Sunrise on Pine Log Mountain



The gift of winter is that you can see farther. I’m hiking up a saddle on the east side of Pine Log Mountain.  To the north, I can see Garland Mountain and the Cohuttas. To the south, I can see Lake Arrowhead and the bowl-like ridge where Pine Log and Bear Mountain curve around the Lake Arrowhead valley, sheltering and hiding it. It’s no accident that this valley used to be called Lost Town and that the road in is called Little Refuge Road. It is a hidden valley, a Shangri-la.

It’s 22 degrees and windy on this sunny November morning, and the pine trees are creaking and moaning loudly, like they are alive and not happy. It’s a little scary, how loud they are and how they seem to be talking to me. I hear shots in the distance and know there are hunters somewhere in the mountain. I’m hoping they won’t get this close to Lake Arrowhead.

There are several roads up the mountain and across the mountain, but few people know where they are, and that is fine with me. I am alone except for my dog Ashley, who grew up walking this mountain with me. She doesn’t need a leash any more than I do.

Whenever I am on the mountain, I feel like this is where I am supposed to be, and everything else is just nonsense. It’s the place where I am most alive and most at home. Even in the bitter cold and wind, I become a part of the mountain, as surely as the lichened boulders that jut from the mountain’s flank.

This road was built early in the history of Lake Arrowhead, when they planned to take the development up the mountain. I found a newspaper article from the early 1970s in which the developers said the clubhouse would be on the top of the mountain. That never happened, partly because a local botanist named Gene Cline sued the developers and won, with the settlement dictating that a 528 acre “Lake Arrowhead Botanical Preserve” be established at the top of the mountain.

Gene Cline argued that there are several rare plants on the mountain, including the Hartford fern, dwarf pine trees, and a rare lichen. He argued that there are also Native American artefacts on the mountain, including what he believed to be an Indian grist mill.

I am deeply grateful for Cline’s advocacy and hope to continue his legacy, protecting both the ecology and the history of the mountain.

In researching the Civilian Conservation Corps camp on the mountain, I’ve discovered the rich history of Pine Log Mountain: the Native Americans who lived along its creeks and valleys; the settlers who hunted on the mountain and grew cotton and corn in its valleys; the moonshiners who hid stills all along the creeks at the foot of the mountain; the miners who dug out the iron and manganese, some of them convict laborers, and the iron furnaces along Stamp Creek ; the loggers who deforested the mountain, and the fires that devastated the mountain every year; the CCC men building the roads and the fire tower and planting trees to restore the mountain; the “tower men” who sat up in the tower and watched for fires; Diamondhead corporation building Lake Arrowhead in the early 1970s; the Neel family and Aubrey Corporation leasing the west side of the mountain to the state as a Wildlife Management Area.

There is no way to separate the history, the ecology and the people of the mountain. Some of the people who lived here loved the mountain and took care of it – the Cherokee, the farmers, the CCC men and tower men, advocates like Gene Cline, preservationists like the Neels.  I call these the “Mountain Keepers.”

Others despoiled it for gain or by accident. Before the CCC came in the 1930s, the mountain was largely deforested and burned every year. The erosion that plagued most of the South during the Great Depression, due to cotton cultivation and drought, scarred its valleys. The iron and manganese industries left gaping holes in Pine Log and Little Pine Log’s southern and western slopes. Diamondhead Corporation did some serious bulldozing when they built Lake Arrowhead. In 2007 and 2008, the Lake Arrowhead developers cut down another large tract of forest at the foot of the mountain to build the new golf course, and the creeks coming off the mountain silted up and turned parts of the lake brown.

Yet the mountain prevails. Where I am walking on this cold morning, there are some heaps of boulders where Diamondhead cut this road up the mountain. It’s so rocky that it’s hard to tame. It defies civilization.

I’ve been taking pictures on my phone as I walk, but as I get higher and the temperature plunges, my phone freezes up and won’t work. I think about Faulkner’s story “The Bear,” in which the boy realizes that he must let go of all trappings of civilization – his gun, his compass, his watch – in order to see the legendary bear.

I don’t really want to see a bear today. This is the same trail on which my stepdaughter Madison and I ran into a bear cub last fall. We were afraid to encounter Mama Bear and ended up bushwhacking our way down the other side of the mountain, following Shut-In Creek on an epic four-hour hike.

Not a great idea when I’m along and it’s 22 degrees out. There is an element of risk every time I hike this or any other mountain. The encounter with wilderness is risky, and maybe that is what makes me feel alive. I think of the line that appears several times in the Narnia books:  “Aslan is not a tame lion.” The Divine is not tame, it is fierce as Blake’s Tyger.

Coming down the mountain, I am walking due east, into the sunrise. So bright it’s hard to see. Mountain light is different. Even from my house, in the west valley of the mountain, there is a golden-ness that you only find near mountains.  Alpenglow — the rosy light of the setting or rising sun seen on high mountains. But I see it as more golden than rosy, as the light is bent, angled by the mountain. Concentrated, made rich and buttery.

I am a Mountain Keeper. I want to tell its stories and preserve its wilderness. Here is a poem I wrote about the mountain several years ago:


My mother said,

Do not go into the woods.

Stay here with me.

She didn’t know

I was a changeling.

That I long to be taken.

That I would chain myself

to the side of the mountain,

if I thought a beast or god

would come for me.


If I meet a panther

I will become a panther.

If I find a cave,

I will go down

stone steps to the core.


On Pine Log Mountain

lost children

and women who wander

are taken in by a tribe

of tender gods.

When they emerge

after a hundred years

the world has changed

and they have not.


The mountain laurel

thickets close

behind me like a gate.

The mountain angles light,

leaves stain it

green yellow red,

cast it down to light the dead.

I have crossed over.


The mountain’s skin is

bristled like a boar.

Humped and rutted,

pocked with boulders.

Great slabs emerge

like prey the mountain ate,



Crow caws.


I wear the caul.

The red-tailed hawk cries out.

The woodpecker cackles.

I follow scraps of red

to find an opening.


Once a coyote stepped out of the woods,

beckoned to my pink-nosed dog and me.

She led us to a rocky cliff

and disappeared.

We saw how far the world goes,

almost stepped off.

The sky would hold

my wait.


And once I dreamt there was a waterfall

in a grove all green with bright

moss, fat with rain.

I climbed to the source,

a creek cleft

from the heart of the mountain.

I was given a glass ball.

My hands held light and glowed.

When I awoke I knew

I’d really been there,

but every time I look for it

it’s gone.


And once on a long limb

where I like to sit

I found the coarse hair

of a bear

and I knew he was near.

I do not fear him.


I sat in the rain

in the gash where the road failed,

boulders stuck in the craw

of the machine

The stumps they burnt

sprouted green shoots.


Exposed, like an infant left to die,

with not enough sense

to come in from the rain,

I came back changed.



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