Appreciation: Mill Mountain

old_roanoke_pic It takes less than an hour to scale it, and when you do you’re confronted — I’m not kidding — by the world’s largest neon star. Last year I broke my hand on one of its trails. I was riding my new mountain bike too fast when I vaulted head-first over a bump that seemed mythically large at the time. One titanium rod and three screws later, a return visit revealed it to be pathetically small, about the size of a three-layer cake. (Damn hand still hurts.)

It was named Mill Mountain for the Scots-Irish millers who first harnessed the power of its underground spring, back when Roanoke, Va., was still known as Big Lick. One of the mountain’s early owners had wanted  to turn it into a tourist attraction by chiseling out the likeness of Robert E. Lee at the top — and charging visitors to walk on the brim of the general’s hat. But when the Great Depression intervened, it ended up in the hands of one of the city’s founding fathers, a newspaper publisher and bank president who turned it into a city park. (He watched it catch fire once, from his mansion in the valley below, but had the fire department dispatched in no time.) God bless the non-idle rich.

Developers and officials have been fighting over what to do with Mill Mountain ever since, as if letting it be isn’t enough. At least one native Roanoker, a 76-year-old named Betty Field, has walked the equivalent of the earth’s circumference on it — three times. No one knows how or why a rusted-out 1953 Chevy came to rest upended and whopperjawed in the middle of the woods, but every time we walk the so-called car trail my 11-year-old likes to zing a rock at it just because, well, he can.

When a disturbed young man decided to massacre 32 Virginia Tech students and himself in 2007, I sought solace on it, in between my sleepless nights and my 14-hour newspaper shifts. I thought about Jarrett Lane, the young engineer who was the light of Narrows, his tiny mountain town, and whose life and death I’d been tasked to tell. I pictured him there, heaving a rock at the Chevy. It kept me sane.

I’ve walked it in the predawn (heard a coyote once) and at dusk, though usually I go around 8 in the morning, just before work. (I’ve become a master at changing clothes in the car, even though my husband reports that I smell “a little gamey” by the end of the day.) I’ve climbed it in rain and snow, sketching out stories in my head, and grocery lists, and magical conversations I plan to have with my teenager that will inspire academic excellence — or at least to pull up his jeans so his boxers don’t show.

I’ve measured seasons by the passing of the mountain’s bloodroot in spring, wineberries in July and the rustling roar our dumb mutt, Lucky, makes along about January after a big wind has blown through and rearranged all the leaves. “I can’t find the trail! I can’t find the trail!” he seems to be saying as he sniffs and circles, sniffs and circles, searching out bare ground. He is freaked, apoplectic, utterly lost without his trails.

Twelve hours away from my mountain, there are days now when I know exactly how he feels.

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