Morning broke clear and crisp. There was no shelter from the light on top of the bald, so as soon as the sun crested the eastern ridge and blazed full and harsh on our campsite I was awake. Despite the brightness, there was a bitter chill and I wrestled with my sleeping bag before finally unzipping myself from its warm cocoon and stumbling out of the tent.

    I had expected last night’s fog to linger through the first part of the morning, so I blinked in disbelief when I saw the mountain was mostly clear with a few trails of mist racing down the slope. It was as though the final spirits of last night’s haunting were being rounded up and chased away by daybreak.

    McCrae had been up well before me and was perched on the second peak of saddle-shaped Sam Knob, staring at the mist receding into the valley below. From my vantage point it was easy to admire him as he stood unmoving, deep in thought. Despite the rushing mist, everything was still, so still, and that stillness was encapsulated in a brief, sharp memory - a luminous synapse in my brain.

    Breakfast consisted of pop-tarts: dry, crumbling, and sticking to the roof of my mouth, and I rued not having a backcountry coffee routine to warm me. When we’d finished eating and packed up the site, there was simply nothing else to do but head down the trail to Flat Laurel Creek.

Flat Laurel Creek Crossing

    The trail rounded past several campsites and meandered under tree cover near the creek. It was cool under the gold-tinged canopy with a scent of winter that had not yet encroached upon the piedmont. The sharp air was anachronistic with the early autumnal colors, like mashing together Halloween and Christmas into one weekend.

Another view while crossing the creek. McCrae and Ryder were not thrilled that I dawdled on the slick rocks.

    This eerie delight was underscored when we reached the conifer forest on Little Sam Knob. The thick underbrush that snapped at our heels gradually receded until we were left with some scenery that better belonged in the taiga of Canada than the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sparse and even columns of evergreens stood sentinel over the path: Christmas-scented monoliths that made the hair on the back of your neck tingle. This was a forest of legends and spooks, where Little Red Riding Hood could meet the Big Bad Wolf, and where Santa’s sleigh could easily lose its way. Indeed, McCrae and I spoke little here, and when we did it was markedly quiet. Would we wake some sinister force in the trees, or was it already awake and eavesdropping on its unsuspecting trespassers? It was spooky, but that which was spooky was also exhilarating.

The conifer forest: eerie, disconcerting, and yet somehow it takes hold of you and doesn't let go.

    Eventually the trees broke and the trail cut across an open swath of land. The home stretch. Our feet kicked up dust and gravel and McCrae and Ryder blindly stepped over a gully where a baby snaked had slithered. I swore up and down that it looked like a copperhead, but I didn’t stick around long enough to check.

A view from below. One of the surrounding areas is called "Black Balsam" for a reason.

    And finally, too soon it seemed, we arrived at the dusty parking lot reeking of sweat and mud. The trip was over.

    We retreated to Pisgah Campground since it was too late to drive back to Durham, but too early to give up on another night under the stars. This time there was no witches’ sabbath to stalk my slumber - only the drifting sounds of a radio and cheerful, intoxicated voices from the next campsite. We were early to bed and early to rise, with a promise that we would have to treat ourselves to the haunting tricks of Sam Knob again.

A bend in the road, a promise to keep following my own path.


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