Where the Land Reaches for the Sky
Mountains are a place for us to bond and experience something much larger than ourselves. Nowhere else on Earth can we gain such a sense of awe and humility while standing on solid ground— above the clouds.” This is a quote from Autumn with Darwin, the narrative account of a trip to the mountains of western North Carolina by Southwest Florida naturalist, photographer and author Mark Renz. Darwin, an Australian cattle dog, is his constant companion as he explores the region I call home.
The mountains of North Carolina, where I’ve lived for the past 30- plus years, are only a day away by car or a few hours by plane for Floridians. But they are definitely a different world. Here you can experience things unlike anything else in the South. Of course, the mountains themselves, the southern end of the Appalachians, are something to behold for flatlanders or beach folks. Numerous peaks top 5,000 feet. Mount Mitchell is the highest mountain in the eastern United States at 6,684 feet.
Unlike the tall mountains in the West or the northern Appalachians in New England, even the highest mountains in the southern Appalachians are below the tree line. In the summer, the mountains are covered by a green carpet that morphs into a multicolor tapestry in the fall. Interestingly, the green doesn’t change above 5,000 feet. Here, we are in the land of the evergreens. These spruce and fir boreal forests are typical of what you’d have to travel to Canada to see at lower elevations.
This is truly a land of four seasons, and each season offers something different. Summers are notably cooler and less humid. Even lower elevations can go a whole summer without hitting 90 degrees. The higher up you go into the mountains, the cooler it gets. The all- time record- high temperature at Mount Mitchell is only 81 degrees. By September, the leaves are beginning to change color, setting the stage for spectacular fall foliage, which usually peaks in October. Winter brings snow especially to the higher elevations. Mount Mitchell, which averages more than 100 inches of snow a year, had 3 inches of snow on one day, March 13, 1993. You can come up just to see what true winter looks like, or you can enjoy winter sports like skiing and snowboarding at a number of resorts. Spring is a time of rebirth for nature. Flowers abound. The Catawba Rhododendron blooms are world famous and easily accessible.
Outdoor activities are plentiful. In the mountains there are hundreds of hiking trails, including the famed Appalachian
A MOUNTAIN GIVES YOU SPACE, AND SPACE ALLOWS YOUR SOUL TO EXPAND.” — MARK RENZ, AUTHOR
Trail. Active sportsmen find rafting and whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking in the rivers, along with mountain biking, rock climbing and zip- line riding. Outdoorsmen can hunt for black bear and deer, and fish for trout. And plenty of camping sites make spending the night with Mother Nature always an option.
Wildlife abounds. Black bears are often seen even in neighborhoods. I’ve had a mother bear and three cubs on my back deck! They’re not aggressive towards
people. Coyotes and bobcats aren’t as visible, but roam around at night. Yes, I’ve had both at my house. There’s even a herd of elk in the Cataloochee Valley area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Elk, once common in the mountains before they were eliminated by overhunting, were reintroduced in 2001. It’s estimated there are well over a hundred elk now living in the region, and they can be easily viewed.
Golfers take note. Western North Carolina has an abundance of courses, many of them championship caliber. The views are often spectacular. The courses themselves can be challenging. Remember these are the mountains, not the flatlands. The heat and humidity common in the South in summer is abated by the elevation. You can play all day. Courses in the lower valleys are even open on many winter days. And, there are no alligators in the water hazards.
Asheville, the biggest city in the mountains, has a population of 86,000. It is centrally located in the French Broad River Valley at an elevation of 2,100 feet but is surrounded by mountain peaks considerably higher. Locals like to say that the natural beauty, rich history and colorful culture are Asheville’s calling cards.
The mountain town is the cultural center of western North Carolina. When it comes to music, you can attend a concert by the Asheville Symphony Orchestra or listen to more traditional country and mountain music. There’s even a well- established jazz community. Art galleries and dance and theatre groups are plentiful. If shopping is your favorite pastime, downtown Asheville’s quaint shops brim with works from local artists.
Looking for something to eat? Asheville boasts more than 250 indie restaurants and a growing family of craft breweries— 18 at last count. It’s won the title of “Beer City USA” in the past.
The Brotaks come down to Florida to see the ocean, the palm trees and the alligators. You’re welcome to come to western North Carolina to see our mountains, and all they have to offer. As Renz puts it, “A mountain gives you space, and space allows your soul to expand.”
Autumn with Darwin, an e- book by Mark Renz is available at paleopress. net.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America.
Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Price Lake is a popular spot for fishing, boating and canoeing.
The railroad transformed Asheville into a resort when it arrived in 1880; today it’s one of the most sought- out mountain escapes.