by Jeff Oaks

Yesterday I walked fifteen minutes down the mountain where I’m staying with five friends for a few days. Then I walked back up taking a little more time. I feel the mountain now in my butt and legs, a healthy respect lets call it. Yesterday I was sure I would do it again; this morning I’m thinking that idea over very deliberately. I do wish I could fly here. I felt that as soon as I walked out onto the deck of the lodge and looked out at the curves and rises stretching out in front of us, each ridge higher and darker green, the farthest turning blue. I feel that every time I come out here in the morning now with my bottle of water to watch the sunrise. I’d like to shake myself and open my arms and jump into the air and not fall. I watch two crows do it every morning. It looks easy enough.

When the neighbors wake up on either side, they are unfortunately loud, chipper. One young woman out on the next porch yells back inside to her mother, Are these the Smoky Mountains? The mother answers in a somewhat more subdued voice: “due East is the…” But I’ve already stopped listening for information. My hackles are up. I want things to be quiet, the way they’ve been so far. I feel myself wanting to yell something snide to the young woman who has gone inside but is still yelling at her mother. On the other side, there’s a particularly loud woman who is just yakking away to her friends. Having been to enough readings, I can hear that it’s a performance of some piece of writing, a recitation of a letter maybe. Everyone is laughing, at least a couple of them are. Then there’s applause. I’m so grateful for the innate quiet of my friends who are inside making breakfast or reading, being respectful, it seems to me, of the power of the mountains. We are here to celebrate our friend Noah’s completion of his graduate degree but also to get away from chatter, to touch and be touched by something. To take some time.

What happens to the quiet thing in a noisy world? Even mountains get blasted away to make way for our roads and our needs, I suppose, but here they seem immovable. You could still get lost out there. There’s no network for our phones. All that distance out there, eating up our voices. I see my reflection in the glass of my iPad and think God, I look old. But that’s nothing to the mountain, like the flicker of a sparrow’ swing as it passes into the greenery below us. Eventually, in the mountains, your humanity becomes fragile again maybe. Is that the secret of why we keep coming to them as a species? We’re a question again rather than a given.

In The Mountains

The air is different there. The stars
more visible, swarms of lights. The dark
of course is bounded by missteps,
fatalities, drop-offs. Here is therefore
where escaping ends, where peace talks
with the self can begin. Extremity
where one can say, at last, I have reached
and touched and felt the edge where
the world is still changing hands, earth
and air, earth and water, fire under
every step. Which is why we go there
after grief, at moments of great joy,
to find the places where even the great
energies of the earth are having
the same conversation: Why? Why not?
For days the natives remind you, drink
enough water, take it easy. Wait
three days before you trust your feet,
your voice, anything you think.