A Walk in the Woods

It may be a bit of a cliché, but I’ve decided my very favorite Asheville hike is the Black Balsam Knob/Tenant Mountain loop starting at the Sam’s Knob parking area and taking the Investor Gap Trail to where in connects to the Art Loeb trail, which then summits those two peaks before it ends at the Black Balsam parking area—you then have to walk about a half mile down the Black Balsam Knob Road back to your car. It packs the most bang for your buck hikewise—the trailhead is only an hour from my apartment, the entire 5.3 mile hike can be done in less than two hours, and it’s gorgeous, with the last three miles or so dipping in and out of the tree line. It’s a great week night hike too. I can leave work at 5, bang this out, and be back to my apartment and in bed at a reasonable time.

I think I’ve done this hike 8 times so far? Three of those have been post-work hikes that begin in late afternoon but typically meld into night just as I hit the summit of Black Balsam Knob. Now, I first attempted this hike in the evening because I assumed the open ridges would make a beautiful sunset. I don’t know if it’s an every night thing, or just every night I pick to tackle this bad boy during the week thing, but I haven’t seen a fully non-obstructed sunset yet. Clouds start rolling in every time I’m up there at dusk, and while I remember being distinctly annoyed the first time it happened, it’s become a strange phenomena I’ve come to enjoy.

It doesn’t get foggy. I want to to make that clear. It’s clouds. You’re up high, 6,214 feet in elevation to be exact, so it makes sense that clouds roll over these mountains even when it’s sunny and clear in Asheville. There’s something intensely foreboding, but in a good way, to stand atop the ridge and watch the clouds approach, and then feel them roll over you, to momentarily get enveloped, and then as fast as they came, watch them roll down the other side of the mountain and once again get a peek of the sun setting down behind Sam’s Knob.

It’s kind of creepy too. I was racking my brain trying to think of what movie it reminds me of. I think maybe An American Werewolf in London? The fog on those hills does have a certain, moor-like quality, but I’m still not entirely sure that’s it.

This past week was the first time the sun fully set while I was still at Black Balsam’s summit, and the first time I had to descend the mountain in the proper dark.

Now, I’ve started plenty of hikes in the dark. When my brother and I would go up to the White Mountains we’d start hikes at 4 or 5, climbing for three or 4 hours under the light of our headlamps, and I’ve never been bothered. It’s weird thinking back, how often I hike in pitch black now and don’t care, because I used to be terrified of the dark. I know that’s not a super original childhood fear, but I think what I had probably bordered on phobia—I’m not going to get into details, but let’s just say that I slept with my closet light on well past what was normal and would sleep on my parents’ bedroom floor also well past what would be considered normal. Someday I’ll actually go through with getting a therapist to psychoanalyze that, but for now I’m cool living ignorantly. Then one day, that fear just disappeared.

My brother and I hosted a New Year’s Eve get together at my parents house our junior year of high school. My parents were at a party at their friends’ and knew we were having people over, which is to say that everyone was mostly behaved and no booze was consumed in the home. I don’t remember what the party consisted of inside, but that outside people were taking turns riding our snowmobile on the loop behind our house. It would take a pair of friends roughly a half hour to complete the loop and then two new ones would go out. At one point, two friends failed to come back. I’d learn later that they went back to one of their own homes to do shots, but I feared they were being reckless and crashed the sled, and was thinking about how pissed my parents would be if that were the case, so put on my boots, a jacket, and went into the woods to see if I could find them.

I didn’t—they  ended up taking an alternate route back, but I remember as I walked through the woods with my flashlight that night, realizing that shit, this isn’t so bad. I don’t know why darkened woods terrified me so badly for so long. There it was, my fear of the dark cured permanently due to fear of being responsible for the wreckage of a several-thousand dollar machine!

I’m making a point here. I promise.

I thought about that winter walk in the woods as I walked the Black Balsam Knob Road back to my car in what ended up being pretty pitch black after coming down off the summit. I thought about that night, and how it was the first time I ever walked in pitch black where I didn’t just look down, but rather took in the darkened landscape around me.

Then I thought about a story I just read two nights prior in a collection simply and beautifully titled F*ckface written by local writer Leah Hampton. The story in question is called “Parkway,” about a park ranger patrolling the Blue Ridge parkway, and the toll finding bodies on said parkway has on her—that’s not a spoiler either, it’s apparent from the opening line.

The story was a neat little read, and didn’t creep me out at the time, but as I continued walking down Black Balsam Knob Road listening to music and looking ahead at the spotlight my headlamp made, it started to. The “what if” the darkness used to represent during my childhood all came rushing back, and before I knew it, I was sprinting back to the car, running the entire time with my head down. I didn’t look up into the night landscape until I was safely in the driver’s seat with the doors locked. And even then I mainly just concentrated on the road in front of me.

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