Sometimes the road less traveled can make all the difference. I was reminded of this in April when I went hiking in Hillsborough, North Carolina, at Occoneechee Mountain (625 Virginia Cates Road, Hillsborough, NC 27278), which — if you haven’t figured out by now — is my favorite hiking destination in central North Carolina.
I’ve been going there on a monthly basis since the summer of 2015, so there’ve been plenty of opportunities for me to discover the hidden nooks and crannies within its limits. Yet somehow I managed to miss the most breathtaking sight of all in the course of the past two years.
In my defense there’s a good reason for this. The hidden cove — which I’ve since learned is called the Panther’s Den after its most famous, long-dead resident — isn’t adjacent to any of the official trails; you actually have to venture off trail in order to find it. And since I normally stick to the official trail, I never saw it.
I found this out when I reached the fern grove on the north side of the mountain. I was headed up the staircase that leads toward the quarry when I saw a path veering toward the west. I’d seen it before but had never paid much attention to it. For some reason on this occasion I decided to follow it and see where it led.
There wasn’t much to see at first. The westward trail ran along the edge of an embankment where the land sloped steeply upward to my left and downward to my right. Because the trail was unofficial and therefore not maintained by park officials, the vegetation was thick and gave me more than my fair share of smacks and slaps. Though the distance I covered wasn’t more than a tenth of a mile, I was seriously considering turning back due to the discomfort.
Yet something nudged me onward subconsciously, and I found myself wondering if my regret would be greater from finishing what I started or turning back too soon. So I continued through the vegetation and kept my fingers crossed.
Then I noticed a rock formation to my right. It was probably ten feet wide by fifteen feet tall, though it was covered by vegetation and dead leaves which obscured its features. I didn’t think much of it until I passed it and noticed the trail in front of me veering sharply to the left. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was still hoping there might be something worth the wait.
Then, rising forty feet high to my left, the most breathtaking rock formation I’ve seen at Occoneechee Mountain came into view.
I’m not small, being six feet tall and in good physical shape, but I suddenly felt as tiny as an ant at a gathering of elephants. The promontory was jagged and rough-hewn, possibly indicating that it sheared away at some point in the not too distant past. This added concern to my amazement, since I didn’t want to be flattened. So I quickly moved along.
To the right of the rock formation was a gorge which had been hollowed out by a tiny stream gurgling gently over the surface of the rock. I can’t be certain, but it appeared that the stream originated at this very location.
Above and to the left of the stream was something else very curious. About thirty feet from the outermost edge of the rock formation was a strange opening that looked like the mouth of a cave.
After very carefully picking my way up ten feet of steep moss-covered rock to make a closer inspection of the opening, I came to the conclusion that it was a sizeable crack which had been hollowed out by erosion and came to form the presumptive location of the Panther’s Den.
After I’d finished my cursory inspection of the Panther’s Den, I decided it was time to head back to the main trail.
Very suddenly and for no apparent reason, I found it difficult to breathe. Possibly from a combination of excess pollen, inadequate ventilation in the enclosed microclimate, and physical exertion from climbing the slippery rock face, I had an asthma attack — which for me is virtually unprecedented.
For thirty seconds I could barely take more than a shallow gasp of breath. Combined with the fact that I was attempting to descend a slippery rock face with abundant moss that gave little protection in the event of a fall, I was momentarily panicked.
By the time I made it back to the trail, however, I was breathing normally and felt a wave of gratitude, not only for being able to breathe but for being able to see something so amazing and unexpected.
Not for the first time in my life I was reminded of the words of Robert Frost:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.