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.

Mount Mitchell and the Blue Ridge Parkway: An Inspiration to Soar High

“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. 

This marker shows the precise highest point east of the Mississippi.

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.

The observation deck and Dr. Elisha Mitchell’s burial site are located directly behind John and me in this picture.
Dr. Elisha Mitchell’s burial plaque. It is interesting to note that this marker refers to Mitchell first as “Reverend,” an indication of faith’s priority in his life.

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! 

The cloud cover in parking lot when we first arrived at Mount Mitchell around 3:00 PM
Video of the cloud cover of parkinng lot.
Watching the clouds clear, allowing us to see mountain peaks 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

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