Black Balsam

written in North Carolina, 2010. 

Memorial Day in the Mountains

It is listening that puts the world right again. When I listen to the wind, gently rustling the grasses, a feeling of peace pervades my being, as if I am absorbing the motes of tranquility that float in the air.  Occasional large flies and bees drone past, overlaying the background murmuring of grasses with percussive buzzes. An eastern towhee calls, moving further and further away, a penny-whistle of startling clarity. Crows caw dryly from among the mountains behind me, harsh sounds against the omnipresent breeze. They ride this wind, watching over places I’ll never see. But here, up on the top of the world, everything that I can see is enough.

I’m sitting on a rocky outcrop at the top of Black Balsam, a mountain just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. The rock under my hand is dark, shot through in some places with quartz, in others sprinkled with bits of mica that shine in the almost-setting sun. The rock is rough but worn, and I wonder how many years have passed since it first felt the warmth of daylight. More than I can fathom. Thousands of feet have passed this way, but this evening the perch and view are mine alone. My rock is an island surrounded by waves of bristling golden grasses, a bald above the tree line. Exposed to the world and the elements, I sit and breathe. The crickets have begun, their sounds the string section hidden among the dried grasses. The towhee still calls, now beyond the far ridge. It has found a partner and the two duet quietly, eventually fading into silence.

I like the mountains

I open my eyes and look up into the pure blue that is the sky. There are clouds, small puffs of cotton over distant mountains, too far away and wispy to be of concern. The moon is a translucent orb, suspended in the lightest blue above the darker mountain-defined horizon. All around me, as far as I can see, are mountains. Their smoothly rounded profiles deceptively hide distance and rock, making the world look soft. I imagine tracing their shapes with my hands, but it takes more than touch to know a mountain.

I glance up and a kestrel flies toward me, the only moving creature I can see. It disappears below the crest behind me, only to climb high again before eventually disappearing, a black speck absorbed into the sunlight and the blue of the sky. I wish to follow, but my mind is drawn back by the large, startling green katydid that lands on my bare leg. It takes a few hesitant steps on feet so small I can’t feel them before wiping its antenna and hopping clumsily away. It lands on the rock nearby, and as I watch it scrapes a wing against its back leg, beginning a solo not intended for my ears. I move closer but it leaps madly away, just out of reach. I don’t try to follow. I look back up at the moon and at my shadow on the grass, which remains still no matter how the grasses dance in the wind.

I sit and listen to the moon and the mountains, and, sometimes, I think I understand what they say.

I like the mountains

Memorial Day in the Mountains

For the long weekend (last weekend, it took me a while to go through all my pictures) I went up to North Carolina, to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest. Two years ago I had an internship at The Cradle of Forestry, which is just off the Parkway. It was about a three and a half hour drive from South Carolina, but worth every minute.

I spent most of the time during my internship wishing I could climb Looking Glass Rock. One of these days I will. Hopefully.

I spent many hours hiking around and exploring the area during my internship, and I wanted to go back and see if it was as beautiful as I remembered. I also needed to get my altitude fix, as I’ve spent the past 6 months in flat flat Florida and semi-flat South Carolina. It’s good for running and biking (because I don’t do hills on my bike) but I miss being able to see into the distance.

I drove up on Saturday and spent two nights camping up near Black Balsam, which is just off the parkway. Sunday morning I got up and reveled in the misty mountain view. The rest of the morning I spent hiking along the mountain ridge and getting sun burnt. After a leisurely lunch with a spectacular view I drove south along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After I called home and talked to not only my mother, sister, father and brother but also my two grandmothers (and all at the same time, too. Ah, the wonders of speaker phone). Then I made my way back to Black Balsam for a second night of camping in my new favorite camping place in Pisgah Forest.

The trail along the mountain ridge. One of my favorite places to hike in the area.
Art Loeb Spur, one of my favorite trails.

Sunset in the mountains is beautiful, and I was very tempted to just stay up there forever (or at least another few days, until my food ran out) and become a mountain woman. I had half a loaf of bread, half a chunk of cheese, and a hard-boiled egg. Definitely could have lasted at least another few days.

Campsite the first night, on the mountain side. I took this picture in the morning, when everything was misty and covered in dew.
View from my tent (taken later in the morning, after the fog burned off).

Sunday night I drove back to my new favorite camping spot up on Black Balsam, this time setting up camp on the edge of some pines, which was a little more protected from the wind (and turned out to be much less dewy). Monday morning I drove down into Brevard to buy postcards and check out the White Squirrel Festival. I missed any white squirrel-related activities, but I did have some excellent gelato and a nice conversation with the New Zealander who owns the gelato shop. On my way back up to the parkway I stopped at Slick Rock Falls.

Slick Rock Falls
Cedar Waxwing

After Brevard, I headed north along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville, where I stopped for lunch. After that it was a straight shot south to South Carolina and Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge.

My campsite the second night.

I was very tempted to stay in the mountains, but the red-cockaded woodpeckers were calling and so I had to head south again. Hopefully it won’t be so long before I can visit the mountains again.