Hester’s Last Hike

It’s been just over a year since my mom passed away. I’ve written quite a bit about it on the blog in that time (Hester the Great, Non-Standard Mail, Plotting a Resting Place, & Fitting Memorials), and may still share stories about her in days to come. She certainly played a large part in making my character. Thank you to the many who have offered words of support and care; it is my hope that in reading a bit about my journey, you’ve also found your own. What follows is something of a closing to this past year.

The thing I could see most clearly was my breath—each exhalation produced a small cloud of mist. My headlamp didn’t illuminate much else. The woods were a network of shadow and darkness. There was a bit of a waning moon, and once I was surprised by how bright Sirius was shining—hadn’t seen the Dog Star during the warm, hazy months of summer. Night hiking is different. It is not only dark, but mysterious.

I had wanted to start early—very early. Parking at the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead is difficult. In October it becomes even more of a challenge. So I thought that an early start would be a good idea. Besides, I knew that it was going to be a long and intense day physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Best to do hard work early! Plus it would afford some welcome solitude. It was a day in which I would want to be alone with my memories and thoughts.

Today was weeks in the works. A decision had finally been made as to the place where this should happen. The timing was right. I was taking my mother, Hester the Great, on her last hike. Well, actually, I was taking her cremains.

Originally, I had not told others of this plan. I wasn’t even sure it was permissible. But after working through the Park Service channels I had gotten a permit and instructions on appropriate procedure. I was now going to be able to complete the mission legally, openly, and honestly. It was a relief to be able to do so, and it was a blessing to be able to share the story.

So on a cold, dark October morning I hoisted my pack with its precious cargo and began up the trail. Even in the dark it was familiar. The trail begins with bridges crossing the creeks. While the temperature was below freezing, the water was still flowing easily. It was still autumn, although it was hinting at winter around the bend.

Mount LeConte is special. It stands off to itself from the main ridge of the Smokies. It is a huge massif with four pinnacles, looming above the valley and visible from miles and miles away. It was going to be a fitting spot for mom’s remains. LeConte had always been one of her favorites.

When we had built the house in Chalet Village mom had wanted three things. She wanted to be able to see the ski slopes, to see Gatlinburg, and probably most important, to see LeConte. There were not too many lots that afforded all three, but she found one and they built the home in which I lived as a child. LeConte’s four pinnacles—Myrtle Point, High Top, Cliff Top, and West Pinnacle—were the backdrop of our lives. We saw the mountain in every season—green and moist every spring as well as white with winter hoar frost — a brilliant peak that towers over the lower ridges.

This was a trail I had hiked numerous times. I recalled perhaps the first time I had hiked it. It is one of my earliest memories of being in the mountains. I was awestruck at Arch Rock, where the trail went through an opening carved out by water. This was also the first place where one encountered cables to be used for handholds. It was different now in the dark. My headlamp barely lit the handrails of the footlog that crossed over towards it.

I was crossing Styx Branch. How appropriate! The Styx marked the mythical crossing to the underworld, an entrance into another other realm beyond this life. Here I was acting as Charon, the ferryman, who would provide the crossing for the dearly departed. Of course, Styx Branch is small and does not take on mythic proportions, but the symbolism struck me in a powerful way in the cold and dark with only a small headlamp for light. The sense of wonder was strong.

The trail turns away from the creeks and the growing silence was noted. More alone with the thoughts and memories, my mind turned to song. The Sound of Music popped into my head. It was the first movie I ever saw in a theater; it was one of Hester the Great’s favorites. I think she dreamed of our little family eventually being Tennessee’s version of the Von Trapp Family Singers. She insisted that we all learn to play instruments; we sang in every choir around; she loved to sing in church and at programs. For her the hills were very much alive, and it did not take much for her to burst into song. I still have a handmade calligraphic certificate that mom had done to mark a trip up LeConte; Les in leiderhosen!

“Climb Every Mountain” also played in my head. That was exactly what I was doing for her. Crossing streams and following after her rainbow. Hester the Great was always a dreamer. That song and the woman who sang it always moved her. Others tunes filtered in of their own accord: “Go, Rest High on that Mountain,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and “Do, Lord, oh Do Lord, oh Do Remember Me,” which I could remember her singing with great enthusiasm. Nice to have a running soundtrack in the background. I didn’t burst into song, but the tunes broke into my stream of consciousness.

I approached Inspiration Point in a little less than an hour—not bad for night hiking. It is a beautiful little turn on the ridge where one begins to see and feel the rugged terrain. I sat for a moment and noticed the growing light. It was not sunrise yet, but first light was making an appearance. I could make out Little Duck Hawk Ridge. I could see the very first hint of color in a bright maple above me. Mom loved places like this—a view, sky, colors, and the first note of birdsong.

I continued on using the headlamp until I reached Alum Cave Bluff. The Trails Forever Crew restored this trail a few years back—they did a great job. There were wooden steps heading up to the bluff to help prevent erosion. It is still dry and dusty—as it has always been. A boomer squirrel was chattering and greeting the daylight. I took a few minutes to sit and adjust—the headlamp came off, as did a layer of clothing. The thought crossed my mind to spread some of mom’s ashes here, but this is a unique place with rare minerals, some of which are found nowhere else on earth. This incredibly sere scene in the middle of a rainforest should be protected, and it was not in accord with the permit. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust—but not here! Not amidst this dust!

Of course, Hester the Great was having her own unique experience. Mom was riding on my back, safely stored in an old Nalgene waterbottle complete with stickers: “I’d Rather Be Hiking,” “Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” and “Life Is Good.” All appropriate. The water bottle was one that her granddaughter, Maggie, had used for a good while. In fact, she had carried it up this mountain before. Now it was being repurposed in an unusual way.

I stopped at Gracies’s Pulpit to look up to the top which was still more than a thousand feet above me. I strolled through the Saddle which is delight no matter which way one is hiking.

I was now being passed by younger hikers who had caught up to me. We exchanged the usual trail greetings. I told no one of my mission. They surely didn’t realize they were walking past a solitary funeral procession.

There were mosses and small plants. I remembered mom collecting such things and making terraria to sell in Gatlinburg. Sunday afternoons may have been spent looking for interesting specimens (though never in the Park!). These were self-sustaining glass containers of life—little biomes filled with biological and botanical diversity. She loved wildflowers and discovering places where beautiful things would grow.

The trail climbed higher. I passed the wooden stairs that had replaced a rough log that had steps sawn in it. Higher still until I reached the section known as the Stairway to Heaven, so named because of the views off the mountain. We were now hiking along the slides and bluffs that fall away to your left. Here there are numerous cables to hang on to, especially when there is ice. There were some icicles, but no real ice yet. It had dropped to 25º at the lodge over night. I now encountered large groups of hikers headed down, having spent the night in one of the cabins on top.

One of the great joys of this trail is reaching that beautiful turn where you enter the fir forest and the trail flattens out and actually seems to propel you towards the lodge. After climbing through the morning, it was a welcome change of pace. I stopped in at the lodge dining hall and had a quick cup of coffee left over from breakfast. Nice to warm up for a moment or two also. A few minutes of rest before heading back out to my mission.

I headed out towards the shelter and High Top. I’ve spent many nights in that shelter— with P.D., with Maggie, with Scott, with strangers. It was temporarily closed because of bear activity. I stopped in for a minute with memories flowing.

Made my way on towards High Top, and the rock cairn that’s still there. There is a tradition of bringing a rock to add to the pile so that one day LeConte could be the tallest mountain in the Smokies—I was going to be adding something different today. I paused again listening, waiting, watching.

I took forty paces off the trail. It was probably right at the 150’ which the permit specified. There among the firs, the ferns, and the fairy moss, I sat and read Psalms and prayed and remembered. Psalm 121 – “I lift my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Psalm 90—“teach us to number our days that we might gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 91 — “Those who abide in the shelter of the Almighty.” Psalm 92—“to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and harp, to the melody of lyre.” All of them appropriate.

I also offered prayers of thanks for mom and all that she did for me and for others. I gave praise for her love and care for everyone who crossed her path. I felt gratitude for her having brought us to these mountains and having taught us to love them. I was reminded that her ashes would be in a place that will always be protected, will always enjoy the change of seasons, would always be amid the sounds of winds and the music of the spheres. Soon they will be covered by lichens and moss and duff from the trees. Soon they will be returned to the earth from which she, and all the rest of us, came. Soon there would be no trace except the mountain itself that has stood for eons and may well stand forever.

I did not linger there at the resting spot. I had done what I perceived to have been my duty. I had carried her to this place of beauty and wonder.

I stopped along the trail for a few minutes on the way back at an opening with a vista. Looking towards Newfound Gap, and Clingman’s Dome, and the Jumpoff, and the Saw Teeth, and other places where I have hiked in these woods, I took it all in. The sunlight was intense— everything on this day had been intense! I sat on a rock, crossed my legs and simply sat. Tears came flowing—prayers followed—breathing it all in—the sights, the sounds, the scents of the day, of the mountain, … of eternity.

I had hoped to hang a hammock on this trip. Mom loved it when I would call her from the hammock on sunny Sunday afternoons to catch up a bit and check on her. She had gotten to where she would repeat that phrase several times in the conversation as her mind started to slip: “are you getting hammock time?” Towards the end she would only talk a few minutes because she would say that she was losing her voice. But she always wanted to know if I was getting “hammock time.”

The mission was complete. Hester the Great had made her last ascent of LeConte.

I went back to the lodge and had lunch. The llamas had arrived with supplies and were waiting to take other items down. The mountain was buzzing with day hikers. It felt frenetic to me, especially in my emotional and spiritual state.

I hiked up to Cliff Tops. I could see Chalet Village. Had I known exactly where to look , it would have been possible I could have spotted the house where we had lived. My vision was not that clear on this day.

Then it was back down the mountain. Another rest to adjust layers. More tears, more prayers. Not much stopping on the descent. Gravity and gratitude sort of took over.

I still have some small film canister-sized containers of ashes—how fitting for Hester the Great who was also known as the Flash Fairy! There are perhaps a few more spots that will receive a sprinkling of her substance, although I’m not going to say anything more about that at this point.

Tears, memories, smiles, psalms, songs, prayers, silence—all of them amid the physical exertion and emotional expressions and spiritual practices. Hester the Great’s last hike was a great one, indeed!

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