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.

Original prints from this blog are now available for purchase on a limited basis for collectors and enthusiasts.

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)

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 Rock Formations 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.)

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.

Original prints from this blog are now available for purchase on a limited basis for collectors and enthusiasts.

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.

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. (Make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel for only the best future videos.)

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.

Image Credits:

1. Elephant Rock Looms Large (Mark Miles, 2016)

2. Gumdrop Rock in Spring (Mark Miles, 2017)

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

4. The Mighty Overhang (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Reverential Rock, Home to Cairns of All Sizes (Mark Miles, 2017)

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.

Online Love and Betrayal at Valentine’s Day

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by Mark Miles

A year ago around Valentine’s Day I had the worst breakup of my life. There was a period of time in the months following when I wasn’t sure if I would survive. I’ve encountered depression after traumatic occurrences in my life, but this was something else. It felt as if a piece of my soul had been stolen, as if someone had taken from me the ability to breathe, as if I had lost the one person in my life who understood and cared for me better than anyone else. The feeling is best captured by the song above, which I recorded not long ago.

When Bobby Rolando and I started dating, I never imagined in a million years what lay in store. We became acquainted through Instagram in January of 2015, and I was tentative about getting involved with him on that basis. As much as I use social media, I fully recognize that there are very concrete limits to the fulfillment it can provide and the opportunities it can offer. I’ve seen firsthand how friends of mine have been lured into online relationships with people who claim to be one thing and turn out to be another, and I wasn’t keen on the idea of the same thing happening to me. So I kept him in the friend-zone for several months.

Despite our distance from one another — Bobby lives in northern New Jersey and and I live in central North Carolina — we nonetheless had many common interests on which to base our virtual friendship. I love photography, and so does he. I love hiking, and so does he. I love classical music, and so does he. I love animals, and so does he. I love running, and so does he. I love baking, and so does he. We had so much in common that I secretly began to wonder if Bobby wasn’t simply agreeing with everything I liked in order to ingratiate himself to me and make his way out of the friend-zone. To this day I’m not entirely sure how much of what he said was true and how much was a lie.

In any case, he had the pictures on his Instagram account to prove that he was indeed interested in photography and hiking, and I became acquainted with some of the places he enjoyed hiking through his photography. I began to feel as if the forests, hills, and mountains of northern New Jersey were in my own backyard. And with that sense of shared landscape, it was much easier for me to think of Bobby as a kindred spirit, as someone who cared about the same things I did and would respect me because of that. Little did I know at the time.

So we continued to get to know each other through an entirely virtual forum, never meeting in person, never establishing the physical existence of the other person, never getting to look each other in the eye without a screen coming between us. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea, but slowly I was starting to consider Bobby a good friend, perhaps even a better friend than people I’ve known in real life for much longer. It was a curious and irrational phenomenon, but it was inescapable at the time.

After we’d known each other for six months on Instagram, Bobby finally started to make his move. I’d previously gotten the impression that he wasn’t entirely heterosexual, but it was only a feeling. There was no way I could substantiate it. Then, out of the blue one day for no apparent reason, he asked me if I was “into guys.” I explained that I was, and that was when he really started to turn up the heat.

For a few months after that, we dated. It was never official: he never asked me to date and I never agreed to it. But there was an unspoken understanding between us. We started to talk on another app called Kik — which is primarily text-based and allows for better conversation — and before long we were spilling the beans about everything. I told him about the guy who’d cheated on me in my previous relationship; he told me about the girl who’d cheated on him. I told him about the time I was assaulted in a parking lot; he told me about the time he was assaulted by a roomful of frat guys. I told him that I wanted to be in a loving and committed relationship; he told me that he wanted to be with me “longer than either of us would live.” I still remember those words to this day, if only because no one other than Bobby Rolando has ever said them to me in my entire life. He was the first person to say them, and I have a feeling he’ll also be the last.

So we kept getting closer and closer without ever meeting. I can’t say definitively when we went from dating to a relationship, because once again nothing between us was ever official. Bobby never asked me to be “the one,” and I never agreed to be “the one.” But at some point around September or October of 2015, we became monogamous. He stopped talking to other guys, and I started incorporating him into my fantasy life. We started talking almost every day, and frequently we had conversations that would extend for an hour or more. It felt like something out of a fairy tale, but that was only because I didn’t yet know the ending.

In December I finally blurted out the big question: “When are we going to finally meet?” There was no definite answer from Bobby, and I probably should’ve taken this for a warning sign, but I didn’t because I believed his lies with the naive innocence of a child. As ridiculous as it sounds, I was beginning to think he was the love of my life. I’m not prone to flights of fancy, and I’ve only felt similarly for a handful of people in my three decades on this planet. But I felt it for him, and I felt it was time for us to make the big step from an online relationship to a real-world relationship. By this point we’d known each other for a full year, and it only seemed natural.

Then, in January of 2016, out of the blue and for no apparent reason, Bobby disappeared. He stopped responding to my texts; he stopped responding to my snaps; he stopped responding to my comments on Instagram. This was utterly shocking to me because there’d been nothing to precipitate such a radical shift. We’d been getting along just fine; we’d still been having great conversations; we’d still been planning to meet. I was paralyzed and heartbroken for weeks. I didn’t know what to do. Then, over a period of weeks, a plan materialized.

On Valentine’s Day of of 2016, I put up a post on my Instagram account telling the story of how we fell in love. I tagged Bobby in the photo and mentioned him by name to ensure that he would know I meant it for him. I thought he’d be happy about my display of affection, that he’d come back to me with open arms, that he’d tell me that all he’d wanted from me was a definite sign of my love, and that now we could be in a real relationship. It’s embarrassing to admit in hindsight how deluded I was at the time, but I believed him when he told me he wanted to be with me “longer than either of us would live.” And if he’d been telling the truth, how could that have changed after a mere month? I couldn’t accept the possibility that he was a lying and deceitful scumbag, and so I acted on my gut.

The answer I got left me dumbstruck. Bobby’s words were, “You’re hurting me more than you know. If you love me, let me go.” It was as if he’d stolen prepackaged lyrics from a Katy Perry song and then dumbed them down for a preteen audience. Not only were the words insulting to the English language; they simply didn’t make any sense at all. How could I be hurting him when all I was trying to do was reciprocate the feelings he’d expressed for me on more occasions than I could count? And beyond that, how did my honest and gentle words come to deserve a warning from Instagram that my post had “endangered” another user and that it had to be removed as a result? None of it made any sense, and I was getting desperate.

So I took an unplanned step. I sent a group message on Instagram to a number of Bobby’s friends and family members explaining to them everything that had happened and asking for an explanation for his increasingly erratic and nonsensical behavior. In response to my honest and gentle words, I received numerous allegations that I was a “fake,” a “stalker,” and “spam.” I didn’t know what to do. I’d given these friends and family of Bobby mere words to prove our relationship, but that obviously wasn’t enough. I had to give more. So I gave what I had: a picture of Bobby in a position of partial nudity, in which he told me how much he wanted me and how perfect I was in every way. It was a sudden decision and one that I didn’t have time to think out. All I knew at that moment was that I had one chance to prove my case and that I had to do it fast. If the group decided informally that I was a fake, they would’ve ignored me and destroyed my one chance to get an answer from Bobby.

Finally Bobby started to talk. He was seriously angry now, and he called me (for the very first time coincidentally) to give me a piece of his mind. I was more terrified and relieved than words could say. I was terrified that he would say he never loved me, but I was relieved he was at least talking to me. We spoke on the phone for fifteen minutes, and in that time he broke down in tears and explained what he was dealing with. He explained that he lived in an extremely religious family who would never accept the prospect of his being in a relationship with a man. He explained that he’d seen his cousin Henry effectively kept under house-arrest by his own family after it became known that Henry had been in a sexual relationship with a man. He explained that he was terrified of what would happen. And most importantly he told me that he loved me.

Whether or not Bobby was telling the truth about any of this is anyone’s guess. After this brief conversation, he and I got back together briefly on the condition that I delete the message that I sent to his friends and family. This I did without delay. For three days, I was happy. Then all hell broke loose again. It turned out that his sister Jess had seen the message that I sent, and she confronted Bobby about it. He decided at that point to tell his family about our relationship, revealing for the first time to his extremely homophobic relatives that he was not in fact perfectly heterosexual.

A day or two later, he texted me to tell me that we couldn’t be together. I asked for some explanation, some rationale for his erratic behavior, but all I got from Bobby was a static monophonic line: “This is my choice, nobody forced me to make it.” It was like he was a robot repeating a mechanically predetermined dictum. There was no thought, no feeling, no conviction in it whatsoever. And so I asked him to call me the following day.

The following day arrived, and Bobby called. I asked once again why he was breaking it off with me, and he finally spilled the beans. His family had been considering legal action against me, for what reason I had no clue. I was utterly shocked and flabbergasted. How could the act of explaining a relationship — which did include sexual elements but was not in any way pornographic on my part — constitute grounds for legal action? How could love be a prosecutable offense? I had no answer, and he gave none that made any sense. The conversation ended, and that was the last time we spoke on the phone to each other.

Over the following days, a series of threats and counterthreats passed between us that I still can’t explain or make sense of. We both became incredibly angry with each other, and it reached a point where I began to fear for my safety. Ironically, though, I wasn’t the one to tell Bobby never to speak to me again. No, on the contrary, Bobby was the one. He told me never to speak to him again, and I was crushed. After the conversation, I broke down in sobs. I was utterly heartbroken, and to be honest I still am.

Since that day at the end of February, 2016, I haven’t heard a word from Bobby Rolando, though he does still maintain his Facebook profile. He hasn’t asked me how I’m doing or if I’m okay or if we can be friends or if there’s anything he can do to make it up to me for all the needless pain and suffering he caused. He’s taken the easy way out; he’s done what his family wanted; he’s destroyed the love we shared, the equivalent of which he’ll probably never find for the remainder of his life.

In the aftermath of this experience, I’ve found consolation in some unlikely places. One of these was the song which I played at the very beginning of this article. It’s from the pen of a thirteenth-century female troubadour whose title was the Comtessa de Dia, or the Countess of Dia. She wrote her song about the man she loved, a man who abandoned and betrayed her after she had been true and loyal. Even though she died nearly a millennium before I was born and lived thousands of miles from my home, I still feel a resonance in her music that validates my own experience of love and betrayal.

Another source of consolation has been the relationship I’ve developed with the land around Occoneechee Mountain, where I frequently hike. I often think of Bobby when I go there because of our shared interest in hiking and because I wanted to take him hiking there for our first date. Something about the steep and craggy surfaces that predominate throughout the park reminds of the steep and craggy trajectory of the love that unfolded between us.

The final source of consolation that I found was less unlikely but still noteworthy. It was William Shakespeare. When I saw and heard the following sonnet in the Ang Lee movie “Sense and Sensibility,” I knew immediately that I had to adopt it for my personal anthem regarding love.

Sonnet 116:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no! It is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken.

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error, and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

Image Credits:

1. Stream Along the McAvoy Trail in Ramapo Mountain State Forest (Famartin via Wikiwand, Date N/A)

2. A Tentative Proposition (Mark Miles, 2016)

3. Cracks Emerge Between Us (Mark Miles, 2016)

4. Forest of Memories (Mark Miles, 2016)

References:

Cheyette, Fredric L. Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours. Ithaca, NY, USA: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Lee, Ang. Sense and Sensibility. Based on the novel by Jane Austen. Culver City, CA, USA: Columbia Pictures, 1995.

Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York, NY, USA: MetroBooks (an imprint of Friedman/Fairfax Publishers), 1994.

Climb to the Clouds

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.

Photo Credits:

1. Sun Peeps through Branches (Mark Miles, 2016)

2. All Smiles at Elephant Rock (Mark Miles, 2016)

3. It’s a Winding Way to the Top (Mark Miles, 2016) Order this print.

4. X Marks the Spot (Mark Miles, 2016)

5. Winter at the Overlook (Mark Miles, 2016) Order this print.

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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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.

A Stark View of the Woods

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When I took this photo at Occoneechee Mountain a couple months ago, there had recently been a prescribed burn. For two or three days much of the area was blanketed in heavy woodsmoke, and a smell that could’ve been mistaken for barbecue permeated the air. The area in my photo had been affected by it, and the charred appearance of the ground and surrounding trees gives proof of that. Despite the blackened appearance, however, most of the trees had survived, and much of the underbrush had been minimized to clear the way for new growth. With the charring of the forest came an austere majesty, highlighted by the incoming sunlight in this photo which I took on the downward slope toward the Eno River.

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On the edge of the Eno River near one of my favorite hiking trails stands this moss-covered, picturesque boulder. I’m sure there’s a name which has been given to it by locals in the area, but I’m not aware of it. If I were to name it, though, I would call it Lookout Rock. It stands around twelve feet in height and is big enough that it can legitimately be considered climbing practice for the weak of heart. On the right edge of it, barely visible, there’s a cleft in the rock that gives access to a kind of staircase–which is probably the result of decades of humans climbing the rock in exactly that spot–which takes you to the top of the boulder itself. From the top, there’s an incredible 180° view of the Eno River, which is one of my favorites. For that that reason, if no other, Lookout Rock has a special place in my heart.