Into the Woods: Unicoi Mountains

If you’ve read any of my other hiking posts, you’ll notice that I have an unabashed fondness for “special places”—spots where quirks of terrain, climate, or human use (and abuse) of land combine to create a niche environment not easily replicated. (Full disclosure, the USFS has started using this term as an official designation for certain spots, but I’m going to keep it, too.) Bonus features of such places include a relative anonymity and inaccessibility, leaving me to enjoy them in quiet solitude as often as not.

Most of my favorite such spots are far from home, closer to where I grew up than to where I live now, but I’ve been exploring.

Huckleberry Knob
One location that has become near and dear of late is the Unicoi range in the far southwest of the Appalachians on the NC/TN line. The only road through here is the Cherohala Skyway (a state route named in portmanteau of the two national forests it passes through—Cherokee on the Tennessee side, Nantahala in North Carolina), a steep, winding 43 mile traverse from Tellico Plains to Robbinsville. Mercifully, for my purposes, though this route is extremely popular with motorcyclists, most of the traffic is there to test the curves, not to park and walk.

Along this route, I typically opt for a hike at Huckleberry Knob. At 5,560, it’s the highest peak in the Unicois, and the farthest west you can be that high above sea level until you get to the Black Hills and far west high plains. Again, though there are better overall hikes elsewhere, this one has become a favorite by virtue of proximity. It’s only a 2 hour and 10 minute drive from Chattanooga. In addition, as our crew has multiplied, finding places that adults and kids can enjoy together is important.IMG_20181019_150330396

Among the features Huckleberry Knob boasts are:

  • Acres of grass, allowing for 360-degree views and lots of cartwheels (if you bring your kids)
  • A bona-fide grave at the summit (from a logger who decided to walk over the mountain to get home for Christmas, got drunk, and froze to death in a blizzard, back in 1899).
  • Wide, relatively low-impact trail from parking to summit. Even our four-year-old made it all the way to the top (+/- 3 miles total).
  • The aforementioned grass is great for picnics, or frisbee, too.
  • It’s not hot up here, making for a perfect summer afternoon getaway.
  • Plenty of flora and fauna to satiate your inner naturalist (including the southernmost Fraser firs I’ve ever found).

It’s a place we’ve been coming back to often, even making it an autumn tradition to quest for the peak fall color (which arrives there long before it makes it to the lowlands of the Tennessee Valley. In sharing it with you, I trust you won’t abuse the place.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
Once you’ve committed to the Skyway, you may as well go all the way to the eastern end and visit the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. We typically tack this on when we head that way.

It’s a bit odd for a forest to be named after a person, but the USFS thought Kilmer worthy of the honor. The popular journalist and poet, best known for his work “Trees“, was overcome with patriotic zest and joined the Army during World War I. After this endeavor resulted in his death 100 years ago at the second Battle of the Marne, his local veterans association petitioned that a patch of forest be dedicated to his memory. In the late 1930s, the USFS at last selected a 3,800-acre unlogged cove of old growth woodland along Little Santeetlah Creek as the wordsmith’s living tombstone.

Before you dismiss this as so much kitsch, I should point out that this patch of woodland should absolutely have been preserved, under any pretext necessary. Some of the tulip poplars here clock in at over 500 years old, and their height and girth are the closest thing many Easterners will see to the Redwoods.

In former times, these giant polars were joined by Eastern Hemlocks of similar size, but the hemlock wooly adelgid has done its dirty work here as in so many creekside coves throughout Appalachia. Moreover, a series of disasters have taken their toll here in recent years. In 2011, an exceptionally rare tornado touched down here, taking out several grand specimens. Goaded on by the storm debris and a later extensive drought, a wildfire torched the eastern slope of the forest in 2016, leaving the forest much-altered from when I first visited in 2007.

Even still, some of the largest trees remain untouched, and they never fail to inspire. The big’uns are accessible by a 2-mile figure-8 loop. It’s muddy, sometimes narrow, but never terribly steep. I’ve taken kids all the way around with minimal difficulty.

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Both these spots are within day-trip range of Chattanooga, Atlanta, Knoxville, Asheville, or Charlotte, but the motion-sickness-inducing road access keeps crowds down to the truly dedicated. If you’ve got more time to spend, there are several fine USFS and private campgrounds lining nearby Santeetlah Lake.

If, to paraphrase Kilmer, hiking blogs are made by “fools like me,” then you owe it to yourself to come up to the Unicoi range and see some of the more impressive things God has made to grace our corner of the universe.

 

 

 

 

Doc, Gospel, and the Gospel

Last night, Rachel & I went to see May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. I can’t commend this documentary enough, and not just because I’m an unashamed fan of this band. There is something on display in their music and this film that pushes back, gently but firmly, against so many cultural orthodoxies and idols.

I can’t quite name them all, but the desire to lean in to hard truths and deep pain (rather than fleeing them with all possible speed) is close to the core of it. At one point in the film, Scott Avett, describing the season when bassist Bob Crawford’s daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer and band members kept vigil with the family at the hospital, said, “That’s when we grew up as men.” It’s a tacit recognition that maturity only comes through suffering, and that the greatest joys in life lie on the other side of such experiences.

One other moment sticks out, as well. Seth Avett described his reintroduction to folk and bluegrass music through spending time with Doc Watson as a young adult. Doc is not a “nobody” by any stretch, but he is not as widely known as perhaps he should be. Quite a number of artists trace their career success back to his influence, and he is, in some measure responsible for the return of “Americana” music to mainstream consciousness. For me, Doc is an emblem of home, for reasons described below in some thoughts I wrote after learning of his death over five years ago.


May 30, 2012.

Growing up in Watauga County, North Carolina, you inevitably hear some really good folk and bluegrass music. It just seems like the natural soundtrack to green mountains and mist-filled valleys. In Watauga, especially, one name always epitomized the gold-standard of mountain music: hometown legend Arthel “Doc” Watson. Doc was a fixture on the nationwide folk circuit for the better part of 5 decades, winning 7 Grammy awards (plus a lifetime achievement award) and the National Arts Medal. He was completely blind from early childhood, but made his way in the world quite capably with his other senses.

Doc passed on yesterday at 89, still picking and singing joyfully in his old age. It feels close to home for me, as his family homestead was just across the highway from my parents’ “homestead” (since 2006) in the little farm community of Deep Gap. The few times I crossed paths with Doc (more often at the grocery store than any place music-related), he struck me as a genuinely humble and grateful man—the simple fact that he was still living on his family land in Deep Gap after his fame attests to that.

Like many of his folk, bluegrass, and country contemporaries, Doc wrote or recorded a lot of spiritually themed music, what could broadly be termed “gospel” songs. It’s difficult to separate the biblical content from those genres, even in songs not explicitly about Christian concepts. The music, is, as Flannery O’Connor might say, “Christ-haunted” because of the deeply Christian culture that birthed it. If the testimonies of those who knew him better and the frequency and passion with which he sang about Christ and the Church are any indication, Doc’s love for these themes was anything but cultural. If so, he’s now living what he said once at a concert: “When I leave this world…I’ll be able to see like you can, only maybe a bit more perfect.”

Can “gospel” music be simply a superficial nod to the Christian roots of our culture that doesn’t have anything to do with the true Gospel message? Of course, but I think it also can be an ember that keeps the cultural memory of God’s sovereign grace from fading completely. Satan loves to have nations relegate the truth of Scripture and the influence of the Church to their history or to certain subcultures. Even more, though, God wills to see nations transformed by His Gospel, and He uses even the histories and subcultures of those nations to plant seeds that can fan those embers into a flame once again.

I don’t want to be in the business of over-spiritualizing popular culture, but I do see a bright lining to the customarily dark clouds of American entertainment in the resurgence of traditional (or “Americana”) music over the past decade. Of course, the music itself doesn’t qualify as preaching. The seeds of the Gospel contained in that music won’t do much to change hearts and lives unless they are watered by clear, faithful teaching of Scripture and modeled in the faithful witness of believers.

If Doc was indeed a follower of Christ, I’m sure he could think of no better legacy than that his music would be used to stir the calloused soul of America to hope again. As he sang in a recording of an old hymn (below), so also we can know that our hope doesn’t depend on our culture or, mercifully, on our own merit.

“Uncloudy Day”
by Josiah K. Allwood, Public Domain

O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

Refrain
O the land of cloudless day,
O the land of an uncloudy day,
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone,
O they tell me of that land far away,
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the uncloudy day.

O they tell me of a King in His beauty there,
And they tell me that mine eyes shall behold
Where He sits on the throne that is whiter than snow,
In the city that is made of gold.

O they tell me that He smiles on His children there,
And His smile drives their sorrows all away;
And they tell me that no tears ever come again
In that lovely land of uncloudy day.

Photo © Ken Ketchie, www.boonencinfo.com

Into the Woods: Roan Mountain

Nothing dredges up memory as quickly and thoroughly as smell. A subtle scent unleashes a flash of thoughts, feelings, and experience from various points in our lives. This connection is well known to literature, and brain science seems to point to this being a design feature. The parts of the brain that process smell (the olfactory bulb) are in close proximity to those responsible for emotional memory (the amygdala and the rest of the limbic system). It’s supposed to be this way.

For me, one of the most powerful of these “smell markers” is the peculiar perfume of the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest. Part Christmas tree, part mushroom, part skunk, part grass, and all wrapped in a lightly chilled cloud. If you’ve sniffed it, you know what I mean. If not, there is really nothing else like it. Part of the charm is its relative rarity…there are only a handful of spots in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia that have all the right ingredients.

These spruce-fir pockets are islands in the sky, little corners of Canadian climate poking up above the rest of the subtropical South. Their altitude (generally north of 5,000′ above sea level) and isolation makes access difficult, helping with preservation. Of course, that same uniqueness has always fed visitor’s curiosity, and many such outposts have vehicle access (if you can stomach the curves) nearly to the summit—Cligman’s Dome, Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain, Black Balsam Knob, Whitetop, and Roan Mountain, among others.

Roan, a long massif straddling the N.C./Tenn. line was one of the first to attract tourists, with the long-since burned down Cloudland Hotel bringing a select clientele to the mountain “for their health” when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was barely a gleam in Horace Kephart‘s eye. Among hikers, Roan is known more for its expansive balds and their 360° vistas than its forests, and this interplay of two such uncommon ecosystems may account for its early and continued popularity.

Today, the mountain’s long, green backbone is well protected by Cherokee (in Tenn.) and Pisgah (in N.C.) National Forests. The Appalachian Trail traverses the ridgeline from West to East, and the shelter at Roan High Knob (6,285’) is the highest spot to sleep anywhere on the trail. To further add to its allure, the western end contains a “heath bald” so thick with catawba rhododendrons that it is marketed by the forest service as a garden. This section is even handicap-accessible, with gently sloping paved trails weaving through thickets of wind-pruned shrubs. In mid-June, when these fully bloom, the effect is nothing short of magical.IMG_6620

To return to nostalgia, I lived for many years (and my family still does) in Watauga County, North Carolina, and Roan was always one of my favorite spots for a day hike. I’ve seen bathed in artist’s-palette sunsets, in hailstorms, buried under feet of snow, and wrapped in fog so thick you can barely see where to put your next footstep. It never disappoints. If there is a beau ideal of Appalachian wildness, this is it.

It’s been several years since I last visited, and I wanted to bring my daughters to share in my love for the place. We spent last week at my family’s house, and were able to pay our respects to the mountain (N.B. – Tempting one’s children with a trip to the state park pool at the bottom of the TN side is a great hiking incentive). Hoping to catch the rhodie bloom, we opted to park at the gardens area. Though things peaked early this year, we were still rewarded with mounds of magenta flowers. Plenty of other plants were likewise in bloom: purple-flowered raspberry, hawkweed, bluets, gray’s lily, and more.

From the gardens (which, for those keeping track of family-friendly hikes, are seasonally equipped with restrooms and running water), we took a 3-mile round trip walk along the Cloudland Trail to Roan High Bluff on the far west of the massif. This is an easy walk, unless you’re not used to the altitude (laugh it up, Coloradans. Some of us live at only 700′!), and mostly forested. Mountains have a way of creating their own weather, so the bright green moss and plentiful mud we encountered are typical. The viewing platform at the end of the trail is well worth the trek. Once back at the gardens, we sealed the deal with a fine picnic.

As every parent will attest, there is a special joy attached to seeing your offspring revel in one of your own childhood haunts, sharing in your story in a new and deeper way. I hope this is one in a long line of visits that lets this incredible place sink deep into their souls.

If you’re ever in the area (the peak is about an hour’s drive from either Boone, N.C., or Johnson City, Tenn., and just shy of 2 hours from Asheville), make sure to let the Roan work its magic on you as well. Just don’t all show up at once, OK?

Into the Woods: Mount Jefferson

A good walk in the woods, like a good book, always calls you back for another look. Much as I’m always looking for a new trail and a higher mountain, a short hike on a favorite trail feels as warm and familiar as an old sweater.

Whenever I have a chance to go home to the NC High Country, a hike is in order. Since my family moved to that part of the world in 1998 (and even though I’ve been a Chattanooga resident since 2006), there’s hardly a trail in the area that I haven’t hoofed at least once.

One that I come back to again and again, though, is the short (<2 mi.) loop across the summit of Mount Jefferson in Ashe County. This modest summit (4665′) cuts an imposing prominence above the surrounding farmland, and has been preserved as a small state park. It has a much more unassuming beauty than many more famous peaks in the area like Grandfather Mountain, but it is a special place when you look a bit closer.

The metamorphic rock (amphibolite) underlaying the mountain gives it a sharper profile than many of the more rounded sandstone & quartzite peaks nearby. The rock also weathers less readily, giving the outcrops a dark, jagged look. Ravens and falcons nest in the protected crags. The sheltered north face of the mountain is home to many interesting plants, including a small stand of Bigtooth aspen, which normally occur much farther north.

Perhaps the best blessing of Mount Jefferson, though is the ease of the path. A road leads nearly to the summit, and there are bathrooms (NB – though these are closed in winter. The kids, er, learned the hard way). The gentle climb makes it a great place for young legs to get out and see the mountaintop ecosystem without complaining or wearing out. A few days after Christmas, our whole family (my parents, my two sisters, Rachel, our three kids, and I) did the full loop without breaking a sweat.

If you’re ever in the area without a lot of time to see the high Appalachian environment, stop in and check this one out. In the winter, access is dependent on weather, spring & fall are lovely, and the summer breezes are a world-class heat-beater.

If you’ve got a little longer window, be sure to visit the wonderful little towns at the base of the mountain – Jefferson & West Jefferson. They’re well-provisioned with the requisite charm of shops, restaurants, and murals, not to mention a legit cheese factory.