How the Road Less Traveled Led to the Discovery of a 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.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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.

References:

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.

Finding Musical Inspiration among the Rocks at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

Inspiration is a funny thing. It comes in many shapes and sizes, can arrive at any hour of the day, and needs no invitation apart from a receptive mind and a willingness to create. It can show up at a museum, in a forest, by a river, at your workplace, or in bed while you sleep at night. It can nag away at your insides until you feel sick and restless, compelling you to find a way to express it meaningfully. And when you do, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

I’ve been reminded of this since I started composing in September of last year. When I first considered following in the footsteps of Beethoven and Mozart, however, I was absolutely terrified. “Who am I to think I have the skills to create music that could ever live up to the standard they set?” This thought crossed my mind many times, and I still grapple with it from time to time. It turns out, though, that all I really needed to overcome my initial hesitation was an experience of profound inspiration.

That experience came to me when I first visited Occoneechee Mountain in the summer of 2015. Seeing the rock formations there — many of which were formed hundreds of millions of years ago when central North Carolina was much more volcanically active — planted a seed in my mind that ultimately took a year to bear fruit. But bear fruit it did.

Before I get to that, however, I’d like to share the rock formations themselves to give you a sense of how incredible they are and how easily they could fill anyone with a sense of profound inspiration. (For the record, I was unable to find official names for any of these rock formations in my research for this article. So, in the absence of official names, I’ve come up with my own unofficial names, which are hopefully amusing and memorable.)

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

Elephant Rock is a tor (a free-standing rock formation that juts directly out of the surrounding terrain) that sits on the northwestern edge of the Mountain Loop Trail before the trail reaches the Eno River. Like many of the other rock formations near the mountain, it appears seemingly out of nowhere, towering fifteen feet over the trail and exerting a magnetic pull on anyone with an ounce of curiosity. The weight of the rock is so massive it can almost be felt simply by looking at it. Staring into the grey and green textures along its flanks, it wasn’t hard for me to understand how similar sites were used by our ancestors as places of worship.

Gumdrop Rock is another tor that can be found a little further along the Mountain Loop Trail. It’s not as imposing or grandiose as Elephant Rock, but it has its own kind of quiet sublimity. Standing roughly eight feet tall and ten feet wide, it makes even some professional athletes look dainty by comparison. Nonetheless it’s one of the smaller rock formations at Occoneechee Mountain and may be overlooked because of it.

Sentinel Rock is a promontory (an abutment of land bordered on two sides by water which has progressively eroded it over time) that may also be overlooked by the casual hiker but for very different reasons. This rock formation is reasonably well hidden from sight on the north side of Occoneechee Mountain and takes a little looking in order to find. There are trails that lead to it, but they’re not terribly obvious, and they lead through some scruffy undergrowth that smacks and whacks at every inch of your person on the way. After a bit of manhandling from the plants, however, this forty-foot marvel is a sight for sore eyes and easily the most breathtaking of the many notable rock formations at Occoneechee Mountain. To sweeten the deal, there’s even a mountain stream to the side that gurgles gently down the imposing rock face.

Overhang Rock is a crag (a nearly vertical body of rock formed by erosion and weathering over time) that overlooks the Eno River on the north side of Occoneechee Mountain. It directly borders the Mountain Loop Trail and may leave you in fear for your life the first time you pass by it. While my photo shows that the rock face isn’t quite vertical, when you’re underneath it you may think otherwise. Staring thirty feet up the side of a cliff that probably weighs more than twenty tons is nothing if not an intensely humbling experience, which is only accentuated by the twenty-foot drop down to the Eno River on the opposite side.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

Reverential Rock is a boulder on the north side of the mountain which may have been formed in the landslide of 2001, when more than five thousand tons of debris crashed down the side of the quarry at Occoneechee Mountain. At the very least, it has many more edges and irregularities on its surface than many other nearby rock formations, which would seem to indicate a much more recent deposition. In any case, it’s become something of a shrine for hikers who wish to express their creativity by making small stacks of rocks called cairns, which abound at the quarry. Looking at the attention to detail in these small structures, it’s easy to see I’m not the only person who’s found inspiration in these majestic rock formations.

Despite the fact that these rocks inspired me from the first moment I laid eyes on them, it took me fourteen months before I picked up a pen and wrote my first musical composition to express that inspiration. Though it’s impossible to say for sure how the spectacle of creation must have looked when Occoneechee Mountain was formed several hundred million years ago, I nonetheless had a mental image of massive boulders being thrown around like pebbles when writing this piece. These descending boulders can be heard in the rapid downward scale at 0:12. The thought of lava being spewed and progressively building up the structure of the mountain can also be heard in the rising trajectory of the ground bass passage starting at 0:31.

Though I know mere music can never surpass the mountain that inspired me to compose, I’ve nonetheless tried to capture a faint glimmer of the grandeur of Occoneechee Mountain in this piece. Perhaps just as importantly I’ve tried to create something that may help you to find your own special place in the natural world, where you can find inspiration and share it with others in turn.

References:

Bradley, Phil, “The (Brief) Geologic Story of the Eno River,” North Carolina Geological Survey, accessed April 18th, 2017.

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

McIver, Hervey, “Occoneechee Mountain Dedication,” Eno River Association, accessed April 18th, 2017.

Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area,” Geocaching, accessed April 20th, 2017.

Climb to the Clouds at Occoneechee Mountain

Hiking is always a good way for me to relax after a stressful week. Not long ago I was tempted to skip my monthly rendezvous with Occoneechee Mountain because of a hectic schedule, but I stuck to my routine and was glad I did. The landscape was barren of foliage for the most part, but the increase in visibility gave a real sense of scope that’s often lacking from the experience in summer and spring.

As usual there was a small crowd when I arrived but nothing unmanageable. I got out of my car and started down the main trail over a few hills on my way to the first fork in the path. Before I reached it, I was greeted by a pleasant southwestern exposure of the sun peeping gently through the branches.

A little further along, I reached Elephant Rock–which is not the official name but describes the formation well nonetheless–and decided that the lighting was too good to miss. I’m not generally one to take selfies on my hikes, but I couldn’t resist in this instance.

After passing by a stretch of the Eno that borders the trail for a quarter of a mile, I came to the ascent that leads to the Overlook. There are a number of stairs in this area that were put in place by an eagle scout some years ago for his community service, and they’re a welcome addition at this point.

On the way up the side of the mountain, the trail passes directly beneath a very large metallic powerline that bisects the land near the quarry. It’s an ugly sight, but I did manage to find a view of it that was at least symmetrical. Standing beneath it and staring directly upwards, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was caught in an oversized game of tic-tac-toe.

Huffing and puffing from the steep climb that leads to the highest point on the trail, I reached the Overlook itself. The view was incredible as always, though there wasn’t the same panoply of color that I would’ve found in late October. Still it was a refreshing end to a much-needed excursion that helps to keep me grounded in my daily life. And the best part about it is that anyone with a little time, initiative and wilderness can do the same.

Trail Magic

July’s hike at Occoneechee Mountain was less exciting than usual because I arrived late and had to rush through the trail before sunset. Still there were some magical views as always.

At the crest of one of the first hills, I noticed how the trees at either side of the trail framed the scene as if I was walking through a doorway, perhaps even a magical one. It seemed appropriate since I always feel as if I’m entering a realm beyond the ordinary whenever I go hiking.

For some reason I’m always attracted to sycamores (Platanus occidentalis). Perhaps it’s the distinctive green, grey, and white of their bark; perhaps it’s their penchant for residing in some of the least hospitable areas; perhaps it’s their furry seedpods which remind me of q-tips. Whatever the reason, I find myself drawn to them without fail, as if by enchantment. This young sycamore had some very distinctive lichens too, one of which was a Physcia from what I could tell. Staring at it from below, I realized that a change in perspective can occasionally work wonders.

Not far from the end of the trail I turned around and noticed the sun piercing the canopy to the west. The gentle undulation of the trail provided the perfect counterpoint to the rigid vertical lines of the surrounding trees. It reminded me that magic has less to do with the supernatural than it does with a willingness to explore and appreciate the world around us.

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Light and Shadow in the Summer Sun

Toward the end of June, I went to Occoneechee Mountain for the sixth time this year. I’ve been making it a habit to go at least once per month, and that schedule has allowed me to enjoy the fluctuations of the seasons without becoming inured to the place by visiting too frequently. As a result, the mountain remains fresh and exhilarating to me whenever I visit.

Cresting one of the first slopes along the main trail, I came within view of the early evening sun. It was dazzling after the gloomy atmosphere of the hill leading up to it, and I stood for a few moments to soak in the moment.

After branching off on the mountain loop trail, I descended again into the relative gloominess of the forest. It wasn’t in any way unpleasant, but I have to admit I was slightly unnerved on my first few visits when the canopy seemed to become much darker much quicker than the open terrain around the mountain.

On my way up the side of the mountain toward the overlook trail, I stumbled on this beauty. Appropriately enough, its common name is Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia mariana), which I only found out after searching for a solid forty-five minutes on my phone through an online database. It’s a perennial with spiny stems, lanceolate leaves, four-petaled flowers, and drooping anthers. And it lives up to its name too, being one of the most beautiful flowers to be found on a western slope in the early evening, when the orange sunlight accentuates its innate magenta coloration.

To my surprise, despite arriving at the park later than I wanted, I had almost perfect timing for sunset, making it to the overlook itself within minutes of the last peek of the sun over the horizon. There were two other people there to savor the final rays of the day, and together we shared the moment on the edge of the mountain-face before going our separate ways.

Identification Triptych

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Near the base of the quarry at Occoneechee Mountain, I found a bush that was partially covered in this very curious lichen. Standing a few feet above its position, I was compelled to look more closely to get a sense of any distinguishing characteristics that might be useful in identifying it later. At a closer proximity, I was immediately overtaken by the sense that the lichen resembled the disembodied flesh of a corpse. The black hairs (or cilia) along the edge of the lichen added to the surreal appearance of it, and I was suddenly very glad I wasn’t eating. At the time I had no idea what species this was. I knew it was a lichen, and that was all. After some research, however, I’m fairly certain this is the Powdered Ruffle Lichen (Parmotrema hypotropum). If I’d been responsible for naming this, however, I would’ve called it the Hairy Deadflesh Lichen.

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Back in April, this polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) showed up at the tennis courts where I occasionally play at night. The lights were bright enough to act as an attractant, and the moth had decided to check out the source. In the process I got this photo and resolved to find out more about these moths. From a cursory online search, I discovered they’re a type of silk moth and employ the spots on their wings (faintly visible in the photo) to mimic predatory species in order to dissuade other predators from making a meal out of them. Specifically the spots are supposed to mimic the eyes of the great horned owl, though I must admit it would take a bit of imagination to reach that conclusion. Fortunately for both of us, I had no designs on making a meal of anyone and went on playing tennis.

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At Haw River Park, I found a patch of bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) which had taken over a small area near the western edge of the park. The thing that struck me first was the brilliant color of the blossoms. Their purplish blue could be spotted from twenty feet away, even in the dusky light under the forest canopy. Apart from the color, bugleweed is also reputed to possess mild wound-healing properties due to its tannin-content. It’s been recommended by herbalists in the past for the treatment of coughs, ulcers, and rheumatism, and it reputedly has a mild sedative effect. I’ve never tried it, so I can’t attest to any of this personally. But I do know it brightened my hike and gave me another excuse to open a book in order to find out more about it.