Gone Epic

May 15, 2016

 

There's a guy I vaguely know (whose trail name is "Badger") who is a prominent part of the East Tennessee/Western North Carolina hiking/photography community - someone I've hiked with one time, at Linville Gorge last summer - and who also coined a term that is an apt adjective for continuous adventures that yield glory after glory:

 

"Epicity."

 

Not that I'm a prominent hiker, mind you (I'm not, I don't make any claim to be, nor do I place hiking very high on my "to do" list as you know, though I will hike if need be to get an image); but I'd like to think I've wedged my photographic "foot" in the door just enough to be among the more recognized and accomplished photographers in the region.

 

And when one has a week filled with the kind of epic adventure and excitement that this photographer has had, I cannot help but borrow that term from Badger. And I use the term respectfully, of course. But let there be no doubt, I certainly have had a week or so full of said "epicity."

 

After my Monday morning glory at Max Patch Bald (see my blog "To The Max" to read all about it), I was apparently just getting started.

 

Tuesday came; and after a full nine hours or so at the day job (one I mostly enjoy, by the way) I still had some daylight left for capturing images. And since the Blue Ridge Parkway is only ten minutes from work, I had a choice to make upon entering from Highway 23/74 in Waynesville:

 

Do I go east or west? Such hard choices, I know - choosing between beauty to the east, or beauty to the west. Poor me. But I digress.

 

West it was, towards my favorite playground near home, Waterrock Knob.

 

A good choice, as it turned out.

 

When I arrived, I was greeted with hazy skies; but as most always the case when there's any hint of clouds in the vicinity, there were surely some nice light rays to follow - a lovely showcase of God's light over one of the most picturesque areas in the entire southeast:

And of course, as I made the short hike up the western slope of Waterrock Knob, the light only got better as the sun receded and the clouds moved in. I used my old Nikon D2X for the following image rather than my workhorse Nikon D700 - as my old crop sensor "beast" captured the ambiance and multi-layered glory of what I was seeing just a tad better than my more advanced full frame camera:

"Epicity," no doubt. I have shot many images of light rays from Waterrock Knob over the years. But I never captured the essence of this area quite like I had that Tuesday evening. It was one of those moments where it was "shot after shot," everything coming together, both in composition and execution. I still have at least three dozen images from this session that I haven't developed - that's how great the conditions were from this one spot on the western slope of Waterrock.

 

And as I came down from the mountain, I wasn't done yet.

 

There's a small side trail on Waterrock, just above the parking area, that leads to an opening. That opening was where I had captured a vertical image of the Blue Ridge Parkway below me, snaking towards bright light rays from above. That image ended up being the cover image for the July/August 2015 issue of Blue Ridge Country magazine. Here again on Tuesday, May 3, 2016 was that same bright spotlight, but with a twist - there were spring blooms in this particular scene, as the hazy sunlight illuminated the Dogwood and Serviceberry trees, so I caught a horizontal scene with the ancient D2X:

Little did I know while I was standing there - peering down on spring blooms - that I would have to contend with Old Man Winter again a mere two days later.

 

But sure enough, I did. And in a strange way, I rather enjoyed this particular tangle.

 

On Thursday morning, I noted the weather warnings on my totally geeky weather app on my iPhone 5s - accumulating snow for the high elevations of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, above 5,000 feet. I thought of maybe traveling over to Clingman's Dome, but that idea was scuttled when I saw that the main road to that area was closed (I have bookmarked the Great Smoky Mountains road conditions Twitter feed, as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway feed, so I can quickly check conditions with a tap. Also, so that I won't waste precious time or gasoline).

 

But the Blue Ridge Parkway was open for business. I thought of going early in the morning, but as I prayed I felt God tell me, "Wait until a bit later," so I indeed waited.

 

I left my house around 12:30 in the afternoon, with rain showers and temperatures in the low 40's in Maggie Valley. But as I gained elevation on Soco Road, and even on to the Blue Ridge Parkway, those low 40's gave way to the mid-30's; to the point where snow was falling at Woolyback Overlook, 5,400 plus feet above sea level, and well within the range of elevation the weather forecasters were warning about:

 

This was a "rough and ready" impromptu shot through my windshield as I ascended towards Waterrock Knob. As soon as I saw the accumulating snow on the trees, my first excited thought was, "Yes!!"

 

*cue sound of record player screeching to a halt*

 

"Now, wait a second," you might ask. "Don't you have a rather robust dislike of winter?"

 

Yes I do. But seeing snow on May 5, with spring already in full force, is a rare occurrence; though snow can and does fall in these high elevations in early May. It would be a golden opportunity for me to "scoop" other photographers and capture a rare May snowfall for posterity (my photography buddy Justin Askew was bummed, as he was stuck at work - sorry, Justin!). And besides - I knew that the temperatures would warm back up into the 70's for the weekend. So as the old cliche goes, "When in Rome....."

 

I had nothing to lose, so I parked at Waterrock Knob and went for a little wintry "epicity." Sure enough, only a few hardy souls were there with their smartphones, hurling snowballs at each other. Fortunately, temperatures hovered around 32-33 degrees, so the Parkway was free and clear, at least while I was there. So, again remembering my lesson at Tremont with the large format photographer, I took my time capturing everything. I had never experienced accumulating snow up at Waterrock prior to Thursday - some light snow showers or rime ice, yes, but not this. So I soaked it in as much as I could:

 

 

 

Seeing the white juxtaposed against the colorful green was what made my experience seem so special. Of course in the dead of winter, the colors are dull and seemingly monochrome (and mostly depressing). The grasses are dormant brown and the trees are barren. But here, the splash of bright green grass among the coated white really made the images stand out a bit compared to your typical dead-of-winter landscape.

 

Surprisingly, the Parkway did end up closing later in the afternoon after another burst of snowfall came through, but I was long gone by then, with about an inch of snow accumulating before all was said and done.

 

Friday and Saturday were workdays, leaving Sunday and Monday for "scouting" and exploration. My destinations were the "hot spots" for the rhododendron blooms that would come late May into early June - Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville, and Roan Mountain along the Appalachian Trail. I missed most of last season; and this year I'm bound and determined to not let it pass without a nice haul of images - hence, I will be making frequent trips to that area. The Pixie Inn in Linville is going to see a familiar face over the next several weeks:

 

"Oh, it's you again."

 

"Yeah, but you're getting my money. I'll take room 7 again, next to the Coke machine please, which will also be getting my money, and thank you."

 

At Craggy Pinnacle, it was just a nice short hike to the top to check out spots where I could compose an image with the rhodos once they are in bloom, hopefully with dramatic skies. I continued on past Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains, where I noticed a scene with potential, right now: a small cloud was trying to obscure the sun, and light rays began shining down. But that small cloud seemed to dissipate as it passed in front of the sun, making an attempt at a decent shot rather frustrating. After about seven or eight tries, I finally grabbed a filter to help block out the sunlight and snapped this, the hazy light illuminating the ridges and valley below:

And since this was shot on Mother's Day, this little bit of "epicity" had special meaning for me; as any time I see light rays, I like to think Mom is saying hello from her heavenly home. Hi Mom, and thank you!

 

I awoke early Monday to check out nearby Beacon Heights, in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain and a decent spot for sunrises as well. I saw in the otherwise overcast skies a sliver of pink before sunrise, so I thought it was worth the brief hike to check it out. Sure enough, that sliver of pink became "fire from the mountain," a pretty neat display of fiery morning light:

I also drove over to nearby Rough Ridge to check out the still blooming trees, using my wide angle lens to good effect:

 

The colorful blooms of the trees often give the impression of fall foliage to the untrained eye, but indeed this is springtime in all its epic glory.

 

It was off to Roan Mountain and the Appalachian Trail after my time at Rough Ridge; with open views, big skies, the occasional spring bloom (mostly, Serviceberry), and large rock outcroppings, as seen here in the classic wide angle scenic from Jane's Bald:

Things were just beginning to emerge from the dormancy of winter there; and likely it will be a good three to four weeks before any rhododendron or flame azalea blooms begin to pop. Still, the short hike to Jane's Bald is always an enjoyable one, with or without blooms to spice things up.

 

The very next day after work, I headed once again to the Blue Ridge Parkway (as you do) just in time to catch golden light rays beaming down over Clingman's Dome, some twenty miles in the distance. I used my Nikon D2X and telephoto zoom to capture another little slice of "epicity:"

And to wrap up my week (okay, it's more like ten days, but....) I woke up early Thursday morning May 12, dodging thunderstorms as I headed towards the Foothills Parkway in Cosby, Tennessee; in hopes they would clear out of the area in time for sunrise. They did, leaving a layer of fog in the valley. The sunrise itself wasn't very impressive, but the fog moving through the lower ridges in the valley most certainly was:

 

Again, I zoomed in to catch a small part of a much larger scene. But "epicity" can be found not only in my preferred wide-screen "CinemaScope" landscapes, but in the smaller details as well. A lesson I am applying more and more to my work.

 

Truly, the last week (give or take a few days) was one that a photographer dreams about - seemingly at every turn, gorgeous, epic scenes emerged; with a bumper crop of "keepers" that followed. I'm still filing through all of the shots I took.


All the waiting (maybe God's lessons about waiting are finally sinking in, here?) has paid off with maybe the most productive week of shooting I've ever experienced. At least a half dozen images or more are worthy of going into my online gallery - http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/1-robert-stephens.html - with several others I have yet to upload. Two images are also going into my physical gallery in Waynesville, NC, where I am about to expand to a larger wall to better display my work. I am confident that, with the blessings of great adventure and epic scenes, the financial rewards will come eventually too. I have seen signs of that in the past two months already. Again, it's all about God's timing.

 

Yet, after such a tremendous week or so, I've probably used up my quota for the word "epicity," so I'll gladly hand it back off to Badger so he can trademark it.

 

And I'll just come up with my own word, then. Give me time, I'll think of it. Promise.

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

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