I signed up for the Cumberland County 2019 Hiking Marathon. Yeah, I know. I’m just as surprised as anyone. Everyone who knows me knows that I don’t 5K and I don’t marathon. But I do wander, mosey, piddle and lollygag. I also signed up everyone under my roof. There’s not much I wouldn’t do for a T-shirt. (In fact, I ate a bug for one at Taste of Crossville.) But what I really wanted was an excuse to play outside (and still feel productive) and spend extra time with my family. I also wanted to explore our beautiful county. Even though we moved here in 2006, there’s still so much I don’t know about it and the marathon seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn about the scenic nooks and crannies of Cumberland County and take in the views from the best scenic vistas on the Plateau. I also wanted to practice my woodland plant identification skills and teach the kids what I knew.
Another shock- we’d never been to Black Mountain. I’d always wanted to but didn’t know how to get there. Luckily, the marathon trails come with handy-dandy maps and driving directions. So, away we went on the 2-mile Black Mountain Crest Loop Trail of the Justin P. Wilson State Park Cumberland Trail system to kick off our hiking marathon as a family.
Near my home, I found a patch of jewelweed to pick so we’d be armed (and legged) against poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. At the top of Black Mountain, we parked the truck, applied the jewelweed and set out for the trail.
Along the trail we came to an old spring house and a chimney; remnants of a mountaineer’s life on Black Mountain. The mountainside homestead was nestled so unsuspectedly, as though built aloft in the boulders so as to be kept a secret. Had it not been incorporated into the scenery along the trail, we might have passed it and never even known it was there.
I wondered about the mountain homesteader, if there was a family here or if he was a loner. I wondered about the availability of resources and how often he might venture into town if at all. I wondered about his successes and trials. I wondered if he were born and raised here or if he built this home.
We traversed the upward trail under the woodland canopy until we reached the first overlook. The kids went out on the first set of massive boulders and found they were connected by a bridge to even more on the edge of the mountain overlooking the east. I imagined the rolling lobes of the sandstone being made from heavy, swollen clouds that sagged under the weight of the life water they held. And as they heaved, they landed on top of the mountain and the clouds’ water mixed with the dirt, cementing themselves to this edge.
We saw Watts Bar steam plant and spotted the lake wells that looked like pools of light from afar. We took refuge from the hot sun under a shade tree that made its home on top of the overlook and enjoyed a picnic as we took in the massive view from atop Black Mountain.
From where we were sitting, we could make shapes out of the clouds and then turned to making shapes out of the cloud-like surface of the rock. The tops of the rocky ledge jutted up into figurines resembling dogs or bears, sculpted by time with his weathered hand.
We returned to the trail to see what else we could see. As we followed the loop trail, we happened upon an actual city of rocks. Instead of lending itself to an overlook, stairs were built down a crevasse between the huge rocks. The temperature dropped almost immediately as we descended into the fortress of sandstone. The stone monoliths stood along the crest line of Black Mountain like sentries on a battlefield guarding the high ground.
There were caverns carved out of the sides of the stone mansions that the kids could sit in and even a “family sized” one. They climbed up on huge rock and then shimmied up another to see the different vantage points offered by our own city of rocks.
After playing in our newfound rock fort, we continue on the loop trail. We stopped for a break at a second overlook. It offered a rocky top to rest upon but was not as well developed as the first. However, it was situated as a break in the canopy where you can sit on top, catch a breeze, see what pictures the clouds are making and gaze over the tree tops and muscadine vines.
The trail loops around the crest of Black Mountain like the hiker’s version of ring-around-the-rosie. In short, we had no idea what we were missing. This trail, this mountain – it is a place of survivors and poets and provides the needs of both souls. The Cumberland County Hiking Marathon brought that to us. That is a gift I will treasure until that mountain tumbles down.