Thursday, May 31, 2018

Returning to Standing Indian

I knew exactly where I wanted to go for my first trip in the southeast. Standing Indian Mountain in the Southern Nantahala Wilderness of North Carolina offers outstanding views and the botanical diversity can’t be beat. At least that's how I'd remembered it when I'd left here in 2014.

In particular, a favorite place of mine is a particular tunnel of purple rhododendron on the eastern slope of the mountain. In my memory, I can envision the gently curving twisting trunks supporting a riot of deep purple blossoms. To walk through is to be enveloped by beauty.

Heavy rains fell during the long drive to the trailhead. It has rained every single day since I’ve been back East, so this was nothing new.
A roaring Kinsey Creek overflowing its banks.
The rain persisted as I started up the Kimsey Creek Trail. The whole trail had been transformed into a stream.
I sloshed through the water, often up to my ankles but sometimes higher. Waves of rain pounded down, alternating with heavier, drenching rain as I joined the Appalachian Trail at the ridge.

Some parts were deeper.
I’d been up this trail many times, but this is not how I remembered it. What shocked me at the summit of Standing Indian was not that there was no view, but that the heath shrubs were scorched by fire. What had happened since I’d been here last in 2014?
No view, no flowers.

A check of the weather indicated more thunderstorms on the way. An alert revealed that subtropical storm Alberto was passing through. That explained everything!

I hurried off the summit, still anticipating the purple rhododendron grove.

Instead I found blackened trunks of the rhododendrons and the bare branches. Fire had killed this grove. How could I not have known this? I was totally shaken and flooded by waves of homesickness, not for any place in particular, but rather for a sense of belonging. It felt like I was utterly alone. What was I doing out here anyway, shivering in the horrible rain, far away from everyone I have ever loved?
Turns out a fire raged through here in 2016.
Just as I was sinking deeper into a self-pity party, four soaking wet hikers came up the trail. They’d been unable to cross a raging river ford up ahead. Other hikers were camped down at the gap, waiting for the water levels to fall.  Did I have any cell service to call a shuttle to pick them up to give them a ride into town?

Part of me wanted to go see if I could find a way across, but then I caught the eyes of a father and looked at his limping daughter. Automatically, I offered all four of them rides to whereever they needed to go.

I’d remembered the hike down the Lower Ridge Trail as taking only two hours. But it took us nearly four, with much slipping and sliding.
The young daughter spotted two salamendars! How cool!
As we hiked, we traded stories and helped each other over downed trees. It reminded me about everything I love about the Appalachian Trail— how quickly friendships are made, how people from different walks of life can come together. Hiking as a group and helping each other out was uplifting and gave me that sense of belonging that I needed to find.
Amazingly, we squeezed all five of us plus backpacks into my tiny car! Not the trip I'd expected, but exactly what I needed.
Making it all fit!


  1. Oh how I missed your eastern forest posts! I mean, I loved your western stuff but man, there's something about the south/eastern forests.

    I'm sorry your trip back to Standing Indian wasn't what you imagined. Isn't that the way it goes for those certain trips that are spectacular in our memories? Return trips aren't always the same? What a bummer that the area burned. I'm glad you were able to help some hikers out!

  2. You can't step in the same river twice, so maybe you can't hike in the same forest twice? I always find it tough to return to places I've had to move away from. Looking forward to more trip reports from the eastern forests, which I also miss dearly. Thank you!

  3. There's a lot of places I used to love that I'm kind of afraid to go back to, for example "secret" ones that used to be known only to locals that now have beaten paths to. It would definitely be different.