Dilation: 2 cm.
It begins with a swell of pain in the night. My belly huge and heavy. A push and a pull. A deep throb within. My body aches with the need for transition, but my mind is uncertain. I’ve never been a mother before; I’m not sure I know how. It begins, and I am not ready.
I’d been to the doctor’s office earlier in the day, to see what they could tell me. “One centimeter dilated. You’ll have to labor through to ten before the baby will come.” They smiled and told me to hang in there. Keep waiting. It would happen soon.
And now, my insides tremble. I shake Rob awake. “I think this is it,” I say. But I don’t really know.
We count contraction interval, the surges of ache rising. I sit at the bottom of the stairs while he calls our doula, Sareanda. How is this supposed to feel? Am I being too dramatic? What if we go to the hospital, and then it stops?
But it doesn’t. It rumbles all night and into the morning, bending me into it. I walk down the nature trail at the back of our property, breathing the cool air that twirls around me and hoping for the support of the earth below. I wander our yard, focusing on the scent of newly sprouted daffodils, the flicker of finches and robins through tree branches, the throaty whirr of toads. Life is erupting as the warm season wafts across the land.
I hang on to Rob, trying to give him some of the weight that I carry. For twelve hours, I remain tucked inside my quaking world, wondering how hard this will get.
Elevation: 3,250 feet
I remember Blood Mountain in March: a storm in the night almost exactly seven years prior to the night I began to labor. I was twenty-three, on my own, embarking on a trek for which I was wholly unprepared.
The wind whipped up through Jarrard Gap; the empty tree branches bent low with every hard gust, then sprang back as the wind softened, scattering the detritus of broken wood, again and again. This low gap was tucked between lofty mountains, several miles south of, and beneath, the peak of Blood Mountain, Georgia. In the night, the rain fell, then turned to ice and entombed all the tents pitched on that scrap of flat Appalachian Trail ground.
A sound like shattering glass jerked me awake. My body throbbed with the new ache of backpacking, and I didn’t want to get up. Alone in my tent, I lay listening to laughter outside as more cracking sounds rent the air. The chill stung my shoulders as the sleeping bag drooped down. I pulled an arm out of my bag and tapped gently on the tent wall. It was as hard as the ground beneath me. I was encased in ice. I began hitting the walls, splintering the ice, thinking about what the trail ahead would be like.
“Need some help?” Came a voice from outside. I wasn’t sure who it was, Chris? Brad? Colin? I was only just getting to know the other hikers I had met, but I was grateful for the help. Whoever it was broke the ice from the outside and I was soon able to unzip and emerge into a shining crystalline wonderland. It was a world utterly changed from the night before and unlike any forest I had ever seen. Every branch and twig shone with a new coat of glistening ice. I gazed around the wide camping area, watching the other backpackers, who had already escaped their ice-enclosed tents and stood in various stages of breakfasting and breaking camp. Their brightly colored tents and raincoats and backpacks burned red and orange and yellow against the grey-blue that surrounded us.
Like these others, today I planned to walk three miles to the top of Blood Mountain, then two and a half miles down the other side to the road at Neel’s Gap. There, at the trailside store, I would relish my first restaurant food, my first telephone, my first indoor plumbing in five days. And I knew I would spend every moment in that warm, dry building questioning whether I wanted to keep walking.
I’d been on the AT for five days, with a goal of walking to Katahdin, Maine, 2,100 miles north. My first, brief backpacking experience the previous summer had inspired this trip. The idea of a thru-hike pulled on me as water follows the path of a creek; there was no other way to go. I hoped that this trip might allow me to break out of my suburban, sheltered life and meet people and encounter landscapes that would offer me new insight into the wider world.
I expected thru-hiking to be a challenge, but those first days had my body, mind, and spirit protesting in unforeseen ways. My feet swelled inside my boots. My shoulders were bruised. The tendons in my hip joints, unaccustomed to the strain of prolonged walking, felt ready to snap. I shivered every night, despite my extra thick sleeping bag. During every one of those long, vertical, frigid first days, I doubted whether this trek was worth it.
The morning air in the gap calmed and filled with clouds. If there was fog here, there would be fog on top of the mountain, too. There would be no scenic view today.
Formation: One billion years ago
The land is alive. Continents tip-toe across the surface of the earth, protruding from their plates. They approach each other, then retreat, then change direction and return toward each other once more. With every shift, the great moving masses recreate terrain, gouge oceans and valleys, crack open fault lines, and, laborious as it may be, they birth mountains.
At this mark in geological time, one billion years ago, all the land has rammed together, pushing and pulling to change the shape of the world again. At the core of Rodinia, as this supercontinent mass is called today, is Laurentia, the land that will one day become the Appalachian Mountains. The land is stark, for no plants have made their way above the oceans yet. There are only elements, minerals, water, rock.
Plates collide in the slowest of motions. Centimeters for thousands of years. But lack of urgency does not mean lack of violence. Laurentia is crowded by other continents, constrained on all sides, forced to submit, pushed to bend and fold. The scraping of rock against rock causes friction and an extreme heat which liquefies everything. The force is unyielding, the temperature uncompromising. Under pressure, things change, and old rock is metamorphosed into layer upon layer of sandstone and gneiss.
Out of Laurentia, one centimeter at a time, rocks are thrust skyward in the Grenville orogeny (mountain-building event), creating the Grenville Mountains. Comparable in elevation with today’s Himalayas, the Grenvilles rise sharp and jagged, barren of life, and layered with everything that has come before.
Dilation: 3 cm.
In the mid-morning sunshine of the following day, one of our doctors comes to our house. He does a quick assessment, checks my dilation. After a long night’s efforts, I’m sure that I’m close to ten by now. But the doctor explains that though some progress had been made, it’s not enough. Three centimeters.
“Keep up the good work,” he says with a smile.
I cry in disbelief. I’m sure he’s lying. Maybe it’s time to reconsider what I’m doing. Maybe there’s a way to stop this whole thing altogether. Maybe I’ll just stand still and prevent anything further from happening. There are moments when I think I can. Moments when the pain isn’t so bad and I’m pretty sure I can pull myself together and go back to my old life.
Then everything rocks again.
The contractions rearrange things within me. I face each one with focused breath, but I’m growing tired and I can’t sleep through them. Occasionally, a trickle of crimson oozes between my legs, as if warning me of what is to come. Rob and Sareanda alternate naps. My friend Ahrayna stops by to check on me. My mother arrives from out of town. They make me eat and drink and crawl around on the floor to stimulate the contractions. They annoy me.
By evening, twenty hours after we started, Rob is caving in, he’s so tired. He wants to take me to the hospital. We had planned to go all along, yet I resist. If we go there and the contractions stop, I would be embarrassed. If we go there, the pain could get worse. If we go there, then this thing might really happen.
Formation: 450 million years ago
Rodinia has cracked into pieces. The Grenvilles have been beaten down by erosion for six hundred million years. Laurentia and the other land masses separated, ripping the supercontinent apart. In their rifting, a vast ocean came into existence between the drifting lands and in that ocean volcanic islands were born. Molten rock roars underneath and spits outward, building and burning everything it touches.
Now, at 450 million years ago, the land masses move toward each other in another unhurried collision of plates. It this long-lasting event, the Taconic orogeny, the great ocean plate sinks underneath the one-day North American plate, forcing everything to submit to the will of immense and unceasing pressure. The volcanic islands that once stood far out in the sea push into land as well. Eruptions occur, coating the land with burning rock. The liquid rock under the surface pierces into other rock, and as it cools, forms skyscrapers of solid granite.
This Taconic range is the first true version of what will one day be today’s Appalachian Mountains. Eventually, the collision slows, then stops, and erosion takes over as the dominant influence shaping the mountains.
Elevation: 3,650 feet
I left camp last that morning. Not long after the guys, but they’d hike faster than me and I’d be lucky to catch them at Neel’s Gap. Ice-crusted trees lined the trail and fog surrounded me as I pushed forward one step at a time. I crumpled under the weight of my pack. Why did I bring so much stuff? Did anyone really need a spice kit for backpacking?
The ice slowed everything in the forest. The trail rose out of the gap in a gentle meander past birch and beech and maple trees, still bare of their greens at this early spring stage. I moved along, focusing mostly on the ground beneath me, passing boulders as big as cars. The only sounds were the crunch of my boots on the frozen trail, already worn and cracked from those who had previously passed, and the in-and-out, challenged puffing of my breath. Occasionally, the heart-shaped tracks of white-tailed deer traversed my path, stringing across the glacial mountainside like highways into another lifetime.
The trail ceased its friendly ramble and bore upwards. There were no switchbacks here to ease the stress of fighting gravity. My heart thumped in great contrast to the slackened pace of my steps. And my many layers of polypropylene and nylon soaked up the copious sweat I produced. Both the minutes and I tarried. Maybe five days of backpacking was enough. I’d met some nice people, slept outside in the biting March air. I proved I could do it, why the need to go farther? I figured that I at least had to get over Blood. Then, maybe, I would stop.
As I gained elevation, oaks and mountain laurel gradually took over the land, their height shortening, conforming to the high winds and harsh weather of ridge-line life. White rectangles painted onto trees marked the trail. I stopped often to search for one of those blazes to confirm I was still on the right path. Blood Mountain, the highest peak on the Georgia section of the AT, would be a bad place to lose my way.
Dilation: 5 cm.
My water hasn’t broken. At the hospital, they curl me into the tub and surround me with warmth which seeps into my entire being, inside and out. Maybe it will bring openness.
But the unyielding floor of the tub magnifies my awareness of the stress in my joints, in my tail bone, in me. I steady myself on the white, hard, plastic edges that seem so unnatural against the expanding and contracting flesh that was once my body. Now, this flesh seems out of my control, beyond my grasp of understanding. During the minutes and hours that I long ago lost track of I scream into the pain. It’s a high, shrill, floating scream that lifts me up and away from the ground, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”
At some point, I realize that I haven’t seen Rob in some time. Between contractions I ask where he is and am told the nurses gave him a room where he can rest. I feel alone and abandoned, but I’m starting to see that this is something only I can do.
I have to raise my belly up out of the water for Ellyn, my doctor who is big with pregnancy herself, to listen to the baby’s heartbeat, then I sink, engulfed by the warmth again. She and the others encourage me to drop down, go low, dig in, like all the animal mothers who gave birth before me. They say I can do this. They say it is up to me to believe it.
Elevation: 4,461 feet
After several hours, the steepness of the trail finally eased and I followed a rock slab pathway toward a clearing. Through the fog emerged the Blood Mountain Hut—a small, dilapidated stone building missing its front door. The hut was tucked between a few bare oaks and an impressive boulder which equaled it in size. It towered over me as I heaved myself forward. Between patches of pristine white snow, other boulders of all sizes sprinkled the area, and there I saw Chris, Brad, and Colin sitting on the cold rocks, laughing together, trying to fill their hunger with Clif Bars and peanuts.
Like them, I didn’t unbuckle my pack, but sat on a rock and leaned back on my pack. It was too cold to stay still for very long. Had the guys been waiting for me? I hoped so. I hoped our infant friendships might grow and help push me farther along this trail.
“Hey, great climb, huh?” said Chris. We compared notes about the ascent and talked about the cold and the lack of view. Even though the summit of Blood Mountain was partially enclosed by a high-elevation scrub forest, there were massive rock outcrops all over the area, and had it been a clear day we would have been rewarded with astounding views over this ancient mountain range.
“We’ll see you down at the road,” Chris said, and he and the others left the hut. I rested a bit longer, but with only two more downhill miles to go, I didn’t linger. The ache for food that didn’t come in a package and require rehydration drove me on.
Clouds still engulfed the peak, and here, like everywhere, ice coated every branch and boulder. Small pathways led many directions, but leaving the hut, the AT route was unclear. I headed the direction the guys had gone but after a few paces, I couldn’t find any white blazes on the trees. After searching for several minutes, I finally found one. Beneath my feet. The blazes had been painted on the grey granite rocks. And the rocks were covered with ice, making the blazes nearly impossible to make out. Fog erased direction, and I felt spun around. North, south, up, down, every way was the right way, and none was.
Formation: 300 million years ago
It’s always the same rhythmic pattern; like breath moving in and out of our lungs. Earth’s land masses have drifted apart in the last 150 million years, peeling themselves away from each other ever so slowly. Now, they converge again. Expansion and contraction in the most incremental and constant of movements.
Gondwana, a land mass that includes parts of what we now call Australia, Africa, and South America, approaches the North American plate. It smashes, a centimeter at a time, into this solid land, forming another rendition of the Appalachian Mountains. Plants and small animals now inhabit the landscape and they too are altered at the same measured pace as the land. Granite and sandstone crumple as more mass shoves west. Older rocks push up and over younger rocks. New towers of stone thrust out of the ground, miles into the atmosphere. What has already been heated, melted, solidified, raised, eroded, and altered in countless ways is again forced into submission in the Alleghenian orogeny.
The entirety of Earth’s land has pushed together into a supercontinent called Pangea, on which insects and amphibians thrive. The animals explore and diversify as generation after generation adapt to their shifting world. As these creatures die, their bodies settle into the ground and mix with the minerals, dirt, sand, and clay from the mountains’ continuous erosion. Layer upon layer of sediment is accumulated, compacted, and folded by the unrelenting pressure of change, bit by bit creating something new.
I made the choice months ago not to use painkillers during birth. I didn’t like the idea of polluting my child’s first experience in this world with drugs. I didn’t want adverse side effects on my body. Mostly, I told myself, I wanted to feel everything; I didn’t want to miss my experience. But after 24 hours with very slow progress, I concede an intrathecal, a shot of painkiller that will numb my body from the waist down and dissipate in a few hours. The pink, spotted hospital gown hangs over my huge naked body as I shuffle from the tub room to my birthing room.
Somewhere, behind closed white doors, Ellyn and Rob have decided it’s time for an epidural—the same painkiller as used in the intrathecal, but as a drip hooked into the spine for the rest of the birth experience. Ellyn wants me to sleep and wants to break my water to move the birth along. Rob can’t take any more. He is in tears. Wants it to end. I listen and comfort him, holding his head to my chest as my body rocks with agony, all the while wondering what he knows of pain.
Ellyn, Rob, the nurse, the anesthesiologist, they approach me, corner me, ready to set up the epidural. I cannot comprehend their betrayal and so I scream at them. I curse them with names I would never otherwise say and fight with all I have to keep them from bending me to their will. I threaten them out of my room and they back away, closing the door as they go. The air in the room settles under the dim fluorescent lighting.
And I’m alone. As I have been throughout all these hours. Others have been here, but I face this work on my own. Yet, I cannot command it to happen. This is not an experience of the mind. My body must find the way, must follow the course that female bodies have followed for all of time.
Three contractions later, Ellyn slips back into my room to suggest the epidural again. The anesthesiologist is going to leave and won’t be back until morning. It’s time to decide—epidural or intrathecal? Painkiller for the duration, or a chance to rest?
“Being a mother requires making hard decisions,” Sareanda whispers. Another surge of pressure forces me to focus, and when it relinquishes me I offer my answer. No epidural. Just the intrathecal.
The drugs work quickly. As my body numbs, Ellyn reaches a long knitting needle type instrument into my vagina and bursts the bubble that surrounds my baby. A flood of blood and liquid pours out and onto the white sheets. I see it as if from a distance: there is deep warmth, and in it, I sleep.
Elevation: 4,461 feet
Using my trekking poles as extra legs, I picked my way along the ice. The soles of my boots did not grip the slickness beneath me and my pack made balance impossible. I slipped and only just caught myself. It was too precarious. I couldn’t do it. I felt as frozen as the ice surrounding me.
There was no way to move forward and remain upright. So I sat. I thrusted my poles out to the sides, stuck my feet in front of me, braced as best I could, and pushed off. The ice was smooth, and I slid, fast, downhill, until I skidded into a patch of dry rock and jammed to a stop. None of the trees offered any indication that I was going the right direction.
Once more I reconsidered the thru-hike. I wanted to walk, not slide my way to Katahdin. Yet, there I was. I could go forward, or I could go back, but I had to go. I could not stay on Blood Mountain forever.
I cursed, aimed as best I could away from where I guessed the mountain’s edge would be, and slid. Down. Down with gravity. Down with increasing speed and decreasing control. Down as the rock slab steepened, then gave way to forest. When I reached the treeline, my right leg slammed into a tree and jerked sideways.
“Shit!” I screamed. A shot of pain tore into my knee. Blood rushed through my body toward the injury.
Dilation: 8 cm.
In the dark hospital room, the drugs fade and I fall into sensations that crack my body in two. The contractions are no longer separate; they fuse together to create the power of a landslide. The intensity increases ten-fold. Everything within me, around me, of me shatters. There is no me; there is only pain.
Formation: 200 million years ago
The land ruptures. The earth’s crust stretches, becoming thinner and thinner. Pangea is riddled with gaping fault lines, and earthquakes shake everything. The supercontinent rips apart, producing valleys and gorges, and the separating land masses spread open to allow the formation of the Atlantic Ocean.
Dinosaurs have taken charge of the earth. The likes of this new life form have never been seen before, and for one hundred and thirty-five million years the animals flourish.
Throughout those years, erosion’s forces battle the rugged, Alps-sized Appalachians with a steady ice, wind, and water assault. Weather and time carve into and level every surface, grain by grain reducing the elevation of a range that has been in flux for millions of years. The broken rock slips down with gravity and out into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Persistent change alters the currents of the oceans and the atmosphere and the whole world is rearranged.
No pathway presented itself. I was off the trail. I unfolded my throbbing leg, leaned back onto my oversized pack, and cried.
I beat the ground. I screamed. I swore at anything that could hear me. No one would be along to save me; I was so far off the trail that no one could even see me. Never mind the fog. It was here, on a cold mountainside, with a messed-up knee, half on an icy rock slab, half on an ice-crusted forest floor that I could give up. How long would it take to freeze to death?
When I ran out of tears, a sort of desperation wiggled its way inside. I looked back up the steep ice slab; it was a milky white, created in the night by an early spring, mountain storm, created with no thought at all of me or my kind, created by the force that built these mountains. I knew I was at the mercy of the Earth’s power, and I had a choice: to work with that power, or against it.
Cold seeped in.
The land remained silent.
And I knew I was a thru-hiker. I would do this.
I pushed my way to standing, cautiously guarding my knee. I looped my trekking poles over one arm and tightened my hip belt. Keeping my center of gravity low, I dug in. I clawed my way. Every pressure on my right leg sent a ripple of agony to my knee, but it didn’t seem broken, so I kept on. I examined the ground with each movement, seeking small cracks in the rock, clumps of grass, ice-free areas to grip, using whatever I could find to help. I looked up frequently, seeking a white blaze, a clear path, another hiker. But I never looked back down.
The night passes. One second at a time. Pain quakes throughout. At six a.m. the second morning, I fall to my knees in front of Ellyn and beg for another shot of painkiller. I beg.
The hospital window faces the lake. The sun rises rosy and pink and shining. Nurses are saying, Look to the east. Look at the sky your baby will be born into. Look how far you’ve come. Look.
Formation: 65 million years ago
Dinosaurs and their kind, and seventy-five percent of all living creatures on the planet have died off in a mass extinction. Though so much has been lost, new life finds its way into the wide openings left in the wake of death. Mammals such as rodents, bats, and primates begin their reign over the earth as they take over empty ecological niches. Oaks, hickories, conifers, and laurel evolve into existence and grow across the North American plate.
The continents are changing shape again. Mountain ranges are born in other places on the planet. But the Appalachians, the mountains whose story began more than one billion years ago, are no longer being raised. They are molded now only by erosion, which continues to do its work, ceaselessly, tirelessly. It strips away layer after layer of metamorphic, igneous, and sedimentary rock until only the core of the past is left standing. It is that ridgeline, the north-south orientation of the range, those exposed and raw summits that extend for thousands of miles, the steep terrain leading to peaks with names like Springer and Clingman’s and Blood, it is this new formation of land which we will come to know today.
Elevation: 3,125 feet
I pulled myself on to a fairly level patch of rock with no ice and stopped to catch my breath. I paused and scanned the mountainside. There! Finally, a blaze! It was faded and looked like a blotch of snow on the tree, but indeed, it was a white blaze. The trail headed past boulders, downhill through the laurel, on a worn dirt path not covered by ice.
I was wet and cold and had spent far too long fumbling around on top of this mountain. I would later discover my knee had a minor sprain and spend three days resting in a quaint mountain B&B, but for the first time all day I loosened my grip on my trekking poles and forgot about the weight that I carried.
I limped down the mountain’s backside, and two and a half miles later arrived at Neel’s Gap. I was stunned and disquieted, wounded and worn, but there was one bit of knowledge I knew in my core:
I was on my way to Katahdin.
Dilation: 10 cm.
I remember other sunrises, other mornings of stress and strain when I carried my weathered body across rough mountains and deep valleys and wide rivers. Over one peak, then another, then another, I picked my way northward one step at a time. A hike of 2,100 miles, of six months, of moving with those ancient mountains day after day, built something within me. And when the second shot wears off, I know it. I look to the east and my body opens up space enough to let the child out. I am a mother. I will do this.
Friends and nurses gather round me, looking into the core of my being. Someone holds a mirror for me to see my vagina and I have absolutely no idea what I am looking at. They exclaim, There’s his head! All I see is a bloody mess. The white bed is stained with so much that has already been spilled. He will be covered in it, and soon too, will I.
Tension expands the room. With Rob’s support from behind, I grasp a metal bar and let my body hang, let gravity pull the baby down. It doesn’t take long. Less than an hour. And with the sun rising over the color-filled east hills, Ellyn guides a baby out of my animal body and cuts the cord that ties him to me.
He is laid in my arms, fluid and blood and wails and all. I press his first tender skin to my stretched and strong skin and hold on as tightly as I can. I am no longer me, just as he is no longer whatever he was before. We have been born, together, and a new life unfolds before us.
Remnants of the Grenville, Taconic, Alleghenian, and other mountain building events can be found all along the Appalachian range. This jagged, crystalline history is evident in the rocks if we look for it. Even if we don’t, it’s always there, solid and shimmering under the surface.
Many scientists agree that the last true orogeny for the Appalachian region ended 200 million years ago. But the land is still moving. The North American plate creeps to the west as the Atlantic stretches wider. And there are measurable amounts of faulting and folding in the Southern Appalachians. Rock is being pressed, uplifted, and built again. Step by step, centimeter by centimeter, grain by grain, the mountains change. For the land, as we know it, is alive.
Author Bio: Amanda K. Jaros is a Creative Nonfiction and Senior Editor at Literary Mama. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines including Terrain.org, Newfound, Life in the Finger Lakes Magazine, Highlights for Children, and Cargo Literary. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University. She lives in Ithaca, NY, with her husband and son.