I remember visiting the Appalachians for the first time. It was 1971 and with my new driver’s license firmly in hand, I accepted an invite from my older sister and her girlfriend, Francie, to go camping in Vogel State Park in north Georgia.
We loaded my sister’s manual-shift ‘68 Camaro, which started life brown but had recently been painted a striking shade of Canary yellow, with all our gear and set off. My sister decided to give me a lesson in down-shifting and though I knew how to drive a stick shift on level ground, the mountains were proving a challenge and my sister’s patience soon dissolved. Thereafter, my sister was happy for me to simply gaze out the window from the rear seat.
Growing up in Miami, I had never witnessed the transformation of spring and, to this day, I can still recall marveling at the translucent spring leaves as they fluttered in the breeze. It was a transforming trip. But, as I’ve found over the years, the Appalachians have that effect.
In college, many long weekends were spent stealing away to the cool mountains of North Carolina, visiting Cherokee, Bryson City, Maggie Valley, Mt Mitchell, Sylva, Dillard and Asheville. When our daughter was only weeks old, we took her to an Etowah bed and breakfast, just to get away. With teenagers, we continued to find time to sneak away every chance we could to Brevard, Toxaway, Boone, Beech Mountain, Banner Elk, Sapphire, Blowing Rock, names all so alluring to me.
Last fall, when I ran through my mind all my favorite places and pondered the myriad of destinations for our fall tour, the mountains of the Smokies naturally came to mind. We had been there a million times but every time I visit the Appalachians, it’s like I’m seeing them for the very first time because they’re constantly changing…. and so am I.
So we set out for the three highest peaks in the states of Georgia (Brasstown Bald), North Carolina (Mt Mitchell) and Tennessee (Clingmans Dome). September in Florida is hot and balmy so what better place to spend a week but in the cool, rainforests of the Appalachians. What we found was a botanical paradise. Spring was in a dozen stages of development depending on the elevation.
Our first stop, Brasstown Bald, had just opened for the season. The shuttle driver picked us up in the parking lot and chatted away as we drive the half mile to the top. The Visitor Center was a stone museum with a path that winds around the building to the entrance. As I passed the stone base, I was attracted to the flowers clinging to the stones. As I stepped off the trail to take a closer look I was startled by a small bird that darted from the profuse mosses that clung to the stones, narrowly missing my brow. On closer inspection, I spied her nest, neatly tucked into the blooms of stonecrop, ferns and mosses with 4 creamy white eggs, speckled with brown. If she had not fled, her nest would have remained her secret alone.
As we proceeded north into the Carolinas, the valleys were rich and green with dogwoods, trilliums, fire pink, sweet shrub, dog hobble, white violets, rhododendrons and mountain laurels in bloom, while the peaks were still leafless with only vast parades of early bluets and dandelions afoot. The Blue Ridge was a drive of distraction as we attempted to steer our vehicle and catch sight of every new blanket of flame azalea, trillium or red elderberry on the roadside. Unable to pull over, the cars piled up behind us. As we climbed in elevation, the winds swept the clouds across the road, reducing visibility. Craggy Gardens at 6,000+ ft was totally fogged over with visibility at 10 feet as we stumbled into the visitor center to escape the frigid, wind gusts and warm up by their wood burning stove.
Mt Mitchell had been closed the week prior due to a late spring storm that blanketed everything with 2 inches of snow and, as I hiked the trails, the peak was still shrouded in clouds. The mosses and lichens dripped with the remnants of a recent shower. Along the forest floor, early violets and trilliums were starting their annual procession.
The front moved through the following day and we had spectacular blue skies for what seemed 100 miles from the top of Clingmans Dome. I decided to hike to Andrews Bald about 1.7 miles from Clingmans but on a nearly level plane. One of the rangers told us they should have spectacular fall wildflowers there and wanting to check it out, I started with no provisions but a straw hat. A mile in the mountains is not the same as a mile in Florida, even though the path was well worn. An hour later I emerged from the shadows of the deep wood onto a gorgeous, mountain top meadow. Several people were picnicking with friends and I was reminder how silly to have not brought a snack or even a bottle of water.
Driving back down the mountain we had to pause to allow a flock of turkey hens across the road. Before long, they would be trailing a cluster of fluffy poults.
We left the mountains the following day after seeing it as never before. Not as a teen, a college student or young mom but with an appreciation of the beauty of a fresh spring, and again I was reminded of how I have changed and how every time I visit the Appalachians, it’s like I’m seeing old friends again for the very first time.
If you’ve been to the Appalachians before, come with us to visit old friends. If you haven’t been, come with me and I’ll introduce you to some of mine!