Spring Comes Slowly--April 24
January 1, 1970Spring comes slowly to the Mountains.
Those of us who live in the Appalachians know this, but it was a rude awakening for some of our fellow Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. After temperatures reached into the upper 70s a number of days in late March, many were lulled into thinking winter had passed and they lightened backpacks by shedding cold weather gear.
…And then the April 7 Good Friday storm rolled through and dropped close to a foot of snow on the Great Smoky Mountains and Roan Highlands along the North Carolina/Tennessee border. We heard reports of hikers facing 50-mile per hour wind gusts while pushing their way through thigh-high drifts. Necessity became the mother of invention as socks were worn on hands as replacements for the gloves that had been sent home, plastic bags were placed in trail running shoes in an effort to keep feet as dry as if they were still encased in boots, and t-shirts were fashioned into makeshift hats. One couple awoke in a trail shelter to find their summerweight sleeping bags covered by several inches of snow. So many hikers left the trail during these few days that the hostels and motels in Erwin, Tennessee were overwhelmed and a church opened its doors to furnish a potluck dinner for close to 100 people.
By chance, I, Laurie, and MacAfee of Knob (“The Amazing Appalachian Bouncing Dog”) were lucky enough to be visiting friends in Banner Elk, North Carolina when the white flakes began to fall. Even though Mac enjoys rolling and romping in snow, we realized he could never make it through such deep snow, so we had our friends drive us northward to Damascus, Virginia where we knew lower elevations would provide less snow to contend with. The plan was to walk southward for a week to allow all of that frozen precipitation to melt before we returned to walk across the southern Appalachians’ famous bald mountains.
Southern balds are still a mystery to scientists. They are large, open, treeless meadows on the tops of mountains. Some researchers say they are naturally occurring; others contend that they were created hundreds of years ago when Native Americans burned the summits so that mountain oat grass and berries would flourish, thereby improving conditions for game. No one may know why they are the way they are, but Laurie and I knew that in good weather the balds provide 360-degree views and pleasant hiking mile after mile. The southward walking plan paid off and all the snow was gone when we returned to the balds. For two days we walked at 5,000-6,000 feet above sea level, reveling in thousands of acres of meadows stretching out before us, taking in dazzling views of deep valleys and high peaks. The scene reminded me so much of my ramblings in European mountains that I almost expected to come across Julie Andrews twirling around and bursting forth in song.
Because the Appalachian Trail has a tendency to stay to the ridgetops, it is always an unexpected treat to walk by a waterfall. Melt from the recent snows has only increased the eye-pleasing nature of these cascades. I’m not sure what it is about waterfalls that so draw us humans to them. Are we in awe of the unbridled power of hundreds of gallons of liquid rushing down the face of water-carved rock sculptures? Do we look forward to swimming at the base of a falls, enjoying the rainbow created by mist floating onto us like wispy raindrops? Do our eyes become mesmerized by the ever-changing water patterns, as they do when we watch the swaying flames of a campfire? Or is it simply the overall natural beauty of the scenery in which most waterfalls exist?
Laurel Fork Falls crashes through the deep and narrow canyon that it has created in the mountainous topography with such a thunderous roar that we could hear it for hundreds of yards before we reached it. Plummeting over five natural rock ledges, the water flies over the lip of the falls with such force that it creates its own small windstorm, making it hard for us to stand on the slippery, water-sprayed rocks at its base. We had to shout to each other to be heard.
In contrast to rushing through a gorge, Jones Falls tumbles sprightly down the face of a hillside. In some places, it froths into dancing whitewater, while in other spots it spreads out into a thin layer of water that washes over the smooth rock that its erosive action has created through the decades.
Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee are behind us. By the time you read this, we will be hiking through open grasslands and rhododendron thickets on the highest elevations of southwest Virginia in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.