Where the Land Reaches for the Sky

RSWLiving - - Department­s - BY ED BRO­TAK

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


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.

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