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  • Writer's pictureJerri Lynn Sparks

Southern Odyssey

Southern Odyssey

The mountain can offer you advice but it won’t do you any good if you don’t follow it.

I drove down to North Carolina over Spring Break to see my family for the first time in nearly five years and also to sit on top of Stone Mountain to figure out some pressing life issues. My two youngest sons rode down with me and I taught them my vast musical repertoire (everything from Johnny Cash to Jimi Hendrix, Keith Urban to KISS, Nirvana to Nina Simone) and how to properly head bang instead of debating whether or not cock roaches will survive nuclear war (seriously, that is what they attempted to start our trip off arguing over and I put the music on loud and dared them to nerd out my fun trip, haha). They now know who Robert Plant is and how to properly spell Led Zeppelin. They also now agree that Nothing beats Nirvana (that should come on a t-shirt, like the fourth level in Rock, Paper, Scissors, Nirvana).

My birthday was coming up and I wanted to celebrate a little, to think a lot and get my mind right with where I’m headed next. A childhood friend, Bryan Hanks, joined me in North Carolina and together we had a blast driving past old hangouts and reliving memories of people and stupid things we did (and somehow survived) from long, long ago.

For a day I was eight years old again and riding Bus 190 with all my friends. Linda was driving and Dale and Bobby were annoying me from the back of the bus. Johnny C. was still alive and looking dreamy but always silent (I was too young to realize that he had a life-threatening disorder. I had such a crush on that boy and when he didn’t show up the next year in school I was devastated. Love has been annihilating my heart for a lifetime).

Then Bryan and I reached Stone Mountain and I morphed from bell bottoms in my mind to hiking gear in reality. There is something so comforting about the permanence of Stone Mountain, its granite dome so grand and awe-inspiring. For whatever reason, it feels like home, it feels like it’s a part of me, that it’s mine in some small way. I even have a teensy, tiny piece of it on my desk where I write. When I’m feeling homesick I’ll run my fingers over it to feel closer to that place where I’ve poured out so much of my heart to the universe.

All of my secrets reside on top of Stone Mountain…

As we began our hike about five minutes had passed when we ran into a childhood friend of my sister. It is so typical Wilkes County, North Carolina to be in the middle of the woods and run into someone you know! As a teenager I couldn’t do anything without being seen (and caught). Case in point: I was sweet on Kenny Grubb and had begun sneaking outside in various places to make out with him but my neighbor Eloise saw it from her kitchen window and promptly busted me to my parents. The chimney did not hide us like we thought it did.

Another time I put my phone outside the window (no cordless phones, no cell phones back then) to talk to a boy and my neighbor on the other side of my house caught me. I simply could NOT be alone with boys thanks to my neighbors growing up.

A few more minutes into the hike and something happened that still makes me question if my friend Bryan and I were actually on a hike or in a Southern version of Homer’s “The Odyssey”: A very, very buff, shirtless, glistening young man came jogging out of the woods. He was sandy blonde-haired, green-eyed, tan, ripped and gorgeous. Of course my wingman stopped him to ask for directions (I love you, Bryan Hanks!). He was so sweet and accommodating but I have no idea what he said because I could not stop looking at this male siren. I swear if we were on the ocean my ship would have hit the rocks. But we were in the woods at Stone Mountain so all I could do was climb the rock. To avoid being creepy we thanked the Forest God (his actual name was Alex we would find out on Encounter #2 because Stone Mountain loves me and gave me a second encounter with this perfect specimen of male beauty) and went on our way despite me actually wanting to go with Alex the Forest God from Georgia.

As Bryan and I hiked we shared stories of our current lives and dilemmas and left right off from twenty years earlier (ok, ok, *thirty* years earlier) of ribbing and smack talking each other. (At one point during the hike I made up a song about Bryan to the tune of Ode To Joy and sang it into the woods for all to hear.) There is nothing like hiking with someone who has known you since age five because you simply cannot gloss over who you are. They know. They know what you looked like in second grade with the bowl haircut before you had braces. They know you wore too much glitter yet resisted a training bra much later than you should have. They know you were a secret and deep brainy girl when you really just wanted to be cool and pretty and to kiss all the boys.

And so the truth flowed out of us, escaping into the mountain air like the souls of the transitioning. And I suppose in some ways we were transitioning, from formerly coupled youngsters to single adults; Bryan being widowed, and me being free from a monstrous marriage. The next phase of our lives and what to do was prominent in our minds.

When we got to the top, after encountering so many lovely ladies I almost had to lead Bryan along like a dog on a leash (who knew there were so many hot men and women hiking Stone Mountain!?), we both sat there on the rock dome in silence and stared out at the many layers of blue horizon. If you’ve never been to the Blue Ridge Mountains I highly recommend my childhood home’s vistas. There is simply nothing else like it in the United States (and I’ve been all over this country).

While Bryan walked around and took photos, I stayed put and kept staring out at the blue-ribboned world in front of me, trying to see how far it went on into the sky, trying to see what the tiny specks below me were doing, like some Greek Goddess contemplating my next blessing on the people in my life.

I’d trekked eleven hours to be here so I’d planned ahead. In my backpack I had flower seeds and pen and paper in a plastic bag. I sat and thought a long time about what I wanted to say to the mountain, about what I wanted to ask of it, about what I wanted to confess and thank it for.

Suddenly I was aware of someone standing to my right. I glanced over and a striking, tall man was standing there gazing out at the Blue Ridge Mountains before us. “How many layers of blue do you see?” I asked him while staring straight ahead at the mountains. He glanced over at me and without missing a beat, as if we knew each other, and said “Three. I think I count three.” I looked him in the eye and noticed he had blue eyes so there was another layer of blue I hadn’t counted on. “I see five” I said, not telling him the fifth layer was his beautiful blue eyes. He looked back at the horizon to assess what I had seen and I knew he was questioning his own eyesight because there were clearly just four perceivable layers of blue.

Then I smiled at him and asked him where he was from (he had a tantalizing British accent, thank you, Mountain Gods!). “The United Kingdom,” he said as I nearly fell over from swooning. And then I saw it: the gold band on his left ring finger. Damn it to HELL. Why do the Gods throw shade at my fantasies? I mean, seriously? I’m on a mountaintop! You send me a hunk and you make him married?! Freakin’ Cyclops would have been better if you’re gonna throw marital bliss and unavailability into my weekend hiking therapy. (And I should be careful what I wish for on the cyclops thing...)

Mr. Blue Eyes noticed I noticed his ring so we said our pleasantries and he went back down the mountain, disappearing into the woods as I watched him fade away. He traveled across the ocean and I drove eleven hours and we had this sixty second encounter and all I could ask him is “How many layers of blue do you see?” I guess it’s pretty good for philosophy.

Still, he was only up there maybe a minute or so. I never understand people who spend an hour or two scaling a mountain who then spend just three minutes at the summit and then go back down. If I could spend all day up there I would. The top of the world is the prize – the view is the clarity, the perspective is resetting in that we are all just a small portion of the magical world and it’s our responsibility to cultivate our own happiness in this glitter globe called ‘Earth.’ It requires more than a few minutes of contemplation.

I took out my pen and paper and began scribbling my thoughts. I had thought long and hard on the drive down about where I’d come from, what Hell had happened to me five years earlier and how I’d overcome so many obstacles and life challenges with the help of friends, family, neighbors and community heroes.

I thought about how true love has remained elusive for me because I refuse to ever settle again. I know full well the Special Hell of Settling and I am terrified, simply terrified, of ever allowing myself to mind-screw my life into thinking “good enough” is truly ever good enough. It isn’t. So my search continues and I wanted the mountain’s help in knowing what to do.

On my left wrist I had worn three bangles with charms that hold significance for me:

-A silver phoenix (symbolizing rising from the ashes, a charm I bought the day my divorce was finalized)

- A gold ship’s wheel (with N, E, S, W on it so that I will never be lost again, so that I will have direction)

- A silver seashell (given to me by my kids on their first solo shopping trip for me on Mother’s Day after the divorce, symbolizing how much I love the beach and the ocean and how they know that about me)

I grazed my hand across them and my friend Bryan came up to sit beside of me. I told him what each bangle represented. Then I told him the layers of the blue horizon in front of us could symbolize the layers of healing we must go through, and that the hardest layer to see, the one that’s farthest away, represents where we haven’t gotten yet.

“Man, you’re deep” he said as he got up to go walk some more. As he trailed off he looked back at me and mouthed “I love you” like the dear “brother-friend” that he is. He had no way of knowing that I had just written on one of my notes that I was upset about how so many men in my life had presumably loved me but had never said it. That moment was magical. The mountain gives you what you need…

After I’d finished writing out my notes and wishes for my loved ones, I folded them up and placed them in a plastic zip bag and stood up to find a proper place to offer them to the mountain. I walked around and finally found the perfect tree, at the very top of the summit. I took out my flower seeds and Bryan and I planted them around in the sun and noticed the ones I’d planted five years earlier had bloomed (I’m going to assume those are my flower seeds blooming that I planted in 2012 because how else would they have gotten there?).

Then I bent down to the roots of the tree and dug down deep and hid my promises and wishes in the bones of that mountain. I wished for my beloved ones to always be happy and loved for the rest of their lives, among other wishes and things. I then pressed the notes into the roots of the mountaintop tree and covered them with rich, dark soil and placed rocks and pine cones, leaves and pine needles over them to keep them safe so that their sentiments will remain and grow into the mountain’s permanence. Satisfied that my heart’s desires were literally solidly planted, I turned to go.

Bryan had taken out his camera and began taking photos of me. “Beautiful,” he said, just like any good brother would say. Behind us a very nice looking man said “Lucky photographer.” I swear, that mountain was so giving of beautiful people that day! Three gorgeous men approached me on the mountaintop and I got to talk to all three of them. The third one even told me where he works so who knows, maybe on my next visit back South I’ll go visit him.

The second encounter with Alex The Forest God went something like this: we’re all hot and sweaty on our way to the summit and out of the woods comes Alex again, running and drenched in gleaming sweat. “Hi again” I say and he stops to ask us for directions this time (last time we’d asked him). “I’m lost” he said with a laugh. Oh how I wanted to tell him I’d found him and he could come live with me and never be lost again but I restrained myself. We learned he’d just moved up here from Georgia to be near his family and that he couldn’t find the trail to his car. A small part of me likes to think he wasn’t real and is just the Hot Forest God who jogs around all day in the woods making women like me happy for an hour or so. When I turned back around to glance at Alex the Hot Forest God one more time, he was gone.

As we walked off from the mountain later that afternoon I said to Bryan “Did this just happen? A part of me thinks that the people we encountered today were too magical to have been real.”

And it was a very symbolic and magical day. Earlier I’d taken a symbolically shaped rock from the trail and carried it with me to the top of the mountain and sat with it in my hands for a long time, pressing it into my skin as hard as I could. The rock represented something I was trying to let go of but was struggling with. I cried as I sat there staring out at the world that I want so much to be real. I know there’s something amazing out there for me if I can just find it, if I can just encounter it…

Then I stood up and ran my fingers over the rock one more time before twirling around like Wonder Woman and releasing the rock into the Blue Ridge heavens around me. It went flying through the air on its journey, completely the opposite of where I was standing. The rock made no sounds as it rocketed away from my life. Instead, it just sailed on silently going its way and I turned around and went silently back down the mountain on my way, each of us released to our own path… The next day my mom and dad begged me and my two sons to go to church so I relented and went. As we got to the door of the church a cyclops greeted us. I am not kidding. A one-eyed preacher stood there broadly smiling at us. He had no patch over his missing eye, just a white sclera that had grown over to cover a childhood wound. My sons were alarmed so I guided them to our pew in the back. During the service, this Pulpit Polyphemus gazed only at us with gnarling admonishments to “confess our sins and come to Jesus!” (It is worth noting that in Homer’s “The Odyssey” the cyclops Polyphemus appears kind at first and then devours two of Odysseus’ men and then captures Odyssey and his crew in his cave for future meals.) When we rushed out of the church at the end of the service we got to my car and shut the doors and the boys looked over at me in disbelief and asked “Where ARE we?” Then we all burst out laughing at the hell-fire and brimstone that had just been directed solely at us. Cyclops is not subtle. I did not find what I was looking for in church but I did find what I wasn’t looking for: judgment and condemnation. I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime.

And so I continue seeking, like Eric Carle’s little firefly in the wonderful children’s book “The Very Lonely Firefly,” flitting about the world looking for someone just like me, whose light shines the same way mine does. That was the mountain’s message to me: I’m not finished with my journey yet. I need to keep climbing mountains, both symbolically and in actuality. I need to keep on doing what I do, alone for now, never settling. I need to keep setting and reaching goals, keep shining my light out there into the world. There are many people out there in the world to meet, in unexpected places, at unexpected times, and the right one will appreciate me for me – and make it known, with no ambiguity. His light will see mine and know that we have found each other.

Stone Mountain holds my secrets and my wishes. Now it’s time to watch them grow. That is the best birthday gift I could ever give to myself: hope and the belief in something amazing coming my way.

(Photo Credit: Bryan C. Hanks) #BryanHanks

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