I have a mental trick that I employ each time I’m out in the field:  it’s always the best that I’ve ever seen.  Yep, you read that correct.  When I head out of town for extended trips to see annual blooms or other familiar areas I always tell myself that this is the best set of conditions that I’ve ever seen.  What’s the harm really?  You get a bit more excited.  Perhaps you shoot a bit harder.  Maybe you even enjoy yourself a bit more.  While that psychological Houdini works well with the azalea bloom in Charleston or the Bluebells in Northern Virginia, no matter my attempts to trick myself with positive endorphins, I can’t follow through when it comes to the Catawba Rhododendron in the mountains of Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee.  The Rhododendron bloom just seems to be steadily declining each year without fail.  I’m not an expert and I certainly don’t know what I’m talking about.  I’ve often thought that perhaps it was just that my expectations have grown–as well as my needs–and I’ve projected unfairly onto the annual blooms causing disappointment and frustration.  But then I’ll view historical photographs from Craggy Gardens and/or Roan Mountain—or even my own photographs from five to ten years ago—and my current batch of images just look anemic.  Where are the blooms going?  Why are they not as profuse?  Am I just imagining this?

Don’t get me wrong; I would travel to the Roan Highlands every year in June to spend a week or so camping on the balds even if there were only one or two Rhododendron bushes.  It’s a spectacular place with much to offer.  And this year was no exception.  I arrived the second week of June somehow chasing an earlier than anticipated bloom, and setup camp atop Grassy Ridge Bald.  Reports had been trickling in from friends and photographers well before I tramped up to the balds, the most disappointing being that Grassy Ridge was a bust.  Months of saving money and planning–not to mention years of built up expectation and oh yeah, a brand new bank-financed camera—awaited this particular trip to one of my favorite places in the world, the Roan Mountain Highlands.  A bust?  No, it can’t be.  Just before ascending the balds during that second week of June I drove over to Craggy Gardens hoping to catch some pink petal covered trails up to the Pinnacle from the early bloom.  Nope.  There were some nice blooms along the Blue Ridge Parkway around Craggy Gardens that were catching heavy attention from visitors and photographers alike, but where were the hillsides of pink that would be the gardens themselves?  Not a good sign.  Meanwhile, I’m repeating over and over again that this is the best that I’ve ever seen:  get out and put your camera on some stuff, Mark…don’t waste this opportunity.  A mental pep talk.

I like to pitch my tent along the crest of Grassy Ridge, either close to the spur trail to minimize walking through the wet morning grasses before first light (hard to begin your morning with soaking wet socks and feet), or in the evergreen forests further down the slopes if I feel cover is necessary from incoming storms.  My first impressions of the bloom were not as bad as I had prepared myself for; there was pink and it was fairly widespread.  Not full and not robust but present and beautiful nonetheless.  In comes the small voice:  this is the best you’ve ever seen; get to work.  It appeared that many of the blooms were on different schedules, some already spent and others in tight buds.  The week, I realized, would be about picking a shot list based on predicted bloom schedules for individual bushes and hoping for good conditions when necessary.  Relying upon nature to deliver up good light and calm winds at a place like the Roan Highlands is laughable at best, and my results were exactly that.  Clear skies and gusty winds wore off that glossy sheen of hope that I headed up with; heavy rains and storms provided spans of great potential, and then on my last morning on the mountain–when my food and water supplies were spent–it finally all came together the best that it would for me during this 2015 season.

The evening before my final morning atop the balds, I was sitting at the landmark rocks on Grassy Ridge half-heartedly watching conditions setup for sunset.  The morning was clear—too clear to make much happen.  The day brought big skies with white fluffy clouds.  A midday excursion had my exposed skin tight and sensitive from too much sun.  Then, as evening approached a thick, quickly moving fog began moving overhead from east to west, working in tandem with the clouds to block the sun, which was the only source holding back a whiteout situation.  The temperatures had plummeted and it was getting cold as the wind and moisture from the low fog ripped over the balds and off to the west.  I didn’t think much would happen and frankly, I was beat up, tired, and without a decent meal in too long.  The rocks at Grassy Ridge were a couple hundred yards from my tent and they were going to be my spot for the evening.  As I waited without much expectation, a gentleman named Jim dropped by and we struck up a good conversation about photography and the frustrating art of expressing ourselves through the visual medium.  Jim, it would turn out, was visiting the area for the first time with his son and was interested in shooting sunrise with me the following morning along the saddle of Grassy Ridge.

A headlamp from Jim and some swirling fog were the first things I saw on Friday morning.  The previous night featured some famous Roan winds—ripping at my tent’s rainfly as the clouds and fog traveled over the largely treeless mountaintops.  Surprisingly, the dark thirty hour of morning was relatively calm and foggy as we worked our way through the wind-dried long grasses of the spur trail along the saddle of Grassy Ridge.  The setup—foggy atmosphere, partly cloudy forecast, and relatively calm atmosphere—was about as good as I had seen up to this point and I was moderately excited.  The lack of heavy dew and rain on the grasses kept my unprotected legs somewhat dry and that simple fact contributed to some fairly high spirits for me personally.  Previous mornings had been anything but.  As the sun began its move to the horizon, predawn burned off some high fog revealing a beautiful fog bank along the horizon, as well as illuminating high clouds with signature orange and red hues.  As Jim began to take in his surroundings in the low-light of morning his excitement for the scene grew and was pretty contagious.  I knew that the light was special; I had waited all week hoping for a morning like this.  However, I was still holding onto some disappointment over the non-abundance of Rhododendrons.  Jim, having never seen the bloom in person before, though, kept me excited about the fact that this was still an epic place with ample potential to create moving images.  And so we did what photographers do when things are good—we put camera to eye and pressed buttons until we’d exhausted the light.

I was scheduled to break down camp and drop the mountain on Friday morning, a hot meal foremost in my mind upon cleaning up.  Jim and I said our goodbyes as he was going to continue his hike over to Hump Mountain in the opposite direction.  I was glad that he was with me on Grassy Ridge that morning; fresh eyes and energy helped me to overcome my own expectations and perceptions.  It was a good morning in a spectacular place.  It was the type of morning that makes all of the mornings behind the computer worth it.  It was the kind of morning that gets me stoked for my next trip and my next opportunity…opportunity to get outside, close to the ground, and into the midst of beauty and opportunity!

Places of Wonder: Grassy Ridge Roan Mountain Highlands

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