by Grant A. Mincy
This March evening is perfect – one that flickers like a motion picture. I am enjoying myself heartily with good food, music, and drink. I’m accompanied by my little family in a tiny cottage in rural Southwestern Virginia. Our lamp light rests at a low dim that accents the rustic wood, stone, and clay that built our two-room bed and breakfast. Outside, the air is cold. Mist sods the groggy Appalachian countryside as the sun’s twilight gives rise to a backlit canopy of starlight heaped and piled with heavy clouds. I sit at a small wooden table with a bottle of red wine and each drink comforts my belly. My wife, Katie, cuddles up with our five-year-old son, Eli, and reads a Harry Potter novel. A single lantern lights our room as a wood-burning stove warms the air. Night music, expansive and hypnotic, plays low in the background. When Katie has finished the chapter and the boy’s eyes are barely open, we kiss his forehead and lay him down to sleep. Katie and I quietly exit to the adjourning room and lay ourselves down for the night. We’ll be taking a family bike ride down the Virginia Creeper Trail tomorrow.
The Creeper is a steady, downhill adventure full of native flora and fauna, old growth forests, rebounding ecosystems, and rural country. The long seventeen-mile descent we’ll be taking, seventeen miles, around these parts is rather perplexing. Appalachian terrain is rough and rugged. Our adventure will be full of sharp ups and steep downs. In the depths of mountain country, having a chance to sit on a bike and coast for a good while is, to me, a bit unfathomable. I’ve hiked a good number of trails in these mountains, driven a good number of roads, but I’ve never seen a country pass of such gradual, prolonged, steady elevation.
The Creeper gets the unusual name from early steam locomotives. The engines would struggle, or creep, if you will, through the area to haul lumber out of Appalachia. This lumber was used to fuel the economy of developing port cities during the Industrial Revolution. Later, the Great Depression ensured a slow decline of industrial scale logging in the area, and the last creeping train ran in March of 1977. The old railway was subsequently transformed into a trail for hiking, running, angling, camping, and, of course, biking. In 1984, the year of my birth, this “Creeper” trail was designated as a National Recreation Trail.
The Creeper Trail has matured into a regional, arguably national, treasure. Over 150,000 people enjoy the trail every year. The boy, my wife, and I will now join the party. Eli is quite the biker these days, and he’s begged for a full day on his wheels for weeks. As this trail is famous for a leisurely, relaxing, easy ride through forested mountain country and rolling pastoral hills, we think he’ll have a big ole time.
When I wake in the morning, grey light from a cloud-covered morning pours in from a single window. I turn to Katie and place my hand on her shoulder. I can tell she is awake, but she lays on her side, with her back to me. She is tense. There is no need for me to ask what’s wrong – she is reading the newest reports of the respiratory virus spreading across the globe.
“Hey babe,” I say while softly scratching her back, “everything okay?”
“No.” She exhales deeply. “I don’t think we should be here. We need to go home.”
“We’re totally isolated out here.” I try to reassure her. “This vacation is fine. If we were in Gatlinburg, or something, I’d be worried, but we’re all alone here.”
“I just think we should be home. I want to be with our community, in our neighborhood, snug at home.”
I understand, but I do not want to go. We have a week of wilderness and isolated activity planned – today’s bike ride on the Creeper Trail, tomorrow’s wild horses and mountain meadows exploration in Grayson Highlands, another day’s leisure in Jefferson National Forest, and more. I wanted to enjoy some area pubs, but I’ll forgo those desires. On the brink of a global pandemic, I know this will be the last vacation we’ll take together for some time.
“We’ve been promising the boy his day of pedal biking, our family description of bicycling since Eli graduated from his balance bike, for weeks. We can’t take today from him, and –”
“I know that, Grant.” She says with a furrowed brow. “I don’t want to do this, make us leave like this. I don’t want to think about what is happening, and I really don’t want to feel like this, so anxious and just. . . weird. I really think leaving is the right thing to do.” Her voice is strong and sincere, I know she’s worried. I reluctantly back down.
“Okay, I’m sorry. Let’s cook a good breakfast, ride the trail, and then head home.”
We dress and walk into the next room – one that serves as a den, dining nook, and kitchen. The morning’s puffed and wispy clouds peek through the windows behind Eli’s soft bed. March is an interesting month – one full of transition. The Earth yawns to life, emerging from a deep, dormant, winter slumber. Soon enough, the smell of golden breakfast waffles and sweet maple syrup, the sound of savory crackling sausage links, and the subtle colors of mixed berries fill our tiny rental. As we cook and prepare our plates, we explain to Eli that we need to pack up our things because our vacation needs to be cut short.
“But I don’t want to go home, this is family vacation!” In his frustration, our boy slaps his thighs. His lip pouts and his quivering voice is high-pitched and strained. Katie and I have been rather busy this semester, even more so than usual, so we promised him a spring break full of quality family time, one free of phones, email, and other such distractions.
“I know, honey.” Katie picks up the boy, sets him in her lap, and speaks softly, “But there are some things going on in the world right now,
“Plus, dude,” I ensure as I set down his warm plate, “you’ll still get a full day on your pedal bike. We are going to ride the mountain today just like we promised before heading back to Knoxville.”
The boy buts his head down and sighs. Of course, he doesn’t understand the sudden change in plans. He’s been looking forward to this vacation as much as we have, if not more. We will surely have some long talks about the trials of the world soon enough. Katie and I need to find the right words to explain our global situation, but not today. Today is for fun.
We leave the cottage after just one night and cross an orchard on the property. We stop along a fence that overlooks rural farmland and the forest edge. The morning is a bit blustery and chilly, while grey, puffy clouds appear smeared and stroked across the distant horizon. There is a rising, virgin green in the mountain forest peppered about, and tulips – a true sign of seasonal transition – sprout here and there across the country. Eli’s deep cartoonish giggles echo as Katie loads him into our trusty family wagon. The sweet sound of childhood breaks my gaze. I turn from the morning view and happily drive us to small-town of . I’ve never been here before. In fact, I’ve hardly spent much time in Virginia at all. Upon entering this Appalachian community, however, I smile.
“Damascus is so cute!” Katie obviously shares the same feelings as I do.
Damascus is nicknamed “Trail Town USA” because seven nationally known trails intersect within the town’s borders – the most famous of which is the Appalachian Trail (AT). Katie and I love mountain towns along the AT. These communities are humble, quaint, unique, and, most importantly, small. The rugged, primeval Appalachian forest hugs the Damascus valley. Creeks gurgle and murmur under numerous bridges, and picket fences line close-knit neighborhood roads. These AT towns are authentic. They offer us urbanites a glimpse into small-town and rural life. In doing so, they steal my heart every damn time. Life here cherishes the local – laborers, artisans, natural beauty, hometown memories – and the residents hold a welcoming appreciation of us tourists.
The small, rustic way of mountain life is a wonder to behold. The security of kinship, with a dignified independence and beautiful lifestyle, offers incredible reflection to those of us from the homogeneity of contemporary urbanism. Seems urban planners, commissioners, and developers attempt to mold all of nature to terraform, to deliberately modify all of nature, our lives, and the very Earth into a boringly uniform, corporate mediocrity. Urban neighborhoods, mom-and-pop shops, and individuals, battle a technocratic, capital existence, for independent character.
On the other hand, Appalachian rural towns, are full of wonderful folks who are contemptuously called hillbillies thought deserving of an elegy by the same technocrats forever ignorant of their own privileged, boring, uniform existence. Truth is, the people of Appalachian hollers, and the markets they build, provide us with an all too important vision into living-in-place – one that is modeled by neighborhood mom-and-pop shops. These folks fight the same battles as our neighborhoods in larger cities facing off against the gentry.
Small towns and the rural country have resisted and survived various forms of industrialism – logging, strip mining, dam building, the TVA, and the type of corporate neo-colonialism on full display in towns like Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and countless others. These systems of power and domination seek to reduce the Appalachian wilderness and her people to the rank of curiosities. In these rural towns the resistance holds roots deep in place – bless them.
We pull into a local bike joint, called Sundog, to rent some wheels for the famous Virginia Creeper Trail. I look in the rearview mirror. The boy is very excited. Still buckled in his car seat, he’s already strapping on his Spiderman helmet. We’re raising a little athlete, I think. I am always amazed at how hard he works and how easily he tackles physically demanding tasks.
“Hey boy!” I holler back to him. “Your mom and I don’t even have our bikes rented yet!”
“Well, we have my bike right here, Dad,” he squeaks with a good Southern twang as he pats the wheel of his bike. “So, maybe you guys should hurry up or something. You reckon?” With this, Eli tilts his head to the side, winks, and clicks his tongue – the little squirt.
“I reckon so, boy,” I reply. “I reckon so.”
The store is full of hiking memorabilia – stickers, magnets, shirts, gear – and I find myself wandering through the aisles eyeballing more clothes than I could ever reasonably afford. I’m relieved to stop shopping when I am called over to be fit for a bike. Soon enough, thank goodness, we are on a shuttle destined for Mount Rogers National Recreation Area to ride the Creeper Trail. Katie and I share a side eye of viral concern with each other as the ride starts. Our van is almost full as we pull out of town, and I realize Katie is right – we do need to go home. The virus is a part of our lives now.
Mount Rogers is the highest natural point in Virginia. The forested mountain landscape stands with a summit over 5,700 feet. The mountain’s National Recreation Area contains a unique record of geologic history. Igneous rocks of volcanic origin are visible across the area in giant sections, slabs, and protrusions. These volcanics date back to the Precambrian super eon and, from forces powered by Earth’s fiery heart, are the product of continental scale rifting. As ancient land masses diverged from one another, giant volcanoes erupted across the backbone of what would eventually become the Appalachians.
Igneous rocks in Appalachia fascinate me because they are proof of an ever evolving, incredibly dynamic planet. Today, the Appalachian region, though mildly affected by earthquakes, lies in a tectonically passive margin. The axis of Appalachia, however, erupted as fire and brimstone during an Earth changing rifting event some 700 million years ago when our planet was a ball of ice floating in space. This Snowball Earth, such a dramatic global climate change event, was caused by microbes. Pre-Cambrian microbes pioneered photosynthesis, a process that combines carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with water to produce sugar and oxygen gas. The liberated oxygen helped build the ozone layer, protecting the planet from our sun. Meanwhile, atmospheric carbon removal initiated a global cooling. This change in climate covered the Earth in glaciers and if not for volcanic activity, life in the cosmos, as we know it, would have been erased from existence. The rocks here provide evidence of this time and offer clues into the warming trend, led by volcanism, that brought all of life back from the brink of a frigid extinction so long ago.
Appalachian geology affords the greatest example of mountain structure in the world. These humble, weeping mountains, in all their environmental wisdom, reveal an engaging story. This range once stood as titans on a scale of magnitude greater than the Himalayas. All stages of deformation – from undisturbed stratums, folded beds, overturned, broken, thrusted, mashed, and metamorphosed sections of rock – are seen throughout the entire length of the Appalachian system, from Alabama to Newfoundland. The rocks exposed unfold the mysteries of deep time – where the depths of Earth are laid bare in the heart of the range in a manner nowhere equaled.
As we’re shuttled across this geologic wonderland, we pass by a rolling Christmas tree farm and enter a cloud.
“We are really high up, Dad.” Eli’s staring out the window, anxiously rubbing his tiny hands through his curly light brown hair.
“Not getting nervous, are you?” I ask.
“If we are so high up, that means we will have to go straight down cliffs to get down, right Dad?” He looks at me with pouty eyes – he’s a bit tense. A family of four in front of us, with two children who appear a couple of years older than Eli, overhears our exchange.
“No need to worry!” One of them assures. “There is only one spot that’s a little steep, but other than that, it’s a clean ride down the mountain. You are going to have a great time!”
The boy seems to relax a bit at this, but shyly snuggles up next to his momma.
Soon enough, we reach our destination. We hop out of the van and wait for our bikes to be unloaded from the hitched trailer. We stand on a ridge next to a desolate mountain road on Whitetop Point in the The air is cold. A high-country breeze is steady and crisp as a light fog moves across our mammal bodies. Broken ribbons of clouds move all around us and everything in elemental wonder. Above, the sky is grey and appears as if giant pillowed clouds were smeared by a painter’s brush across the horizon. The rock, detritus, and understory plants are beaded and damp. We cover Eli in his Sherpa lined, hooded sweatshirt, strap on his helmet, and begin our ride into the forest.
As we coast, the cold breeze bites. I am rather comfortable in my trusty hooded baja, and I’m glad I opted for my hiking boots for today’s adventure. I was half tempted to ride in a trusty pair of sandals. Eyeing the environment, I see we are in a transition ecosystem. Mount Rogers is home to the northern most habitat of the haunting spruce-fir forests of Southern Appalachia. We aren’t high enough in elevation to see this special ecological community, but some balsam understory plants offer a scented resin that is slightly woody with hints of cinnamon – smells that remind me of spruce-fir temperance. The air is fresh, crisp and gleams with mist. In this moment, I am happy.
The trail starts gradually, then the grade picks up enough for us to ride our brakes a little bit. Katie hollers out to Eli a time or two that he needs to slow down. In response he laughs and roars with all his might. The boy has a good laugh, an honest laugh, deep from the belly. We round a corner and come to a long bridge that soars across a deep mountain gorge.
“Yeah! Woo!” Eli howls with excitement as we leave the security of the forest and fly into the wind. His mom and I howl right along with him. As we cross the gorge, water beneath us carves its way into the rugged mountain system in sheer geologic might. The spectacle exposes a mosaic of habitats – unfragmented forests, cliff and rimrock, and mature bottomlands. The water’s ovation echoes and crescendos into a loud celebratory chorus that seems to rejoice in mountain grandeur.
Though we cruise an old railroad bed, from this view we encounter a surprising lack of human disturbance all too prevalent elsewhere in these weeping mountains. Here, deep in the Blue Ridge, we are lucky to enjoy a piece of old-growth forest – free from skidder trails, felled logs, and cut stumps. Though these mountain habitats are still yawning out of dormancy, I can tell these woods welcome a mixed-age canopy rather typical of a mature system. When trees die of old age, or are uprooted by powerful storms, gaps in the canopy occur. These gaps allow buried seedlings a chance at the sun, thus allowing young trees to grow. The result is a wonderful mosaic – a mixed temperate rainforest.
We cross the bridge and again enter the shelter of woodland. In the mixed forest, large, old, dead trees lay and rot with other detritus on the forest floor. The elders seem peacefully at rest, covered in moss and lichen. The lichen population, symbiotic organisms composed of fungus and algae, is especially abundant here and adds a sense of maturity to the woods. A good number of snags are here as well. These still standing, though dead trees are important habitat spaces for numerous avian species and the American black bear. Ah yes, old forest, thank you for the reminder – we are in bear country.
Black bear used to inhabit most of North America, but, like all too many animals, habitat loss has significantly reduced the species range. So here in a mixed forest with plentiful snags, bear find a safe haven. Bear are interesting mammals. They’re omnivores who enjoy berries and nuts. Surprising to most folks, pulpy mountain fruit and nuts from the ground, bushes, and trees comprise most of a bear’s diet. Rotting dead animals and insects provide bear with an important source of protein, but the plants truly feed the majestic mammal.
Bear are rather active in the spring, but we’re still in mid-March, so I find no need to alert my family. I’m not overly concerned of a run-in with bear, anyway. The animal still scares easily. Besides, they’d prefer to be left alone in the woods – smart beasts. The most dangerous animal in Appalachia is, by far, the Homo sapiens. In the woodland, bear claim dens in hollow stumps of old trees, or often in the cavities of snags. These hollowed woods offer a view into a peculiar and interesting behavior of the Appalachian bear. They prefer to be high above the ground in standing trees. Most folks scan the understory for these impressive beasts, best to eyeball the sky, too. I’ll be looking, but I expect no evidence of bear activity out here today.
An even larger mammal, however, occupies the high-country woodlands these days. Appalachian elk are growing in numbers across the Blue Ridge. These populations declined sharply during European settlement of the mountains during the 15th and 16th centuries, and the later Industrial Revolution almost ensured their extirpation. Today, thankfully, their numbers are growing due to conservation efforts, reintroduction programs, and preserved, protected, wildlands. This time of year, the large deer species is rather active during the day. This time of year, specifically, male elk shed their antlers. Autumn is mating season in the grasslands for Appalachian elk. Late in the year, male testosterone rises sharply, and their antlers grow large to attract mates. Here in March, on the other hand, testosterone levels are at their lowest and the bone connected to the base of the antler deteriorates. The elk wander into forested habitats where their mantle eventually falls off. Imagine the relief of not walking around with all that weight on your mind. Unfortunately, we won’t be lucky enough to see one of these creatures today.
We’re about two miles or so into our long bike ride and come upon a small group of fellow travelers who’ve paused along the trail. They strap their helmets back on and remount their bikes as we arrive. I notice a pull off behind them with a trail heading through the trees. When we dismount, we exchange some cordial “hellos” and “goodbyes.” They continue down the trail while we pause.
“Boy,” Eli sighs, “I sure am tired. Time for a break!”
“Okay!” Katie chirps brightly. “Let’s have a look see what’s up there.” She points her finger towards the social trail and we oblige.
After only a few steps through a droopy rhododendron thicket, we find ourselves standing on a wide-open mountain grassland. The classic rolling hills of Appalachia are exposed, displaying a great view of rural farmland off in the distance. All around, grey, puffed clouds wisp across our view. Their shapes mimic the steep ridges of the mountains themselves. Instinctively, the boy opens his arms and runs through the tall green and copper colored field of swaying grass. I smile.
I have deep, lasting memories of running through fields from my childhood. There’s something so inviting about cool wind, crinkly dancing blades, and the old dry flowers that disperse seeds as a child passes by. I remember feeling as if I could run forever, as if all of life’s energy was no longer bottled up and restricted by some unknown force. With every pulse, every step, I felt as if I could burn, burn, burn, and explode as fire across the land. From his roars and honest laughter, I can tell my son feels the same. The boy bounds with a fearless, howling joy across an immortal land as rays of brilliant, radiant light slip through a gap in giant clouds and appear to signal we’ve found the Elysian fields.
Katie is smiling as she watches our boy, but she stands with her arms pulled towards her chest and her hands tucked under her chin.
“You cold?” I chirp. “You’re only wearing a thermal with a t-shirt over it.”
“Yup. I was going to get my jacket when we were back at the bike shop, but then you started being a butt-head and making fun of me for liking the cold so much.”
My wife does love the cold. She would, literally, sleep with our bedroom windows open all winter if she could. Katie enjoys the weight of blankets, finds their warmth rather comforting. So, when she wanted a jacket back in town, I cracked a few jokes. Now I reckon it’s time for me to eat my words.
“Here,” I offer, “give me your thermal and you can have my baja. It’s really warm.” After some back and forth, I convince her to trade. We call Eli back and resume the Creeper Trail.
The next section takes us on many more bridges. We soar over rushing river waters and the very forest canopy itself. We travel along gurgling creeks, out of the mature highland forest, and through pastoral valleys of wind kissed farmland, small businesses, local churches, and solitary homesteads. Rural Appalachia is vast and rolling. Though homes and buildings are sparse, the communities are incredibly tightknit – with each other, the countryside, and native flora and fauna. There’s a palpable care for and connection to the land in rural country. Our trail along the beautiful farmland is relaxing and enjoyable, but, soon enough, the wide-open spaces are left behind as the trail takes us back into the forest.
The wood here is noticeably younger at a lower elevation. The deciduous forest is thinner and stands closer to the Earth. The thickets are not as robust or hearty as the highland. No doubt this early successional forest is rebounding from 20th century logging. Though this system is rebounding, the woods appear healthy and vibrant. Birds call and echo across the woods. We see numerous feathered friends hop, skip, and flutter from perch to perch in search of seeds, fruit, or unlucky insects.
Southern Appalachia is especially important for warbler species. Throughout the southeast, migrating warblers nest, breed, and raise their young. In a recovering forest like this one, chestnut sided warblers, a species at risk of extinction, do particularly well. In the surrounding leafy, second growth woods, these small birds, with yellow feathered skulls, black and white eye patches, white under belly, and streaked black and yellow wings, hop about the sapling and low-lying thickets. Recovering areas are important, because the ever-present loss of habitat, and the hardships of a changing climate, are leading to declines in breeding success rates for all warbler species – including the charismatic chestnut that calls forest stands like this home. As we travel, I can almost hear the bird sing, emphatically, pleased, pleased, pleased to meet cha!
We find ourselves along a beautiful stretch of trail, right next to the roaring Whitetop Laurel Creek that has provided a crisp and welcome ambiance throughout our journey. In the mixed forest, the rhododendron appear more awake, healthy hemlock shades the stream, and light starts to brighten our day. The grey, billowed clouds have all broken. Now, white clouds lightly decorate our view as a blue sky pierces the heavens. Mosses shower the understory in a breathtaking green, sunlight splashes and flickers across the stream, and springs warm transition is welcome on my skin. In all this beauty, we bump into a serious problem.
As noted, the Creeper Trail is a steady downhill, for seventeen miles, back to the bike shop. Thing is, this steady downhill is very little work for adults. Our weight and gravity do most of the hard work for us. For Eli, though, hovering around forty pounds, this relatively stable bit of trail along the creek requires a tremendous amount of labor. We’ve taken numerous breaks, but we ride now. Suddenly, I hear a loud skid of gravel. I pull my gaze from the water. Eli struggling to hold his handlebars With an incredible stroke of bad luck, he rolls right over a stray stick that catches his back tire. In a flash, he and his bike pop into the air and crash in a mean, sliding crunch, streamside.
“Ow! Ah!” He yells. I dismount immediately and wrap my hands under his arms to pick him up. Unfortunately, his knee catches the bike seat and a whole new rage of screams flee from the child.
“I can’t do it! I just can’t!” He breathes heavy and sighs. Tears roll down his cheeks as he wipes them forcefully away.
“Come here, Eli, come here.” Katie speaks softly and calmly as she approaches him. His momma sits down next to him and pulls him onto her lap.
“You’re doing such a great job on your pedal bike.” Her voice is easy and reassuring. “I am so proud of you. Not many five-year-olds can say they biked down a mountain, across the woods, along a loud and roaring river, and especially not so fast!’
Katie amplifies her voice with each phrase. I smile as they talk. She is so good at calming him down and building him up. After a good break, and lots of drinking water, the boy silently stands, enlarges his chest, broadens his shoulders, straps on his helmet, and remounts his bike. He looks at me as a wry, but sure, smile spreads across his face. He nods his head and carries onward.
We pass small islands, and, among wide meanders in the stream current, I see a couple of gentlemen fishing. Just behind the pair lies a large dam constructed of wooded debris. The largest rodent species in North America is showing off an impressive display of labor along this section of trail. The semi-aquatic mammal I speak of is, of course, the beaver.
Beavers spend most of their time in streams just like this one. The mammal is very well adapted to river life. Their webbed feet make beavers incredible swimmers; dense fur insulates them from the cold water; their ears and nose close when underwater; and their broad, flat tail enables swimming and dam building. My favorite little factoid about beavers is that they’re monogamous and mate for life. These social, nocturnal animals take family life very seriously. Both parents and older siblings take care of newborn family members until, of course, the kits are old enough to venture out and start a family of their own.
Beavers are incredibly important ecologically. We conservation types call beavers a keystone species – one whose population may be small, but whose Beaver dams alter the flow of streams, creating areas where water stands are lower and warmer and pools of water are deeper and cooler. This is important for migrating fish in need of a place to rest. Additionally, this resting pool affords freshwater mussels a chance to spread their young to the gills of a host fish for transport. Beaver dams also filter silt from water, increasing the habitat purity for all aquatic flora and fauna. These mounds of sticks, branches, and small logs help control flooding in a habitat. The beaver dam here is large and impressive, obviously alters the flow of water, and creates a visible array of microhabitats.
We are well on our way to finishing our ride, but Eli is rather tired. I’m very proud of my son, and his wild, loving, humorous approach to life is really something to admire. Birds sing and the river joins their melody while the three of us sit and rest along the stream bank. As we break, I admire the beaver dam until the boy lets me know he’d like me to take him fishing sometime. I look at him and see his gaze settle on the two fishermen. I’ll, have to oblige the kiddo’s request. Besides, fishing will be a new activity – I don’t believe I’ve cast a freshwater line since high school.
I reckon the gentlemen here are after trout – or, at least, I like to think they are. I love a good trout, especially one cooked fireside in a cast iron pan loaded with butter, garlic, salt, pepper, and plenty of smoke. Thanks to the beaver, and all of its purification work, this is great habitat for the Southern Appalachian brook trout. The fish is gorgeous, speckled like small, olive-green river rocks. Their scales shine like the sun bouncing of ripples of water. Like the beaver, these trout have found a home here and are dependent on densely forested systems with abundant rainfall, mild temperatures, and cool groundwater. Clear, cold water is crucial for spawning success. Mountain waters, shaded by hemlock, also allow insect species to grow their populations – a very important food source for brook trout.
“I have an idea.” Katie has a smile on her freckled face. “Stand up for a second, Eli.”
The boy, with red cheeks, shrugs and slowly rises to his feet. Katie reaches into her pocket and pulls out her phone. Eli and I watch curiously while her fingertips slide across the smooth surface. Her idea perks up our ears. She’s started the boy’s music mix.
“I want you to know I am so, so proud of you. You have biked over twelve miles down a mountain! I bet this music will fire you up and get you the rest of the way to Damascus.” Katie talks cheerfully as Eli’s expression brightens.
“I’ll tell you what,” I add, “when we get done, we’ll stop and get a giant milkshake!” Eli’s well-known wry, but proud, smile creeps back on his face.
The boy owns a mix I am rather proud of. He has a wide range of musical interests. On this mix, however, he’ll coast the four or so miles left with tunes from Black Sabbath, Tool, Led Zeppelin, Red Bone, Cheap Trick, The Americans, David Bowie, and more. Momma’s plan works, he’s in the zone and pedaling well. As we approach the small mountain town, two vines grow abundantly as the trail takes us closer to a state road.
One vine is woody and deciduous – the native Virginia Creeper Vine. This vine grows and climbs with disked tendrils that hold fast to wooded trees or bare rock. The leaves have five, coarse, toothed leaflets with a pointed tip. Small, light green flowers will bloom in clusters soon enough as the mountains welcome spring. The vine grows quickly, dependent on cool, wet climates for survival.
As we ease ever closer to town, with Black Sabbath’s metal riffs from “Iron Man” pumping the boy along, we pass homes along the Virginia Creeper Trail as the pathway brings us within eyesight of the state highway. Here, another creeping, climbing vine competes with the native creeper for habitat space. This vine, however, is a non-native species – and the invasive is blanketing the South. I speak, of course, of kudzu.
Kudzu is native to southeast Asia and was first brought to the United States, deliberately, in the late 1800s. Folks enjoyed the large leaves, sturdy vines, and admittedly lovely white, fragrant blooms. Then, beginning in the 1930s, for twenty years the United States government promoted the plant as a means of erosion control on the moonscapes left behind from strip mines, logging, and industrialization across Appalachia. Kudzu grows with vigor. The plant’s stems root on contact with damp soil. The invasive can grow at a rate of one foot per day. Mature vines reach about one-hundred feet in length. Quick growth, coupled with the absence of natural competition, allows kudzu to easily out-compete native species for habitat.
Appalachian ecosystems are resilient, though. Across the mountain highlands, and mixed lowlands, the more biologically diverse a habitat – in terms of species richness, number of species, and genetic diversity – the more resistant ecosystems are to invaders. Kudzu is rather common in human dominated landscapes, and certainly encroaches on wilderness, but protected lands, those protected from human perturbation, have largely resisted the invader. Natural systems and their processes are interdependent on, and interconnected with, one another.
These natural processes and resulting resiliency are on full display today as we travel Appalachian mountain country, rural farmland, and the small mountain town that hosts us on a trip cut short. As our region transitions to spring, the infant colors of life, the easy, virgin green of waking plants, the vapor and mist all around, the bright sun, remind all who care to notice the need for stewardship on our living planet. Land, sky, river, rock, the living communities, are proof that life both creates and destroys – life terraforms the planet.
As we ride an old rail system utilized for industrial logging, a welcome sight appears – Sundog bike shop! We’ve made it!
“Yeah!” I call to Eli. “There’s the bike shop, dude! You did it!”
Our boy is exhausted, but, when he sees the store he speeds up and races to the finish line. As we return our rental equipment, an employee tells us of an ice cream shop down the road – we’ll be stopping for a frozen treat.
As I drive back to Knoxville, zoning out to my music, Katie silently reads a book, and Eli naps in his car seat with a belly full of French fries and a giant vanilla milkshake, of course. So, I listen to my music and recall the old growth forest at the start of our journey. The forest is covered and bearded in lichen and this symbiotic relationship is powerful enough to change rock formations. Composed of fungus and algae, lichen mechanically breaks down rock by exploiting grooves and cracks to grow. The fungal film chemically alters rock as well by secreting powerful acids into the environment. These acids externally digest and then absorb surrounding nutrients. After thousands of years these processes,
Living on a dynamic planet means our home in the cosmos is always changing, always evolving across time and space. The rocks we traveled today, across just seventeen miles, tell the story of a snowball Earth rescued by volcanism, plate tectonics, and the evolution of life. We also witnessed the scars and scratches of humanity on the surface of our planet – evidence of industrial logging, several species with reduced habitat, some struggling to survive an extinction crisis largely molded from human industrial activity.
There is an ecological disturbance we did not see today, however. This phantom interruption of our seemingly settled and peaceful condition is the scariest. Throughout our planet’s long history, shifts in the Earth’s climate have posed incredible threats to the world’s living inhabitants. We humans transform our atmosphere every day, adding carbon and climate warming gases to the environmental system far faster than any recorded natural process. Additionally, we push further and further into the wilderness, thus depleting habitat and ecological resiliency. We see today, in a global biodiversity crisis, in a regional diversity crisis, that these emissions, coupled with habitat loss, threaten species – including our own – with extinction. This is not meant to be a grim tale, though, but rather one that celebrates life and all the biotic labor that molds our living rock.
Life is resilient – as evident from the rebounding forest the warbler calls home, the land the elk roam, the streams where brook trout swim, all communities who have survived industrialism, and from a boy who pedaled long across mountain country with his parents. Earth system history tells the story of a cosmic dance that took billions of years to form our planet, and billions more to allow the chemical conditions necessary for the evolution of life. As a species, one day we will be gone. We have a precious moment together, spinning along on a lonely blue rock in the infinite solitary echo of the cosmos – we are alive in the Elysian fields.
**Featured Image: Whitetop Mountain along the Creeper – Flickr, mightyjoepye