A BLUE RIDGE YEARNING

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We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.
― John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra 

Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more.
― William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways

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I was six years old when I made my first hike. Dad and I drove six hours west, toward the Appalachian Mountains in an old tan El Camino. Our aluminium frame packs were in the back, packed with enough gear to see us through for a few days in the woods. Mine was bright, hunter orange. His was an old beat-up Kelty covered in zippered pockets full of pocket knives, flints, band-aids, snakebite kits and smelling salts.

We were headed up to the crest of the range, along a road called Skyline Drive built under Roosevelt as part of his New Deal, a way to employ the unemployable in the lee of the Great Depression, toward a park called Shenandoah.

We had topographical maps and new socks. We had no real plan except enter the forest at some point, and come out again a few days later.

We hiked most of the day.

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For most people walking is a way to get from one place to another place. But out here, under the dense canopy of pines and oaks, walking becomes something else altogether. You find in movement an end unto itself.

I cried going up one hill, and dad carried my pack for me, against everything I imagine he’d told himself about this inevitable moment.

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We saw wild deer and chipmunks, watched hawks land silently in the trees. We slept out in the open air and awoke to skunks foraging around our camp.

On some days I can still almost grasp the smell of those woods, the scent of a waterfall running through rotting brown leaves over mossy stones.

I went on many more hikes. We would spend weeks in the woods, barely meeting another human, chasing dirt roads and trails wherever they led.

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On a different continent, in a new landscape, my love for the mountains hasn’t faded. There’s something about alpine air: maybe you can see further in the thinner air, maybe the lack of oxygen triggers some kind of last moments religious zeal. I don’t know…but up here in the blue beyond, where the sky touches the earth, something touches us, or we touch something, and nothing is ever the same after.

Australia’s Great Dividing Range stretches from the tropical tip of Cape York all the way down the eastern flank of the continent into Victoria’s west.

Formed when Australia bumped into New Zealand and South America, the range has been wearing itself away for over 300 million years.

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Gone are the razorback heights of the younger, taller ranges of the world. The mountains here are like the slopes of pony shoulders, eating in a green pasture.

My favourite part of the high country, at least down south, is the Alpine National Park. Here, rivers and creeks cut long winding paths through the hills, running cool and clear in the summer, when it’s hot enough to want to swim in them, when the bugs and the birds are humming so loud it rings in your ears.

I love the bald peaks like Feathertop and Blue Rag…the long dead fingers of snow gums decimated by fires, the bundles of spitfire caterpillars huddled and flexing against the cold in the shade of the young gums coming up to replace their skeletal fathers.

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And the driving. Automobiles have been my freedom since I was sixteen years old. Taking long road trips out to nowhere. They are music and wind and anything can happen. Strange souls on the roadside. Weirdos on the road are somehow temporal friends, multiple lives in a week.

You’re running through tall mountain ash, bark hanging like dilapidated prayer flags in the dim brown shade under the canopy, and then the snow gums appear, wan, flagging, stunted against the elements but pushing up nonetheless. Then a break in the trees and you’re up high, in the blue air, everything is washed out and yet clear. There is less air between you and the peaks, but more solar radiation up here. It’s a different kind of atmosphere. This is where clouds appear, rolling, on the windward face of peaks, and disappear as quickly. At dusk the sun burns through the last fingertips of distant gums and the air temperature drops precipitously.

You roll down the windows and push onto to camp.

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Around the fire, the 4WD is ticking like a clock, cooling down fast, and the smell of wood smoke gets into your clothes, a woodsy elixir, a kind of camping perfume.

If I’m alone, this is time spent looking into the seeing stones of the flames, letting your mind roll through nothingness. Good medicine, as best I can tell, for most that ails.

And with other souls this is story time, the structural framework of memory and friendship, the way we become closer and where meaning is shared, where meaning becomes.

It’s hard to live in the high altitudes – but there is something in man which has always drawn him to the peaks, to the long view, the rarified air, where men and gods can converse on the same level.

This is what we do with the gift of freedom, the seekers and the travellers, searching for something beyond the horizon. Up here, the horizon grows wider. Up here, we see the world from the seat of the gods.

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THE END