Craggy Life Lessons

“Yonder were the mountains:  The sunlight revealed their tiny heads and wide shoulders, craggy and purple, with small black trees, delicate as eyelashes, on their slopes.”–Paul Theroux 

It never ceases to amaze me the ways in which life can manage to not only survive, but thrive.  As an experienced educator, I have worked with countless students, including those who come from the most anemic of backgrounds–impoverished in experiences, impoverished in love/emotional support, or impoverished financially.  Miraculously, many of those disadvantaged students still manage to not only survive their hardscrabble circumstances, but also find enough sustenance outside of their own rocky homelife for growth.  These kids are like camels–able to soak up enough goodness and nutrition from one or two smaller sources, such as a church, school, sports, and so forth, that allow them to flourish through long stints of inadequate and insubstantial living situations.

Craggy Pinnacle, elevation 5,817′, can be driven through via Blue Ridge Parkway tunnel or hiked to the top for epic 360 degree views.

Visiting Craggy Gardens, north of Asheville, NC and just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was reminded that not only can humans survive ramshackle environments, but also a wide array of plant life can likewise do the same. Craggy Gardens are part of the Great Craggy Mountains, or “the Craggies,” which is a rock-filled area of approximately 194 square miles in the Blue Ridge Mountains that border the Black Mountains.  The highest point of the Craggies is Craggy Dome rising at an elevation of 6,105 feet, but there are several other high peaks of interest in this unique geological and botanical habitat, including Craggy Pinnacle, through which visitors can drive and/or hike to the top along the scenic BRP. 

A few ancient symmetrical trees dot the bald of Craggy Flats which is mostly covered in grasses, shrubs, rocks, and few flowering plants.

The Great Craggy Mountains are known for its exposed rocky, aka “craggy,” surfaces, high altitudes with spectacular vistas, and an elevated bald known for its rhododendrons, mountain laurel, flame azalea, other colorful wildflowers, and heath.  There is both a picnic area at milepost 367.6 and the Craggy Garden Visitor’s Center at milepost 264.4; plus, there are several hiking trails for a variety of hiking skill levels. Additionally, the Craggy Mountains are known for its twisted trees, May-apple flowers, Turkscap lilies, autumnal leaf colors, the clusters of red berries that decorate the Ash trees in the fall, and its rare and endangered plant life.  In fact, according to the Blue Ridge Parkway Guide, “Craggy Gardens has been recognized by the state of North Carolina as a Natural Heritage Area and has also been recommended as a National Natural Landmark.”

During our visit to the Craggy Mountains, John, my husband, and I stopped at the Craggy Garden Visitor Center.  At an elevation of 5,497 feet, the air was significantly cooler than when we left town, hovering in the high 50s.  Inside the visitor center, a warm fire blazed in a wood burning stove in a far corner with several rocking chairs around its hearth.  Outside, posted along the front wall, was a map of the different hiking trails in the vicinity.  

The Craggy Pinnacle Tunnel as seen from the Craggy Garden Visitor Center.

As newbies, we decided our first hiking experience in the Craggies should be uphill along Craggy Gardens Trail which led to the Craggy Flats at an elevation of 5,892 feet.  Since our visit was in late June, we were hoping to see the renowned Catawba rhododendron; however, John had already been warned that these infamous flowering pink and purple shrubs had come and gone with little fanfare.  Nonetheless, I was not to be deterred in my enthusiasm for the potential adventure that awaited along the trail.

Craggy Garden Trail

  “Nature is a book of many pages and each page tells a fascinating story to him who learns her language. Our fertile valleys and craggy mountains recite an epic poem of geologic conflicts. The starry sky reveals gigantic suns and space and time without end.”–A. E. Douglass

Trekking along the path, twisted trees and shrubs formed tattered tunnels through which we traversed higher into the altitude until we reached Craggy Flats.  This area is signified by a large shelter with paths going uphill to either side of the shelter.  Once at the top, the views were spectacular, allowing us to see layer upon layer of mountain line overlaid with cloud shadows.  While as a general rule, a bald is considered a treeless area, the Great Craggy Mountains’ bald was not entirely treeless as there were a few beauties with their broad limbs fanned out in perfect symmetry.  Mostly, the bald was covered with small flowers, grasses, dirt paths, and a few shrubs that were ablaze with orange flowers–a type of rodondendum called a flame azalea due to its flamboyant flowers.  

Vantage point of tree limbs

The Craggy Gardens Trail is often identified as one of the busiest trails in the area, but on the day/time John and I chose to explore it, there weren’t too many other hikers.  The hikers we did encounter were friendly and helpful, offering different pieces of advice for locating specific scenery.  In fact, one pair of sisters that I met during my exploration of the bald area remembered I was from Ohio and referred to me by shouting “Ohio!” whenever they found something of interest along the trail they thought I would want to see. 

The search for the Catawba Rhododendrone

On the way down from the bald, at the base of the flat, was a rhododendron upon whose backside (the back of the official Craggy Gardens Trail) was covered in purple Catawba rhododendron blooms!  I trotted back up the off-the-beaten-path to the top bald where the two sisters were admiring the flame azalea. I recalled they were looking for Catawba blossoms to photograph, and I wanted them to know about the hidden purple gems I had just found.  Excitedly, I led them down the hill while they readied their cameras; then I headed back to a shelter area where John was resting.

It seemed that while I was helping the sisters find rhododendron, John had made an acquaintance with a hungry squirrel that had discovered an abandoned banana peel.  It was quite the scene as John attempted to move in closer with his camera to video the squirrel. Meanwhile, the squirrel entertained John with its acrobatic attempts to eat the inside of the peel. It was certainly an “appealing” sight!

After the squirrely entertainment, John and I meandered down the hill to a gazebo overlooking the mountainside.  If we had chosen to continue further downhill, we would have traveled into the official Craggy Garden Picnic Area, but since we still wanted to visit Mount Mitchell, a bit further down the BRP, we chose to retrace our steps back to the visitor center.

Walking back allowed me to more thoughtfully take in the gnarled trees and shrubs with roots winding over, around, and sometimes even through the rocky and rugged terrain.  Several roots appeared to have a large hole at the base of their trunks, and they still seemed to support life.  In fact, it was a marvel that any life at all could be supported in such a craggy area.

It further occurred to me that most lives–at some point in time–become rocky, rough, and even craggy, like several of my past students’ lives.  The miracle is that no matter how broken and stony life becomes for any of us, we have the ability to survive. Like the Craggy Mountain plants whose limbs twist this way and that to find the sunlight while their roots lengthen and stretch to find nourishment and water, we too, through faith and perseverance, can find ways to stretch, grow, and resiliently root into sources of life-sustaining nourishment.  Even if our roots develop a hole of loss, we can still rise up like the trees, shrubs, and other plant life of the Great Craggy Mountains.

Crabtree Falls: Spotlighting a cascade of blessings in the midst of shadows

“There is a hidden message in every waterfall. It says, if you are flexible, falling will not hurt you!”–Mehmet Murat ildan

Crabtree Falls, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville, NC, is a photographers dream!

The dawning of the day brought forth memories of the day before: light sweat forming, the sound of heavy breathing, the curves of mountainous proportions, the ups and downs, and the taste of sweetness at having reached one incredible summit.  I wanted to do it again. Was it love?  Not exactly.  Instead, I was recalling the hikes from the previous day, including one short, but incredibly steep trek up to the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River.  There is a reason for the slogan, “the mountains are calling” has been popularized!

John and I were fortunate enough to recently spend a few days in Black Mountain, NC, a delightful small town in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.  Named after the mountains that surround it, the town of Black Mountain is a walkable, quaint town filled with over 200 businesses featuring local art, crafts, artisans of types, music, unique shops, galleries, breweries, and plenty of food venues for every dining desire.  Located about 15 miles from Asheville, NC, Black Mountain is also a hub for outdoor activities, but it is the surrounding mountain line that perpetually commanded the attention of John and me.

Our initial goals were to visit both Black Mountain and Asheville as well as enjoy a few hikes.  However, weather often alters best laid plans, and it certainly influenced ours.  In fact, on our first full day, we woke to a low-visibility/heavy fog warning for the surrounding mountains  due to the soaking, overnight rains that continued throughout most of the morning curtailing any hiking plans. 

On the positive side, this allowed us to fully explore and experience the warmth and creative energy of Black Mountain.  As we made our way through the town, browsing through one interesting shop after another, I asked locals to name their favorite hiking spots.  Granted it was a challenging question given the fact there are substantial choices in the area.  Nonetheless, certain locations kept emerging, including Mount Mitchell, Craggy Gardens, and Crabtree Falls. 

Thus, on the following day, John and I made our way to both Craggy Gardens and Mount Mitchell.  However, we were so enamoured with Craggy Garden that we did not spend as much time at Mount Mitchell as we had hoped.  No worries, or so we thought, we would return the following day on our way to Crabtree Falls.  Of course, if you want to make God laugh, tell him you have plans, right?

“I like the muted sounds, the shroud of grey, and the silence that comes with fog.”–Om Malik

As the following day evolved, our plans became, well, foggy, and we were not sure if the conditions would permit us to hike it given how the day started.  In order to get to Crabtree Falls, we had to traverse the Blue Ridge Parkway for nearly 90 minutes–not that this was a bad thing since this drive was, and is, oh-so-scenic! However, on this particular day, we watched with wonder as we drove through great clouds of layered gossamer drifting over the elevated mountainside, enveloping the road–and the scenic view.  

Air, so crisp and refreshing at the lower elevations, quickly became damp and bone-chilling as the temperature plummeted 20 degrees, and our visibility became drastically reduced.  Initially, our plans were to stop by Mount Mitchell before, and possibly after, visiting/hiking Crabtree Falls.  This was an attempt to experience a more clear view from the top of this summit.  Unfortunately, as we made our way up the access road towards the top of Mount Mitchell, the blanket of fog became more dense.  Stopping at the Mount Mitchell State Park Visitor Center for a map, it became clear that the cloud cover was set in for the next several hours.

Since we had never previously visited this part of the BRP, we envisioned that it was only a hop-skip-and-a-jump to Crabtree Falls!  Wrong!  Thirty minutes later, driving mostly through pea-like soup conditions, we finally arrived at Crabtree Falls Campground just past mile marker 339.  Finding the trail and determining the best strategy for tackling it was another story.

We had received what we thought was solid hiking advice from another couple.  They had advised us to start at the trailhead, and make the .9 downhill hike to the falls.  Then, instead of finishing the rest of the 1.5 trail to its end, this couple suggested that we turn around, and return the same way.  This shorter route sounded perfect since we wanted time to return to Mount Mitchell on the off-chance of cloud clearing.  It might have worked, if we had started at the trailhead!

Unfortunately, we did not see this sign until we finished our hike at the trailhead since we mistakenly hiked the trail in reverse!

After happily discovering restrooms in the campground before beginning our hike, we became turned around, and began the hike at the point in which most hikers consider the trail’s end!  We were on the 1.5 side of the trail that gently started and seemed pleasant, but it soon became rugged with thick, rambling roots acting like the proverbial bully sticking out his foot to purposely trip passersby.  In fact, for a large portion of this hike, we worried if we were even on the right path, but the few hikers we did encounter kept encouraging us that we were headed in the right direction.

We’re off to a pleasant start!

We kept traipsing, tripping, and trekking down the mountainside. Despite the air becoming cool and refreshing, we were sweating nonetheless. Along the way, we caught glimpses of Crabtree Creek and its numerous miniature falls creating a soothing natural soundtrack. Still, we wondered, was this all there was to see until another friendly family of hikers assured us that we were close. Our efforts and time, they assured, would be rewarded; however, they warned us that the next section would be a steep descent, full of mud, and slippery rocks.

Fun images along the gentle beginning–which was really the end!

Carefully continuing lower into the ravine, it began to feel as if we were descending into the damp cellar of Mother Nature with a fully opened, unseen spigot in the crevasse below.  Meanwhile, poor John, who had surgery on his knee ten months prior to this excursion, experienced jolts of sharp paint with each precipitous, downhill step.  Persevering through it all, I think we both felt hope rising as our minds whispered, “Wait, wait for it . . .” 

Crabtree Creek flowing alongside parts of the trail.

Crabtree Creek meandering alongside the trail.

Obstacles and slippery footing along the path.

“There’s no better place to find yourself than sitting by a waterfall and listening to it’s music.”–Roland R Kemler

There it was! Gushing, plummeting, and splashing over 70 feet of rock, Crabtree Creek, God’s ultimate shower. We stood in awe, witnessing such a magnificent creation from the hand of the Creator.  Moments ticked by, and then with great dramatic flare, a sunbeam spotlighted the falls.  I felt tugging at my heartstrings.

“Far away, there in the sunshine, are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”–Louisa May Alcott

I reflected on the challenges of the hike down–from starting at the trail’s end to encountering all of the rocks, roots, sharp and sudden dips, as well as the slippery sections filled with mud.  What a likeness there was to life’s challenges–especially during the pandemic months.  Through it all, the shadow side of the mountain, like the shadow side of life, Divine Providence was present; and there, in that moment, we were bearing witness to blessing cascading from the heavens above.  

It was all uphill on the .9 return to the campground/parking area, but the worst was behind us.

We now faced a .9 mile uphill slope, but the worst was behind us, and we were not completing it alone.  Mount Mitchell would wait for another time.  For now, we would stay a while, resting beside the cool, celestial waters.

“Be still, and know that I am God . . .I will be exalted in the earth.”–Psalm 46:10