Words by Sean Dietrich
Illustration by Alex Kirsch
There is something about being on a mountain. Something invigorating. Something exhilarating. It makes me think of heaven.
I am standing on a mountain right now, staring at forever. The trappings of society are miles below me. There is no rank or status up here. No schedule. No spam e-mail. No 24-hour news channels.
The foothills of the Appalachians are before me, sprawled out like a giant green quilt. The whole of Jefferson County is behind me. And my problems seem so small up here. Like itty bitty gnats. Only uglier.
Oak Mountain State Park is the largest park in Alabama, and it’s about the size of a small continent.
This park was supposed to be a national park. That was the original idea. They were going to call it Little Smoky Mountain National Park. It was going to be ridiculously cool. But then Pearl Harbor happened. America went to war instead. And the idea fell through.
But the park turned out ridiculously cool anyway.
So, people are always surprised when I take them to Oak Mountain. They always say the same thing: “I didn’t know you had this kind of beauty in Alabama.”
Because most people know only the Alabama they see on TV. I can’t tell you how many outsiders I meet who think Alabama is nothing but hicks and swamp bogs.
Outsiders have some mental image of Alabamians as toothless, barefoot hillbillies sitting on the porches of 42-foot Fleetwood doublewides, cooking squirrel, polishing their Remingtons, watching NASCAR. Which is an unfair stereotype. We also watch football.
Oak Mountain is tucked within the Appalachian foothills. You’re looking at 9,940 acres of oaken woodlands and several mountain lakes. In the 1930s, this place was built with the same hands that built Yosemite. The Civilian Conservation Corps put their heart and soul into this land. And you can tell when you hike these trails.
Although truthfully, I am not a hiker. I am a mosey-er. That’s what I do. I mosey. That’s the extent of my ability as an outdoorsman.
I always wear the wrong pair of shoes. I am out of shape. I don’t use trekking poles or eat freeze-dried nutrition bars made with stevia, hemp, and organic cornhusks.
I survive on pocketfuls of roasted peanuts. I listen to the Braves game on my portable transistor radio, nestled within my backpack. When I reach an overlook, I turn off the radio and I sit there for a while. Just looking.
I take one step at a time. Steady up the mountain. And whenever I get to a pretty spot, I stop. I try to breathe without puking. I massage my legs and consider turning back early, going back down the mountain. But I never do. Something always pushes me upward. I don’t know what makes me keep going.
Maybe it’s because this has been a hard year for me. A very hard year. It doesn’t matter why. It’s just one of those phases of life you go through. Lots of change. Lots of little problems. Lots of life happening. Maybe that’s what propels me.
There are times when I wake up tired. When I feel like I’ll never have any internal energy again. As though I am 70 years older than I already am. I get sad sometimes.
I think about dead people a lot. I think about people I loved. And how they’ve left me here on earth. And I wonder where they are. Which causes me to wonder where I’m going when I die.
When will it be my turn? When will I kick the oxygen habit? When will some youthful person say the same things about me that I’ve been saying about people who have died?
“I can’t believe they’re gone.” “They broke the mold when they made him.” “Why do people die so young?” “Life is so short.”
But when I am hiking beneath this canopy of green, I don’t think on sad things like that. Instead, I find my face flexing in a mild smile. I don’t know why I’m smiling, or what I’m smiling about. But I am smiling nonetheless.
Maybe I see a flower I’ve never seen before. Or some strange plant that looks like it belongs on Mars. Maybe I sit on a boulder of granite, and mop my sweaty neck with a bandana.
Maybe I think about how this rock beneath my butt is two billion times older than I am. And yet, somehow, we are brothers. The rock and I. Me and the mountains. The trees and yours truly.
I realize this all sounds bizarre, but those are the kinds of things you think up here. You stand on an overlook and you see a convergence of clouds and earth. You see water below you. You see ancient rocks. You realize how small you are. And how loved. And you say “Wow” aloud to yourself.
And you think, Hey, if this is what Alabama looks like, heaven must be worth the price of admission.