In Search of Quiet
Quiet is something of a rarity now a days. I’m writing this before the results of the election, but I'm sure that no matter the result the noise will be reaching a crescendo on the TV, on the radio, on social media. Noise, flashing lights, and images pour out of every outlet to where it overwhelms you, trapping you and demanding your attention and response. Facebook, Youtube, Candy Crush, texting, CNN, Wikipedia, Netflix: the stream of entertainment we have aimed at our brains is like a firehose aimed at a teacup. Some say that because the average American stares at a screen for nearly 11 hours a day, trying to consume every bit of media humanly possible, that we have a hard time dealing with a lack of stimulus. While that may be true, it's probably not all that different than people who used to obsessively read newspapers, stayed glued to radios, or always snooped for the latest gossip. Let's not forget that Thoreau went to Walden to find solitude and quiet that he couldn’t find in the city and that was in 1852.
October marked the 5 year anniversary of me being married to my best friend, and that meant it was time for our annual attempt to escape our noisy lives for a long weekend. After dropping the ball on making a mysterious thing called "reservations" I found that every campground vaguely near the mountains of NC and SC were filled up, and even the seediest of hotel rooms was more per night than my car payment. After several hours of fruitless searching, I happened to find the Scott Hill Cabin available in Shady Valley TN. It was small, only 12x12, but had a small kitchen, bathroom and shower, and 4 solid walls which is more than I can say for my tent.
We drove up on a Thursday afternoon and as the elevation increased so did the amount of colors that we saw in the leaves until we finally crested the twisting road that led into Shady Valley. It’s an unincorporated community, population 1800, with only a gas station and small diner giving people a reason to stop. Every road leading into town proudly announced the annual Cranberry Festival had been held the weekend before at the elementary school. As we pulled up to the address of the cabin, I realized the owner hadn’t joked when he said 4 wheel drive vehicles were recommended in bad weather as the quarter mile of driveway was mostly grass and all uphill. At the top we found the small cabin, new built and cozy, tucked away so that it was almost impossible to see from the road. It didn't have TV or Wifi, but it had a front porch with rocking chairs and up the hill a swing. The only noise heard was the occasional far off mooing of a cow; planes didn't fly overhead, almost no cars went through the one stop light, and the tractors sat silent in the barns since harvest was over. Looking across the valley, which is surrounded by Cherokee National Forest, the mountains silhouette was uninterrupted by houses or development.
Since it was getting late and we didn’t have the foresight to visit a grocery store on the way, we decided to go out for dinner and treat ourselves to a good meal. We both wanted Italian food, but we seriously doubted we could find a good place anywhere nearby; not to be snobbish, but Tennessee isn’t exactly famous for pasta. In neighboring Doe Valley about 20 minutes away, we found a place called La Cucinas and I highly recommend calling ahead to get a reservation because it’s a minor miracle we got in. The chef, Matteo, is from Milan Italy and apparently always dreamed of moving to the Appalachians and opening a small restaurant. If he doesn’t have fresh ingredients he simply closes shop for the day, and even when he is open there is only 8-10 tables available from 5-8pm Wednesday to Sunday. The food was spectacular and is worth a trip all on its own. If you are anywhere within 50 miles, treat yourself to the most authentic Italian food I’ve ever had.
The next morning we headed north of Shady Valley towards Damascus VA with the Virginia Creeper Trail and the Appalachian Trail, but before you cross the state line is the Backbone Rock Recreation Area. With a spur trail that leads to the AT, plenty of fishing and swimming spots along Beaverdam Creek, and hiking to the top of the rock that gives the area its name, it’s a great place to crash for lazy weekend of camping. There’s a typical forest service campground with pit toilets and picnic tables that somehow didn’t show up in my searches and was completely deserted on one of the busiest camping weekends of the year. The area has many remaining improvements from the CCC days of the 1930s, including a large picnic shelter and elaborate rock stair cases on the trails. Just a few minutes down the road puts you into downtown Damascus VA if you wanted to hike or bike a section of the famous Virginia Creeper Trail, but we headed further that morning towards Grayson Highlands and the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.
Our hiking around Backbone was done by 9:30am and since the rain was a drizzle we decided to go and hike Grayson Highlands State Park 30 minutes up the highway. As the road ascended, I watched the temperature gauge drop from 50, to 45, to 40. And that’s when we saw snow and ice covering everything higher than 5000’ of elevation. I pulled onto the gravel road that takes you to the top of Whitetop Mountain which has some of the most sweeping views anywhere in the Blue Ridge. When we finally reached the summit it was 20 degrees with winds blowing 10-15mph. We hiked as much as we could, taking in the vibrant foliage standing out against a backdrop of white, until our hands were numb and our legs shaking because we didn’t have the right clothing to be hiking in single digit temps. Since Grayson was just going to be more of the same weather, we packed it in and got back to the cabin in time for a late lunch and an early nap.
We passed the afternoon by read a novel apiece and then having a quiet dinner. Now that the rain had passed, the sky was clear and blue as we sat wrapped in blankets watching the sunset slowly fade into darkness. As darkness creeped across the sky, small pin-pricks of light gathered overhead showing the millions and millions of stars that make up the shimmering ribbon we call the Milky Way. Planets flickered on the horizon and neither of us said anything and watched and listened to everything and nothing in particular. Eventually we went to bed, and then the next day back to our normal, busy, noisy, distracting lives.
If there is a talent the Shook family has possessed over the years, it’s being able to search out places of quiet and then wallow in them. Going back 100 years we have journals and photographs showing their escape from normal life and into the woods was not necessarily to do or experience anything grand. Every moment was not spent with a thousand yard stare contemplating the deep and grand mysteries of life; it was just a chance to put off the weight that life places on our brain and be free of worry for a little bit to enjoy the company of the people we love. My grandfather was an expert at this, a black belt of the highest level in the art of relaxation and it's only as I've gotten older I've learned to appreciate his lessons in how to do nothing. As a teenager on family camping trips I was always wanting to hike this trail, see this waterfall, photograph that overlook. I understood the concept of dropping all of the burdens of normal life, but that meant picking other things to fill that emptiness. Many times I’ve stressed more about the perfect place to watch a sunset instead of just sitting back and saying to my wife “Wow…that’s a pretty sunset”.
As I sat with my wife staring at the stars that make up our galaxy, I was just enjoying being there with her. The temptation to drag out my camera and tripod to capture the moment was strong, but if I had given in all I would have is another picture of stars that will take up space on my hard drive. Instead I have a quiet, uninterrupted moment with the person I love more than anyone else in this world that I can look back on happily in loud and noisy times.