At length I rested on the most elevated peak, from whence I beheld with rapture and astonishment, a scene of power and magnificence: a world of mountains piled upon mountains.
-William Bartram, describing his journey to the Nantahalas (and possibly Wayah Bald)
Everything becomes enchanting with true sight.
The view from Wayah Bald
I almost skipped the big Book Fair in Sylva over the weekend. With so many stacks of unread books throughout my house, I can’t justify any more binges of book-buying.
Despite my reluctant frugality, I enjoyed the Fair. To have the literati of this region convened in one room is something special. For just a minute, I slipped over to a corner and surveyed the scene. Observing the authors, one by one, I considered the many places they’ve taken us and the many characters they’ve brought to life. I appreciate that kind of magic.
That exercise in memory at the Fair reminded me of a recent trip to Wayah Bald. I’d not been to the lookout tower there in years and had forgotten what a unique, and tremendous, view it provides. The mountains that ring the horizon enclose a rough bowl of land more than 40 miles across. From the tower you can see the better part of the Little Tennessee, Nantahala and Tuckasegee valleys.
Every direction I looked reminded me of the past. People and events from long ago crowded the scene. Memories of my own lifetime rushed back, born and borne upon the geography stretching out from Wayah.
If you had the sharp eyes of a hawk and the patient endurance of granite, what a show you could have seen from here.
The John B. Byrne Memorial Tower on Wayah Bald
I focused on Cowee Mountain, a little protuberance of earth between the Tuckasegee and the Little Tennessee. Closing one eye and extending my arm, I could conceal the entire mountain with my thumb. I looked at Cowee Mountain again and saw the ancient road connecting Kituwah, a center of spirituality, with Cowee village, a center of commerce. I pictured that same road, busy with hundreds of British soldiers crossing the mountain in 1761. I recalled my own time on that road, this past summer, bicycling through a reverie of wildflowers. From Wayah, the mountain looked impossibly small, too small to hold all that history.
Scanning the horizon, my eyes paused at one prominent feature to the northeast, Balsam Gap. Only from this distance does its significance become clear. Balsam Gap was, and is, the natural portal to this province. Sometimes, topography shapes history. What began as a deer track on Balsam Gap became a hunters trail, a traders path, the Rutherford Trace, a drovers route, the Western North Carolina Railroad, a blacktop road and a four-lane highway.
In the distance, Balsam Gap
As I look out from the tower, centuries run together, human accomplishments appear small, and the people themselves are imperceptible. The panorama from Wayah is an unfamiliar perspective on the world I know and, at first, seems absurdly distorted.
But on second thought, my everyday prospect on life might be the distorted perspective, while a trip to the tower at Wayah Bald offers a rare moment of clarity.
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