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Wednesday, 01 February 2006 00:00

Time spent outdoors always validates itself

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By Ed Kelley

When I think of the mountains of Western North Carolina, I like to believe I know a lot about them. I was raised in Haywood County and have lived here over half a century. I think of myself as “young,” but I look at old pictures and see how the face of these mountains has changed since I was a kid, not only from a physical standpoint with all the development that is going on, but from a cultural angle as well. I may not have the depth of knowledge of more scientific folks, and I may not be as objective as a good reporter should be, but I think I have something to say.

 

Besides age, perhaps my most notable qualification is my life-long appreciation for the natural beauty, the ecology, and the history of the area. I discovered hiking on a beautiful late summer day when I was about 16 years old. The view from the top of Mt. Pisgah rocked my world and sent me scurrying down new paths, literally and figuratively. Future columns will focus on my experiences and observations acquired while traveling on foot in the mountains.

Foot travel is different than any other way of getting from one place to another. You can go places no vehicle can take you, on or off the trail. It gives you time to look around you and soak in the ambience of the day. The constantly changing sky, the little critters that more often are squashed beneath tires or hooves, the plants and trees that are blurred beyond recognition with any faster mode of transport, the scent of a glade of fall ferns, the stillness we seldom encounter in our daily lives — all are part of this thing called hiking. It all sounds a little overdramatic and poetic, but an afternoon in the woods makes one a better person, physically and mentally, and stimulates curiosity and creativity.

With the Parkway, the Smokies, and the largest officially designated wilderness area in the state, not to mention some fine North Carolina state parks, there are hundreds of miles of footpaths to choose from. I have been asked countless times for ideas of where to go hiking. However, my goal here is not to produce a hiking guide with a lot of dry details on highway directions, trailhead location, or the like. People who are seriously interested in hiking in the first place should become adept at finding their way around, both on the roads and on the trails.

Instead, I want to educate, inspire, entertain and encourage the reader with observations of the various implications of foot travel in the Southern Appalachians. Some of this will be philosophical meanderings, but there will also be information on specific hikes, ecology, outdoor travel and the local history of our mountains. I enjoy photography, and though far from a pro I try to be artistic in my composition. The goal is to record nature’s beauty to share with others and to help me remember my experience. I hope to be able to include some of my better photos.

At this point, I’ll issue my disclaimer that regardless of how gentle and beautiful the Southern Appalachians might appear they can also kill you. People hiking here must plan according to their physical capabilities and limitations and realize that there are plenty of rugged places here that rival anything in the Rockies. With some of our mountains well over 6,000 feet in elevation and the fact that the jet stream often courses over our area, weather can change quickly. I once helped carry a heavy young man from a remote peak on a stretcher. He had been hiking with his wife and dog during a summer thunderstorm. As I understand it, the storm had basically passed over and the sun was coming out, yet the atmosphere was still highly charged and a bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree, traveling through the ground to the hiking party. The dog was uninjured and the woman was numb but able to walk out for help. The man was delirious, though not seriously injured, and very lucky. A few years ago, my uncle had to carry my aunt a couple of miles out of the woods when she broke her ankle on an easy, level trail. I say this not to discourage anyone from hiking, but to illustrate that there is a certain amount of risk involved in foot travel. The better your physical condition and the more you use your common sense, the less you panic and the greater the chance you will return to civilization unscathed with a heck of a story to tell.

An essential part of the outdoor experience has to do with confronting the elements, and there is always the possibility of some discomfort, even with the best gear. My columns will not be about hiking gear, though I appreciate equipment that helps to reduce human impact on wild areas and that allow me to travel farther into the wilderness. I can’t downplay the importance of having gear suited to the type of hiking you plan to do. My advice is don’t let your equipment, or lack of it, become a liability to your safety and enjoyment of the outdoors.

It is my altruistic desire that by encouraging foot travel, or serving up a vicarious hiking experience, I can help build a greater awareness of our mountain environment. Some of the most exceptional scenery is to be found only in those places that your legs and lungs can take you, away from the bombardment of everyday life, places that offer serenity, inspiration and challenge.

The offshoot of all this is that now I can justify all the time I spend in the woods by calling it research. Seriously, time spent outdoors always seems to validate taking the time. I may see wildlife or a rare plant. I may meet an old friend or make a new one. I may discover something about myself. Sometimes watching the late afternoon sun’s amber rays tint the smoky mists swirling around the high peaks is just icing on the cake. There’s always a reward.

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