Hike For MENTAL HEALTH @ Elk Knob State Park – 3.8 Miles – 4/29/17
The definition of luck: when preparation meets opportunity. If you cultivate a wide range of interests, you can encounter an incredible amount of “luck.” Sometimes it’s subtle; sometimes it announces itself with bagpipes and fireworks.
Fragile mental health is a part of nearly everyone’s extended family, including mine. Daily struggles with depression and anxiety cloud one’s thoughts and shroud one’s gifts and talents, send the sufferer (and those who love them) searching for relief in many forms, some helpful and some destructive. Research indicates some hope: time spent outside in nature helps.
Time spent outside helps all of us, doesn’t it?
I found the organization called Hike For MENTAL HEALTH a couple of years ago and was impressed by their goals of supporting brain research and maintaining wilderness trails across the U.S. Their hikes are volunteer led but none were located in my “neck of the woods,” so I bookmarked their website and went on about my life. Then one day, lo and behold, I saw a hike planned in the North Carolina mountains. Now I could see for myself how the organization works and if I wanted to support it.
I emailed my friend Megan, a former intern at my workplace that serves the homeless population in Charlotte, NC. She was now attending graduate school near the hike venue. Wonder if she’s interested in doing the hike with me? Well… a fellow student in her graduate program was the person leading the hike! [This was a fundraising effort for Hike For MENTAL HEALTH.]
Preparation (hiking experience and research) + opportunity (an event in my home state) = luck (a great day with my friend and others interested in helping mental health)!
Elk Knob State Park in Watauga County opened in 2003. It’s small but mighty with its commanding view of numerous peaks and county high points. (Some say you can see the Charlotte skyline 89 miles away, but my eyes couldn’t verify that.) The park features four hiking trails, backcountry camping, a picnic area and a visitor center. [The summit trail we hiked today was completed in 2011.] Check it out.
The park entrance is reached driving through the rural community of Meat Camp, NC. Like most back roads, names mean something. Meat Camp was part of a pre-Revolutionary War trail used by lowland folks to access good hunting. Those hunters stored their dressed animal carcasses in a cabin there until they were ready to return home. The focus of the modern-day community is Christmas tree farms.
I met Megan and the other hikers in the trailhead parking lot. There were about 20 total, some grad students from the local college and others interested in the mental health initiative. The organizers reviewed basic group hiking rules and handed out bright orange bandanas and tee shirts (the former fit fine but the latter was a bit snug…) and we started up the trail. Ruling the day were diminutive trout lilies, which bloom in profusion only for a brief time each spring, the most I’ve ever seen in one location. A little later in the spring, Gray’s lily and purple fringed orchid bloom in the park.
Wakerobin (a trillium)
The flowers distracted from the 1,000-foot elevation gain in about two miles to the summit. Elk Knob is the second highest point in Watauga County (5,520 feet). The true summit is at the overlook but there are two brief side trails to viewpoints south and north. Today was slightly hazy but on clear cold days the peaks of Grandfather Mountain in NC, Roan Mountain in TN, and Mount Rogers in VA are visible.
At the summit, the group took a break as the hike organizers shared information about mental health research, stigma, myths and challenges. Every participant had a personal connection story. It was a powerful moment, sitting on top of a mountain on a beautiful spring day, sharing the heartbreaks and hope of loved ones struggling with fragile mental health.
The return hike was a delight as well (more trout lilies had emerged!). Elk Knob is a gem and I’m glad that North Carolina has protected it for us to enjoy. I wonder what it looks like in the fall? Or in snow?
“I go to Nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put together.” ~John Burroughs