As the sun sails the high skies of summer, an old red Honda makes its way down I-81, the bumpy backbone of Appalachia. The car shoots across the Tennessee-Virginia line, then turns eastward and upward to climb over high green hills into North Carolina. Halfway to Asheville, it circles off the interstate and follows a series of mountain roads, each rougher than the last, deep into the dark narrow valleys of the Black Mountains. It stops at last, late in the afternoon, at a campground beside the South Toe River, here little more than a creek. Above loom densely forested foothills, mountains in their own right... and beyond them, Mount Mitchell, the pinnacle of the eastern United States.
Here the driver disembarks, pitches her tent, and waits out the night.
In the pale purple dawn, before light reaches over the eastern hills, she rises. Still sleeps the campground. She checks her pack once last, then trudges to the trailhead to begin her solitary climb.
Miles of roots and rocks pass beneath her feet as the forest awakens around her. From the heights, warblers and thrushes raise their songs to the day. The air warms; she cycles coolant from her water bottle through her pores. Ever climbing, ever rising. Twice she passes through a narrow meadow cut to guide a phone line to the summit; the vegetation here is thick and chokes the trail.
All the way up, she sees only one other: a young man descending.
Broad-leafed trees give way to pines; the pines, in turn, to compact firs. They
shrink down as the summit nears, pulling the sky closer. The trail widens, then emerges onto a paved path leading up to the summit tower.
The crowds converge. Small children cry, dogs bark, and parents wrangle their drive-restless offspring to the top. Out come the smartphones and cameras, all "Look here" and "Smile nice" and "Get down from the edge!" She slips through the crowd, following them up the tower, and rests amidst the commotion. Quickly they circulate up and down and back to their cars; what's easily gained is little valued.
And then to descend. The shade and silence of the woods envelops her once more as she retraces her steps. Though down is easier on the heart, it's harder on the legs; before long her quads beg for a rest. She takes it, briefly, as she passes an ascending party of students. How much farther? they ask, then wince at her answer: a third of the way still to go.
She moves on; so do they. Tall oaks and poplars rise like arches above the trail. Slowly the sun disappears behind the mountain. She meets more scattered pairs and trios hiking upward. Will they make it down before dark, she wonders, or do they have rides waiting at the top? Lost in thought, the lower switchbacks slip past indistinctly. After a sudden turn, she finds herself once more on flat ground: trailhead, hike's end.
In camp that night, the man she passed on the ascent walks by her site. Recognizing her, he stops to talk. It turns out they're both strangers to these hills: he's a Yankee, touring south before starting his first job out of school. Why south? she asks, and he introduces his hobby: highpointing. She listens, enthralled, as he recalls the peaks of the Northeast: Katahdin's knife-edge, the winds of Mt. Washington, and the long trek up Mount Marcy. They compare memories of Mount Rogers, the first stop on his trip, then lapse into a wandering conversation until dusk overtakes the sky.
The next day he invites her to join him up Clingman's Dome. She accepts, and her collection begins...
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