Friday, July 17, 2009

An Unexpected Moment of Spirituality

I don't really consider myself a religious person, neither do I identify nor affiliate myself with any organized religion or church. That being said, I still personally acknowledge some spiritual force, although my belief in free will leads me to believe this spiritual force doesn't personally meddle with life or individuals. I have no expectations of any afterlife or reincarnation, positive or negative. As Mark Twain said, I do not fear death. I hadn't existed for billions of years beforehand and wasn't inconvenienced in the least.

However, I experienced an unexpected spiritual moment on Tuesday.

My summer job right now is teaching Upward Bound at Jackson, which is about an hour's drive away. I'm teaching Spanish to high school kids and actually having a great time with it; the kids are learning, they get excited about class, and are very personable in between classes. The commute isn't so bad; the pay and my love for the job is plenty of compensation for the fuel costs. However, by the time I get back to Morehead by late afternoon/early evening, I find myself worn out from a day of teaching.

While crossing the county line on Tuesday, I expected to come home to my usual bike ride, to cook dinner for myself, and to maybe call a friend and spend some time visiting. But when I saw the turnoff for one of my favorite places to observe the mountains of East Kentucky, I felt a pulling toward the road. Something was tugging at me to go check out Lockegee Rock. At a last-minute impulse, I took the left turn onto the road that leads to the mountain.

Lockegee Rock is located down this road, up a hill, around the side of a cliff, and down a side road made of gravel and littered with potholes. A car must tread carefully and slowly, and drivers usually steer their vehicles all over the road, trying to place each pothole in between the wheels to avoid too much banging around. My car kicked up plenty of dust, but I managed to miss most of the potholes. I drove on until I found the parking spot next to the trail that leads to Lockegee. The spots were all empty, so I parked without any trouble, and immediately closed the door and walked with purpose to the trailhead.

The trail winds through a forest, and quickly upward to a patch of rocks and cliffs after a sandy section. On this day, the trail was particularly overgrown; vines crawled off of trees and covered the trail, making hikers walk with their arms over their heads and in front of their faces, constantly pushing away branches and bushes. Occasionally, growth on either side would converge, making a pleasant archway of green for travelers to walk underneath.

I walked around the path to the right, which led away from the trail and toward several cliffs. Climbing up a series of rocks, I found myself in between two tall rocks; one of them was a steep climb that led simply to a small summit. This rock used to have a a rope attached to a tree root, courtesy of Morehead State's ROTC. (Two years ago, I climbed that rope all the way up to the top, and then nearly died after a tumble and some injuries on the steep way down)

On the right side, one would see a step to another rock, followed by the lip of a rock just slightly out of arms' reach. While the more conventional route to the top of Lockegee Rock is the trail just to the left, I chose the cliff path on the right. The lip of the rock can't be climbed to, but one must lift him/herself by the forearms and chest, then scale up to the lip on their knees and elbows. After I reached the lip, I crouched low and crawled on my hands and knees, so as not to bump my head on a cliff just above me.

I stepped out into a sunlit ledge overlooking the adjacent forest. The crawl opened up into the sun, and just ahead I saw a section of the Daniel Boone National Forest bathed in sunlight. Vultures began to circle over the trees some distance away. I could hear the slight chirping of birds and the sound of the wind breezing through trees, but nothing else. After taking in the scene, I continued on around the back of the rock.

This part of the cliff path stops, and one must continue upward, scaling rocks and hugging the side of the mountain. I made sure to step over and around groups of ants and ladybugs on the rocks as I stepped up. Before reaching the top of the rock, A tree stood in the way, and climbers must wrap their arms around the tree, step on a root, and step around until they can climb atop the cliff. As I was doing this, I turned my head around to see the view in front of me, now a little farther down as my ascent up the cliff progressed. The trees were now low enough that I could see the Appalachian mountain skyline miles and miles ahead. I finished my path around the tree after taking it all in, and climbed to the summit of the rock.

Now at the top of the cliff, I could follow the trail the rest of the way around until I reached the big overlook. I walked near the edge of the cliff, admiring the bird's eye view I had of the path I had just followed, as well as the alternate path I had skipped in favor of the cliffs. Finally, the trees overhead stopped, and the path opened up as I reached the overlook.

Pictures from the top of Lockegee Rock don't do justice to the majestic view one is rewarded after the hike. The picture is slightly different each time you reach the top; later in the year one would witness a sea of gold and red to a modest temperature of fifty degrees. In the early parts of the year, The view is more dramatic, as one is privy to a view of vast deadness. In April, the view from Lockegee can be splashed with yellow and white buds amidst the greening forest canopy. This time, in mid-July, the colors are the greenest of green until it meets the bluish gray of the mountains at the horizon. From above the horizon and all around is a vivid cerulean blue, dotted with white cirrus clouds far up above. In the darkness, Lockegee shows a view of the lights of Morehead to the north, supplemented by a symphony of chirping crickets and other critters. Other than the forest and cliffs behind, the view from the summit of Lockegee is breathtaking and endless at any time of the year, day or night.

On Tuesday around 6 PM, the sun was just beginning to color the skies as it set to the west. In the summer, the stars aren't yet out and the moon hasn't revealed itself, so there's still plenty of sun to illuminate the lush green all around. After walking around the top, I noticed the same pulling feeling that tugged me toward the road to Lockegee was tugging at me again. This time, it led me to the tip of the rock, where I carefully crawled down the edge in order to step onto a lone cliff; equally as high up as the overlook, but small enough for just two people. Here, I was at the very front of the view, with nothing but endless flora in front, to the left, and to the right of me. the sun shone warmly above, and a bird cawed from a tree down below. I looked up to notice the clouds moving quietly forward. I watched the skies twirl as the planet rotated, and slowly followed my gaze down until it reached the horizon. A rising feeling of vertigo suddenly sets for a brief spell.

Here, sitting cross-legged on a tall rock, I set my arms down, relaxed evenly on my lap. I closed my eyes, let my shoulders down, and breathed in fresh mountain air through my nose before exhaling it slowly through my mouth. My head got light and a warm sensation spread through my chest. I opened my eyes, and let myself grin. I meditated this way for a few minutes, and said a quiet prayer to an unknown spiritual force, thanking it for the gifts of the world and its life. I closed my eyes, breathed in, and imagined a quiet "you're welcome" in the back of my mind.

When I stood up, I spread my arms and felt the peace around me, as well as my own sense of peace inside. When I made my way back to the main cliff, I looked upon where I had meditated. I realized that Lockegee was a temple, and that rock was its altar. At the altar, all around you was God. God was the beauty of the trees, the wind, the birds, and the peaceful silence all around. It then dawned on me that I had just experienced a spiritual confrontation; I had, in my own way, met God. As I had always met God when I admired the beauty from the top of Lockegee, or from an overlook on the Sheltowee Trace, or from the shores of South Carolina and Florida, or from the high, rocky beaches of Northern Maine. All of the natural beauty surrounding us all the time is the very presence of God. And places like Lockegee were altars on which people could personally spend time in the presence of this spiritual force.

As I drove back down the road to go home, I took that memory as a token of this spiritual experience, and promised to sit down and write about it. And read it later, to remember.

There is no right or wrong belief to take, there is no right or wrong church or religion, and there is no heaven or hell. There is here, and now. The beauty of the Earth is our gift to enjoy and to treasure. Rather than build points for an imagined afterlife after one dies, the people of this planet should stop for a second and look around them. There is heaven all over the Earth. It's our job to enjoy it, recognize it, and thank the forces yet unknown to us for giving us such bountiful riches of nature.

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