The roar of the Linville River woke me up. I unzipped my tent and peeked out. Straight ahead of me, angry water cascaded over rocks seen and unseen. On the far side of the river, the east side of the Linville Gorge stood nearly straight up, some 1,700 feet into the North Carolina sky. Behind me, the gorge’s west ridge rose like a thick green wall.
I crawled out of the tent and looked up and out as if from the bottom of a U. Gray clouds promised to soak my two hiking buddies and me all day long, but for now, we remained dry. It was April 2016, and a spring breeze whistled through the hickory, oak, maple, locust, and poplar trees, cooling my skin and carrying with it a damp whiff that confirmed the coming rainstorm.
My back barked its complaint, chastising me for sleeping on a thin mattress pad after bearing the weight of my backpack for hours on end the day before. I started a fire, put water on the Jetboil, and waited for it to simmer. I wanted the morning to last forever. I smelled everything, heard everything, felt everything, as I do every time I descend into the Linville Gorge Wilderness, 12,000 acres of untouched beauty in the Pisgah National Forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
My friend Andy joined me by the fire. As I dumped the contents of an instant coffee packet into my hiking mug, he jokingly questioned my toughness, openly doubting whether I had the guts to drink strong coffee.
“Put two in there!” he said.
Goofball, I thought. But I did it anyway. I took one sip of this double-dosed drink and my eyes opened wider, as if pulled by strings. Another drink and sunshine shot out of my ears. A third and I could have juggled the boulders that dotted the river. I peered into my cup. What magical elixir had Andy coaxed me into creating? I nursed it slowly, hoping to make whatever it was doing to me last. It was, and remains, the most memorable drink I have ever had.
In the years since, I have tried to replicate that cup of coffee—one packet, two packets, hotter water, cooler water, cream, sugar, black, and every combination thereof. But nothing comes close to matching that joyful jolt of java. I finally concluded that the coffee had nothing to do with it. It was the place, not the drink, that warmed my heart that day. Such is the power of the Linville Gorge.