Back from the Edge

As the tree-line recedes, the skyline opens into its full blazing glory. The massive quartzite shelf where Hanging Rock receives its name becomes a looking glass into the beating heart of the Sauratown Mountains. From paved forest road, I leap onto a well-worn gravel trail. Roots had been pushed back to allow the circuitous path to wind its way up towards the peak. Clouds with the consistency of wool roll pass my head, revealing a lucid blue sky capable of soaking you up as if it were a straw. Miniscule red maple leaves (Acer rubrum, L.) were peaking out from branches like prairie dogs, as if curious about the coming of Spring.

Red maple (Acer rubrum) bloom – 4/11/19

With the varying weather conditions of this season, I don’t blame them. The first week of April was marked with a brief snowfall, and now two weeks later the temperatures are climbing high into the 70s. Choosing the right moment to emerge will likely become more difficult, and potentially all the more dangerous. An early spring frost could decimate blooming deciduous tree species like the red maple, setting back centuries of evolutionary adaptations. We will adapt, I suppose, but how can we do so when everything seems so variable?

Hanging Rock Vista – 4/11/19

 I perch myself near a small Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana, Mill.) on the edge of Hanging Rock, the void just beyond. Luminous sunlight casts a speculative glow across the quartzite surface, sending shadows shooting across the many twists and turns of the rockface.

Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) on Hanging Rock – 4/11/19

I see my own shadow, fifteen meters or so to my right, projected against the surface of a vertical shelf. I get the silly idea to wave to it, knowing full well its obligation to follow my lead. I wonder what I would think if it decided to resist, to fold its arms and turn its back to me. Too often I take its presence for granted, an extension of my being made possible by a burning star 93 million miles away from me. I am tethered to my shadow, obligated to it, and as such, I feel as if it is my duty to acknowledge it every now and then. All of us need acknowledgment, recognition of our breath and our smiles. Although neither are present in my shadow, I know that they are there because I am emitting them. I sing praises of myself, lifting them high above the pinnacle of Hanging Rock, into the vaporous crystal sea above.

Shadows and stories – 4/11/19

I am nothing but a passenger, buckled into the accelerating vehicle of wilderness careening down this ecological highway. I will keep my eyes glued to the road, anticipating the sights just around the bend. With Hanging Rock behind wheel, I realize that the destination is only the beginning. We have miles to go together, and all the time in the world.

Buckled in for the journey ahead – 4/11/19


“I crashed into the sea, then somehow I survived. I don’t know what to believe, but I know I’m alive”

Secret of Life

As soon as the citrus hit my mouth, my mood shifted. Miles of winding downhill trails had left my knees battered and sore. Sitting on a rock overlooking the Tory’s Den gorge, I stare longingly into the bed of eastern pines below, hoping there’s someone out there to give me a lift back home. I peel the tangerine slowly, slipping my nail under the course exterior to reveal the bursting fruit within. Tracing my fingers along the edge, I draw them back as I would a pipette and feast my eyes on the six rounded pieces that would save my day. This tangerine, I thought, would barely keep my hunger at bay, so how could a hundred or more Tories sustain themselves when they called this cave their home. Although the landscape has clearly been disturbed, I can see minimal traces of deer or rabbit, which certainly wouldn’t have been good news for the huddling Tories. The gifts of food are irreplaceable, especially being able to provide enough for yourself over the course of a journey. Only a select few of us know what hunger is, and the reasons why we avoid it so adamantly.

Abandoned road near Tory’s Den – 4/11/19

Shortly after I began nibbling on a Cliff-Bar, I could hear a series of footfalls approaching. Each seemed to bound lightly off of the treated wood stairs marking the descent to the cave. From around the wall sprang a dog with brown and black fur, clearly a terrier mix. His tongue droops low from the corner of his mouth as he meanders closer. He sits at my right side, cocks his head slightly to the left, and give me the most irresistible puppy-dog eyes I have ever seen. I notice he has a collar, which thankfully relieves all my nightmares of getting bitten by a stray five miles from any kind of civilization. I start to hear more footsteps from behind the dog, and distant shouting: “Houston!” Figuring this was the dog’s name, I stuck out my hand open palmed for Houston to sniff. Clearly intrigued, he allows me to grace my fingers along the crown of his head, soaking in his soft fur as light as a comforter.

Trail returning from Tory’s Den – 4/11/19

Houston’s owner rounded the curve a minute later, clearly pleased of his pup’s safety. He introduces himself as Lee, and we begin to talk about the strenuous hiking conditions that brought us here. Neither of us had expected to spend the better half of the day wandering this path, nor the series of signs that progressively increased the distance to the destination. Famished and tired, we decide to hike the remainder of the trail back together. It was clear that both of us prefer to hike alone, or more specifically, in the presence of very few others. Up until this point, I have been separated from any sustained human contact within the park. Passing people in the parking lot is one thing but engaging in lengthy conversation was entirely another. Walking with Lee, I reflected on my previous wanderings through this space. I have been alone, undisturbed, and completely free to move through this park with ease and security. Not once did I fear for my life or become skeptical about the ways in which my being would be interpreted.

A return in sunset – 4/11/19

As a white man, I have thrived in natural places. This has been the unfortunate norm for thousands of years, since the early push of Manifest Destiny and the rugged outdoorsmen conquering natural forces. After reading J. Drew Lanham’s memoir “The Home Place”, I poignantly realized that my own movements have rippling consequences. For a variety of reasons, ranging from the color of your skin to your place of origin, many groups are unable to access nature in the same way Lee and I could. The act of walking alone through a ribbon of pines can evoke dread out of so many but bring absolute joy to me. Wanderers like us owe a great debt to those who have not traveled these paths, placed their feet on these stones, or stared out at the range of vistas lining the Sauratowns. Hanging Rock State Park must be cherished by all, and yet so many are prevented from seeing it due to transportation costs, accessibility of trails, and public perceptions of their presence in this space.

A view Houston found – 4/11/19

No longer can we hold back the waters. The dam is about to burst, the water lapping at its top begging to be cast forward. By simply conversing with Lee, I realized my own complicity in keeping the waters contained. Once I am able to sacrifice myself for the inclusion of others, the floodgates will tear open and never be closed again. Much the Tories nestled in the den, Hanging Rock can become a home for everyone, a space that we can all make our own. This, perhaps, is the secret of life we’ve all been searching for.

“Truths once known never come unknown – I learned that lesson lives ago”

Lonesome Dreams

I land on a wooded path, miles away from home. I chase the sunlight mile after mile, through the wind-swept pines and the darkening oaks. Not a soul in sight except the one within me. The patches of blooming trout lilies are long behind me, what lies ahead remains a mystery. Tory’s Den is beyond my wanderings, a place of unknown qualities and hidden secrets. As I approach the trailhead from Moore’s Knob, something draws me closer. Perhaps it is the promise of the unfamiliar, or the devout dedication of the wanderer to push pass their boundaries. I am drawn to the trail as an insect is to light, hopefully without the same outcome.

Tory’s Den trailhead – 4/11/19

Tory’s Den is the outermost destination within the Hanging Rock trail system. Given the appeal of the partially paved titular destination, Tory’s Den is likely unpopulated by most park visitors, especially during the week. As expected, the trail remained my own for quite some time. I passed along serpentine switchbacks until I crested a peak topped with groves of mountain laurel and Virginia pines. From there the trail descended as sharply as a kitchen knife, forcing me to push weight onto my heels in order to stop myself from tumbling forward. It was here I began to doubt if I could complete this trek. I notice the sun hanging lower in the west, still plenty of light left but definitely leaning heavy towards the evening sky. My food and water would last many miles more, but would my mind? Would the worry of my return prevent my enjoyment of the journey? I can sing these songs as long as I please, but nothing will drive me forward except my own two feet.

Part of a coyote tail (so I think) – 4/11/19

Unlike the ‘walls’, ‘knobs’, or ‘rocks’ that categorize nearly all major attractions at Hanging Rock, Tory’s Den is the only one of its kind. The cave is nestled in a shallow outcropping near the park’s northern border, approximately 35 feet deep and 20 feet high. Quartzite has been worn away in jagged shelfs that could be briefly scaled if need be. As I quickly discovered, the cave is currently home to gigantic mosquitos and numerous black moths. But that’s not who originally lived here. During the American Revolution, Stokes County was located near the western front of the thirteen colonies. British and American forces fought no major battles here, but neighbors often clashed over which side deserved their allegiance. One such skirmish occurred between the Whigs, English colonists who wanted independence from Great Britain, and the Tories, colonists who remained loyal to the British Crown. At the start of the war, the Whigs seized land and property in Stokes County held by the Tories and forced them into the wilderness. Outmanned and outgunned, about 100 Tories settled in this cave near the future Hanging Rock State Park.

Tory’s Den – 4/11/19

In 1778, a group of Tories raided Whig Colonel John Martin’s ‘rock house’ and supposedly kidnapped his daughter for ransom. By dawn, Martin had rallied a group of Whigs and attacked the ‘Den.’ Taking the Tories by surprise, Martin took most of them prisoner in retribution for taking his daughter. Once the war ended in 1783, Congress passed a law that would return any unsold Tory lands to their original owners only if they would sign their allegiance to the flag of the United States. Since that fateful day, the cave has been known as “Tory’s Den.” With a resonating waterfall a few paces to the west, the cave provides adequate shelter for any creature passing its way.

Nestled within Tory’s Den – 4/11/19

The strenuous journey has left me weary and famished, and much like the Tories, I will too call this place home for a fragmented moment in time. Just until my water and food run low. Here, it just the rocks, and the trees, and my lonesome dreams that will fill this cave up once again. Huddled low, I stare out into the boundless forest dreaming of tomorrow and the eternal promise it holds.

“I feel I should know this place, as the road winds on into wide open space”

Lullaby

I rose silently from the fray of flowers, casting my upwards towards the thicket of vapor-strung Virginia pines (Pinus virginiana, Mill.). Thin, scaly plates of cinnamon colored bark crisscrossed the towering trunks of these pines. Evergreen needles clung to slender branches, shaking loose the lingering stillness of winter in preparation for new warmth. A few weeks from now, these conifers will produce a scourge of cylindrical yellow flowers with curved prickles protruding from the top. As the spring winds sweep in from the west, coarse powdery pollen will erupt from the protrusions and fill the sky in a yellow haze, much to the dismay of many sensitive day hikers. Hopefully they’ll bring enough tissues to notice the small ovoid cones that soon follow. Maybe they will taste the air rich with sap wrapping everything up in a bucolic bliss.

Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) – 4/11/19

A few paces forward, I found myself face to face with an eastern white pine (Pinus strobus, L.). A perfect opportunity to finally be able to distinguish the two prominent conifers in this region. Around the base of the tree was a bed of amber needles about 3-5 inches in length, about 1.5 inches longer than those of the Virginia pines. Each bundle of needles, known as a fascicle, on the white pine had five slender flexible needles, as opposed to the two divergent needles observed on Virginia pines. The bark of white pine is significantly scalier and more rounded than its compatriot, composed of long ridges and black furrows. Pausing to this detail, I recognized that I would never again confuse the two. Their bark is so remarkably different as well as the patterns of their needles. Yes, they are both pines, but their intricacies and variety are vastly different. I guess we could say the same thing about humans. While we are all Homo sapiens, we distinguish ourselves based on cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds that compose our identity. Only by peering behind the obvious can we begin to recognize and appreciate our own variety within these natural spaces.

White pine (Pinus strobus) – 4/11/19

As if appreciative of my recognition, both the White and Virginia pines sang to me as I climbed towards Moore’s Knob. Gusts of crisp spring air sent groans down their trunks like they had just been hit by foul balls at a baseball game. I observed no changes in their abundance as I scrambled over quartzite shelves, dodged low-hanging mountain laurel branches, or wound my way around muddy ruts in the trail. Tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) and Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) emitting soft calls from somewhere in the canopy of evergreen needles. The long, lonesome drum of the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) made the forest hold its breath and rejoice in the silence that followed.

Approaching Moore’s Knob – 4/11/19

Moore’s Knob commanded this silence better than any space I have ever wandered through. As the pines withdrew, the dynamic quartzite shelf rose up over all nearby mountain peaks. From atop the observation tower, I could see for what felt forever. The glistening peak of Hanging Rock shone out like a lighthouse on the shore, beckoning all to come forward to reach safe ground. Off to my right, Pilot Mountain swelled in the twilight and towered remarkably over the minuscule cityscape of Winston-Salem far below. All was revealed in its majesty and glory.

Hanging Rock from Moore’s Knob – 4/11/19

Something is truly magical about the setting sun. As the heat of the day dissipates into cool night air, lingering concerns and anxieties appear to do the same. It is as if the earth is bathing itself in a radiant glow, scrubbing away the blemishes of today for the smoothness of tomorrow. I am in a lullaby, sung to sleep by Spring herself.

Pilot Mountain (left) from Moore’s Knob – 4/11/19

“Fall asleep and forget all your troubles. Dream of laughter and old friends and lovers”

La Belle Fleur Sauvage

What you’re looking for won’t be found easily. In the blink of an eye, a quick glance upward, or even the extra focus needed to step over that root, they will be gone. Footsteps pass them by daily, pausing not even for a moment to examine their hidden qualities. Transitory beauty remains rooted in fertile soil, lifting their pedals high for the eye to behold. By a small patch of green by bubbling brook, Spring has dawned her familiar wardrobe once again. Layering herself with sweaters of green and yellow, she has begun the process of pulling upward the promise of new beginnings. Stooping low, I paused to congratulate her for another successful start to the season.

Cascade Creek, Hanging Rock State Park – 4/11/19

My eyes wandered to a small patch of radiant light blue flora. Folded emerald moss served as a bed for the flowers to rest upon, only now their petals were stretching upward to meet the day. Bluets, or Quaker ladies (Houstonia caerulea, L.) are a perennial species native to eastern Canada and the eastern United States. The terminal flowers invite you in with mauve-tipped pedals, moving downward into a crystal-clear blue base, and wrapping you up with a fluorescent center of yellow. Quaker ladies grow best in acidic soils in relatively shaded forests, often reaching eight inches high in best conditions and capable of covering large expanses. At Hanging Rock, they are often observed towering over moss-covered patches of the understory such as these.

Bluets (Houstonia caerulea) by Cascade Creek – 4/11/19

Off to their left, a solitary downy yellow violet claimed its space in the sunlight. Downy yellow violets (Viola pubescens, Ait.) are another perennial species found all across the continental United States. The downy yellow violet is softly hairy, growing anywhere from 9-12 inches tall. Casting a brilliant glow across the forest floor, the yellow rimmed petals are veined with purple like the capillaries of human blood. Although the flowers are certainly edible, I could not fathom removing that beauty from the landscape unless under dire circumstances.

Downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens) by Cascade Creek – 4/11/19

Closer to the creek, and covered slightly in sand, Galax cast a darkening green glow against the transparent surface of the creek. Also known as wandplant or beetleweed, Galax (G. urceolata, Poir.) is native to the southeastern United States, ranging from Massachusetts to northern Alabama. They prefer the elevation provided by the Appalachian Mountains, often observed in shaded areas in an evergreen embrace to the forest floor. Each leaf is a rounded cardioid heart) shape roughly 2.5-7.5 cm in diameter, held on long petioles. In a thicket of them, anyone can feel the love. Unlike the bluet or the violet, Galax expose their vividly white flowers in late spring. The long cylindrical flower stalk will rise up like water vapor and line its sides with the flowers as if becoming a beacon for some sort of satellite signal. I stop to ponder who might be at the receiving end.

Beetleweed (Galax urceolata) by Cascade Creek – 4/11/19

Searching for a Galax flower would have proven futile; however, some species require that level of dedication to find Spring’s graceful touch. Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum, Sm.) are a colony-forming ephemeral flower dwelling in woodland habitats all across North America. The gray-green leaves mottled with brown and gray litter the forest floor almost as prominently as the decomposing canopy from Fall. Due to the mottled patterning of brown and gray, each leaf supposedly resembes the coloration of brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), another native species to Hanging Rock. After some searching, I discovered the recurved yellow nodding flower. The bronzy exterior will eventually pull away to reveal the iridescent interior with four to five extending maroon stamens. Needless to say, the discovery of this flower sent a stream of joy cascading down the waterfall of my soul.

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) by Cascade Creek – 4/11/19

All of this life existed in one small patch. Should I have focused on the problems I left behind at home, or even dwelled too much in my head, I would never have discovered Spring’s brilliance in this space. Up beyond the clouds, down below the trees, the world is radiating with color and beauty, proceeding along its course without our attention. Let’s look for a change. Who knows what we will see.

“Her colors change to mark the passing of the days. No Earthly sight can match the beauty she displays”

Dead Man’s Hand

I came across a dead man’s hand. Not of the flesh and bone type, not decayed or degraded, not even one at the center of any major investigation. This was one of potentially more concern should it remain untreated or uncontrolled. This was also not just one man’s hand, but many: paws, hooves, and pads. Limbs and stalks, pedals and leaves, soil and rock. This was the remnant of heat, the scorching lick of flame that broiled the earth like an overdone steak.

The understory was ravaged, or so I thought initially. Along the eastern bank of the Hanging Rock lake, ten or more acres of new growth forest were burned. Patches of crimson brown leaves transitioned into blackened, smoldering remains. The compounded heat crept into my eyes and burned my lungs. Rhododendron leaves (Rhododendron catawbiense, L.), once green and vibrant, drooped low with amber hues. A fallen eastern white pine (Pinus strobus, L.) still clung to a bouquet of dead needles clearly licked by the passing flames. It appeared as if only the grove of white oak (Quercus alba, L.) spared the intensity of the burn. Given the survival of these new growth trees, I knew this burn was prescribed just as medicine is from the behind the counter. And yet, I could not help but feel saddened by the loss of the understory, the sickly bushes and flowers unable to reap the sunlight from a crystal-clear April sky.

A Fiery Battleground – 4/11/19

Prescribed burns are a regular occurrence at Hanging Rock State Park. Towards the end of the winter season, fire service managers typically conduct burna on about 250 acres within the Park and in the Flat Shoals Mountain area. Burns such as these manage understory growth to quell the rage of any potential wildfires. Fire has always served as a keystone process in the natural world, from providing warmth to shivering beings to triggering species succession and regrowth. As human beings have steadily changed the world into their image, fire has become distorted into a malicious beast hellbent on wreaking havoc on wood or plastic infrastructure. Through controlled burns, the Park serves to restore nutrients to the soil and discourage the growth of stress-resistant colonizing plant species. Prescribed-burn managers at Hanging Rock develop an annual plan that includes smoke-management details, fire-control measures, acceptable fuel-moisture and weather parameters, and the necessary equipment and personnel required to safely conduct the burns.

The forest will only benefit from the flame, a necessary trial by fire. What appeared dead upon first sight turned out to be brilliantly alive, anticipating the return of spring and the promise of new life. I inhale the flames once again and allow them to fill my soul in the manner in which they filled the understory. I hope that they can exhume the weeds growing inside and begin a process of healing. Nature is certainly full of her dangers, but by managing her properly, we human animals are capable of bringing out the best versions of us both.


“Though I was was worn and weary, I thought I’d bury him
and lay his soul to rest”

Brother

Water dances around my fingers to a song set eternally on repeat. I watch as my subtle motions trigger a series of cascading ripples. From the point of their inception, the rhythmic circles steadily grow, expanding outward to cover more surface area across the placid surface. I could only have so much of an impact, for nearly as quickly as they came, the disturbances blended seamlessly back into the folds of the lake.

Image – Twilight Forest

Without the work of others, my ripples would never have existed. The 12-acre lake I rest my bones beside was the product of hard work and a vision for the future. In 1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) troop #3422 cut out 12-acres to build the lake, erecting an earthen dam to keep the waters in banks. The stone bathhouse and diving tower show their handprints as well, not to mention the very roads and parking areas still used in the park today.

Image – Benches alongside Hanging Rock Trail built by the CCC

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the CCC in 1933 as an attempt to revive the economy from the Great Depression. Roosevelt believed that the country’s most valuable resource was its people, and under a common goal could accomplish incredible feats. Thus, the CCC’s mission was to conserve the natural resources of the land by utilizing young men between ages 18 and 25. In total, the CCC employed almost three million people and planted over two million trees. They additionally controlled the erosion on over 20 million acres of land and constructed 97 thousand miles of forested roads and trails. Their cumulative efforts reclaimed over 84 million acres of agriculture.

Image – Collection of CCC photos from Hanging Rock museum

  On July 2nd, 1935, 243 CCC workers arrived in the Hanging Rock wilderness where they remained for the next seven years. By the end of 1935, approximately 27,000 CCC men were stationed all across North Carolina. CCC #3422 were managed by both the Army and the park service simultaneously, working long hours of manual labor. They were allowed to participate in recreational sports and education outside of working hours, even being allowed trips on the weekend to encourage their passions and motivations.

Image – Building the Park

In constructing the park, the men of the CCC carved out a surface mine to harvest native stones. They cleared out many of the trees and topsoil around the lake and visitors center, proceeding to remove the quartzite with sledgehammers and jackhammers. Many men were tasked with using dynamite. One member, Lyman Hall, recalls that “if President Roosevelt hadn’t done this, we wouldn’t have recovered so quickly from the Depression.” Percy Fulk, another member of CCC #3422, remembered how “we brought that region to reality.” He noted the incredible sense of family and brotherhood felt in that space, the communion between each other and within the folds of the wilderness.

Image – Observation Tower on Moore’s Knob

I see their reflections here in these waters. The faces of young boys, uncertain about their future, committing themselves to physical reclamation and personal freedom. Shrouded in wildness they grew closer to themselves, leaving lasting marks on the fabric of this space. I envision myself in their shoes, busting quartzite with oversized hammers or envisioning the placement of this lake. While I certainly enjoy separating myself from the commotion of the human world, it becomes impossible to root oneself in space if that world is not recognized. This water, while natural, was not a part of this landscape during the days of the Saura, nor when the park was first established. We often appreciate the beauty without understanding the circumstances, an act which unfortunately distances our perceptions away from enlightenment. I seek not to squander my thoughts but to broaden them, to make this space my home in all of its variety. After all, who are we if not connective?


“You made me swear I’ll never forget. I made a vow I’d see you again”

Ghost on the Shore

In an instant, my hands knew the earth.

Cold, resistant stones nearly shot upwards to meet me, the weight on my shoulders lifted and thrown three feet to my front. Dirt and debris riddled the inside of my nails while semi-frozen mud adhered firmly to my skin. I rolled over onto my back, propping myself up with my elbows in hopes of seeing what I believed I just saw.

Image – Hanging Rock at sunset

It was the root that did me in, or so I thought. Venturing down the Magnolia Springs trail, amidst the tangled rhododendron, I could not help to stare longingly into the progressively setting sun. Slight glimmers of evening light bounced off the neighboring trees to illuminate small patches of earth along the surface. It felt as if someone had poked holes in a darkened box to allow fragments of intense glow to guide the way. The trail circuitously wound through these beacons of light, guiding a seamless descent into the quiet valley below.

Image – Lake in the fog

Rounding a sharp corner, I reached out to grip the trunk of a slender white pine. As I clenched around the overlapping bark, my eyes caught glimpse of a dim figure to my right. Shrouded in fog it was clear they were close, although from my distance I could see nothing distinguishing about them. A glimmer of reflecting light averted my eyes from the figure; a loud cracking thud brought them back. A sizable branch from a chestnut oak plummeted to the ground, flattening the space where I thought the figure once stood. They had vanished, taking my balance with them, and in an instant, I too felt a collision.

Image – A peaceful forest

My palms were dirty and my thoughts ran heavy. Who were they, and where did they go? My pace hastened to match the fleeting day, my heart racing faster than the beat of a raven’s wing. Perhaps it was the darkness, perhaps it was the light, but I could not shake the feeling of being watched. I gripped my pack tighter and began leaping over stones along the path. I felt eyes everywhere, an unnerving feeling when deeply alone amidst the frozen understory. I hustled across a narrow bridge and burst forth into the open forest below, leaving the tangled rhododendron behind. As I held my knees and struggled for breath, the eyes lingered, and the darkness thickened.

In an instant, my heart knew the earth.

What waited for me that evening was a scar. A bruise left untreated that has spread like a curse throughout this land, one not commonly observed in the careful folds of the crimson peaks. In an instant, I had fallen. These mountains I wander through were named for the Saura Indians, who historians believe to be the first inhabitants of the region. Also known as the Cheraw, the Saura lived intimately with the Dan River by utilizing its nutritious qualities and transportive abilities. Saura ancestors were believed to have migrated to Hanging Rock prior to any European contact, creating two large village complexes known as Upper and Lower Sauratown. They grew corn by the river’s edge and hunted bass and bream throughout the year. Seasonality played a critical role in their food sources, especially given the abundance of acorn and hickory nuts in the late fall and early winter. By the 1670s, Saura tribes experienced regular encounters with European explorers who brought with them the onset of disease. Nearly every village post-exposure experienced large mortality rates, their very way of life altered in an instant.

Futures are always held in jeopardy. The ways we envision our lives proceeding are subject to an array of forces undeniably outside of our control. We are simply vessels adrift in a vast murky ocean, casting dim lights to guide our way through the darkness. In that moment, I found my connection to the land, a space marked with unspoken distress and complicated frameworks. My presence here is temporary, the figure remains vigilant. I may never know the answer, but at least I have found the tools to ask the questions.

In an instant, my mind knew the earth.

“I will remember the sight of the ghost on the shore”

Frozen Pines

Where I stand now, the Earth was once in turmoil. Approximately 500 million years ago, the tectonic plates containing Africa and North America converged. This act triggered the disappearance of the Iapetus sea and pushed the eastern edge of North America thousands of feet above sea level. Incredible pressure underneath this collision metamorphosed sandstones into the erosion-resistant quartzite where I now plant my feet.

High atop the exposed surface of Cook’s Wall, I stare down into the void of shadowed trees and fog below. My eye lingers on one pine in particular. It rests on a jagged upwelling of quartzite, clinging somewhat desperately to a small patch of dirt on the rock’s exterior. The central trunk emerges triumphantly from the uncertain ground, held upright from the vast array of roots unseen to my eyes. I trace the amber bark upward until the tree splits into two adjacent branches, forcing my attention to widen as to capture its entirety. Their heaviness consumes me. An icy haze glistens on the tree’s exterior as if to distinguish it from all else. The small rounded pinecones interspersed on the assortment of evergreen needles droop and sag under the blanket of ice. Despite the ground being barren of snow, freezing rain has hardened the leaves, pressured the forest, and unequivocally dominated the winter landscape.

For the next hour, I lost myself in that wintry forest. My boots crunched along the semi-frozen trail while my arms braced against rigid unbending trunks to either side. Every now and then, my shoulders would collide with the rime of mountain laurel or rhododendron. Recently high winds have blown the dripping rain backwards against its downward flow. Coupled with near-freezing temperatures, the droplets have frozen in elegant curves nearly parallel to the leaves. I quickly got into the habit of grabbing the ice by its edge and carefully pulling the covering away. I would painstakingly focus on peeling it away as I would an orange, generally ending with its consumption as a ‘brief refreshment’.

Rhododendron in winter – 2/18/19

After repeating the action on a nearby mountain laurel, I looked down to see a perfect iced replica of the leaf resting in my hands. Slight indentations of the midrib and each lateral vein glistened off the surface and shone brightly against the hazy sun. I twirled it slightly from side to side, attempting to comprehend the fastidious brilliance of the natural forces that shaped this object slowly melting in my grip. Wind and rain have fundamentally structured the entire composition of the region, wearing down the soft-stoned exterior over millions of years to expose the legendary quartzite cliffs of Hanging Rock today. From the grandeur of the vistas to the frozen outlines of natural flora, elemental powers stimulate the coordinated breath of this space. Listen closely, and you can hear nearly every living thing breathing together. I draw oxygen inward towards my lungs in an attempt to join them, to feel my presence in communion with theirs. I think of the rocks, the trees, and my lonesome dreams, a beautiful haze captured in my soul.

A perfect capture – 2/18/19

Shading my eyes from the glare of the setting sun, I descended along slippery trails into the rhododendron forests. Here the ice clung to the trees less readily, often fragmenting and crackling under short gusts of wind. I bounded over roots, scrambled up slippery gneiss outcroppings, and supported myself on slender hickory’s as the path twisted onward. I emerged out of a thicket into a new-growth forest where much of the understory had been cleared away. Damp leaves composed the base while bright green moss served as beacons through the misty trees. I took a moment to stop, planting my feet firmly into the mud, and simply listen. Absolute silence. Not even the distant hum of a plane disturbed this utter tranquility.

A patch of green – 2/18/19

All of a sudden, the stillness was broken. To my right, I could make out a distant thwat, as if someone was striking the surface of a tree. From out of the fog, a pileated woodpecker soared into view in spectacular fashion. The noise, I learned, was the steady flap of wings against its agile body. Each thwat directed the woodpecker higher into the air, where it would then descend briefly before repeating the process. Against the misty background, the red plumage on its head glowed like a campfire, too abruptly snuffed out by its departure back into the fog.

Just like that, my union with the woodpecker vanished; its world remaining just out of my grasp. I realized that something is only ever given in nature; nothing is taken for granted. Though I felt satisfied, grateful, and content just being in its presence, I knew I had to return to my own world in due time. Evening’s approach did not falter but my haste certainly had, so with a short shuffle, I pressed onward against night’s formidable grip on the darkening valley.

” I wonder how they know, cause they don’t die if they don’t grow”

Ends of the Earth

Poppa once told me: “You never have to be afraid…why embrace fear when you can grasp serenity instead. Be still, and know you are loved.” As I stand quietly amidst a thicket of vapor-strung pines, my grandfather’s sweet words serenade my ears once again. I perceive no movement across the saturated soil, and yet I can feel his gaze staring out at me somewhere through the fog. It’s as if the forest has soaked up his entire essence and departed it out as air. I recall the verses of Walt Whitman and, quite simply, I begin to smile.

Wolf Rock covered in Fog – 2/17/19

           The impressively carved face of Wolf Rock shakes me back to reality. Luminous clouds have descended to hug the quartzite shelf in a seemingly-perpetual embrace. Bracing gusts of mountain air now cut through my polyester layers and send shivers shooting down to my toes. I took off my backpack and rooted around for my down coat and extra fleece, knowing quite well I did not want to leave this space for some time. I recalled then how that blue North Face shell seemed quite odd in the backseat of my car as I was stuffing my pack full of granola, fruit, and energy bars a few hours ago. The three-mile descent to the Hanging Rock visitor center seemed too far a commute, so I settled into iciness and stared out into the unknown.

Winter’s icy grip – 2/17/19

            Hanging Rock is no neophyte to frosty conditions. As part of the Sauratown Mountains, the state park experiences ascensions anywhere from 1,700 feet to 2,500 feet across its 7000-acre enclosure. Given the nearly static 800-foot elevation of neighboring Stokes county, Hanging Rock encapsulates a monumental collection of varying habitats. From my frozen mountain perch on Wolf Rock, I could barely make out the lowland swamps that dot the inner valley and the clear pine-forests of the upper piedmont. The view splintered my concentration from the task of warming my stiffening hands.

Great banks of fog suddenly plunged down from the canopy of oak and hickory, abruptly swallowing any chance of seeing the world beyond the ten-meters in front of me. I took a sip of tea and began to listen to the fog, an attempt to distinguish whether or not this force could make a sound.  My whole body slowly filled with insuppressible energy, all thoughts of coldness departed, utterly and completely immersed with the fine folds of mist wrapping around me.

A passing shower sent droplets cascading onto my neck, dripping down my spine and causing my lips to chatter. Just then, I recalled the sign situated five meters to my right reading “Scenic Overlook”, a bolded arrow directing visitors to my current position. Without the appearance of stunning vistas and dramatic landscapes from behind the foggy veil, Wolf Rock would have likely remained unvisited for the entirety of that day. In that moment I did not care that the ‘scenic view’ was hidden from my eyes, for I could feel the power of the landscape without even seeing it. Even if her beauty is temporarily obscured, her influence shapes more than meets the eye. I closed my eyes and pressed my hands against the damp quartzite shelf, the accumulated water soaking into my skin as if I were a sponge. What I once believed separated me from this space now seemed to hold my hand, pulling me under and wrapping me tightly in an eternal blanket of serenity.

“There’s a world that was meant for our eyes to see “