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Freedom of the Skies...Interview with an Outlaw

Freedom of the Skies...Interview with an Outlaw

It started out as an ordinary average day, what became of that and how the day ended was something of the extra… ordinary.

Checked the weather the night before, then again in the morning just before Mrs. Highlander and I left the production ranch. The weather showed no sign of change, nearly the same as it had been throughout the summer, mid 90’s, partly sunny, P.M. thunderstorms.

It had been a warmer than usual summer and we could surely use the rain. The natural rain-forest within the southern Blue Ridge Mountains are at their finest when they receive sufficient rainfall even though the unusual summer heat this year had often just sucked the moisture right back up into the atmosphere. The forest looked rather healthy yet the water levels were down a little.

Our objective was to take the Blue Ridge Parkway from the town of Cherokee, North Carolina to the city of Asheville, North Carolina some 80 winding mountain miles to the northeast. An hour and a half morning drive brought us into view of the southern face of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just above the town of Cherokee. From the view of our approach we could see the upper regions of the park were immersed in an enormous thundercloud obscuring any view of the mountain peaks that normally scraped the sky. Clingmans Dome was nowhere to be seen.

At the northern end of the town of Cherokee, Mrs. Highlander and I reached the southern entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the extreme southern junction and access point of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the beginning of our objective. From milepost 469, we began our road climb along this renowned scenic highway. The rumbling thunder of the weather system over the Smokies assured us we might be in for some rough weather, yet the puffy white clouds and blue skies to the south were enticing us to carry on and make the most of the day.

Smoky - Blue Ridge Mountain Thunderstom

Throughout the summer we had noticed numerous storm clouds parked over the great southern mountain ranges of the Blue Ridge accompanied by rolling thunder dumping heavy rains in the upper mountains and less rain activity in the populated valleys below. Today we had hoped that the clouds would stay put, clinging to the Smoky Mountains and not following us. Fat chance that was ever going to happen.

As we climbed up along the southern end of the Parkway we felt pressed to keep ahead of the storm knowing that the heights of the Balsam Mountains we were heading into might be in line for a traveling thunderstorm.

As we drove along the Parkway’s expertly engineered road we could see the valley below drop away with every mile we climbed and the great mountain ranges and peaks along the horizon coming into view with every mile and turn we made. Taking short stops for photo opportunities at the overlooks of Wolf Laurel Gap and Cranberry Ridge, we finally reached Waterrock Knob Visitor’s Center and Overlook at milepost 451.2 for a well-needed break from behind the wheel. The visitor’s center has restrooms and provides information and exhibits for travelers. A word to the wise; restroom stops along the Parkway are often far apart so take advantage when you can. Behind the visitor’s center is a short incline trail to Waterrock Knob named after a high mountain spring that flows through there, a welcome stop for hunters and the travelers who passed through this region prior to the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Mrs. Highlander and I opted not to explore the trail due to the threat of the encroaching thunderstorm that was likely following us. Though we chose not to take the trail, we could see from the visitor’s center several small groups of folks hiking up to the summit which on a clear day offers a 360-degree view of the Great Balsams, the Cowee, and the Nantahala Mountains along with the Great Smoky Mountains, though today’s view of the Smokies was mostly buried under an enormous thunderhead. From what we could make out, the tops of the entire park were overcast some 50 to 60 miles in length and 35 miles across in width.  What I appreciate most about the Waterrock Visitor's Center is the overlook adjacent to the large parking area. This is one of the most outstanding mountain and valley views along the Parkway, and much too large for a one-shot photo view. 

Waterrock Visitor's Center on the Blue Ridge Parkeway

Located along the outer edge between the parking area and the panoramic mountain-view, were the recreational motorcycle folks and their bikes all gathered in one large group to the left. They appeared to be sharing travel stories, making small talk and boasting about their prized two and three wheeled possessions. To the right of the parking area, two bikes sat side by side while the riders manned a picnic table sharing some vittles and snacks together, while taking in the wonder of it all. Although a lunch break did sound like a good idea at this time, a dark cloud began to cover our personal sky space causing Mrs. Highlander and I to decide to move on ahead of the storm. We wasted no time mounting up in our SUV and heading out.

Along this section, the Parkway offers some of the most outstanding legendary views that the Blue Ridge Parkway is known for. My only complaint is there are not enough overlooks along this section of the Parkway to take photos from. This is not an oversight, just the result of the rugged terrain the roadway travels through.  If you’re heading northward I recommend the driver position someone with a good eye for the camera in the front passenger seat in order to click off a few shots to take back home. I also suggest you shutter-bugs push your camera speed up a little to compensate for foreground movements along the roadway.

We stopped at one overlook so I could catch a shot of scattered rain clouds dumping their liquid silver upon the grateful mountain slopes below. Even though rain can spoil a day’s plan, I find moving thunderstorms across blue skies fascinating to photograph making a little inconvenience worth the effort. The wild flowers at the overlook also caught my attention as well as a young couple who were photographing the mountain view, capturing beautiful memories of their journey.

This section of the Parkway now begins a slow descent along the roadway. Curve after curve go by until the roadway crosses over Balsam Gap at the intersection of the Blue Ridge Parkway and US 74/23, between the towns of Waynesville and Sylva, North Carolina. After clearing the gap, the Parkway begins once again to climb the roadway with exceptional views to the east.

In my mind I like to divide the Blue Ridge Parkway into sections, those sections usually involve major roadways that cross the Parkway at various mileposts, I think of them as borderlines.  By dissecting the Parkway I can focus on the unique character of each section of the Parkway and the wonders each region has to offer. Though the Blue Ridge Parkway has something extraordinary at every turn along its 469 mile length, I do hold a special place in my heart for the section of the Parkway between Balsam Gap and Asheville. This region of the Parkway travels between North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest to the west, and the Pisgah National Forest to the east. Plus this region of the Parkway rises to the very pinnacle of the mountain high roadway where it reaches the Richland Balsam Overlook’s 6,053 foot elevation, officially the highest elevation on the Blue Ridge Parkway Motor Road at milepost 431.4.

From this overlook massive panorama views to the south, east and west seem to open up the world to visitors at the overlook with mountains rolling in all direction. An absolute must stop for Parkway travelers.  Just about everyone gets his or her picture taken here by the historic signage. This is a place where visitors tend to set aside their own personal thought process and stare with amazement.

Located near the Richland Balsam Overlook is the Richland Balsam Self-Guided Trail. The trail will lead those who are up for it along a 1.5 mile loop trail to the summit of Richland Balsam at 6,292 feet above sea level.  Even though the Richland Balsam Overlook and Summit are two of the highest points along the Parkway, they in themselves, along with the Smoky Mountain’s Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet are not the highest points east of the Mississippi River. Claiming the highest peak goes to Mount Mitchell at 6,672-feet. Mount Mitchell State Park in Western North Carolina can be accessed along a separate roadway from the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 355.4, between Asheville to the west and Linville Falls and Gorge to the east.

From the looks of things, it seemed as though the weather was clearing up though the sound of distance thunder didn’t make me feel any better. Between the thunder and Mrs. Highlander’s and my growling stomachs, we realized we were well over due for lunch. We set out looking for a quiet spot to lunch up ahead but that didn’t stop me from occasionally stopping for more photos. There was one particular picnic table I was looking for and to our surprise it was available.

Our Favorite Picnic TableThis spot is so wonderful it should be reserved by request only; even the parking area was empty when we arrived, plus I didn’t have to wrestle any squirrels or chipmunks for table advantage.  We broke out our lunch which consisted of splitting one roll-up of chicken salad and one hummus vegetable roll up accompanied by a small bag of kettle cooked chips and a sweeten tea drink. A note to the wise: there are no food services along the actual Parkway’s National Park route, you’ll need to pack a lunch and bring along plenty of refreshments and water.  You can though find food and lodging services by accessing the occasional roadways that cross the Parkway, these routes will take you down into the valleys where towns and commerce exist.

The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful, the sky was blue and the clouds were clustered and puffy, we couldn’t have felt closer to heaven. The views were too big to capture in one shot, mountain ridges upon ridges with towering peaks scraping the sky lined the horizon. How insignificant we felt, it was as though we were the chipmunks now racing across the landscape and scurrying about the mountaintops for our morsels of food and drink.  Even though we felt a great sense of peace within ourselves we couldn’t ignore the sound of thunder that seemed to be trailing us not far behind. It was as though the rumble and roar of the heavens were determined to pursue us all day.

We sat and enjoyed our lunch taking time to feel at bliss with our surrounding. Up until now Mrs. Highlander and I were in command of this beautiful overlook area.  After a while a small compact dark blue Honda, with a license plate reading CLOUD 1, pulled into the parking area. One of the passenger hopped out of his vehicle and sat in the grassy area along the overlook and started taking pictures, the driver then got out to stretch his legs and stare into the abyss of the mountain view. Soon after that a small group of bikers pulled into the parking area near the grassy edge and dismounted. We could hear them laughing and chatting together, the driver of the Honda walked over and joined them.

Starring into the Blue Ridge Mountain Abyss

There’s always a lot of motorcycle riders on the Parkway, yet I noticed there seemed to be an abundance of them taking the highroad today, they seemed to number about 9 out of every 10 vehicles. We packed up our lunch litter and tossed it in a near by bear proof trash can before throwing ourselves back into our vehicle and exiting the overlook. As we pulled out onto the roadway we fell in behind a pack of bikers and followed along for a while. Though I leisurely cruised along the Parkway lounging behind the wheel of our SUV, I could sense that romanticizing feeling the bikers must have felt as they glided along the highroad. It was as though they were the horsemen and ladies of the high range riding along at a steady gallop, hugging the saddles of their mighty steeds while Mrs. Highlander and I brought up the rear of the pack with our big white chuck wagon.

What a great sense of freedom they must have felt out in the open air exposed to the elements of nature, being a part of an adventure along the high range of the Blue Ridge Parkway. These equestrians of the wide-open spaces were choosing a different gait than those who travel the high country in their protected horseless carriages. It was as though these horsemen and ladies were operating outside the ordinary laws of common folk, making their own way along the fringes of society.  They seemed to be exploiting the “freedom of the skies” in a “devil may care” style all their own, with no one to answer to and a time that’s all their own. Throw backs to a simpler world operating outside the authority of technology and mass communications, with the exception of cell phones.

Like the beauty of well breed horses, motorcycles have a seductive nature about them, a feeling of harmony between the human spirit and power that lies below their saddles, a freedom that requires the taming of the beast and the superior domination of their surroundings. Separated from society these riders are the good guy and gal outlaws of the high country who would rather ride the open range than be captured by the comforts and restraints of “home sweet home.” Though Mrs. Highlander and I greatly enjoy rolling over the mountains and through the valleys of the Blue Ridge, we prefer the comfort of our “home on the range” lifestyle back at the ranch. I guess there is just isn't enough romantic-outlaw in us to relish in the freedoms that the horsemen and ladies of the high country live for.

We broke off from the rolling herd at Beartrap Gap Overlook, elevation 5,580 feet above sea level so I could exercise my camera: the view from there was magnificent.  Black Bears are not on the extinction list yet, although they are on the endangered list due to mankind’s encroachment on their natural habitat, they must have their own space in order to populate properly. At this point the Blue Ridge Parkway crosses the Pisgah Black Bear Sanctuary, a 32,175 acre protected habitat necessary for their survival.

Black Bears are naturally timid animals that will eat anything.  If you encounter one, do not feed them and do not intimidate them. They look cute and cuddly yet their claws can tear you apart. And if you see any cubs that look harmless, I can assure you a protective momma bear is close by ready to show you who’s boss.  If you have a concern for what might look like an abandoned cub, report it immediately to the nearest ranger station. For much more information about black bears read the Blue Ridge Highlander’s Black Bear section.

Up the road a ways we stopped at the Caney Fork Overlook, elevation 5,650 feet and clicked off a few photos before pressing on.  The beauty of this section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is the wide-open views and high elevation; this is one of the most remote wilderness areas along Parkway.  You don’t have to stop at overlooks to see the wonders of the Blue Ridge Mountains; the wonders are everywhere to see. We drove along taking in the sights of distant mountaintops as we skirted past bare rock cliffs and droves of wildflowers. Though the Blue Ridge Parkway may be intimidating to those who aren’t accustomed to mountain driving, the superb engineering and easy to handle roadway makes cruising the highroad a pure delight, minding that you watch where you're going and keep your eyes on the road at all times.  There’s great pleasure for drivers who like the challenge of this type of roadway, yet it’s the passengers in the vehicle who really get to enjoy the great scenery.

The Legend

After a few more overlook stops and many more curves Mrs. Highlander and I arrived at a destination that has always intrigued me.  We have stopped at this location every time we have traveled the Parkway taking photo advantage of the ever-changing lighting that plays upon this most unusual place.  Devil’s Courthouse Overlook and Trail milepost 422.4, is not only a geological wonder to behold, it is also one of the most mysterious places along the Blue Ridge Parkway let alone the entire Blue Ridge Mountain Province.

devil's Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Though the bare face outcropping and cliffs of this mountain top retreat is a site of natural enigma, it is the legend of the Devil’s Courthouse that leaves distaste in my mouth and uncomfortable feelings in my gut.  There has always been something indescribable about this courthouse mountaintop and today it was pulling on me more than usual.

For some reason every time we’ve stop here before, our schedule drove us away from taking the trail up to the top. As schedules go, today was no different though I longed to take the climb; the only problem was the thunderstorm that was trailing us since we accessed the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier that day.  With thunder roaring in the distance and scattered showers showing themselves along the horizon we thought we might be able to reach the top of the courthouse cliffs and make it back down before the storm caught up to us. I grabbed my camera while Mrs. Highlander slung a couple of bottles of water over her shoulder and we were off.

The trail to the top of the mountain is one-half-mile long; the first section is a fairly level paved trail that leads from the parking area to the forest’s edge. Once we reached the trees and entered the forest, the paved trail became steeper. From there the distance to the top is about a quarter mile. Due to the sensitivity of the flora along this trail, it is necessary to remain on the trail as to preserve its delicate habitat.  Sadly it’s the trees here that have suffered the most, namely the Fraser Fir forest which has been all but destroyed by the balsam woolly aphid which was accidentally introduce to the area in the 1950’s. Some scientists do believe that in time each new generation of Fraser Fir will become more resistant to the disease.

Towards the end of the upper trail the paved walkway gives over to a dirt trail and a crude stone stairway with wooden handrails on either side, which then gives way to a larger stone yet narrower staircase bordered by a low stonewall to the right.  Finally clearing the woods and reaching the top of the trail we exited the forest and found ourselves atop the Devil’s Courthouse. The view is magnificent only to be dimmed by a dark cloud cover that has settled over the mountain and the occasional roar of rolling thunder that is getting closer as each moment of time passes by. The view to the south is still fairly sunny from our position, we can clearly see into the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, North Georgia and Eastern Tennessee. The jagged peak of the Courthouse mountaintop is rough and un-level, not easily walked upon, it’s necessary to watch your footing. A short stonewall crowns the summit for safety sake though the cliffs jut outward from the wall as they descend down the face of the mountain. A couple of short stone pillars are topped with what appears to be a tarnished copper surveying plate which signifies directions to distant mountain ranges, and the elevation of the Devil’s Courthouse's summit at 5,720 feet.

Although bad weather was approaching from the north Mrs. Highlander and I broke out some water and sat along the outer wall for a while as we contemplated the mysterious nature of it all, as for now we had the mountaintop to ourselves.  It seems that the legend of the Devil’s Courthouse stems from Cherokee folklore dating back thousands of years into prehistoric history. As the legend goes, what we see as the site of the Devil’s Courthouse is an ancient structure shaped by the hand of time and the elements of nature. It is said the Courthouse outcroppings harbors a cave deep in the bowels of this mountaintop. It is believed that within this dark chamber the slant-eyed giant who goes by the name of Judaculla (the devil) held court here in his private dance chamber invoking his powers while passing judgment on those lacking personal courage and virtue.  It is also believed that the giant Judaculla once leaped from the summit where we sat and landed far below in the deep valley of today’s Jackson County, North Carolina where he left an impression on a large boulder known as the Judaculla Rock.

Last year Mrs. Highlander and I explored that region of Jackson County just north of the town of Cashiers.  There we found a large slab of soapstone tucked away in the valley below, the rock was covered in ancient carved petroglyphs of an unknown origin that predates Cherokee history.

The Judaculla Rock is on private property though open to a respectful viewing public.  To date, the markings on the stone have yet to be decoded and remain a mystery, some believe it to a boundary marker, or possibly a peace treaty or a battle commemoration, but these are just assumptions much like my own personal assumptions. I viewed and photographed the rock and examined the site’s kiosk with Mrs. Highlander in order to gather what information was available as to the rock’s symbols and meanings, which were speculative at best.

The rock carvings are believed to be older than 10,000-years and are well worn yet amazingly preserved after being out in the elements for thousands of years. Though most images on the rock are hard to make out, an artist rendering at the site depicts the unusual markings of animal like creatures, human stick figures and unrecognizable humanoids along with many undecipherable symbols. Logically this rock could have many meanings, could it possibly be the conjuring of powerful magic by an ancient priest or the wickedness of a darker force? Either way I included a photo of the rock and the artist rendering in the kiosk for your own examination.

After a short rest upon the summit of the Devil’s Courthouse, the sky was getting darker with every breath we took so we found it undesirable to search along the cliff face at our own risk for a possible hidden cave. The summit of the Courthouse is like many of the other outcroppings, cliffs and rock faces in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are embedded with exposed mica stone. Mica stone is a shiny substance and a highly volatile conductor for the lightening that we were beginning to see at an all too uncomfortable distant.  With no warning at all, a series of thunder blasts went off over our heads like the roar of numerous canons going off at the same time, shaking our very beings, it was as if the heavens were at war all around us. I felt our mortal lives could be in danger so we high-tailed it out of there with haste. 

After seeing no sign of the Courthouse’s namesake, we headed back down the trail as though we were being driven out by an other worldly force. Along the trail downward I noticed what appeared to be a path of destruction to both the left and right of the trail, it looked as though someone or something in the past was also driven off this mountaintop, maybe in the same manner or worse. Several trees along the trails seemed to be snapped in two or torn out by the roots, as though something had been moving fast and ferocious causing destruction in its wake. It was as though the devil himself had been evicted from his courthouse rule with the coming of a new age and a law that prohibited such an evil power to hold court there any longer.

Clearing the trees at the bottom of the trail the thunder continued to roar even though the rain was held back as we made our way back to the our ride. We were now on the edge of the thunderstorm that had been pursuing us all day, yet now it seemed as though we were a part of an empowered posse that was on the trail of a notorious Outlaw, an Outlaw who was on the run for his own life.

The Chase

Pulling out of the parking area with the ever threat courthouse tunnel on the blue ridge parkwayof rain upon us, we headed northeast riding along the front edge of storm, all we had to do now is stay just a little ahead the gale storm that was in hot pursuit. Just past the trail-head to the summit we entered the recesses the Devil’s Courthouse Tunnel, possibly a sanctuary for the fugitive at large. The pitch blackness of the tunnel separates travelers from the outer light as if it were a portal into another world. I thought to myself, we might be on a fresh trail of the Outlaw, that perhaps the Outlaw may have tried to return to the scene of the crime only to have the forces of the Divine once again hot on his trail. I felt driven to see if we could pick up his ancient path now that our mostly sunny afternoon had turn into something unworldly.

As we drove on, the riders of the high range were coming and going in both direction, its possible some of the horsemen and ladies of the high range might have been bounty hunters also seeking the dangerous Outlaw as he made his getaway.

A short distance ahead, we reached a side road that led up to the parking area for Black Balsam Knob Mountain and turned left following the rough paved road to its end in pursuit of the Outlaw, alias “Black Bart.”

Black Knob Mountain Overlook

At the parking area we hopped out of our horseless carriage for a better look. Menacing clouds were hovering around the summit of Black Knob Mountain and the surrounding small mountains. We saw lightening strikes visible along its ridge top and then noticed hikers heading back down the trail for the safety of their vehicles. Even for the Outlaw, it was a dangerous venture to go up there. Down below the mountain summit was a mysterious high mountain valley that might hold refuge for the fugitive at large and it was only two miles away.  The name of the valley site and its remote location was all too familiar to the Outlaw, and legitimately a good place to hideout…Graveyard Fields.

Boot Hill Valley

Graveyard Fields was our next destination and a good place for tracking the fugitive, providing the rain doesn’t drive us out. The parking area at the fields had several vehicles parked in its lot; this is a very popular destination due to its natural wonders, beautiful cascading waterway, waterfalls and unusual ground covering. A little background on how the Graveyard Fields got its namesake. It is said that a natural disaster occurred here some 500 to 1,000-years ago. A tremendous “wind-blow” uprooted the spruce forest. Through the years the old root stumps and trees rotted, leaving only dirt mounds. These odd shaped mounds gave the appearance of a graveyard.

The forest at Graveyard Fields eventually recovered, only to be destroyed by another catastrophe, this place has had a rough history. Near the turn of the 20th century this narrow high mountain valley saw extensive logging of the American chestnut along with other prime hardwood timber. Once again these downed trees left behind huge stumps covered in moss recreating the macabre scene, In the spring of 1925 a devastating fire swept through the area burning up the valley in addition to 25,000 acres of woodlands. The fire began during the start of trout fishing season, with over 200 fishermen taking advantage of the season’s opening day along the Yellowstone Prong of the Graveyard Fields. These poor souls who were just out for a great day of fishing were caught between the fire and a hard place and only survived by immersing themselves in the pools of the Yellowstone Prong that flows through the heart of the narrow valley. To live to tell their tale, the fishermen had to remain under water only surfacing into the searing heat in order to obtain a brief gasp of air before plunging again under to the safety of the pools until the flames passed over. It took a miracle to save the fishermen that day and I can only assume that the fire might have been started by the influence and foul play of the notorious Outlaw, in order to drive others out of one of his favorite hideouts. After the fires died out, the desolation of the valley once again revealed a landscape of large dark stumps that resembled huge tombstones forever reestablishing its appropriate name, Graveyard Fields.

We parked near the trail-head and examined the large wooden map of the valley, which showed trails along the Yellowstone Prong and two of the three waterfalls, the Upper Falls and the Second Falls. The Yellowstone Falls wasn’t on the map. Yellowstone was the name given to the Prong waterway due its yellowish rock bed. Even though dark clouds were now coming over the Black Balsam Knob the rains still hadn’t come yet, this might give us a chance to try and flush out the Outlaw from his hiding place.

I grabbed my camera and Mrs. Highlander and I headed down a steep set of stone stairs to the trail below. We wound our way along the trail before entering a maze of shrubs and dwarfed trees that arched over our heads. The scene looked as if we had entered a strange world, a land of myths and fairy-tales like that of the Hobbits. After that we descended down another long set of wooden stairs. Making our way through the maze we soon reached the edge of the Yellowstone Prong. Mrs. Highlander crossed the footbridge to the other side as I made my way through and along the waterway towards the Yellowstone Falls looking to see if I could pickup the Outlaw’s trail. Though the waters of the Yellowstone Prong were a little low, we found several visitors enjoying the site, lounging along its cascading waters, taking pictures and just observing the unusualness of the site.

Walking downstream along and through the cascading waters I began photographing the ancient rock bed that carried the waters of the Yellowstone Prong. The mysterious boulders seemed to have grown right out of the water-bed crudely and magnificently shaped by the elements of nature. After a short departure I made my way back up the watercourse to join Mrs. Highlander, neither of us saw any sign of the Outlaw’s trail. We decided to explore further up the cascading watercourse when a dark cloud entered the valley to the north and began to rain. There was no use looking for his trail now, best to head back up to the top. Besides I’m not a professional bounty hunter, just a pseudo detective with nothing else to do at the moment, and as a reluctant hero, my only concern being for Mrs. Highlander. At least that's what I told her.

Back at the parking area adults were yelling down into the valley calling their strays by name in order to get them out of there and back to the safety of their vehicle. When its not storming, Graveyard Fields is popular with those kids and adult kids at heart that like to frolic in the rushing waters of the Yellowstone Prong. Fortunately it hadn’t started to rain hard by the time we got back to our horseless carriage, but that didn’t last long.

As we began to pull out of the parking area, a deluge of rain began to pour, I sat at the edge of the road watching visitors to the fields race to their vehicles, it was the horsemen and ladies of the high range that were getting the worst of it. We were in a quandary now, we could go back down the Parkway the way we came, or we could go forward, one way or the other rain was all around us. This region of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Balsam Gap to Asheville has more tunnels than any other section along the Parkway, yet my bearings were off and I couldn’t remember where the closest one was at the moment, we chose to continue onward in hope that we could outrun the storm. As for our pursuit of the Outlaw, he’s on his own for all I was concerned.

The Relentless Deluge

Perched upon the top of the world we drove cautiously along the roadway through the pouring rain with mountaintops rising before us like giant indigo waves and the deep turquoise colored valleys dropping away below the towering waves. As we drove the rain didn’t let up it only got worse and now the wind joined in, we sailed on along the top of the high range as though we were a vessel being tossed by the storm.

Though he had been out of my mind for a while, this seemed like the handiwork of the Outlaw, a mutineer trying his damnedest to throw the bounty hunters and the pursuing roaring thunder off his trail. It was as though we were all submerged within a powerful white squall with nowhere to run and no shelter to escape to, the pursuers were now being pursued. All of our vessels were being bombarded with wave after wave of pouring rain, it was as though the rolling mountains were a sea of trouble, a tempest without a heart, raging and tossing at every turn, “Every man for himself, ladies to the lifeboats” were the thoughts that went through my mind, this was no laughing matter the horsemen and ladies of the high range were in great peril.

Waves of Blue & Turquoise Mountains in the rain

Some groups of riders made their way to the nearest overlooks, getting off the treacherous roadway was their only concern, few others pressed on slowly scouting for better conditions ahead…there were none.

Many of the riders huddled together in the parking areas taking on the storm as if it were a power-washer, others looked for any type of outcropping overhang that didn’t exist. Most of the riders raced for the trees on foot even though lightening was a threat, the tree cover took some of the water pressure off of them, their helmets and leather gear were their only shelter.

In the safety and dryness of our covered carriage we found we were not only struggling to see the roadway ahead, the hood often disappeared from sight causing us to inch along as to not run off the roadway or maybe even the mountain itself.

We soon pulled into roadside parking area that was mostly surrounded by trees; the area seemed nearly empty except for one bike parked next to a group of trees.  In the woods next to the bike were two riders trying to hold their position on the slanted ground protected only by insufficient tree coverage. I stopped our vehicle just ahead of them hopped out and started tossing my equipment from the back seat and into the cargo area, then I backed up, threw open the back passenger door and waved them in which they gladly came.

After the door closed they removed their helmets and said thanks, I pulled out and few of bottles of water and passed them around.  “Boy,” I thought to myself, “we could all surely use a drink,” and for the moment water worked just fine. They introduced themselves as Liz and Ken Slagle, we introduced ourselves using our real names not our aliases.  They told us they left their home in Virginia, Minnesota some 90 miles from the Canadian border on Saturday and had been on the road ever since. It was now Tuesday afternoon four days later. We exchanged stories and laughed awhile at our circumstances and then discussed where they might find a place where they could dry out their gear, get some food and find a good night’s rest. They had originally planned on camping, not such a good idea this dramatic night.  It was a pleasure to have had their company as we sat out the worst of the storm.

After awhile the rain began to slow down and we noticed a couple of horsemen had taken back to the roadway. Soaked and wet they exited the vehicle and mounted their bikes bidding us a fine farewell. To our surprise, Mrs. Highlander and I received a package from the Slagle’s some weeks later with Gourmet Minnesota Wild Rice and a letter thanking us for our time and temporary shelter and went on to compliment us on our Blue Ridge Highlander web site. 

We exited the parking area and headed out in a much lighter rainfall. The horsemen and ladies were all back on the road as well as the covered vehicles that had accompanied them along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although the rain had slowed to a heavy drizzle, and patches of fog obscured our sight at the time I knew we were now in another area along the Parkway that I truly favored. Riding here high along the asphalt trail I know of a special site down in the valley below that amazes me every time I come through here, unfortunately today the fog took that sight away from me. I had to remind myself fog is fog whether you’re in the lowlands or highlands, it doesn’t discriminate.

It was about dinnertime and the day was still young for my concern. We finally reached a tunnel, a likely refuge for some of the motorized equestrians, though they had moved on by now. I figured we could make it to the overlook above Wagon Road Gap and see if the cloud cover would soon lift before moving on, the view from the overlook there is usually outstanding, yet today it was more mysterious and forbidding.

Pulling into the overlook parking area I noticed a group of horsemen and ladies at the eastern end of the lot. Then, to my amazement I saw at the western end of the parking area a sight I couldn’t believe with my own eyes, I had to do a double take. I had already given up and there he was right next to where I pulled in. It was the Outlaw making a media spectacle of himself, posing for a photograph that was being taken by what I assumed was his publicist.

the Outlaw

I could barely get the vehicle stopped and parked, as I grabbed my camera and dove out of our carriage all in one movement.  I immediately shot one photo to make sure before racing over to the Outlaw, hoping I could catch him before he could take off again. I nearly knocked his publicist over edge of the mountainside in my haste, while Mrs. Highlander had no idea what I was doing and neither did I. 

I approached him as though he were a celebrity, but not a popular one. I had heard of this entity all my life and now was my opportunity to confront him. He couldn’t help but notice me since I stepped between him and his publicist, I had to take a chance, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I mean once and only once did I want to encounter this Outlaw.

Interview with an Outlaw

“Excuse me,” I said, “I'd like to ask you a couple of questions.” “Put down your camera,” the Outlaw said, “I’m a little touchy when it comes to people shooting at me.” I slung the camera over my shoulder and folded my arms across my chest not to show any kind of intimidation, or maybe I was just subconsciously protecting myself.  In a glance I looked over and saw Mrs. Highlander was oblivious as to what I was doing, she was on her cell phone probably talking to our daughter Tara back at the production ranch. I was surprised she could get a signal up here. I also saw the Outlaw’s publicist move further back toward their bikes as if they were preparing to make their getaway.

He became as quiet and as still as a stone though he kept an eye on the both of us for good measure. Across the parking area the horsemen and ladies seemed horsemen and women frozen in timelost in their own world of high range adventure, though their movements seemed as if they were moving in still motion locked in a world beyond where I now stood.  A bolt of lightening raced across the sky, thunder roared as it had roared all day, the sky was dark gray the valley mostly covered in fog and mist. I looked back at the Outlaw who stared directly at me, his stature was shorter than my six foot frame, his face looked like that of a death mask, I have to say I was a bit shaken.

He reached under his chin and began to pull upward removing what was a tight fitting cloth mask making a sigh of relief...only to reveal to my amazement a fairly handsome man in his mid-thirties, blondish hair with a well groomed beard and mustache. “Like I said, no photographs,” the Outlaw said. “You’re probably surprised at what I look like,” he went on to say, “I could look like your grandmother or a wolf if I wanted to but that shape shifting into an animal is a lot harder than your think, I still have some scales I haven’t been able to shake off of over the last six-thousand years.”

“I’ve been chasing you nearly all day,” I responded. “Who hasn’t been chasing me all day, that’s the story of my life,” the Outlaw fired back quickly. With that, a loud crack of thunder bounced across the heavens. “I don’t have a lot of time to waste, the Divine is always on my tail, make it quick,” he said. “Aren’t you afraid of Him catching up with you, knowing of your whereabouts?” I asked. “Well at the moment I not worried about you squealing on me, you’re a journalist, you’ll get the story first then tattle tale later, I know your kind,” he said. With that he looked over his shoulder towards the highway then a little upward as though he was keeping an eye out. Then he glanced down into the valley as though he were looking for something he lost. Ironically the valley below this section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is in a county called Transylvania, North Carolina, one of the most beautiful county’s in the mountains with exceptional natural wonders, and a special unique place they call the Cradle of Forestry.

Transylvania Valley Fog off the Parkway

“Ok, lets begin,” I said, “What would you like me to call you.” Well,” he said me, I’m known by the name Lucifer, others of old called me Baal, some call me The Beast and I hate that one. My personal favorite is the Prince of Darkness, but you can call me Outlaw, in today’s world I like that handle, so hurry up with your questions this window of opportunity is only open for a short time and you look like you could be quite curious, plus I’m not looking to make a friend today as a matter of fact, I don’t think you want to be my friend.” 

“Alright then lets get down to business, what makes you so popular or rather unpopular?” I asked. “Well you’ve heard my story before I assume,” he responded, “it all began before time as you know it, I once ruled this world before the Big Boss got upset. I was running things my way while He sat in Heaven on His golden throne; I knew somebody had to be the leader of the earthly realm and at the time I was the right angel for the job. According to Him things were getting out of control, I didn’t think so, I rebelled and He cast me down, so I took a third of His angelic forces with me. He then decided to change the rules and created a creature made in His own image. I’ll admit I got jealous after that and went out after His favorite and his wife. Adam was a real suck up, but Eve on the other hand was the inquisitive kind by nature and an easy mark for me. Then He got mad at all three of us casting them out of the Garden of Eden and swore that one day he would crush me, I went into hiding for a while but not until I messed up Adam and Eve's boys. Then things started going good for me again, until the heavens and firmament came apart and sunk everything except Noah and his family. After that, time went on as I steadily worked to influence the growing numbers of mankind into my way of thinking, but even then, He always had His favorites denying me, His family expanding like the grains of sand, causing me endless trouble and resentment in return. I had a program that I felt good about, I just couldn’t get them all on the same page."

"Then came that guy Moses who led the Children of Israel out of bondage disgracing my favorite...the Pharaoh of Egypt, only to get a first hand experience of how ungrateful and confused most of the Israelites were at the time, always whining and complaining until He and Moses had to lay down the Law of Commandments to keep them in line. To my surprise the Commandments caught on, seems some people do like order, it gives them something to strive for. But you know, being an Outlaw doesn’t make me ignorant of the Law, it just made me learn how to exploit the Law to my benefit and I’ve been doing it all the long, it was a good millennium for me.”

“What about the coming of the Messiah, Jesus,” I asked. “Well that changed everything when he fought me at the cross and tore the veil of the Law in two,” said the Outlaw.  “I didn’t see that coming, it really messed things up for me with some people, you know all His precious followers. I had to turn up the heat wherever I could, turning those who worshiped life and power the most against those who worshiped in Faith and the Light.”

“So what do you think of Jesus as Lord,” I asked. The Outlaw looked at me with anger in eyes and once again looked over his shoulder then down into the valley below still looking for what he couldn’t find buried under the fog. “I try not to think about it, ask me another question or take your leave,” he said, “I thought we were talking about me.”

“Well then why do people do evil, they say it’s your fault,” I asked. With that the Outlaw laughed. “All those precious poor victims, don’t make me laugh,” he responded. “People are the ones that make the wrong choices, I just help them make those choices possible, it’s a two way street, yet frankly I don’t mind the accusation, it’s what I am known for.” “People say you offer them money and power to do your bidding, that you tried to tempt Jesus in the desert,” I said. “Yeah I’ll admit I did try to tempt Him, He was so righteous and stubborn for the sake of all that’s good it didn't work. He would have been a good coup for me, but the cards and the stars just weren’t with me on that one and I’ve been on the run ever since.”

“So why do you think people make choices as to good or evil,” I asked. “Well,” the Outlaw responded, “that’s a good question. If you want the slow but sure way to a good life, they say you have to meet Jesus at the foot of the Cross. If you want the fast and selfish way to success, whatever that may be, you meet me at the crossroads and I’ll get you there quick.” “Ok then, what’s the downside of your method,” I asked. “The downside,” he paused and thought. “It’s only temporary, life on earth is short in the full spectrum of the universe. Physical organic life is nothing more than a brief moment time. If you depart from this life broken and wretched, which I prefer, you exit in a poor state of mind giving no hope to a joyous after life. That doesn’t bother me, its their choice, not mine. I’ve got problems of my own to deal with and we need to start wrapping this interview up soon, I got a schedule to keep.”

“Ok, why doesn’t money and power always make people happy,” I asked. “Money, power, fame and glory are all fleeting, deep down people know that, but most want it just the same,” the Outlaw said. He went on to say, “Happiness is a state of mind not of gift from the Divine People have been given the gift of Freewill and they don’t know how to use it properly, and that just opened the door for me.  To many people are driven by their emotions and senses looking for whatever satisfies them for the moment, like children casting away one good toy for another. It’s just one sensation after another, most people are insatiable, they really don’t know what’s good for them. Even though they should know better, many of them come back to play in my yard.”

“What’s the one thing people ask you for the most,” I questioned. “Money,” the Outlaw said. “Whether they come to me, or ask Him, it’s always money followed by power." “So what’s the biggest lie people want to believe,” I asked. “That money will bring them happiness and security more than Love will. What they don’t understand is that Love can be eternal whereas money is like water over the falls, always trying to fill a hole when you can’t even properly grasp it in your hands without it falling through. The thing about money is it runs out, and I assure you always runs out. But I don’t mind, personally I’m always there to give anyone enough rope to hang him or herself. I’m like a friendly ATM machine, just sign on the dotted line, I’ll catch up with you later, and I will collect.  Nothing in the kitchen is for free man…everything has a price whether it’s material or sensual. As for Love, that is not my department…I only offer a counterfeit form of Love called obsession, that is real popular.  In his pause I threw out another question, “What’s one of your biggest beefs?”  The Outlaw thought for a second and replied,   “I am tired of listening to people say over and over again life’s not fair. Well life isn’t fair, and good breaks come rare, I know this for a fact. The Law of the Divine has put a price on my head and my time is limited. I got to live and wreak havoc for as long as I’ve got left, with or without anyone's approval. I'm the Outlaw. The world is on a destructive path and I’m going to make the most of it, Freewill has gone awry, although it doesn’t have to. People know well enough what to do whether they choose to or not, they don’t have to be hit over the head by all the self righteous who think they know better than the other guy, they just need to know for themselves what’s right or wrong and follow their own heart, there are no gray areas in right and wrong.  The only way to achieve true joy and happiness is by faith in their own divinity and executing that properly. I was once divine and favored myself. Happiness comes by the sacrifice of blood sweat and tears, not wishful thinking. I've got to stop now before you put me out of a job, my time will come soon enough. The day of reckoning is coming and we’re all invited. I know my destiny, do you know yours?” The Outlaw ended his speech and just stared at me, once again glancing into the valley below, still not seeing what he was looking for. It was at this time I notice that not a single vehicle had passed by and the fog in the valley seemed frozen in space and time.

“You surprise me,” I said. “I didn’t realize you would be so…revealing.”  “I only deal in lies and when that doesn’t work, I skew the facts in order to create a demise in other’s faith. I leave the truth to Him and His mighty Son,” the Outlaw responded.

"One last question,” I asked. “Make it quick,” he replied.  “Speaking of lies, what’s the greatest lie you ever told?” With that he threw back his head and out came a roar, an ungodly sound if I ever heard one. “That’s easy,” the Outlaw said. “Convincing most of the world that I don’t exist!” With that he departed with out as much as a goodbye, hopped on his antique Indian motorcycle, kicked started the engine, revived up the motor and at the top of his voice began singing, “What goes up, must come down…Spinning wheel got to go round.” Then the Outlaw popped a wheelie and headed for the sharp curve and sheer drop off ahead...defying the natural laws of gravity and centrifugal force...all the while hugging his fuselage like it were a flying carpet. 

Riding off in the mist

I thought to myself as the Outlaw disappeared beyond horizon, I don’t care what the Rolling Stones say, I have no sympathy for this guy, but I’m glad I got the interview. I looked for his publicist but he was nowhere in sight.

Later when I reviewed the photos I remembered seeing something out of the ordinary...something unexpected on the back of the helmet the Outlaw’s publicist wore, it led me to believe he might just be a double agent, which made me think, the Outlaw might have been an imposter as well. Who will ever know? 

The mysterious helmet read...RIDE FOR JESUS-LET THOSE WHO RIDE DECIDE.

I could hear the bikes of the horsemen and ladies at the eastern end of the parking area firing up their engines as I watched them pull out of the parking area in real time now. Upon their departure I watched as a bolt of lightening shot some twenty to thirty miles across the sky in one continuous line with lightening streaks branching off in every direction as the roar of thunder blasted throughout the heavens. The heat was on once again and the pursuit by the Divine and the bounty hunters hot on the Outlaw's trail.

horsemen and ladies leading the way

I looked down in the valley as the fog was just beginning to break up and I still couldn’t make out what he was looking for. I got back in the SUV as Mrs. Highlander said, “that didn’t take very long, I just got off the phone, I had to ask Tara a couple of questions. Did you get your pictures, and who were you chatting with?” I just looked at her dumb founded and said. “I’ll let you read the story after I write it.” She looked at me a little confused but didn’t press it as we pulled out of the parking area and began to head back along the Parkway.

It was dinnertime now and we were about a good hour and a half away from a meal. I thought we would be eating in Asheville by now, but that was some 25 miles up the road. It was best we turn back now, besides the dogs and cats back at the production ranch would be hungry and waiting for our arrival.

Sacred Places

fog lights on the parkwayAs we started our drive back the fog was still a menace with varying degrees of thickness. Oncoming traffic was running with headlights and fog lights while driving cautiously. It was about 5:30 pm in the middle of summer and it looked like twilight. To the south of the Parkway, along this section of the roadway, great views could be seen in good weather, but that wasn’t happening.

Dense fog and swirling pockets of fog clouds still obscured our view as we drove on. I was disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to see and photograph another of our favorite sites. Curve after curve passed by until we came to one of the overlooks that on a clear day I would have been able to see my wishful sight, and suddenly there was a break in the clouds and there it was, and a sight to behold to boot. We pulled into the parking area and both of us jumped out of the car to see the sight as we had never seen it before. I grabbed my camera and tripod and rushed to the very edge of the parking area fearing I would lose sight of it again under the cover of low riding clouds. It was magnificent; I couldn’t work fast enough to capture it in all its glory.

This is what the Outlaw must have been looking for as well as myself, its something of the extraordinary to me, it was temporarily out of sight for him, but not so much for me, praise God. It was Looking Glass Mountain radiating in the light of an overcast sky against patches of fog. This round domed mountain rising from the valley floor is like a haven unto itself.

Remote, beautiful, forbidding and mysterious are words that truly lack substance in describing its uniqueness. It was like an emerald island of a mountain surrounded in seas of blue waves. I shot the solo mountain from every angle I could from my limited position as wispy clouds caressed its mighty cold rock surface, cradled in a blanket of forest. It was a beauty to behold for me, and a potential of refuge for the Outlaw, a new courthouse maybe or just a hideout for a fugitive on the run. 

The wonderment of Looking Glass Mountain is its bare rock face, which after a heavy rain glistened in the sunlight, yet today there was no bright sun to make it so. In the winter thin sheets of ice make it appear as if it has a mirrored surface reflecting the rays of the sun. A crystal ball of a mountain reflecting the internal sense and emotion of those who have the courage to dare and gaze upon it without fear of what it might reflect within themselves. An ancient temple who’s interior holds no false god who could exercise their own corrupt intentions of self-glory. A mountain size trophy to the beauty and wonderment of these Blue Ridge Mountains, tucked away from the outer world, innocent in its setting, divinely shaped by the hand of the creator.  It is merely something that the Infinite has made for our pleasure, a symbol of the Omnipotent hand in our world.

After marveling at the sight for a while we began to pack up and leave. Before leaving we heard a distant rumble of thunder to the east now, it’s a rumble and pursuit that hasn’t seen its end just yet, a cat and mouse game on a grander scale.

We pulled out of the parking area and continued to backpedal along the Parkway on our journey home. Taking on curve after curve we passed many of our previous stops which we now saw in a strange new light as though it was cleaner than it had been before, renewed and refreshed as if it were born again.

We passed through the Courthouse Tunnel as if we were passing from darkness and into the light. A division between two different worlds colliding in the known like a parallel universe divided by a veil that has been torn in order to make a porthole. We then drove past the Courthouse itself, which was vacant and quiet for now. The tunnel was empty as I suspected.

Devil's Courthouse Tunnel Devil's Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Pots of Gold

Along the distant horizon, rays of sunlight could be seen showering the landscape, becoming more brilliant with every mile we passed.

The glory of the mountains laid before us now, what a treat for our journey back. With grandeur surrounding us on all sides I couldn’t help but to notice the simpler delicate things that enhance the beauty and wonder we all have the privilege to either enjoy or call our own.

The Blue Ridge Parkway belongs to all of us, we Americans who sacrifice for the love of our beloved country. It is a gift unto us, to our ancestors, our children and those children yet to come. It is an everlasting symbol of a proud and beautiful nation we possess from sea to shinning sea as long and we respect it, nurture it and care for it. Only we can take it from ourselves and pray God we never do that.

Seeing the conditions of the weather rapidly changing mile after mile, I began to anticipate something up ahead that is not only unique but out of this world. I was hoping to come across it, a hope that now turned into a prayer. We were reaching the last ridge top to descend down the final section of our journey before we exited the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Then out of nowhere we saw it, chills went throughout both our bodies and it was pointing right at our pathway. After topping the grade, I immediately looked for a good place to pull off the road and capture the beauty and the supernatural occurrence of it greatness. It was a magnificent rainbow, an answer to my prayer. This was beyond expectations, a gift from the heavens and an unyielding promise from the Divine that he will never raise His mighty hand against us again and destroy the land with a flood for our disobedience. Therefore He has placed His own personal bow of many colors across the heavens telling us He will always be with us, Praise the Lord and pray we don’t blow it again.

“What a day, what an absolutely great day,” I said aloud. You couldn’t wipe the smile off of Mrs. Highlander’s face. Some days and trips are like this, exceeding our expectation, beyond our imagination.  Where as some days are just another day, days of humility and appreciation for the little things in our lives and the unconditional love we have for our loved ones. We are all brothers and sister here on earth, a special family that should be united under one God just as we are under one nation. Not a “one world order,” that’s created out of man’s corruption, but one common idea that stands for all that’s good and humane allowing us all to reach our own God given ability and know there’s comfort in being just who we are. We are living under a loving God who cares and comforts us through the storms of our trials and tribulation, united in one common bond to love one another as He has loved us with His divine charity. The only thing that can mess that up is each of us believing we know better than the other in how to handle this world rather than He who created it out of Divine love for us all. United in a common goal that is not littered and split by reasons of speculation and interpretation, but rather by clarity of meaning and purpose.

Today we discovered that in the darkness at the far end of our journey we face our weakness and mortality often with a selfish sense of reality as to who we think we are, and what we think we have done as opposed to one’s good work, which speaks for its selves.  At the opposite end of the spectrum we stand in the light and find our faith, hope, strength and courage to carry on in the pursuit of what is good and righteous.

We mounted up in our vehicle for the last couple of miles of our journey Wild Turkey on the Blue Ridge Parkwayalong the Blue Ridge Parkway. Reaching a tree-covered area along the down slope next to the roadway we spotted a flock of wild turkeys and stopped for our last photo. These gentle but skittish birds seemed as interested in us as we were with them. We both got of a few shots before they hustled themselves into the woods and disappeared from sight. Not the most beautiful birds as looks go, yet they hold a beauty within that was all their own, much like we ourselves are capable of having.

As we neared our exit from the Parkway I couldn’t help but to reflect on our day’s journey and found myself humming a song, a song I remember from one of the old Blood, Sweats and Tear’s albums. I going to leave you the lyrics containing a simple word change of my own that is italicize just for you. I think you’ll get my meaning.

the Highlander

Once I met the devil.
He was mighty slick.
Tempted me with worldly goods.
Said you can have your pick.
But when he laid that paper on me,
And he showed me where to sign.
I said thank you very kindly,
But I’ll take the Freedom of the Skies.

Hi de ho…Hi de hi
Gonna’ get me a piece of the sky
Going to’ get me some of that old sweet roll.
Singin’ hi de hi de hi de hi de hoooo!

Original Lyrics by Carol King & Gerry Goffin