Linville Gorge, NC:  Special Places   Robert Leverett
  Apr 19, 2006 08:14 PDT 

    To my mind, the southern Appalachians are one of the great
natural-scenic areas of our planet. There are so many splendid places
that prioritizations are futile. Just pick a spot and go there. Visitors
will find a multitude of reasons to return.

    The following is an excerpt from the Jani Book series, a two set
volume, still in draft form, that I have been writing in honor of my
deceased wife Jani who died in December 2003. One section of the book
deals with our travels and a sub-section covers the southern
Appalachians. The following excerpt is about a trip into Linville Gorge
in the North Carolina Blue Ridge.

The Hotel in the Forest:

   I once took Jani and an artist lady from nearby Asheville on a trek
into the depths of the wild and scenic Linville Gorge. The objective was
an off trail jaunt to show Jani and our friend a place of great magic, a
spot on a small stream that lies hidden in a dense stand of
rhododendron. I chose the spot as one that I thought would evoke our
friend’s imagination to explore the mystical side of old growth
   Our artist friend was a slightly built woman in her mid-forties who
explained to us that she combined her artistic talents with her passion
for trees in creative ways that blended Native American and Celtic
leanings. She specifically wanted to visit some centuries old trees that
she had read about in an article that I had written for the Katuah
Journal, an environmental publication with a mix of apocalyptic and
upbeat messages along with precise prescriptions for holistic living.
   Our trail in Linville started at the National Park Service parking
lot and for a short distance wound its way through a dry upland forest
of mixed hardwoods and conifers. The first stretch of the trail gave
little hint of the luxuriance that lies deep within the gorge. After
passing small, stunted trees with abundant fire scares, we began our
descent into a wetter world. The trees were noticeably larger. They
thrust their long trunks upward through a thick mist that is common in
the mornings throughout the southern Mountains. The mist imparted a
feeling of mysteriousness to the woodlands. It is a feeling that often
accompanies fog or cloud-enshrouded forests.
   We had not descended far into the gorge, when I signaled to the
others that it was time to leave the safety of the trail and follow a
small stream that crossed our path from a cove on the left. Our artist
friend look both surprised and delighted as we bent low and snaked our
way into what must have first appeared as an impenetrable tangle of
rhododendron. Jani showed no surprise at all at my sudden plunge into
the heath,. She had been down that trail with me many times before and
often told friends that “Bob has never met a trail that he liked.”
   Once inside the green, the customary sounds from the trail corridor
were quickly scattered. The lose of trail sounds happens so quickly that
the change can be startling. Where does the cacophony of human sounds
go? For me, deflection and absorption by leaves, stems, and mist is a
gift directly from the forest gods. Looking at Jani and our friend, good
riddance was my response as I chose to comfort them, but that was not
needed as a new world opened up for all of us, one with a luxuriance
that brought back memories of the jungles of Taiwan and the Philippines,
especially of Jani’s and my two years on that tropical island paradise
of Taiwan.
   The going was slow as we twisted our bodies over, under, and around
the entanglement of rhododendron. Southern mountaineers call them laurel
hells. At the time, I suspect that our friend might have been wondering
what she had committed herself to do, but soon we reached a little spot
on the stream, the spot I was aiming for where a surprise awaited Jani
and our friend. A large centuries-old black gum with alligator bark
abruptly appeared from the mist. It captured the attention of both
women. In our minds, we had surely entered the abode of hobbits,
fairies, and woodland elves. As I observed Jani and our friend gazing at
the black gum, it was clear to me that I needed to silence my urge to
lecture and let the spot work its magic.
Once the chatter of surface consciousness is hushed, in such places,
one’s deeper imagination takes over and fantasizing becomes the natural
process of a healthy mind. One imagines oneself in a woodland filled
with magic far beyond the ordinary world left behind. For us, it was as
though the rhododendron was a camouflaged curtain through which we had
passed into a place where the creative side of our beings was suddenly
released. Here the bonds of the materialistic world imbued with its own
self-importance and determined to dominate the affairs of mortals held
no sway. We had entered the world of imagination, of dreams.
   We sat at the foot of the old black gum. I estimated that it had seen
no fewer than half a millennia’s worth of annual cycles. Aware of the
time, I arose and announced that there was more to see. We continued. A
short distance from the gnarly blackgum, almost invisible in the tangle
of heath, a huge, centuries-old tuliptree reared its shaggy crown fully
130 feet above the dense entanglement below. We made our way almost to
its base before the ladies saw it. Our artist friend squealed with
delight. The great poplar looked wise, the forest’s voice of experience.
Its hulking form was proof positive of how completely a curtain of
rhododendron can conceal even the largest of objects. One’s reaction to
suddenly stumbling upon such a great tree can be utter amazement. Where
had it been hiding? But in such tangles of the resident heath shrubs
that are more tree than shrub like, one’s horizon lies little beyond an
outstretched arm.

On encircling the tree, which was fully 16 feet around, we quickly
discovered that it had a hollow side, home to many small mammals
including interior forest bats, to countless insects. High above, this
old monarch of the cove played host to numerous, vocal avian friends.
Neo-tropical migratory songbirds sat on its huge extended limbs and
announced the boundaries of their territories. We could see ferns and
mosses and even saplings growing in the forks of its branches fully 90
feet above the forest floor. The old tuliptree was literally a hotel in
the forest, a place of rest for those passing through, and a permanent
abode for many a local critter. I don’t know how old the tree was –
perhaps three centuries, but old enough. It was a forest elder, an Ent.
   On circling the great tree, all three of our imaginations went into
high gear. Our artist friend admitted to being carried away with visual
imagery of Merlin-like beings. I watched her scan and rescan the tree
from roots to crown with first an intense look, a fixation, followed by
a softness. She was allowing the myriad of forms and shapes to register
in her subconscious, to drink in the elixir that only an old-growth
forest provides. One day the impressions she was forming from this brief
encounter would combine force, and channeled by her artistic
predilections, burst forth in splashing color on canvas. Others,
leisurely strolling by her creations in tame settings would look and
maybe be drawn into the painting’s labyrinth of emotional pathways of
which they had little awareness, and in a distant way, feed the river of
thought that would wind its way back to that hidden spot in the
rhododendrons, reinforcing some psychic pathway that forms part of the
connections shared by all living things. In her creation, our artist
friend would have fulfilled her mission of transformation.