Trees, please!

Five days through the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina : June 2008

"I see that skinny trail heading in under the trees," says the lady from Pensylvania, "and it's just so pretty, I want to head in and do it all!"

All of it is 1000-odd miles of the Mountains to the Sea Trail in North Carolina. 1000 miles means a heck of a lot of trees, but that's cool, North Carolinans like trees. One of them went visiting in England and at last they took him to Snowdonia ... but before they got to the mountains, they passed the low rolling foothills with the forestry plantations. "I was clawing at the car windows," he told me. "I just wanted to get in under those trees."

As a non-Carolinan, five days of Mountains to the Sea would do me. In those five days, I would be passing approximately a million trees. Once each day, or even oftener, I'd emerge to a hilltop clearing, and see a view. That view would be of trees.

Oddly, the Appalachians, of which the Blue Ridge Mountains are a part, are the same range as the Scottish Highlands and most of Norway. Geologically speaking the opening of the Atlantic is pretty recent; this Caledonian range dates from long before then. Accordingly, the rocks of the Blue Ridge, when they emerge from the leafmould, are reassuringly familiar: the grey streaky schist of Loch Lomond or Glen Affric. But N Carolina missed out on two big advantages of the Highlands: the mountain-carving Ice Age, and the tree-eating sheep.

Day 1: Grandfather Mountain

The entire Appalachian range may be Caledonian -- Grandfather Mountain is Scottish. It's more Scottish, in fact, than most of Scotland: with an annual Highland Games, bagpipers, and a Scottish shopping mall of concentrated tartan. You can buy whisky, of course, and clan mugs: and even Irn-bru, the Scots soft drink made of sugar, carbonated water, and metal girders. So Grandfather seemed an appropriate place to start. I stepped off a pull-off of the Blue Ridge Parkway and in underneath the trees, and started looking for the white paintspot markers of the Mountains to the Sea Trail.

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Linville Falls, visited on the drive in
Into the trees, below Grandfather Mountain
Beacon Heights, 1/2 mile into the walk: view south

The spots lead downwards, through gloom where butterflies flutter. The trail is floored with brown leaves and weird non-photosynthesising plants. Treetrunks rise high; oaks with overlarge leaves, tulip-trees referred to as poplars, the occasional pine.

And overhead, all the way down, is a noise rather like the sound in the wires of a train that's approaching, but not near. For 2008 is a year that, divided by 17, leaves the remainder 2: 2008 is, in North Carolina, a cicada year. Every seventeenth year, millions of two-inch insects with orange eyes emerge from holes in the ground, fly up into the treetops, and start signalling to each other by vibrating their kneecaps.

When I write millions, that's about 1.5 million to every acre of forest. In each square mile, about one billion. In North Carolina as a whole, some trillions of orange-eyed, noisy-kneecapped cicadas. Their defence against predators is in being so numerous that no predator can multiply its own numbers enough to devour more than a fraction of them. Their emergence interval is a prime number in case of any predator that might itself emerge in a cycle of of 2, or 3, or 5, or any sensibly short number of years. (So there are also 7-year and 13-year cicadas.)

After a couple of hours the trail arrives at a creek, and follows the water downstream, with glimpses of sky above the riverbed, glimpses of waterfalls somewhere below. Above the treetops thunder is rumbling, but no rain falls. I make my first camp on pineneedles alongside the creek. Using tricky ropework, practised at home beforehand, I hang my two food bags over a branch in such a way that they are both more than 10ft above the ground. Bears are not nasty. For every hiker torn to bits by a bear, a hundred die by lightning, or by bees, and ten thousand are killed by other human beings. Alone in the forest, with the water making random noises and the tent wall less than a sixteenth of an inch thick, bears are nasty to think about, that's all.

It takes about ten minutes to get completely dark. Fireflies sparkle in the shrubbery, and when one settles on the tent it makes a green glow through the nylon. A single mosquito zings in the tent top. The overnight temperature plummets to about 60 degrees, which is far too hot for my sleeping bag.

At dawn, sunlight creeps in between the treetrunks and sparkles in the creek.          more story

butterfly, nearly 10cm wingspan
First camp, Harper Creek

Day 2: Harper Creek

Next day, the creek continues. Only the compass reveals that sometimes it continues in the correct direction, sometimes sideways, and occasionally it's going back to Grandfather Mountain. An early camper cooks fresh-caught trout over a fire of pine cones. He wears only sandals and a flesh-coloured canvas kilt, and wants to go to Scotland, to the Cairngorms in particular. His comrade plans a trip to Barra in the Western Isles, home of her ancestors. These, then, are hikers of discrimination, but the next I come across, early in the afternoon, are less so. A half-mile in from a parking lot, a people-crusher car squats blocking the trail, its doors open wide. Beyond it, a blare of baseball, and a family picknicking alongside a waterslide. The lad, in fashionably shapeless shorts, has his folding chair on granite slabs mid-stream. Behind him, the trail narrows, and the baseball fades into the rustling of a million leaves.

Overhead, the cicadas are sipping the oak leaves, rubbing their back legs together lasciviously, and generally enjoying their summer of fun before the next sixteen years of being a lava down among the leafmould. Among the green leaves below me, the creek slides down long grey slabs, and weaves among grey boulders. Occasionally a roar and a glimpse of white water indicates another waterfall down there somewhere. The trail crosses the creek quite astonishingly often, sometimes twice in a quarter-mile. The windings of the creek, as it tests all four corners of the compass in its quest to get out of the mountains, are the only measure of where we, the trail and I, have got to.

Mid-afternoon I filled both my waterbottles to the lids, and turned up from the creek for the 2500ft of ascent onto Tablerock Mountain. Two hours later I emerged onto the summit's bare rocks, and, for the first time in the journey, stuck my head up above the trees.

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Indian Pipes, a plant of the heather family
through oak and mountain laurel, Day 2
sunset, from Tablerock Mountain

Tablerock Mountain, though only 3600ft high, is impressively rocky on all sides, especially the west where it looks down into the deep Linville Gorge. To call this 'North Carolina's Grand Canyon' is true to the extent that no other Carolina canyon is any grander: it's 2000ft deep, and crag breaks through the trees on both sides, and on the following day I was to watch an eagle from the river below, soaring in spirals upwards without a wingbeat, eventually to arrive at my eye level almost close enough for a decent photo... As night fell, a grey and crimson sunset drew itself slowly across the sky, and I watched for the fabled the strange lights on Brown Mountain, ten miles away northwest. These lights flicker from place to place and at last (one eyewitness tells me) you stop bothering to watch them and go into your tent to sleep.

I'd formed my own view of these lights, as a night-riding event on the mountain bike trails that, according to my map, run all over the Brown Mountain. However, this theory is rather spoilt by the way the lights were recorded in legend by Cherokee Indians 500 years before the bicycle's invention... The lights have been frequently observed, and also recorded on video, and Joshua P Warren, a researcher from Asheville, explains them as follows:

Brown Mountain is composed, quite unusually, of layers of quartz and of magnetite. Magnetite, an iron oxide, is an electrical conductor, and quartz is a dielectric (an electrical resistor); the layers make up a mountain-sized natural capacitor, a storage device for static electricity a bit like a rechargeable battery. Water flowing through the mountain, and perhaps winds as well, can charge up the capacitor.

In the cool of an autumn evening the mountain contracts -- the fact that it is ringed with geological fault-lines may aid this process. This brings the capacitor plates closer together, steepening the voltage gradient. If conditions are right, the capacitor discharges itself by ionising the surrounding air: ripping loose the electrons to create the electrically charged gas known as a plasma.

This account makes the Brown Mountain lights a first cousin to the (itself imperfectly understood) ball lightning, and to the aurora or Northern Lights. Warren's organisation, the League of Energy Materialisation and Unexplained phenomena Research, names itself after the mythical continent Lemuria (Pacific sister-state to Atlantis) and devotes itself to ghost-hunting, but even so the explanation does appear to me, who gained an A-level (quite good grade, too) in the subject in the 1960s, to be based on physics rather than the creative imagination.

There are no mystery lights on Brown Mountain tonight, but lightning does flicker on the horizon, and like a less-exciting sort of firefly distant cities sparkle orange in the south. A brisk wind blows over Tablerock, so I seek out a slot in the summit shrubbery. By doing clever things with string I managed to pitch the tarp tent in the small space provided.          more story

dawn from Tablerock Mountain: over Linville Gorge towards Mount Mitchell ridge
Tablerock Mountain from parking lot

Day 3: Linville Gorge

Dawn on Tablerock was clear and cool. Sunlight lay across the treetops below, and turned the grey schisty sides of Linville Gorge slightly pink. In the southwest lay the long dark ridge of Mount Mitchell. I wondered whether the leafcover would let me see it again before the time, in two more days, when I'd be actually treading on the thing.

I passed through an early-morning parking lot, and a nearby camp of young people, and onto the wonderful Chimneys. Schisty towers stick up along the brink of the Linville Gorge, all sparkly in the morning sunshine, and decorated with wild flowers. A tall white pyramid, distantly of the lily family, turned out to be called flypoison. A small yellow bush was the 'golden heather', not heather at all but a sort of rock-rose, quite rare and rather special. Pink shrubbery of mountain laurel was all over the place. On the left, far below, the flat lands of the east: on the right, 2000ft drops to treetops and the Linville River.

Four hours later, I came down to that river's bank. This crossing had been mentioned on the Internet, but I wasn't sure why. During the drive in, we'd visited its waterfalls 12 miles upstream and found the river just a two-boulder hop across. A useful water-source, for sure, after the burnt-out ridges of Shortoff Mountain.

Sunlight was bright between the treetrunks, and I emerged to 50 yds of flowing water, and a white paint-spot beckoning from a treetrunk on the further bank. But there'd been little recent rain, and the crossing point had been well-chosen, for this wide-point of the river was nowhere more than knee-deep. I crossed, stripped off, and went back in for a wash.

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looking southeast to the plains from Chimneyrock
mountain golden heather (actually a sort of rockrose I'd say)
galax (pronounced gay-lacks)
From Shortoff Mountain up Linville Gorge
Linville River. On far bank, centre, the white spot marking the crossing

For the forenoon I climbed through hot forests. The Pinnacle turned out to be a lumpy tor, rising just above the treetops for lunchtime in the sun. As the afternoon ended, my line of hills sharpened into a thrilling ridge. I could tell it was a thrilling ridge because on either side, behind the leaves and treetrunks, there showed not more leaves and treetrunks but glimpses of open sky. There was a breeze, too, between the trees, and rock-lumps in the path. I pushed aside branches of azalea, flaming yellow and orange on the single bush. Then the path turned, and zig-zagged for a glorious hour down a hillside all pink laurel flowers, and scattered pine, and below it all the green flat valley of the Catawaba River. Woodlawn has a motel, even. But to arrive at a motel at 7.30 leaves far too little time to appreciate the facilities, so I camped out on an overgrown logging road at the edge of town.

Day 4: Betsy Ridge

The gas station boasted a small food store and diner, were I watched gowned American teenagers perform their colourful graduation rituals, updated myself on the Barack-Hilary tournament, and picked up some weather for the next few days. It was hard to concentrate on the TV when distracted by a good Carolina breakfast of fried things on a paper plate. The courteous restauranteuse filled my two-litre waterbottle, wiped it with a paper towel before returning it, and didn't sneer even slightly when I needed her to explain me the public phone booth.

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The Pinnacle: Day 3
poison ivy
mountain laurel

Having warned my family that I was still alive so far, I abandoned humanity and returned into the world of trees. A wild turkey lurked unseen beside the trail: but when I backtracked she realised her lurking had failed her (although in fact I was just checking I hadn't just lost the trail) and flapped out like an angry washing basket to stride about going bok .... bok ... bok like any farmyard hen. I know hens, and that bok ... bok ... bok isn't just affronted dignity but is distracting me from the fact that chicks are scurrying for shelter. So I looked for them, and saw a couple dashing for a fallen log like tennis balls on tiny legs.

I'm the least effective of predators. Don't the fox and the coyote and the raccoon also understand the simple meaning of that bok ... bok ... bok? The wild turkey, 5lb of tasty supper mounted on wings that don't really work, is as strange in its way as the cicadas.

The trail rises under the singing cicadas, on old dirt roads being recolonised with poison ivy. After a couple of hours it arrives onto a new line of hills, the Betsy Ridge. Even now, after four days of forest, at every turn I expect to step out into the open. It isn't going to happen. These trees go on for a thousand miles to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Navigating forests in America is oddly similar to Scottish hills in mist -- all you get is the direction of travel and the direction of the downhill slope. When the trail on the ground takes a different line from the mark on the map, there are two choices. Take a magnifying glass to the map and a lot of brain power continuously working out where you are: or just follow the white spots. Trouble is, some of those white spots are actually grey lichen, and under pine trees in particular, the trail itself is vague. It should be possible to navigate by traffic noise of the BR Parkway, somewhere downslope -- except that, this particular week, the Parkway is closed off for repairs. Still, there's the tarmac itself, encountered every couple of miles. I check the compass, and soon realise that just to trick me the trail is travelling backwards on itself, but still can't quite work out why the parkway is above and on the north. Not knowing where you are is part of the tree experience, but aha! -- they've gone to some trouble here to ensure the proper lost-in-the-forest feel to it all. The diverted trail (but not on the map) has just secretly crossed where the roadway was in a tunnel.

Here for the first time I met another long-distance hiker. We talked about water -- Betsy Ridge is as the name suggests a ridge, and there wasn't any, for eight hours of hiking, in the direction I'd come from. We talked about the M to S trail, and whether this chap, appropriately named Walker Bradley, would possibly do it all. (In another six days he was going to hit the piedmont and the plains, and the remaining 700 miles were going to be very flat indeed; he'd already accepted a ride onto Mount Mitchell up the Blue Ridge Parkway; and although he was from Carolina he didn't seem utterly delighted by trees, perhaps because a fair number of them had fallen down across the trail.) He said he'd email when he'd finished, and two weeks after our meeting he still hasn't. So perhaps he's still at it, or perhaps my card was just too heavy to carry another 850 miles ...

We exchanged notes on where exactly we thought we were, and I warned him about the parkway-in-the-tunnel trick. We stood up. "And now," he wondered, "Which way was I going?"

This can be an issue. Bill Bryson records an Appalachian Way walker who turned around in a fire break, and headed back down the trail without realising his mistake for three full days.

"You just climbed around that fallen tree," I pointed out; "and I just didn't. Besides,there's always the compass -- " glancing down at my own one. And recoiling in horror as if it were a posy of poison ivy. "Don't look at your compass!" According to the compass (and the compass is correct) my southbound trail was currently heading due north; his northbound one, due south.

That evening, I washed myself from foot to head in the South Toe River. And, just to be beastly to the bears, I suspended my food bags so that they hung above the flowing water.

In the night, the wind got up and banged around among the treetops. Every time I woke, I wondered about my food bags so cleverly suspended. When they shook themselves down off their slender branch they were going to drop into the South Toe River. Would the cord between them snag over a rock, so that my food would be safe, if sodden and dissolved? Or would it simply disappear for ever? Fortunately, 13 hours of hilly hiking ensures that one doesn't spend more than a few seconds at at ime awake and wondering ...

Day 5: Mount Mitchell

The television weather had said that it was going to be 90 degrees. Fortunately, the trail now led steadily upwards towards the lesser heat of the 6000-foot contour. After the first hour of uphill, I chose the trail by way of Higgins Bald. A bald is a patch of mountain where, for reasons not really understood, the trees don't grow. And at 4500ft, this bald should offer some sort of a view.

The bald was not a big one. Instead of trailside trees, it offered a view of trees 50yds away downslope. Even the bald itself was merely relative, as it was floored by rhododendron and other shrubbery, approximately head-high. Bald, at this particular flank of Mount Mitchell, was not involving beautiful.

Above the bald, oak trees gave way to pine, dead brown leaves underfoot became brown needles. Small birds with white tails flittered through the gloom: brown-eyed juncos, I was told by a trail interpretation board. I became aware of the summit not far ahead -- not so much by the easing of the slope and the freshening breeze, but less subtly by the shouts and sounds of heavy machinery. Sunlight gleamed between the treetrunks, and I stepped out into the open, clear blue sky above -- and underfoot, an expanse of grey tarmac. The summit of Mount Mitchell, highest hill east of the Mississippi, consists of a parking lot.

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flame azalea
Mount Mitchell summit
On Mount Mitchell, Day 5

The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along the crest of the Appalachians for almost 500 miles, right up to Washington DC. It was a feat of engineering and a job creation scheme during the great depression. A spur of it runs up-ridge at over 6000ft to Mount Mitchell. A short trail continues to the true top, where an observation tower lets you look out above the trees. The tower was being, slowly and thoroughly, reconstructed; and the short trail was closed.

"Normally we'd say just go on up," they said at the soft drinks counter. "But today, there's two state rangers and a federal ranger up there." Federal rangers carry guns, and throw you into not any ordinary gaol but actually Alcatraz. Anyway, who needs the true top when there's a soft drinks counter right at your elbow. "I'll have a blueberry muffin please, and a gatorade."

"And a what?"

"A gatorade."

"Sorry, don't get you."

"A gatorade -- the second item on your list up there."

"Oh, you mean a gatorade. Why didn't you say? What colour would you like it?"

Bologna, a slab of reconstituted meat at the Woodlawn diner, is pronounced boloney. But gatorade is pronounced gatorade. I decided to go for it in green.

The trail at this point follows the Blue Ridge Parkway -- but all the time is pretending not to. This involves pointless ascents onto hill slopes above the roadway, briefly along under some pine trees, and then back down again. And the ascents are graded in wide gentle zigzags designed, perhaps, for a heavily laden mule that's elderly and suffering from bad knees. So as often as not the trail heads pointlessly uphill on a path that's going backwards across the slope and not even ascending. And then it crosses the parkway again for a pointless hill slope on the downhill side. A briar frond across the track at waist level suggested that Walker Bradley, passing here yesterday, had copped out and simply trodden the tarmac.

But on one pointless excursion up Bullpen Mountain, the trail emerged onto another of the balds, and it was a place of bare rock, and shrubbery only knee-high, and a whispering grassland meadow. I refocussed my eyes for distant vision, and saw that the sun was setting behind ridgelines of grey and purple. Ten minutes later I found water for the first time since Woodlawn. I camped on the ridgetop under some spruce trees, aware that, behind the thin screen of shrubbery, the view would be looking out across a dozen lumpy hillsides.

Memo: if neading to get up in the night, head down behind the tent.          more story

Clinton's Lily in high-altitude boreal forest, ie spruce trees
bald on Bullpen Mountain, evening Day 5
final camp, Bullpen Mountain
Food suspended to frustrate bears
umbrella-leaf at Craggy Dome

Day 6: Craggy Gardens

This was my final trail day, so I made sure I got good photos of the mountain laurel and other shrubbery. Internet searches beforehand had suggested Craggy Gardens as a good place for garnets in the schist, so I was watching out for those as well, and photographed some impressive quarter-inch ones in bedrock exposed by the path. The parking lot gave good views westwards under the early sun.

The trail now followed the ridgeline above the Parkway; a sharp, narrow ridgeline, leading to Lane Pinnacle, where it would join a loggers' dirt road across the following two small summits. I was used, by now, to the way the trail attempts to double your fun by taking twice as far to get there; so I put away the map and just followed the ridgeline and the white dots. The ridgeline runs southwest Lane's Pinnacle; then, with the loggers' road, roughly west; then southwest again over a final summit enticingly named as Rocky Knob.

"Some pretty places back there," says a family man coming back along the trail. "But quite a lot of bugs." I had by now got used to the small black things whose project in life is to fly into one's eyelashes. And pretty it is, as the trail clambers over little schisty bits, and breaks in the trees step out onto rock bluffs above a great hill bowl whose treetop texture is like foam carpet underlay laid eight miles wide. And straight away, I find an outcrop encrusted with garnets six times the size of the ones I'd already taken photographs of. This is nice: but need it be quite so long? Three hours have passed, and I still haven't reached Lane's Pinnacle. I check the compass: still southwest, as expected. I did want to finish this walk this afternoon.

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blueberry at Craggy Gardens
view from Craggy Gardens, Day 6
garnets 5cm wide in schist, west of Craggy Gardens

To drop left to the straighforward tarmac Parkway would be to admit defeat. Worse, it would involve a really nasty half hour of pathless shrubbery and poison ivy and twigs down the back of the neck. Best just to follow the white dots, if possible slightly faster.

Another hour goes by. Between the branches I glimpse a green rise ahead: this, at last, just has to be Lane Pinnacle. But the path, in its perverse way, continues down the right-hand flank. After ten minutes, just to show its determination to go downhill, it flings in a couple of zigzags. Then it crosses a small creek.

It's not too difficult to work it out. The dirt road marked on the map has completely vanished into the vegetation. Without realising, I had already crossed Lane Pinnacle, and Wolfden Knob, and the supposedly Rocky Knob, and completed my walk. Now I was on the way down and out. An hour later I emerged to tarmac at Bull Gap.

The residents of Bull Gap decorate their mailboxes with wild flowers, hummingbirds, and patriotic emblems. Avoiding poison ivy in the verges, I strolled under the loud cicadas to the house where, in two days time, my son was to marry a girl from North Carolina.

         who am I?

Zigzag spiderwort, or (in Scottish gardens) Tradescantia
evening primrose
fire pink

Thanks for useful advice to Hobey Ford and Joe Roberts, of Weaverville; and to Debra Roberts for advance shopping. Good luck for the future to Tom and Lauren...

Ronald Turnbull, outdoor writer, living in Dumfriesshire, Scotland homepage