As the crow flies, the top of Mt. Mitchell is just 12 miles from our house in Black Mountain, but Sue and I have found that proximity doesn't always translate into convenience here in western North Carolina. It takes over an hour to drive west toward Asheville, then jump onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for the 20-mile jog to the highest peak in the eastern United States; but oh, what a beautiful drive it is.
Known simply as "the parkway" around here, the 469-mile road connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, down the spine of the Blue Ridge, to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Construction started back in 1935, with much of the work force coming from down-on-their-luck Americans trying to survive the Great Depression (sound familiar?). After a few setbacks (there was a war or three mixed in there) the parkway was completed in 1983. It is now a beloved part of the mountain landscape and one of the most-popular national parks in the country.
Halfway up the mountain, Sue and I were giddy with anticipation. A cold front had passed the night before, wiping the haze and humidity from the air and leaving clear vistas as far as the eye could see. Alas, a lot can happen, atmospherically speaking, going from 2,400 to 6,700 feet above sea level. As we made the final turn off the parkway to enter Mt. Mitchell State Park, the clouds had closed in and the views had disappeared.
Nevertheless, we were on a mission that did not require pretty scenery, and we were meeting our friends Sarah, with her twin 2-year-old boys and 8-month-old baby girl, and Brandy, with her 2-year-old daughter. One might think so many tiny legs would hold our posse back, but Sarah and Brandy are moms with a mind to let their children find their own limits. With a helping hand to support them, the kids tackled the trail with gusto.
As you might guess, Mt. Mitchell's "extreme" altitude gives it a rather unique micro-climate, especially for a spot that's south of the Mason Dixon Line. The summertime temperature is a solid 10 degrees cooler than it is in Black Mountain (average temps for August are 68 during the day and 52 overnight), and the wind often howls when the lowlands are calm. The summit has recorded the lowest temperature in North Carolina, -34 degrees on Jan. 21, 1985, and a wind gust of 178 mph. It's also wet, all the time. Rangers who stay at the top of the mountain through the winter are often trapped by heavy snows that make the road to the top impassable.
The climate allows plants and animals one would normally associate with the boreal forests of the northern states and Canada to thrive here. Balsam firs, spruce trees and carpets of moss (including this one that looks remarkably like Antarctica) and ferns provide habitat for red squirrels, crossbills and saw-whet owls. After our hike through the woods, the gang had lunch at the mountaintop restaurant and watched in awe as the clouds disappeared, revealing the valley below.
The Blue Ridge is also a place for berry picking. Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and a new one for me, service berries, grow in great profusion on the open slopes and late August is the time to go if you want to fill a gallon bucket. While the rest of our crew turned for mid-afternoon naps at home, Sue and I drove down a little way and set out on a promising trail to search for berries. We picked only a quart or so of assorted fruits, but it wasn't for any lack of abundance. It was just hard to stay focused on the task when the scenery around you is so beautiful. Hundreds of pipevine swallowtails flitted from flower to flower, along with a few of the vanguard monarchs out ahead of the migration. We saw several broad-winged hawks - also early migrants - and couldn't help feeling a little pressed for time. Autumn is coming, and winter storms will follow, shutting Mt. Mitchell away from us for three months at least. We've only just started to explore this beautiful mountain, but the bartender is getting ready for last call. Time's a-wastin' ... we need more time.