Ode to the Blue Ridge

SG | Fall in the North Carolina Piedmont comes on fast, and the leaves are usually falling before I first notice their color. It is lovely, if fleeting, but I’ve been spoiled. Spoiled by a fall in Asheville many years back.

I have since failed to time a trip to Western North Carolina to coincide with “peak” leaf season, but this time of year always calls to mind memories from those hills. It’s near impossible for outsiders to witness Appalachian fall colors at their peak, by the way. (All manner of forces keep the “peak” a perpetually shifting target. It rained too much. It was too dry. We had an early ice storm. It’s too warm. Wind blew too hard last night. And so on.)

I spent a lot of time in the Appalachian Mountains just out of college. I graduated from Auburn in the spring and didn’t have any real obligation until January. For the summer months, a friend of mine and I took off walking up the Appalachian Trail to see how far we could get in two months. Turns out 842 miles is the number.

By the time we stopped at Rockfish Gap — miraculously the day before a friend’s wedding 23 minutes away in Charlottesville — I was ready to be out of the woods. The blistering lushness of poison ivy along the trail in North Georgia; the knee-wrecking trauma of a pack too heavy; the weight of humidity through a Virginian July.

I will say that the stretch of trail through North Carolina, including its miles of flirtation with the Tennessee border, were the best of the trip. Steep climbs were rewarded with absolutely stunning panoramas. Cleared balds provided views of rapidly approaching thunderheads. Brushes with civilization along the way afforded all manner of hospitalities, including a soak in Hot Springs and the celebrity that comes with being a long-distance hiker at Newfound Gap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To passing motorists, we were a living tourist attraction in our ratty shoes and filthy trail clothes.

But after two months in the woods, you tire of seeing green.

For the fall, I met up with another friend in Asheville, where I essentially set up a cot on his back porch. I got a job folding Carhartts at Mast General Store, drank some damn fine beer and heard plenty of live bluegrass.

One of the moments that stands out most in my mind is a jog I took one morning along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I drove up and parked on a stretch of quiet road, having not paid much attention to the leaves up to that point. Yes, busloads of elderly tourists would pull up in front of Mast every day, and I knew they were there for the leaves, but I never took much notice.

Once I started running, though, I suddenly realized I was a very small visitor to a grand hall of vibrant oranges and yellows. From the high canopy above to the scattering of leaves on the blacktop, all was alive with color. This was peak leaf season.

Though I was alone, I was comforted by those woods, which my dad had brought me to from a young age. We would make the six-hour drive up from Montgomery to Western North Carolina to get a taste of real wilderness, first in Boy Scouts and later through annual camping trips with my brother. In later years, my own travels would take me to the foothills of the Himalayas and the 14ers of Colorado, but none matched the pristine epic and endless beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I have started planting this seed in my own children. Subtly but deliberately. Whether it’s stopping at a vista for a selfie with my five-year-old daughter, or walking my son up a short stretch of trail so he can pee in the woods — they may not realize, but the Blue Ridge Mountains are already taking hold.

My aim is this: One day, if I’ve properly done my job, they’ll see a golden leaf fall lightly onto their driveway. And they’ll think back to those hills.

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