Hiking with Nana

Nana enjoys the view from Second Falls in the Graveyard Fields area. Holly Kays photo

It was a perfect summer day along a gorgeous riverside trail when our multi-generational entourage—two dogs, five people—set off for a high-elevation adventure in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. But my enthusiasm was mixed with nervousness.

We were hiking at the request of my mother’s mother Nana, 83 that summer, and it had been my job to pick the trail. And while it wasn’t my first rodeo choosing a trail for the now-annual Mom and Nana trip to North Carolina—this year marked the fourth trip running—the truth is there are few hiking options in the mountains if you’re looking for a level stroll over an even grade.

Now, Nana is just about as fit as is possible for an 83-year-old to be. She rides a bicycle, plays tennis, and does multi-mile power walks around the neighborhood. But she’s not exactly well versed in the ways of backcountry recreation. Her typical hiking outfit involves white shorts and white sneakers, which she takes great pains to avoid splashing in the muddy seeps and puddles that inevitably pepper any trail. Hiking in the rocky and rooty woods is much different than walking a paved suburban road.

But Nana had surprised me on that first hike we took together, several years before. I’d found a reasonably flat 5.5-mile trail near Brevard, and though it took about five hours to complete, Nana spent the rest of the year raving about how nice the trail was and how beautiful the mountains are and how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful place. A tradition was born. Every year there was a visit, and a hike.

That brought us to summer 2017, when the three of us—this time joined by my two sisters—stepped off the trailhead at Graveyard Fields. While I’d never done this particular trail, I’d hiked all around the area. I knew this route was immensely popular with tourists, including the flip-flop-wearing kind, and that it followed a stream that eventually led to a waterfall. It seemed like a good pick.

In many ways, it was. It’s hard to beat the Shining Rock Ledge anytime of year, summer included. At 5,000 feet, the air is cool and clear even in the middle of July. A tunnel of rhododendron marked the entrance to the Graveyard Fields Trail, leading down to Yellowstone Prong, a gentle mountain stream with startlingly clear water. The trail eventually exited the woods to enter a series of grassy meadows before dipping into forest again and sloping upward toward Second Falls, a trough of boulders over which the water cascades down into the lazier portion of Yellowstone Prong.

Yellowstone Prong flows through the Shining Rock Wilderness. Holly Kays photo

But what I hadn’t anticipated was how rocky some portions of the trail would be, or the long steps required to complete some of the stream crossings. The going was slow, Nana often needing an arm to keep her steady on the rougher sections.

When we finally reached Second Falls, everybody was looking forward to relaxing over a leisurely lunch. But such was not to be. The sunny day rapidly eclipsed into clouds, rain threatening. The final push up to the falls had been incredibly rocky; the last thing Nana needed was to descend it once slicked by rain.

So began the return hike, Nana leaning on my arm as she carefully picked her way downhill. Human crutch became my semi-official job over the remaining miles, an imperative task once the clouds finally burst, turning the trail into a patchwork of mud and puddles.

Poor Nana—her white sneakers didn’t stand a chance.

Nana, however, proved much tougher than her shoes.

Throughout my childhood, it had been a common exercise to laugh at the seriousness with which Nana took all things health-related. She fastidiously devised her diet to include all the things that “they” said would keep your heart, brain, skin or whatever else healthy forever. She was a supplement-taker, a sun-visor-wearer, a morning power-walker. I mostly saw those things as silly and slightly obsessive.

But as we journeyed through the rain, stepping over stones and sloshing through mud while two crazy terrier mixes raced around us, I began to see it differently. Nana was 83 years old, fearlessly embarking on a hike featuring trip hazards and sharp inclines galore. Plenty of people her age use walkers, canes or wheelchairs. Yet here she was, hiking in the mountains with grandchildren 60 years younger than her, unassisted except for a steadying grasp on my hand. That’s amazing.

So I held her hand, admiring her grit but also marveling at the shift in relationship that the touch signaled. Relationships with grandparents begin at infancy, with babies learning quickly that grandparents are the people who feed you, hold you, give you snacks your parents would say no to, buy you toys your parents wouldn’t buy you.

As the rain poured, it hit me. I was no longer an 8-year-old begging fresh-baked cookies. I was 28, an adult with my own life in my own town, able to host family and plan activities—and offer a hand to my Nana when she needed it.

We finally made it back to the car, soaking wet but satisfied with the day’s adventure. Despite all the difficulties, Nana was quick to say how much fun she’d had, how beautiful it was, and how thankful she was for my help.

I told her she was welcome, and I meant it. Because now I am an adult, and it feels good to be able to give something back.

This piece was originally published in the June/July 2018 issue of Smoky Mountain Living. Reproduced by permission. 


Compassion is not weakness

A boy from Honduras is taken into custody by US Border Patrol agents near the U.S./Mexico Border. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Since I first saw the news of the week — 2,000 crying children separated from their families at the U.S./Mexico border over the past two months — I’ve done a lot of reading. Though I certainly don’t know it all, I know a lot more now than I did then about the actions of current and former administrations that led us here, to this.

Immigration is a complex issue, for sure, and I get that there’s a real dilemma — a rightful desire to keep the border secure and enforce laws juxtaposed with the humanity of an impoverished family fleeing violence in search of a better life, and the inadequacy of our immigration policies to address that need.

There are a lot of details to parse here, complex timelines and motivations and policies and laws. But the thing that sticks with me is quite simple — images of distraught children, being torn away from her parents by strangers in a foreign land.

I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong. Because it’s heartbreaking and cruel, and because it’s dangerous. Tearing children away from their families under any circumstance is traumatic. How much more so when it’s done in a foreign country that speaks a foreign language, and when the placement isn’t the family setting that foster care (though admittedly imperfect) strives for but rather a camp or institution?


Yes, it’s true that anyone convicted of a crime in America is taken away from their children — but this is different in two important ways. First, most people accused of a crime are released on bond until conviction. And second, children left parentless as the result of criminal convictions are sent to foster homes — when possible in or near the communities they’re from — not to institutional shelters hundreds of miles away.

Housing masses of kids of varying ages and backgrounds in giant institutions is a recipe for disaster and the perfect environment for all kinds of abuse and trauma to occur. Why do you think that America hasn’t had orphanages since the 1960s?

Bottom line: compassion is important. And compassion is not weakness.

If compassion were weakness, then the God I worship would be a remarkably weak God. Why leave your safe and beautiful heaven to come down to the messy and evil-riddled earth, solely to make a way for the rabble below to join you in said safe and beautiful heaven? Because of love and compassion, it would seem.

Compassion is a subsidiary of love, and love makes a way.

In my work as a reporter, I see it often — one party wants to get such-and-such accomplished, and the other party says that they would love to see that happen but it won’t work because of…fill in the blank. More often than not, that blank is a surmountable obstacle — but the truth is there is no desire to surmount it. It’s just a convenient excuse to not pursue the proposed such-and-such.

I agree with the Republicans that we need to have a secure border. That we’re a nation of laws, and that those laws are enacted to protect the population as a whole. If those laws aren’t enforced, we’re done for.


But there’s a way to do and still recognize the humanity of all involved, and the need to craft laws that reflect the needs and realities of the day. We are a nation of laws, but we are a world of people. Love and basic human compassion must transcend national boundaries. There must be a line at which we realize that the ends no longer justify the means, and that achieving the desired ends will require an alternative means.

Compassion shows us where that line is.

One last thought. One of my favorite verses is Micah 6:8, and I’ve been thinking of it lately with all the debate about justice versus mercy. It doesn’t have to be either-or, though. Christians are called to act justly, but also to love mercy.

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”



The wildest show

Red light from visitors’ flashlights floods the forest as synchronous fireflies flash. Because white light disturbs the fireflies, the park provides red cellophane for visitors to cover their lights. Holly Kays photo

I entered the lottery on a whim, figuring that, like 90 percent of my fellow entrants, I’d end up with nothing but a polite “thank you for entering” and an invitation to try again next year. I was stunned, frankly, to receive an email that instead began with the word “congratulations” and an invitation to start dreaming about a front-row seat to one of the region’s most spectacular natural phenomena.

That would be the flashing of the synchronous fireflies, Photinus carolinus.

Fireflies are a familiar sight to anyone who’s grown up in the Southeast, yellow lights blinking across grassy fields during the most beautiful hour of any summer day — dusk, as the sun sets and saturated greenery fades slowly to darkness.

But the synchronous fireflies are something different, akin to the hard-partying, sequin-wearing cousin of a demure wallflower type. They stay abed until the sun is gone, waiting for complete darkness to start the party.

The lady fireflies sit on the forest floor, emitting a weak little flash that apparently drives the gentlemen crazy. Perched in trees and shrubbery, the male fireflies flash their part — bright, white flashes sparkle in synchronous waves through the forest. The pattern is consistent, with the males flashing five to eight times in a row before pausing, allowing darkness to take over for a few brief seconds. In that pause, they search for the faint flash of a potential sweetheart, hoping to find a mate before the night is over.

Like many of the more showy elements of animal behavior, it’s all about reproduction, but standing in the midst of a forest full of blinking fireflies decorating the trees like Christmas lights, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking there’s a less carnal purpose to the display — a motivation closer to artistry, magic and the pure desire for beauty in the world.

At least, that’s how I’d remembered it when I put my name into the lottery this spring. I’d had the pleasure of seeing the fireflies at Elkmont Campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park once before, back in 2014. I remember so clearly standing there as darkness fell, seeing nothing of note, and wondering what all the fuss was about. Then it happened — the unmistakable cacophony of synchronous light. I knew why I’d come.

Synchronous fireflies can be found across the Southern Appalachians, but they have a specific set of habitat requirements that limit their population to pockets here and there. Living at elevations of 2,000 to 5,000 feet, they’re sensitive to light pollution and trampling of the ground, and they need moist soils, a comfortable temperature range and an open understory to see each other’s displays. The Elkmont area has all of that, and it’s well known to contain one of the most dramatic firefly light shows around. So dramatic, in fact, that the park had to start running the firefly viewing as a ticketed event, limiting the number of people on any given night and staffing the trail with rangers to ensure that visitors behave in a firefly-friendly manner.

This year, I was to be one of the lucky few granted a parking pass, allowing one carful to park at Sugarlands Visitor Center and ride the trolley up to the Little River Trail at Elkmont.

A long-exposure photograph reveals the patterns of light synchronous fireflies spin in the darkness. Holly Kays photo

A long-exposure photograph reveals the patterns of light synchronous fireflies spin in the darkness. Holly Kays photo

We arrived on the early end of the things, but not early enough to avoid waiting in a line several trolley-loads deep, populated with a combination of avid outdoors-lovers and folks venturing into the park for the first time. Despite the difficulty we humans always have with waiting, anticipation reigned stronger than anxiety as the line inched forward, finally disappearing as we made our way into one of the City of Gatlinburg trolleys and 6 miles uphill to Elkmont, where the magic was to happen.

 As dusk fell and the familiar yellow-flashing fireflies made their appearance, we found a nice spot along the trail, set up our chairs and the camera tripod — synchronous fireflies are one of the hardest subjects to photograph, which of course just fueled my enthusiasm for trying — and enjoyed the fact that the called-for rain had decided to hold off. The Smokies holds 19 known species of fireflies, and several members of that cast provided opening acts as the daylight waned into darkness.

With nothing but moon and stars left to light the sky, I saw them — crackles of light, like so many sparks from a sparkler.  They celebrated in bursts through the understory, a soundless crackle-crackle-pop punctuated by the lazy drifting of blue ghost fireflies. It was mesmerizing, and peaceful, though I kept waiting for the show to reach the dramatic heights it had in 2014, when the fireflies had flashed like bulbs strung along the branches of towering trees.

When I looked at the time and saw it was nearly 11 p.m., I was shocked — because the hours had slipped away so quickly in that chair, along the summery green trail with the flashing of the synchronous fireflies and low blue pulses of the blue ghosts, but also because I wondered if my memory had failed me, if I’d somehow built up that 2014 experience to larger-than-life heights, fueled by the repetition of fawning reports emerging from all corners of the internet.

But that’s not what happened, as I learned later. As with people, the seasons hit fireflies differently from year to year. Sometimes, mitigating circumstances force a last-minute change of plans.

This year featured some weird weather, making it harder than usual to predict exactly when the peak display would fall. April 2018 was one of the coldest Aprils on record, and May was forecast to be cool as well — though, in actuality, it turned out to be quite hot, speeding up firefly development and causing the trolley dates to fall in the middle and later part of the display period instead of smack in the middle, as is the goal. My ticket, dated for the second-to-last day of the event, would have been on the trailing end, while in 2014 I hit the peak exactly.

But that’s not a disappointment, necessarily. Sometimes quiet and peaceful beauty is just as fulfilling as high drama, and honestly there’s comfort in the knowledge that, as much as we might sometimes like to be, we aren’t yet capable of pinning nature down completely.

We can try, of course. We can take our measurements, make our guesses, design our systems, build our cages. But at the end of the day, wilderness will still fight to be wild, and the fireflies will still flash when they will. And if we’re lucky enough to catch the show — well then, good for us. The only sensible thing to do is sit back, enjoy, and take in the beauty.


This piece was originally published in the June 20, 2018, issue of The Smoky Mountain News and is reproduced by permission only. All rights reserved. 

Remembering Pop-pop

Shepherd Kelsey Kays

This month marks 10 years since my Pop-pop left the earth, and with that date plus the annual advent of Memorial Day swirling around, it’s impossible for me not to think about him. Memorial Day was a big deal to Pop-pop. He was a World War II veteran, a survivor of the Pacific Theater who had a bronze star and purple heart to show for all the times he could have died at Okinawa and Leyte Gulf. He was the kind of person this holiday was created for, and I know I’d do a better job of recognizing that now that I’m older, were he still alive.

After he passed away on May 10, 2008, I did what I always do when something huge has just happened in my life — I wrote. I sent the resulting piece to my grandmother, who would outlive him by another three years, and every time I saw her after that she had to tell me how much it meant to her. Memories are important.

So, with the 10th anniversary of my Pop-pop’s passing going by, I found my old hard drive from 2008 and pulled up this piece. I’ve edited it a bit for paragraph breaks, hyphenation and other picky things like that, but otherwise it’s exactly what I wrote a decade ago.

By the time my grandparents decided to move from their house of 40-plus years, they had accumulated a lot of things that they simply didn’t have the space to take with them to their small new apartment. They invited us to take what we wanted from the myriad  photographs, letters, and random basement artifacts, and so I took home a large manila envelope filled mainly with pictures of and by my grandfather.

He died last weekend, and now I look through the old black-and-white photographs, trying to conceive the impossible. Out of the pictures smiles a tall, thin, handsome young man. His face is triangle-shaped, clean-shaven and topped with a thick head of slightly curly dark hair. In the picture I look at now, he sits on the ground, one arm resting on a bent leg. He wears the same army khakis that he would later in the battles of Leyte Gulf and Okinawa. At the age of 20, he had no idea that in 60 years he would be in his 56th year of marriage to June Van de Mark, that he would have four sons and 10 grandchildren, or even that he would be alive for 60 more years; there are no guarantees in war.

Grandma and Pop-pop knew how to host Thanksgiving — even with a horde of grandchildren to deal with!

But now, 64 years after the army photo was taken, I write this after the death of that smiling young man. He was my grandfather, Shepard Kays, who I always called “Pop-pop.” The “was” is still hard for me to grasp; I can see him so clearly in my memory. Happy weeks at the beach, afternoons spent assembling and painting wooden models, and endless art projects float endlessly through my mind. I remember when, as a little girl, he would “steal” blankets and stuffed animal friends from my sisters and I. Squealing with mock rage and unable to outrun the fleet-footed blankie thief, we would run down to the basement to create large, colorful “Wanted” posters for the notorious criminal. Somehow, the posters never seemed to have any effect on the crime’s frequency, but thankfully no Beanie Babies were permanently harmed in the ordeal.

I remember sitting at the kitchen table with Pop-pop as he told of his growing-up years.

“We would play baseball, but you’d have to be careful if you played in the outfield, because sometimes the dinosaurs would come along and get you,” he told my sister Laurel and I.

“But Pop-pop, that can’t be true,” I replied, speaking from my 7-year-old’s store of self-assured knowledge. “When there were dinosaurs, there weren’t any people. So there weren’t any dinosaurs when you played baseball.”

I was proud of myself for seeing so cleverly through his ruse, and Pop-pop, no doubt, was amused at the seriousness with which I analyzed his joke.

Another time, likely in response to a complaint of hunger or of the “ickiness” of some food item, he told us about his diet as a child.

“Every day at dinner,” he told us without smiling, “We would each get a glass of milk and a raisin. You ate that raisin carefully. And then on Sundays—well, Sundays were special days, and we’d get two glasses of milk, and two raisins.”

Pop-pop gives me (center) and my sister Laurel a lesson in pumpkin painting as my dad looks on. 

Pop-pop’s growing up had been difficult, I found out later, but rather than complain or allow it to make him bitter, he turned his experience into humorous exaggerations that I now look back on with amusement.

Then there were the J. J. Bird letters. I was around 9 or 10 when these were written, and at that time I was always looking for a joke to play on Pop-pop. He dished it out often enough, but he could also take it. On one visit, I discovered a little brown-red plastic box sitting on the sidebar in my grandparents’ kitchen. It had little golden hinges on the lid, and inside the box was a background of green meadow in which little gold plastic frogs wriggled on springs. Once the box was opened, the frogs began to chirp. I saw my opportunity and wrote Pop-pop a stern letter reprimanding him for the forced captivity experienced by the poor frogs in his care. He wrote back, insisting on his innocence, and it became an ongoing joke. Pop-pop invented J.J. Bird and I.M.A. Bird as gentleman to speak on his behalf in the letters. I was not fooled. In total, we exchanged between five and ten letters on this serious animal rights issue.

To my sisters and I, Pop-pop always seemed to be tired. We live between four and five hours away from him and Grandma, and whenever they arrived at our house, Pop-pop would inevitably succumb to the comforts of my Dad’s big reclining armchair. Many a morning, Pop-pop was awoken by three small girls bouncing on his bed. Because of his great love of “resting his eyes,” we dubbed him “Most Exhausted One.”

Beach trips were always the best! That’s me attempting to drag Pop-pop into the ocean in the first photo.

Pop-pop’s love of napping was a standing joke between us, but he was actually an extremely industrious person. He always had some project going; when he visited us, he could often be found cleaning the fish tank or chimney, or else building a fire. He always had to build a fire, regardless of temperature. Back at home in New Jersey, Pop-pop was constantly making something out of wood. Every Christmas and Fourth of July, without fail, Pop-pop gave some painted wooden token of his handiwork to a long list of friends and family members.

And so as I sit in my room, looking at the photographs and wooden crafts that permeate the house, and I realize that Pop-pop is still here, regardless of what has happened to his body. It’s a cliché, I know: “His spirit lives on in our hearts.” But it’s also true. Shepard Kays, the man I knew as Pop-pop, lived as full and happy a life as the young, smiling face in the photograph could dream of.

Though it was older and more wrinkled when I knew it, the face that looks out at me from the large black-and-white photograph is closely familiar, and memories of Pop-pop’s fun-loving, easygoing presence parade through my mind. A life well lived can never be erased, as long as there are people left to remember it, and between the many people left that are saddened by my grandfather’s death, it is certain that he will be remembered for a very long time.

Picture versus reality

It all starts online, these days. A picture pops up in an email, or on an app, and something about it makes you look twice, read the stats outlined in neatly delineated fields below. You read them once, then again, drawing bright green checkmarks in your mind for each one that lines up with the mental picture you’ve been painting yourself, ever since you decided that yes, you are ready for this kind of commitment.

This one, you decide, you want to see in person.

So you set a day and a time. You get in your car and drive through town, venturing onto unfamiliar streets in search of the allegedly cute little place where you’re expected to arrive momentarily. You’re excited, a little nervous, and also a bit skeptical, wondering if it really would have been a better use of your time to stay home and clean, or do your taxes, or pursue any of the other countless tasks you’d planned to attack before that picture popped up on your email.

Invariably, it seems, you arrive, parking your car and getting out to see the reality of the pictures you’ve been shown and the tales you’ve been told. And you find yourself confronted with something a little more ragged and worn, and a little less happy or interesting, than the digital images that brought you here. You don’t stay long before you drive away into an evening where you will give little more thought to the email or the picture or that brief moment of time when you drove those familiar yet unfamiliar streets, believing that this time, you could be headed toward the future.

I’m talking, of course, about house hunting.


I’ve been in the market for about a year now, and let me tell you, it’s frustrating. Just about as frustrating as dating often is, and in remarkably similar ways.

I mean, I’m a girl with requirements. Like, if I’m going to go six figures in debt on a house, I want it to A) not be about to fall down, B) have enough space for me, my dog, and some occasional overnight guests to be comfortable, and C) be close enough to town that my social life won’t have to suffer much. And, oh yeah, I’m on a budget.

A lot of the houses filter easily. They’re too big, too small, too expensive, up a crazy dirt road my Camry won’t want to go, in need of a billion potentially costly repairs. I delete those emails with the same mix of sadness and satisfaction as that with which I’ve swiped left on various and sundry apps, time after time after time.

But then there are those rare listings that seem to fit the bill. The right size, in the right location, in the right price range. And so I call up my Realtor and make an appointment. I drive to the listed address, wondering if this could be the one, and if it’s not, what the catch is this time. There is usually a catch.

Like, for instance, when the house is across the street from twice-daily traveled railroad tracks, next door to a rundown-looking trailer park and across from a pawn shop.

Or when it’s a foreclosure, needing a renovations investment as big as my entire purchase budget.

Otherwise there’s a dog kennel next door, or an unsettling crack in the ceiling, or a yard that will never be capable of holding a garden.

Then, occasionally, there’s no catch. It’s perfect, and I don’t forget about what I’ve seen as soon as my tires leave the driveway. I keep thinking about that hour we had together, revisiting the pictures on the listing, the pictures in my phone, and I make an offer, dreaming of all the years that house and I might spend together.

But, alas, there’s someone else, too, who likes what they see. They also make an offer, and their offer is better. There will be no closing for me.

I’m devastated, but I recover. Before too long, I’m back at it, opening emails and scrolling through photos. And, even though I never thought I’d like another house as much as I liked that one, eventually I do see something that piques my interest. I look, I like it, and I make an offer, again.

And this time, it’s accepted! I smile, laugh, rejoice. I start planning a garden, thinking about wall colors. I visit the property again, try to get to know it a little better. I’m happy, all abuzz with plans and the excitement of soon-to-be-fulfilled expectations.

Then, the news hits. This thing I’d had going was built on a lie. That house wasn’t what it purported to be, with some heavy baggage buried deep in its walls and a refusal to change a thing before closing. I stagger, rerunning the calculations in my mind, asking myself a question I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to ask again — is it still worth it?

Eventually, I must face the truth. It’s not, and it never was. I sign the papers, and I put myself back in the market.

Maybe I still haven’t found the house that’s destined for me, but I’m a little wiser for the wear. And soon, I have to believe, I’ll open that email, see a picture, and drive to an address featuring a house that, for once, really does live up to the hype.





Wildflower spotting

A group of Appalachian bluet flowers light up the forest floor. Holly Kays photo

The combination of a stress-filled week and the dawn of a perfect, sunny and 70-something degree day worked like a drug, a magnetic compulsion to leave the dark indoors in search of a sunlight-swathed trail to melt my anxiety away.

Mid-April is standout wildflower season here in the lower elevations of the mountains, so I grabbed the newly minted trail guide sitting on my desk for guidance on where to go. Wildflower Walks & Hikes: North Carolina Mountains, is the latest title from Swain County-based guidebook author Jim Parham, and with 59 hikes organized by location, habitat and peak season, it wasn’t hard to find an outing to match my criteria: low enough elevation to feature April wildflowers, dog-friendly and as close to Waynesville as possible.

That’s what brought me to the Pink Beds Trailhead on a Friday afternoon, guidebook in hand, camera around my neck, and excited pup running alongside.

DSC_3323From the dog’s perspective, the object of this venture was to run as fast as possible as long as possible, looping in circles if necessary to accommodate her human’s slower stride. But my goal was a bit different. I was on a wildflower hunt, and speed was to be avoided if I wanted to catch all the springtime blooms bordering the path.

But I quickly found that wildflower spotting wouldn’t be such a tedious task. Nearly immediately after starting the trail, I saw it, my first flower of the day. It was a trout lily, a bright yellow bloom with curved petals, stem rising several inches above the green leaves fueling its growth. Macro lens mounted, I got down on the ground, searching for an angle to capture the flower’s complex shape.

trout lily
Trout lily.

As it turned out, I might not have needed to take that first wildflower sighting so seriously. After the first trout lily, I started seeing them all over, the yellow blooms jumping out at me through nearly every turn of the 5.4-mile trail, stunning every time.

The trail wove in and out of meadows featuring dandelions, purple violets and wild strawberry flowers, with yarrow and clover plants growing lush but still holding back their blooms. In the wooded sections, trout lilies and two kinds of yellow violets peppered the view, with stream crossings often adding additional characters to the cast.

I spotted a smattering of wood anemone, small white flowers with a confetti of white anthers in the center. Nearby a faded spring beauty, white petals streaked with purple, lay in wait, and as I came upon a sunny creekside I spied my first and only trillium flower of the afternoon. Barely bloomed, the red wake robin bud lay against its green leaves, crimson petals just beginning to escape their green case as a group of still-flowerless trillium plants clustered around.

By this time I’d about reached the halfway point of the hike, and I started to wonder if I’d get lucky with a sighting of the rare swamp pink, a tall, hollow-stemmed plant capped with a pink tuft-like flower that’s found only in wetland areas. It’s the flower that gave Pink Beds its name. The loop trail concludes with a walk through a rare mountain bog, perfect habitat for the elusive swamp pink. According to Parham’s book, mid-April is the time to spot one — though he warns his readers against counting on it.

“Consider yourself fortunate should you find a colony in bloom,” he writes. “As tall as this lily gets, you’d think they’d be easy to spot. Instead, you tend not to see them and then — oh, there they are.”

That admonition in mind, I kept my eyes peeled, grateful for each new gathering of trout lilies and smattering of violets but holding out hope that a close watch would reveal the less common flower.

It was a sincere desire, but one without any accompanying anxiety should the desire prove unfulfilled. On a Friday afternoon, the trail was mostly devoid of people, the sunny spring day increasingly warm on my back and the smell of springtime woods swelling to life increasingly intoxicating. The stress of the week had already begun to fade, and the search for the swamp pink would not replace it.

So I pressed on, and while the swamp pink remained elusive, I found that my list of species sighted was not to remain unchanged.

Before long I encountered a series of short, woody stems holding plumes of tiny brown-purple flowers, each dotted with yellow centers — yellowroot, a low-growing shrub purported to have various medicinal effects. Mountain doghobble, that rough-edged evergreen plant that crowds so many Southern Appalachian understories, sported buds resembling green-plated armor, with a tinge of pink. And a fallen red maple fought on against the calamity that had toppled it, small red flowers spilling from the tips of its twigs.

Walking the boardwalk, it was plain that the warm season hadn’t yet kicked into high gear. Some tufts of green shot up from the tangle of dried twigs covering the ground, but most of the color came from the orange of light reflecting off of rocks on the creek bottom, and the blue of the sky. I kept scanning for signs of swamp pink, still hoping to add this photo to my otherwise satisfactory collection, but I started to realize that — despite my best efforts — I’d probably end up leaving without one.

I wouldn’t be leaving empty-handed, though. I knew that much. I found a fallen log lying just out of sight of the parking lot, a comfortable spot to sit down with my camera, trail guide and ID book, attempting to pin names to the flowers that I’d found. I tallied up 16 different species, a number that felt good to me.

The hike had never been about numbers, though. It had been about being outside, feeling the shine of a sun that for once was not obscured by rainclouds, and remembering the order of things — that no matter what else has been done or undone in the course of the week, the birds still sing and the flowers still bloom.

IMG_58071This piece was originally published in the April 18, 2018, issue of The Smoky Mountain News. Reproduced by permission. 

Hunting for kudzu

This kudzu root took me the better part of an hour to dig out. 

Even as I parked my car at the bottom of a steep and weedy hill that Friday morning, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d signed up for by electing to participate in Kudzu Camp.

Kudzu, according to all my past understanding, was an aggressive invasive, a noxious weed responsible for smothering millions of acres of Southern landscape under a blanket of leafy vines with a seemingly supernatural ability for rapid growth. Kudzu was not something to celebrate. Rather, it was something to be despised as yet another example of a non-native plant hopping continents to destroy our Southern Appalachian ecosystems.

But when I arrived at Kudzu Camp, I found a very different perspective living among those gathered on the plateau cut into a vine-covered hillside in Sylva.

Here, kudzu was a celebrated resource, the centerpiece of a weekend spent sitting around a campfire, sipping coffee, sharing food and participating in the hard, hard work of digging and processing kudzu.

Kudzu Camp organizers Justin Holt and Zev Friedman were quick to extol the many virtues of kudzu — as a food thickener, a cure for hangovers and headaches, a medium for basketry and papermaking and protein-rich livestock fodder, among others — injecting me full of enthusiasm for experiencing the goodness of this “evil” plant.

I followed the line of other campers up the earthen steps cut into the steep slope that resumed uphill from the manmade plateau, carrying some tool or another I’d grabbed from the pile of shovels, trowels and post-diggers laid out at the bottom of the hill, and watched Friedman’s extended demonstration on how to dig a kudzu root.

It seemed easy enough. Find root. Dig hole. Retrieve root. How hard could it be?

Pretty hard, as it turns out. Maintaining a foothold on the angular slope proved difficult, and my root wound up being a gnarled, twisting thing roughly 3 feet long and about as deep underground.

I did my best to follow the instructions, making decent progress until the hole became so deep that every shovelful of soil resulted in a seemingly equal volume of dirt tumbling down to cover the just-excavated bottom. Lighthearted chatter filled the air around me, but I struggled to participate through my frustration at this seemingly irretrievable root.

I might have stayed there all weekend, fruitlessly attempting to uncover the stubborn thing, if it weren’t for a helping hand from fellow Kudzu Camper Justin Ellis, a guy who’s accumulated quite a bit of kudzu-digging experience over the years. With a few well-placed scoops and twists, he managed to get the root loose, pulling up an undulating tuber that looked something like a bizarre sweet potato, its color reddish under the brown of its skin and its thickness and orientation shifting with every inch. I held it up like a hunter would a trophy kill, posing for a photo with the thing spread across my arms.

But that success was just the beginning of the work ahead, I’d soon find out. By the end of the weekend, 27 campers would haul out a full 315 pounds of fresh kudzu roots, which they then processed into roughly 13 pounds of starch over the course of a painstaking, 20-plus-step process of smashing, soaking, siphoning and waiting.

Kudzu Camp co-organizer Justin Holt enjoys some honey sumac tea thickened with kudzu starch. Holly Kays photo

For my prize root, held aloft in the sun of a warmish March morning, the road to starch-hood would be long, involving the expertise and willingness of many hands other than my own. But for that moment, my fingernails full of dirt and my clothing smelling of soil and campfire smoke, I chose to feel the joy of accomplishment, and to give in to the lure of the kudzu patch.

This column was originally published in the March 28 issue of The Smoky Mountain News and is reproduced by permission.