Bottom line? I couldn't take it anymore. I have heard, from reliable sources, every possible
scenario ... from total devastation to mere underbrush burning. Most leaned towards the
former. So, despite feeling ill, I decided to go ahead, as planned. I expected the very worst;
hoped for a miracle.
As I drove northward, and reached North Cove, I anxiously searched the skies for signs of smoke. The air was crisp & clear, but some gray, low-lying clouds made it difficult to figure.
Were these remnants of the rain that passed through during the past 24-36 hours, or were
they smoke? It wasn't till my return trip that I knew for certain. Traveling up Highway 221,
I caught a glimpse of Hawksbill Mountain, one of the prominent peaks of Linville Gorge. It
looked like it might be scorched, but I wasn't sure. "What did it usually look like?" I tried to
recall. To no avail. Other than possibly seeing ominous looking "smoke" clouds & what
appeared like it might be a blackened Hawksbill, everything was normal. Oh, in the flats of
the Cove, were several helicopters, port-a-johns, EMS vehicles, and a couple of large trucks
that looked like they contained some sort of fire-fighting chemical ... I don't know. The
evidence was there. There WAS a fire!
So, the climb to the crest of the Blue Ridge began. This was exciting in a most lurid way. I
nervously scanned every view. Nothing. All was normal. Upon reaching the crest, it was
good to see that Louise's was still there. All of the village of Linville Falls looked like always.
THAT was comforting.
I decided to go to Wiseman's View. From there, one is afforded what is probably the best
overall view of the Gorge, up & down, from the Falls of Linville to Shortoff Mountain. I
could pretty much see all the terrible damage, sure to be present, from there. Turned off on
the Kistler Memorial Highway ... very fancy name for a dirt road that parallels the Gorge
on the west side, leading to most of the trail heads in this wilderness area.
Slowly, I proceeded ... nothing. I came upon the log cabin that serves as National Forest
HQ's & parked. The place was locked up, but I walked around. Faintly, I could smell smoke
... very faintly. As I looked through the woods, everything appeared in order. I was
beginning to feel relief.
Got back in the car & continued. It's a 4 mile drive along this "Highway" to Wiseman's
View. At each trail head, including at the Forest Service's Linville Falls parking area, were
the usual vehicles parked, carrying, I assumed, hikers. All was amazingly normal looking.
About halfway, things began to change. First thing I noticed was that the plentiful
rhododendron, on the Gorge side of the road, were brown ... dead. On the opposite side ...
green, as always. Then I began to notice scorched earth ... the ground through the forest on
the Gorge side was black. But, the forest was still there!
The only moving vehicles I saw were a sheriff's car, a couple of EMS vans, and an empty
school bus. I got to the little pull-out for Wiseman's View & parked. All was serene & the
forest, other than the blackened floor, looked fine. I was getting very optimistic; yet, it was
surreal ... this couldn't be! I strolled along the empty trail, anticipating, with mixed emotions,
the formerly wondrous view that lay just a bit ahead.
It began to open up. The expanse of Gorge was coming into view. I approached cautiously,
not fully sure I really was prepared for this. There it was. Linville Gorge. Still there.
Hawksbill, Table Rock, Shortoff ... all there. I could see the rock face near the falls back up
the northern end. I walked to another vantage point, searching for disaster ...
There was none! Honest! It was far better looking than I could ever have imagined in my
wildest dreams! This was FANTASTIC. The river flowed down below, of course. But the
TREES! They were THERE! Instead of this black & charred, desolate landscape I expected to
see, there was GREEN! I scanned the ridges on the other side with binoculars. I located the
Chimneys. There were trees, still, on those ridges. I've got to tell you, other than a blackened
forest floor, that was noticeable nearby, and a few little tufts of smoke spiraling skyward
from the Gorge floor, it was hardly any different.
There were a couple of EMS guys there. I started a conversation. They pointed out a few of
the ravines where there was some tree damage, and they explained how the back fires were
set from down at Shortoff, with Lake James just beyond. Now, I'm not here to tell you that
everything is fine ... to accentuate that point, a tree fell somewhere down below, echoing
through the Gorge. One couldn't tell, at first, where. Then, smoke began to column upward
from near the river, pinpointing the spot. I didn't walk the woods much, and never got even
close to Top of the World, except through binoculars. The EMS guys told me the trails were
ALL reopened today, and the fire fighting was basically done with, other than mop-up &
clearing trails. So, everything is not fine, but folks, as far as I could
see, there is very little damage, aesthetically, that a year or two won't fix. A 10,000 acre fire
- burning for what, a week? - appears to have been more a "clean up" than anything else!
Bottom line? I fully expect, come next June as we stand up there at the Top of the World, to
see, more or less, what we've always seen ... one of the most spectacular views to be found
in this part of the country ... Rich, 11/10/00