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  • Robert Stephens

The Best Of 2020

Okay - as we all know, there wasn't a whole lot that could be considered "best" in 2020, but let's keep things positive here.


For when it comes to my photography at least, everything (mostly) came up roses for Yours Truly this year, despite all the obstacles.


I'm already a fierce introvert, so keeping to myself wasn't so much of a problem. So when the word came down from on high about the need to social distance, I quickly embraced my new fate:


"Social distancing? Really? I have to stay away from people?!? Why, sign me up already!"


Now, I have a PhD in Social Distancing.


But seriously though, the pandemic did cause me to shift a bit this year. It forced me to maintain a tighter focus, keeping things much closer to home - so I didn't branch out as much as I had in years past. I mainly kept my work within a close radius, mainly here in North Carolina.


And frankly, I think that approach made my work all the better. I narrowed my best work to 22 images, with only three from out of state: two in South Carolina, one of those two on the South Carolina/North Carolina state line, one just barely in Tennessee - and from those 22, I chose ten as my favorites of 2020.


Here's those ten images, and in keeping with my book "Seasons," those images are accompanied by the stories behind them:


10) Poinsett Bridge Winter

Before COVID became a household name, I ventured out to the upstate of South Carolina in January in search of color - not exactly a thing in those monochrome winter months.


So I decided to set myself a challenge anyway - to try and find a scene with some color in the dead of winter, and one that didn't involve a sunrise or sunset.


With all the recent rain in the area, I felt chasing waterfalls might be fun, and perhaps my best chance to find a little color. And since I needed to satisfy my wanderlust for travel as well, the upstate of South Carolina seemed the ideal place to go.


I did make a brief stop along the way at Pearson's Falls near lovely Saluda, NC, but the entrance gate was closed. So it was on to the upstate...


With daylight running out and more rain on the way, my initial idea of visiting Table Rock State Park got nixed in favor of visiting the historic 1820 Poinsett Bridge near Traveler's Rest. (A fitting town for a Solitary Traveler.)


And there, I found the color I was looking for - in the smooth, orange-colored stone where Little Gap Creek flowed under the iconic arch of the old structure - not exactly a waterfall, but... An evergreen to the upper left added some additional color as well. I decided to go "ultra-wide angle" to use the cascades as leading lines to the arch.


Not always being the surest afoot, I had to tread carefully over the slick stone; but I made it in and out of the creek without a single tumble (!!), and captured several compositions, this one being the most effective...


9) Springtime in Waynesville

The Blue Ridge Parkway was closed.


The Smokies were closed.


Everything that wasn't a Walmart or a grocery store or a fast food joint or a gas station was closed.


Welcome to "Lockdown 2020."


So I had to pick my spots; and thankfully, nearby Waynesville has plenty of them. Seeing the rural part of town dressed up in its spring wardrobe on a sunny Sunday afternoon in April was certainly a highlight of a not-so-certain time...


8) Big Lynn Sunrise

This image came about as a result of a little spontaneity.


I drove up on a Monday morning in July to get my venerable Honda Civic (at 438,000 miles and counting) serviced at the dealership in Morristown, TN. After the ol' jalopy was serviced I still had a full day ahead; so naturally, my brain wandered off in more of a romantic direction.


There was a particular place I'd wanted to cross off my bucket list for years, and today was as good as any to cross it off - the lovely Big Lynn Lodge in Little Switzerland, NC, a stones throw from the Blue Ridge Parkway.


The calling card of Big Lynn (besides the spacious rooms and comfy rocking chairs on the porch) is the VIEW. Yes, one can sit on one of those comfy rocking chairs and see for miles, down into the valley and beyond. After recovering from sticker shock (the total, including dinner, breakfast, and tip for the waitresses was $140) I did just that, spending more time on the porch than in my room.


And when I awoke Tuesday morning (yes, I got up at 6:30 AM!) I was treated to a foggy, misty sunrise. I simply walked about fifty yards to the bottom of the hill, set up, and captured the early morning sunlight exploding through the fog. That red bench on the right was a key part of the composition by the way. The image would not have been nearly as effective without it.


7) Morton's Gold

I hopped over (just barely, maybe less than a half mile from the North Carolina state line) to the Tennessee side of the Smokies one late afternoon in mid-July in search of a sunset scene at the popular Morton's Overlook.


And things didn't look real promising when I got there.


But there was a sliver of hope, and a sliver of light in the distance, as I gambled that the sun would peek through the clouds just before sundown. A lady standing next to me (okay, roughly six feet from me) was a bit downcast about the whole thing, but I told her, "Just wait. The sun will pop out very briefly, and you'll see a nice golden glow filtering through the ridges."


Which fortunately, it did. That's what you see here.


6) Sassafras View

I love the drive from Asheville to Landrum, SC on I-26, then onward via South Carolina Highway 11 through the foothills of the upstate of South Carolina. The upstate is one of my most favorite locations to visit and explore...


But until late June 2020, I'd never visited the highest point in South Carolina, located right off Highway 11 via US Highway 178. That place is Sassafras Mountain, 3,553 feet above sea level. A brand spanking new observation tower was completed in 2019, with a beautiful compass rose etched into the center of the tower. The black line running through the center of the compass is the North Carolina/South Carolina state line, meaning you can visit and stand in two states at once.


I stood with a Northeast view, capturing most of that beautiful new landmark with a view towards my home state. No offense to the beautiful state of South Carolina, of course...


5) Stormy Max Patch

I made exactly one visit to Max Patch in 2020.


And it was more than I wanted to see.


An enormous amount of people compacted in a small space. Parking in places not meant for vehicles (I managed to somehow snag a parking space in the proper parking lot).


With some people ignoring the signs to stay on trail.


With some littering at will, with no regard for their environmental impact.


And frankly, these people had no business being here, as their disregard and disrespect for their surroundings ruined it for everyone else who does respect them. It's long since become out of control.


I managed to snag a dramatic image of an approaching storm before I hightailed it out of there, as a heavy downpour soon deluged the area. I had a slow, muddy drive down the mountain, while the littering types still on the peak got drenched. Perhaps it was just desserts.


And here is where I step on my soapbox.


With COVID and the unrest in our country over the past year, many have come to our neck of the woods to escape, and that's understandable. But honestly folks, our Smokies have taken a hell of a beating, being overrun by tourists (like this day at Max Patch) and a good many have brought their bad habits with them.


Something has to give. And here's where your help can be valuable.


If you are interested in saving and preserving our beautiful Smokies, I urge you to join the "Save Our Smokies" page on Facebook:


https://www.facebook.com/Save-Our-Smokies-100738778597531


There, you will find ways where you can help, whether it's volunteering to participate in trash cleanup or donating supplies to help the cleanup efforts if you can't make it out here to the Smokies. You'll also find posts that talk of the seven crucial principles of "Leave No Trace," valuable information that can easily be passed on.


We can do better, and we must, in order to preserve our area for now, and for future generations to come...


4) Monday Morning Lake Vibes

I awoke on a late August morning in Robbinsville, NC to head west, stopping briefly at lovely Lake Santeetlah, where everything lined up just so. Typically I'd be heading out to the Georgia coast to get my water fix on August 31, but the peaceful morning view I had here was more than a suitable substitute...


3) Autumn Vibes on the Parkway

You wanna know why it was so hard to choose an autumn image for my top 10 images from 2020?


Because my autumn shooting season was so dang productive. So I chose two (with one to come).


Again, I forced myself to hone in on certain areas much closer to home and run with that, rather than my typically looser approach, where I'd end up in West Virginia one weekend, Tennessee the next, and South Carolina the next. Nope, it was all North Carolina this autumn. And it paid off.


This was a rather dramatic morning, as fog drifted in and out on the Blue Ridge Parkway as I rounded the south end. I found this lone spot looking out towards Brevard, as the early morning light filtered in from the left side of the frame. As I drove up and down to find a spot, I noticed how numerous other photographers had stubbornly set up - and stayed - in all the "typical spots" along the south end of the Parkway. Spots that were socked in with fog. I passed those photographers more than once in search of that good light - and I found it too, in a location higher in elevation than those "typical spots." I had that spot all to myself, and took advantage. Once I came back down from that spot, driving back towards Asheville, those photographers were still there, this time packing their gear to leave...and so was the fog.


2) Winter Cabin

Our State Magazine had given me a photo assignment a year ago to photograph one of the old log cabins on the property of Boyd's Christmas Tree Farm in Waynesville. They wanted a specific image, of the cabin at dusk, with snow cover and golden lights aglow from the inside.


As it turned out, I had exactly one chance to get that image, early this year. A light snowfall was forecast for a Friday evening, with just enough snow for me to get my shots in. So I made arrangements with Boyd's (who were most helpful and accommodating) to shoot that cabin, with hopes I could snag an image or two that would be useful.


I did, with one image making it into a nice two page spread in the current December issue of Our State.


But of course I had to get some exploring in before it was time for me to shoot, and the image above is from one of Boyd's more fancy cabins, as it reflected so nicely off the pond in front of it.


1) TIE: Spring Pastels and Autumn Pastels


Two images, same location, taken only four months apart.


And oh, what a difference it makes.


The first image was taken early June, as spring had finally reached the highest elevations of the Blue Ridge Parkway.


The other was taken mid-October, as those same trees had taken on its autumn wardrobe.


And that's how short the spring and summer lasts in the high country. We locals try to enjoy it while we can.


And God willing, we'll get to experience it all over again in 2021. And I hope to share it all with you.


Merry Christmas to you all, and I hope to be in touch again soon...

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