“It always comes back to us – why are we here? Well, we just happened to be here, we couldn’t choose it. The chance of us being born – that sperm hitting that egg – is 400 trillion to 1. We’re not special, we’re just lucky; and this is a holiday. We didn’t exist for 14 and a half billion years. Then we got 80 or 90 years if we’re lucky, and then we’ll never exist again. So we should make the most of it.” – Ricky Gervais
The view from John Rock is pretty spectacular. Sitting on top of this sheer granite cliff you can see for miles on a clear day. From the parking lot at the fish hatchery below you are about 1,200 feet in the air, parallel to the hawks and buzzards riding the thermals in the sky. It is an odd sensation for a guy terrified of heights. But there is something very permanent, very secure about this massive boulder on top of a mountain formed some 480 million years ago. And though hundreds of million of years of rain, snow, heat and cold have probably whittled it down some I suspect that 480 million years from now John Rock will still be here. I have my doubts that human beings will still be around.
Friday, my wife and youngest daughter made the six mile loop to the top of John Rock. Despite being a cool and overcast day I still sweated like the old, fat man that I am. The journey up is what I call a “payoff” hike, meaning there is a reason to make the march. Sometimes it is a waterfall. Sometimes it is an abandoned structure or even an old settler’s cemetery. But my favorite “payoff” is always a view, something that takes effort. Something that you can’t see through the windshield of your car. Something that I know 80 to 90% of the population won’t take the time or have the stamina to achieve.
This is one of my favorite hikes, one that I have done at least three dozen times. I have walked this path to the top in the heat, the rain, the bitter cold, even snowing sideways 1,200 feet in the air. This is also the same hike my wife and I came upon a four foot long Eastern Timber Rattlesnake. A magnificent creature whose memory still thrills me but makes my wife thread a little more cautiously.
Friday, after I had eaten a snack, had some water and taken the obligatory selfies I sat on that hard, cold rock and scanned the mountain range before me. It was quiet, peaceful, and meditative. Beside me where two of the three people I love the most. In front of me, expanses that I will never set foot in, acres that rarely, if ever, have felt the footsteps of humans.
Next month I will turn 59. Not one of those milestone birthdays but certainly a milestone eve one. Gathering with my family over the holidays I looked at my parents and in-laws, all in their late 70’s or early 80’s and wonder how many more celebrations I would have with them. Hell for that matter how much more carousing do I have left in me. As Ricky Gervais notes above for whatever time we have left we should make the most of it. But the question that has stumped man since the dawn of time is what should we be doing to make the most of it, or more specifically, why are we here?
As I looked out on that vast wilderness Friday from John Rock, beyond the man-made objects below, I thought about the first humans that tread through these forest 20,000 years ago. These earliest human inhabitants, referred to as Paleo-Indians, made their way to North Carolina from Asia to Alaska across the land bridge created by lower sea levels at the end of the last Ice Age.
This journey from one continent to another took generations for families and tribes to make their way into the Carolina Mountains and Piedmont. Think about how much real estate we can cover now in cars, planes and trains. We measure distance in miles and hours. These ancient people measured travel in feet, months and years.
I can only imagine the hardships they faced every day dealing with sickness, starvation, and environmental issues like heat, cold, rain and snow. Today a broken leg for us is simply an inconvenience. For the Paleo-Indian’s, a people who spent everyday hunting, gathering, and traveling it would have been a death sentence. Do you think they ever sat around the fire at night and wondered why are we here, what is the purpose of life? Or was just enduring another day enough to carry them through, survival to watch another sun rise.
I heard an interview on NPR the other day. The guy was talking about losing a loved one at the same time his daughter was having his first grandchild. He commented that though he was sad about losing someone he cared about that the birth of his new grandson balanced it out. He went on to say that life always balances itself out.
My parents are getting older and I will soon be 60, time is ticking away from us. But as the clock runs out for some new adventures are happening within my family; marriages, babies, graduations, new careers, ends and beginnings.
I don’t know what the next decade has in-store for me. Maybe another child married. Maybe a grandchild. Possibly retirement. Hopefully a few more hikes up John Rock. I would suspect one or both of my parents will pass away in the next ten years, for that matter so could I. But still I haven’t answered the question and I am not sure there really is one. Your reason for being here is probably different than mine but I hope we can all agree that loving each other, respecting each other and helping each other should be in the top five. Happy New Year.