Not in mud or snow—my boots had literally frozen to one of the granite slabs that dominate Stone Mountain State Park, just south of Roaring Gap, North Carolina. It was cold, but I hadn't thought standing still for two minutes after crossing a flowing creek would be enough to freeze my feet to the stone. I was wearing "approach boots," a hybrid of hiking boots and rock climbing shoes that are ideal for walking around on granite slabs. Their shallow tread provides plenty of contact area to grab the rock. However, if you cross a creek when it's 16 degrees outside, the tread also gives plenty of area for any water that stays on the bottom of the boots to grab the rock and turn to ice. It took a couple of good yanks to break free.
I seem to get stuck every time I visit Stone Mountain, although in a more figurative sense. The park is centered on an enormous granite pluton that pushed its way near the surface about 350 million years ago. Over the millennia, the softer rock around the pluton eroded away, leaving a gray dome of granite 600 feet high. Viewed from neighboring Wolf Rock, Stone Mountain is a massive silhouette against the sky.
Unlike many parks in this lushly forested region, where trees obstruct panoramic views from the trails until the leaves are off in winter, Stone Mountain's acres of granite offer countless clear vistas, with only the occasional stunted pine breaking the view of the surrounding hills. In fact, it's two such trees in particular where I seem to come to a halt every time I come to the park. Both are easily accessed; one is hard to miss while the other is absurdly difficult for me to find. Or it was until recently.
The first is probably the most iconic in the park. The summit of the dome slopes very gradually, almost casually, to a point at which it would be easy to drop a few hundred feet to an untimely and rather ugly demise. A small fence and a sign lets you know that people have died while walking too far out onto the granite. Just a couple hundred feet from this sign is a tree that looks look it should be in a Tolkien story. It is a small, gnarled pine that, as a seed, found its way into a small crevice of the monolith. Its crooked form and distance from surrounding trees make it a natural for photography; I've been a paparazzo to this "rock star" many times under many conditions and have never come away disappointed.
The second tree's status is a bit more convoluted, due to my being a complete and utter idiot. You see, on one of my first trips to the park, I tried to hike as many of the 18 miles of trails as I could in a day. As you might expect, my memory of that day is a bit fuzzy. But hey, who needs a memory in your head when you're carrying 25 pounds of camera equipment? Let photographs be breadcrumbs for a nostalgia path. It's more efficient that way.
Waterfalls, deer, hawks, cliffside views, and miles of trail went by in a blur, but at one point I stepped off the trail onto one of the many open slabs and saw a tree. Compared to the one near the sign, it was a bit less majestic-looking, its trunk not as sturdy and beautifully twisted, but it seemed to be resting on a pedestal. A single platform of stone surrounded the base of the tree on all sides, collared with moss. As I circled the tree looking for different compositions, I realized it wasn't growing on the surface of the stone, but had split it nearly perfectly in half in a testament to perseverance. I took several photographs, but the sun was high in the sky, making the lighting less than exceptional, so I made a mental note to come back and shoot when the light was better. After about 13 miles, I returned to the trailhead fairly exhausted but giddy with the sheer number of sites I'd seen through the day.
Now here's where I tell you something about myself. I hate to be wrong. No, really—like stomach-churning, face-burning hate… to… be… wrong. It's a character flaw, I know. Just file that away for a bit.
After arriving home, I opened the pictures on my computer and started labeling them. The rock-splitting tree got labeled simply "Stone Mountain." The following spring I went back to Stone Mountain, but the stone-splitting tree was nowhere to be found. It must be off on one of these side trails, I thought as I scrambled around the summit. "I coulda sworn it was right here," I muttered.
The following year they updated the trail leading up to the summit, adding stairs and boardwalks and rerouting it around some areas that were getting a little "over-loved." Now my points of reference were off as well. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced some crew had removed it while working the new trail. I suppose I might have tried an online image search; surely I couldn't have been the only one who photographed that tree. But that would imply I was wrong about where it was. And I knew it was right here, dammit.
A couple years went by and I continued to hike in the park. With so many photographic opportunities, the rock-splitting tree became less and less of an obsession. I lingered at the foot of Stone Mountain Falls and watched the climbers on the face of the mountain. I concentrated on shooting the "rock star" tree at the summit, even staying so late once for the perfect light that I had to hike the few miles back down to the campground in the dark. Other trips outside of North Carolina and the Southeast diluted my memories of the tree, and if I hadn't had the original photographs I would have chalked it up to a hallucination from dehydration and an iffy package of stale jerky.
Then last week I decided to do another longish (10 miles or so) hike in Stone Mountain Park. The weather was well below freezing when I started at Widow Creek Falls, and it was here, after crossing a creek at the base of a waterfall, that my boots froze to the stone. Walking to the lower parking lot, which gives the shortest—albeit steepest—access to the summit, I took pictures of the massive ice sheets forming on the rock. They look like some of the wildest Slip 'N Slides imaginable, but the stop at the bottom would be hazardously abrupt. Past the 200-foot sliding Stone Mountain Falls, I took a short side trip to view Middle and Lower Falls, both of which had enough ice on the trail that mini-crampons were necessary. Finally I reached the junction with the Wolf Rock Trail that circles around the top of Stone Mountain's smaller, less well-known neighboring peak. I walked another half mile to Wolf Rock, stepped out onto a rock face and… Hello old friend.
Just off the trail was the tree. Nobody had cut it down; I was just looking for it on the wrong friggin' mountain! I gaped, shook my head at my own stubbornness, and walked around it. It was just as I had remembered, with a couple more dead branches. But once again the sun was high in the sky, with no clouds to soften the light or add interest. I sat for a few minutes listening to the ice melt in the afternoon sun, the temperature now a balmy 35. I watched water flowing under the ice, bubbles doing a stuttering, start-and-stop dance as they tried to reach the air. I sat and listened to a voice in my head insisting that this place could not possibly exist. My face burned a bit at my hubris.
Again I made the promise to return and not let too much time go by before visiting. Often we make these promises, and often we find ourselves justifying why now is not a good time, that things won't be the same, that it's too much effort. Or our pride gets in the way. Sometimes we just get stuck.
At the parking lot I met a couple just gearing up for their hike. They saw the tripod lashed to the back of my pack and asked, in halting English, if I was a photojournalist. After telling them that I shot primarily for myself, we chatted about the park. They were planning to hike the main Stone Mountain Loop and asked for suggestions about other places to go. I considered keeping the rock-splitting tree to myself, but the urge soon passed. "Have you been up the on the west face of Wolf Rock?"