Circumstances not of my own making brought me from one spectacular, mountainous state to another. Settling into North Carolina's Piedmont, the maps pointed me westward to the Appalachians, unique on Earth. Nowhere have I seen it better described than here, by Sheila Turnage1.
How did the Appalachians come to be here? The Cherokee, who have lived here for thousands of years, say that one day long ago, the Great Buzzard swooped low over the new earth. His wings brushed the impressionable earth, creating the mountain ranges that rise and fall, and then fade into sky. Geologists envision a wilder scenario.
About 450 million years ago, a migrating continental fragment collided with an underwater land mass, sending layers of earth thousands of feet thick skidding over the lip of the raw North American continent. The earth folded and creased, bellowed and roared, pushing the Appalachians to their feet. Below the surface, superheated rock changed the continent's very blood. The land rose, dipped to become an ocean bed, and rose again. Twice more over the next 250 million years land masses collided, pushing up mountains taller than today's Alps. Over the next 200 million years, time softened the mountains' edges. Freezing water sheered boulders and mountainsides, tree roots split stones, and spring rains swirled away tons of pebbles of sand.1
We made our second family foray into the mountains mid-lockdown in 2020, venturing upwards towards Grandfather Mountain, a gorgeous escape from the Piedmont under a late-summer sky that offered long vistas over the rumpled landscape. The hanging bridge that you queue to walk over towards the pinnacle is a bit of a lark, built at great expense for no real purpose it would seem, but it's an amazing walk – more amazing to consider what its wooden, suspended predecessor must have felt like as it swayed beneath your feet. There, surrounded by spruce and hemlock around and below you, the mountains are gorgeous and intriguing and still relatively wild.
That fall I reread a favorite book, Cold Mountain by Charles Frasier. I'd first read it in Nicaragua in 1999 and it was so good that I did something I've never done before or after with another book: as I reached the last page, I turned back to the beginning and went immediately through it a second time. And there I made a fun connection: the goat woman that Inman meets on his walk back to Cold Mountain lived somewhere in that valley. It's a long section but here's a bit of it:
The brush and bracken grew thick in the footway, and the ground seemed to be healing over, so that in some near future the way would not even remain as a scar. For several miles it mostly wound its way through a forest of immense hemlocks, and the fog lay among them so thick that their green boughs were hidden. ... They climbed to a bend and from there they walked on great slabs of rock. ... Blue patches of sky opened above him, and Inman craned his head back to look at them. ... Then he looked back down and felt a rush of vertigo as the lower world was suddenly revealed between his boot toes. A river gorge – apparently the one he had climbed out of – stretched blue and purple beneath him ... – Has that mountain got a name? he said. –Tanawha, the woman said. The Indians called it that. Inman looked at the big grandfather mountain and then he looked beyond it to the lesser mountains as they faded off into the southwest horizon, bathed in faint smoky haze. Waves of mountains. For all the evidence the eye told, they were endless. The grey overlapping humps of the farthest peaks distinguished themselves only as slightly darker values of the pale grey air.2
It's hard to describe, but standing in the cool air, overlooking those immense forests, some sort of magic flowed through my veins. I believe perhaps it still does.
1] North Carolina, Sheila Turnage; Photography by Jim Hargan. Compass American Guides: North Carolina, Third edition (2003).
2] Cold Mountain, Charles Frasier. Grove Atlantic, 1997.
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