South toward Grassy Branch–Traveling in the footsteps of those who have gone before us

Still round the corner, there may wait, a new road or a secret gate.–J. R. Tolkien

Hearts-pumping, legs moving, a brisk wind periodically scoured at our cheeks as John, my husband, and I began our hike into the autumnal colored woods just outside of Asheville, North Carolina.  Porcelain blue skies interspersed with frothy, opaque clouds expanded above the deciduous tree line.  To our left, as we made our way along the trail, was an expansive valley enclosed by the cerulean heights of the Blueridge Mountains–a 550 mile expanse of the Appalachian Mountains.  To our right, and above our heads, was the Blueridge Ridge Parkway, but we were moving lower and lower into the gap further away from any sounds of traffic.  I couldn’t help but smile.

Sunshines from porcelain blue skies as part of the path we hike was once an old wagon road to Rattlesnake Lodge.

Our hike had actually begun by parking in a small lot at Craven Gap and walking across the BRP.  Fortunately, due to either the Thanksgiving holiday week or the chilly temperatures–although to John and me, the mid-40 fahrenheit range was perfect hiking temperature–the BRP wasn’t too busy, allowing us to safely cross.  We followed the stoney steps down the beginning of the trail that eased our gradual descent into the ridge-hugging trail.  Before taking a more serious turn and further drop, we crossed over a large log that had been allowed to remain across the path, but had been roughly hewed half-way down mid-way up its trunk to allow easier access across.

As we walked, my mind roamed, and my senses soaked up my surroundings: the occasional call of a bird, the scuffling of our feet along the path, the aromatic scent of damp earth, and the multi-hued assemblage of leaves in all shapes, colors, and sizes.  I was reminded of the expression, forest bathing, often used by the health and wellness industry, to encourage people to spend more time in nature.  Despite its marketing association, I was certainly benefiting from this scenic Blue Ridge immersion.

How many years had this tree stood as a witness to life?

John and I paused to admire an expansive trunk that had been a victim of ice, lightning, landslide, or other natural calamity.  We admired the seemingly countless lines of growth circling the inside of the tree’s trunk.  Its age had to be more than one hundred years old.  Running my hands across those lines, I couldn’t help but wonder how many different lives this tree had touched.  How many families, dogs, squirrels, birds, insects, and other creatures either traveled past this tree or even called it home?  It felt as if I was touching a piece of unspoken history. 

Life finds a way.

Walking deeper into the wooded crevasse, John pointed out another fallen tree.  While it was much smaller in circumference than the previous downed tree, there was a unique start of what appeared to be a maple tree attempting to grow from its trunk. The leaves on it numbered less than 20, but they were changing into their fall coats of colors.  What a marvelous example of life finding a way to continue even in the midst of decay.  

Further down the path, we entered a darkened area lined with bare trees whose branches looked like works of twisted, wire art stretching out into wandering, curving lines.  This part of the path was also carpeted with aromatic, long, thin, and tan pine needles, which was unlike any other part of the path.  It felt as if we were entering a page out of a fantasy novel, and at any moment, elves, hobbits, dwarfs, or maybe even a unicorn, would enter onto the path in front of us and send us on a discovery quest. 

Christmas green ferns sprouted here and there near large rocks sank deep into Mother Earth.  Random leaves of striated emerald green emerged from piles of tawny leaves discarded from the bondage of their former trees. Moss, in shades of pistachio, pickles, and pears blanketed rocks and trunks of trees–live and fallen.

The headwaters of a spring flowing down the mountain.

Trickling headwaters of small, silver springs melodically spilled over rocks, debris, and other forest detritus on its way down the mountain.  Oozing mud, slick and thick, filled gaps between rocks on the footpath crossing these singing waters. Sucking sounds slurped at the bottom of our hiking shoes.  Above our heads the backup singing wind, provided three-part harmony, as the layers of air moved over us, rustling the tree branches, and echoing over the Grassy Creek Valley below.

Throughout the footpath, gem-stone colored leaves dotted the path with images of once per year beauty.  Blackberry jam tinged stars, mustard-stained clusters, garnet and black tear drops, mahogany and green points, butterscotch lined with granola bristles–the hues seemingly painted on the leaves were as varied as the shapes of the leaves. It was as if God left a jigsaw puzzle scattered across the forest floor.  

Sunshines from porcelain blue skies as part of the path we hike was once an old wagon road to Rattlesnake Lodge.

At one point along the pathway, John pointed to what appeared to be a game trail.  This began a quiet discussion and subsequent ponderings of the first people who traversed this particular area.  Had they been following game trails to make their way through the dense forest and rocky mountain side?  What did the mountain look like for them?  What challenges must they have faced in order to travel over and through such rugged terrain?

Mountain to Sea Trail Marker

Later, when John and I made our way back to the home in which we were staying in Black Mountain, NC for a short getaway before Thanksgiving, I did a bit of research about the route we hiked.  We had covered over five miles moving south towards Grassy Branch, as part of the 1,200 mile long Mountain to Sea Trail that stretches across North Carolina.  This unique trail begins at Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains, and it ends at Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks.  Having visited both places on separate trips, years apart, I had to marvel at the trail’s length and diverse terrain.

However, there was more.  A wide section of the path John and I hiked, according to early maps of the area, was part of an old road bed that appeared to be part of a bygone wagon road to Rattlesnake Lodge, a summer home built in 1904 by Dr. Chase Ambler for his family. Named for its infamous living room ceiling that was covered in rattlesnake skins, the home was eventually sold, and it is believed that the lodge was destroyed in the 1920s due to lightning strike.  However, its remains can still be visited via another hiking trail–a footpath John and I hope to travel on another trip.

It is remarkable to think about all of those who had traversed those paths before us, and it is made further marvelous to consider those whose feet first touched its ground hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. Did those who originally made their way through the Blueridge Mountains have the same thoughts of appreciation and awe as John and I did as we hiked on that magnificent day in November?  What were their thoughts, their experiences, and their intentions?  What stories must that one path hold?  How many more stories do those mountains and all the other paths keep secret?

 There were others who blazed the way, and there will be more who follow us.  Beyond all of that, however, is the Creator, the ultimate source of all creation.  Perhaps, it is that ultimate commune–communing with nature, our ancestors, and our Creator, in addition to all the natural beauty, adornment, and seasonal dressing, that beckons me again and again into the forest, in mountains, onto wooded paths, or near peaceful bodies of water.

Hiking Forward Into the Season of Now

“There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir: we must rise and follow her , when from every hill of flame she calls, and calls each vagabond by name.”–William Bliss

Fall is the perfect time for hiking, walking, or simply heading out-of-doors for any sort of physical activity.  The changing landscape, crisp air, and the earthy scents of damp soil, decaying plant matter, and the musky-sweet scent of drifted piles of discarded leaves invigorate the soul.  After sluggish months of heat and humidity, autumn’s sudden drop in temperature is enough to not only add bounce to our step and inspire movement, but also create stirrings within.

Fresh air has a way of plowing the mental landscape into a bucolic pasture of peace and positivity–if only for a short while.  What miraculous logic lies in this seasonal change.  It is as if, by Divine design, that fall provides us with an opportunity to elevate the spirit, boost the body, and clear the consciousness in preparation for the impending darkness of winter months.  

Walking this weekend along a favorite wooded path, I couldn’t help but follow these seasonal musings of my mind.  After a long, exceptionally challenging week, it felt both cleansing and healing to immerse myself in the quietude of nature.  No headset, nor blathering talk; no tedious tasks, nor irksome situations.  Like soaking in a warm, scented bubble bath, stepping onto the wooded path, I immediately felt submerged in the tranquil bathwater of autumn.

Before long, I was lost in the sounds of restless tree branches bouncing in the fall breeze, the humus scent of mulched debris, and the changing hues of leaves and grass.  Of course, my mind does not like to be quiet for long, and soon enough, childlike tantrums for attention interrupted my equanimity.  Without any warning, my mind began stumbling and bumbling through past events instead of anchoring to the present and peace of the surrounding natural world.

“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.”–Nathaniel Hawthorne

Isn’t memory a curious process?  You can forget about an event, experience, or moment. Then suddenly, as if tripping over a tree root along a smooth forest pathway, you tumble head first right into the past.  Like the long roots of trees, past episodes can be found along our life path, but often we are so focused on moving forward, we overlook those rooted memories that make up the tree of our life. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless we haven’t made peace with certain past events.

In the ideal world, falterings into the past can be easily side-stepped, allowing us to keep moving ahead with ease.  Like the broken limb of a tree, these past happenings may have left us feeling as if a piece of our life was fragmented.  Sometimes, these can be small, mendable, events. Other times they are life-altering occurrences that sever ties with a friend, love, or even family member.  Divorce, death, loss of job/home/income, and other hurts can all leave us feeling as splintered as a proverbial tree trunk. 

At the time, it feels as if we will never be whole again; never able to grow, much less thrive.  However, like the maple tree that lost a major branch in a winter ice storm, our hearts, given time, do heal at the source of the break.  It may take several seasons to fully recover, but similarly to the mighty maple, once recovered, we find we can tap into the sweetness of life again.

Some triggered memories, like a fallen log across the path, can seemingly be foreseen well ahead of time.  It could be a special celebration, a family or friend gathering/reunion, a party, or other organized event.  We see it well in advance–the potential to bump into branches of our past.  Therefore, we deliberate, strategize, and plan how we will not allow ourselves to be tripped up, to fall into past, negative behaviors, or other self-defeating notions.  If we’re fortunate, we trek through the event without a single obstacle tripping us up, and we wonder why we wasted all that time worrying. At other moments, we repeatedly flounder through multiple encounters without ever gaining a steady foothold due to overthinking or over-efforting.

Other memories we stumble across can be simple knee and/or palm scrapers–just a little momentary scuffle.  They are the unforeseen life encounters in which we come face-to-face with our past.  Like that hidden rock along a regular walking path, unearthed by heavy rainfall, we’re confidently moving forward when suddenly a buried memory triggers a brief, but sharp tumble.  Momentarily we are once more wounded, lost in the temporary feeling of pain, but quickly rise, wipe off the proverbial dirt of the past, and keep hiking on.

Then there are those rocky memories.  Those awkward, cringe-worthy moments of impulse, illogical, or otherwise preposterous life hiccups.  Like the rough part of a well-worn rocky path, all lives have these times. In fact, these memories, when randomly run across, can sometimes leave you doubled over with laughter as you fumble through recollections of those bumpy reminiscences. 

Aw, the path of life, like any good hike in the woods, is full of thorny patches, toppling obstructions, and adversarial pitfalls.  Nonetheless, our trails also meander through lush fields of golden moments, wound ‘round bends of colorful times, and over walkways of unexpected joy and bliss.  Through the seasons of memories, all the good and the bad, our life paths keep moving us forward. Thrusting us into the now of our lives. 

Clearing my mind, and shaking out its detritus of the past, I once more returned to the present moment of the autumnal walk. I felt the air brush softly against my cheek and watched a chubby, round-eyed raccoon waddle away from me. I left the past behind on that trail, decided to let the future take of itself, and began to once more soak up the present moment of the fall goodness, one glorious step at a time.  Oh, how I love October.

“I’m so glad we live in a world where there are Octobers.”–L. C. Montgomery, Anne of the Green Gables

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.