Saturday, December 27, 2008

Mount Mitchell

If I were to tell you that Mount Mitchell is the highest point in the eastern United states, you would suck your breath in, in appreciation of the enormity of the lump of rock rising up out of the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina. Were I foolish enough to show you a picture of said mountain from the front lawn of my in-laws cabin in Celo, North Carolina you might wonder what I was talking about.The unhappy fact is that the Highest Point in the Eastern United States is a mere 6,684 feet above sea level, and I once rode my old Vespa 200 to withing a whisker of ten thousand feet in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. And there were many trails for me to explore on foot from there. I took this next picture while standing next to my Nissan in a vast spacious empty parking lot two days before Christmas, 2008.Despite it's lack of elevation in absolute terms, and despite the childish simplicity of it's approaches Mount Mitchell is a lovely place. Or it would be were the temperature not hovering around 15 degrees Fahrenheit with the winds howling lank banshees across the exposed summit...Mount Mitchell is well sign posted because it is the major attraction after all and as far as getting there goes we headed up the valley of State Highway 80 from Burnsville:Until we reached the stone bridge, characteristic crossing points of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a federal depression era public work that winds across the mountains as far north as Virginia I believe.In any event we were somewhere around Mile Marker 480 around here just north of Asheville:The parkway is a delightful drive limited supposedly to forty five miles per hour lined with views right and left and requiring no more speed than that if sightseeing is what you are there to do. Speeding on a motorcycle would be delightful given the right time of year of course...But even at a modest 3500 feet, or so, this clearly wasn't the right place to ride a motorcycle at this time of year, for someone who usually only sees ice in his drinks:The road surface was mostly dry and clean so we rolled along without a worry. And we stopped to try to capture the views, though I have to say their beauty goes far beyond what I could capture:The parkway was closed right at the entrance to Mount Mitchell making an approach directly from Asheville impossible but we turned up the state highway towards the park with no problems at all. The road winds up between pine forests, stunted by the elevation and lack of soil......past the ranger station... ...to the vast spacious empty parking lot at the top:I left my wife in the car and took off for the last 980 feet to the top, along a brand new paved highway that faintly resembled a path hacked through the pine trees lining the way:
There were non-accessible (to wheel chairs) trails off to the sides from this main highway, as I hiked my solitary way up:To the top itself finally:


Apparently the old concrete tower much beloved by my brother-in-law has been replaced by a much more stylish accessible round observation platform flanked by the grave of Elisha Mitchell, the North Carolina University professor who suffered a fatal accident on the mountain negotiating a waterfall. He was 64 and completing some scientific study of the mountain, the year was 1857, he died. His remains are in the tomb like contraption alongside the observation platform, which was marked with a compass rose and benches to sit upon:

Temperatures at the summit were horrendous as a strong south wind was blowing and the benign 25 degree (f) temperatures in the parking lot below were as nothing compared to the Arctic gale howling around the top of the mountain. I managed not to fumble my camera over the side and took some pictures of the superb views, surprisingly not covered in Siberian snow:

That last one is obviously of the road up and the ranger station a little dot along the way. I hurried my way back down into the lee of the pine woods and took a moment to catch my breath and observe another weird thing. Not the ice though heaven knows there was lots of that:

No, the weird thing I saw was little round PVC pipe headers sticking up out of the ground and then when I saw this on the way down I had to wonder what the Asheville water department was doing all the way up here:Happily for me the heated Maxima was in the parking lot with my patient wife inside. her arthritis doesn't agree at all with this weather, even less than i do, and I was glad she had chosen to wait inside, alone in the giant parking lot:On a previous visit to Asheville many years ago in our previous Maxima I had taken a detour and we had gone for a tour of the very western tip of North Carolina through the mountains. That was the time I forgot to use the automatic gearbox to maximum effect and we had suffered a nasty case of burning brake pad syndrome. This time as we descended the mountain I prudently put the gearbox into second and we descended at a stately 29 mph without touching the brakes: And so we descended back to reality, one hairpin at a time and left behind the magnificent views to a few stray cars coming up behind us. I wondered if this might be the outcrop known bluntly on the topo maps as "Celo Knob":

Temperatures were rising: I started to imagine I might survive the awful cold.