Silverbells and Buttonwoods

November, 2019

            I’ve never been hiking before. I grew up amongst tourists and strip malls and suburbs in a place where the only hiking one could really do was walk from Indian Rocks Beach up to Clearwater, past the tourists and amongst the sands and water that never lives up to its name. That hike was for tourists and runners. That hike was made for locals to do once and never again. There were no silverbells to be found, no flora or fauna of any kind. Just red-faced visitors and forgotten trash.

            My friends took me hiking- truly hiking- for the first time this summer. It was a moment of awe and confusion when they realized I had never been. We all got into two cars and made the ten-hour drive from not-so-clearwater up to the southern part of North Carolina, where we rented a cabin on a mountain with no service and no wifi. My friends had never been quieter than they were during that week, as we listened to silverbells sing to the birds and the birds whisper their songs to us.

            We spent each day exploring the mountains, wandering behind the cabin and playing in waterfalls. We picked silverbells and avoided poison ivy. We acted like little kids again, running down rivers and fighting the current to get back. We trekked barefoot and holding walking sticks, silent besides occasional peals of laughter.

            We spent a week in silence and listening to nature. The crackle of sticks in our fire at night while we roasted marshmallows. The slight hum when we got too close to a bee’s nest. The caw of a hawk not four feet away caused everyone to jump in fear. The smile never once fell from my face.

            Our last day before returning to the real world that now seemed fake was a melancholy one, filled with plans to return to the mountain and regrets about not going sooner. We decided that for our last hurrah we would follow a true trail for the first time, rather than be wild things creating our own, stomping down the grass and carefully picking our way so as not to crush the silverbells and insects’ homes. 

            We chose a hike that started halfway up a mountain and we drove to the beginning, every window open to the cool mountain air with only soft songs sweetly being crooned from the radio, the words floating along the tinkling of the silverbells. 

            We finished the hike at the peak of the tallest mountain in the area, on a precipice where those silverbells turned into granite and we could see for miles around, where we could stand in awe and watch the world turn beneath our feet.

            We packed sandwiches and we sat with our feet dangling off the side of a mountain into nothingness as we ate PB&Js in silence. We watched birds fly below us and searched for the waterfall we could always hear but never see.

            We finally began to leave the peak during that moment just before golden hour, both afraid and excited by the prospect of getting caught on a mountain at twilight. It was during this golden hour downward hike while the silverbells burned gold that we heard the voice. There was no one speaking, no one human at least. It was unspoken between us that we stopped walking to hear the sad words of the lone bird, standing still amongst the fireflies and just listening. We had been hearing all week, but not quite listening until then. At that moment when the world was silent besides a single bird out of sight, speaking to us and us understanding her words, that was when we knew we were in another world, another place. Somewhere we weren’t quite sure we were allowed into but were certain we didn’t want to leave.

            When we finally continued our trek (we decided that getting caught at twilight left us ripe for bears who patrolled the mountains), I began to cry. I lagged behind the others, dragging my hands across the silverbells, letting silent tears roll down my face. I wasn’t quite sad and I wasn’t quite happy. I think it was peace? I think it was the peace and stillness and the quiet and dimming light that finally overwhelmed me and brought force emotions I had never felt.

            Getting back in the car was a silent affair, but I swear I wasn’t the only one with the remnants of tears visible on my cheeks. The soft, humming music was turned on and the windows again went down as we did, falling down a mountain and out of a trance as we rolled past more silverbells and buttonwoods painted silver by the moonlight. As if we knew we were leaving another world for our own plastic beaches and rubber smiles, we began to sing along and laugh and even just talk, something we spent the week avoiding. It was in the presence of that last silverbell on the mountain that the spell finally broke and we were returned to ourselves.