Sense of Place
The sun shone brightly at 8:30am, making a bold reappearance after nearly 24 hours of soaking rain. Clouds sat just beneath the summits of mountains on the horizon, stretched out like wispy cotton balls lazily drifting from peak to peak. Trees stood tall against a deep blue sky, showing off their first greens after months of bare existence. I lowered my sunglasses to take it all in, smiled, and kept running.
The third and final leg of the Smoky Mountain Relay took me through a sleepy valley surrounded by Nantahala National Forest. My team of 11 other runners and I had been on the move since 10:15am the previous day, making our way across 208 miles of western North Carolina’s trails and roads. When it was time for my final run I was sleep-deprived, sore, and expecting a seven-mile-sufferfest.
But something wholly unexpected happened when I started running. Yes, my hamstrings and calves wailed in protest, and yes, it hurt, but I quickly entered a state of mental euphoria. The “runner’s high” is a well-known phenomenon brought on by the circulation of “happy” chemicals throughout an active person’s body and brain. I’m lucky to feel that high often, but this time was different. I was transported into a meditative state not by the movement of my body, but by the space I ran through.
I was overwhelmed with joy. The sunshine, the mountains, the sky, the river rushing by next to me, the cows’ confused stares as I moved past them, the country road called “Happy Lane”. All of it swirled around me and ignited my sense of place. I didn’t think about the finish line or check my watch to see how fast I was running. I felt each step. I lived each moment. I was present.
I don’t remember seeing North Carolina’s mountains until I was 10 years old. My family loves the ocean, so we traveled east from Raleigh to the coast for our vacations. I found my place in the mountains independently when I went to camp the summer after 4th grade. I recall looking out across the Blue Ridge for the first time and feeling my heart swell. My feet were rooted in the soft ground, and it seemed as if the earth’s electrical pulse ran up my legs and through my body. I felt small and humble, curious and calm. Those mountains lit a fire in my soul that has yet to be extinguished.
In fact, my infatuation with the Blue Ridge Mountains has intensified over the past two decades. I’ve come to know them intimately, and I’ve come to know myself intimately through the time spent in their grasp. I’ve experienced joy, heartache, failure, and growth while they stood witness on the horizon. In a life full of transition, they are constant. I know that I can run to the mountains when my perspective gets fuzzy.
Western North Carolina, and the Blue Ridge especially, is my heart place. This is the place where I feel physically, emotionally, and mentally connected to the landscape. Sometimes the logistics of life act as blinders and I forget how fortunate I am to have made a home here. My painfully beautiful run through the Nantahala valley reminded me of the magic that lives in these hills and in my soul. It brought me back to the feeling I had as a kid, to that spark of electricity running through me. Calm and curious, humble and small. It helped me remember that I can leave, but this place will always be home.
In just over a month, children from all over the world will come to Eagle’s Nest. They’ll walk through frigid mountain streams, sleep on the soft ground, and watch as embers from an evening fire disappear into a sky full of stars. They’ll laugh and learn and grow, and the mountains will stand watch on the horizon. Campers will discover their heart place here, and it will live with them forever. I can’t wait to see their faces light up when they witness a sweeping vista or hike through the forest. I can’t wait to see them connect to this landscape. And, more than anything, I can’t wait to share this place with them.
By Liz Snyder, Assistant Director