The Glow, or Recommendations for Isolation

No, the pixels will not contain your grief.
There’s not an app to bear the weight you feel
Pressing on your chest. The shortness of breath
That might be pangs, or tears, or worse? (you fear),
Or the steady terror of getting news
You don’t want from a loved one you can’t hold.

What can these ones and zeroes, (vapors!) hold?
Can push notifications deliver grief
As surely as they bring you breaking news?
A post, a text, lacks the heft to make you feel
What you should, like a phone call or knock—fear
That rises fast, before you take a breath.

But these screens we trust already trace breath.
The pulse-oximeter puts a choke-hold
On his finger, grasping to measure fear,
A glowing green EKG observes grief,
Making sure to mark precisely when you’ll feel
You missed her last moment like last night’s news.

Bury the scream that comes with all such news.
Shut up! Keep silent, while you catch your breath—
How dare you show the children what you feel,
That there are things which put your life on hold.
You can’t spend many resources on grief
When you’re working hard stocking up on fear.

But you weren’t born to live in whirling fear
Of whatever is swirling in the news.
Closer in, there is more to grief than grief—
Death, yes, but missing your niece’s first breath,
Weddings with no one to have and to hold
Promising things that it’s too soon to feel.

Whatever you do, please don’t forget to feel.
Don’t let a blue glow medicate your fear.
Let your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin take and hold
All the wonders that never make the news.
Flex your ribcage to draw the deepest breath.
Whisper a prayer of thanksgiving for grief.

Home alone, you’ll feel all news is bad news,
As you scan for fear and hear your own breath
Craving someone to hold you and your grief.

Image: Fog and Sun, Hamilton County, Tenn., March 2020.

Into the Woods: Snake Mountain

When my family moved to North Carolina, in the summer of 1998, I was fourteen with an endless imagination for the adventures these hazy blue mountains would hold for an erstwhile Georgia flatlander. I moved away after a short while (to Dayton, Tenn., for college in 2002, and I’ve lived in Chattanooga since 2006), but these hills have always felt like home. Fortunately, my parents still live in the same county, so I get to come back and stay often.

Of all the mountains, perhaps none captured my fancy quite like Snake Mountain. It was due north from the back deck of the house we first lived in up there, its silent, volcano-like visage staring at me every morning. Unlike many other peaks around the area, it was also inaccessible—private property with no marked trail or easy access to its 5,555′ rock-strewn summit.

Some years ago, the property owner allowed for a hiking easement, but I’ve not found the time to check it out. Most hikes with family opt for more easily obtained objectives. This Christmas break, though, my sister, my brother-in-law, and I decided to give it a go. As a bonus, we even talked my dear wife and our oldest two girls into tagging along. Were we ever in for some fun.

The trailhead, such as it is, is a metal farm gate on the southbound side of Meat Camp Road, across from a gravel pull-off just big enough for three or four cars. It’s about 1/2 mile past the entrance to Elk Knob State Park (which is a worthwhile hike in its own right). There are several gates on the same side of the road, so look for the one with the “Practice Leave-No-Trace Hiking” sign on a telephone pole next to it. A quick hop of the gate (if it’s closed) and you’re off.

The first mile or so is a wide (if quite steep) unpaved road—whether for logging or access to utilities. The steady ascent moves between woods and fields, and opens up some fine views of nearby peaks.

After nearly 700 feet of elevation gain, the trail splits off the road and becomes excruciatingly vertical, navigating a narrow way through grass, rocks, and mud. Passing some impressive cliffs, the sweeping view to the north and east begins to take shape—taking in much of Ashe County and on up to Mount Rogers and Whitetop in Virginia.

The ascent slows at a sub peak, with a semi-level stretch along a narrowing rock-ledged ridge. At this point, off to the right, you might notice a road and parking lot, which is part of a failed housing development accessed through Tennessee (at this point, the ridgeline—and trail—follows the state line). I think you can access the trail from there, making a shorter approach. The easygoing stops abruptly when the trail appears to dead-end into a small cliff. We made the mistake of following some trodden ground to the right, but the trail actually goes straight up in a tough scramble (because it is private property without an “official” or maintained trail, the whole route is unblazed).

Because of the error, we ended up sidehill in thick woods as the false trail petered out. Rather than going back, we made a tree-to-tree sprint back to the top of the ridge to re-find the trail and made it to the north sub-summit for lunch. The view west and south (encompassing the Holston Valley, Grandfather Mountain, the Roan Mountain massif, and the Black Mountains) opens up. On this well warmer than average day, the wind was low, and ravens were circling the cliffs (likely eying my kids’ cheetos).

After a knee-busting descent down a stair-step of amphibolite outcroppings, a look back shows the difficulty of what you’ve accomplished.

The rest of the descent back to the road portion is a nice mix of deft, ACL-preserving maneuvers through leaves and mud and step-downs with some good, old-fashioned butt-busting slides. Once you hit the walkable section it’s a quick hustle back to the car. The whole descent from the summit barely took 30 minutes (covering nearly 2 miles). An afternoon well spent, with views as good as I’ve seen anywhere. My oldest daughter said the rock climbing work was harder than what we did at Joshua Tree this summer, which did my Carolina heart proud.

How to Clean Up before Christmas

Start by observing the residue of childhood. Note the rotting oak leaves on last year’s toys, plastics long since dissuaded from their original color by ultraviolet rays. Recall how they emerged, shining hydrogenated petroleum, the last gasp of some grasping raptor. Marvel as casual conspiracy between a forgetful toddler and her neighborhood star undoes industrial complexity. Brace yourself as this year’s toys arrive in waves. Strategically maneuver around school crafts and children’s church presents. Have UPS kill off a few extra dinosaurs, for good measure, to ship the good intentions of far-flung relatives or even your own nagging guilt. Sweep up litter. Weep over glitter. Whisper a litany for global trade and the Pacific garbage patch. Tidy up as though it is a game of chicken with the universe. Be careful what you cast out—thoughts count, and twaddle is freighted with love. Try not to stuff souls past and present into stockings. Calculate the cycle of ashes and dust looping from eternity past to Christmas morning to landfill. Measure the relative proximity of Bethlehem to your living room. Factor in the arc of the great circle. Set a stopwatch for the distance in time, a route growing longer with each revolution. Feel the warping of the continuum as the accretion of candles and carols and traditions makes mangers manageable. When you have swept the last artificial fir needle and loaded the last dessert spoon into a groaning dishwasher, don’t rest. Embrace the life you’re tasked with living. Meditate on your insignificance and significance. Look, look in the mirror at your own demise and resurrection. Think dead men’s thoughts after them.

For the time being
Seven demons scour earth
For a spotless room.

Image: My backyard, October 2019.

Marriage, or Talking to Myself

The Bible says
   A man and his wife
      Become one flesh and that
         Must include the brain as well as
      The heart and all the rest
   Perhaps this is why
Our eyes always
   Meet in mutual
      Recognition of the
         Crude cruel funny and sad and
      Why we laugh and cry at
   The same time maybe
That’s why we have
   Ended up liking
      All the same foods and same
         Movies and music and have
      Generally become
   Inseparable
Not in the so
   Sappy romantic
      Sense which usually
         Is meant by that word but just
      A simple statement of
   The fact that after
So many years
   There really isn’t
      A distinctive you and
         Me and even when you’re not
      Here you don’t won’t rub off
   This is probably
Why most of the
   fights that we’ve had with
      Each other in truth have
         Been fights with myself steady
      Internal dialogue
   That slowly flows down
To acceptance
   Pooling into faith
      In jumped-to conclusions
         And a brave face toward the world.

Image: Tide Pools, Beaufort County, S.C., September 2019.