I’ve talked before about how I love Black Balsam Knob, particularly at sunset, and yet, it’d been a minute since I’d been up that way (did my last visit involve an ill-fated, solo hammock camping trip that saw me fleeing the forest with my hammock for the safety of my car and then apartment because I thought I heard a “scary sound” in the trees circa 3 AM? Maybe).
My cousin Casey was visiting Asheville recently, and since the Friday night she arrived was the kind of perfect, sunny days you hope will occur when you have guests for the weekend, we decided to drive up to Black Balsam Knob for a quick hike and knob-top nightcap after a delightful Highland Brewing food truck dinner (specific shoutouts to Root Down Food Truck‘s crawfish poutine as my new favorite Asheville food truck food).
The hike and views were predictably gorgeous, with sun-drenched clouds and low fog rolling through the trees in a way that’s creepy and beautiful.
The other creepy occurrence? The group of hikers who sat on the ledge to our right, singing what sounded like a hymn in hushed tones as the sun sank below the Blue Ridge Mountains. Our initial guess was that they were some sort of Christian youth group worship leaders.
Now, they may have been singing in hushed tones as not to disturb the hikers around them. There also may have been more sinister motivations, as the girl watching the sunset to our left, who immediately mouthed “what the f**k” to her boyfriend (as one should) when the singing started, suggested. “Is this when they start the ritual sacrifice?” she asked when the singing stopped.
It wasn’t a terrible question. I didn’t notice this group one way or the other before the singing started, but as they dispersed from their ledge and made their way back down the mountain, I noticed that the women in the group did have that sister-wife look that screams (or…sings) cult…or at least cult-adjacent.
That’s all there is to this story. We didn’t find out if these singers were or a cult or not, and Casey and I stayed watching the scenery for a couple more minutes before driving back undisturbed to my apartment for a late-night dinner of egg toast (colloquially known as toad in the hole by some), a late-night meal we’ve traditionally shared after hitting the town, but that last week we had before putting ourselves to bed at a reasonable hour because a 35 and 32-year-old can’t rage like they used to. But I thought it worth mentioning because it was a quintessential bout of Asheville weirdness. Also, I’d like to talk about cult podcasts.
I’d recently been in a podcast funk, namely because true crime is no longer for me. Apparently, I’m not alone in being somewhat disgusted by the fact that one of the most popular podcasts around is called My Favorite Murder because there have been more and more think pieces on the ick-factor of true crime covering this topic more eloquently than I can. I still enjoy a good dissection of bad behavior though, which is what lead me to drink from the cult podcast waters (I also love a good scammer, but I think I’ve already drunk that well dry). You still get the titillation factor and sociological examinations of why people make the choices they do in the world of cult podcasts. Still, for whatever reason, it seems like the cult leaders aren’t romanticized in the weird way true crime podcasters glorify serial killers, and the victims are treated as fully-formed people, as opposed to someone the killer killed.
Also, there’s the whole, is it or isn’t it a cult factor that pervades society I find fascinating? Like yes, Branch Davidians are 100% considered a cult by anyone on the outside. But what about frats and sororities? CrossFit? People hoodwinked into thinking an MLM will turn them into an independent business owner who could retire from “the rat race” at 35 only to shill eyelash extender on Facebook? Most of us will go out our entire lives without coming into close contact with a serial killer. But we all want to belong–and we could all probably name someone we know who has a sort of “cult-like” hold on friends or acquaintances (or develops a “cult-like” enthusiasm for a new hobby, entertainer…or self-help guru/mantra).
My favorite cult podcasts as of this writing are Dear Franklin Jones, the You Must Remember This season on the Manson Murders (You Must Remember This does an excellent job of avoiding the typical shortcomings of the true crime I was bitching about earlier; Manson is portrayed less like the pinnacle of evil pop culture likes to appoint him, and more as the failed actor, musician, and Napoleon-syndromed loser he is), and Transmissions from Jonestown (I’m also going to throw out The Dream, an excellent MLM podcast…and let’s agree that MLMs are cult adjacent).
Would you please send any additional cult podcast recommendations my way?