The quiet of the darkened night was disrupted by the sound of two metal doors shutting. A turn of the ignition key sent a charge to the combustion chamber of our private chariot as Mrs. Highlander and I fasten our seat-belts and settled back anticipating a new adventure within our beloved Blue Ridge Smoky Mountains.
With the flip of a switch the headlights brighten the pavement before us as we set out descending the mountain slope on a journey that will take us to an ancient geologic site some three hours away. First, we must cross from west to east a great mountainous expanse as we race to catch the rising sun. Our destination and goal was to watch the morning sunrise from a viewing position along the upper reaches of Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park in Rutherford County, North Carolina.
It's 2:00 a.m. Easter morning and we were on our way. The night was moonless and as black as coal when we accessed the four-lane highway with only the black pavement and our headlights to guide our way. The radio in our chariot was silent as well as we were. Stationed between us on our console were two large traveling mugs filled to the brim with fresh roasted Stucco House Coffee, well-needed companions for this long and viewless journey. There were no visible landmarks to assure us of our location along the way, using only the steady rhythm of the lines dividing the roadway to keep us on track.
Along the journey, we found ourselves taking on curve after curve as we now wound down a narrow two-lane roadway into the lower reaches of the Nantahala River Gorge. The river gorge is quiet for now adjoining in sleep with the rest of night forest, yet during the daylight of spring through the fall seasons, this river gorge is awake with remarkable beauty and the sounds of rushing whitewater, along with the screams and laughter of rafters and kayakers taking advantage of this exciting river course.
Soon we found ourselves climbing out of the depths of the river gorge and once again picked up the four-lane highway along US 74 heading east. We were just beginning to enter a large deep valley in the south central Blue Ridge Smoky Mountains. Here the highway finds itself wedged between the southern slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains to the north, and a section of the high mountains of the Nantahala National Forest to the south. Time now to just sit back and enjoy the quiet ride.
Unfortunately that didn't last for long. In this deep valley we soon encountered a dense fog that was most likely created by the warming spring air and the cool waters of the Tuckasegee River. The fog was so thick it brought our visibility to near 0, even with our fog lights we could barely make out the short yellow lines ahead of us as we cut our speed down too a slower pace. Fortunately, so far, we have encountered little to no traffic along our journey although we keep our eyes peeled for slow moving taillights ahead. That fresh brewed coffee sure came in handy now as I took small sips to big gulps to keep alert.
It wasn't just being aware of traffic ahead that concerned us; it was the wildlife pedestrians we also needed to watch out for. Such as a deer crossing the road or other critters scurrying about, raccoons, groundhogs and possums, or maybe even a stray dog. I've seen keen eyed owls use the glow of our headlights to swoop down on prey right in front of our vehicle at night. We might even encounter a couple of coyotes, or possibly a lone red wolf crossing the roadway ahead.
We are always cautious when driving to avoid hitting any of the abundant wildlife that exists in the mountains, but on this trip we couldn't see much of anything but fog. Last summer during an evening return trip along this stretch of highway, we spotted a wild red wolf crossing the roadway. I've seen coyotes on a rare occasion since Mrs. Highlander and I relocated to these mountainous highlands in 1995, but never a red wolf until last summer. It seems the red wolf population was declining to the point of extinction in the U.S. by 1970. A red wolf breeding program was introduced in the Southeast, with diligent effort it became a great success. Since 1992 red wolves have been released in wildlife areas along the coast of the Carolina's and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
The problem lies with the coyotes that aren't threatened by extinction. At times coyotes patrol in packs of two along the outer edges of the wild forest, sometimes wreaking havoc on small livestock and worse, small family pets like dogs and cats.
Coyote's like wolves are considered nocturnal animals preferring the cover of darkness to set upon their prey. Nocturnal animals are the most mysterious of our wildlife family, often considered by some as otherworldly creatures with a heightened sensitivity, different from our sun dwelling wildlife companions.
Driving along US 74 we found ourselves still caught within this thick pea soup of a fog bank, which is neither darkness nor light. It was an eerie feeling as though Mrs. Highlander and I were somehow dwelling with those nocturnal creatures along this stretch of highway on that dark lonely night, adjoined in a parallel existence within a mysterious cloud of fog.
We continued to drive cautiously through this blanket of white glowing mist, a cloudy vapor that had spun itself into a false reality in order to distort our senses. From a scientific point of view, it's only natural; just nature's steam vapor, that's all, although it still feels strangely eerie.
I began to get a sense of snow blindness, gazing ahead searching for the roadway as I downed the last still warm gulp of my fresh brew. I couldn't risk falling into a trans state and lose my way. Though this fog did seem to glow with its own natural light, I had to remind myself it is not a true light, but an illusion created by our chariot's artificial illumination.
Trying to concentrate on our journey's end and the glory of its sunrise, my thoughts began to drift away to the mysterious ancient people that once lived here amongst these highlands and their deep dark coves. Old as dirt, wouldn't begin to describe the Blue Ridge Smoky Mountains, some estimate these mountains to be over a half a billion years old, others claim they are filled with mysteries that reached beyond our normal perception. Hidden away in the deep forest and perched neatly on the mountaintops were secluded high places of the ancient people.
The Cherokee people have many tales of these sacred places and of otherworldly creatures believed to have once existed; scores of these tales and their great mysteries and wonders, have been passed along in oral traditions from one generation to the next.
They also tell stories of the spirit people, and the ancient tales of their interaction with the tribal children of this mountain world. This race of immortal spirits is known as the Nunnehi. The Nunnehi lived separately from the Cherokee in the spirit world.
Oral traditions claim the Nunnehi lived in townhouses within the physical mountains themselves, yet always held a dear kinship with their earthly red brothers.
Still strapped to the steering wheel we continued to glide along thru the dense eternal abyss of a fog, we found ourselves and our night chariot a prisoner within a cloud that was not of our choosing. We managed to maintain a steady 45 mph on the speedometer with the hum of our tires against the pavement as the only music we heard. There was a strange still quietness that divided Mrs. Highlander and I as I tried to concentrate on the roadway and our destination, though my mind continued to drift back to the various ancient myths and legends of these mysterious mountains. There has always been a strangeness to this world we live in that we may never fully comprehend.
The myths and legends of the Cherokee can either be happy or sad, wise or foolish, foretelling or sometimes dark and pure evil, a kind of darkness that lies beyond the black of night.
All races and societies throughout the world have a similar common cultural thread throughout history that has continued along the line of both wisdom and prophecy; and that of good and evil.
From earliest times there have been those who have worshiped the light and life of the sun's nurturing properties; while others have chosen a quicker more deceitful and vindictive path of darkness, a kind of fast food for the wicked. This darkness and unnatural order longs compulsively to take over the ways of the light, for it is jealous of its happiness. Though it detests the light, it continually strides to control, destroy or influence the joy of the Light itself, it longs to destroy the Light for good, or rather for the sake of evil. Even today, darkness still amasses itself against what is good for all, through methods of greed, control, self-indulgence and worse. What was once considered the practice of dark arts has in time become an obsession for control over the masses; this desire for empowerment doesn't just come from the so-called top of the food chain, but from many that rest along the bottom as well. Darkness knows no class structure.
The truth is darkness does fall on the good, but it also eventually falls on itself with its own disastrous weight. Light on the other hand, always rises again and prevails. Darkness can never put out the Light as hard as it tries; it's just a vicious unnecessary cycle of good versus evil.
So darkness has had to go undercover to survive, it sees itself as wise when it's only cunning at best. It continually seeks to seduce the "Children of the Light," leading them astray to stumble into a darken place by its influences of deceit, treachery, misdeeds and self-indulgence.
Guilt and mistakes have run through all that is human from the biggest to the smallest, whether it's an intentional wrong or a completely unintended occurrence or misjudgment. It's just what happens when you travel the road of life; it can't be helped. If only we were to seek the Light beyond the darkness we would find ourselves resting more peaceful through the night, recharging our physical bodies while giving rest to our weary spirit before we arise to the joy of the sun, a place where we can begin anew each day.
How do we begin a journey from the influences of darkness back to the Light, knowing that we ourselves are imperfect as well as are others? We can begin the path back to the warm embrace of the Son with one heartfelt simple statement.
I felt the weight of our vehicle slow down slightly as I realized we might be approaching Balsam Gap, and a junction that accesses the Blue Ridge Parkway up ahead. I adjusted my speed for the ascent and soon begin to notice a thinning in the fog. Just a little further up the pavement and we finally break completely free from the fog and welcomed the pitch-blackness of the moonless star filled night again. The high beams of our four-wheel drive chariot seemed to shine for miles ahead, glaring off the road's reflectors as if we were landing on a runway after a long journey through the darkness of a gray cloud.
Right after we crossed the gap I spotted a welcome sight and the first small cluster of streetlights we've seen in a long while. Up ahead at the oasis of lights was a rest stop and a place where I could say thanks and good-bye to that large cup of coffee, stretch my legs and uncurl my fingers from the steering wheel. "Thanks North Carolina."
A few minutes after we were back on the road we reached the bright lights of Waynesville and started to come alive again catching a good wind on the inside as we continue our journey to meet the sun.
Past Waynesville, we encountered the junction of Interstate 40 that led north to Knoxville along the Little Pigeon River Gorge. We in turn pick up Interstate 40 east to Asheville ahead where Mrs. Highlander and I could just begin to make out the glow of the city lights far in the distance. More miles pass under our wheels before we reach Asheville and pass the exit to Biltmore Estate; excitement begins to arise knowing our final trek of highway is but a few miles up the road. Soon a large green directional signs appeared reading, Lake Lure-Chimney Rock and Bat Cave, Next Exit.
We both snickered "Bat Cave" an appropriate sign for the night's journey. Bat Cave is a small spot in the road just before you reach the tourist town of Chimney Rock and the State Park our final destination. Bat Cave is an interesting and charming residential community along the banks of the Broad River in the Hickory Nut Gorge. The town got its name from a local bat cave; you know those nocturnal winged ones and creatures of the night, not to be confused with the capped crusaders of the comic books.
Exiting Interstate 40 we access US 74A south and almost immediately we passed under the overpass (a second junction) of the Blue Ridge Parkway. A couple miles further and we find ourselves in the town of Fairview. The town light's were a welcome companion; even artificial light awakens the senses when there's non-other. Leaving town we once again found ourselves enveloped in a darkness and stillness that only exist just before the dawn.
I'm familiar with this landscape though; my daylight memory reminded me of the open rolling meadow-lands and hills along both sides of the two-lane roadway, with the large forbidding mountains of the Hickory Nut Gorge up ahead. Reaching the foot of this range we began our ascent to Hickory Nut Gap.
We felt like we were the only vehicle on the road when suddenly we spotted a set of taillights winding its way up along the switchbacks ahead. We soon caught up to the vehicle and notice two more stretched out in front of it as we crossed over the gap, and then another and another as we wound down the mountain's east face.
It wasn't long before we were all tailing each other as though we were glowing marbles rolling down a narrow winding slide. I forgot to mention, since we existed onto US 74A we've been following the historic scenic Drovers Road By-Way, not so scenic right now unless you consider bright red taillights breaking on and off along the downgrade a scenic drive.
The steeper switchbacks ended only to be taken up by winding curves as we glided along the northern banks of the Broad River before passing through the town of Bat Cave. "Bat Cave," we snickered once again, I'm not sure if the name is so amusing to us or we are just excited to know we were about to arrive at our destination. At Bat Cave we continued straight ahead as the roadway now became US 74A/64, our destination is just a few curves up the road.
The caravan of night travelers rolled into the small tourist town of Chimney Rock, sparse streetlights lit our way as we slowed down and began to form a line. It's about 5:30 A.M., Easter Morning and fortunately for us the long night ride through the fog didn't slow us down too much. Up ahead two figures holding flashlights moved their beams from right to left guiding the traffic thru the entrance of the park, I wasn't surprised to see every vehicle on the road entering the gate.
As Mrs. Highlander and I approached the first figure waving a flashlight, we realized it was Mary Jaeger-Gale, General Manager of Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park, and a long time park devotee of over 28 years. Traffic guide was just another duty Mary had place upon herself on this special day. Her gracious smile and flashlight were all she needed to greet and direct everyone entering Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park.
As we passed thru the big Gothic looking stone gateway, I was in remembrance of this exact spot in a scene from a movie starring a very young Drew Barrymore, "Firestarter." As we crossed the wooden bridge over the rushing white waters of the Broad River, just before we entered the parklands, I chuckled to Mrs. Highlander, "Steven King, as dark as night, yeah that's all we need now," she giggled.