Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/August 1907/The Balsam Peaks - the Heart of the Southern Appalachians

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An Appreciation

FROM a field near the upper end of the town you could see three mountain peaks, two near together and one farther to the west, that stood out sharply against the cool, yellow evening sky, less defined when bathed in the shimmering bluish haze of diffuse sunlight or when brushed by the trailing vapors of passing clouds, but at all times fascinating in their lofty isolation and in the invitation which they held to adventure and to explore. These were the Plott Balsams. Away to the southeast, beyond Deep Gap on the farther side of Lickstone, we knew of a trail that followed the crest-line of the Divide, higher and higher until it reached the summit of the Richland Balsam, second only to Mount Mitchell in the galaxy of the Southern Appalachian peaks. Down the main street of the town one's eye went beyond the narrowing vista of houses, miles away to the blue uplift of Crabtree Bald. To whatever point of the compass you might look there were mountains, but the Balsams held the loadstone that drew us to their summits. Some persons there were who declared that they could detect a trace of balsamic fragrance when the wind was westerly, wafted from the high peaks six miles away. I, for one, could never reach this exalted state of sense or of imagination, whichever it might be. No man, however, is a competent judge of the condition of another's sensorium. It is enough if he follow his own nose and its teachings.

One Sunday in mid-June we essayed the Enos Plott Balsam by the trail that a horse could follow to the summit. As we turned the corner of a street, where the town fell away into the valley of the Richland, a Carolina wren was proclaiming the joy of life in no uncertain voice. This I remember, and also that the air was crystal clear and flooded with sunlight. Our way led for some miles along a road that followed the stream through the farming land of the valley, past an occasional house and barn and the patch of tobacco that was grown for home consumption. A 'neighborhood' road branched off from the main traveled highway, and this we followed until it ended in the woods at a fence on the other side of which the trail began. Here we plucked some sprigs of the wild indigo (Baptisia), a plant with yellow, pea-like blossoms, and each of us decorated his horse's head as a sure remedy against the tormenting flies.

I never think of this fence and its old gate through which we passed, with the narrow trail starting abruptly up the steep slope of the wooded mountain side, without vaguely picturing the wicket-gate through which Christian went at the outset of his journey. If ever there was a land of promise surely it must be at the farther end of that toilsome trail with glimpses of the Delectable Mountains here and there on the more open stretches of its upper levels.

For long the beasts scrambled upwards, stopping to breathe where the steepness was broken by some irregularity. We held on bravely to the manes, leaning well forward, and pressed our legs close as we scraped by the trees that beset the trail. It was a long ridge that the trail followed, the land on either side falling away quite sharply. Higher up the woods became more open, with little undergrowth and long vistas among the trees. The bloom-covered bushes of the flaming azalea (Azalea lutea) were scattered far and near, glowing spots of color in the sunlit spaces of the woods, and the crisp leaves of the galax (Galax aphylla), shining bronze and green, spread in thick patches along the way. The woods on this midway portion of the mountain were for the greater part made up of oak and chestnut. Lower down, near the foot of the mountain and in the deep, moist coves between the ridges, the tree life was more varied and the primeval forest more luxuriant and jungle-like in character. There the buckeye (Æsculus) and the tulip tree (Liriodendron)—the yellow poplar of the lumbermen—grew to truly magnificent proportions, and many other Carolinian forms prevailed.

In the dry, open woods on Huckleberry Knob, a wild turkey suddenly started up before us and ran swiftly down the slope. It was a bit of the primitive wilderness life and gave a fine touch to our adventure. Huckleberry Knob is one of the three Balsam peaks that we had so often gazed at from the town; the lower one of the two that appeared close together. It was, in reality, but a hump on the southern shoulder of the main Balsam, the summit of which we now for the first time in our ascent caught a glimpse of through an opening in the woods, towering far away to the right—a stark peak with a bristling mane of fir forest. We were still among the oaks and chestnuts on Huckleberry Knob, some distance below the fir zone, but even at this altitude the air had a cool, autumnal snap and I was glad to have a thick jacket which had been uncomfortably warm in the valley. The hardest part of the climb was over, so White told us, and the horses had a comparatively easy time following the trail, which now led for some distance along the upper edge of a steep slope. The soil was a rich black mold of considerable depth that made a precarious footing, especially on the steeper parts where a horse would now and then slip badly. Scattered droves of half-wild hogs were rooting in the earth in the woods below us; lean, dark-colored fellows with long legs that bespoke a life of activity.

The oaks and chestnuts became straggling and scrubby; there was more sunlight through the woods, with an occasional glimpse of a distant mountain; sky-lines across gulfs of hazy blue. It was here that we saw the first evergreens—a few scattered trees along the upper edge of the deciduous zone. The tannin-smelling woods of oak and chestnut presently ceased altogether and we passed into a boreal forest, the trail winding through dense clumps of spire-topped firs and spruces, interspersed with open, grassy parks. One could not help breathing deeply in this rarer air, redolent with the aromatic fragrance of balsam that recalled long-forgotten Christmastides. I should not have been surprised if the paint and varnish smell of new toys had greeted me on these Balsam heights. Dainty bluets (Houstonia) of the northern spring made bright patches on the green moss, and here and there the Clintonia borealis reared its wand of yellowish-green flowers above the broad, glaucous leaves. We had left summer on the lower slopes; it was spring on these mountain tops; we had left Carolina in the valley, with its passion flowers and its wild indigo; it was Canada that we found above the six-thousand-foot line.

There was an impressive stillness about these evergreen solitudes that heightened the feeling of remoteness and isolation. Nor was bird life at all conspicuous, only the occasional chip of a Carolina junco. The tinkle of a bell sounded pleasingly when some mules met us on the trail, one with a bell fastened about its neck. White and Chalfant began talking of the fine pastures on these high slopes, where stock, from farms in the valley, is turned out to range at will. The animals are often more than half-wild in their freedom, and this is especially the case with the young cattle and hogs that are born there and that frequently reach maturity before seeing a man.

The trail presently led us into one of these alpine pastures—a broad, open meadow on the rounded shoulder of the mountain, falling away on either side into the fringe of evergreens. Here the juneberry (Amelánchier) was growing, with its red fruit clusters, and the mountain holly (Ilex monticola), and here and there a gray bowlder outcropped above the rich grass turf, and here and there a scattering clump of spruce and fir. Some distance off a number of young cattle were grazing, and farther down the slope some sheep and horses watched us with mingled distrust and curiosity. It was like riding along the roof of the world to traverse this sky-land meadow, lifted up like some enchanted country.

From this meadow our way led up the western flank of the peak through the groves of mountain rose bay—the Catawba rhododendron (R. Catawbiense)—that grows only on the highest summits of this mountain land. On the summit of Lickstone Bald we later found it a shrub scarcely three feet in height, but on the Plott Balsams it was arborescent—a tree twenty feet high—and we rode the rest of the way under bowers of lilac and rose bloom. What I had read and heard of the scenery of Himalayan slopes was visibly present—the gorgeous blossoms of rhododendron jungles and the dark forests of fir bathed in the azure light of the upper world. Nowhere on this continent can one find a nearer approach to Himalayan vegetation, and I would fain add scenery—save for the absence of that snowy range that towers above the tree-line zone. The fir tree of these Carolina mountain tops is Eraser's balsam fir (Abies Fraseri), a distinct species, though closely allied to the common fir of northern evergreen forests. The same resin blisters are found on the trunk and limbs as in the northern species, and it is the exudation from these that fills the air with balsamic fragrance. The woodsmen of this region call the fir a "she balsam" in contradistinction to the spruces, which are called "he balsams" and on which no resin-filled blisters are found.

Plott Balsam is a more decided peak than any of the surrounding mountain summits. It falls away steeply on all sides from a level space on the top scarcely larger than the fiat roof of some tall building. This gives one the impression of great upliftedness—of standing on the pinnacle of an exceeding high mountain and beholding the kingdoms of the world. The timber had been felled on the very summit, presumably to give a lookout, and we had a superb view of the valley of the Richland more than three thousand feet below. In every direction mountain masses lay before us—orange beyond range—like a vast relief map. To the north, on the farthest verge of the horizon, loomed indistinctly the range of the Great Smokey. Toward the east and south the eye swept from Pisgah along a quadrant bounded by the hazy uplift of the Blue Ridge more than thirty miles away. It was not this vista of mountains, however, that impressed me most. It was the vastness of the sky with its cloud pageant. Here was the birthplace of the cumuli. Wisps of vapor, formed in the uprising currents on some high mountain top, streamed off in the wind like a banner, grew and grew, rolled into a fleecy mass, waxing greater, until the stately pile of the cumulus floated on with its fellows—a Phæacian fleet that would vanish in the sunset on some distant horizon.

The cumuli breed the thunderstorms that gather over these mountains in the early afternoons of summer. During the latter part of June and through July "thunder heads" would be hovering over the western ridges, casting their deep shadows on the slopes and the valley. Downpours of rain were frequent and one soon got accustomed to a drenching. There is a certain feeling in being overtaken by these mountain rain-storms that lifts one above the mere petty annoyance of wetness. It savors of primitive things and is probably a reversion to remote ancestral ways of life. On one occasion Lucasta and I, with two piebald mares and a "hound dog," made the ascent of the Plott Balsam. It was a lowering morning and did not promise much in the way of views, but a wedding anniversary was to be kept in cloud-land—as near as possible to the place where such blissful states are said to have their origin. Beyond Huckleberry Knob we found ourselves in a driving mist and heard the rumble of thunder in the ravines on either side. We missed the trail above the alpine pasture and, tying the horses in the firs, blazed our way up the peak. The air was clear of mist on the summit; the cloud was beneath us and we looked out on its gray vapors as one might look upon the sea from an island shore. A rift suddenly disclosed a bit of the valley—a fleeting glimpse, for the dull mass as quickly rolled together again. We congratulated ourselves on the day. You may behold the expanse of land and sky many times from these outlooks, but rarely does it chance that one sees the earth through a cloud rift. The peak of Plott Balsam was above the cloud; when we returned to the horses it was to find them still in the same bewildering mist. We shared some biscuits with the companionable hound, the horses munching their measure of grain, and all the while the cloud drenched us and the dripping firs distilled a fragrance that entered into the soul. There was a fine sense of being a part of the primitive life of things—of the mountain, and the weather, and the vegetation—enough of the aboriginal man and woman in us to find joy in such surroundings.

The rain that had swept the slopes below the alpine meadow had made the trail so slippery that walking was preferable to riding, especially where the horses had to slide down the steeper parts. There had been a heavy thunder-storm in the valley and all the while we were in the cloud itself and above it, seeing no lightning at all from our elevation.

Lickstone Bald is a very different summit from the Plott Balsam. It begins as a long upward-trending ridge from Deep Gap, through dry open woods until it reaches a deciduous timber-line above which it is treeless—no evergreens and no arborescent rhododendrons. One gets the impression of riding along the ridge pole of an immensely highroof, so narrow is the crest-line and so steep the side slopes. The trail ends abruptly on the brow of a sharp declivity that falls away to the lower slopes for several thousand feet. These lower slopes about Lickstone are covered with a magnificent forest of oak, chestnut, magnolia (Magnolia Fraseri and M. acuminata), tulip or yellow poplar, buckeye, sourwood, and many other varieties. The showy flower-clusters of the sourwood (Oxydendrum) are visited by great numbers of wild bees and sonrwood honey has a reputation that is not confined to the locality. I have some pleasing memories of mountain breakfasts sweetened with this dainty product of the wildwood. Eating wild honey, like drinking goldenrod tea, or devouring handfuls of wild berries, or partaking of any natural harvest, gives a fine edge to the business of eating, at least to the imaginative side of it.

On the trail between Deep Gap and the Allen Branch, and not far from the mica mines on the western side of Lickstone, stood the cabin of Arnold Guyot's old guide, Wid Medford. Guyot spent much time in these parts, surveying and studying the various mountain groups. A peak of the Great Smoky Mountain bears his name, and the United States Geological Survey has memorialized the work of this pioneer in geographical science by naming one of its topographical sheets "Mount Guyot." We took refuge one afternoon under Medford's porch during a thunder shower and the old man talked about Guyot, chuckling with great glee over the wrath and discomfiture of the near-sighted professor when on a certain occasion he had blundered into a yellow-jacket's nest. From the old fellow's yarn I gathered that he had purposely led the unsuspecting geographer into the trap, by way of a joke; and the memory of it was still very green. If only I had heard this story of Medford's when as a boy I struggled with a Guyot's School Geography, how I should have envied the guide and the yellow-jackets.

Southward from Deep Gap a trail leads up to the crest of the Divide—the water-parting of streams that flow west into the Tuckasegee Branch of the Little Tennessee, and east into the west fork of Pigeon River. The trail follows along the summit for many miles, through a dense forest of balsam fir and close to the precipitous eastern side, from which one has an overlook of the Pigeon Valley three thousand feet below. A spongy carpet of bog moss (sphagnum) gives a truly Canadian touch to the fir forest of the Divide. To look down from these boreal heights on a valley where sorghum is growing, where cardinals are whistling, and passion flowers are blooming, lends another point of view to one's ideas of geography. The trail goes steeply up from Deep Gap to the top of Cold Spring Mountain, where Magee and I ate our lunch, smoked a pipe of tobacco, and drank crystal water from the spring. Beyond Double Spring Gap the crest-line of the Divide gradually rises to the summit of the Richland Balsam, six thousand, five hundred and forty feet above the sea-level. There is a glorious view of peaks and ridges from this Balsam top, with the great dome of Mount Mitchell (6,711 feet) rising above the Black Mountain group, but I did not get the same sense of upliftedness as I did on either of its lesser neighbors—the Plott Balsam and Lickstone Bald. This I think is because so many high ridges are in the immediate vicinity and there is no near view of a valley.

Between Double Spring Gap and the Richland we fell in with a "moonshine" scout, armed with a long-barreled gun, who told us he had been watching for a bear. Our presence had evidently been heralded by some one sent ahead from a cabin on the side of Lickstone where we had stopped early in the forenoon to inquire the way. The man was quite affable when he found out who Magee was and that we were on a harmless tramp, looking for plants and mountains. He went with us to the summit of the Richland, pointed out many interesting landmarks, and offered to take us to his home to spend the night. I gave him a "poke" of fine-cut tobacco, which he said was too soft for him, but that his little boy would be glad to have it. Thus I unwittingly encouraged a vicious habit in one of tender years. Every one uses tobacco in these mountains, the women taking it in the form known as "dipping"—a stick, one end of which is moistened and dipped in snuff, held between the gums and cheek. On our way back we met another man carrying a heavy sack on his shoulder; undoubtedly corn destined for some secluded spot where the alchemy of a crude still would transmute it into golden "moonshine."

An almost obliterated trail leads from the Richland Balsam, by a fir-crowned ridge to Caney Fork Bald, the treeless top of which is a grazing range. We saw it first against the glow of a western sky, the pasture slopes of its dome-like crown bathed in cool shadows. Scattered groups of cattle, sheep and horses gave a truly pastoral touch to the scene. There is something fascinating in these remote mountain pastures with their vast reach of sky, and girt about as they are by a world of forest-clad ridges. They are the park-lands of the Southern Appalachians.

The Balsam peaks, with their glorious alpine meadows, their boreal forests and rhododendrons, and the sylvan wealth of their lower slopes, lie in the very heart of the region which the government of the United States now has under consideration to purchase and set aside as a national forest reserve. Apart from the wisdom of thus preserving a vast tract of forest land and conserving the water-supply of many important rivers, there is, in this idea of an Appalachian National Park, an appeal to the aesthetic side as well—to that love of wild, undisturbed nature and of mountain scenery that seems to be a natural instinct in large numbers of our people. John Muir has sounded this note in his delightful book on the national parks of our western country. The Southern Appalachians have likewise a charm of their own. To wander over these mountain meadows and balsam-covered peaks is to enrich one's life and store the mind with fragrant memories.