“Mountains know secrets we need to learn. That it might take time, it might be hard, but if you just hold on long enough, you will find strength to rise up”–Tyler Knott
As a kid, my dad loved to take the family out for a Sunday afternoon drive. With no real destination in mind, it was a great, inexpensive way to calm rambunctious children. Put us in a warm car (This was the pre-air-conditioning days.) with the windows down, and the bright sun shining, we were all sure to be lulled into sleep–or at the very least tricked into quietude because there’s no sense trying to talk with open windows.
I couldn’t help but think of those Sunday drives as John, my husband, and I made our way onto the Blue Ridge Parkway while staying in Black Mountain, NC. Leaving town, we traveled west to Asheville in order to access the BRP. Moon roof opened and windows partially lowered, John and I relished the refreshing mountain air. The higher in elevation we traveled, however, the higher our windows lifted as the air temperature decreased. Regardless of the temperature, we never tired of the breathtaking vistas along this ribbon of roadway. It is no wonder that the BRP is often known as America’s Favorite Scenic Drive.
When traveling the BRP it was important to note that there were no gas stations along the way; however, there were plenty of places to hop off the parkway and travel into nearby towns to fill up. The speed limit was 45 miles per hour, but steep curves and bicyclists slowed down speeds even more. That was okay with John and me as we enjoyed our leisurely drive. Furthermore, we couldn’t help but notice, in addition to a plethora of bicyclists, there were large numbers of motorcyclists taking advantage of the challenging, but spectacular winding stretch of road. There were no tolls on this route, and nearly all of the stops along the way were free with plenty of places to picnic, take social media-worthy photos, hike/walk, or simply rest, relax, and take in the majestic scenery. With mile markers and signage along the parkway, attractions and overlooks were easy to locate and identify. In fact, according to several sources, since being fully completed in 1987, the BRP has become the most visited National Park Service sites.
With only a couple of days to explore the BRP due to torrential rains at the beginning of our stay, it was hard to decide which sites to visit. Therefore, before heading to the BRP, I asked several Black Mountains residents for their favorite spots to visit and/or hike. Mount Mitchell was a clear favorite. Located about 35 miles north of Asheville at milepost 355.4, we could drive almost to the top of the highest mountain east of the Mississippi. While driving to the “apex of the Appalachian Mountains,” John and I listened to the Mount Mitchell AM radio station with its delightful, homespun monologue that managed to be both entertaining and chock full of information.
Of interest, Mount Mitchell is one peak located in the J-shaped Black Mountains which are considered part of the Blue Ridge Province of the Southern Appalachian. It was once known by the Cherokee as Attakulla, which means “leaning wood” or “wood leaning up,” and was later named Black Dome by white settlers. However, the name officially changed in 1858 to commemorate Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a geologist, educator, Presbyterian minister, and beloved professor at the University of North Carolina, who passionately pursued his belief that Mount Mitchell was the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains.
Dr. Mitchell’s story is epic and full of intrigue. In fact, I could write pages on his story alone, but I’ll keep to simple facts. Using barometric readings, mathematical formulas, as well as repeatedly journeying all over the mountainous terrain, Mitchell labored for years to prove his hypothesis. Sadly, in his zealous pursuit, Mitchell slipped and fell 60 feet into a pool at the bottom of what is now known as Mitchell Falls, ultimately hitting his head. It is believed he died instantly. Mitchell’s trail was doggedly tracked and his body found days later by well known mountain guide and storyteller, “Big Tom” Wilson, who had guided Mitchell on previous expeditions.
Without any of the modern technological advances, Mitchell’s work estimated the summit to be 6,672 feet. While scientists now know that Mount Mitchell is actually 6,684 feet high–Mitchell died not knowing how close his calculations were. His body is buried near the summit of his cherished Mount Mitchell to honor the magnitude and devotion of his work to this mountain.
From the parking lot, John and I made the short ¼ to ½ mile steep hike along the paved path to the observation deck at the summit with its 360 degree view. Initially, our panorama was blurred due to ongoing cloud cover traveling over the multitude of mountain peaks. However, when the sunlight finally broke through the mist, the views were heart-quickening. According to information read in the museum, we were viewing mountain tops as far as 85 miles away!
No matter how tall the mountain is, it cannot block the sun. Tenacity and adversity are old foes.–Chinese Proverb
I felt as if I was floating on an island in the sky with the sun warming my skin. (It was around 50 degrees at the top, and it is worth noting that the top portion of Mitchell has a climate more similar to Canada than NC with many of its plants and animals reflective of northern Alpine country.) I couldn’t help but marvel at the wondrous carvings of mountain tops–at least that is how the layer upon layer of mountain peaks appeared to me. In that moment, I sensed the greatness of our Creator, the awe of those old mountains, and felt gratitude for having the ability to be right there in that moment. It was one of those times that I placed my hand on my heart without thinking about it. Then, realizing what I had done, I quickly moved my hand away–face feeling hot with embarrassment.
“We are now in the mountains, and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”–John Muir
Sauntering back down the path, only a few feet from the top, John and I took time to pause at the gravesite of Dr. Mitchell. Reflecting over what I had learned about Mitchell’s life, it occurred to me that he was quite literally committed to maintaining higher ground with his fervent faith and understanding of science. Even though this caused a rift between Dr. Mitchell and his former student, it did not deter Mitchell from his drive to uphold what the data substantiated and what he believed in his heart to be true.
In the early 1900s, the logging industry nearly decimated Mount Mitchell, raising concern across the state, including those of North Carolina governor, Locke Craig. This led to the declaration of Mount Mitchill becoming North Carolina’s first state park in 1915. Present day, Mount Mitchell State Park offers visitors seven hiking trails of varying lengths and challenge levels, a visitor’s center, museum, gift shop, and restaurant–although the restaurant is actually closed for remodeling until 2022.
With more than 91 species of birds identified, an abundance of balsam firs–fragrant with the scent of Christmas–fresh blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries for visitor picking in August, an extensive number of rare plants and animals, and a number of dramatic historical stories attached to the mountain, I could not help but marvel at Mount Mitchell’s beauty and rich history. The story of Dr. Mitchell’s integrity, perseverance, and determination–along with the unparalleled mountain top views were/are a source of wonder, inspiration, and awe. A visit to Mount Mitchell definitely leaves you feeling closer to the Divine and filled with a sense of the Creator’s peace.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”–John Muir