Above it All
The rewards of life’s upward climb
By Jim Dodson
Never lose the opportunity to see anything beautiful, Ralph Waldo Emerson once advised, for beauty is God’s handwriting, a wayside sacrament.
Because I rise well before dawn wherever I happen to be, I stepped outside to see what I could see from 4,000 feet.
A fog bank was rolling silently down the side of the mountain like a curtain opening on the sleepy world, revealing fifty miles of forested hills in the light of a chilly quarter moon.
The only other lights I saw were a few remaining stars flung somewhere over East Tennessee. The only sound I heard was the wind sighing over the western flank of Beech Mountain.
An owl hooted on a distant ridge, saying goodbye to summer.
In a world where it is almost impossible to get lost or find genuine silence and solitude, this moment was a rare thing of beauty.
I stood there for probably half an hour, savoring the chill, an over-scheduled man of Earth watching the moon vanish and a pleated sky grow lighter by degrees, drinking in the mountain air like a tonic from the gods, savoring a silence that yielded only to the awakening of nature and first stirrings of birdsong.
After an endless summer that wilted both garden and spirit down in the flatlands, a road trip with three buddies to the highest mountain town east of the Rockies was exactly what I needed.
A door opened behind me on the deck.
My oldest friend, Patrick, stepped out, a mug of hot tea in hand, giving a faint shiver.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? “ he said. “Hard to believe we’re not the only ones up here.”
Such is the power of a mountain. The lovely house belonged to our friends Robert and Melanie Woodard and though there were hundreds of houses tucked into the mountain slopes all around us, from this particular vantage point none was visible or even apparent, providing the illusion of intimacy with a world unmarked by man.
“So what does this make you think about?” my perceptive friend Patrick asked after we both stood for several silent minutes taking in the splendor of a chilly mountain dawn.
For a few precious moments, I admitted, it felt as if I were standing on the deck of the rugged post and beam house I built for my family on a forested hilltop of beech and birch and hemlock near the coast of Maine, our family home for two decades, surrounded by miles of a protected forest. The skies, the views, even the smell of the forest were nearly identical. Sometimes I missed that place more than I cared to admit.
“I remember,” said Patrick with a smile. “It sat on a hill.”
“The highest in our town. It felt like the top of the world. That was intentional. My sacred retreat for a transcendental Buddho-Episcopalian who has a keen fondness for good Methodist covered dish supper.”
He knew exactly what I meant. Old friends do. We’ve talked philosophy and gods and everything else sacred and profane for more than half a century.
In every spiritual tradition, mountains are places where Heaven and Earth meet, symbolic of transcendence and a human desire to elevate mind, body and spirit. As long as our types have walked the earth, hilltops and mountains have provided a powerful means of escape and spiritual retreat, a way to literally rise above the demands and hustle of everyday life.
Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, which translates to mean “The Mount of God.” In Greek lore, it was believed that a night spent alone on Mount Olympus would result in either madness or direct communication with the gods. Japan’s Mount Fuji is one of that nation’s three sacred mountains and a World Heritage site that has inspired artists and pilgrimages for centuries.
“Being up here,” I added, “reminds me of an experience Jack had that I would like to have.”
Jack is my only son, a documentary filmmaker and journalist living and working in the Middle East. He and his sister, Maggie, grew up with Patrick’s daughter, Emily. The three of them are all grown up now, birds that have successfully flown the next. We are proud papas.
In January of 2011, though, as part of Elon University’s outstanding Periclean Scholars program, Jack and a few of his chums joined thousands of spiritual pilgrims for the five-hour night climb up Sri Pada — also known as Adam’s Peak — to see the sunrise from an ancient temple on Sri Lanka’s most holy mountain, an annual pilgrimage of 5,000 steps traveled by thousands of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims. It’s a tradition dating back 1,700 years.
Jack had been asked by his advisor to go to Sri Lanka to make a film about the service work of the Periclean class ahead of his own class’ project with a rural health organization in India. The resulting 45-minute film, The Elephant in the Room, examined the environmental issues facing Sri Lanka using the fate of the nation’s endangered elephants to tell a broader story about how the world’s natural system are under severe stress. Jack wrote, filmed, edited and narrated most of the film in partnership with two of his Periclean colleagues.
As he reminded me the other day on one of our weekly phone conversations from Israel, his unexpected pilgrimage to the mountaintop came at a critical moment during his junior year in college when he burned out from too much work and not enough rest. In addition to his studies, he was burning the candle at both ends, teaching himself to make films and working as the senior editor of the school newspaper.
“When I look back, I realize I was getting pretty discouraged about both school and journalism at that moment,” he explains. “But the trip to Sri Lanka came at a good moment because it was the first time I got to make a film my own way about the things that struck me as important, just using my instincts about things we were seeing in our travels. It was a moment of real clarity and freedom.”
The climb up Sri Pada in the pre-dawn winter darkness was one of the highlights of his Sri Lankan film odyssey, a surprisingly challenging climb even for a fit outdoor-loving kid from Maine who grew up climbing mighty Mount Katahdin with his mates. Jack and his fellow Pericleans paused on the ancient steps several times to catch their breath before pushing on to the summit. On the way up, they passed — or were passed by — the young and old, the healthy and feeble, men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes, rich and poor, trudging ever upward. He told me he saw young men carrying their grandmothers on their backs, others carrying torches, bundles and food — couples, families and pilgrims from the Earth’s four major faiths all seeking a common holy mountain top.
“We arrived about ten minutes after the sunrise,” he remembers. “But the whole mountaintop was bathed in this perfect golden light. We stood in the courtyard of that temple sweaty and tired but also incredibly happy and at peace. It was very moving. I caught some of it on film. The view was incredible. We were so glad we made the climb. It was just what I needed.”
Though he’s gone on to make more than a dozen timely films about everything from debtor’s prison in Mississippi to the opioid crisis across America, my son’s earnest and charming little film about the fate of elephants in Sri Lanka — his first long-form effort — is probably his old man’s favorite, full of simple images that reveal his budding talents, poignant fleeting encounters with ordinary people and moments that have become familiar hallmarks of Jack’s home-grown filmmaking style.
A year after he made The Elephants in the Room, his more ambitious and technically refined film about a pioneering rural health care organization in India was shown at a World Health Organization gathering in Paris and ultimately landed him a job at one of the top documentary houses in New York. Then he went on to graduate school at Columbia, met his wife and began a promising career as an independent filmmaker.
Though I spoke it out loud, I saw a nice change in my son after he came down from that sacred mountain — a fresh resolve, a clearer mind. During our recent phone chat from Israel, I asked if he ever thinks about his climb to the mountaintop on that winter morning in Sri Lanka.
“I do,” he replied. “When I got back to Elon, I started to learn about meditation and developed a different attitude about what I was doing. I still think about that climb from time to time. It was an experience that stays with you.”
We also talked about the last hike we took together, a grueling hike up Mount Katahdin with his Scout troop. I was 50 at the time. Jack was 13.
Truthfully, I’d convinced myself that I was in excellent shape for a 50-year-old Eagle Scout with dodgy knees. But I never made it to the summit. My knees gave out 1,000 feet below the peak, prompting me to rest my weary legs at the Ranger Station beside Chimney Pond while Jack and his teenage buddies scampered up Cathedral Trail to the summit.
As I contentedly waited, a passage from James Salter’s beautiful novel Light Years came to mind.
“Children are our crop, our fields, our earth. They are birds let loose into darkness. They are errors renewed. Still, they are the only source from which may be drawn a life more successful, more knowing than our own. Somehow they will do one thing, take one step further, they will see the summit. We believe in it, the radiance that streams from the future, from days we will not see.”
Above it all, as we watched the chilly sunrise from the top of Beech Mountain, my old friend Patrick simply smiled and nodded when I mentioned this.
Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.