Two women soon joined me, the first in a stream of morning hikers on the 1.5-mile trail from the parking lot to the cliff. The path led through autumn color in full effect, and soon it would become a very crowded clifftop indeed. The view, a 270-degree vista of the North Carolina Piedmont, would never be described as deep wilderness. Greensboro is visible on a clear day, and the intervening landscape changes from distant suburbia to farmland as it nears the park. Only the few miles directly at the foot of the ridge are free of houses, pastures, and barns.
I'd hiked the trail in the dark up and over Wolf Rock, a neighboring high point on the ridge, then on to the summit. Hiking by headlamp always unsettles me, especially in the woods. Childhood monsters crawl out of their subconscious dens, from snakes and bears to the Vermicious Knids of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. On this trip, the nightmare-come-true was dozens of eyes that caught the light of my headlamp as I rounded a switchback on the trail. It was only a herd of whitetail deer, but it took a second to get my heart out of my throat. The deer neither bolted nor stood their ground, but simply turned and wandered into the night, white tails flicking in the glow of my light—hardly fitting behavior for nightmare creatures.
As I climbed, the sky slowly turned from black to purple, and I knew if I wanted to catch sunrise from Hanging Rock I had better put the hammer down. I arrived as the sun broke the horizon. Gold light painted the warm oranges and yellows against the shadow side of the mountain still in blues and purples, creating a brilliant blazing spectrum. I set up the camera on the tripod and let my hands do their trick of setting exposure and shutter speed as my mind focused on the task of seeing the world beneath me.
The shadows slowly deepened and hardened as the sun rose into a cloudless sky. Suddenly a distinctive "cuk cuk cuk cuk!" broke the silence, and I looked down to see a pair of large birds skimming the treetops, the black and white of their backs contrasting against the foliage. Only the bright red crowns on their heads seemed to indicate that the birds had gotten the message that warm colors were de rigueur for the season. If there is such a thing as staccato grace, it can be used to describe a pileated woodpecker in flight. Short rapid beats of the wings are followed by a darting, wing-tucked glide that looks less like a bird in flight than a torpedo homing in on its target. Efficient flight with a single purpose: finding the next tree to decimate with their chisel-shaped bills, which are as long as their heads. I watched as they rocketed from tree to tree, tearing at snags, determined to find carpenter ants or another favored delicacy. Often they appeared to change their minds and shot off to another tree, sometimes returning to one they had visited minutes earlier. I recognized a similar pattern in my own behavior, and under my breath I muttered, "I feel you, brother."
It had been five months since I quit my job as a graphic designer at a marketing and advertising company. In the six years I worked there, I felt my design and creative skills atrophy. So in a mad dash to reinvent myself, I set out to relearn software, improve my writing, break into the 3-D visualization market, hone my photographic skills, and, oh yeah, rework my branding. "Must… differentiate… myself… within… market!" I'd been flying from tree to tree, spending days or weeks burying my head in whatever tutorial or exercise or paying gig I could get, before deciding that I was concentrating on the wrong thing. I was burning out from never turning my brain off. Time between projects to reassess? Hell no, I was already behind in reinventing myself. On to the next tree. As I watched the birds' manic flight, skimming treetops on arrow-straight vectors, I tried to imagine them gliding and soaring and started to chuckle.
The previous afternoon I had hiked to Moore's Knob, the highest peak in the Sauratown Mountains, A modest peak at 2,579 feet, its prominence over the surrounding countryside gives the impression of being much higher. The weather was crappy, but waning crappy, the perfect time for photographs. I had hoped to arrive at the summit just as the rains that had blanketed the area over the last couple days moved out, but I didn't quite hit it perfectly. As I climbed up the trail, the wind let me know I was a wee bit early, and I put my hood up over my cap to keep the gale from snatching it. At the top, the sky was a patchwork of dark clouds in all directions, with streaks of rain smudging the horizon to both the east and west. "Well, I'm in for it," I thought. I put the rain cover on the pack, one of the plastic baggies that camera companies market as "rain covers" on my camera, and tried to find some shelter behind the stunted pines on the summit.
As I watched, the clouds were slowly torn apart by shearing winds as the high pressure front moved the air before it. The sun broke through in places, and the landscape, already sectioned into a quilt of fields by the hedgerows and roads, took on a more abstract and dynamic division. Light and dark shades of green, from yellow to blue, played across the land, separated and joined. Occasionally the sky got into the act, pushing beams of light through stubborn atmospheric moisture unwilling to give up its hold on the countryside. It looked like a painting from the Hudson River school, like Thomas Cole's "The Oxbow."
I might have gone a bit crazy with the camera.
Swinging my tripod left and right to catch the best light, I eventually realized this wasn't going to be a fast-moving front. With time to pick my shots more carefully, I settled in, with the wind still whipping around me, reveling in the moment. Was I in the wilderness? Not by any current standard, and certainly not by the standards of the early explorers. But I was, no doubt, amongst the wild. I pointed my camera to capture the sun setting behind Pilot Mountain, a column-like formation known as a monadnock, standing 2,400 feet high. The wind from the northwest was loading up against its side, creating updrafts that lifted autumn leaves from the valley floor.
At the far end of the ridge, specks appeared and slowly resolved into ravens, their distinctive deep "krunk" versus the crow's higher pitched "caw" identifying them to my ears long before my eyes could make out the physical differences. Their movement, leisurely at best, made no attempt to use the currents to get them to their destination any faster. Instead they rode them backwards, eyes fixed on where they'd been. I wanted to pull my camera off the tripod, put on a telephoto lens, and shoot this gentle ride, but I knew the sky would continue to change. I decided to shoot the landscape and just enjoy watching the two large corvids do their thing. As they neared my position they slowed to take in the strange man bundled up against a wind he couldn't use. They held their position for a moment, as if daring me to take the camera off the tripod so they could fly away laughing, then they disappeared below the ridge behind me, the cliff side no longer providing lift for a leisurely glide.
I kept shooting as the sun got lower, then noticed a pair of black dots come around the ridge again, one with a distinctive notch in its wedge-shaped tail. I started laughing. The same birds were using the ridge as their own personal amusement park, riding the current and then rushing to the start of the ride to do it all over again. They cruised to within 20 feet of me, almost eye to eye. I waved and grinned and acted the fool. If the birds had an opinion of my behavior, they chose not to express it. Twice more they rode the ride before the sun went down and the winds faded. My hike back down to the campground in the dark had been full of childlike daydreams of soaring.
So now, as I watched the woodpeckers from Hanging Rock, the thoughts of soaring came flooding back. Something had to change, damn it. I was tired of concentrating on so many individual processes, so many pieces, without ever coming up with something of a whole. I needed to get higher, maybe spend a bit of time gliding backward using the ol' retrospect scope.
By the time the laughter of those two ladies reached my ears, I had an inkling of an idea. In the parlance of the industry, I was a content creator, but the concept was always someone else's. Concept, I thought. Concept was easy: this place, this ridge line and every one like it, or unlike it, every river, every trail, every wild place that I'd been to in 25 years of backpacking, 15 years of paddling, and as a military brat, a lifetime of travel. Every natural place that I slowly realized had been the center of orbit for my other passions, science and art.
This was the whole.
I met the two women's smiles with my own as I started my descent.