The Trailhead

There is a sharp, translucent clarity on the side of the mountain. The only sounds are the immediate yet invisible sounds of insects, either bees or flies, the distant combustions of the motorcycles, and the wind, voiceless, given voice by trees. It’s almost as if the silence is its own valence, one of the fundamental forces of the mountain, working in tandem with the wind and the fragrance of the mountain laurels. This is not the dampened silence of new snow, but a silence with a bite to it. The silence of those cheap plastic crystal prism things that you get as a fourth grader from natural history museums—made all the more beautiful for all the life parading in a predetermined sweep down the mountains.

Mount Pisgah is the most prototypical mountain on the horizon of my childhood. It is present in the background frame of every memory—that massive signal tower peak visible for miles as a hazy spire. I would see it riding my bike down Clingman avenue, on the skyline past the Bowen Bridge riding the bus home from highschool for those exhilarating few highway-onramp seconds. What made the mountain more than just a recognizable backdrop was personal experience. When you can see a peak and say “I know what all this looks like from all the way up at the top” it changes the perception of the mountain and its neighbors. It stories the geography.

For years my dad and I would drive south from West Asheville past the Arboretum we used to visit for school trips, up into the Blue Ridge Parkway. As we drove through each of the eleven tunnels that had been carved through the rock decades ago our headlights would flick on and off, and I would hold my breath as we entered and keep it in my cheeks until the tunnel spat us out. My friend Raminta once told us that if you hold your breath in a tunnel all the way through with your eyes closed that a penny would fall on your head. I felt the need to test this empirically very often. 

In the Tanakh, the name Pisgah is mentioned in reference to Mount Nebo, a peak on the Abarim range in Jordan. The mountain lies east of the Jordan river and northeast of the Dead Sea, and is apparently where god showed Moses the “whole land from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar.”

Pisgah translates literally from the Hebrew as “summit,” so in all likelihood, some schmuck heard “Pisgah” and just assumed it was a proper name, adding it to the litany of mountains named “mountain” and rivers named “river.” From the summit of Pisgah — our Pisgah — you can see the promised land of Asheville, which is certainly how I felt about it as a kid. The forest opening up briefly to allow the city to poke through. The Biltmore Estate sprouting up from nothing. The parkway winding down the ridge into the city like the Jordan river into the Galilee, concrete flowing to concrete. Every time we hiked the Pisgah summit and saw our promised land, we would pass through landmarks with which we storied our environment. There were about ten of them, and we built a mythos in the milestones.

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