Now Speak to Me of Everything

A day hike is just a taste. An overnight in the mountains is a long, lingering sip. More than that can be difficult to do very often, but a few days on the trail can begin a deep, restorative process you may not have even known you needed.

This was our first backpack of the season, and we decided to check out the Tuscarora Trail, which snakes up Tea Mountain in northwest Virginia. Time was short, so we drove out Friday afternoon for a single night in the woods. We had been in the same mountains for a day hike just a few weeks before, and the trees had barely begun to leaf out. Now, the seafoam green of the woodland tide had completely flooded the woods:

azaleas 2We saw not a soul on our quiet journey up Tea Mountain, until we reached the Kepler Overlook, where there is a magnificent campsite (alas, already occupied when we arrived). We pushed a bit further along the trail, and found a wonderfully sheltered spot along a natural rock wall:

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The day had been warm but the temperature began to drop quickly in tandem with the sun as the breeze picked up, so a fire was entirely in order. We sat in silence to watch the flames flicker to embers well after dark, before retiring amid the reclusive forest creatures who had no intention of making themselves known.

I was raised Catholic but fell away many years ago. Certain schools of Catholicism never stopped resonating with me, especially liberation theology, the Catholic Worker movement, and the writings of the Catholic mystics, which held enormous intellectual appeal (counterintuitive, you might think, but if you’re interested let’s unpack it over a lovely cup of Darjeeling one day). On the way home from Tea Mountain I thought of Henri Nouwen, Dutch priest, whose lovely little book “Can You Drink the Cup?” engaged me unexpectedly as part of my undergraduate minor in religious studies.

Each of us has a cup from which to drink. We’ll have chances to share the cups of others, and hopefully taste many different things, but every cup holds deep sorrows as well as incredible joys. If we’re going to drink life to the dregs it’s a foregone conclusion that we’re going to taste them both. Committing to take what comes each day, intentionally and with acceptance, is one lesson of the cup metaphor. It’s not an easy place to reach.

After my Christology class I continued with a course in Eastern religions, and later in my undergraduate career I began seeing the title of Nouwen’s book more as a Zen koan. Can we drink not just every experience life has to offer, but even the vessel itself? When we do, we become one with whatever we choose to believe is the very stuff of the universe itself.

Friday night, on Tea Mountain, none of this was in my consciousness. It was just a beautiful evening in the woods and I was taking a long, deep sip. It had an enchanting oolong aroma and a smoky-sweet aftertaste that gracefully chased me into dreamland. The next morning a stiff cup of Earl Grey was in order before leaving the mountain behind and facing what was (and is) to come.

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