For months, my wonderful cousins on Shoal Creek in Yancey County and I have talked about conquering the magnificent mountain that looms up there like some ancient monument 6,300 feet above sea level.
We had hoped to stage a commemorative climb up the mountain this July, marking the 167th anniversary of the very first historic visit to the mountaintop by the celebrated UNC professor, Elisha Mitchell. Prior to Mitchell’s expeditions, the highest mountain in eastern America was believed to be Mount Washington in New Hampshire.
However, in 1827, when Mitchell stood on Grandfather Mountain—then believed to be the highest in the southern Appalachians—he noted that The Black Mountain appeared to be much higher. And so he arrived at the house of my great great uncle, Thomas Young, in early July 1835 on a mission to prove his point. The mountain now emerging from the clouds up there as I type these words from the valley down below was believed to be the highest in the chain by local people because it was the most visible from the wagon road.
But once Mitchell was on what he called “Youngs Knob” or “Youngs Mountain” in all his surveys, he could see that there were peaks much higher further south in the chain. For no reason ever explained, the U.S. Geological Survey renamed the mountain “Celo” in 1902 and the name stuck.
But every way my cousin Fred Young turned, he was discouraged from trying to stage any kind of commemorative climb. Cousin Fred is the ultimate administrator, having been president of Elon College for 25 years, the man most responsible for elevating the school to its current university status. He was told our mountain is at the northernmost point in the Black Mountain Crest trail and there is no access except by a rugged trail that rises 3,500 feet in four miles. No motorized vehicles and no horses were allowed on the trail.
We had given up on ever reaching the heights our great great uncle did when I mentioned it to my beautiful cousin Nancy Young Hunnicutt’s son, Tom Jr., or “Young Tom” as she calls him. “Oh,” he said, his face brightening, “I go up there all the time. Come on, I’ll show you the base of the trail right now if you want to go.” You bet I did. We drove around the wall of lower mountains and turned left along Bolen’s Creek, past the house where my father was born in 1889 and his father was born in 1847.
“There’s no sign or anything,” said Young Tom. We came to a steep curve in the road, across from the cemetery where my grand parents and great grandparents lie buried, and turned into what looked like the driveway to a house. Three hundred feet up this rocky road, we came on a primeval landscape that suddenly recalled some of the more magical moments of my childhood.
My father had been a rough hewn difficult man as he tried to provide for his many children, me the 13th and last. But he became a totally different person when we’d get out in the woods and forests he loved with a passion. His ostensible reason was to stake out a stand in the summer for where he’d go deer hunting in the fall. Now I realize killing a deer wasn’t the point, getting back to the quiet untroubled peace with nature was.
It was close to dark as we climbed down among the moss and fern-covered boulders 30 and forty feet high with waterfalls dropping all around us. I felt transported, overwhelmed by the lush beauty of it all. Although much of the woods around us had been heavily timbered in the 20th century, the area 50 feet on either side of the creek had to look just as it did hundreds of years ago, 110 years ago when my daddy had been a rambunctious wild child scampering about these very same rocks.
Young Tom said “I’d really like to climb to the top tomorrow if you want to do it.” I couldn’t believe me ears. I was so excited I called another cousin and lifelong friend in Asheville, who had a dire warning: “You are 61 years old, you better be careful trying to climb a mountain like that.”
So I put a bottle of aspirin in my pocket. I’d heard aspirin could save you if you were having a heart attack. And we set off for the mountaintop the next morning. We took our time, exploring the vast array of botanical and geological specimens along the way. Wild red columbine and the deep purple rhododendron and brilliant orange flame azaleas—20 feet tall—were in full bloom. Various kinds of quartz and feldspar and mica littered the trail and once we climbed down into an abandoned mine cut in between two 50-foot-high boulders. It was a hazy warm day, but a brisk cool wind greeted us on the mountaintop. Tom had brought his cell phone, so I called Cousin Fred in Burlington and announced we’d conquered Youngs Mountain. “No, you didn,t,” he laughed, “you’re calling from my house.” “No,” I said, “I’ve got a witness.” And Young Tom got on the phone and confirmed we were calling from on high. I felt like a giddy teenager looking southeast to Grandfather and Table Rock and south where we could clearly see the tower on Mt. Mitchell.
Coming down the mountain, my right knee started to throb with pain, so I pulled out the aspirin bottle and swallowed three pills. “I brought these in case I had a heart attack,” I told Tom. “It’s a good thing you didn’t tell me that before,” he laughed. And this morning after, my right knee is still sore. But maybe I’m beginning to understand what Hemingway explained to the young boy bloodying his hands and feet trying to catch the big fish in “Islands in the Stream.” Once you have done something like this, you have this deep good feeling about yourself and nobody can ever take that away from you. Thank you, Young Tom.
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