Clambering over the mountain ridge’s craggy black teeth, the fire tower finally came into view. I paused and wiped my brow and managed a smile. The sight of it did nothing to ease the burning in my knees.
Wincing with each vertical step, I hiked onward. The ligaments screamed for it all to stop. I was so close. After months of training and planning, the top was in reach.
I scrambled up the wall of a colossal boulder and stood atop the bald, no fencing or yellow tape to keep me safe. With a few wobbly leaps, I reached the steps to the fire tower, scaled them in breathless agony, my knees aflame, and collapsed against the wall. I wept.
The hexagonal fire tower sits on a stone throne atop the peak of Mt. Cammerer, the easternmost pinnacle of the Great Smoky Mountains. The vista is sweeping, about 330 degrees of coverage to the north, east, and south. Even in the west, I could spy the faint tail of a brushfire. The wind whipped gently.
Miles in the distance, so far below, the snakelike winding of Interstate 40 crept along the Little Pigeon River, disappearing behind lesser peaks. All the world beneath me was as a carpet, a mat for playthings that can be plucked with a finger and thumb. The air crisp, never abused my human meddling. That’s what I wanted to think, at least. It had to be pure. It had to rise to my impossible expectations.
My journey up the mountain began four hours earlier, deep in the pure black of a wilderness morning. Wearing three layers and a halogen headlamp, I set out from the Cosby Campground to the Low Gap Trail, a relentless staircase up to the Appalachian Trail. After I crossed a tiny creek, the wood silent and dark as sleep, I heard a raucous splashing upriver. Something big. Something the mountains of east Tennessee are famous for. I stopped, gave a loud cough, and cleared my throat. The wood was starkly silent. When I paused to hold my breath, I marveled at the nothingness of the lonely, dark world.
I coughed again, just to be sure my presence was known, and continued up the knotted and rocky path.
After ninety minutes, I reached the junction of Low Gap and the Appalachian Trail, my knees beginning to sour. Perhaps it was the three thousand foot ascension. I broke for a snack of peanuts and crackers and filmed the North Carolina sunrise while sitting on a rock just inside of Tennessee. Another two-and-a-half miles still stood between me and Mt. Cammerer.
I found my mountain during an internet field trip. My gaggle of 9th grade students was writing its one-millionth practice essay for the upcoming Florida state test. I don’t know what inspired me to flee to the cool of the mountain, but it might have been the stifling southern fall, my flat swampy home, or the monotonous regimen of standardized testing.
After scouring one hiking blog after another, I found the route to the fire tower and proceeded to obsess over it at every turn. I added leg days to my exercise routine, something I’d never considered. I studied maps and used Google to stalk its green flanks, pointing at lines in the trees where I’d soon be walking all alone in the dark.
All the while, my wife would nod and say, “Just make sure you come back down.”
My obsession with Mt. Cammerer was tied to something deeper – an escapism that included reading and then watching Into the Wild, both book and film. I gorged myself on Christopher McCandless documentaries. I wanted to lose myself, however safely, in some untouched natural church, left alone to worship and exist as I saw fit.
And I had a reason to escape. I was teaching high school. Again.
I had left the profession less than six months prior, pissed off that a male teacher in Florida could barely support his family on the meager salary and paltry benefits. That summer I tried sales, thinking that my love of teaching would somehow translate.
And then I published a novel, my labor of sweat and devotion that had lasted the better part of two years. And it was good, too. Everyone who read it loved it.
But I couldn’t fill a bus with everyone who read it, there were so few.
So I quit writing for a month and sought to find my joy and peace in simply existing.
And to fully exist, I wanted that mountain.
Atop the summit, leaning against the fire tower, I smiled. An amusing contradiction gripped me.
Part of me never wanted to leave. I wanted to stay and somehow continue pretending that life was as simple as sitting atop a mountain and beholding God’s beautiful creation. All one needed to do was breathe.
Yet my body – particularly those damned knees – were begging for it to be over. And it would be a long time before it was over, too. All five-and-a-half miles up needed retreading, this time in reverse. The flesh, after all, was weak.
I leaned over the wooden precipice of the decking and marveled at everything below me. The sky glimmered in perfect orange and blue, right at eye level. I had wanted to reach this place for so long. It would lift me, I hoped, from the spiritual rut in which I had fallen. The mountaintop surely held healing for my soul.
Yet I had always known that the descent would come. I knew – indeed, even as I ascended, I prayed – that what was to come on the way down would be more fulfilling than any summit, or fire tower, or other worldly achievement.
For the sales job, if it had worked out, would still have demanded a cost in time, treasure, and spirit. Financial gains required a spiritual price to be paid. I found out that I wasn’t willing to fork it over.
And even if the novel had sold a thousand copies, how would my life have been vastly different? Sure, I’d have a little extra cheddar to spend at the Gatlinburg distilleries. I could have upgraded our cabin to include a hot tub. Whoop-dee-do.
Oh, I could have definitely rented a few more busses to fill with fans. My pride would have loved that.
But could a family eat a row of busses? Could it pay the rent with them?
I would still need to teach, and still need mountains to stalk and climb and surrender my knees to.
So after a handful of granola, some water, and a few selfies, I stood and left the fire tower behind and began the long, agonizing descent.
When I had set out, I was alone. The entire mountain was mine.
But when I returned to the paved campground lot, a few other cars were parked beside me. No one was waiting there to congratulate me. No prophet greeted me. No doctor bowed to comfort my knees.
I returned to our lovely, affordable cabin, and my wife kissed me and said, “How’d it go?”
I lay on the couch as she brought ice for my knees. My daughter took a break from Daniel Tiger to say, “Good job climbing the mountain, Daddy!”
And as I swallowed ibuprofen and prayed my knees would come back strong, I knew there’d be another mountain and another obsession. But for now, I wanted to remain.
I wanted to exist right where I was.