A North Carolina Ghost Story
When the guys proposed we take a day-hike on Grandfather Mountain, I agreed with enthusiasm. Grandfather Mountain looms craggily over the scenery just a few miles from my hometown. It is 5,946 feet in elevation, has a mile-high swinging bridge, fantastic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the best day-hikes in the region. It was some place!
Grandfather Mountain got its name from the distinct formations on its top. From Highway 105, you could clearly see the profile of an old man with a long beard and a strong nose napping with his head tilted back. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
I packed up my daypack and the hiking gear I would need for the day, and ran out the front door when I heard my friend honking the car horn. It was a perfect day – clear and sunny and warm, though the wind at mountain top would be chilly. Brian, Jerry and I arranged to have a couple friends drop us off at the trailhead and leave our car in the parking lot up top since we were getting a late start and figured we never make it back down the mountain before dark. And only the very foolish hike on Grandfather Mountain after dark. It’s a dangerous mountain.
We decided to hike up to the Calloway Peak and via the Profile trail which goes right up over the grandfather’s “face”.
We paid for hiking day-passes and our buddy dropped us off at the trailhead. Donning our packs, we set off on our adventure. One of the reasons I love hiking Grandfather Mountain is because the backcountry is so different from other areas in the South. The trails take you through forests usually found in Canadian climates, and you get to see some rare and endangered plants during your travels. According to the guidebooks, there are 16 distinct ecosystems on Grandfather Mountain.
Jogging along wooded pathways, picking our way cautiously up steep inclines, and pausing to take in magnificent views, the day passed quickly. When we reached the peak, we paused for awhile to eat some snacks and take photos. During our break, the talk turned, as it always did when we climbed Grandfather Mountain, to the various stories connected with the place. Grandfather Mountain had a special place in Cherokee mythology. It was called Tanawha (Fabulous Eagle) and was once considered the resting place of the eagle spirit. It was also thought that there were entrances to the Underworld on Grandfather Mountain, that were marked by a spring head and guarded by the little people as well as a black panther.
As we passed out granola bars, Jerry laughingly mentioned that we had walked through one of the places where the Phantom Hiker had been reported. Brian perked up then. He loves ghost stories. He demanded details, but Jerry had none to give. So I told him the tale as I had heard it from other folks hiking in the region. Apparently, there was a stretch of trail (folks disagreed on which one) where a hiker would appear. The man would tramp past his viewers without acknowledging their nods or greetings, and then would vanish into thin air. Folks thought the phantom must be a hiker must be a mountain man who had died somewhere near here and had returned refused to leave after death. Others thought he must be a long-ago explorer who fell off the mountain while hiking. It wasn’t much of a story, really, but Jerry lapped it up.
It was getting late, and we needed to hustle. I did not want to tackle some of those trickier trails at dusk. Packing up, we headed back down the trail. We reached a wide-open rocky stretch that was fairly difficult to navigate. As we headed along the trail in the direction of the upper parking lot where our buddies had left the car, a tall gruff fellow with a craggy face and a beard hiked past us. He was wearing old-fashioned clothing and had a rough sort of pack on his back. He didn’t look at us as he approached, and did not acknowledge our nods of greeting as he passed us. He must be hiking all the way down to the bottom of the mountain. Which was just plain foolish, because there was no way he could reach the trail head before dusk.
Jerry must have had the same thought. He nudged me as the man passed us and said: “He’ll never make it to the bottom before dark. We should offer him a ride to his car.” I nodded and we both turned to call to the hiker.
He had vanished.
I stared blankly at the wide-open, rocky surface of the mountain. The tree line was at least five hundred feet away on all sides. Where had the hiker gone?
I shuddered superstitiously. “Vanished into thin air” is a hackneyed phrase that is overused in book and movies. I hated to use it, but in this instance, that is just what the hiker had done. He had disappeared.
Jerry’s eyes were huge as he glanced nervously back and forth along the rocky hilltop. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide on this rocky section of trail. So where was the hiker? He glanced questioningly at me, his face pale.
Brian, who had continued a little way down the path, stopped now and called to us: “Come on guys. Why are you stopping?”
“Where did that hiker go?” I asked, gesturing to the empty rocky ground around us. “He passed us a few seconds ago, and there’s nowhere to hide.”
“He can’t have reached the tree line. There was no time. We turned around with two or three seconds after he passed us,” Jerry said.
“Maybe it was the phantom,” Brian called back to us, a little sarcastically. My arms broke out in goose bumps at the thought. “Come on,” he added.&n
bsp; “We can tell the rangers to look out for him when we get back to the car.”
We nodded reluctantly, gave the bare rocky hilltop another disbelieving scan, and hurried after Brian.
It was getting late when we reached the car. We put our packs into the trunk and then found the nearest ranger to tell him about the late-hiker tramping down the long trail to the bottom of the mountain. The ranger promised to keep an eye out for him. We thanked the ranger and headed for home, still a bit spooked by the whole occurrence. Had we really seen the phantom hiker? Or had the man simply been really, really fast?
I checked in with the ranger the next day to see if the man had been found, but the ranger had seen no one on his sweep of the mountain. The hiker had vanished without a trace. So it remains a mystery to this day. Did we see the phantom hiker of Grandfather Mountain. I think so. What do you think?