Searching for silence: An amateur hikes Hightop Mountain

My steep quest to put out my mind’s crackling sparks and feel the silence


To think back to my first few weeks on Grounds is to remember it in a very different way than I see it now. I still have the scribbles in my planner from first semester that identified Bryan Hall as “the building behind the walkway with columns” and Maury Hall as “behind Bryan overlooking the stairs.” My days rigidly consisted of walking from class to class to the dining hall and back to my dorm. A while after I got the hang of my schedule, I started venturing out to the Corner and farther away to the Downtown Mall. However, my evolving vision of the University was not only due to my expanding horizons.

As Grounds appeared to shrink in size and its red bricks fade in color over time, I impulsively signed up for the Outdoors Club. I figured this would give me the opportunity to have my ultimate adventures that would burst my University bubble — bringing some earth-shattering revelation that I always imagined American Romantic writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau experienced when they were immersed in nature themselves. Whether it was a “bubble,” an environmentally conscious mindset or a sacred wildness — whatever it was they felt in relation to nature — I was seeking to feel it, too.

One Saturday morning, I tightened my sneakers’ laces, armed myself with four (reusable and eco-friendly) water bottles and dressed in five layers. I thought I was prepared, but at the same time, never having gone hiking before, my standards for preparedness were fairly low. I imagined myself almost as a Cheryl Strayed figure from “Wild,” straying from Grounds on a journey to lose myself in order to find myself.

About an hour-long drive later, I was at the base of Hightop Mountain in Shenandoah National Park with 12 other strangers. We hiked in a single file line with our heads bowed and squelching mud and snapping twigs beneath our feet. After the first 20 minutes, the sound of heavy breathing, gulping water and unzipping jackets drained the mud and twigs out. About 2.8 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a dozen empty water bottles and one and a half hours later, we hiked through a congested area of towering trees and outreaching limbs (that poked me in the eye more than once) to get to a small clearing of rocks jutting out into sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

That was supposed to be the moment. Upon reaching the summit, I had fully — and rather naively — expected my anxieties to dilute into mammoth, wispy clouds that hugged the mountains and the dark blue, rolling hills that lapped into one another. Disappointingly, there was no snap of inspiration, meditative hum of energy or life-altering epiphany about the meaning of human existence awaiting me at the top. Instead, my mind fell silent, and perhaps that silence was more than I could have even hoped for to begin with.

My mind has a way of feeling rusted from overuse between its consistent lack of sleep and incessant churning through thoughts. Finding silence in everyday life is nearly impossible when I surround myself with to-do lists and deadlines, the clicking of keyboards and the scratching of pen to paper. So when I had finally caught my breath and stopped panting and my mind lulled into rare silence, I realized that I had been misled.

I was not searching for a “spark” that would liven my dulled senses, but rather my senses were in this rut to begin with because there were too many sparks and I had gotten burned. Although I did not “find myself” like I had romantically imagined I would, I found the silence I was in search of all along and didn’t even know it until I experienced it at the peak of Hightop Mountain.

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