Outdoors: Ever new

A river doesn’t stay the same from year to year—or even day to day. Still, my first memories of Big Laurel Creek linger like snapshots: big rocks, rushing water, deep pools, gray cliffs, sunlit trees, moss and ferns in damp, dappled shade.

Just jump!: Madison County teens know where the best plunges are. Photo By Margaret Williams

Fast-forward to another year—and a creek ravaged by flood. Chunks of the narrow trail had slid away; trash, mud and tree limbs were clumped into crevices between boulders. What I most recall from yet another hike are the neat piles of rounded river rocks some anonymous artist left perched at the water’s edge and even midstream. I stacked up my own testament and hiked on.

This season, however, a thought teased me: I had never hiked the trail all the way from the parking area at U.S. Highway 25/70 to where the creek merges with the French Broad River. There was no particular reason I hadn’t, except that my friends and I had tended to view the trail as something short, flat and close to town.

Meanwhile, I live closer now to Big Laurel Creek than I ever have in my 21 years in these mountains. In about a 20-minute drive from my top-of-the-mountain, state-line farm, I could be lacing up my boots and setting off. And as Heraclitus famously observed, “You cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”

With that in mind, I checked various hiking guides; as I get older, I’m more cautious than I was when my mother and I took a side trail in the Middle Prong Wilderness near Shining Rock and nearly spent the night on a chilly ridge. These days, I try to check everything first. According to the guides, the Big Laurel Creek Trail runs about 3.7 miles, one way. The level, creek-side trail starts as a gravel road where train tracks once ran; it ends just past the ruins of Runion, an early-1900s logging town.

I should mention that I’m often disinclined to hike the same ol’ trails. I like looking at maps and trail markers and wondering what’s at the other end. Sometimes I seek out the strenuous ones (which whittles down the number of pals willing to tag along); sometimes I need the easy, meditative ones. Sometimes I know it’s the right time to hike up Black Balsam off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mount Pisgah and commune with my father’s spirit; we sprinkled his ashes there.

This time, I was driven by curiosity—and pleased to be hiking alongside a familiar, cold creek on a hot summer day.

Ghost town: The ruins of the mill town named Runion, shown above in a historical photo taken circa 1900, lie at the end of Big Laurel Creek Trail. Courtesy Mars Hill College Southern Appalachian Archives

My partner and I hit the trail just after noon on a recent Sunday.  We hadn’t gone 100 yards before I noticed something new: an old caboose and a railroad car sitting in the woods mere feet from the trail. It was perched on a short section of track, laid about 50 yards from a gravel driveway that probably went on up to the highway. We pondered the mystery, noting that it was equipped with a well pump and electricity. A train to nowhere, from nowhere.

We hiked on, chatting stream-of-consciousness fashion about the train, my new job, the fusion of the Internet and the newspaper industry, and log homes (we want to build one). “Leave the work at home!” a passing hiker joked. And when the trail narrowed, I found myself reduced to talking over my shoulder. But I like sharing talk of life’s challenges, mysteries and joys on a hike.

Where the trail passes into a shady, rocky ravine, we met a pair of teenagers. The girl huddled at the water’s edge, chilled by her swim in a deep, green pool between rapids. The boy stood on a board nailed to a tree. Gripping a big, fat rope, he shoved off and swung out, spinning higher and higher. Just after that pause in the arc that comes before changing directions, he dropped in with a big splash. “Wanna try?” he called out.

“No, not today. Gotta get to the end of this thing.”

We came to a boulder in the middle of the trail. “That wasn’t here before,” I said. It was chin-high and so big the two of us couldn’t have reached around it with linked arms. Looking up, we saw a raw spot on the mountainside.

Soon after, we came upon the remnants of concrete walls, overgrown like an ancient temple sitting in a Thai jungle. “Runion,” I said. It doesn’t seem like much now, but at the turn of the 20th century, almost 1,000 people lived near here, where the Laurel River Logging Company Co. processed timber and loaded it onto the main rail line nearby.

A bit past the ruins, we crossed into bright sunshine and walked over the rail line, which is still in use today. On the other side, the trail plunged into an overgrown thicket. The land changed from rocky to sandy; the river was close. Pushing through the brambles, we reached the French Broad. Here at a big bend in its course between Asheville and Hot Springs, it spreads easily a hundred yards across as the water runs over rocky shallows. I imagined how the early European explorers must have felt standing on this very spot.

Then I spied three fishermen in the shallows on the other side. Modern gear, nice wading boots. We could hear them talking as they pondered the end of their day.

We considered ours as well. Our expedition had started at noon and it was now midafternoon. Taking some pictures, we marveled at the big trees on this almost swampy spit of land and wished we had room in our pack to haul away the beer bottles and trash left by other visitors. Then we turned homeward, much as I would have liked to explore a little further—especially if I’d worn my waterproof Teva sandals and could wade into the shallows the way the fishermen had.

We’d walked fast on the way in, but tired legs made for a slow return. We talked less and observed more. The teens were gone, but we saw a woman and her big brown dog wading up the creek until she found a spot to plop in the water and enjoy the cool flow. Passing a couple swimming one of the deep holes, we pledged to wear bathing suits next time. And then we spied an elderly couple sitting midstream, backs to the trail, butts in the water, shoulders touching.

Let those “other waters” keep on flowing: Life is good.

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