I have walked about 100 yards into the deep woods along the ridge at the top of Mt. Mitchell, and the vegetation looks like I’m on Pandora (from Avatar.) The moss, ferns, and lush wildflowers, are thick beneath the shade of tall red spruce trees. The quiet and cool breezes are so embracing that I find a plump tree trunk, sit down in the soft mulch under it, and pull my mini-laptop out of my backpack to record the scene.
Butterflies. They are everywhere and fly right in front of me, the blue/black ones and the bright yellow swallowtails. A flock of juncos are hopping in and around a clump of flowers. There are some awesome flies buzzing around, but they leave me alone. Note: There are no mosquitoes. On this summer day, the temperature is in the mid-70’s.
I’m guessing that most of the rest of North Carolina is sweltering today, August 3rd, but it is quite pleasant sitting on this legendary hillside. Which is why I came here after three intolerable 90-100 degree weeks of working outdoors in Durham.
At the risk of gushing excessively about the beauty of nature, I can imagine that for thousands of years native Americans sat in such tranquil repose at the top of this mountain, and had far deeper feelings than I’m having knowing that this was the beginning and the end of their universe. And knowing that their mission was to live within the limits and dictates of this natural setting rather than to conquer it.
So, how hypocritical is it to be admiring the natural world and sitting midst it’s grandeur with my new Toshiba 11.5” 4GB Ram, 300GB HD mini laptop writing about it? Get over it. I’m enjoying the best of both worlds. If one must criticize my foolishness, here’s more. I’m spending two nights at the Mt. Mitchell campsite about a mile down the mountain. At dark, there’s not a lot to do, so I brought a movie loaded on my iPod Touch and another on a thumb drive to plug into this Toshiba if necessary.
I also have two digital cameras, and my cell phone (which only gets a signal at the top of the mountain.) Further, the day may come when I can post directly to my blog from this laptop while sitting here either by a 3G or 4G connection or some future satellite access. I don’t apologize, I like it. And, I probably overdo it just to give my friend and purist outdoorsman David more fodder for his righteous indignation at my combining techy toys with communing with nature. He was truly disgusted when he first heard of my habit saying, “that’s what you go camping to get away from.”
Anyway, speaking of the ravages of technology, at least I’m not the one who clear cut the virgin forest from the slopes of Mt. Mitchell almost 100 years ago resulting in fires and erosion, and causing then governor, Locke Craig, to exclaim, “The lumbermen are destroying North Carolina.” (Though a few years earlier, he had welcomed them.) The argument was that “progress” demanded the tall, straight grained, light weight spruce. Actually, most of it got shipped to England to make airplanes during WW 1. It would be interesting to know if the Red Baron was shot down by a British fighter plane made from the spruce of Mt. Mitchell.
Although reforested in the 1920s, this peak may never achieve its former grandeur since the acid rain, thanks to TVA power plants, inhibits tree growth. Seeing the old photos of the enormous girth of the spruce logs as they were hauled on flatbed train cars down the mountain is particularly telling, since I saw no trees on the mountain half that thick. But, knowing too much history can be debilitating and discouraging, for in spite of the mountain’s economic and ecological past, I have rarely been more exhilarated by the lush elegance of nature than in my two nights on Mt. Mitchell. And, the NC state park service could not have a better tribute to it’s preservation and recreational efforts than is found on this mountaintop.
There are nine campsites near the peak of the mountain, and “roughing it” is a misnomer here. It’s more like staying in nature’s 5-star hotel. If you like sunsets, pick campsites 1 or 3, and for sunrises, 5 or 7. There’s a solid log cabin style restroom facility (no shower) and water access. I found myself sitting comfortably in front of my tent the first night with a book of Carl Sandburg poetry. As the other campers wandered by, I heard at least three languages being spoken, a testament to the universal appeal of this place.
The first morning I leisurely prepared for the short walk to the summit. Carrying a backpack with lunch, drinks, camera, and laptop, I wandered up the well marked trail. At points, walking near the paved road, I heard the rumble of Harleys conquering Mitchell, the AARP easy riders, gentle sober folk, as I discovered at the top. Other than that occasional muffled burping, it was serenely quiet, intensely green, and otherworldly.
After an hour or two of wandering around the summit, eating lunch, hiking the circular nature trail, journaling in the laptop, and going through the museum and gift shop, I headed back down. It was actually getting a bit warm hiking down, the hottest part of the day for Mitchell, though still probably in the mid 70s. I crawled into my tent for a late afternoon nap.
Thunder, wind, and rain jolted me awake. The tent was shaking vigorously with the buffeting of the air moving up Mitchell’s western slope. I actually feared the tent might blow over with me in it, but my spindly tent pegs held well. With nothing to do but wait out the storm, I finished watching a movie on my iPod Touch, La Dolce Vita, the 1960 Fellini classic. An odd choice for a Mt. Mitchell storm? Possibly, but I didn’t bring Thoreau with me, or O. Henry, or the journals of John Lawson or William Bartram, early North Carolina explorers. Maybe next time.
It was only after getting back home that I read a couple of books on Mt. Mitchell. One, bought at the gift store at the summit, Mt. Mitchell, It’s Railroad & Toll Road, by Jeff Lovelace gives some interesting details about the industrial era clear cutting of the virgin forests that prompted the designation of the mountain as North Carolina’s first state park. Particularly worth reading is Timothy Silver’s Mount Mitchell & the Black Mountains, a skillfully written and entertaining natural history. Silver’s easy flowing narrative is interspersed with his own hiking and camping adventures, and gives a profound and honest critical review of both man and nature’s assault on this natural treasure.
As the rain subsided and the sky cleared, I thought that another pretty sunset was in store, but that it couldn’t possibly top the one I had witnessed the night before. It was even better. I was particularly appreciative that this was state land, and I could have this vista to myself for a minimal camping fee.
When leaving the next morning and stopping at the park headquarters, the foggy cloud blowing over the mountain was the last reminder that I was in a special place.
Heading home, it’s surprising how quickly one descends to the Blue Ridge Parkway and warmer air. Looking back from the parkway I could see the whole range of the Black Mountains, but was uncertain which peak was Mitchell. I took three photos of the range and merged them with Photoshop for a panorama. Within an hour I had reached the town of Marion and was sweltering again.