Into the Woods: Roan Mountain

Nothing dredges up memory as quickly and thoroughly as smell. A subtle scent unleashes a flash of thoughts, feelings, and experience from various points in our lives. This connection is well known to literature, and brain science seems to point to this being a design feature. The parts of the brain that process smell (the olfactory bulb) are in close proximity to those responsible for emotional memory (the amygdala and the rest of the limbic system). It’s supposed to be this way.

For me, one of the most powerful of these “smell markers” is the peculiar perfume of the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest. Part Christmas tree, part mushroom, part skunk, part grass, and all wrapped in a lightly chilled cloud. If you’ve sniffed it, you know what I mean. If not, there is really nothing else like it. Part of the charm is its relative rarity…there are only a handful of spots in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia that have all the right ingredients.

These spruce-fir pockets are islands in the sky, little corners of Canadian climate poking up above the rest of the subtropical South. Their altitude (generally north of 5,000′ above sea level) and isolation makes access difficult, helping with preservation. Of course, that same uniqueness has always fed visitor’s curiosity, and many such outposts have vehicle access (if you can stomach the curves) nearly to the summit—Cligman’s Dome, Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain, Black Balsam Knob, Whitetop, and Roan Mountain, among others.

Roan, a long massif straddling the N.C./Tenn. line was one of the first to attract tourists, with the long-since burned down Cloudland Hotel bringing a select clientele to the mountain “for their health” when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was barely a gleam in Horace Kephart‘s eye. Among hikers, Roan is known more for its expansive balds and their 360° vistas than its forests, and this interplay of two such uncommon ecosystems may account for its early and continued popularity.

Today, the mountain’s long, green backbone is well protected by Cherokee (in Tenn.) and Pisgah (in N.C.) National Forests. The Appalachian Trail traverses the ridgeline from West to East, and the shelter at Roan High Knob (6,285’) is the highest spot to sleep anywhere on the trail. To further add to its allure, the western end contains a “heath bald” so thick with catawba rhododendrons that it is marketed by the forest service as a garden. This section is even handicap-accessible, with gently sloping paved trails weaving through thickets of wind-pruned shrubs. In mid-June, when these fully bloom, the effect is nothing short of magical.IMG_6620

To return to nostalgia, I lived for many years (and my family still does) in Watauga County, North Carolina, and Roan was always one of my favorite spots for a day hike. I’ve seen bathed in artist’s-palette sunsets, in hailstorms, buried under feet of snow, and wrapped in fog so thick you can barely see where to put your next footstep. It never disappoints. If there is a beau ideal of Appalachian wildness, this is it.

It’s been several years since I last visited, and I wanted to bring my daughters to share in my love for the place. We spent last week at my family’s house, and were able to pay our respects to the mountain (N.B. – Tempting one’s children with a trip to the state park pool at the bottom of the TN side is a great hiking incentive). Hoping to catch the rhodie bloom, we opted to park at the gardens area. Though things peaked early this year, we were still rewarded with mounds of magenta flowers. Plenty of other plants were likewise in bloom: purple-flowered raspberry, hawkweed, bluets, gray’s lily, and more.

From the gardens (which, for those keeping track of family-friendly hikes, are seasonally equipped with restrooms and running water), we took a 3-mile round trip walk along the Cloudland Trail to Roan High Bluff on the far west of the massif. This is an easy walk, unless you’re not used to the altitude (laugh it up, Coloradans. Some of us live at only 700′!), and mostly forested. Mountains have a way of creating their own weather, so the bright green moss and plentiful mud we encountered are typical. The viewing platform at the end of the trail is well worth the trek. Once back at the gardens, we sealed the deal with a fine picnic.

As every parent will attest, there is a special joy attached to seeing your offspring revel in one of your own childhood haunts, sharing in your story in a new and deeper way. I hope this is one in a long line of visits that lets this incredible place sink deep into their souls.

If you’re ever in the area (the peak is about an hour’s drive from either Boone, N.C., or Johnson City, Tenn., and just shy of 2 hours from Asheville), make sure to let the Roan work its magic on you as well. Just don’t all show up at once, OK?

Advertisements

Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

Continue reading

Walker Percy Weekend

You see the pig first.

Smoked and shimmering in all his suckling glory, he leads the way into a church hall set up for a meal considerably more lavish than your average dinner on the grounds. The crowd eases in a few at a time, shaking out their umbrellas, glazed with the sticky cool of a summer night’s rain. As they descend on the spread, the gears of conversation engage (with a little help from the wine) and old friends and former strangers talk long into the night, humidity and horseflies not withstanding.

All this Louisiana cuisine and conviviality could be the scene of a birthday party, anniversary, or graduation. The guest of honor is not here, though, having died 26 years hence. Even so, it was his 100th birthday, and so we came. From all over, we came to St. Francisville for the third Walker Percy Weekend.

Must this not be what every author dreams of? Posthumous recognition such that when people who have been touched and challenged by your work come together to remember you, it is not in self-important tut-tutting about your cultural impact but simply to make merry and rejoice that you wrote.

Between the freely flowing bourbon and the mountain of mudbugs on Saturday night, it just might have been possible to forget this was a literary event (“conference” isn’t quite a fit), but the superb panels by friends and family and Percy scholars from universities around the country, with lots of questions and comments from the crowd, brought out the best for readers. Everything from the collapse of the political center to the depths of despair in Dostoevsky to Springsteen (yes, that one) was on offer. Even the depth of discussion over cocktails and crawfish was a sight to behold.

The civic spirit of this little town in West Feliciana was really on display, too. If the banners lining Ferdinand Street proclaiming “We Love It Here!” were so much boosterism, nothing in the joyful hospitality of the locals I met gave it away. They put on the dog for us all, opening homes, churches, shops and public spaces in one long roving feast for body, mind, and spirit.

I think Walker would be proud of his fellow citizens, and probably more than a little annoyed at being the center of attention. By God’s extravagant grace, in this little corner of “the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world” all was well for a few days. The troubles Percy saw so clearly tearing us apart could melt away, all suffused in the glow of summer sweat and steam from a trailer vat of boiling crustaceans.

 

Into the Woods: Conasauga Lake and Grassy Mountain

Location is everything.

Chattanooga is where it is because of the conveniences of transportation. It’s where the Tennessee River cuts through the wall of the Cumberland Plateau, and the city built up around this natural intersection between boats and rails during the early industrial era. That made it quite the prize during the war between the states, and it’s the crossroads of the South even still—a 2.5 hour drive or less from Atlanta, Knoxville, Birmingham, and Nashville. Much of the traffic between the Southeast and the Midwest passes through here, giving us more traffic woes than a city of this size warrants. Two of the top 10 largest trucking corporations in the U.S. are headquartered here, and we’re still known around the world for a catchy tune about a train ride.

All of that to say, living here makes getting other places a fairly easy proposition, so much so that a drive over to the western edge of the Appalachians for a day hike isn’t much trouble at all. On clear days from certain vantage points around town, you can make out the profile of Big Frog, Cowpen Mountain, and Grassy Mountain shooting up from the valley floor about 40 miles to the east. They are the westernmost “real mountains” (+/- 4,000 ft. above sea level) in the country until you get to the Black Hills.  Continue reading