10.22.2007,8:55 PM
Buck is bald!

After finding our way to Hwy 68 we rode south looking for a sign with either CR 311 or Buck Bald. There in plain view on the roadside was the familiar brown park sign with white letters; "Buck Bald". We gladly left the tarmac again and onto gravel.

The road was wide and nicely shaded by towering trees. For someone living in Texas for the past nine years, the eastern forests are almost alien to me despite that more than half my life was spent in mostly forested New England. Even compared to the giants I lived amongst in Oregon for 14 years, the woods there are thick with a variety of vegetation. Sometimes I felt like a munchkin on my little bike and riding through the seams of these creatures.

Gradually winding our way uphill we approached a rode off to the left. "This must be forest service road 198. Buck Bald is this way." I was off the bike wandering around snapping photos of the shadows and trees when all of a sudden I noticed a huge vehicle behind me.

"What the.....?!"

Used to having the back roads all to ourselves, which is how I like it, seeing a large vehicle like that bearing down on my bike parked in the middle of the gravel road sent me running. Yelling an expletive into the air as I shoved the camera in the tail bag and hopping on the bike, it took barely one second to start it, shift down and scream forward out of its path. Up the road I went, past Ed, pointing behind us, and sent gravel flying behind my skidding rear tire.

Ed caught up with me and we reached a stretch of double track. No sign of anything behind and I wondered if it was a bus or a huge RV that nearly collided with me. I didn't want to know and felt a wave of territorial 'This is MY road! You don't belong here!'. I felt annoyed that a large vehicle should spoil my peace and enjoyment out here in the middle of nowhere. I was startled at how strong that feeling was and quickly chastised myself for being so selfish. But sometimes, on roads like these and out in the middle of nothing, the area around me is sacred and I don't like it to be disturbed.

But we all have to share.

The two-track road wound around the summit and I rode Sherpie right up to the top, parking it at the highest point. I sat on the bike in awe. All around me was a complete 360 degree view of the Smoky Mountains and three states. Down below me were ripples of land covered with a fine fur coat of trees. Up here at this altitude (5,560 feet) the trees were in color: vivid reds, bronzes, yellows, oranges, rust, brown,and all shades in between. Below, spots of colors on the mountains were muted by the famous haze that gives this mountain range their name: smokey blue. Outstretched before us and beyond was the east coast's historical and geographical mountain range that spans nearly the entire eastboard: the Appalachian Mountains.


These are old and stately mountains; the elders. They were formed long before the Rocky mountains and aged even before the continental plates ground together pushing up the youngsters that majestically crown the western continent. These mountains are like old men and woman; rounded, eroded, hunched over, wrinkled, gently sweeping down and up from their valleys. The vegetation covers them like soft fur and the smoky haze seems to blanket them in their slumber.

These aren't the craggy, boisterous and challenging mountains of the Rockies and Cascades, the two ranges that have captured my eastern-born spirit. While those mountains tantalize, inspire and awe you with their intensity and rugged sharp splendor, these old elders here instill a sense of inner peace that makes you almost want to lay down in their embrace, pull the blanket of smoky blue haze over you and sleep with them for thousands of years.


The northern range of these mountains were my childhood and early adulthood friend. Their subtle sublime taught me many things about life and myself, their humble nobility and their creatures that inhabit them were my companions during my years living alone in the Maine woods. But the mountains that march in the west later captured and still command me with their austere presence and grandeur; they make me feel vibrantly alive. Yet I took some time there, on top of Buck Bald, and again later on a wooded mountainside, to thank these old mountains for watching over me in those long-gone years, and for letting me visit again.

I can't think of anyone that wouldn't notice why this summit is so aptly named. It was bald. Except for the stiff velvet carpet of dried grass, no trees or shrubs grew on the top. It reminded me of a monk's bald head with a ring of trees instead of hair. That ring of foliage was blazing with colors, and against the hazy blue of the mountains it was vibrant.


I wondered then, and again later, why the name 'bald' was associated with so many mountain summits here and nearby. I later learned that they are so named because of the dense carpet of native grasses that cover the top of those mountains. Where one would expect dense forest growth like we had been riding through, these stark open spaces crowned them, covered instead with thick grasses. It is as if a line had been drawn hundreds of yards down from the summit and around its circumference with a stern sign to woody plants "Don't grow here beyond this point!". And they obliged.

I wondered also if these balds were natural by virtue of the soil, water or temperature. Or if they had help from native and even perhaps domestic herbivores. I spied deer hoof prints in some spots and deer pellets (deer deposit poop in little pellets like sheep and rabbits). Considering the history of most mountain ranges and nearby civilization, trees were logged off before the park system allowed them to recover; fire probably rages through here occasionally (lightning strikes are the most common cause), and livestock may have either wandered or purposely grazed here.

Or perhaps it's a combination of all the above. Despite the warmer climate of these southern mountains, the growing season may be too short for the surrounding trees to live on the summits. The exposure to wind and sun may disallow trees to get a good hold and grow to size but the low-lying grasses thrive. Or perhaps the park service helps prevent trees and shrubs from encroaching on bald summits that were heavily grazed.

Regardless, this Buck was surely bald. And I thoroughly enjoyed my visit on top of his head.

I took several panoramic shot from that vantage point. And I imagined how glorious it would be to camp a night up there. I bet the night sky is breathtaking. Maybe the sunrise and sunset would intoxicate me as they did when I stayed a night on top of a mountain in the desert of Big Bend. I still have that desire hidden away in my planning agenda during my return visit next year.

We spent a lot of time up there and it was time now to depart.

Like visiting respected ancients and elders, I imaginably bowed my respect to them as I got on the Sherpa and prepared to leave.


Next: My Zen Road

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posted by Macrobe
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