The Sunrise Hike That Lasted 16 Months

A forest illuminated by a headlamp takes on an entirely different appearance than when brightened by the sun. Visibility is limited to a 10 yard sphere of glaring reflections, shadows dance with the bounce of every step, and specks of mica turn every boulder into a wild animal staring defiantly at the intruder hiking up its path. If alone, hiking at night can be quite creepy, but with a few friends, it is merely a new insight on a familiar environment. At the present moment, I am not alone, and thus my only fear is that a misplaced step could send my body flailing in a thousand directions as I struggle for footing on a sheet of invisible ice. My knees and hips can attest that I have not always been successful at this. It is a dark, moonless 5:00 a.m., and the sunrise hike that we are on still sounds like a good idea, however it has lost a little of the romantic polish that it boasted a few hours prior. In short, I am enjoying the assault on Mount Mitchell, but figure this will most likely cure my night-hiking bug for a few years. Little do I know how the next two hours will change my thinking.

 

Leonardo DiCaprio put it best in the movie Inception when he said, “An idea is like a virus. Resilliant. Highly contagious.” This particular virus of mine had been born on the March 10th, 2015, as I and two friends, Gordon and Marshall, drove through a steady rain into Black Mountain Campground aside the roots of Mount Mitchell, in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. At some point, one of us flippantly introduced the idea of night-hiking and enjoying the sunrise on the top of the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. That was the very moment my virus was contracted. Over a cookstove supper in the shelter provided by a deserted pavilion, we began to consider this idea a little more seriously. Was it feasible? Was it desirable? When would we have to begin in order to reach the summit by sunrise? By the time the whiskey bottle made its singular loop to symbolize the end of dinner time, it was decided by unanimous vote that an attempt had to be made to summit Mount Mitchell by sunrise.

 

Little did I know that 16 months later, I would find myself on the same trail, on the same mountain, and at the same time of day. This time, I had my fiancé, along with my adventurous future in-laws, trailing behind me. This had me more than a little nervous, as my adventures rarely happen without a few hitches along the way. Instead of being wet from falls on melting ice and snow, we were soaked by the humidity of a North Carolina summer.

 

As it turns out, a cloudy spring morning following a steady rainstorm is not the best time to experience a mountain-top sunrise. We discover this as soon as we near the summit, and dawn breaks to reveal a mere 50 feet of visibility. Thick, gray trails of mist blow southward over the peak, blanketing any views of brilliant colors (or even sunlight) that the dawn may have afforded us on another day. I am disappointed. Not angry or sad, but wholeheartedly disappointed at the contrast of what is and what could have been.

 

This disappointment ate at me for over a year, but when my fiance’s family planned a summer vacation in Western North Carolina, I was determined to find redemption!

 

In reality, a sunrise hike isn’t even much to brag about, even one on such a noteworthy peak as Mount Mitchell. But as the oranges and yellows and reds peeked over the horizon, sandwiched by the gray floor of clouds covering the valley and the deep blues of the lightening sky, I felt content and whole regarding my quest that had begun on that cold March evening. I had successfully closed the book on that pesky virus that had bugged me for so long. To boot, I was able to achieve this alongside newfound adventure buddies. Perhaps most impressively, I think there may even be a chance they will join me on my next grand adventure!

The long-awaited sunrise atop Mount Mitchell!

The long-awaited sunrise atop Mount Mitchell!

Regarding attainable, yet bothersome adventures, author John Gierach once penned, “If you ignore too many things like that, youll eventually end up with a general dissatisfaction in life.” In that spirit, I urge every one of you to pursue with irrational determination whatever adventure “viruses” you find plaguing your life. In doing so, you may just find a wonderful blessing that Mother Nature has stored away, just for you.

 

-Ethan

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