- “Cold Mountain nevertheless soared in his mind as a place where all his scattered forces might gather. Inman did not consider himself to be a superstitious person, but he did believe that there is a world invisible to us. He no longer thought of that world as heaven, nor did he still think that we get to go there when we die. Those teachings had been burned away. But he could not abide by a universe composed only of what he could see, especially when it was so frequently foul. So he held to the idea of another world, a better place, and he figured he might as well consider Cold Mountain to be the location of it as anywhere.”
Inman, recovering from his wound at the hospital, contemplates how the war has changed him into a broken, empty man, skeptical of all that he once held to be true. He longs to heal his spirit, and to do that he clings to the idea of Cold Mountain as a healing place.
- “But still, outsider though she was, this place, the blue mountains, seemed to be holding her where she was. From any direction she came at it, the only conclusion that left her any hope of self-content was this: what she could see around her was all that she could count on.”
Ada, living alone and penniless at Black Cove, has lost her moorings. The world she has been raised to live in has disappeared. The woman she was—a Charleston debutante--has no place now. As she struggles to find out who she is, Ada fixes on Cold Mountain as her anchor. Its solid, never-changing presence reassures her.
- “It’s a lesson that sometimes we’re meant to settle for ignorance. Right there’s what mostly comes of knowledge, the boy said, tipping his chin out at the broken land, apparently not even finding it worthy of sweeping a hand across its contours in sign of dismissal. At the time, Inman had thought the boy a fool and had remained content to know our name for Orion’s principal star and to let God keep His a dark secret. But he wondered now if the boy might have had a point about knowledge, or at least some varieties of it.”
After a fierce day of fighting, Inman and a boy soldier lie under the stars on the battlefield, bodies all over the ground. Inman finds comfort in knowing that a particular star in Orion is called “Rigel,” but his companion says that is just man’s name for the star; only God knows what the star is really named. The boy means that men try to control their world, and when they do, they mess that world up with politics and wars. After all that Inman has seen in battle, he begins to wonder if the boy is right: knowledge is an illusion of control.
- “Monroe had commented that, like all elements of nature, the features of this magnificent topography were simply tokens of some other world, some deeper life with a whole other existence toward which we ought to aim all our yearning. And Ada had then agreed.
“But now, as she looked out at the view, she held the opinion that what she saw was no token but was all the life there is. It was a position in most ways contrary to Monroe’s; nevertheless, it did not rule out its own denomination of sharp yearning, though Ada could not entirely set a name to its direction.”
Ada is learning to understand the land not in the Christian view of Monroe, but in an older, more earthy way. The land holds a spiritual power. Ada can sense it, but for now she cannot put it into words. She yearns towards that earthy power just as she might yearn toward heaven.
- “He had grown so used to seeing death, walking among the dead, sleeping among them, numbering himself calmly as among the near-dead, that it seemed no longer dark and mysterious. He feared his heart had been touched by the fire so often he might never make a civilian again.”
Inman looks upon the dead Veasey, shot by the Home Guard, and knows he should feel something, but he cannot. The war, as well as his journey across a chaotic landscape, has numbed him. He wonders if he will ever be able to feel horror or compassion again.
- “Inman tried to picture himself living similarly hermetic in just such a stark and lonesome refuge on Cold Mountain. Build a cabin on a misty frag of rock and go for months without seeing another of his kind. A life just a pure and apart as the goatwoman’s seemed to be. It was a powerful vision, and yet in his mind he saw himself hating every minute of it, his days poisoned by lonesomeness and longing.”
As he recuperates in the goat herder’s caravan, Inman thinks about living as she does, alone and shut away from the world. This idea appeals to him because he is tired of the violence and evil of the world, yet the thought of a life with Ada appeals to him even more. He knows his solitude would be too high a price to pay for losing Ada.
- “Were she to decide fully to live here in Black Cove unto death, she believed she would erect towers on the ridge marking the south and north points of the sun’s annual swing. . . . It would be a great pleasure year after year to watch with anticipation as the sun drew nigh to the notch and then on a specified day fell into it and then rose out of it and retraced its path. Over time, watching that happen again and again might make the years seem not such an awful linear progress but instead a looping and a return. Keeping track of such a thing would place a person, would be a way of saying, You are here, in this one station, now. It would be an answer to the question, Where am I?”
Ada, after months spent learning about the land from Ruby, is no longer adrift. Her wish to trace the seasons by making a notch in the trees on the ridge shows that she has attuned herself to the land now. Her identity is bound up in it now. Ada’s wish also connects her to the larger cycle of human life, to others who have marked the sun’s progress before her.
- “The song was about how dark our lives are, how cold and stormy, how void of understanding, and at the end death. That was all. The song ended somewhat incomplete and blockaded, for contrary to every expectation of the genre, there was no shining path limned out at the last minute to lead one onward with hope.”
Stobrod’s fiddle music, which he plays for Ruby and Ada, captures the world that the novel portrays. Life is generally not like a fairy tale, with a neatly sewn up ending. Even those who reach happy (or satisfactory) endings are marked by their journeys, as Inman is marked by his.
- “She doubted that its people, even in the last days, had ever looked ahead and imagined loss so total and so soon. They had not foreseen a near time when theirs would be another world filled with other people whose mouths would speak other words, whose sleep would be eased or troubled with other dreams, whose prayers would be offered up to other gods.”
Lying in a hut in the abandoned Cherokee village on Cold Mountain, Ada contemplates the passage of time and of peoples. Her thoughts refer back to the Shining Rocks myth that Inman told her, a myth in which people did not heed a prophetic warning that their world would pass if they stayed where they were. Like those Cherokee in both the myth and in the old village, neither Inman nor Ada could see the changes that were coming with the Civil War.
- “All your grief hasn’t changed a thing. What you have lost will not be returned to you. It will always be lost. You’re left with only your scars to mark the void. All you can choose to do is go on or not. But if you go on, it’s knowing you carry your scars with you.”
After Inman reunites with Ada at the old Cherokee village, he tells her what he has been through in the war and on his road back to her. He says that grieving over the things he has lost in that time will do no good. He is resolved to put the past behind him, bear its scars, and move on.