Sitting on Top of the World

“So far as my experience goes, travelers generally exaggerate the difficulties of the way.’’ — Henry David Thoreau

Every state has its highest peak. The tallest, in remotest Alaska, is Mount McKinley, or Denali, at 20,320 feet. The smallest, in a blink-and-miss-it stretch of Florida’s Panhandle, is Britton Hill, at 345 feet. The top-10 in the United States all exceed 12,500 feet. And wherever they are, the lure of reaching their summits stems from an undeniable instinct to climb it ``because it is there.’’

Yet sitting on top of the world really is a state of mind.

Like the state a 27-year-old Thoreau found himself in during the summer of 1844. He had been attempting, as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker three summers ago, to break into New York’s publishing world. His offer of marriage had been rejected a few years back, and he’d recently set fire to the woods outside of Concord, for which the community was unforgiving. He set out for the summit of Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts, at 3,491 feet, tucked in the farthest Northwest corner of the state, with nothing but a weather tower atop it then — and summit views of four states.

As Howlin’ Wolf and others have put it:

``One summer day, she went away
She’s gone off and left me, Now she gone to stay
My baby’s gone but I can’t worry about that, now
Cuz’ I’m sittin’ on top of the world.’’

Of all the stops along the 2,100-mile-long Appalachian Trail, none of the Eastern Seaboard’s mountains stand taller than North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet. We passed Mitchell this summer, on our way along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and we stopped atop Mount Greylock, where the hikers’ trail traverses the summit. We’d been to Mount Washington, in New Hampshire, at 6,288 feet, many years ago. The fact that we stepped a few times at distant points on a trail that reaches from Georgia to Maine during the past few weeks is undiminished by the truth that we got there in the comfort of a car. As Thoreau noted, we travelers generally exaggerate anyway.

There’s something indescribable about standing on a mountaintop, however modest its ranking may be. More than 100 mountains stand taller than the tallest in the U.S. Everest reaches higher than 29,000 feet, and there’s no easy path to that peak. In the case of the most formidable mountaintops, it’s the challenge of getting to the top that caps the expedition. In the simplest of passages, by car, it’s merely the view that makes it worth the trip.

Yet in both instances, we assume, having only taken the easiest course this summer, it’s a sense of unhindered vision that lifts the mind in that moment.

When we hold that thought, and summon it for the day ahead, that’s the essence of what makes sitting on top of the world a state of mind.