The tent appears a little blurry, I must admit, as my eyes wrinkle open. I peek out the tent door, in a fresh morning glow, to find Katie cooking breakfast by the fire. Rubbing my eyes, I reach for a water canister and take cool refreshing gulps. Elijah, still in his sleeping bag, is fidgeting, but he’ll be awake soon. I pull on my Baja and join Katie by the fire.
“Need any help?” I inquire.
“No. I’m good here. Instant coffee is made. Just heating up the leftover steak from last night with cheesy potatoes and eggs.” Katie is smiling as she works. She’s just as much an early bird as I am a night owl.
“Had myself a little party last night,” I giggle scratching my beard. “Was a nice night.”
“I think I heard you come to bed. You were quiet, though. I was just in and out all night. I think there is a hole in my sleeping pad.”
“That sucks. We can trade tonight.”
“No! I don’t want you to do that.”
“I don’t mind – I’ve more whisky to help me sleep. Plus, can’t have you waking up on Mother’s Day tomorrow morning all out of sorts.”
I take a small sip of instant coffee swirled with hazelnut powdered creamer. The hot, sweet, and bitter liquid is a delight while camping. To up the coffee game, I sprinkle and mix just a little bit of hot chocolate into my thermos. I take another pull and relax as breakfast comes together. Seems everything tastes better when camping. Must be the air, or, perhaps, the setting just allows us to slow down a bit – savor the moment. I’m not sure how the senses change really, but I do know there’s no way we’d look forward to instant coffee at home.
The tent door zipper pulls and tugs. Our wild, joyful boy crawls into the morning on all fours before standing and beaming a smile our way. His long, curly hair rests mop-like on his head, and his face is still covered in sleep.
“Bunny!” Katie hollers to Eli as he waves. She walks over to him and places the child on her hip. “How are you doing this morning?”
Acting silly, the boy simply sticks his tongue out like a dog, nods his head in an agreeable fashion, and pants.
“You are so goofy. Go see your daddy while I finish up breakfast.”
Still groggy, Eli clumsily, but quickly, pitter patters over to me. He wipes some sleep dust from his eyes as he stumbles over. I pick him up by the arm pits and hoist him into the air. Holding him over my head, I gently wiggle the boy as we laugh together under the shade of hemlock, tulip poplar, and sycamore.
“Here’s breakfast, Eli! Mind cutting it up for him, Dad?”
We move to the picnic table to cut the kiddo’s steak into small pieces. I enjoy a “taste test” of my own, of course. As his ribeye, scrambled eggs, and cheesy potatoes steam in the cool morning air, Katie cracks our eggs into the cast iron – we’ll take ours hot and over easy.
With breakfast done, we tend to our morning chores – get the boy dressed for a hike, brush our teeth, clean up camp, apply sunscreen, and wrangle the trusty red backpack. I, by the way, love our trusty red backpack. I carry Eli on my back in this sucker when the boy tires. A surprising amount of cargo space is underneath with a nice seat at the top for the boy to ride. Today, I’ll carry snacks and a picnic lunch, an overkill supply of backup diapers, extra pairs of shorts, t-shirts, a sweater, and a rain jacket for our little one. I’ll also strap up with bear mace, a snake bite kit, a couple of emergency blankets, pop-up shelter, and roughly five liters of water. Always travel prepared. With our chores done, we hop into the family wagon, and travel a quick ride to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
Joyce Kilmer is one of my favorite destinations in the Southern Appalachian rainforest. The hike around the small wood is not very long. Nonetheless, the towering grove is very impressive. A walk here is a journey back in time – a magnificent journey across ecological timescales to the Appalachian forest of some 450 years ago. Tulip-poplars first catch the eye, some more than twenty feet ‘round. They stand as sentinels over one-hundred feet in the air. The old-growth calls to something primal in the human animal. I find the virgin grove inviting and enchanting. Below the canopy, an array of wildflowers, ferns, and moss-covered logs from fallen giants all glow in morning glory. Capping off all of this wonder, the only way to see this old growth sanctuary is on foot – no automobiles will bother our world anymore this morning.
The forest is named after New Jersey-born poet and soldier, Joyce Kilmer. Kilmer was killed in action during World War I as he led a team to scout a German machine gun bunker. A bullet tore into his skull and pierced his brain. Kilmer was a respected soldier with a renowned love and admiration of nature. Thus, the Veterans of Foreign Wars asked the United States Government to set aside a tree stand as a memorial. The forest tract was officially dedicated in 1936. A plaque inscribed with his famous poem, “Trees,” welcomes visitors as they enter the grove of giants:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
We begin our hike through the memorial forest. Almost immediately, Katie and I are struck by the cove-hardwood wonderland. This grove is one of the most beautiful living beings in all of time’s creation. Tall, looming, ultimately comforting, this old forest escaped the plunder of loggers. Laden with rich, nutrient-dense soils, constant smoky moisture, and a dizzying abundance of plants, a piece of Earth most holy and heartbreaking still breathes.
In all the grandeur, one can easily recognize these old trees are in danger. Today, invasive Asiatic insects are rotting the giants. The trees die slowly, losing their limbs with each creak, break, and thunderous crash to the forest floor. Here, two worlds are thrust upon each other – an old grove as mystic and special as Appalachia herself, pitted against habitat loss, invasive species, and a creeping ecological crisis. The grove was first protected by humankind for her beauty and majesty, only to fall ill, even on accident, from human trespass.
We are a global, planetary species. A bolide collision is one of the least threats we now face as a population. All of our biomes are immediately under attack from climate change, environmental pollution, habitat destruction, and other risks associated with human dominance over this global system. In our age of the Anthropocene, we’d be wise to carefully consider the threat of nuclear war as well – a much more pressing State issue than many of us care to realize or even think about. Our planet is beautiful, isolated, and in ominous times.
Humans are wonderfully absurd. Progress always ensures the best of humanity. Advancements do not stem from State edict, but sprout from human potential. In times of stress and consequence, individuals come together to link our collective minds, dreams, aspirations, hopes, fears, ugliness, and shortcomings. As a result, as years roll on, we’ve plenty of stories to tell about ingenuity and inclined labor. Here, in the beginning of the 21st century, I cannot help but think sometimes change is moving too slowly. Perhaps too many opportunities are being missed. We’re too tribal, too partisan, too focused on the here and now. Our labor is split by policies that stem from systems of power and domination – such edict is very often a hurdle to adaptive governance and collaboration. However, I know the open possibilities of human labor still call, like the distant memories of childhood, the comfort of a grandmother, a song, memory, or feeling of belonging that pulls us out of the darkness. For all our vulnerabilities, selfishness, failures, anger, pain, and, despite our biases, limitations, and missed opportunities, we humans are capable of greatness. A spark is coming; the fire will burn.
Today my family and I wander, laugh together, and sing songs. The boy falls a few times, cries, and we calm him down. We hold each other, link hands, take time to smile under the sun. A gentle breeze moves through trees. Towering above, their leaves sing, rustle, wave, bow, and breathe. The ferns dance. The moss is a brilliant green. We stop to hug the largest of the giants. Our hands feel the bark and glide across the leaves. We look at the phantom nature of these respiring organs under the sun’s golden light. Our trail gently ascends into a staggering complexity of yellow-poplar, oak, basswood, beech, and sycamore.
We miss the American chestnut, though. Once the dominant tree in this forest, the chestnut fell victim to an invasive blight from Asia. Though their presence in the canopy is missed, their massive logs and stumps still decorate the understory. Just like the chestnut the hemlock’s dead limbs, infected with the invasive woolly adelgid, appear spooky and lonely as they droop from the corpses of these once living evergreens.
Roughly halfway through our voyage, Eli tires when we reach the gnarly, twisted trail where tall ferns decorate the windthrow of fallen limbs. I carry him out of the loop in our trusty red pack as the late morning sun rises further still.
“Time for lunch?” Katie questions as we reach the car.
“Not sure.” I slowly turn around and show her the boy. “Is he awake?”
“Aww, sweet boy. He’s out cold.”
“Well, let’s drive up yonder to Little Huckleberry then. He might sleep long enough for me to carry him up there and we can picnic with a view.”
I’ve been visiting Little Huckleberry Knob in the Unicoi Mountains since my senior year of high school. The Unicoi rise along East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. These rolling monuments of fortitude are a part of the Blue Ridge Mountain Province of our wild and wonderful Southern Appalachians. Most of the range is protected National Forest land – chiefly within the boundaries of the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, and the Nantahala of North Carolina. True to form, the Unicoi here in the Nantahala region are primitive, eerie, spiritual, and full of wild, inspiring, unimaginable beauty.
At the base of these mountains, river valleys and creeks travel across ancient rock, forming deep hollows and a mix of forested ecosystems – most notably to cove-hardwoods of Joyce Kilmer fame. As elevation gains, coniferous temperance, rolling grassy meadows, accompanied by heath balds, decorate the higher elevations. The Cherohala Skyway, a renowned and beloved National Scenic Byway, takes travelers across the Unicoi, just past Robbinsville, North Carolina, into our Appalachian Highlands. There is no place on Earth I love more than any rolling Appalachian vistas above 5,000 feet.
We park at the entrance of Little Huckleberry Knob and prepare for a short but rewarding hike. As I load our still sleeping boy into our pack, Katie organizes our picnic of summer sausage, French baguette, brie, olives, apples, and berries. She places our lunch and a bottle of red wine, to wash everything down of course, in her pack as we start our hike.
We start just before noon. Fitting time to start our hike because “Nantahala” means “land of the noon day sun” in the Cherokee language. Our sky is blue and marked with scattered, streaked, cumulus clouds. The wind is chilly, but, where the sun beams in certain spots, the air is still and hot. Lower elevations are so forested that noon is the only time of day the sun can reach the forest floor through the protective canopy. Here, as we make our way to the bald, however, the sun is ever-present.
When we reach Huckleberry, we’ll stand at 5,560 feet and enjoy expansive, never-ending views of the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests. Every time I climb this pass, I think of all the youthful adventures I’ve had up here. High school, college years, my roaming twenty-somethings, and my time as a graduate student – all the days, star packed nights, friends, and experiences always flood right back. Admittedly, I don’t come up here as much as I used to. Over the years, the spot has become increasingly popular – as have many once lightly-trodden destinations in these primitive mountains. This incursion highlights the great paradox of preservation – we must inspire the need to save wild lands by inviting, evermore, trespass. Today, I am relieved to know our car sits alone in the small parking area.
Our hike travels a tunnel of mountain brush shaded by a high elevation beech forest. We feel cool and wet in their shade as we trek along an old dirt road. The beech appears haunted. Fog-laden mornings, across this highland thicket, have produced lichens and thick mats of moss across bare rock and exposed tree trunks. Just past this wonderfully ghost-like forest, we traverse an open meadow full of native grasses, pale purple vetch, fleabane, and more wildflowers and mountain herbs than I’ll ever be able to learn. The colors pop and fizzle, patch and glide, creating a lively mosaic against a tranquil sky. As our old road narrows along the crest of Oak Knob, Eli yawns. This part of the jaunt is easy, but the remaining half mile or so is a bit tougher – best to hurry before the child wants down.
Our trail turns upward as we shift through patches of isolated, scrubby trees. Our climb grows in intensity, but soon enough we reach the base of the knob. The boy, now fully awake, wiggles and kicks his legs back and forth. I let him down and sigh with relief with his weight off my shoulders. As we breast Huckleberry, a white cross stands firm in swaying meadow grass. This monument is very familiar to my eyes. The old cross marks the grave of a pair of loggers who succumbed to the elements up here in December of 1899. I always acknowledge the cross as I pass and move on to the bald. Under the warm sun, in a cool breeze, with green grass and mountain herbs dancing and jumping about, we take in an impressive, unobstructed, 360° view of the Unicoi, Great Smoky, Snowbird, and numerous other mountain ranges across East Tennessee and North Carolina. The blue and purple mountains roll like waves of Earth across an immortal land. We are enveloped in the gold, green, white, and purple colors of Appalachian majesty. We walk on our planetary rock and feel as if we can fly away and escape towards all eternity, space, and time. If only we could leap and just keep our feet off the ground, we’d explode like fire across the sky. This is a great reward for only a little over a mile’s worth of labor.
The boy runs free as we lay a few blankets and prepare our picnic near the communal fire ring that has long persisted on the summit. Katie uncorks the wine, and I slice our summer sausage, brie, apples, and bread. We arrange the food on a wooden chopping board I’ve carried and pour our wine into two “fancy” plastic, short-stemmed wine glasses. With open olives and berries, we chow, hungry from a full morning and early afternoon in the woods. Eli joins us as we pour water from my pack into a small “fancy” glass for him, too. Blueberries and sausage are his favorite part of the meal. He demands I slice “more, more” as he feasts. Hard not to smile as he smears blueberries across his face and readily belches summer sausage.
We’re having fun, but we’re also experiencing extremes in weather. When the air is still, the sun burns down like a furnace on our skin. As soon as the wind picks up, though, gusts of bone-chilling air shiver our very cores. Such is the weather up here. In the past, even in the deep heat of August, I’ve camped up here to awaken in freezing temperatures on the bald. At any visit, travelers are vulnerable and exposed. There are no trees to block the wind, no canopy to find shelter from the sun, and no place to huddle from the elements. In this wide-open meadow, we find an environment that is simultaneously inviting and savage. Despite the weather, we kick a soccer ball around with each other and have a merry time.
The plan was to spend a few hours up here, but, as we play, the wind picks up impressive gusts. We put a warm coat on Eli, I pull on the trusty Baja over my flannel shirt, and Katie wears an old fleece. My wife’s hair dances in the wind, across her freckled cheeks, and my beard continually slaps my face in the cold breeze. As for the boy, though, the gusts become so strong his face reddens and the wind pushes his tiny body over. Another gust blows him backwards, and we can only watch as he tumbles through the grass.
“Well,” I notion, “time to pack up.”
The kiddo’s been whipped by the Appalachian environment so much he falls asleep yet again in his pack as we hike out of the Knob.
“Let’s just build a fire and hang out at camp for the rest of the day,” Katie pitches the idea as we reach the family wagon. “After a full day, he’ll just want to play with his car and kick the soccer ball around.”
I agree and look forward to what I like to call our “not so fancy cowboy dinner” of leftover beans and all-beef franks. Tomorrow, Mother’s Day, we will stick around camp, explore small trails, and likely take another dip in Lake Santeetlah.
The afternoon readily gives way to evening, which passes on to starlight. As my family sleeps, I sit with speckled mug in hand, warmed by our fire and wrapped snuggly in a sarape. I had a good time today in one of my favorite places on Earth. These old forests and rising ridges stand on Precambrian, metamorphic rocks. As the smoke from the fire swirls and puffs into the air, the fire cracks and burns on a landscape over a billion years in the making – one composed of ancient, deformed ocean sediments, thrown and thrusted toward the sky some 250 million years ago during a continental collision that would give rise to the greater Appalachian Mountain range. Under a mixed hardwood and pine forest, I peek through the singing canopy to a sky pierced with burning stars and glittering cosmic dust. In the cove hardwood, I lie still in wonder, surrounded by rhododendron’s dense thickets, night’s soundscapes, and the Santeetlah’s gurgling creek.
In the mountain lake built by dams, in the grove of giants infected with invasive insects, near a cross on a mountain bald, we escaped the burdens of human civilization, only to be surrounded by our persistent ecological disturbances. Perhaps a new preservationist movement, one that examines our animal place on this dynamic planet, will raise enough awareness for our species to realize our very survival, our very preservation, is at risk. Protecting wilderness areas and connecting with our origins may just ensure the survival of the human race. With great risks to our own survival here at home, perhaps the real possibility of needing to leave Earth will give our population a new perspective – one that can unite our species in a common, global cause. Just as Earth holds no boundaries, neither does human potential. If we reach for those stars, we may just protect this very rock.
Our planet congealed out of gas and dust to produce brimstone and water. In this environment, life grew. These pioneers adapted, evolved in complexity over eons, survived several mass extinctions, and put together chemical pathways to award a mind as gifted as ours. In times like these, I can only revel in the breeze, admire the burning glow of outer worlds, imagine time across the heavens, smell the iron and lucid sweetness of the natural world, and become overwhelmed only to weep in gratification and grandeur. Our bodies exist in fleeting moments of a mortal realm. Spinning along, our planet glows as a beautiful world, breathing and full of life. Adrift in the void, across an interstellar space composed almost entirely of nothing, an ever-present truth exists: Earth is our home, and our home is good.
A fire is coming. Another world is not only possible, but, in the words of author and advocate Arundhati Roy, “she’s on her way.” In the still of the night, hugged by these Appalachian Mountains, deep in the coves of a long-standing forest, I can hear her breathing.
**Featured Image: Nantahala Mountains Lookout – Wikimedia Commons