Monday, October 18, 2010

Climb to High Bethel Altar

Climb to High Bethel Altar

Thanks to Clay Turner for providing the great Photo!

Twenty-five hundred years have passed since both Abraham and Jacob, according to the biblical account, established altars at Bethel. Jacob described it as a place of awesome spiritual power (Genesis 28:17) and later Bethel, which means “House (or place) of God” became an official shrine of the northern Kingdom of Israel and remains a sacred place in the collective memory of both Jews and Christians. Abraham, according to Genesis 7:8, built an altar east of Bethel shortly after arriving in Canaan from Haran. Later, Jacob, believing the place to be the “gate of heaven,” named it Bethel.

It is not surprising to me that man still finds a need, a desire, to erect symbols of their faith, on what they consider hallowed ground. Many men in history have photographed areas of extreme beauty, trying to capture the spiritualness of an area, such as the great photographer Ansel Adams. Other men have tried to capture the spirit through poetry or other writings, such as John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau and even Song writers such as John Denver attempted to capture the feeling, the spirit of what they have experienced in the mountains and wilderness. Shrines, such as ‘Christ the Redeemer’ located on Corcovado peak in Rio de Janeiro are perfect examples of man’s continuing desire to mark places that possess spiritual attributes. Knowing this, it should not have been a huge surprise to have stumbled upon a simple rock altar, high in the North Carolina mountains in an area called Panthertown Valley, called High Bethel Altar.

The trip we had planned began early on the 8th of October. There was to be four of us on this backpack adventure to Panthertown Valley, in North Carolina. We frequent this area, enjoying the numerous waterfalls, the relative isolation, and the great views afforded by the many granite rock ledges and outcroppings that overlook the beautiful valley floor.

It was a beautiful autumn day, the azure sky above and the crisp cool air was assuring us that a good weekend was ahead. We set up camp at the confluence of Panthertown Creek and Greenland Creek, which form the headwaters of the Tuckasegee River. The campsite was in a large flat pine forest, the ground softened by deep layers of pine straw.

Tom Harding and myself, spent the afternoon setting camp, gathering firewood and filling our water bottles. Clay Turner arrived into camp around 5:30pm and Rick Harding would not show up till well after dark. After everyone had finally arrived, we sat and relaxed around a roaring campfire, discussing our options for the hike the next day.

The campfire was comforting amongst the darkened forest that surrounded us. The Tuckasegee River beside us babbling, as it worked its way further down the valley toward Warden Fall’s where it begins to roar as the waters gain momentum and larger volume. The logs in the fire were cracking as the fire began to consume, sending embers dancing into the blackened skies, winking as they drifted back to forest floor. The four of us chatted well into the night, discussing everything from nuclear reactors, fission and fusion to swapping silly puns resembling a kaleidoscope of conversation.

The conversation did take a serious level when we began discussing our options for a day hike the next day. I suggested we hike to High Bethel Altar, which is near the peak of Cold Mountain. I was a little concerned that it was still relatively early in the season and the underbrush may still be too dense to hike it. After a little discussion between the four of us, we decided to give it a try.

Years before, Rick and Tom Harding had introduced me to Panthertown Valley. We had been hiking it quite frequently since. Two years after my first visit, I was still questioning Rick and Tom about the huge mountain off in the distance, which they informed me, was Cold Mountain. The map showed two trails that traveled to the peak which was labeled High Bethel Altar. Rick and Tom both had tried to find the trails and had given up on several occasions. The trails although on the map just did not seem to exist in reality. It was in November, two years after my first trip to Panthertown, that Rick Harding, Courtney Sharpe and myself finally made it to the top and found High Bethel Altar. We took the long way up, following the ridgeline of Shelton Pisgah Mountain and eventually coming up the western slope of Cold Mountain. It was a terribly long hike, the trail non-existent in places and very cold. Once at the top we were rewarded with a view that was breathtaking and found another surprise in the form of a rock altar, fitted with a brass plaque and inscription. This site needless to say became special in many ways to us and to all of those that can find their way there. That first trip found us leaving High Bethel late in the afternoon, in late November, and only about two hours of sunlight left. We made the decision on the way down Cold Mountain to try to find the other trail, which basically follows Little Green Creek down the valley between Shelton Pisgah Mountain and Cold Mountain. If we were successful in finding this trail, it would save us two to three miles of hiking and we could probably get off the mountain before dark. We found the trail only to lose it a mile down the mountain; the trail disappearing into rhododendron thickets and steep cliffs falling off into the rock littered Little Green Creek. We had no choice but to crawl on our hands and knees, inching our way through the maze of rhododendron and downed trees but eventually we found our way back to the main trail of Devil’s Elbow and out of the valley.

Rick and I would return on several occasions after this, trying to find an easier way up to High Bethel Altar. Using maps and GPS we thought we had found an easier way till we came across a fence that was signed “Canaan Land-No Trespassing”. We walked down the fence, expecting it to end and thus allowing us to travel a mile east up the western face of Cold Mountain, but the fence continued into terrain that was much to steep to try to cross. We eventually gave up trying to find an easier way and decided the Little Green Creek trail was our best option, albeit the complicated maze of rhododendron was an arduous quest.

Saturday morning, 7:30am, the crisp autumn air at dawn was invigorating, encouraging us to build a small campfire to warm ourselves as we drank coffee and ate our breakfast. By 9am the sun had peaked over Boardcamp Ridge casting rays of sunlight and warmth through the canopy of trees above. We were away from camp, beginning our journey by 10am. It would only be two to three miles to High Bethel Altar, but we knew it would not be easy.

We followed the Devil’s Elbow trail till we reached the junction of the nearly invisible Little Green Creek Trail and began working our way through the maze of Rhododendron. Storms that had frequented the area over the last several months had resulted in many fallen trees, making the hike more difficult. Every ten yards it seemed we would have to crawl under huge trunks that had fallen, only to find ourselves having to climb over the next, all of this while steadily climbing in elevation, up the valley between Shelton Pisgah and Cold Mountain. Two miles up Little Green Creek Trail we turned away from the streambed and traversed across the southwestern slope of Shelton Pisgah, through tall stands of Poplar and Oak. The hiking became a little easier as we steadily gained elevation and began to cross the saddle between Shelton Pisgah and Cold Mountain. Once on Cold Mountain, we followed an old road bed, circumventing the western side of Cold Mountain till we reached still another trail that turns to the east and goes straight up the side of Cold Mountain. There were a couple of switchbacks in the trail which tamed the climb somewhat but was still difficult.

We let Clay lead us on this last part, allowing him to walk through the tunnels of Mountain Laurel and Blueberry bushes, which opened onto a granite outcropping and a view of unbelievable beauty of Panthertown Valley below. The fall colors glistening as the sun filled sky warmed the cool autumn air. Reds, yellows, and orange leaves contrasting against the cerulean blue sky in the panoramic view around us was breathtaking.

The simple stone altar stood four feet in height and was three foot square. A brass plaque mounted on the side of the altar read:

Near the Endless sky above us
Up in Canaan Land
Lies the Beauty of High Bethel
Made by God’s own hand.

Here we watch the sunset
His love we understand
In the majesty of mountains
Here we join God’s hand.

The four of us sat on the ledge and enjoyed the views as we ate our lunch; each of us lost in our own thoughts as we contemplated the beauty that was before us. I considered the significance of this Altar and to the one referenced in the Bible built by Abraham on Bethel. I realized that over two thousand years had passed since Abraham constructed his alter in the westbank and men still to this day, find the urge, the need to construct a symbol of their appreciation to God for all the riches and favors he had bestowed upon them.

The Genesis Apocryphon is one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Cave 1 near Qumran in the west Bank. This document is written in Aramaic and consists of four sheets of leather and is the least preserved of the original seven scrolls. It gives an account of the biblical figure Lamech and his son Noah and the significance of the Bethel Altar.

I pitched my camp in every place in which I had formerly camped until I came to Bethel, the place where I had built an altar. And I built a second altar and laid on it a sacrifice and an offering to the Most High God. And there I called on the name of the Lord of worlds and praised the name of God and blessed God, and I gave thanks before God for all the riches and favors which he had bestowed on me. For he had dealt kindly towards me and had led me back in peace into this land.
After that day, Lot departed from me on account of the deeds of our shepherds. He went away and settled in the valley of the Jordan, together with all his flocks; and I myself added more to them. He kept his sheep and journeyed as far as Sodom and he bought a house for himself in Sodom and dwelt in it. But I dwelt on the mountain of Bethel and it grieved me that my nephew Lot had departed from me

High Bethel Altar on Cold Mountain was constructed over a period of eighteen years, begun in 1956 and completed in 1974 and the altar itself is rather simple, consisting of granite stones and mortar, but the view, the expanse of the mountains below is what makes this place so special leaving one speechless. As we sat, gazing at the view below in silence, I could almost hear the whisper of God on the light breeze saying, “See what I created for you.”

This trip took place over three days, October 8, 2010 to October 10, 2010 and consisted of hikes and camping in Panthertown Valley, North Carolina. Great weather and great friends made this trip most memorable. Thanks to Rick and Tom Harding and Clay Turner for sharing the experience with me.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

From the Heart


There are two groups of people that I find myself very uncomfortable around, the very young (less than seven) and the very old (over eighty). I know this does not sound politically correct and I also know that this is a personal problem that I should work on to correct. Let me assure you that I have made every effort to resolve my insecurity in this matter.

What confuses this problem even more is that it is not necessarily only the age. It has more to do more with the mindset of the people I am around or could it be my mindset? After careful evaluation of myself and the uneasiness I feel when subjected to such, I realized that once the dialogue becomes dependent on me solely, then I begin to falter. I struggle to find the right words to entice the very young or the very old into a productive and entertaining dialogue. It’s almost as if I just don’t know what to say. Encounters of this kind, when initialized, begin well enough, but once the initial greeting and pleasantries are given, then the communication begins to fail.

I watch other people, my wife for one, work the dialogue well with any age person and it seems to come very natural, talking and listening, each party offering input and giving the appearance that both are enjoying the conversation. I, on the other hand, find myself at a loss of words, struggling to find a topic that may interest the other party, only to find myself speechless and leaving the seven year old gazing around the room, looking for something else to do, or in the case of the eighty year old they may begin to doze, their head falling to their chest their eyes glazed in an unconscious stupor..
Although age appears to be a major contributing factor to this problem, I have also come to realize that there are certain types of relationships that render me unable to communicate effectively. My relationships with my parents, brother and sister are perfect examples of my inability to communicate effectively. I find myself avoiding the situation, thus not visiting as often as I should. I feel very comfortable talking and discussing most any topic with my wife and daughter, and even with perfect strangers, as long as they’re within the required age bracket, but once I find myself with my brother or sister, I find myself struggling and after only about five minutes, we sit in silence, unable to cultivate a meaningful connection.
I realize that part of the problem may be that we may have very little in common. They may not be interested in the things I do, and I’m not interested in the things they do, thus there is very little to talk about. After careful observation of my wife in such situations, I came to understand that you must show interest in the other party by asking questions, building on the dialogue in such a way that the conversation begins to have a life of its own.

Having learned these important lessons, I took off to visit my Mom with apprehensive dread.
My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years back and has spent the last two years in an assisted living facility and presently in a skilled nursing home in Knoxville. Her mind has deteriorated to a degree that much of the time she is unable to speak and when she does, she rambles on about things that seems to suggest that she is delusional, so I knew I had my work cut out for me and my gut instinct told me to avoid the situation. I could always use the excuse that even though I wanted to visit my Mom, I knew that she would not know who I was, so why go. Most people seem to understand and accept this rationalization, but deep inside I knew better.

I arrived at the nursing home, and after signing the visitor’s log, I took the elevator to the fourth floor. As the elevator doors opened onto the fourth floor I stepped into a small sitting area, furnished with a couple of couches, a few tables, chairs and a large flat screen television was tuned to what appeared to be ‘The Living Channel’, which seemed appropriate for the audience, although after more careful observation, I wondered if maybe a few of the viewers may not be breathing.

At first glance around the small sitting area, there was maybe ten patients, some male, some female, and most all either had a walker at their side, or sitting in a wheel chair. Everyone looked alike! It reminded me of the times I would have to go to the daycare to pick up my daughter, walking into the room, full of toddlers and trying to pick my daughter out of the group.

These aged souls were not talking with each other and seemed to be uninterested in the program on the television. Most was either in various stages of sleep or staring into space in their own world, possibly sorting through their foggy memories of the past. There was an air of abandoned hope and confused mingling.

I strolled down the hall to my mother’s room and with her door open I entered. I was surprised to find she was not there. I looked around the small hospital like room, taking inventory of the few pictures that was framed and sitting on various ledges and tables. Pictures and portraits of our family’s past. A portrait in particular sat close to her bed and was of our family taken maybe fifty years ago; a young, happy family, looking into the camera’s lens, appearing to be looking into the future in joyous anticipation of what the future would bring; my mother sitting beside me in the portrait, her hand on my shoulder, smiling proudly.

Realizing my mother was not in the room, I stepped back into the hallway, and a nurse approached me. “Are you looking for Garnet?” The nurse questioned.

“Yes, I’m her son, Jeff. Do you know where she is?”

“I think she is in physical therapy, on the first floor. You’re welcome to go down there to visit her. We think the world of Garnet…. She’s a card!” The nurse offered this and I could tell she was sincere in her evaluation of my Mom.
“Thanks, I’ll try down there.”

I took the elevator back down to the first floor and walked down the long hallway toward physical therapy, realizing that just the walk, the long walk, down the hallway would be enough physical therapy for most, and I wondered if mom was wheel chaired to physical therapy, knowing that for the most part she was immobile and definitely would not be able to find her way out of the room, much less back up four floors and down the next long hallway.
I found the room, above the door a sign read ‘Physical Therapy’. I stepped into the spacious room, vacant except for a couple of small tables, a few chairs, a variety of different size balls, a few elastic bands and a few pieces of other odd equipment I was unfamiliar with. There was no one in the room. I stepped back into the hallway, noticing a nurse escorting an elderly gentleman our way. The nurse had the gentleman by the arm giving him some support as they took each step, taking maybe five small steps in five minutes, yet the nurse smiled giving the gentleman encouragement as they slowwwly moved my way. I walked their way and after introducing myself I questioned the nurse if she knew if Garnet was suppose to be in Physical Therapy. She informed me no, that Garnet’s physical therapy was on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She suggested that Garnet was probably on the fourth floor eating in the dining area.

Again I walked down the long hallway to the elevators and went to the fourth floor.

As the elevator doors opened, the same group of bewildered, departed glories was still sitting in their respective spots, gazing aimlessly with woeful weariness. I passed them again, finding my mother’s room, only to find she was still not there. I traveled back down the hallway, looking for a nurse or possibly the dining area. As I passed the aforementioned group of seniors, one caught my eye. She was sitting alone in a wheelchair. Her hands folded in her lap; her gaze was to nowhere in particular, displaying a sorrowful sense of resignation. I stepped closer, looking into the face that was scarred with life’s aged wrinkles and I saw my Mom. She continued to have that same lost stare as I knelt beside her and I spoke, “Hey Mom, it’s me….. It’s Jeff.”

I could see her eyes begin to focus on me, her mind searching within the years of cobwebs for the discarded reminiscences. With a bit of tardy recognition, she permitted herself a delicate little smile, and poured out to me the full opulence of proud recognition.

“Oh….! Hi Jeff….Oh Honey…..”, it was almost a whisper, a murmur linked with a pleasing sigh.
I hugged her, telling her how well she looked and she did compared to how she had looked a few weeks before. I told her I loved her, giving her another hug and I began to see a few tears soften her vision.

I pulled up a chair beside her and grabbing her feeble hand, I began telling her everything that had happened to me and my family over the past few weeks. She listened for just a minute before meekly interrupting me and asking if Inez was with me. I did not know an Inez, so I questioned her who Inez was.

“She was with you yesterday…..”, again she answered in a weakened voice but was confident that Inez, whoever that was, was with me yesterday.

I realized then that mom was imagining these things; the Alzheimer’s grabbing what little mind she had left, dissolving years of memories and causing confusion even in the present.
“No mom…. Inez did not come with me today, but she wanted to.” I answered, playing this silly game that I was thrown into.

“Oh…. She’s so sweet…..You are too… You know you are my favorite.” Again the weary smile.

“I love you mom…. I missed you.” I answered, looking for the right words.

I watched her as she gazed into my eyes trying to piece together the broken pieces of life that lay in the depths of her mind as jumbled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
We talked for an hour, her some, usually not making much sense, and I picking up the slack and talking a lot about nothing, delusional myself perhaps but it was good. We had that connection, that mother-son bonding that was almost forgotten by me. We laughed and reminisced, talked about the old days, and the present. I’m not sure she understood anything I was saying and I understood very little what she said, but I felt her love and I think she felt mine.

I kissed her on the cheek, told her good-bye but that I would be back soon. I glanced at her as I walked to the elevator, her eyes following me, and I saw that same beautiful mother in that family portrait with all the love, hopes and dreams that I was so much a part of.

As I rode the elevator back down to the first floor, I realized that communication, with anyone, whether they are seven or eighty, should be from the heart. It doesn’t matter what you say, what you talk about, or necessarily how well you listen, just the fact you are willing to participate and to let your heart do the talking. That is usually enough.
Thanks Mom for everything…

This great visit with my loving mom took place September 25, 2010. She taught me one more lesson of life. How to communicate!