by: Michael Shields
A trip abroad rekindles a love of home….
It was foreign soil, but its familiarity was striking. The rolling green hills, rumpled and sprawling, cloaked by a ceaseless cape of dancing greens. It was an instant intimacy hatched while beholding a skyline so novel that it bordered on fantasy. I was in Italy, deep in the hills of the Umbrian Apennines. And yet, all I could think of was Southwestern Virginia.
”That’s the Count’s castle over that ridge, you can see the chimneys of his many fireplaces peeking over it,” my host explained as he pointed deep into the horizon with squinted eyes, jerking my thoughts back to the magnificence before me. Following his finger my gaze traveled over a descending olive grove, through a valley thronged with enthusiastic, perky sunflowers, and unto a mountainside, awash with sensuous oak trees, to the brick structures my eyes were being steered towards; the crest of a imposing fortress inexplicably perched aloft a soaring ridge. Ok, so there were a few differences between the rolling hills of Appalachia and the mountains before me. Yet, a barbed grouping of boulders protruding from the green, wrinkled blanket sitting aloft a particularly formidable ridge, again drew my thoughts to a place far from where I stood. A place that for many years functioned as my happy place. My bliss. My serenity.
At a point in time, about a decade and a half past, there was nowhere I would rather be than Dragon’s Tooth, a stunning rock formation crowning the summit of Cove Mountain in Southwestern Virginia. The journey to the crown, to this wondrous outcropping in the sky, commences with a gradual uphill climb, a casual wandering amongst the basswoods, maples, poplars, redbuds, beeches and hickories, serving as the enticing preamble to the main event. As the humble pathway merges with the Appalachian Trail, the game changes dramatically as an arduous mount presents itself. This strenuous passage, populated with petrified obstacles, guides you to an imposing formation that steals the very breath from your being. At thirty-five feet, an imposing rock spire called ‘The Tooth’ presides upon a landscape surrounded by a pastiche of rugged outcroppings, and abounding with panoramic views of the rolling valleys below.
Dragon’s Tooth, and its gateway, are unique in their design. Almost deliberate actually. Its perfectly concocted ridge-line causes one to wonder if Time and The Elements had sat in council of its design for many months, meticulously arranging every stone and boulder to manufacture an organic ladder. It’s summit possesses a colossal boulder befitting of its name, a statue honoring an incisor of Smaug or one of his kin, with a few loosely strewn molars about.
I knew every foot-fall along this enchanted ascension. With ease I navigated my way along its curvy lanes, whether in the bright light of day or the dark of night. The vegetation amongst its corridors as familiar to me as the walls in my home. The scents and subtle sounds that resonated throughout, as recognizable and as soothing as a lover’s whisper.
One day I took off running from the onset of the trail. A spontaneous act of enthusiasm. Lowering my head I barrelled into the wilderness, dirt snapping backward as I propelled myself forward with all my might. A hundred feet into my sprint I skidded to a stop, and in turning I found my dog still firmly planted where my dash first initiated, her head cocked gauging the situation, curious if there was cause for alarm. “Come on,” I shouted, waving my arm towards the trail ahead with zeal. With that, she took to a dash, instantly catching up with and then surpassing me. We bobbed and weaved up the mountain at top speeds. The landscape withdrew around us, trees vanishing from our peripheral unwittingly, coerced into our potent wake of dust and gravel.
In a wink, we mounted the summit and grinding to a halt we paused to collect our breath and our equilibrium. Panting in unison, we smiled at each other. Her gleaming eyes and unraveled tongue recounted the tale of a job well done, of satisfaction. Replenishing ourselves with a shared ration of water, we set off to take in the valley stretching out in front of us, the unceasing basin of awe-inspiring green extending in perpetuity.
“And over there, just above the small clearing, you see that stone building with the burgundy rooftop,” my host continued, reeling me back to the present, to where I should be, to the glory abound. “That’s where we will be dining tonight. The drive there is going to blow your mind.” And at once our gaze was lured further down the valley where vivacious paper white clouds with purple underbellies, sparse in the sky, gave way to a darkness brewing in the distance, a shadowy grey pocket of sky cresting the peak furthest from approach. A storm was brewing.
“Look at that. A storms coming. You should see it whip through this valley. Grab a seat, it will be here and gone before you know it. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we are blessed with a rainbow afterwards, not uncommon round these parts,” he declared with a knowing smile, a sparkle in his eye. “Funny huh,” my host added while walking away, “we have so many things in our lives, so much fabricated in hopes of yielding joy, but it’s so often what’s right before you, the sunrises, the sunsets – this storm set to wash through – that are the most awe-inspiring at the end of the day. Well anyways, enjoy.”
I watched as the mid-summer squall set its sights upon us and slowly maneuvered itself into the valley, darkening its every corners, and lacerating its contents with a splintering rain. I reminded myself to remain conscious, to stay in the moment, to not allow my thoughts to stray to my beloved home. To take in the beauty within my grasp. To avoid reflection upon ‘The Tooth.’