A love letter to Arabia Mountain

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Photograph by Eric Bowles

In 2015, when my wife and I moved to Atlanta, I was looking for familiarity. I found it in a granite rock called Arabia Mountain. We lived in the kingdom of Eswatini, the former Swaziland, then in Ghana. The move to the United States was a shock to the system. For a while I was content to enjoy the variety of goods in all the huge big box stores, but soon I missed our life abroad, especially a granite monolith in Southern Africa called Sibebe.

When I first moved to Eswatini in 2010, brought there on a Fulbright scholarship, I lived a few miles from Sibebe, so I climbed it several times, but always with someone who knew the best way. Although it is not very high, Sibebe is so steep that at first glance it does not seem possible to climb without ropes. But the ground has such incredible traction that I’ve seen reckless people running up and down. I was not one of those people.

When I first hiked Sibebe with my future wife, Miranda, I thought I had been there enough times to be able to guide us. We froze in fear in a particularly steep area; I was so afraid of falling, or her falling, that I cried. But we found our footing and made it up to see the beautiful valley behind it, filled with caves, building-sized rocks and, depending on the season, tall grass, grazing cows and holes of bathing.

When we moved to Atlanta, to be closer to our families in the States, we didn’t even think there would be anything like Sibebe here. We were wrong. Shortly after arriving, Miranda found an injured opossum near the house we had rented in Edgewood. I drove it to the AWARE Wildlife Center – a non-profit organization in Stonecrest that helps rehabilitate animals – and while I was there I saw some people near the parking lot heading in the opposite direction, in the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Reserve.

Arabia Mountain is a 400 million year old rock that juts 172 feet above a lake that borders it to the east. It’s a monadnock, which means that when it rises off the ground, it does so quite dramatically. The mountain has been quarried for over a century, and you can find pieces of it in the Brooklyn Bridge and in the curbs of Atlanta. Farmers used to feed Arabian rock to chickens because the gravel helped them break down food.

When Miranda and I first climbed Arabia Mountain ourselves, it reminded us so much of Sibebe – the sweeping views and lunar terrain, the large puddles filled with seasonal plants. At the top of the mountain, you can always find a quiet place to look at the sky and the treetops and think in peace. (Shade is harder to find.) On a weekday, you’ll probably be up there all alone. For me, who missed Eswatini so much, Arabia Mountain felt like home.

One of the beauties of Arabia Mountain is that it is not difficult to climb. It’s not as steep or tall as Sibebe or the more infamous Stone Mountain. There are no stairs or railings, but the strong grip of the granite makes it accessible to almost anyone. When Miranda was pregnant and long overdue and the stress was overwhelming, we climbed Arabia, big bellies and all. I can still see the anxious expression on her face begin to calm as she stood on the ridge below the clouds. When our son was born and we could barely handle the first few weeks of parenthood, we climbed Arabia again, this time as a family of three.

The last hike I did with my dad was on Arabian Mountain, before Parkinson’s disease took away the rest of his strength and, later, his life. By then, he was already shuffling, his feet barely lifting off the ground. But he made it, my confused but proud father, to the top of the mountain.

When the pandemic hit and we were stuck at home like everyone else, one of the first things we did when we braved the world again was climb Arabia with a friend who suggested to take family photos among the unusual granite formations and foliage. There we were, on top of the world, as our one year old explored the rocks. He had only been walking for a few months, but the pull of the Arabian mountain kept him firmly on his feet.

This article originally appeared in our October 2022 issue.

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