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Sandro at Hatteras copy

Cape Hatteras is a place for pilgrimages.

It is a bit of sand that emerges from the ocean 30 miles out to sea off North Carolina. It is a place where you go to be reminded that you don’t live in an apartment, you don’t live in a city, but rather, you live instead on a planet.Hatteras cape point from lighthouse copy

For years in the late 1960s and early ’70s, my college friend Alexander and I went to Hatteras each February to experience the organ-point surf and a constant 20-knot wind that keeps your lapels flapping and your skin wrung raw. It’s a wind that can part your eyebrows.

Others may visit in the summer, when the ocean is tamed and the wind warmed, but February is the only real time to visit if it is a pilgrimage you are on.

Hattaras is much congested these days, but in 1968, at least in February, you could grab a mile or two of beach all for yourself.

In February, the last nor’easters of the season have blown through and chiseled the dunes into new shapes.

And each February, it seemed, there was a stretch of about a week when winter breaks and the temperature would climb each day to the mid-70s and the sun could warm your chill-chapped face.

It was then that Hatteras gave up its best.NC12, Hatteras Island NC copy

To get there, you take N.C. 12, a two-lane blacktop that runs the length of the Outer Banks like the vein down the back of a shrimp. For the 50 miles from Nag’s Head to the cape, the road runs straight between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Pamlico Sound on the other.

Sandro and the lighthouse copyThe Banks are a series of barrier islands that begin to tear away from the mainland in Virginia and reach their greatest distance from terra firma at Cape Hatteras, about 100 miles farther south.

At their skinniest, the banks are only a few hundred yards wide, with its single road protected from the stormy Atlantic by only the skimpiest of sand dunes.

And in February, it is not unusual for portions of the road to be flooded or blown over with sand.

After one vicious nor’easter, the road about five miles north of Buxton at the cape was nearly washed away. A vast pool of salt water covered what used to be highway. To make our way through it, Alexander had to take his shoes and socks off and wade through the icy water, feeling for the pavement with his bare feet. I followed in the car, driving at a cautious crawl through water that washed over the top of our hubcaps.

As befits a pilgrimage, we had our rites. We camped in the dunes and drank Alexander’s ceremonial hot chocolate in the mornings. His penitential recipe called for equal parts milk and Hershey’s syrup.

There were the whelks, Scotch bonnets, skate egg cases, dogfish carcasses, the 360-degree aural horizon of surf crash, the snap of the tent’s oily canvas in the wind, the intermittent flash of the lighthouse at night seen from our campsite, the squeak and squawk of the gulls and terns, the beef stew simmering in the black iron pan, the corroded spikes pulled from the wreck of the Laura Barnes — iron pulled and twisted like taffy — the swig of Courvoisier in the morning followed by that tar-thick hot chocolate.

There were those mysterious — to me anyway — channel markers land-locked on the mud flats near the Bodie Island campsite — the surf so far away — that unnamed wreck near the lagoon at the Cape, those Loran towers, the old dune-covered ruins of the former Route 12 near the light house that we walked along one evening and watched the stars through binoculars — the most stars I had ever seen.

A great deal has been erased and recorded over in my memory, but these items are indelible. I can even see it in these photographs awful as they are.

In all the years we went on this pilgrimage, two episodes stand out.

First, one inky night, we walked past the base of the lighthouse on our way to the beach. For some reason, the door to the lighthouse, which was always locked, was left open. There was no one around, and we didn’t hear anyone in the lighthouse tower when we poked our heads in, so we started climbing the iron spiral stairs.

It is a long way up the tallest lighthouse on the East Coast, and when we got to the top, we opened the door to the balcony that surrounds the lamp and walked out in the wind and watched the light flash over our heads and swing out to sea, where the tiny stars of ships shown on the black horizon.

The other episode occurred as we walked out in the dark toward the cape point, a mile or so from the lighthouse.

At the cape point, the surf crashes around you in all directions. You can lose your bearings quite easily, especially when you are below the dunes and can’t see the lighthouse.shipwreck Hatteras copy 1

The air is thick with the mist of exploded breakers; it collects in your beard and dampens your peacoat.

To make our way, I carried a hissing Coleman lantern that threw our shadows on the sand at our feet. And when we looked up to spy Orion in the sky, we were startled to see two giants walking in the air.

The lantern threw our silhouettes up into the sky, and we walked among the constellations.

In many ways the Outer Banks have become a place in my head — an eternal place in my head where all the adventures are always happening — and have slipped out of place in time.Sandro inside the Okracoke lighthouse copy

Which year did I photograph Alexander inside Okracoke lighthouse?

I want desperately to recapture every detail.

But in another sense, he always in that lighthouse, looking up its whitewashed core.

BILT E3

One very trendy New York artist has said, ”Money creates taste,” but the truth is otherwise. Money can create fashion, but never taste. 

In fact, more often than not, the only taste that seems to come from wealth is bad taste, and that in huge, ostentatious quantities. 

For instance, the money of George Vanderbilt poured into the mountains of North Carolina near Asheville has created a garish monument to obscene wealth and acquisitional excess called the Biltmore Estate. 

Begun in 1887, it is a 250-room mansion in phony French chateau style that took an army of stonecutters and craftsmen six years to finish. Even today, in the possession of Vanderbilt’s descendants, it is the largest private home in America, situated on 8,000 acres of North Carolina mountain real estate. This has shrunk from its original 125,000 acres. 

It is an astonishing collection of bric-a-brac and great art treated as bric-a-brac. Durer engravings are treated like knickknacks, like so much plundered lucre, heisted from the trove of Europe to show off to admiring Americans, unable to create great art, but sure as hell able to buy it. 

Designed by the ”architect to the robber barons,” Richard Morris Hunt, it is a mind-boggling showcase of things to gawk at, but not to admire. 

It took six years and 1,000 men to build. With a 390-foot facade, the house has more than 11 million bricks, 250 rooms, 65 fireplaces, 43 bathrooms, 34 bedrooms and three kitchens, all of which are contained on over four acres of floor space. 

Bowling alley

Bowling alley

The massive stone spiral landscape rises four floors and has 102 steps. 

Through its center hangs an iron chandelier weighing 1,700 pounds. 

Inside can be found a vast collection of art and furniture, more than 70,000 cataloged items, including 23,000 books, furniture from 13 countries, more than 1,600 art prints and hundreds of paintings. One cannot help but think of Citizen Kane

There were indoor bowling, billiards, a swimming pool, a gym. Outdoors, there were croquet, fishing, horseback riding, more swimming and hunting, hiking and camping. 

It is a monument to excess, of a kind Bill Gates can only dream about. 

The Vanderbilts could entertain a few close friends at a dinner table that could seat 64 guests in a banquet hall that is 72 feet long. Meals served at the table were usually seven courses long and required as many as 15 utensils per person. banquet hall

Enough fresh fish to feed 50 people was shipped in daily from New York City. Lobster, twice a week. 

But then, the Vanderbilts were wealthy people. 

George was a grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, aka the Commodore, who is best remembered as one of the great robber barons of American monopoly capitalism. It was the Commodore’s son, William, who responded to questions of how the family business practices might affect the public by saying, ”The public be damned.” 

The Commodore paid for the Breakers in Newport, R.I., also designed by Hunt, which is a mere 70-room ”cottage.” 

It pales beside the splendiferosity of Biltmore House. 

In fact, the estate is so impressive, it’s a shame it isn’t beautiful. Instead, its a hodgepodge of architectural styles, each displayed with the same aesthetic care as the collected artwork, which is often hidden behind furniture. 

Hunt pulled together a little of this and a little of that, with no controlling idea, so the house is a kind of architectural landfill. 

Library, ca. 1910

Library, ca. 1910

There are some very nice details, but they never add up to a satisfying whole. Instead, like a meal of too much rich food: garlicked langostinos and chocolate cake, they sit in the belly undigestible, waking you up in the middle of the night with disturbing dreams. 

It certainly isn’t aesthetics that brings the crowds. There may be a great deal of art on the walls of the Biltmore mansion, but these gawkers would not be paying the hefty admission price to see Claudes and Renoirs. No, like some tabloid version of ”America’s Most Wanted Mansions,” it is the excess and wealth that bring them in. They want to see how real money lives. 

For Americans have an oddly unsolved double standard when it comes to wealth. They are decidedly democratic in the sense that they believe, fervently, that no one is better than anyone else. They wear their sloganed T-shirts and shorts to prove it. But they don’t imagine that this equality rests at the level of a working middle class. No, they imagine an equality where everyone wins the lottery and has tons of moolah and can make themselves just such a mansion to live in and watch Wheel of Fortune while their servants bring them lite beer and corn nuts. 

It is a proletarian dream of money: Cash without the scruples of good taste. Let’s all put a dozen Jaguars in the garage. Let’s light cheap cigars with $100 bills and bring Uncle Ed around for a game of snooker in the basement while the kids bang away, attempting Heart and Soul on the Steinway. 

For these crowds of gawkers at the Biltmore see the Vanderbilt family as a 19th-century version of the Lotto grand prize. 

And I’m afraid, the Vanderbilts have obliged them by building the world’s largest, most expensive double-wide.with trailer

Part 7: In which the author’s belly bursts

shatley meal

‘Forty-five years ago, I broke out with a most terrible skin disease all over me, which remained on me seven years, supposed to originate from measles; I also had indigestion, and the last two years of that seven years, I had a bad cough. I had bleeding of my right lung and had nightly sweats for two years.”

How’s that for an appetizing advertisement for a good restaurant?

It is the opening of a testimonial written by Martin Shatley in 1925 about a radium spring he discovered in 1890 in northwestern North Carolina that miraculously cured his ailment.

”It has been about 35 years since I found the spring and got well. I have done as much hard work since that time as any man I know of, and after I was cured, many people went to this spring with skin diseases, rheumatism and nervous diseases, and were all cured.”

People still come to Shatley Springs in Ashe County, and they still drink the water. But most people don’t come to have their afflictions cured, but rather to have their hunger assuaged. shatley springs exterior 2

For while the radium water still flows freely, and free — anyone can drive up with a bottle and fill up — it is the restaurant at Shatley Springs that is the real miracle.shatley springs spring

Shatley Springs is on North Carolina 16, five miles north of Jefferson and eight miles south of the Virginia border.

It is found in a grassy hollow with a fishing pond in the middle. Around the pond are a handful of ramshackle cabins. shatley cabins with ducks

Their floors creak and the breeze blows through the walls; a single, 100-watt bulb hangs in the middle of the ceiling in each room. There is nary a picture on the wall, and the exterior red paint is flaking off the clapboard.

It is spartan in a way a Spartan would never tolerate. But then, the room costs only $45 per night for two. And the air is cool and clean, and you can hear the birds in the trees and the rustling leaves. There is no interstate, and the quiet is salutary.

But walk up to the large, red ranch house with the roaring kitchen fans. Screen doors slam and ruddy-faced people laugh and talk as they always do in the North Carolina mountains.

Dinner is the specialty of the house. If you need to save money, you can opt for the single entree dinners. Fried chicken is $7.95, country ham is $8.95. But I’ve never actually met anyone who has ordered them.

No, the meal of choice is the ”Family Style Country Meal,” which gives you, for an outrageous $16.95 per person, enough food to bloat an army. Greenfield's meal

There are ham and chicken,

Mashed potatoes,

Green beans,

Creamed corn,

Fried cabbage,

Pinto beans,

Fried apples,

Cole slaw,

Country gravy (the white kind),

Red-eye gravy,

Buttermilk biscuits,

And your choice of fruit cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

All washed down with radium water and iced tea as sweet as molasses.

And refills on everything, if the first round doesn’t rupture your diaphragm.

This is all Blue Ridge cooking, so the vegetables are all fresh and boiled with fatback or bacon and set down in front of you in bowls. This is not ”lean and healthy” cuisine, but it is real eatin’. Shatley Springs

People walk into the large common eating area, but they waddle out. On the long wooden porch that runs the length of the building, old-timers sit in rocking chairs, smoke and chat with their neighbors.

And if you do stay overnight and manage to right yourself for breakfast, the family-style breakfast — which will set you back $9.95 — includes cereal, juice, eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, gravy, biscuits, hotcakes, potatoes, grits, baked apples, strawberry preserves and coffee. That’s not a list of possibilities to choose from; that’s breakfast. You get them all, set down on an old wobbly table by a bustling waitress.

NEXT: The Central Appalachians

 

 

Part 4: In which a mountain county is described

Mt. Jefferson

Mt. Jefferson

This morning, an incandescent white fog filled the river valley and the ground was covered with frost. The cows that graze on the bottom land exhaled steam, when you could see them at all. Yesterday was much the same; most of the afternoon was ”whited out,” meaning that everything past four or five feet from your eyes was obliterated by the mist.

Weather like this is one of my reasons for loving these mountains in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina. I have never seen so much weather. It is as though the weather were condensed, like a stew cooked down from a soup. Ashe County Holler vert

Even fair weather is magnified, the air clearer, the sun bigger and brighter, the clouds more manic. The air is often so clear that you’d swear you could resolve individual blades of grass on the side of Mount Jefferson, five miles away.

And the weather changes quickly and dramatically. It is all foretold on the face of Mount Jefferson, in the middle of North Carolina’s Ashe County.

We can see the mountain from the house we are staying at, out the kitchen window. It dominates the more populous half of Ashe County, raising its humped peak over the surrounding hills like ”a Charlemagne among his peers.”

Mount Jefferson will glow with sunlight one moment and turn dark and baleful the next, signifying the coming of a storm. He will evaporate before your eyes in portent of snow, growing whiter and whiter as the snow becomes a veil between our window and the peak. Some days he is blue, some days, gray. In early morning, the sunlight sparks the peak into a glowing orange. At other, very clear times, the mountain is green. Blue, Gray, Orange, Green — Union, Rebel, Protestant, Catholic — they all war on the mountainside.

And every day, the mountain has shown me something new in color, tone, shape, shadow, contrast, mist, camouflage.

And all night long, when the winds calm, as they seldom do, I can hear the rush of water over the rocks in the New River.

New River

New River

Ashe County, in the extreme northwest corner of North Carolina, is 427 square miles of wrinkled green mountain irrigated by clear cascading streams. Away from any major highways, and with no high-profile attractions, it is not overrun with tourists, even in the height of summer.

The people who are sprinkled through these hills and hollows are open, friendly and helpful, especially in winter, when cooperation is a necessity.

The whole county, populated by only about 27,000 people, is a haven for outdoor activities, and visitors find plenty of fishing, canoeing, hiking and camping.

West Jefferson

West Jefferson

The New River flows through Ashe County, or rather, both New Rivers, for it is divided into the North Fork and South Fork. Between them, they section off the county by thirds, running from the southwest to northeast.

The river is very old, the oldest in the New World according to some geologists, and it meanders like the Mississippi rather than straightaway seeking its own level and cascading over anything in its path, the way most mountain rivers do. And every other river in the state flows, eventually, southeast. The New River flows north, eventually joining the Kanawha River in West Virginia and then following the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico.

The river twists and folds on itself so mazily that you are constantly surprised, on coming to the river by the highway, that it always flows in the opposite direction you would have thought it should.

About half the roads in the county are paved, but a large percentage are only gravel. Some are only Jeep trails. And all along these roads there are random mountain houses and bordering fences. Actually, the county seems divided in character into its southeastern and northwestern halves. Near Meat Camp NC copy

In the southeast, rolling knolls of pastureland at average heights between 2,500 and 3,000 feet above sea level look as if they had been misplaced from England’s Yorkshire. This half of the county is well populated. The county seat is Jefferson, with about 4,700 people; West Jefferson is slightly less populated but is more developed. When people go ”to town,” they mean West Jefferson. It’s where you’ll find Geno’s Pizza.

There are many farms with tobacco patches, cornfields and oceans of wheat. The biggest industry is beef cattle, and nearly every farmer in this half of the county grows his own steers. Dairy cows are common, too, and Ashe County has its own cheese factory, the only one in the state. Tours are popular, and so are samples. Ashe Co. hillside cows

Also in Glendale Springs is the Last Supper fresco painted by artist Ben Long IV in the 1970s at Holy Trinity Church. Long spent years in Italy studying the technique for painting on wet plaster and had searched vainly in the United States for a place to practice his craft. When he came to Ashe County in 1973, he approached Father Faulton Hodge with his proposal to make a fresco in his church and Hodge told him, ”We’ll take it. What’s a fresco?” lastsupper

Actually, Long’s first work for Hodge and the parish was at the smaller and older St. Mary’s Church in Beaver Creek. His first work was a large painting of the pregnant Virgin Mary, holding her swollen belly. Some 75,000 people come each year to see the frescoes. Both churches are open 24 hours a day.

But the northwestern portion of the county is broken up with long, high mountains, and settlers have built tiny wind-weathered shacks in the coves. A few longer valleys are nicked with strings of homes, but there is none of the broad farmland that makes the other half of the county so habitable.

Ashe County was once called ”the Lost County” because it was hidden up behind the Blue Ridge — a virtual escarpment that separates the Appalachian Mountains to the west from the rolling hills of the Piedmont to the east — and there was virtually no way to travel up and down the Ridge to communicate with the rest of the state.

What travel and communication early Ashe County residents had was with Virginia, not North Carolina. Even now, there is only one road — North Carolina 16 — that dares climb the face of the Blue Ridge to enter Ashe County.

One of the results of the isolation was that early settlers felt an alienation from the rest of the state. Because they believed that the Raleigh government was ignoring them, portions of mountain North Carolina — including Ashe County, and parts of what would later become eastern Tennessee — seceded and formed their own state, which they named Franklin. It lasted from 1784 to 1788, eventually fizzling out when no one paid it much attention. Ashe County branch

Historically, the mountains of the South have always been distinct from the rest of the region. Even during the Civil War, when Southern patriotism was supreme, abolitionist sentiment ran high among the poor farmers of the mountains, and the ”Underground Railway” had a regular stop in Ashe County. In fact, before the United States Geological Survey named the central peak after our third president, it was locally called Negro Mountain, or some less polite version of that, after the number of runaway slaves that found shelter in its shadow.

In 1840, there were just under a hundred registered (and legal) distilleries in Ashe County. When North Carolina voted itself dry, the distilleries went underground, or more properly, uphill.

Corn liquor is still being made. It is popular and available, despite the ”revenooers.” Commercial whiskeys are now available again, but many prefer the corn squeezings; it has a reputation for smoothness. ”Goes down like a pussycat; flies through your veins like a wildcat.”

A tax-paid legal and commercial version of the moonshine is available in some portions of the mountains for those who want to find out legally what it’s like to drink their hooch from a Mason jar. Ashe County hillside

The best times of year to visit Ashe County are the spring, when the season works its way up the mountain, trailing clouds of azalea and rhododendron glory behind; and fall, when the season comes back down the mountain, coloring all the trees with orange, yellow and red. Fall colors in the North Carolina mountains have few rivals anywhere.

NEXT: North Carolina Pig Pickin’ 

Appalachians Part 2: In which the author eats a persimmon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On a late October morning, after a solid frost, you can find a bushel of brownish mottled balls scattered on the ground in the rime under the persimmon tree. They look spoiled and perhaps their thin skin has cracked.

You pick one up and tear its skin wide, forcing the orange flesh through, against your teeth. You push the soft, puddinglike flesh against the roof of your mouth with your tongue, separating it from the hard, grasshopper-size pits that you suck on for a few minutes before spitting out.

There are few wild foods sweeter and more delicious than the ‘simmon you find for yourself on an old, deserted farm in the mountains of North Carolina.

The farmhouse has lost most of its paint, there are spider webs on the dusty windows, and a few boards have fallen through on the front porch. The house sits at the bottom of a hill, where hay still is mown in the summer. At the top, there is the edge line of a hardwood forest. At this time of year, along the creek at the bottom of the slope, the red maples are scarlet and the sweet gums are yellow.

And the ubiquitous zigzag rail fence will seem to outlast everything in the decaying farmhouse but its chimney. ashe county back road

It is the Blue Ridge, the first range of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. It rises as low hills in northern Alabama and continues north, growing higher through Georgia, South and North Carolina and Tennessee, then thinning out and shrinking again in Virginia, only to sink below the soil once more in Maryland.

The Blue Ridge is what we think of first when we consider the Southern mountains. Its people, its wildlife and its landscape are distinct: black bears, porcupines and possums play in thickly forested hills interspersed with valleys, or ”coves,” where leather-skin farmers grow feed corn and burley tobacco and pasture their cattle.

These Eastern mountains are very different from the higher, wilder, but simpler ranges of the West. They are lower for one thing — the highest is Mount Mitchell, at a mere 6,684 feet. They are round, soft, fuzzy with trees. road up Mt. Mitchell copy

And they are inhabited.

There are wildernesses in the Blue Ridge, accessible only by serious hikers, but you can’t really think of the Appalachians without thinking of the people who live there. Every creek-filled crease in the folded rock has its two-story clapboard house, its barn, springhouse and root cellar.

In the cool fall days, you can see the blue smoke rising from stone chimneys and hear the distant sound of chain saws bucking another cord of wood.

Times have changed some: You also might find a satellite dish in the yard. Because these old houses — some a century and a half old — are so hard to heat, the descendants of their builders sometimes have moved into a mobile home parked right next to the noble old house.

However, you will always find the woodpile, the kitchen garden and the pickup truck on the dirt driveway.

The people of the mountains, however, are not mere stereotypes.

By and large, they are comfortably in the 21st century. There are fast foods, hardware stores and Kia dealerships. High-school kids wear Nikes and everyone waiting for the schoolbus seems to have an iPhone.

However, there is something different about them, their clipped dialect, wary sense of humor, flat-pitch singing, white-clapboard religion and, above all else, an unbreakable attachment to the land. Those who leave spend the rest of their lives pining for it, dreaming of going back.

”I lied to my God when I left the mountains and kem to these devilish cotton mills,” said one old mountaineer, quoted by Appalachian historian Horace Kephart. ”Ef only he’d turn me into a varmint I’d run back tonight. Boys, I dream I’m in torment; and when I wake up, I lay thar an’ think o’ the spring branch runnin’ over the root o’ that thar poplar; and I say, could I git me one drink o’ that water I’d be content to lay me down and die.” snow

For nature is so insistent, both for the brutality of its winter and the beauty of its summer, that the mountain population grows right into the rocks and soil of the hillsides. Pull one out and his roots remain in the ground.

I know. I have become one of them.

Everything about the Southern Appalachians sticks in one’s innards.

So that when the midwinter snows close the schools for weeks at a time and the white tufts gather in the pine needles, deadening all the sound of the landscape, you might hear in the distance the county plow scraping the pavement and the clatter of tire chains. catawba rhododendron

The hillsides are scratchy with gray branches and beech trees with smooth aluminum bark, and last year’s dry papery copper leaves rattle in the breeze.

Then the spring: It is spring when the Appalachians are most themselves.

The cool humid air hangs as fog in the river bottoms and the dew hangs on the stamens of the rhododendron, which snake out of the flowers like a lizard tongue.

Witch hazels spread over the ice-water stream.

The area’s waterfalls are at their peak, spreading water like a coat of varnish over the gray, lichened and mossy granite. Trilium

There is color under your feet and over your head. The redbud tree spatters the forest with a spray of reddish purple; the wake-robin grows pinker by the day. There are buttercups, columbine, maypops, geraniums, trilliums, mayflowers, fire pinks and yellow lady’s slipper.

Everywhere, low under your ankle, there are the leaf-whorl and drooping antenna-flower of the common humble violet.

The mountain winters are frozen solid, so when the spring thaw comes, the whole landscape pops open.

And no matter where I was living, when spring came, I thought of it in these mountains.

Next: Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

apple

If you could be anywhere at all on the planet at this moment, where would you choose? As for me, I have no hesitation: the Blue Ridge. 

If there is an Eden on this Earth, it must be among the Appalachian Mountains. More specifically, the section in North Carolina and Virginia. When I am away from it, I pine. 

This time of year, the black-eyed Susans and the ironweed play their orange and blue against each other, and the asters line the road cuts with yellow irises in their violet eyes. At the higher elevations, the bite of autumn is already on the dry grasses. blackeyedsusan1 copy

The smaller waterfalls have slowed with the drought of summer, and the green oak leaves have begun turning leathery. In my mind’s ear, I can hear the cicadas and redwings, the caw of a crow in the cornfield and the buzz of the distant chain saw cutting through the corpse of a tree downed in the last thunderstorm. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Appalachians run more than 1,500 miles, from the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec southwest to northern Alabama. The range is seldom more than 100 miles wide, and it is made up of a whole series of smaller ranges: among them the White Mountains, the Taconics, the Adirondacks, the Kittatinnies, the Blue Ridge, the Smokies, the Black and the Nantahala mountains. road up Mt. Mitchell

Each range is a pearl with its own colors and beauties, and the string that ties them all together is the Appalachian Trail, which wanders for 2,034 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. 

The wilderness trail crosses 14 states, eight national forests and two national parks. It varies from just above sea level at the Bear Mountain Bridge in New York to 6,634 feet at Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies. 

Each year, hundreds of eager hikers attempt to walk the whole thing or large sections of it. It can take three to six months to do, depending on your speed and fitness. 

Some years ago, I was one of those eager hikers. I had saved my earnings for a year so I could afford to take six months off from work and hike from southern Virginia to Maine. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Large sums went into buying a lightweight backpack, tent and down sleeping bag. I learned to weigh the quarter-ounces when deciding which things were necessities and which I could do without. Even so, my pack weighed in at about 65 pounds, including the complete Milton I took with me. Necessities are necessities. 

It was early spring when I took off, and the spongy forest floor was covered in trilliums and geraniums. 

My goal each day was to make the seven or eight miles between the simple wooden shelters that were provided for sleeping. When I woke in the morning, the dew would drop from the trees like rain. 

In April and May, the trail was laced with rhododendron and azalea. Maypops were in flower down at my feet, and tulip-tree blossoms showed their rosy green over my head. flower - Catawba Rhododendron pistils

Early in the morning, the redheaded woodpecker rattled in the oaks and the phoebe tweeted his name 20 or 30 times a minute. 

But hiking does something to you. Physical exertion propels your appetite and lowers your standards: At lunch, a Slim Jim and a chunk of Velveeta tastes like ambrosia. And at an icy mountain spring, I would mix Tang in a tin cup and slurp it down like the finest German beer. dec016

I had little time to read Milton. 

And after a few weeks, I recognized that goal-oriented hiking was qualitatively different from a weekend hike or a day in the woods. Because I had to make a certain distance each day, the hike soon ceased being a celebration of nature and wilderness and became a dutiful trudge, watching for the paint blazes on trees or rocks that marked the trail, plopping one waffle-stomper down in front of the other, watching out for roots or stones that might twist an ankle. It became work. flower - fiddleheads2005

I took a day off here or there to enjoy the woods, but it didn’t blot out the need to make up miles. 

So I — in the greatest physical condition of my life — quit the trail before I even left Virginia and spent the rest of my six months traveling by other means. 

Many years later, I met and married my wife in the Blue Ridge and continued hiking smaller sections of the trail, among the magnolias and witch hazels, beech trees and hickories. 

And I’m there again as I write this.Blue Ridge horizon2 copy

Linville falls from upper look

I first saw Linville Falls 40 years ago. Getting there meant finding an unmarked gravel road and an unmarked dirt parking lot — really just a thicker place in the road to pull over onto.

Then we followed a spongy, loamy footpath under the hickories and oaks toward the distant roar of the waterfall on North Carolina’s Linville River. No one was there but us, and we picnicked on the rocks over the crashing water. The upper falls are a broad, shallow drop, but at the lower falls, the quartzite pulls tight, constricting the river and forcing it down a spiraling chute that drops over the edge of the cliff and down 75 feet to the river and Linville Gorge.

Linville Falls 03

It is an impressive torrent with a basso profundo roar, and nothing will ever change the way it seemed to me that day, as I leaped over rocks, crossing the white water to the other shore so I could climb on the gnarled rock to see down the waterway.

I’ve been back many times over the years. The National Park Service built a paved road from the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it easier to find. Then they paved the parking lot and built a pedestrian bridge over the river upstream from the falls.

The last time I went back, there was a visitor’s center and a souvenir shop and a parade of vacationers trotting down the path to the fenced-in overlook. The falls are just as impressive, but the experience isn’t.

If I speed up those 40 years in my head like time-lapse photography, I can see time take shape. It builds and it destroys in a constant rise and fall like an ocean tide.

And what comes in, ebbs.

Linville trillium

A few years ago, my wife and I visited another familiar site, on Old Route 16, a dirt road that drops down the side of the Blue Ridge toward North Wilkesboro. When we lived in the mountains, we used to visit an abandoned farm along the road, halfway down the mountain face.

There was a clearing in the wood and an old wooden house with a broad porch that looked out over the steep valley below. Above us was the spot ominously known as the ”Jumpin’-Off Place.”

We could picnic on the porch with the bluebird and tanager singing in front of us, the buzz of insects all around and the gentle breeze rattling the grass in the field.

It had been 14 years since we visited that farmhouse, and we thought we should see what had become of it.

About three miles down the old dirt road, we passed where it should have been, but there was no break in the forest, no open field. We couldn’t find the house. We kept driving, hoping we’d find something that looked familiar, but we didn’t. Finally we stopped the car where the farm should have been and walked deep into the woods.

Buried a hundred yards into the tangle of maple trees was a naked standing chimney, completely eaten up by brush and undergrowth.

When I climbed down the hill toward it, I discovered the forest floor was spongy with rotten boards, completely collapsed in on themselves, with a few nail heads showing.

In the 14 years since we last visited, the old house had been completely digested by the woods, leaving only the indigestible brickwork of the twin-sided chimney.

And the once-glorious view of the declivity was now completely obscured by trees and brush. Instead of a vacant field overgrown, the house was survived only by complete woods.

In 14 years.

Nature can reclaim an entire farm in 14 years and leave nothing behind but the masonry. And that won’t last much longer.

Linville Gorge1