Road Trip IX, Days 23-26: The Appalachian Ocean

Consider this post a small gravel-chunk in the stretch of road that constitutes the travelogue of Road Trip IX. The Mate and I just spent four days and nights in Appalachian Trail country—northern Georgia, western North Carolina—and I want to capture my musings on these mountains before we arrive back in Tarheel Territory the Piedmont and give ourselves over to a week of screaming at the TV, eating BBQ and fried chicken, raising our arms for luck on free throws catching up with old friends over the ACC basketball tournament.

Amicalola Falls State Park, Georgia…near the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Fellow native east coasters, I must confess to you: since moving to Washington in 1990, I’ve become a horrible Western Chauvinist. One of those people who comments that the tallest mountain in the east—Mt. Mitchell, 6,683—comes up to less than halfway up our Mt. Rainier (14,110).

Shame on me.

Height doesn’t matter.

Four days of hiking and riding around the Appalachians has reminded me of this simple truth: you can’t compare them to western mountains.

Western mountains are formidable ranges, awesome volcanoes, places of raw wilderness and dazzling danger. But the Appalachians are a sea.

Sometimes a sea of fog.

There are two reasons for this contrast, two interconnected reasons. The great age of the Appalachians has subjected them to forces of erosion and plate-stretching that have created mountains in the shape of waves.

Waves at sunrise (taken through the window of Amicalola Lodge)

A wave is a crest and a trough. In the Appalachians, the myriad valleys and hollers are as much a part of the mountains as the peaks…because people can live there. They’ve been living there for millennia. Even European settlers have been there for over 250 years!

Waves at sunset

Of course people live high up in the Rockies and the Cascades, here and there. But the very steepness and height of those ranges rendered them inhospitable to permanent settlement back when Europeans first got there. That’s why they have no equivalent culture, identity, or musical heritage to Appalachia. (Sorry–John Denver doesn’t count.)

Here’s where I ought to have some pictures of good ol’ Appalachians doing good ol’ Appalachian things like playing bluegrass or drinking ‘shine. But since I wasn’t thinking about a blog post when we were hiking and biking and driving through, all I have is pictures of The Mate with some friends.

“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” anyone?

So thanks, Appalachians, for slapping me upside the head with this reminder. If they’re lucky, all those gorgeous western mountains will look like you in a few million (billion?) years. 

Till then–stay warm!

Thanks. You too.

The East Coast’s Secret Weapon: Fireflies

If you’ve been reading my blog for even a few months, you probably know I’m a homegrown Southerner who left the South decades ago and never looked back except to visit my family, cheer for the Tarheels, eat some excellent greasy meat and smell the oak trees. 

In short, I’ve become one of those terrible west-coast snobs. Northwest, in particular.

But last week I got slapped upside the head with one huge, enormous, unforgettable advantage the eastern half of America has over the western: FIREFLIES.

(All credit and kudos to Radim Schreiber for that video.)

You might well ask how anyone could forget something so magical. Here’s the reason: fireflies are a summer phenomenon. And since North Carolina’s hot, muggy summers are one of the factors that sent me and the Mate fleeing for the west, I have made it a point to visit only in the other three seasons. So I simply have not seen fireflies. Out of sight—apparently, sadly—out of mind.

For the scientifically minded, here are some quick, wikipedia firefly facts:

  • They are winged beetles, commonly called fireflies or lightning bugs for their conspicuous use of bioluminescence during twilight to attract mates or prey.

  • Fireflies produce a “cold light”, with no infrared or ultraviolet frequencies. 

  • About 2,100 species of fireflies are found in temperate and tropical climates, especially in marshes or in wet, wooded areas.

  • In many species of fireflies, both male and female fireflies have the ability to fly, but in some species, the females are flightless.

  • They are endangered, mostly due to habitat loss.  [Thanks, Wikipedia!]

But for your inner child, here’s all you need to know: being in the presence of fireflies, in the moist, breathing darkness, is beyond anything videos can capture. It’s otherworldly…the kind of other world where nature is that benign goddess-mother we all love to imagine. Nothing bad can happen in the presence of fireflies, can it? They twinkle one’s breath away, but unlike the stars, they don’t make one feel small. Just blessed.

For a visual representation of fireflies’ geographical distribution, and to learn more about all things firefly, click here on the Massachusetts Audubon’s firefly page.

Thank you, magic creatures of “cold light.” Thank you, Mom & Dad, for raising me in a place of magic. To all y’all who haven’t been to the rural east in the summer to experience the glow: I hope you can give yourself that gift someday. (And have some greasy meat while you’re at it.)