High up in the hills of North Carolina there lives a bear. This bear only comes out for about two weeks, twice a year, and Alex and I were fortunate enough to see it’s shadow.
It was a glorious fall day in Highlands, NC. We woke up to leaves of orange, red, yellow and green. The cold in the air from the evening prior was just starting to warm. Wisps of steam floated off the water of a small lake east of town. We drove up a dirt and gravel road to a place called Sunset Rock. It wasn’t sunset so we had the place to ourselves. We looked out over all of Highlands and beyond. No bears here, which was a good thing.
A rusty old bridge over the Chattooga river was our next destination. We followed Horse Cove Road out of Highlands to yet another dirt and gravel mountain road. About a mile in, there were signs that said “Road Not Maintained by County” and “Hazardous Roads Ahead.” We own an SUV with 4-wheel-drive, but we had, for some dumb reason, taken our comfy sedan on this trip (probably because of the comfy part). But Alex was far from comfortable at this point and uttered some concern: “Uh, you think this is safe?” she asked. “We’ll find out,” I answered, hoping I’d be wise enough to know when the terrain was impassible for a sedan. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, this road was only wide enough for one car, but a two-way road.
We spent the next four miles going around potholes, praying a car would not come the other direction, and gasping at the drop-offs that alternated on either side of us. Of course, Alex had to get a picture. So we stopped in the middle of the road, she got out, and I rolled down the window to listen for any sign of danger… like the sound of a banjo, or worse yet dueling banjos. After all, we were in Deliverance country (the movie with Burt Reynolds).
Finally, we descended onto an actual paved road, though still only wide enough for one car. The bridge appeared soon after, and we pulled into a tiny turnout. We hiked down one side of the bridge to get a better view and take some pictures. The water was clear and there were rocks underneath that had been worn into smooth shapes by the fast-running current. Giant boulders were scattered around like a giant himself had left his toys out. I thought I heard the faint twang of a banjo floating in the wind, but it was probably my imagination.
We made our way out and into the small town of Cashiers, NC. We found a place with a lake and mountain view and took a canoe ride on the water that reflected the fall trees. The brush near the shore at one point was so thick you couldn’t see through it. As I maneuvered the canoe near the brush so Alex could take a photo of the beauty surrounding us, we heard some rustling in the woods. Alex almost dropped her camera in the water. Then voices… only hikers, no bears.
On the way back to Highlands, we looked at the time. It was 5:00pm. Legend had it, that the bear would appear between 5:30 and 6pm in late October for a few short weeks. We were a little earlier than late October, but we thought “what the hell.” We found the spot and waited. Around 5:35 a small black dot appeared in the distance. At 5:45 it was a big black blob. By 6pm a fully formed black bear appeared in the distance. We were witnessing the shadow of the bear! A truly unique phenomenon where sun meets mountain and casts a gigantic shadow across black bear country, in the perfect form of a black bear.
A perfect way to end a perfect day…. Well almost. As we headed back to Highlands, Alex said: “this day went so well, I think we should buy a lottery ticket.” She must have been reading the real estate brochures we had picked up in town, because we’d have to win the lottery to buy a nice house with a view here… and I’d have to trade my guitar for a banjo.