Michael Meissner illustration
The Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina leads to many gems, but I mostly know it for guiding me to Richland Balsam, my favorite mountain. It looms over a pullout that marks the highest point on the entire Parkway.
The pullout offers a magnificent view, but I have always preferred to see it from a loftier slope on Richland Balsam, where I can see even farther and stay remote from the steady stream of motorists who stop to snap a quick photo before speeding away.
I lived in Montana for a decade with the goal of climbing as many mountains as possible. Such an attitude spilled over into personal relationships as well. Only by getting to know a mountain like you would a special lover can you develop anything that lasts. Richland Balsam and I have enjoyed a bond that spans about thirty years. At 6,284 feet, it cannot match the grandeur of the peaks in Montana, but no other mountain on earth gives me such a sense of home or clarity of vision.
Cold Mountain is the closest prominent peak visible to the north. I trudged to the top of it one winter as a ragged teenager, long before it became a celebrity. I can confirm that it is indeed cold. On one frigid night I shared a campsite with college girls from Michigan. I was too shy to say much to them, but I built a fire for them and hung their food from a tree so bears wouldn’t get it. They said I was a real gentleman.
I can also see Shining Rock, where a wild pig tried to run me out of my campsite, and nearby Sam’s Knob, where a gray fox actually walked up to me once. I see Waterrock Knob, where I carried my bleeding son to safety after he fell on his face on the summit. And see that familiar tower on Mt. Pisgah? My wife’s electrician father used to work on that thing.
The valleys below these peaks hold the most vivid memories. I can look off into Cullowhee, where I met my wife and where our son spent the first eight years of his life. I also see Waynesville, where I worked as a newspaper reporter for three years. I have especially warm memories of pilgrimages to Benny and Jane Arrington’s nearby apple orchard, the official rite to open each autumn.
It took two years of living in Louisiana to realize how much the mountains had become part of me, and Richland Balsam most of all. The mountain had become a state of mind no matter where I lived.
Richland Balsam has taken a beating over the years. The ravages of acid rain and a creature called the wooly adelgid have left dead trees pale, stark and skeletal. Some scientists predict the forest will never regain its former majesty.
As the trees thicken and the slopes of Richland Balsam regain their glorious deep green, the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains become less distinct. These views and memories fade as the forest regenerates, promising a new life that looks to the future for its inspiration. I recall the lessons of the mountain and find the promise of the future to be Richland Balsam’s most enduring, comforting legacy.