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Wednesday, 04 July 2007 00:00

Thunder in the valley

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Last week a late evening thunderstorm with high winds and occasional flashes of lightning rolled out of the high Smokies and down into the little valley where we live several miles west of Bryson City. I had sensed its arrival for 10 or so minutes. First, a cool breeze kicked up that exposed the silvery undersides of leaves on trees surrounding our house. Next, the light in the valley became yellowish-greenish, almost luminescent. A few outsized raindrops began to splatter on our tin roof and wooden decks. Finally, the rain poured in a torrent that lasted for perhaps half an hour.

Given the dry weather we have been experiencing of late throughout Western North Carolina and elsewhere, the rain was greatly appreciated, of course. And as I listened I began to recall thunderstorms from the past. When we first moved to Swain County in the early 1970s, it seemed that every evening there arose a thunderstorm of the sort described above. We were constantly propping up the corn stalks and bean trellises in our summer gardens.

I was also reminded of the literary description of a high country thunderstorm that took place long ago on Mt. Mitchell. Written by Charles Dudley Warner, it initially appeared in the September 1885 issue of “The Atlantic Monthly” and was subsequently included in one of his travel books titled On Horseback: A Tour in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee with Notes of Travel in Mexico and California (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1888).

Warner (1829-1900) was an essayist and novelist born in Plainfield, Mass. He became the editor of “The Hartford Press” and then of “Harper’s Magazine.” But he is best remembered in American literary history for his close friendship with Mark Twain. Warner was the first to remark that, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it” — which was quoted by Twain in a lecture and often attributed to the more famous writer.

Warner’s best book is perhaps the one titled My Summer in a Garden (1870), but he also penned a number of travel books, several of which are of enduring interest. The journey recorded in On Horseback began at Abingdon in the far southwestern tip of Virginia. From there, Warner and a friend he addressed as “The Professor” journeyed down the valley of the Holston River into Tennessee and then over into the mountains of North Carolina. Throughout the journey they lodged mostly in private homes, where Warner recorded with some skill (albeit with considerable regional arrogance) the lifestyles observed.

From Boone, they traveled “through noble growths of oaks, chestnuts, hemlocks, and rhododendrons” to Valle Crucis, which, according to Warner, consisted of a “blacksmith shop and a dirty, fly-blown store.” After making stops at Banner Elk, Hanging Rock, Cranberry Forge, Roan Mountain, and Bakersville, they arrived at Burnsville on their way to Asheville. Nearby, on the western flank of Mt. Mitchell, they located the farmstead of Big Tom Wilson, one of the most famous hunting guides and characters of the late 19th century.

Wilson convinced them it was worthwhile to climb Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in eastern North America at 6,684 feet, so as to obtain the view and visit the grave of Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who died on the mountaintop in 1857 after a fall. This is the best part of the book. Warner provided a vivid description of their ascent via “steep hillsides and through gulies, over treacherous sink-holes in the rocks, through quaggy places, heaps of brush, and rotten logs.”

Elisha Mitchell’s final resting place seemed to Warner to be “the most majestic, the most lonesome grave on earth” — one from which “domes, peaks, ridges, endless and countless, everywhere, some in shadow, some tipped with shafts of sunlight, all wooded and green or black ... wild and terrible” could be viewed in all directions.

As the party was readying to depart the mountaintop, a storm of majestic proportions arose before their very eyes. Warner described it in this manner:

“The clouds were gathering from various quarters and drifting towards us. We could watch the process of thunderstorms and of tempests. I have often noticed on other high mountains how the clouds, forming like genii released from the earth, mount into the upper air, and in masses of torn fragments of mist hurry across the sky as to a rendezvous of witches. This was a different display. These clouds came slowly sailing from the distant horizon, like ships on an aerial voyage. Some were below us, some on our level; they were all in well-defined, distinct masses, molten silver on deck, below trailing rain, and attended on earth by gigantic shadows that moved with them. This strange fleet of battle-ships, drifted by the shifting currents, was manouvering for an engagement. One after another, as they came into range about our peak of observation, they opened fire. As sharp flashes of lightning darted from one to the other, a jet of flames from one leaped across the interval and was buried in the bosom of its adversary; and at every discharge the boom of great guns echoed through the mountains. It was something more than a royal salute to the tomb of the mortal at our feet, for the masses of cloud were rent in the fray, at every discharge the rain was precipitated in increasing torrents, and soon the vast bulks were trailing torn fragments and wreaths of mists, like the shot-away shrouds and sails of ships in battle. Gradually, from this long range practice with single guns and exchange of broadsides, they drifted into closer conflict, rushed together, and we lost sight of the individual combatants in the general tumult of the aerial war.”

There is, of course, considerable bombast in that description, particularly in the over-extended analogy between clouds and battleships. But there are also some apt and memorable images in the first part.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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