I love spring in the mountains.
On March 6, I took a walk down the fire road that heads into Rock Castle Gorge, along Rock Castle Creek. I just got some of the photos off the camera and wanted to share them.
When I got back to my car at the top, the sunset was spectacular, and I took many photos as the light faded. Put the best together into this montage series of a sinking sun.
I used to look up at the mountains from my horse pasture in Virginia’s piedmont. I remember telling myself, “One day, I’m going to live up there.”
That was in the early seventies, when I attended middle school and was into horses. We rode and exercised and trained the horses at home, certainly. But we also trailered them up the slope of the mountain a-ways to a workshop/camp, escaping the thick, wet heat of August. We boarded them at a nearby farm and rode over to the workshop site, where we underwent professional scrutiny and training as we worked the horses in an arena and over challenging fences in the field. We rode English and did a lot of show jumping and fox hunting in those days.
Although we worked the horses hard and got dusty and hot ourselves, we were glad to be at the higher elevation – not anywhere near so hot and sticky as back at home. At the end of the day, with the sun settling down behind the ridge and the air quickening with night breezes and the sounds of peepers; with the aromas of horse sweat and hardhats mingling with the dusky mountain air, we rode the horses back toward the stalls. The chores of picking manure from the straw, feeding and watering the horses, and grooming the crystalline sweat off their coats still awaited us, to be accomplished under lights. The sweaty saddle pads would be separated from the saddles and hung to dry overnight. And we’d do it all again the next day.
On one of those evenings, after fifteen minutes of clopping along a paved country road, en route to the close of the day, we took a detour through an apple orchard. Our hostess assured us it would be okay to ride through and pick an apple apiece — one for the horses we rode, and one for ourselves.
I could reach some of the high apples that would have been impossible, had I been afoot. That was the first wonder. The horse I rode knew well what these hanging red spheres were, and chomped merrily and shook her head to free it for consumption. The tree seemed reluctant to release that one, so the branches shook and rocked as the horse freed her prize. I laughed as the branches whacked my hardhat and shoulders.
I reached over my head and picked a beauty for myself: red flecked with yellow; perfectly rounded; greenish on the shoulder.
I took the first bite of that apple as we reined out of the orchard while Willie, my mount, worked her apple around the bit in her mouth, tossing her head, jingling her hardware. I swear that was the best apple I’d ever eaten.
Today the horses are gone, but the apples in my mountain orchard still evoke wonder and amazement in me. Instead of horses, I ride my bike. No workshops up here, but I work hard and get sweaty training for cycling events like Bike Virginia, coming up later this month. I pedal along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the cool, pristine mountain air. I take in the wide vistas, smell the blackberry blossoms, go slowly up and quickly down the slopes, marveling that I made it to the top of the mountains, living here for 20+ years now.
I stop occasionally to look at the piedmont below my ridge line. I am struck by awe again and again when I think that I am exactly where I had willed myself to be 40 years ago. I have found my home and my heart in these mountains and would not have it otherwise. I am lucky and fortunate and I try never to take it for granted. Who lives better than we?
To me, now is the most spectacular time of year. I don’t mean simply “early May.”
What I mean is the time when the tulip poplar trees swell at the ends of their branches and shove aside the remnants of the dried brown seed pods of the former year with pale green cones: leaves-to-be. When the maple trees’ leaves are shining, translucent stars of red and pale orange tipping each twig. When the beech tree in the back yard erupts with tiny hands raised, palm-out, to show me how the sun illuminates their dark red veins inside pink flesh.
Sure, the daffodils and anemones are great – as are the apple and dogwood blossoms, and the buds swelling on the blueberries. But the leaves of the trees re-emerging after a long absence – that’s what I love to see. And it can happen in my part of Virginia at any point along a rather wide span of time, within latitudinal limits, of course.
I was riding along the Blue Ridge Parkway this past sunny Friday (yesterday). In training for an upcoming bicycle tour, I didn’t take the time to stop for photos – and in any case, the photos could not possibly show the wonder of this: the fragile green of leaves on mighty deciduous trees far below the road I traveled, all in various stages of emergence, marching higher and higher up the slopes of the mountains opposite. We are still a week or more away from the flanks of our mountains having completely covered themselves in variations on the wondrous color green. Toward the lowlands, leaves are darkening to strong leather; growth still delicate and newborn higher toward the tops. Right now, the harsh and twiggy, brown and gray of the wintertime forest still inhabits the upper slopes, through which I can see the lichen-covered rock outcroppings, brown leaf-fall, and naked dirt beneath. It is a spectacle of earthly delight; of contrasts; of life and death; of past and future – of which I never tire, and that I always consider new and amazing.