Hills and Mountains

My first sight of a mountain in North Carolina around age 11 was a wondrous experience. I couldn’t believe how the land rose up and was framed by the sky. Our family made many more trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina during the years we were growing up. We visited the Great Smoky Mountain National Park; National Forests including Pisgah, Nantahala, and Chattahoochee-Oconee; and numerous State Parks in all three states. We enjoyed the scenic vistas and tourist attractions. These trips have merged in my mind as one, large, happy memory.

The Blue Ridge Mountains are part of the larger Appalachian Mountain Range; they extend 550 miles from southern Pennsylvania through Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. These ancient mountains have been worn down by the elements for hundreds of millions of years, so they lack the tall peaks prominent in the Rocky Mountains of the Western United States. Mount Mitchell in North Carolina boasts the highest summit in the range and east of the Rockies at 6,684 feet.

The Smokies may have been eroded by weather over time, but for youngsters who had experienced only Lowcountry South Carolina they were serious mountains. We were raised in Colleton County, which is essentially a large swamp with flat agricultural fields and pine forests interspersed throughout.

To put our awe at first seeing the mountains in perspective, consider Daddy’s field known as “The Big Hill.” The name clearly suggests elevated terrain with a visible rise. But visitors to the area were usually bewildered by what they saw: a flat 40-acre field. Its name reflected a notable Lowcountry fact: it was several inches above the surrounding swamps. Yes, the Smokies were big!

In the summer we would seek out waterfalls and places to hike. We walked on paths to reach high overlooks with expansive views and to get to rivers at lower elevations. Momma was very nervous about the overlooks and did not want us to get close to the edge. My attitude was more nonchalant, and I pushed as close to the precipice as possible. This predictably resulted in a stressed-out mother. I could not understand why she made a big deal out of it.

When I visited years later, my nonchalant attitude about the steep drop-offs was replaced by sheer terror; approaching it was unthinkable. I now have a lot of retroactive empathy for my mother and a better appreciation of her concerns.

One of our favorite destinations was Sliding Rock, a natural waterfall enjoyed as giant sliding board in the Pisgah National Forest. It was exciting being propelled by the shallow water rushing down the smooth, sloping rock into a calm pool. In my mind I can feel myself moving through the cool stream and warm air, hear the rushing water, and smell the uplands vegetation. Repeating the slide more than a couple of times required reinforced-bottom bathing suits or multiple layers; the rock-slide generated a lot of friction on the fabric.

In the Fall we would go for the leaves; the scenes were stunning. You could see miles into the distance on a clear day; it seemed more three-dimensional than the restricted visibility afforded by flat land. The mountains were adorned in textures of many greens in the summer; in the Fall hardwood leaves transformed themselves into bright oranges, reds, yellows, golds, and purples. I took many pictures of mountain landscapes—and very few pictures of the people who enjoyed them.

I was fascinated by the rivers, with clear water running over smooth rocks. I loved to wade, though you had to be careful not to slip. You could see fish swimming in them. This was quite a contrast to the opaque, slow-moving Lowcountry creeks and rivers. Many of the mountain streams looked creek-sized to me, but they became larger as they gathered water through miles of decreasing elevations on the timeless journey toward the sea.

Over the years, we stayed in motels, a friend’s cabin, and the family camper. We youngsters liked the motels and the cabin but had mixed feelings about the camper. It had a chemical smell, likely due to its self-contained nature (it had a restroom). We complained a lot, but the family had invested in it, so we used it. In retrospect, it was an adventure to stay in the camper, and I wish I could retract some of those earlier complaints.

Lodging served as a base for outings and was not the main destination. But one of my favorite memories was from the first motel on the first trip. I was impressed by the variety of individually packaged jellies and jams served at breakfast, especially flavors beyond grape and apple. To this day, I delight in individually packaged marmalade, apple butter and blackberry jam on toast or English muffins. Small things can create a lifetime of pleasures.

My recent mountain trips have been to the Pisgah National Forest on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I remain in awe of the overwhelming dimensionality when I see the rows of rounded peaks; size and color recede into the distance. I find the vegetation and streams as intriguing as the first time I saw them. But the sense of excitement and the adventures remain with the memories of childhood. In their place I now find connection to nature and peace.