Friday, July 24, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Whitaker Point, AR

A grime covered my skin and clothes as I entered the car for hike #2 on a warm Saturday afternoon in early September 2008 in northwest Arkansas. After completing the hike at Lost Valley, I was preparing myself for a hike of a different kind. The Lost Valley hike was one of curiosity. I sought to uncover the strange rock formations of the Ozarks, the seeping waterfall that provided a soundtrack to the hidden cave just above it, and the solitude that is possible even in the midst of the large population of wildlife inundating the region.

Whitaker Point was a hike of introspection. I was drawn to the place as soon as I saw the picture in a Rand McNally atlas years ago. With something as simple as an elevated rock overlooking a splendid horizon of trees and hills, the photograph called to me in a way only few can do. The photograph is not particularly beautiful (or even professional). But it spawned the imagination, something only a drive on the open roads could make a reality. To reach this point was to look out at the world with a new prospective, and to look within with a freshened sense of what is and what could be.

I mentioned in the "Lost Valley" post that I went to northwest Arkansas the weekend after the qualifying exam. The OU meteorology Ph.D. qualifying exam is an absolute abomination. Weeks of preparation, of studying and learning basically anything and everything about meteorology, precede a two-day, ten-hour exam of ten questions on subjects specific and broad, specialized and generalized. The exam can best be described as "hit or miss", with the stress and strain on the student inexcusably high and impossibly omnipresent. And yet, my complaints about the exam are trivial compared to my complaints about the post-traumatic stress. There is a fallout after taking the exam (for me, at least). As I drove east from Norman, I began to realize the personal impacts the months of preparation and the endless hours of stress had imposed. I was beyond irritable, socially distant, and susceptible to long periods of exhaustion. The exhaustion only sleeplessness and depression can provide.

As I had realized the repercussions of the previous weeks, I was driving on I-40 in an eerie silence. I turned the music off for a time and just listened to the white noise of the car's engine and the strong breeze hitting the car. I've never believed in meditation while driving, but I became a quick believer after speeding my way past Henryetta. I then saw the turbulent waters of Lake Eufala, and I knew that the trip would only be a first step in my recovery. But, it would be the most crucial.

The hike in Lost Valley was the first step. It reaffirmed the fact that I still had a desire to learn, had a desire to seek things I did not know. Whitaker Point assured me that I could face the truth from within. That I knew I was not well, and that I knew I could be again. The hike to Whitaker Point was one of the most important events for me in 2008.

They say that the journey is more important than the destination. The journey to Whitaker Point became a metaphor of sorts. There are no signs on the highway indicating where to find it. I missed the turn at least four times. I finally realized that the road by the bridge actually meant the "gravel road" by the bridge (one of three in the area). I turned off and traveled a white-knuckled thirty minutes over a steep incline of very large, very poor-traction rocks to a trailhead I was unsure would be visible or even existent. When I reached the top of the incline, I passed farm after farm, barn after barn, horse after horse. Each farmhand waved with a refreshing sense of genuine kindness. It had been a long time since I had an experience like that.

Fortunately, the trailhead was easily identified by a sign. (Why there was no sign at the highway entrance remains a question mark, however.) I stopped the car and began the trek. This hike is one of the few that starts downward. Essentially, the hike is all trees, all the time until you hit the destination. The deceptively long three miles actually get a little tiresome for a soul seeking some sort of redemption. Am I even in the right place? Did I take a wrong turn? Did I really just drive on a rock-infested, dent-encouraging six-mile road to hell?

As usual on hikes, I question and then I observe. Transcendent moments in my life always work this way. I panic at life, my place in it, and my moment of realization. Why am I here? What am I doing? Where am I going? And then. I stop, listen, feel, love. I absorb nature, and a feeling of absolute nirvana hits me like a crashing wave on an ocean shore. Religious people might say that it is the moment you touch the face of God. For me, my god is nature, and I don't touch it. I envelop it. I become it. I succumb to it. And then, I look inward.

By this point, I had reached Whitaker Point. The sky was darkened with an eerie gray from a dying thunderstorm. It was an absolutely stunning sight, with a dark haze overlooking the beautiful horizon from which Whitaker Point pokes outward. It is a stunning view of contrariness. The shining rock against the calming colors of plants and sky. It was shockingly beautiful, something photographs can give no description of.

As I sat on Whitaker Point eating some beef jerky, staring outward at the vastness of the trees, the sky, and the silence, I had the courage to face myself. I encouraged myself to live for moments like these, endure the trials that sometimes seem so unnecessary in the rather short period of life. Why endure so much pain to only feel this happy, this assured in satisfaction so little of the time? Because the trials make moments like this possible. They may be unpleasant, but they only make the best moments better. More memorable. More life affirming.

In the end, it took a full four months for me to recover completely. But Whitaker Point, that's how it started. And as I look through the pictures of that day, I'm amazed at how little I remember of the walking and how much I remember of the sights and sounds. The sound of a rope scraping rock as the wind forces it back and forth. Of tree limbs rubbing each other. Of a fly buzzing on my left side for nearly a mile. Of a quiet rumble of thunder from a storm announcing its death. Of the wind only heard by the trees. Of the gleaming yellow reflecting off the full-life trees from the waning sun.

And I remember what I felt before, during, and after the hike. I sought, I saw, and I survived. Older, better, and more alive. I met Rand McNally, and as usual, I was more informed because of it.

Whitaker Point is a story you can only get by traveling. By hitting the open road. Gather the courage to find yourself by seeking new sights, seeing new places. Sometimes, you have to go. Sometimes, you have to go alone. All the time, you will gain something...something only nature can provide. Through observing the world, you become a far better observer of yourself, and your place in it.
Lake Eufala from I-40.
The first view outward from the Whitaker Point hike.
The dying storm.
The dying storm over the horizon of trees and hills.
Beautiful Whitaker Point.
Looking straight down.
View west from Whitaker Point.
View east from Whitaker Point.
The sun gleams off the leaves.