Flights of Fancy: Part Two

From 30 thousand feet heading west, the little mountain chains that make up the Blue Ridge are neither wide nor long. Civilization’s encroachment north and south appears as a rising tide of pavement and structures among plowed fields and young forests that flank the valley approaches, greening upward to the un-leafed crests still waiting for spring to reach them. And from the altitude of flight, the vastness of being on the ground, enveloped by those forested highlands, looking up, is lost.

Mountain flanks of less relief show inroad development of gated communities, cluster housing and the occasional commerce hub of small upscale mountain neighborhoods, drizzled across the gentle slopes below national-forest boundaries across the more inaccessible peaks.

Then, this weak relief changes just west of Asheville. The mountain crests rise higher, their slopes more challenging to hold Swiss chalets on the steep mountainsides, though some have to try to make it work, and build there, regardless. Anything for the view, largely now of other Swiss chalets.

And then, below us, there are only mountains, not quite as far as the eye can see. There, in the urban haze to the north, are the pseudopodia of Knoxville. But across an impressive expanse that appeared under us for some minutes, even at 500 miles an hour, were the roadless wilderness expanses (and the occasional access roads, all of which I’ve traversed at one time or another) of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Newfound Gap, Clingman’s Dome, Cataloochee, LaConte, Cade’s Cove, Charlie’s Bunion–all of those once-familiar places crept into view, far below us–the actual territory and not the map. It felt not-real, poised as we were fleetingly above so much familiar landscape I had once wandered. The landscape moving too soon out of sight below us might as well have been a hologram of the Smokies I had loved and known well when we lived in Sylva more than twenty years ago, so much time, too, having passed and still passing by, around or within us, in its ghostly, unfathomable fashion.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Thanks for the lovely words abouthe Smokies, my childhood haunt. I love going back, and it has been too long.