The eagle’s aerie, a rock nest created by eons of wind and water, a bathing bowl for large birds, provided the perfect perch for meditating on the cragged mountaintop, Dragon’s Tooth. This quartzite molar was not the actual tooth, which I could see from where I sat, but the aerie was flat enough, and spacious enough, to hold a human comfortably seated in a lotus position; thus, here I comfortably sat instead of balancing precariously on the jagged eye tooth of the dragon. I planned to stay awhile
So much of life is about perspective, our singular vantage point from which we view the universe, dependent upon so many variables, person by person. My perspective, the high wide-angle view felt definitely loftier, more hallowed, literally more insightful. Good reasons for climbing, for spending three days and nights alone atop the tooth (and jaw) of the Dragon. Me with my newly formed drum…seeking connections between earth’s offerings and its limitations, while exploring my limitless thoughts, in search of insight and a wider perspective: the whole reason I had climbed this mountain in mid-May.
On my way up, I passed several streams, healthy waters trickling, gathering, running down the valley cleft. The trail along Catawba Creek soon ascended higher, meandering away from the stream to follow a pine needle, leaf-littered path under a canopy of deciduous trees mingled with a community of conifers.
Where the climb grew steeper, the mountain’s gently sloping hem gave way to crinkles of her ruffled skirt more steeply inclined. Because of recent rain, this section of the Appalachian Trail included slick stone slabs, narrow wet ledges, and even dripping iron rungs affixed to the rocks to aid with the ascent. My forty pound pack weighed heavier on my back; determined still, I trudged up stone stairs, tripped over snaking roots, wiped the sweat from my forehead and neck.
A warning sign: CAUTION: the next mile of trail is rocky and steep. Sheer cliff faces loomed ahead and I wondered if I wasn’t maybe just a little crazy to do this alone. Rock edges provided a few inches of footing, toe holds, but I had to lean into the rock to keep my backpack, my weight, from shifting backwards. If I didn’t, if I lost my balance, I was going over, way over.
Sweat ran in rivulets down my back. At one point on the trail, a white blaze arrow pointed straight up. I took a deep breath, grabbed hold of an iron rung, and another, got beyond the rock face, squeezed between a pair of trees lining the path, too narrow to go forward with my pack, so sideways I inched through this challenging trail. It was emotionally and physically exhausting, and I wanted to be done with it!
Reaching the top of the ridge did not put an end to the trek. The trail Ts here… choose left or right.
I had to fight the urge to de-pack then and there, but I knew if I let down my load, I might not ever heave it up, get it back on my back. To reach the actual tooth, I turned on a side path winding around small and large boulders knowing that it would take me to an open flat area on the west side of the jaw.
Knowing the Dragon’s Tooth summit to be a popular destination for weekend hikers and campers, not to mention Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, I chose a Tuesday and planned to leave on Friday morning, hoping by chance or good fortune to spend all that time completely alone. This woodland summit with its modicum of flat ground offered no shelter, no tables, no benches, no latrines. Exactly what I wanted…as primitive a camping spot as you might find on the Appalachian Trail. I quickly spread out the pack, set up my tent, and claimed as much space as possible in hopes of discouraging anyone else who might think to spend the night.
By the way, if you’ve never done this before, you should know there is a guarantee that travels with solo camping: You will be tested. You will face trials.
My camp-making complete, I went to refill my water bottle before climbing into the aerie, but the gallon water jug was missing. What? How could that be?! Frantic, I rifled through all of my gear again. Where could I have left it? No way I would survive three days and nights on the mountain with just bread…well, of course I would live, but those days would not be one bit fun. My mind raced backwards down the trail, retracing my hike… Please, please universe I prayed looking up at the sky. Please tell me I do not have to hike back down to the car and back up here again…five miles more before I rest. I thought I heard a laugh. I had! My own. The idea of hiking the round trip right now seemed so absurd I laughed, and laughed harder.
Disbelief danced with clarity. I had two choices. I could either abort my quest completely, pack up and head home, OR I could see this as the first test…was I true to my quest? How hard was I willing to push myself? The good news: I could make the roundtrip without 40 pounds on my back. It would feel almost like flying. Ha! Five miles of mountainous trekking was still five miles; even so, I chose the challenge. Down, down I went, back and forth, and around.
I tried to gauge the number of switchbacks remaining, but had to let that go because then came the verticals. I’ll spare you the pain. The round trip was a lot quicker; still, my body ached by the end of my second summit. I was spent. I grabbed my loaf of bread and jug of water and took a seat on a boulder in the cleft, the narrow viewpoint in the outcropping between the incisor and the molar, eating my bread and drinking my water while my body recovered.
When I felt rested and whole once again it was time to climb to the aerie. Most hikers head left of the cleft and climb up the official Dragon’s Tooth. But most hikers do not know about the molar, that not only is it accessible, but it also has a rock nest, the aerie, from which to view the world below. That’s probably because reaching the aerie is neither for the incurious, nor the faint of heart.
I carried my rosewood recorder in my smaller knapsack with my drum rigged by a strap on my pack. To warm her soft wood, I played scales a few times, then blew some wistful tunes…I was after all, alone, on a mountaintop…alone. Soon a squadron of sharp-winged swifts swooped in keen-edged diagonals all around. I chose to see this as a gift, this exhilarating aerial dance of precision, a heralding.
Altogether, I had spent six weeks of Saturdays with a master drum maker (see All things are connected) during which time I sanded strips of oak wood, stretched and soaked hides, drilled and bound wood to wood, plus other drum making duties for drum master, Gentle John. But also for myself because, finally, after years of thinking about it, I had created a drum, a thing of beauty (from my perspective), sounding the deepest, purest notes, ringing with accomplishment.
Returning from the recollection to the rock, my senses felt finely attuned. I grew contemplative and sat in wonder taking in the view. What was this affinity I felt for the Native American spirit? What urged me toward self-imposed vision quests? Why search for deeper earthly connections, for divine/universal conversation, for enlightenment? What compelled me to seek the ineffable?
The summer before the most recent May, in the apple orchard on the outside perimeter of our campfire circle, I built with the help of friends a tee-pee made with twelve freshly cut bamboo poles (leaves still on the stalk) measuring 20 feet in length. Together we raised it into place. I never covered the frame, preferring the synchronous sense of shelter and open-air. One night while camping inside, tucked into my sleeping bag, looking up at the stars, I knew in my heart, I even vowed, I would make my own drum to play inside my own, this very teepee.
Fast forward to my seat in the aerie with day’s light fading, tapping my drum, thoughts of my good fortune dancing swiftly about my head. Lost in the rhythm and the dance, I drummed until twilight when it was time to leave. I stood and bowed, asking for grace during my way back down to level ground. Grace was granted. Pleasantly exhausted, I took a pee then ducked into my tent, snuggled deep in my bag and quickly fell asleep. That evening and the morning made the first day.
Wednesday was exploration time. I hiked a few miles north along the ridge, stopping often to play a tune, to drum a rhythm, to sit as just another lump on a rock outcropping, no more, no less a part of this beautiful earth; to end the second night the same as the first – in the aerie, on top of the world. To be one…to be none…….
Still, imperfection is always just around the corner. Mine. Theirs. Those annoying voices, those southern accents scraping across my spine like metal grinding metal, or metal grinding teeth, like the dentist’s office. It was now Thursday afternoon. I sat in the aerie hearing voices rise from the trail below. Sadly they, the three of them it sounded like, were headed this way. Curses!
After spending more than two days blissed out on nature, I was shown a different reality…my prejudices. I reluctantly observed one of many imperfections. Though I was supposed to be on the path…giving, accepting, practicing equanimity…sadly, now that I had opened to a wider perspective, I could no longer ignore the truth: I deemed anyone with a southern accent… dense, dumb, or dim-witted. And because of that prejudice, that preconception, I hoped the humans belonging to those grating voices did not plan to spend the night.
I listened carefully, alertly, as the hikers rose higher, climbed closer. I could tell by the tone of their voices they were young. You can tell a lot about people if you listen, really listen to them (you will see the irony in this soon). I guessed the loud talking guys were somewhere between fifteen and twenty, as their twangy teenage voices rose to torment me. Well maybe, I hoped, they had hiked just to sit on the Dragon for a bit, maybe not to spend the night. For sure, I had been lucky to camp two days and nights by myself in an elevated state, a true gift. But I had come to camp three days and three nights. I did not want to leave, nor would I feel comfortable camping so far removed from civilization with three strange guys…three strange guys with those irritating accents. No peace there.
Well, I would sit here in the best and highest seat on my rock outcropping; I would try to let go of my unworthy thoughts, my judgments. The true strength of my practice would be to meditate in spite of the disturbance below and behind me, to be thankful for the landscape before me, a view of incredible beauty, so sublime each siting caused a kinesthetic response. And then, because of practice, the internal voice went into choir mode, Hummmm easily lent itself to Ommmmm. While I followed my breath with my inner ear, my optical eye followed the rock wall outline of forests and fields once fallow, now bursting with green growth, a patchwork quilt of corn, alfalfa, and more.
Continuing to breathe in deeply, to feel my infinite connection, the voices behind me quieted to mere whispers, then disappeared…nature prevailed…a profound sense of complete, perfect bliss…soon “I” disappeared…just the rocks, the mountains, the trees, the wind…whispering a favorite Emerson quote, I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of god.
Moments passed, or maybe I floated once around eternity….. eventually, I returned to the present and saw that afternoon had rotated to early evening. The silence was palpable……no voices. My prayers had been answered: I would have my last night on the mountain alone.
I climbed down from the aerie…slowly, carefully…one could so easily fall off the mountain’s face. Tense fingers gripped crags while my boots poked around for spaces big enough to hold my tiptoes. Soon I was back on the ground, making my way to my tent by climbing over and squeezing around huge boulders. Looking down, being sure not to stumble over roots or rocks, thinking about my bread and water dinner, I was stopped short. Oh dear, those three teenage boys.
“Excuse me, m’am” the tallest and skinniest of the trio spoke in his southern, mountain born drawl. I tried not to grimace. At least he had manners, even if his speech sounded like his tongue was trying to talk over pebbles rolling in his mouth. “Would it be ok if we camped here tonight?”
Disappointment emptied my hope, a deflated balloon my heart, yet what could I say? “I don’t own the mountain. I had hoped to be alone tonight, but I guess it’s ok.” I sighed. “You’re not gonna make a lot of noise, are you?”
Again, the tall one, “No m’am, we’re just gonna do a little rock face climbing up the Tooth, have a little dinner, then go to bed. Wanna join us?” He motioned first to his friends, then to the ropes already dangling off the fifty foot high cliff. The other boys looked up at him, looked at me, and smiled. I could see now they were early high school age, harmless enough…still.
“Ah, no thank you,” I demurred. “I’ve never climbed with ropes and gear.”
“Well, you were up there in the eagle’s nest, so fear’s not stopping you.”
He called it the eagle’s nest, like I do, I thought.
“No, not afraid, just that, ehhh, it’s going to be dark before long. You can’t climb in the dark.” I was hedging, still not convinced I should trust these dudes.
“No worries; we came prepared with a couple of floods to light up the top, and for the lower rocks,” I saw as he pointed, a small fire burning in a nicely constructed stone pit. A cast iron skillet and kettle sat on a rock in the middle of the fire. These guys appeared to be quite competent.
“There’s nuttin’ to it. C’mon, we’ll show you. Oh, yeh, I’m Jake, dude next me, brother Billy, and the short one we call “Short Pants.”
“Johnny,” Short Pants corrected with a heavy sigh. Then Johnny turned and leapt to the rock face, scrambling halfway up faster than a lizard.
“Wow, you’re good,” I shouted to him. I had climbed this giant boulder before, but never from the west facing vertical backside, always from the somewhat easier sloping south side, the side everyone climbed to “conquer the Dragon.”
“C’mon up,” he yelled back while dropping lines of rope to the ground. “I’ll help you from the top.”
Jake held out the sit harness. “Put this on. We’ll help you all the way. Billy can free climb right alongside you while I stay grounded for the anchoring.”
What the hell, I thought, if bold endeavors were good enough for Hellen Keller, “Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing,” they were good enough for me. Besides, I intuited this was just another test in my quest.
Turned out I was a natural. A lifetime of rock scrambling and high terrain hiking had called into necessity many free-climbing moves. After strapping on both harnesses, and following a speed course on rock climbing rigging, “belays, carabiners, daisy chains…” I climbed. Billy gave names to moves I had learned instinctually, chimney, bumping, nubs, crimping, bridges. I felt I was in familiar territory, not just the climbing but the boys. Maybe my kin had climbed with their kin a long, long time ago…some of these thoughts and feelings I’m only now understanding.
The point was, I made it and the guys hadn’t needed to use the ropes for me. I made it to the top by free-climbing the sheer face of a fifty-foot high rock wall. “Eeee—y-a-w-p!” I yelled with joy, though my legs wobbled from tension and exertion. Billy and Johnny hugged me, Jake cheered from the ground, and we all laughed together. They were genuinely happy for me; their smiles filled me with a sense of camaraderie, my family, my sons? Who would have thought? I felt humbled and embarrassed for my original negativity. An old adage whispered in my mind: Never judge a book by its cover.
After breathing in the moment, with the last light of day a silver sliver across the western mountains, I got to rappel down, happy now for the harness. A dream fulfilled, a test taken and passed.
Once back on the ground, I headed for my tent, intent on sheltering for the rest of the evening where I would eat my bread and drink my water in solitude. The smell of sizzling burgers filled the air. Billy called out, “Beverly, would you like to come eat with us?”
“No thank you, guys, I’m fasting. Just bread and water for me.”
“You don’t have to eat our food, but why don’t you sit with us and drink our tea? Bobby suggested.
“Sassafras tea,” Billy chimed in. “We picked the sassafras right here,” he said pointing to the forest edge.
“Really? What does sassafras taste like?” I wondered.
“You know, sassparillo, like root beer.” Jake held up a fresh plant with the root still attached. “The root gives the strongest flavor… here taste.”
I chewed the root and smiled at the fresh root beer taste. “Delish,” I chirped.
“Here, have some tea,” Johnny offered, holding out a blue and white speckled camping mug.
How could I refuse. These young gentlemen had been so kind to me, teaching me new rock climbing skills. Teaching me about local plants. I accepted the mug and sat on a rock near the fire. The burgers smelled divine but I stayed with my fast, my bread and now sassafras tea.
We sat around the fire, watching shadows flicker on the sheer rock face. It had been a five star day.
Jake was the first to speak, pointing to my drum. “I’ve been looking at your drum. It’s a beauty. Where did you buy it?
“I made it,” I answered proudly.
“No way! Wow! Can I drum?”
Seeing this as a chance to return their kindness, I suggested, “Yes, play it! By all means. In fact, take it up to the aerie where you first saw me. When you drum, it will echo through the valley.”
Jake held Her Brave Heart in his hands. His eyes grew larger, clearly marveling at the drum as if it were a precious gem, matching the reverence I felt. Billy and Johnny stood up.
Jake took the mallet out of the back of it and began to play. The three of them toe-hopped around the camp fire for a few moments, whooping their joy, ativistic actions echoing ancient ancestors.
Then they stopped! “Really, you don’t mind?”
“No, I don’t mind. In fact, it would make me happy.”
Billy lit the way with his flashlight while Jake drummed and Johnny hummed. I could tell by their risen voices when they had reached the aerie and smiled at their joyous, whooping and hollering. While they drummed, I prepped my tent for night, getting my gear ready to head out in the morning. When I had finished, I sat in the sand near the fire, watching the embers glow, filled with gratitude and a knowing I didn’t have three days ago.
Eventually my new friends returned, firelight flickering over the smiles on their faces. “Your drum is amazing,” Jake said. Johnny and Billy nodded in agreement.
“You are, too, ma’am,” Billy blurted. “I mean, you must be somewhere between 30 and 40 years old, and yet you’re up here, out here all alone. Plus! you made your own drum. I don’t know if I could do any of that by myself.”
I felt the knowing my journey had given me and made a prediction. “Actually, I believe each of you will do something like this not too far in the future. In fact, I know you will, and I know each of you will do amazing things with your lives,” I said, gifting a blessing.
“It’s late guys. I’m tired; I’m gonna hit the hay. We’ll talk more in the morning before I push off.” With that, I crawled into my tent, zipped the rain flap and soon fell asleep through dreams of rappelling off rocks and swopping through air.
Sometime later, the wind began speaking, rising to a howl. A fog gathered in the valley, drifted through the forest and shrouded Dragon’s Tooth in a heavy mist. Unable to fall back into sleep, I waited until I had enough light to move about, took down my tent, and packed the last of my gear.
Three hammocks hung from six thin-trunked maples that sheltered the site. The wind continued it’s blustering while the hammocks swayed. I could barely make out huddled bodies cacooning in sleeping bags.
Ready, but a little reluctant to go, I thought about waking them to say goodbye. Then I had a better idea. What if I just left? The howling was so loud they wouldn’t notice. They would wake in the morning and find me missing, or rather they would not find me, just an empty space…everything gone…only the wind to leave them wondering just a bit…was all that for real? Had she really been here?
A bit of mystery keeps the mind curious.