Taking the red-eye morning flight, I watched the watery April sun rise in the sky as I left the Inland northwest and flew across the country.
My work took me east, but there was another, stronger, pull. I needed to see the mountains again. Not the jagged, new mountains of the west. But the old, old mountains of the east.
I spent two days driving though the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And in some ways, it was two days spent driving through my own head.
Mile after mile, the familiar landmarks caught my eye. I haven’t been in the area for years but I was surprised by the instant recognition. I had no idea how deeply, and how permanently, the scenery - the mountains and rivers and coves, the tumbledown cabins and ruins of old farms and homesteads - had been etched into my mind. Passing the traditional National Park signs, reading the road signs, with their poetic names like Nantahala, Pisgah, Maggie Valley, Cades Cove and Cherokee, I was lost in the traces of other journeys.
As a child, on family road trips, in the days before seat belts, I daydreamed in the back of the family station wagon, winding along the serpentine roads, following the curves of the ancient mountains covered with dense forests. My grandfather loved the Smoky Mountains and whenever possible he drove us there. Long weekend getaways meant a midnight departure so that we could reach the park just as the sun rose. In the summer, the car was packed with the big canvas tent, Coleman stove and cooler, folding aluminum lawn chairs and a big iron skillet; all the necessary equipment for a week or two of camping by Deep Creek.
In my memory, the mountains were deep and dark and mysterious. Clouds rested in valleys between peaks and we often drove right through them as we climbed. Lush green undergrowth crowded the narrow roads and the air fell cool and moist through the open window onto my upturned face.
Later, as a new bride, married to a man who’d spent his own time exploring the Appalachian forests, I returned. Our honeymoon was a pilgrimage to the mountains and we spent the first week of our marriage hiking the trails and driving the scenic roads.
Then, a few years later, when the children came along, we carried them to the mountaintops, as if to hold them up and show the Gods what we had created.
And now, well into middle-age, with an almost empty nest and a marriage as weathered and tested as any granite face, I had to go back. I wanted to meet the mountains on my own terms.
So, I drove. And I looked out the windows at a landscape that changed has very little while I have changed so much. I leaned into familiar hairpin curves meeting my own history in the tight turns. I turned my face up to the gentle spring rain. I surrendered to the ghosts.
Flying home at the end of the week, I looked out the airplane window and thought about the impact the Smoky Mountains have had on my life. Tall and quiet and filled with tradition, they are the shadowy guardians of my sweetest memories.
Now, a continent away, I live between two different mountain ranges. To the west, the Cascades throw up their snowy peaks and sleeping volcanoes. To the east, the Rockies, a great wall of razored stone, claim the horizon. They are signposts whenever I travel around the region I now call home.
But deep inside me, in the secret place the little girl, the bride and the new mother still live, a range of rolling, hazy mountains own the landscape.
As my plane approached and the patchwork of land beneath the wing grew closer and closer until we touched down, I was glad to be back. But I was equally grateful to have had another chance to go back to the old places, the old mountains, to follow my own Appalachian Trail.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org