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.

Road Trip VI, Days 24-27, Cumberland Island, GA to Durham, NC: Bewitched By Spanish Moss

Cumberland Island is known for its wild (or feral) horses, and I’m a horsey gal.

Horse in your campground, ma'am? Why sure.

Horse in your campground, ma’am? Why sure.

But here’s what really couldn’t drag me away: its Spanish moss. Can anyone tell me WHY this stuff is so entrancing?

Soooo....pretty...

Soooo….pretty…

Seriously. Tell me. I’ve been trying to figure it out.

It’s gray. It’s parasitical–or at any rate it gets a free ride from the trees it drapes; we’re not talking any sweet symbiotic relationship here. And it’s EVERYWHERE in South Georgia, especially on the barrier islands. It should creep people like me out. Instead, I can’t get enough: fondling it, taking pictures, gazing at it from every angle.

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In my quest to break down the components of natural beauty, one word kept coming to mind: grace. But what does it mean to call something graceful?

OK, the tree ain't bad either.

OK, the tree ain’t bad either.

It undulates. Something about the smoothness of wave action must be inherently awe-inspiring, or comforting, or both.

It hangs vertically in a forest of torturous sideways live-oak limbs (seriously, these things grown LITERALLY every which way but up) and herky-jerky pines and saw palmetto, providing a soft set of downward strokes, like Impressionist painting. Or like tinsel strands on a Christmas tree. Also comforting, though I have no idea why.

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It’s soft, despite looking spiny. Well, OK, I get the appeal of soft.

Somebody stop me!

Somebody stop me!

As for connotation–if you read my last post, you know that Southern scenery, even at its finest, is haunted by ugly history. So I would never say Spanish moss’s beauty derives from its context. More the opposite.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten here in my quest to understand. What do you think accounts for its beauty? Help me figure this out, y’all.

All RIGHT. I'm done. Wing out.

All RIGHT. I’m done. Wing out.

Road Trip VI, Days 20-23, Monroe, Louisiana to Cumberland Island National Seashore: Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know

Piney hills. Black-water cypress swamps. Real, deciduous oaks that understand they’re supposed to grow new leaves every year. Maples starting their spring blush. Redbuds already blushing hard. Spanish moss. Magnolias.

We headin’ HOME. Or I am, anyway. But this journey was the idea of my Californian Mate, so he can hardly complain.

But the scenery is already leading to some arguments interesting discussions. I’m a western chauvinist with a deep strain of southeastern nostalgia–an uncomfortable combination. Makes me tetchy. I can claim–and do–that northwestern forests are more dramatic, beautiful, and walkable than those in, say, my home state of North Carolina…but you can’t. The Mate walks into this trap constantly.

Him: “Those pines are a such a weird shade of green.”
Me: “Well, at least they have more individuality than our firs.”
Him: “These wintertime hardwoods make the forest look dead!”
Me: “But at least you can see through it this time of year! And look at the size of that hickory!”

I’ve come to think of these southeastern forests as the ultimate glass-half-full-vs.-empty scenario. I can choose to see a scrubby, scratchy, inhospitable tangle of poison ivy, smilax and honeysuckle…or I can see heritage: my daily walk to school; summer blackberrying; finding a safe spot to pee in the woods during a run. Or, in literary daydreams, Scout Finch and Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie.

 

I know my bipolar attitude is the result of too much history. I can’t see cotton fields without thinking about James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; can’t see big magnolias without thinking of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit.” The South is soaked in more misery per acre than any other region in our country.

Usually, I’ll admit, I see those scruffy, history-laden woods and and think how lucky I am to live diagonally across the continent from here, in forests where nothing wants to bite me or make me itchy, or make me think of slavery, share cropping and the KKK.

These woods aren't dead--they're just getting their beauty sleep.

These woods aren’t dead–they’re just getting their beauty sleep.

But if anyone else says that to me? Nuh-uh, honey.

BTW: I’ll write about our discovery of Cumberland Island in my next post. Right now I just have to give a little shout-out to our friends Raven and Chickadee (a.k.a. Eric and Laurel) for steering us to Oak Mountain State Park via their travel blog, Ravenandchickadee.com. This largest of Alabama’s state parks offers miles of steep, winding trails in wild-feeling woods an astonishing ten miles south of its largest city, Birmingham. We didn’t get enough time there and look forward to staying longer some day. In Alabama!

Oak Mountain, Alabama? This western scary snob says, "Pretty pretty!"

Oak Mountain, Alabama? This western scenery snob says, “Pretty pretty!”