping setup. Not wanting to sleep in the car, I crawled into my hanging tarp, tucked into my sleeping bag and attempted sleep.

If you’ve ever been in the woods at night with high winds, you know there’s not a lot of peace. The trees pick up with the gusts and dance among themselves, carrying on as the ballads of nature play through their limbs. Everything is moving except for the ground. The rope of my tent jumped and moved, pulling away my tarp in a ‘peekaboo’ fashion. The gusts eventually became background noise and movement of far off dreams. It all folded into my mind as I waited through the night, waking each hour until my 4 a.m. watch called me.

Morning Breaks

I got up, not quite ready for what awaited me. I tend to see an enemy or an adversary behind every unknow. There were thousands of moonlit shadows casting about, moving in the gusts of wind creating many ‘unknowns’. It was as if the mountain had come alive and told me I had no permission to climb to the knob. It seemed as if the trees and mountains were in league together to protect their great secrets that have been hidden from so many.

Part of me was ready pack up and leave. However, I had already come this far. Though I didn’t understand the concept of ‘baby steps’, I knew it was time to take some. I tried to forget the grumbling, waving mountain of trees and just start by clearing out of the camp area. So, with my camera, flashlight and water, I headed out.

I hiked out of my campsite toward the parking lot and up to the other side of the lake where the official trail opened, beckoning its next challenger. The wind whipped everything around me. Branches clashed together as I made my way past the shimmering moonlight bouncing off the lake. It seemed to send me hidden messages in the ripples.

“Keep going… ”

A Winding Trail

After about twenty-five minutes I stood at the opening of the trail. The trees seemed to hang low, branches swayed back and forth trying to keep me from entering the darker hole of the tree-covered path. It was still only 4:25 am. The Moore’s Knob path wasn’t a straight shot. It was a winding loop that covered almost five miles, rising from the trailhead to the top of the mountain. From lake level, it was only 900 feet up. However, the path itself moved back and forth with a snake-like slither.

The path of uneven dirt, rock, twists and turns led to more twists and turns. Through pouring sweat and heavy breaths, I could feel the eyes of unseen inhabitants on this shadow-casting tree-lined path. With each heart-pounding breath, I was ready to stop. Honest admission here:  Every time I stopped and considered turning around, I found myself feeling more uncertain because I was no longer the highest on the food chain. My nerves were strung so tightly you could play a mountain ho-down on them. One of the greatest lessons I learned through this climb was becoming comfortable with my discomfort and fear. No matter how hard I tried to drown out my fears, they stayed with me. The strength to continue, however, never left me.

It was 5:30 a.m. when I reached a bend. In the waning darkness, I emerged from prickly pines to see a large rectangular object standing against the empty black horizon. I froze, having been so focused on each step, each turn, each prayer on my way up it caught me by surprise.

An Unexpected Sight

I‘d forgotten about the old fire tower built on the top of the granite stone. The tower’s angular edges stood in stark contrast to the twists and turns of the mountain. Although it was rebuilt in 1951, this structure has stood like a lone sentinel since 1938. I made my way to the old tower.

I had made it.

To the east was Huckleberry Ridge and Cooks Wall. To the west, behind me, was Hanging Rock. The air was still as my breathing returned to normal. The reluctant mountain gave up, and the warming tendrils of the sun’s fingers began their daily climb to the horizon as the moon dipped below the horizon behind me for another night’s rest. The brightening purple turned to pink, then slowly to fiery orange, as first the fingers, and then the palm of the sun climbed over the distant horizon to show her bright orange face to the world, and to me.

I soaked in this moment, watching the sun change the dark surface of the earth to bright spring greens that burned warmth to my soul through my eyes and my whole body. The warmth of those loving fingers sent small chills through my face and body as the cold sweat began to dry away.

These moments were like greeting an old friend. We rediscovered each other at the top of Moore’s Knob. In that warmth, that light, we had our moment and communed. The sun continued its climb. Mine was finished for the day. However, these moments changed me. They stayed with me — even today. Every time the sun climbs over the horizon, I’m reminded of the day we shared at the top of Moore’s Knob.

If you seek more outdoors inspiration, check out these articles:

Big Tent Revival: Camping Makes a Comeback

A Park for Every Pursuit

Carolinas’ National and State parks are Ready for You!

(May 2020)

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