This March evening is perfect – one that flickers like a motion picture. I am enjoying myself heartily with good food, music, and drink. I’m accompanied by my little family in a tiny cottage in rural southwestern Virginia. Our lamplight rests at a low dim that accents the rustic wood, stone, and clay that built our two-room bed and breakfast. Outside, the air is cold. Mist sods the groggy Appalachian countryside as the sun’s twilight gives rise to a backlit canopy of starlight heaped and piled with heavy clouds. I sit at a small wooden table with a bottle of red wine and each drink comforts my belly. My wife, Katie, cuddles up with our five-year-old son, Eli, and reads a Harry Potter novel. A single lantern lights our room as a wood-burning stove warms the air. Night music, expansive and hypnotic, plays low in the background. When Katie has finished the chapter and the boy’s eyes are barely open, we kiss his forehead and lay him down to sleep. Katie and I quietly exit to the adjoining room and lay ourselves down for the night. We’ll be taking a family bike ride down the Virginia Creeper Trail tomorrow.
The Creeper is a steady, downhill adventure full of native flora and fauna, old growth forests, rebounding ecosystems, and rural country. The long seventeen-mile descent we’ll be taking around these parts is rather perplexing. Appalachian terrain is rough and rugged. Our adventure will be full of sharp ups and steep downs. In the depths of mountain country, having a chance to sit on a bike and coast for a good while is, to me, a bit unfathomable. I’ve hiked a good number of trails in these mountains, driven a good number of roads, but I’ve never seen a country pass of such gradual, prolonged, steady elevation.
The Creeper gets the unusual name from early steam locomotives. The engines would struggle, or creep, if you will, through the area to haul lumber out of Appalachia. This lumber was used to fuel the economy of developing port cities during the Industrial Revolution. Later, the Great Depression ensured a slow decline of industrial scale logging in the area, and the last creeping train ran in March of 1977. The old railway was subsequently transformed into a trail for hiking, running, angling, camping, and, of course, biking. In 1984, the year of my birth, this “Creeper” trail was designated as a National Recreation Trail.
The Creeper Trail has matured into a regional, arguably national, treasure. Over 150,000 people enjoy the trail every year. The boy, my wife, and I will now join the party. Eli is quite the biker these days, and he’s begged for a full day on his wheels for weeks. As this trail is famous for a leisurely, relaxing, easy ride through forested mountain country and rolling pastoral hills, we think he’ll have a big ole time.
When I wake in the morning, grey light from a cloud-covered morning pours in from a single window. I turn to Katie and place my hand on her shoulder. I can tell she is awake, but she lays on her side, with her back to me. She is tense. There is no need for me to ask what’s wrong – she is reading the newest reports of the respiratory virus spreading across the globe.
“Hey babe,” I say while softly scratching her back, “everything okay?”
“No.” She exhales deeply. “I don’t think we should be here. We need to go home.”
“We’re totally isolated out here.” I try to reassure her. “This vacation is fine. If we were in Gatlinburg, or something, I’d be worried, but we’re all alone here.”
“I just think we should be home. I want to be with our community, in our neighborhood, snug at home.”
I understand, but I do not want to go. We have a week of wilderness and isolated activity planned – today’s bike ride on the Creeper Trail, tomorrow’s wild horses and mountain meadows exploration in Grayson Highlands, another day’s leisure in Jefferson National Forest, and more. I wanted to enjoy some area pubs, but I’ll forgo those desires. On the brink of a global pandemic, I know this will be the last vacation we’ll take together for some time.
“We’ve been promising the boy his day of pedal biking, our family description of bicycling since Eli graduated from his balance bike, for weeks. We can’t take today from him, and –”
“I know that, Grant.” She says with a furrowed brow. “I don’t want to do this, make us leave like this. I don’t want to think about what is happening, and I really don’t want to feel like this, so anxious and just. . . weird. I really think leaving is the right thing to do.” Her voice is strong and sincere. I know she’s worried so, I reluctantly back down.
“Okay, I’m sorry. Let’s cook a good breakfast, ride the trail, and then head home.”
We dress and walk into the next room – one that serves as a den, dining nook, and kitchen. The morning’s puffed and wispy clouds peek through the windows behind Eli’s soft bed. March is an interesting month – one full of transition. The Earth yawns to life, emerging from a deep, dormant, winter slumber. Soon enough, the smell of golden breakfast waffles and sweet maple syrup, the sound of savory crackling sausage links, and the subtle colors of mixed berries fill our tiny rental. As we cook and prepare our plates, we explain to Eli that we need to pack up our things because our vacation needs to be cut short.
“But I don’t want to go home, this is family vacation!” In his frustration, our boy slaps his thighs. His lip pouts and his quivering voice is high-pitched and strained. Katie and I have been rather busy this semester, even more so than usual, so we promised him a spring break full of quality family time, one free of phones, email, and distractions.
“I know, honey.” Katie picks up the boy, sets him in her lap, and speaks softly, “But there are some things going on in the world right now, big things, and we need to go home.”
“Plus, dude,” I ensure as I set down his warm plate, “you’ll still get a full day on your pedal bike. We are going to ride the mountain today just like we promised before heading back to Knoxville.”
The boy puts his head down and sighs. Of course, he doesn’t understand the sudden change in plans. He’s been looking forward to this vacation as much as we have, if not more. We will surely have some long talks about the trials of the world soon enough. Katie and I need to find the right words to explain our global situation, but not today. Today is for fun.
We leave the cottage after just one night and cross an orchard on the property. We stop along a fence that overlooks rural farmland and the forest edge. The morning is a bit blustery and chilly, while grey, puffy clouds appear smeared and stroked across the distant horizon. There is a rising, virgin green in the mountain forest peppered about, and tulips – a true sign of seasonal transition – sprout here and there across the country. Eli’s deep, cartoonish giggles echo as Katie loads him into our trusty family wagon. The sweet sound of childhood breaks my gaze. I turn from the morning view and happily drive us to small-town Damascus, Virginia. I’ve never been here before. In fact, I’ve hardly spent much time in Virginia at all. Upon entering this Appalachian community, however, I smile.
“Damascus is so cute!” Katie obviously shares the same feelings as I do.
Damascus is nicknamed “Trail Town USA” because seven nationally known trails intersect within the town’s borders – the most famous of which is the Appalachian Trail (AT). Katie and I love mountain towns along the AT. These communities are humble, quaint, unique, and, most importantly, small. The rugged, primeval Appalachian forest hugs the Damascus valley. Creeks gurgle and murmur under numerous bridges, and picket fences line close-knit neighborhood roads. These AT towns are authentic. They offer us urbanites a glimpse into small-town and rural life. In doing so, they steal my heart every damn time. Life here cherishes the local – laborers, artisans, natural beauty, hometown memories – and the residents hold a welcoming appreciation of us tourists.
The small, rustic way of mountain life is a wonder to behold. The security of kinship, with a dignified independence and beautiful lifestyle, offers incredible reflection to those of us from the homogeneity of contemporary urbanism. Seems urban planners, commissioners, and developers attempt to mold all of nature to terraform, to deliberately modify all of nature, our lives, and the very Earth into a boringly uniform, corporate mediocrity. Urban neighborhoods, mom-and-pop shops, and individuals, battle a technocratic, capital existence, for independent character.
On the other hand, Appalachian rural towns, are full of wonderful folks who are contemptuously called hillbillies thought deserving of an elegy by the same technocrats forever ignorant of their own privileged, boring, uniform existence. Truth is, the people of Appalachian hollers, and the markets they build, provide us with an all too important vision into living-in-place – one that is modeled by neighborhood mom-and-pop shops. These folks fight the same battles as our neighborhoods in larger cities facing off against the gentry.
Small towns and the rural country have resisted and survived various forms of industrialism – logging, strip mining, dam building, the TVA, and the type of corporate neo-colonialism on full display in towns like Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and countless others. These systems of power and domination seek to reduce the Appalachian wilderness and her people to the rank of curiosities. In these rural towns the resistance holds roots deep in place – bless them.
We pull into a local bike joint, called Sundog, to rent some wheels for the famous Virginia Creeper Trail. I look in the rearview mirror. The boy is very excited. Still buckled in his car seat, he’s already strapping on his Spiderman helmet. We’re raising a little athlete, I think. I am always amazed at how hard he works and how easily he tackles physically demanding tasks.
“Hey boy!” I holler back to him. “Your mom and I don’t even have our bikes rented yet!”
“Well, we have my bike right here, Dad,” he squeaks with a good Southern twang as he pats the wheel of his bike. “So, maybe you guys should hurry up or something. You reckon?” With this, Eli tilts his head to the side, winks, and clicks his tongue – the little squirt.
“I reckon so, boy,” I reply. “I reckon so.”
The store is full of hiking memorabilia – stickers, magnets, shirts, gear – and I find myself wandering through the aisles eyeballing more clothes than I could ever reasonably afford. I’m relieved to stop shopping when I am called over to be fit for a bike. Soon enough, thank goodness, we are on a shuttle destined for Mount Rogers National Recreation Area to ride the Creeper Trail. Katie and I share a side eye of viral concern with each other as the ride starts. Our van is almost full as we pull out of town, and I realize Katie is right – we do need to go home. The virus is a part of our lives now.
Mount Rogers is the highest natural point in Virginia. The forested mountain landscape stands with a summit over 5,700 feet. The mountain’s National Recreation Area contains a unique record of geologic history. Igneous rocks of volcanic origin are visible across the area in giant sections, slabs, and protrusions. These volcanics date back to the Precambrian super eon and, from forces powered by Earth’s fiery heart, are the product of continental scale rifting. As ancient land masses diverged from one another, giant volcanoes erupted across the backbone of what would eventually become the Appalachians.
The geologist in me is particularly interested in the story behind the massive rhyolite lava flows. Rhyolite is an interesting rock. The eruptive equivalent of granite, rhyolite is felsic. This means the rock is rich in silica. Minerals like quartz and plagioclase, and, in smaller amounts, biotite and hornblende, give the rock a unique character. Granite, common further south in the Appalachian range, is an intrusive igneous rock – meaning the magma that formed the rock cooled at depth in the Earth. Rhyolite, extrusive in nature, is a rock formed from an eruption, but not just any eruption – the high silica and oxygen content almost ensures a violent emergence.
Igneous rocks in Appalachia fascinate me because they are proof of an ever evolving, incredibly dynamic planet. Today, the Appalachian region, though mildly affected by earthquakes, lies in a tectonically passive margin. The axis of Appalachia, however, erupted as fire and brimstone during an Earth changing rifting event some 700 million years ago when our planet was a ball of ice floating in space. This Snowball Earth, such a dramatic global climate change event, was caused by microbes. Pre-Cambrian microbes pioneered photosynthesis, a process that combines carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with water to produce sugar and oxygen gas. The liberated oxygen helped build the ozone layer, protecting the planet from our sun. Meanwhile, atmospheric carbon removal initiated a global cooling. This change in climate covered the Earth in glaciers, and, if not for volcanic activity, life in the cosmos as we know it would have been erased from existence. The rocks here provide evidence of this time and offer clues into the warming trend, led by volcanism, that brought all of life back from the brink of a frigid extinction so long ago.
Appalachian geology affords the greatest example of mountain structure in the world. These humble, weeping mountains, in all their environmental wisdom, reveal an engaging story. This range once stood as titans on a scale of magnitude greater than the Himalayas. All stages of deformation – from undisturbed stratums, folded beds, overturned, broken, thrusted, mashed, and metamorphosed sections of rock – are seen throughout the entire length of the Appalachian system, from Alabama to Newfoundland. The rocks exposed unfold the mysteries of deep time – where the depths of Earth are laid bare in the heart of the range in a manner nowhere equaled.
As we’re shuttled across this geologic wonderland, we pass by a rolling Christmas tree farm and enter a cloud.
“We are really high up, Dad.” Eli’s staring out the window, anxiously rubbing his tiny hands through his curly light brown hair.
“Not getting nervous, are you?” I ask.
“If we are so high up, that means we will have to go straight down cliffs to get down, right Dad?” He looks at me with pouty eyes – he’s a bit tense. A family of four in front of us, with two children who appear a couple of years older than Eli, overhears our exchange.
“No need to worry!” One of them assures. “There is only one spot that’s a little steep, but other than that, it’s a clean ride down the mountain. You are going to have a great time!”
The boy seems to relax a bit at this, but shyly snuggles up next to his momma.
Soon enough, we reach our destination. We hop out of the van and wait for our bikes to be unloaded from the hitched trailer. We stand on a ridge next to a desolate mountain road on Whitetop Point. The air is cold. A high-country breeze is steady and crisp as a light fog moves across our mammal bodies. Broken ribbons of clouds move all around us and everything in elemental wonder. Above, the sky is grey and appears as if giant pillowed clouds were smeared by a painter’s brush across the horizon. The rock, detritus, and understory plants are beaded and damp. We cover Eli in his Sherpa lined, hooded sweatshirt, strap on his helmet, and begin our ride into the forest.
As we coast, the cold breeze bites. I am rather comfortable in my trusty hooded baja, and I’m glad I opted for my hiking boots for today’s adventure. I was half tempted to ride in a trusty pair of sandals. Eyeing the environment, I see we are in a transition ecosystem. Mount Rogers is home to the northern most habitat of the haunting spruce-fir forests of Southern Appalachia. We aren’t high enough in elevation to see this special ecological community, but some balsam understory plants offer a scented resin that is slightly woody with hints of cinnamon – smells that remind me of spruce-fir temperance. The air is fresh, crisp and gleams with mist. In this moment, I am happy.
The trail starts gradually, then the grade picks up enough for us to ride our brakes a little bit. Katie hollers out to Eli a time or two that he needs to slow down. In response he laughs and roars with all his might. The boy has a good laugh, an honest laugh, deep from the belly. We round a corner and come to a long bridge that soars across a deep mountain gorge.
“Yeah! Woo!” Eli howls with excitement as we leave the security of the forest and fly into the wind. His mom and I howl right along with him. As we cross the gorge, water beneath us carves its way into the rugged mountain system in sheer geologic might. The spectacle exposes a mosaic of habitats – unfragmented forests, cliff and rimrock, and mature bottomlands. The water’s ovation echoes and crescendos into a loud celebratory chorus that seems to rejoice in mountain grandeur.
Though we cruise an old railroad bed, from this view we encounter a surprising lack of human disturbance all too prevalent elsewhere in these weeping mountains. Here, deep in the Blue Ridge, we are lucky to enjoy a piece of old-growth forest – free from skidder trails, felled logs, and cut stumps. Though these mountain habitats are still yawning out of dormancy, I can tell these woods welcome a mixed-age canopy rather typical of a mature system. When trees die of old age, or are uprooted by powerful storms, gaps in the canopy occur. These gaps allow buried seedlings a chance at the sun, thus allowing young trees to grow. The result is a wonderful mosaic – a mixed temperate rainforest.
We cross the bridge and again enter the shelter of woodland. In the mixed forest, large, old, dead trees lay and rot with other detritus on the forest floor. The elders seem peacefully at rest, covered in moss and lichen. The lichen population, symbiotic organisms composed of fungus and algae, is especially abundant here and adds a sense of maturity to the woods. A good number of snags are here as well. These still standing, though dead trees are important habitat spaces for numerous avian species and the American black bear. Ah yes, old forest, thank you for the reminder – we are in bear country. . .
Part II of Grant Mincy’s “Resiliency” Coming Soon!
**Featured Image: Photographed by Grant Mincy