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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.