The Color of Grace
Curled up on the sofa after a hot bath I’m very happy to be home. For the past three days I’ve been camping in the wilderness near Lost Cove Creek with my two backpacking mentors, Dick and Jim. There was nothing new about the plans– same plans, same food, same equipment. But it was new territory for us, and the trails were largely unmarked. Dick estimates that we ascended 2000 feet, slow-going with loaded packs.
Ascending, my face was close to the ground, and I became mesmerized by the beauty of mosses, lichens and fallen leaves. The hickory leaves were pumpkin orange with some caramel patches. The maples were lemon yellow, or sometimes yellow touched with red. My favorites in the canopy and on the ground were the sourwood leaves. They are a color I call the color of grace. Many years ago I experienced several grace-filled moments in which that color played a role. It is not pink. It is not orange. It is a glowing-from-within painfully beautiful color that rarely shows up… mostly in sourwood leaves in autumn, and in certain sunsets in winter. I found myself wishing I could bring some of the most sculptural leaves home with me, but my hands were full of trekking poles, and the work was too hard to allow for that.
Once we made it to the top of the mountain, the trail continued for a long way along a ridge line. The forest at the ridge had a kind of dream-like beauty. There was a sense of openness between the trees, and the ground was carpeted in an endless blanket of fallen leaves. The colored canopy was on fire from the afternoon sun and punches of blue sky and deep valleys were visible on both sides of the trail. Other mountains appeared beyond that. The spine trek was long, level and so lovely. At its end we began the difficult 2000 foot descent. Top heavy with gear, and a bit wobbly in the knees, my biggest fear was falling or sliding. The leaves underfoot were slippery, and the acorns functioned like ball bearings. At the base we crossed two small streams before coming to Lost Cove Creek. We found a campsite that seemed like the end of the earth. The pristine creek ran clearer than any stream I have ever seen.
I set my tent up on a moss bed on a cliff hanging just above a very loud cascade. And for three days in that place I saw no other humans except Jim and Dick. The next day they set off on a long hike, and I stayed behind to paint. The day flew by, sitting on a giant stone in the creek bed for hours, working on a watercolor. To keep it lightweight my materials were restricted to watercolor, one piece of paper and one brush. Instead of painting the creek I chose to paint the scene from the night before– the dark night sky, the stars, the canopy, and a bit of the campfire. Since that kind of thing can’t be captured with a camera (at least not by me), or painted in the dark , it has to be memorized and painted from faulty memory, processed through the feelings it provokes. It occupied me for the whole day and is not by any means a great painting. But the act of remembering and putting it down on paper was engaging. Perhaps it will be the study for something better. Perhaps it will only be the marker of a day well spent in a magical place.
Last night the stars in our remote camp were brilliant, spangling the branches and leaves overhead. I got deep into my down bag, but rested my head outside the tent opening so I could look up. And before sleep I enumerated the graces: thousands of stars, tracery of slender limbs and branches, thundering cascade, cool clean air with every breath, and the deep soul-sense of being on a scrap of paradise .