Thunderstruck Knob

Text and photographs by Robert Towe

From my nature journal: Today I'm on upper Elk Shoals Creek, a steep tributary falling from high mountain hollows down to the Cane River. The cloudy morning air blows windy and moist with approaching storms. I’m climbing a scant trace of man-trail bordering a small headwater branch. Over mossy stones the little stream crashes musically, rushing full. Hosts of Wood Violets and Trout Lilies dapple the gray woods. With the warmth of recent days, young leaves are just budding out.

Little fiddleheads break through the brown leaf mat. Clipped off 3-4 inches long, these delicate ferns are tasty, sautéed with real butter and a mash of garlic or a handful of fresh ramps, a dash of salt and pepper. Collecting and cooking a big, black-iron skillet full of them fried with little red taters is a joyful rite of spring.

Above a broken-down log barn, the trail ends in open woods. An old washtub rusts near the spring. A steep finger ridge leads to the right; I climb it all the way up to a high gap below Thunderstruck Knob, a dark stormy peak looming 2000’ above the road.

The forest ends abruptly, a barbed-wire fence. April sky opens wide before me, high pasture falls steeply down to the north. I am ready for a rest, need to get out of the fierce chill winds gusting across the ridge. Evening storm approaches fast, blowing out of the southwest. The river of wind pours so loudly through the large oak limbs I can hear little else. They roar like a Banshee, like waves of a wild sea, strong currents in the ocean of air breaking across the sky-islands of mountaintops. The trees clatter, screech and moan like someone lost beyond all finding.

I sit down to rest in the lee of a large Ash tree whose tossing limbs hum a timeless hymn to the high wind. I’m hearing deep mystery songs, old as the mountains themselves. The sun flashes in an out of fast dark clouds. The steep hill on the other side glows luminescent green with new grass. Quick swaths of sun and shadow run up, across it and away to the next range of mountains.

The summer cattle have not yet been brought to these high meadows. Only a few early spring warblers have arrived at this elevation. A Red-tailed Hawk soars in high spirals. Curved like a sharp beak, his long scream pierces the flesh of strong spring wind.

Sitting against the windy, storm-blown Ash, for a long time I let my eyes scan the dark shoulders of these Unaka Mountains vanishing far to the northeast, distant and blue as the cliffs of Newfoundland. Across miles of softly greening ridges the purple mass of lofty Roan Mountain stands, brooding, eternal. It is solemn beyond all human imagining, already dark with gathering mists. I feel how centuries of native peoples revered the high mountains as homes of wildness, mystery and power.