An Afternoon in Cloudland: Plane Crashes, Transcendentalists, and Mount Greylock

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The author on the Appalachian Trail

Famed poet-naturalist Henry David Thoreau once stood atop a lookout tower on the highest point in Massachusetts above sea level and described the expanse of the vista using one overarching word: cloudland.

When Thoreau visited the summit of Mount Greylock, protruding 3,491 feet into the sky, the surrounding valleys in the earth far below as well as the scattered communities throughout the landscape were all completely shrouded in mist. Where on a clear day one can see as far as 90 miles in almost all directions, Thoreau was treated instead to an endless display of rolling, hazy clouds.

Wrote Thoreau in 1844,

“As the light increased I discovered around me an ocean of mist which by chance reached up to exactly the base of the tower, and shut out every vestige of the earth, while I was left floating on this fragment of the wreck of the world, on my carved plank in cloudland; a situation which required, no aid from the imagination to render it impressive.”

On our journey to Mount Greylock, the path took us in some of Thoreau’s footsteps before we struck out on the stoic Appalachian Trail, which spans more than 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia, 90 of which pass through Massachusetts.

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UnChain AVL: Keep Asheville Weird

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North Carolina/ Image via the author

At a mom-and-pop bbq joint some 75 miles east of Atlanta we charted our course.

We had just arrived from Savannah, a nearly four-hour drive from the southeast.

We parked ourselves at two lunch counter stools in front of a window facing an Athens, GA sidewalk. The restaurant was small enough that, on busy days, a line forms out the door and stretches halfway to the University of Georgia.

The interior walls were plastered with autographed photos of past UGA athletes and upcoming team schedules.

At the rear of the place, which can be more accurately described as a cafeteria, was a display case full of homemade southern comfort food. The walls of the tin serving trays buckled under the weight of overflowing mac and cheese, collard greens, potato salad, mashed potatoes, wild rice, cole slaw, and baked beans.

In the back, a middle-aged couple tended to a stable of smoked, slow-cooked, dry-rubbed, and sauced-up meats; tender, juicy, and artfully charred. Wanna-be vegetarians, we willingly tossed aside our herbivorous morals into a pile of sustenance-stripped pork bones and drumsticks.

It was a no-brainer for us to order the sampler plate — in its own right a great smoky mountain of beans, mac and cheese, grilled chicken breast, pulled pork, ribs, and kielbasa. As we razed the mountain, we pulled up and pored over a map displayed on my mobile phone.

“We can either take this route straight north through the Smokies, this one that goes right along the foothills, or this one which is the most direct but skirts pretty much all of the range,” I said pointing to various points on the screen with a saucy finger.

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A Drive Through the Valley of the Shenandoah

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Broadway, VA/ Image via the author

The valley in which we rode was once a fiery battleground.

The rolling fields, like grassy ocean swells, which give way to imposing mountains on both the left and the right were just as scenic and stoic as in the mid-1800s. Men fought and killed each other on that very same ground over slavery and the preservation of the union.

It was upsetting to think such a beautiful landscape was formerly demeaned by the horrors of war. I couldn’t fathom what residents thought in the midst of it; the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Appalachian Plateau to the west illuminated with cannon and mortar fire, droves of ragged military men charging and hollering and killing, patches of farmland saturated with blood.

It sounds sensationalized but indeed the Shenandoah Valley was the crux of the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. At the mouth of the valley to the north, the town of Winchester, Virginia is said to have changed hands more than 70 times throughout the conflict.

Aside from the complete lack of 19th century militarization, though with the presence of modern technologies like telephone lines, paved roads, and automobiles, much of what could be seen from our roving vantage struck me with the feeling that most of it remains exactly the same as it was for generations past.

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