A Day without Butterflies

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A light mist hung over the brilliantly colored maple by the parking area.

Last Saturday wasn’t a good day for a hike: my college son, who isn’t a fan of hikes (probably because I dragged him on too many during his formative years), was home for fall break; a football game that my husband and sons wanted to see was on TV; and the sky had been overcast all day.  But I knew that this week wasn’t going to be good for hikes because of my husband’s work schedule, and I hadn’t been on a walk of any length since Tuesday.

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Skipping the North Carolina-Notre Dame game proved to be a smart play for this UNC fan, since UNC lost.

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To the right of the parking area an overlook shows the valley, filled with clouds. A trail on the right leads to the site where George Vanderbilt’s hunting lodge once stood.

Leaving the boys at home with the football game as a temporary bond—their ages and tastes are quite different, but college football has the power to draw my sons together—my self-sacrificing husband and I drove off on the Blue Ridge Parkway, with the summit of Mount Pisgah as our destination. (My husband was divided in his loyalties, but I take it as a compliment that he chose me over the game.)

Although we’ve camped at Mount Pisgah several times, I can only recall hiking to the summit twice before. In 2001, our youngest daughter was only three, but she handled the 1.5-mile hike up to the summit AND 1.5-mile hike down with amazing determination. (That should have clued me in to her strength of character and her physical stamina. She is now studying ballet in college.) In 2011, we hiked to the top again. By then, our youngest son had joined the family, although my middle son was off at Boy Scout camp, so we still lacked a full roster. On both occasions, what struck me even more than the view of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains were the beautiful butterflies that swarmed around the wildflowers below the observation platform.

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Hard to believe a three-year-old went up and down that trail on her own, but she was determined to keep up with the older kids.

It’s not logical, but somehow I expected to see those butterflies on Saturday, despite the mist that draped heavily over every tree and stone on the trail up to the summit. We’d seen cars with their lights on before we got to Mount Pisgah, but my husband figured they’d forgotten to turn off their lights after leaving one of the tunnels; it wasn’t raining, and there didn’t seem to be a National Park Service ranger on the prowl for speeding vehicles. Silly us: we got to the Mount Pisgah trail lot, looked around at the creeping fog, and said, “Oh. That’s why.”

Still, the sun was peeking through the tiniest bit as we started the climb upward. We’d only been on the trail for a few minutes when we ran into someone we knew: a teacher who was gamely shepherding her two young cousins on the way down from the summit. We exchanged greetings but didn’t think to ask her whether you could see anything from the observation platform. She was scrambling to keep up with her energetic cousins, so she didn’t have time to chat.IMG_0385 (480x640)

You can see where this story is going. After an arduous climb—more arduous than it might have been because we’d forgotten to bring our trusty hiking sticks—we encountered a woman and her daughters coming down from the platform. An unspoken law of hiking is, “Let the faster person pass you,” so we’d stepped aside to let them pass several minutes before. “There’s nothing to see,” she informed us, as we headed towards the creaky wooden steps.

She was right. No butterflies. No view. Just a large antenna, some brown wildflowers, and dense white clouds as far as the eye could see. Frosted with fog, red-oak trees waved their leaves mockingly at us.

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A very Tolkien-ish tree on the trail

But you know what? We had the platform to ourselves. In fact, we didn’t see another person the whole way back down the mountain. I’ll admit I was disappointed that there were no butterflies. I’m no naturalist, but butterflies have been seen as late as mid-October in this part of western North Carolina. Earlier in the week I had seen a blue butterfly at the Arboretum, but the elevation here was much higher. Maybe butterflies only come out when it’s sunny? This could be a learning opportunity.

What we did have on Saturday was atmosphere. The golden leaves glowing through the haze made us feel like we had stepped into a different world. We’ve just finished listening to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so Lothlorien, the golden realm of the elves Galadriel and Celeborn, came to mind immediately. Sure, I’d have preferred to see a brilliant blue sky and blue mountains glazed with the golds and oranges of fall leaves instead of a blank whiteness at the summit. But the effect of flaming leaves against the pale mist was stunning. Magical.

IMG_0389 (640x480)Some sunny day, I’d like to try Mount Pisgah again. But mist in the mountains creates its own beauty, particularly when the leaves are golden and brown and the only sounds you hear are the birds calling, the wind blowing, and your feet tramping down the path towards home.

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