How the Road Less Traveled Led to the Surprise Discovery of a Breathtaking Hidden Cove

by Mark Miles

Sometimes the road less traveled leads to a genuinely breathtaking surprise. I was reminded of this in April when I went hiking at Occoneechee Mountain, 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 twenty-two months.

In my defense there’s a good reason for this. The hidden cove I discovered isn’t adjacent to any of the official trails; you actually have to venture off the main trail in order to find it. It’s not terribly far from the main trail, but it’s far enough that the spot is entirely occluded by the surrounding terrain.

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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 my fingers were still crossed for something miraculous. Possibly for the first time in my life my expectation was surpassed with flying colors.

Rising forty feet high to my immediate left and jutting outward over my position was the most breathtaking rock formation I’ve ever seen at Occoneechee Mountain. I’m not very 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 — which I’ve decided to call Sentinel Rock in the absence of an official title — was jagged and rough-hewn, which may have indicated that it sheared away at some point in the not too distant past. This added concern to my amazement, but I quickly disregarded it as I stepped into the hidden cove which looked as if it came out of a fairy tale.

To the right of Sentinel Rock 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. It’s strange to say, but this may have been the first time in my life that I’ve actually seen the birthplace of a stream.

Above and to the left of the stream was something else very curious. About thirty feet from the outermost edge of Sentinel Rock was a strange opening in the side of the rock face that almost looked as if it could’ve been the mouth of a cave. Now I was really excited. Apart from a cave in the Appalachian Mountains which I visited a very long time ago when I was a kid, I’ve never seen the mouth of a cave before. I’ve certainly never stumbled upon one inadvertently.

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 instead a sizeable crack which had been hollowed out by erosion and came to form a pocket in the side of Sentinel Rock. Regardless of its depth or adjacency to a cave, it was still fascinating and gave me the opportunity to more closely examine the area.

After I’d finished my cursory inspection of the crack in the rock, 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 experienced an asthma attack — which for me is virtually unprecedented. For forty-five 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 flummoxed.

By the time I made it back to the trail, however, I was breathing normally and thanked the mountain for allowing me to see something so utterly surprising and breathtaking. 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.

Image Credits:

1. Fern Grove in Spring (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. Staircase to the Westward Trail (Mark Miles, 2016)

3. Roots Entangled in Rock (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. There’s No Mistaking Sentinel Rock (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Birthplace of a Stream (Mark Miles, 2017)

6. An Entrance to…? (Mark Miles, 2017)

7. The Pocket in the Rock (Mark Miles, 2017)

8. View from the Top (Mark Miles, 2017)

9. The Path Less Traveled (Mark Miles, 2017)


Frost, Robert, “The Road Not Taken” from Mountain Interval (New York City, NY, USA: Henry Holt and Company, 1920), accessed May 4th, 2017.

List of Rock Formations,” Wikipedia, accessed April 18th, 2017.

Honoring Nature in the Spirit of Leonardo, the Unbeknownst Animist

by Mark Miles

I’ve always known the earth is alive. From my earliest childhood, I’ve been prone to explore any patch of forest or meadow I can find, searching for any and every indication of life. Frequently as a child I would go outside for hours on end merely to look for insects — with which I was and still am immensely fascinated — and would occasionally collect them for my improvised terrarium. I’ve often collected leaves in fall to identify them by my field guide, and I’ve learned names for clouds which most people ignore altogether. I’ve always been intent on finding the deeper meaning, the ultimate purpose, the overarching spirit behind nature in all its forms. From my earliest childhood, I’ve been an unbeknownst animist.

It turns out there are many societies — most of which are being encroached by industrialization and impoverished by capitalism — which are still animistic. Aborigines in Australia, Bushmen in the Kalahari, Inuit in Alaska, and Cherokee in my own state are merely a few of the ethnic groups who were, and still to some degree are, animistic in their religious practices. Based on the recognition of life, spirit, and intelligence in all beings, animism is essentially the root to every branch of human religion. It’s the way our most distant ancestors viewed and interacted with the world; and it’s still relevant to this day in the way it provides a familial relationship to all creation, motivating the preservation of the earth for future generations. While the name itself is a construct of European anthropologists working in an academic setting that’s been largely antagonistic or indifferent to anything outside the domain of scientific materialism, the word nonetheless conveys a sense of the mystery at the heart of any meaningful religious practice, in which the divine is recognized to be immanent within all creation, waiting only for our willingness to listen closely to the world with all our senses.

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It turns out Leonardo da Vinci was also something of an unbeknownst animist. Throughout his life he had a reputation for purchasing birds in the market not to slaughter them but to release them. He was perennially mesmerized by the power and beauty of water, which he captured in many of his works of art. In his writings, he frequently imbued natural elements with human qualities in what would today be considered the most blatant anthropomorphism. And while he never would have applied the title of animist to himself — if only because the title didn’t exist in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when he lived — he nonetheless worked throughout his life to find the underlying holistic principle that united his pursuits in art, engineering, anatomy, design, and optics. Most people are unaware that his interests were so varied, and they’re similarly unaware that one of the reasons for this diversity of interests was the basic tenet of his religious and scientific outlook, expressed by this quote from what’s now known as his Codex Leicester:

“We might say that the earth has a spirit of growth, and its flesh is the soil, its bones [are] the arrangement and connection of rocks of which the mountains are composed, its cartilage [is] the tufa, and its blood [is] the springs of water. The pool of blood which lies around the earth’s heart is the ocean, and its breathing… is represented in the earth by the ebb and flow of the sea; and the heat of the spirit of the world is the fire which pervades the earth, and the seat of the earth’s soul is in the fires.”

Leonardo was also homosexual, which put him at variance with the ideology of the Catholic Church and resulted in the most traumatizing event of his early life, the Salterelli affair. This took place in 1476 when he was accused by one Jacopo Salterelli of committing sodomy along with three other men. Despite the relatively tolerant atmosphere of Florence at the time — Florence was a vibrant artistic center that was effectively the San Francisco of its day — the full legal penalty for homosexual behavior at this time in Catholic Europe was death by burning at the stake. While the charges were most likely fabricated for political reasons and were eventually dismissed, the period of two months during which the threat of burning at the stake hung over Leonardo’s head must have been enough to awaken him to the brutality of life in the city amongst powerbrokers and their pawns.

Despite living much of his life in the city, Leonardo was nonetheless a country boy at heart, raised by his Uncle Francesco and his grandparents in the sleepy Italian village of Anchiano. Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, had conceived Leonardo out of wedlock in 1452 and consequently regarded his firstborn in the manner of unwanted luggage. Uncle Francesco however regarded the young boy with love and affection, showing Leonardo the hidden secrets of life in the Italian countryside. It was indeed Uncle Francesco who instilled a love for the land in his precocious nephew and gave Leonardo the first inkling that he might indeed be good for something after all.

Despite his Uncle Francesco’s efforts, however, Leonardo was largely estranged from his family in later life. He took to the road after his apprenticeship in Florence came to a close and forged a new life for himself with a small band of travelling companions who formed the nucleus of his improvised family. There was Luca Pacioli, one of the foremost mathematicians of his day; Salai, the “little demon” who took up residence with Leonardo after the latter recognized the surpassing beauty of the young man; and Francesco Melzi, a young aristocrat with artistic talent who idolized the genius of Leonardo and may have been his lover in later life. It was in fact to Francesco Melzi that Leonardo bequeathed the greatest portion of all his worldly goods when he died in 1519.

Long before his death, however, Leonardo distinguished himself as the foremost polymath of his generation. Most people know that Leonardo painted The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, but he also painted numerous other works of art that were revolutionary in their time and hold up to scrutiny to this day. He was an engineer of weaponry for military campaigns in the service of Ludovico Sforza and Cesare Borgia. He created schematics for flying machines, scuba gear, a primitive tank, musical instruments, and party favors. He was a skilled musician who was sent by Lorenzo de Medici in the capacity of musical ambassador, so notable were his skills. He was an anatomist of the first degree, a man who risked charges of heresy to better understand the physical form of his own species and who advanced medical knowledge incalculably because of it. He was an endless explorer of the potential for visual perception, demonstrating principles of light that foreshadowed the work of physicists centuries later. He was in short the original Renaissance Man.

For all these reasons, I admire and empathize with Leonardo. In terms of religious outlook, sexual identity, cultural affiliation, familial dislocation, and polymathic propensity, I find a man after my own heart, a man who was successful in ways most people can’t even imagine yet who wanted nothing more than to explore the intricacies of nature in peace and quiet. I take inspiration from the life he led and the passion that drove him to greatness despite so much hardship. And I dedicate the following piece, depicting creatures of the water — the element which Leonardo revered throughout his life in his artwork and designs — to one of the few people in history whom I’ve ever adopted as my personal patron saint. This is for you, Leonardo.

Image Credits:

1. Bridge to Tranquility (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. Self Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1512)

3. Neptune and His Watery Mounts (Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1504)


Mander, Jerry. In the Absence of the Sacred. San Francisco, CA, USA: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. New York City, NY, USA: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966.

White, Michael. Leonardo: The First Scientist. New York City, NY, USA: Saint Martin’s Press, 2000.

So There’s a Dog in My Floorboards

by Mark Miles

Before you start to think Bella has somehow gotten lost and found her way under my house, don’t worry. She’s fine, apart from some minor digestive complaints she’s had lately. The dog to which the title of this article refers is another one entirely, one I only discovered recently due to unusual circumstances and close observation. But before I get to that, I have to do some explaining about a particular piece of art.

The piece in question is The Ambassadors, painted in 1533 by Hans Holbein the Younger. It’s a double portrait of two Frenchman, Jean de Tinteville and Georges de Selve, who visited the court of Henry VIII at the same time Holbein was making his second visit to London. The piece is widely considered to be the most ambitious of this phase in Holbein’s career, and it’s not hard to see why. The level of detail invested into every seam, fiber, and surface is astonishing. The garments of Jean de Tinteville, on the left, are enough to make a status-conscious individual in any era start salivating. Similarly the artifacts — which include a globe, a lute, and an astrolabe among other things — are testaments to the wealth of the two men portrayed and the skill of the artist who portrayed them.

But not long after looking at this painting, you’ll probably start to realize that something isn’t quite right. In fact it seems as if Holbein has made a gigantic goof — which looks like some sort of inartistic smear — and has had the ill luck to place it at the bottom center of the painting. “How could anyone with his level of skill and experience make such a catastrophic blunder?” — one might reasonably ask. The question, however, is immediately resolved when the viewer adopts a very awkward angle at the extreme top right or bottom left of the painting. When the viewer does this, something emerges out of the apparent blunder.

The meaning of the skull on the floor sitting in plain sight between two powerful men regaled by symbols of wealth and status is easy to infer. At the end of the day, no matter how much money is in your vault, no matter how many fur coats you have, no matter how many signifiers of wealth and power you possess, you too will ultimately die and leave it all behind. It’s a sobering message, and its presence in the painting assumes added significance when one considers the swathe of bloodshed left in the wake of Henry VIII, at whose court Holbein worked during his stay in London.

“Now how in the world does this relate to a dog in your floorboards?” — you might be asking at this moment. The answer will make more sense if I explain how I came to it. As it turns out, I was sitting on the couch in my living room one day in January, eating a snack before recorder practice, when I happened to glance toward my practice room, which is about fifteen feet from the couch’s position in the living room. Because I was at such a low angle and because there’s no wall between the two rooms at that point, the apparent texture of the wood floor in my practice room was dramatically skewed. It was so skewed in fact that I noticed something I’d never noticed in the ten years I’ve lived in this house. There, in the floorboards, staring back at me with lopsided ears and a silly grin, was the likeness of a dog.

It may be hard to believe, so I’ve included three photos of the wood floor in my practice room, starting with a perpendicular angle and moving to a more sharply acute angle with each frame. (Basically I went from shooting a photo while standing up to shooting a photo while lying on the floor.) The effect is startling.

How exactly this came about is beyond me. I would have to guess it was done by accident, though I suppose there’s a very small chance that the placement of the two boards which comprise the dog’s face was chosen specifically by the foreman who oversaw the installation of the floorboards as a kind of practical joke or Easter egg for anyone living in the house. Perhaps he was imitating Holbein, perhaps not. It’s impossible to say for sure. At the end of the day, nature must take the greatest share of credit for this portrait, which demonstrates more clearly than ever that the best way for us to gain a new appreciation of our surroundings is to adopt an unconventional angle from which to view them.

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Image Credits:

1. Cutest Face in the Room (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. The Ambassadors (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533)

3. Tilted Close-up of The Ambassadors (Hans Holbein, 1533)

4. The Face Emerges I, II, & III (Mark Miles, 2017)