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, 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.
We enter the park and followed the approach road up to the Meadows; visitors need to arrive before 6:00 A.M., after that the gate will be temporally closed a couple of hours for the event. This approach road is the last link of our journey on a long un-scenic night drive.
FYI, clear skies and full moon night drives in the Blue Ridge Smoky Mountains can be absolutely stunning. Massive silhouettes of mountainscapes line the horizons, as sparse clouds paint wispy brush-strokes across the darken sky. Illuminated by the moonlight, are the valley floors and rolling hills, reflecting a subdued pale white light so vivid that even the early spring forest often requires no flashlight to find your way under the moonlit sky. But this was no such night and it was the darkest hour before the dawn.
We reached the ticket plaza and found it closed. No admission fee required, it's the Easter Sunrise Service and the staff of Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park have opened their gates to all of us to witness a glorious natural phenomenon on this very special day. Beginning on Easter 1965, folks have gotten up in the middle of the night and journeyed to the park just to be a part of this inspirational and unique experience.
Entering the Meadow's we found the big open field that's normally used for recreation and education, quickly filling up with vehicles. Mrs. Highlander and I gathered up our photo equipment and grabbed our flashlights and we were off to catch the sun.
IMPORTANT: For this event the staff at Chimney Rock would like to remind you to bring flash lights, wear a warm jacket, long pants, socks and shoes, bring folding chairs and a blanket if you like, it's early spring and it's likely to be cold here in the morning. A couple bottles of water would be nice and for your convenience clean restrooms are located next to the viewing area.
Mrs. Highlander and I flipped on our flashlights and made our way over to the first of many buses waiting to carry visitors up the mountain grade.
On our short walk from vehicle to the bus I'm reminded of how grateful I am to have Mrs. Highlander, she great company to have along, always looking to assist. She helps carry my equipment and gathers information while I shoot away, or plays backup photographer if I need. Besides, I can't afford a little donkey to help carry the equipment and I'm not sure the staff at Chimney Rock would allow you to bring in personal livestock, although the good news is that the park does allow dogs throughout the year.
Strangers with flashlights were all converging together as we entered thru the narrow metal bus door. We made it to our school bus seat and just my luck; we got the seat with the wheel well on the floor.
Everyone sat back as the bus began to move out, all cradled in the professional hands of our experienced driver as we took the last lap of our journey up a paved roadway consisting of sharp curves and switchbacks.
Many of the passengers were beginning to talk quietly to one another. I found myself gently "school bus" bouncing up down as we drove along. Then we all began to slightly sway from right to left, as we took on each curve picking up speed as the bus challenges the natural gravity of the road ahead. I leaned out into the isle and watched the headlights bounce off the trees ahead of us one curve after another without one straight section of road in sight, as though I could actually see the road from my seat, nothing but trees. This action started everyone on the bus giggling and laughing with every turn. What a hoot. I have driven this route many times, it's a beautiful drive yet its never been so much fun. I felt like I was on bus, loaded with kids going to camp. I was ready to go back down to take the ride again, wheel hump and all.
As we came to the upper parking area everyone piled out and walked across the parking lot to the observation viewing area. When Mrs. Highlander and I arrived at the viewing area we found a crowd already gathering, setting up their chairs in rows in front of a low stone safety wall on the east side of parking area, others followed behind. The numbers were growing and there was one common character that seemed to posses the crowd. Everyone was respectively quiet, speaking if they chose to in a low voice, smiling and quite courteous for this Sunrise Easter Service. It was as if they were all children who had told themselves that if they behaved well they'd get to see something wondrous and magical.
We set up our equipment by the raised platform and podium next to the wall. I mounted a 35mm camera to my tripod and set the focus for the horizon some 75-miles away, and tested the exposure against a dark morning sky.
Down below I could see a line of headlights and taillights still snaking their way up to the Meadows. The small distant town lights of Chimney Rock and Lake Lure sparsely dotted the valley below. This sunrise was going to take awhile to break over the horizon, so I asked Mrs. Highlander to take a photo about once every five minutes while I moved about and took a few shots of the visitors and the cycle of subtle activities going on at the time up on the platform.
The first thing I had time to notice as I began to move about was the grand spectacle of the park itself, the giant standing monolith of Chimney Rock's namesake, all lit up in its towering glory rising high above the crowd.
Now would be a good time to fill in those who might not be as familiar with Chimney Rock State Park as others are. The establishment of this 1,000-acre park is roughly 100 years old and one of the oldest parks in the state. The vision for the park dates back to the year 1900 when Dr. Locus B. Morse paid 25 cents to ride a mule to the top of Chimney Rock. Today you can take the stairs up or better yet ride the elevator to the top. So inspired by the view and the grandeur of the Hickory Nut Gorge, he and his children and his children's children fashioned the park into what it is today. Along with the development of the park, Dr. Morse with the help of investors constructed Lake Lure in the valley below. The majestic park, the lake and the river gorge are one of the most visited regions is all the Blue Ridge Mountain Province.
Today, Chimney Rock State Park is owned by the state of North Carolina and operated by Chimney Rock Management, LLC a private company comprised of staff members, some of which have served the Chimney Rock Park for decades.
The Park is one of the finest examples of bare-face-rock-mountains throughout the entire Blue Ridge, surrounded in a landscape of beautiful flora with a variety fauna to boot, and more assets than we have time to cover now.
Geologist have estimate the standing pillar of igneous rock dates back 535-million years. Erosion along the mountain face has caused the chimney pillar to appear as though it is an entity unto itself, when in fact it is a part of the of whole. The towering igneous chimney rock stands like a lone sentry guarding the entrance to the Hickory Nut Gorge and the Blue Ridge Mountain interior. Later in the story I'll give you a peak of the gorge entrance or maybe not, we'll have to wait to see how the story ends. There's much more to read learn about the park within the Blue Ridge Highlander for when you have time…now back to our Easter story.
After getting a couple of shots of the towering pillar, I continued moving about the crowd sneaking a shot here and there of the folks attending, all the while keeping an eye on the platform and the start of the program. But before we go any further lets take a look and how Mrs. Highlander is doing….the skyline is just barely beginning to show a slight orange crest along the horizon, with a dim blue hue barely rising above it, crowned by a lone bright star along the horizon. After a short while, the lights of the winding night snake below stopped and disappeared.
The crowd remained rather quiet even with small groups talking amongst themselves as I continued to work my camera's shutter and flash; fortunately a few others are shooting a flash here and there as well.
This special sunrise service is an inter-denominational community worship, and all are welcome. Moving about the crowd I see all types and races of people; folks that appearance led me to believe there were conservative, liberals and moderates. Some wardrobes were colorful to muted, many appeared to be in costume, like the Scottish bag pipers occasionally playing their instruments, a biker couple that proudly displayed their Harley emblems, native Americans want-a-be's wrapped in blankets, large bunny rabbit people, and one guy dressed as a old man…"my apologies" that is an old man, and I not even going to get into what I must have looked like, a photo compulsive Tonto, Hop Sing looking impersonator with a camera.
Pulling my camera away from my eyes I looked out towards the horizon and could see the orange thin crest hadn't grown much brighter, yet the blue hue of the morning sky was slowly growing. Time once again to check on my little donkey, or rather Mrs. Highlander to see how she was getting along. Outside of being a little cold just standing in one spot she was doing fine. I checked the camera and adjusted the exposure; the dim blue waters of Lake Lure below were coming into light, as the sparse town lights were beginning to fade out with the coming of the morning light.
Up on the platform Mandy and Eric Keel stepped up to the microphone and began to sing a duet quietly as though they wanted to blend into the tranquil atmosphere as the light upon the horizon steadily yet slowly grew brighter. A single light shined upon the platform illuminating the duet, behind them a large white cross. To some, the cross represents a symbol of where the light of the heavens intercepts the plane of the earth in union; to millions of others, it is a sacrificial tree, a wooden alter where the Light of the Son's Salvation and his gift of Forgiveness offer eternal life.
I looked over to the crowd that has been sitting still in near complete silence, transfixed on the horizon and the wonderment of it all. Two realities are beginning to collide, that of the darkness and the ever-growing light.
Standing between these two realities I began to ponder this age-old battle of wills, the challenge of darkness to put out the Light once and for all, and the Light's overpowering will to claim its very own…life itself.
As the Light grows ever brighter, the shadows of darkness begin to regroup struggling to hold its own against an overwhelming force. Darkened shadows move about in disarray not wanting to give up the ghost, clustering together and swirling about, retreating into the darken places in an attempt to escape their inevitable doom. It is the darkness of the night that is giving way, being forever pressed westward by the authority of the rising sun.
As the duet sang their ending note, John Mason, took to the platform and began performing a solo on his hammered dulcimer. The beautiful sounds of the dulcimer filled the sky above our heads. It was the only sound being heard amongst hundreds of worshipers this beautiful Easter morning. Everyone remained still as though they were in a holy cathedral. It was then that I caught something strange in my camera lens as the light of the pre-dawn began to expand along the sky. It was a phenomenon I experienced only once before.
Facing the platform with the cross center-stage, and the musical artist on either side, with the sunlight expanding over the horizon, my camera picked up something rather unique within a sequence of three separate photos. They are called photographic "glow balls," unexplainable glowing orbs floating through the air. The first time I remember seeing them in a photo, I thought I was seeing spots before my eyes, they looked almost like bubbles with a nucleus.
Some might consider these to be a standard optical illusion like a glare from a light; others might consider them to be large dust particles floating thru the air or snowflakes falling. I'm familiar with these particular occurrences…this was different.
Yet it was only these three consecutive shots while the dulcimer played that I saw the glow balls move about with my camera. This happened to me once before when Mrs. Highlander and I visited a Christmas event at a local folk school near where we live. I was photographing in their auditorium and dance hall. While I was standing and photographing in the same exact position something unique happen in a photo sequence of three, even though I had taken dozens of shots from that very same spot both before and after the occurrence.
I think a little set up for this tale is needed here. There were several dances being performed that day, normally it was a joyous holiday event, yet this day was different. Sadly, one of the young adult dance members had passed away a couple days prior to the event. When his dance troupe took to the floor they were dancing their hearts out for their fallen friend. I was shooting quite fast in the same exact direction and three photos in a roll displayed a hall filled with the glow balls in completely different spots and sizes, similar to the ones floating above the platform surrounding the white cross.
If it were dust, it likely wouldn't be moving around and changing size that quickly. There was no sun rising in the hall and the room lights were affixed to the ceiling. There were no noticeable dust particles in the air, that I could detect, and I wasn't zooming the camera in, I had it on fairly standard wide angle.
After catching this occurrence twice, once during that Christmas event and once during this Easter event, I decided to do some research and discovered that other photographers had also captured this same phenomena, that's when I had learned they were referred to as, "glow balls." In one photo the air was absolutely full of them and the best part of that photo was that it was taken outdoors in the night with no exterior lights for miles around, only a single flash. I went on to discover that in each of these incidences there was one common thread, the atmosphere was charged with a form of indescribable energy and even more so, people were involved each time.
Trying not to go out on a limb here, I guesstimate this occurrence might be caused by a type of spiritual energy, not so much by the making of human themselves, but by the magnetic draw of the supernatural to human forms. People tend to believe that the supernatural is a state separate from the natural, what most people don't understand is that it's one and the same, a dual reality divided by a veil of consciousness. We are all natural beings living in the supernatural, the beatings of our hearts, the breathing of our lungs, the stirring thoughts of our mind. "Well science says," well science still hasn't figured out all the great mysteries, it's still working on its own theory or "belief" on how the reality of life came into existence.
Maybe it's just a figment of my imagination, being that I had been staring into the dark for so long that chilly morning. Could it be just a dizzying dream? Or maybe, just maybe these orbs are part of an angelic force, making a special appearance in a natural form of their own, and in a form of transcendence that we have yet to comprehend. Moving about the air around us, gathering in numbers driving out the shadows of darkness before the rising Son this Easter Morning. An intimate personal experience attracted by the spirits of each human soul that has assembled here today for this special occasion. Maybe the glow balls are acting in the manner of a "Passover," making way for the prelude of the first Easter and every Easter after Calvary. In this photo sequence of floating orbs, I've added a close-up for both the believers and the skeptics alike. Personally I am not sure what they are, I honestly prefer to leave it up to you to decide on your own what you feel they are or are not.
As the sun began to brake the earth's plane along the horizon, the light of the early morn began to fill the sky, the activities on the platform then took a new turn. The music became silent as three distinguish leaders of "The Light and Way," approached the stage platform. One at a time each took their position behind the podium and began to read from the Great Book, an ancient book that spans from the times of the sun and moon worshipers to the times of those who worship in the spirit and in the power that created it all, partaking of its saving grace. Each man spoke passionate words from the Great Book as the crowd listened on. "The powers of heaven and earth have been laid before us, a choice is offered, life or death, a path of living in the light, or the descent of dwelling in darkness."
I switched off my flash to create silhouettes of the cross, the speakers and the light of the morning sky's beautiful backdrop, divinely painted in shades of blue, pink and gold. A new day has come: the Light and the Son once again conquered the darkness, as it always shall throughout eternity. With the sun completely broken free from its bonds, it's time now for the Children of the Light to decree…"HE HAS RISIN!"
After the Great Book was closed and the three gentlemen stepped down from the platform, the young lady returned to the microphone and began to sing. Singing solo, I was captivated by the purity and tone of her beautiful voice unaccompanied by any instrument. She took in the air around her as if it was holy nourishment, delivering it back to a crowd that had remained silent and in a near state of trans for so long. A gift from the heavens is in her voice…I must take time to tell her so. When the last echo of her magnificent voice ended, so did the service for this very special and unique Easter Sunrise Service. Praise the Lord; we have been delivered from darkness once again, to live in the Light of the World.
A moment of silence was suddenly broken by the blare of bagpipes sounding "the call," the final celebration.
The pipers and company moved through the crowd as if to break up a gathering of sheep, driving them out into the sun, filled with joy, hope and great expectations.
Folks began to rise from their chairs stretching their bodies and limbs. All cameras were out capturing the last photos of their beloved sun rising slowly in the eastern sky. Quiet time was over for now, and a new day had just begun. People in blankets were still strolling around, as many others lingered on, taking group photos of one another. Some sun worshipers remained covered in blankets, as they basked in the warm rays of the sun while others laughed and joked, the spirit of joy was contagious.
For now, the shadows of darkness are fleeing westward, forever defeated from their long siege of the night.
As for me, I just kept on clicking away with one camera while my little donkey, seriously I mean, the love of my life breaks down the tripod and packs away the other camera.
I saw heads bowed in gratitude and beautiful smiling faces standing before me, while the backs of several heads and shoulders blocked my view of the horizon. It was their turn now I've done enough.
Just as I was about to pack up, I noticed a gentle and beautiful German Shepherd sitting alone along the stone ledge, staring at the sun and the glistening lake below. I thought to myself, "man and beast, are we so different?" He turned his head just for a second and I seized the opportunity to catch his profile; then chuckled to myself, "Shepherd and Sheep."
Mrs. Highlander joined me now. As we prepared to leave we noticed Chimney Rock General Manager, Mary Jaeger-Gale standing with another of our Chimney Rock staff-friends, Emily Walker, Education Specialist. We thanked them both and all the other park staff members for inviting us to this unique and wonderful event, and then I naturally had to take the time to pick on Emily; it's what I do.
Mary invited us all to stay and spend the day in the park, "now that everybody's in the park you might as well spend the whole day; it's on the house for everyone who attended the event"
We thanked Mary for opening the park to all us sun lovers, yet had to decline her offer. "We'd had a good fill of spiritual food this inspiring morning,' I responded, but we had to head back home to have Easter dinner with our family, right after we stop at Old Rock Café for breakfast," and bid them farewell.
We headed back across the parking area to catch a ride back down the mountain, and to our good fortune boarded a more plush and roomy shuttle bus for our trip back to the Meadows. We loaded up our vehicle and exited the Meadows. Driving back down the approach road we crossed the wooden bridge by the entrance gate. I chuckled to Mrs. Highlander, "Steven King has just left the building, time for him to crawl back under his bed and tell more tales about things that go bump in the night."
We pulled into the parking area in front of the Old Rock Café next to the park entrance in the little town of Chimney Rock. The café is one of the park's two eateries; there we joined a growing crowd for a fine buffet breakfast of southern delights. After loading up our plates we sat down at a table on the deck and began to partake in eggs, biscuits, gravy, etc. with all the fixin's including grits. While eating we chatted with other sun enthusiasts who felt the glory of this day, some were like us who made the night or early morning trip to the park, while others had journeyed here from across the country.
After filling our stomachs we began to head out, but not until I took some more photos. I'll admit I might need professional help, once I start shooting I just can't stop, maybe there's a 12-step program I can join…Clicker's Anonymous?
We headed back north along US 64/74A, officially titled Drovers Road By-Way, named after the 18th century herdsmen who drove livestock from the low Carolina's to the city of Asheville in the mountain interior.
With the sun rising ever higher in the sky we could now enjoy the scenic drive back across the mountains and take our time. It is still early though, we'll probably stop in Asheville and do a little big game shopping. By that I mean Mrs. Highlander and I live so deep in the back woods of the mountains we could now take the opportunity to stock up on things we don't have access to back home.
We made a final farewell to Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park and are thankful to have had this wonderful experience.
Thanks for opening your park and hearts to us all, we'll be back real soon, and often.