Soldier's Point

July 28, 2017
By , Greenville, SC

The storm didn’t relinquish its hold on the land for hours. The rain pounded its fists into the melted copper of ground, turning the glint of phantom lightning strikes into glorious flashes of Earth that stretched across the entire expanse of South. Somehow the eerie light that radiated from the cool browns and greens seemed to come from somewhere deeper, ancient. I knew that color was a concept gathered in our brains, and thus became what I saw. It was strange how the whole world of light was constructed right then by something that is forever locked in a place with no light. I would rather believe that the otherworldly glow comes from a more supernatural place. From the ever shifting, colliding tectonic plates down below. Magma shifting, colliding up with dirt that in turn travels upward in streaks of flame. The trails hitting pockets of gas and methane trapped in its path and creating little fireballs that illuminate the worms and animals hiding in that homely place. The fires would travel upward and coalesce into a gargantuan ball of heat that in turn brings color to the world, and brings rain to wash away the darkness.
The sight of those brilliant strikes would take the breath away from even the most callous man. For a moment, reflected in the sky I thought I could almost see the twinkling eyes of heaven. I remember the sound of thunder rolling across the night sky. The sound of a ghostly fanfare mixing with the hypnotic pitter-patter of rain.
But when I retold the story, the memory that struck me the most was the scent of that night. It was the smell of a hard frost sneaking up on the hands and feet of unsuspecting tourists. It was the smell that the beauty of Autumn holds even though the last trees are dying.
I am the only one who witnessed those wonderful days on the backroads of Carolina, where swallows began to fly to the tips of Cuba and then return the next spring. It was surrounded by a warm fire that I recounted the adventure; with the amiable envelopment of the same air I had breathed then surrounding me.
November 21 was the day of a spontaneous hiking trip, I began. I had hitched a ride with a man who gave himself the moniker of Bear. Bear was a burly man with eyes so small that dwarfed against his bushy eyebrows. Tattoos curled around his bicep, the names of long gone family members, he said. A metal cross hung from a chain around his neck. His gruff voice matched his appearance,” Found the Lord forty years ago. He guided me, now I guide you.” I told him to head as far as he wanted, then drop me off wherever. All this received was a great raise of his eyebrows and the purr of a gunned engine.
Those were the last words we exchanged throughout the entire ride. I remember the only sound was the occasional chirp of the birds, the soft twang of country, and the thousands of words exchanged through meer glances. It was a companionable silence.
Eventually, the Chevy ‘67 pulled over to the road’s shoulder and Bear stepped out, key still in the ignition. He circled around to my side and opened the door. His big hands stretched out to help me down, veins criss-crossing across the back of his hands like a weather worn map. The wrinkled leather seat gave a groan of protest as it peeled off my legs. The quick jump down was only a few feet and then I was breathing in that glorious mountain air. A few clouds were gathered in the distance, converging on the town of Franklin a few days ride away. “I was never worried,” I told my friends by the fire. “Rain is too beautiful to bring pain.”
I reached back into the truck to grab my pack, inside laid a tattered copy of Walden, dog eared and loved, amongst other things. I held my hand out to Bear to shake and he clasped it firmly with two hands, tough skin against soft. “You hear me now, child,” he had said, looking straight into my eyes, “Be careful. These parts round yonder en’t always so forgivin’. The land likes to fight right back at ya.”
“Sure Bear, I pinky swear,” I had said, not knowing how wise his words were. I had still been drunk on that crisp, cool air.
“Good. I got my own two daughters; I know how strong-headed ya’ll can get. Are ya sure ya wanna go out there?” he had said back. A small valley had formed between his two great eyebrows. “If ya ever need my help, just walk down this here road aways south in the mornin’. I drive by about e’ry day to see my grandkids.”
“Okay, Bear. Thanks for the help,” and I had smiled with such ignorance that I can not even imagine. Bear gave a grunt of approval, back to his seemed oath of silence. Not questioning the way life was, but simply living it.
A mirage of dust clouded up behind the retreating Chevy, covering the wheels and giving the illusion that Bear was flying off into the beyond, perhaps on another voyage to save some other wandering, even woebegone, soul.
I hitched both thumbs around my pack straps and wheeled myself around so that I was facing hundreds of towering trees. A small trail wound its way around the first ancient cedar, and I remember wondering how many faces the giant had seen. It had seemed like a path full of endless possibilities; the perfect escape from the monotony of everyday life. When I took that first step, it was as if every single bad moment in the past year just melted away and the only thing that laid ahead were limitless opportunities.
A rough patch had really clouded over me in the past few months. I had lost my job at a corporation that squeezed me tight in its iron clad grip. I was evicted from my apartment, had nowhere to go and no place to call home. My parents had gone a few years before in a car accident, no siblings to speak of, just me and my thoughts. To be honest, I was hopelessly lonely, my only friends seemed to be the characters in the novels that I read. “The real point of my hiking trip had been to reconnect with myself, that maybe I was lost somewhere out in the wilderness and needed to be found,” I told my companions by the fire. Don’t worry, Wren, I thought to myself, We’re out there. Somewhere.
My final destination was a place called Soldier’s Point, where three massive rocks jutted out into the sky, hands poking out, trying to catch the clouds. The trail would lead me right to it. I wandered forwards, eagerly taking in my newfound freedom. Threadbare boots crunching against fallen leaves like forgotten bones. The wind had picked up slightly, blowing kisses against my face. As I hiked, I stretched my hands far above my head, shoulders popping, and ran my fingers through the breeze. It had felt like smooth silk traveling in currents around the trees. I had hummed a two-step tune with the swallows and chickadees, off-key and glorious.
The sunlight had cascaded through the foliage, forming shadows that danced on my bare skin, pirouetting and spinning as summer snow. I never tired, relished the burning of my lungs. I had passed clearings full of wild dandelion flowers and ponds with that same effervescent light from within. How lucky I had felt to be alive, to witness a crime such as the beautiful ugly of living. My old life seemed so far away. Gone was the lonely girl of small town Autryville that had a population with more goats than people. Here was a girl that had begun to pick up the bread crumbs left behind from her lost self.
It felt like I had been wandering the path for years, even though only a few short hours had passed. I could have been raw ingot pressed and molded by that massive machinery of nature and when I came out to the peak I had no idea what I had become. My blood filled with such oxygen, drunk on that mountain air. Standing in the middle of the Point, I had peered down into the valley below and seen the entire body of the woods. At the heart, the center, was Nantahala Lake, beating out its blood to the far corners of the world until they merely poured off the edge. And just beside the veins I could see the same lonely road I had traversed with Bear that morning. Tilting my head up, eyes shut, I tasted freedom in the air.
Soon small taps peppered my face. Opening my eyes, I noticed the molten gold of sun had disappeared beneath a tar black road in the previous cocktail blue. “That was when I started to laugh,” I said to my companions. I laughed into the sky’s tears, huge, diaphragm-heaving bursts of breath that took me to my knees. If beauty were God’s signature, then rain would surely be his flourish.
Logic told me that I should move to shelter, but I had felt so sure of myself in that moment with danger flashing all around me. I had felt so safe in uncertainty, when I finally realized that the trail of crumbs had led right back to my own heart. “As ridiculous as it sounds,” I told my friends, “I felt as if I were about to take flight.”
I knelt there until my face sparkled with my own tears of incredulity, running back to my roots. I knelt there while lightning and thunder danced their deadly waltz around me, but still I did not move. I knelt there as a statue, until moss covered my body and I rusted over.
Eventually I crawled my way over to an alcove created by one of the slabs of stone and rested my chin in my hands, back against the battered wall and shouted back at the storm. The rain had seemed as if it would never relent, it drove well into the night and brought with it the smell of those wildflowers a hundred yards away. That same light lit up the world and arced through the dirt below my feet. It had crackled in those fire streaks and burst above my head. I must have sat there for so long, just staring out into the storm. At some point shadows had grabbed me in their hold and dragged my conscience under. They sang me to sleep and long after my eyes could see nothing, I still managed to imagine the vivid lights of a broken-hearted storm.
The morning rose with the smell of a washed and cleansed Earth. The aroma of fresh baked bread and jasmine floated in a mist and the sun tentatively reached out to the land. A part of me had wanted to stay in that safe haven with the croaking of cicadas and the last whisperings of warmer weather, but the city had a firm grip around my neck. Job interviews called, as did the undertone of ordinary. I took my time to leave that clearing, the petals of the sun-bitten flowers once parched and dying for a shot of life, now fulfilled. A broach of dew had hung around the meadow like children in a haphazard game of ring-around-the-roses.
I stepped out of that clearing, determined not to look back, determined not to let my hunger for that wilderness unleash. The walk back down was a haze of thoughts and emotions, and I found myself wondering how I allowed my heart to get so wrapped up in that peace. “I was truly lonely,” I told my friends, their eyes haunted with the phantom glow of firelight, “But I was content in that lost place because I knew where the exit was.” The road found me, and I wandered down it like a forlorn tide, never being able to touch the sand. In the distance, I had thought I could see a cloud of dust traveling my way, the wheels hidden and the driver humming along to Bon Jovi. I had gazed down that dirt road, the rush of a faraway avalanche thrumming in my head, and seen a kindred spirit far from home.

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