Catawba Falls, Pisgah National Forest

Located near Old Fort, N.C., the trail to Catawba Falls is a scant three miles from Interstate 40, a location that virtually guarantees a steady stream of hikers. But the four-mile round-trip to the falls shows they have much more to them than an easy-to-reach location. Divided into a distinct lower and upper falls, the two cataracts could not be more different, so much so that I’ve nicknamed them “The Beauty and the Beast.” The lower falls is the beast of the pair and appears more like a river running wily-nilly down the mountain. Consisting of several cascades, sometimes separate and others times braided together, the massive falls is impossible to take in all at once. The lower falls size alone would make that difficult, but it also twists with the curvature of the mountain so that its top section is partially obscured by trees from the bottom. The huge volume of water, channeled by jagged rocks, gives the impression of power rather than elegance. By contrast, the upper falls is the beauty of the pair. Elusive, hidden among the trees until you are virtually right on it, the water falls in a single, gorgeous sheet before dividing on the rocks at its base. The difficulty of reaching the upper falls (along parts of the trail ropes are anchored in place to help you climb) heightens the sense of a secret, almost magical spot. On a warmer day, I would have been tempted to lounge in the large pool at its base. In addition to the waterfalls, the trail also has an old dam and the remains of a stone building.

Lower Catawba Falls

A section of The Beast

Upper Catawba Falls


–Mark Caskie

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Ticket to Ride

Ticket window at Greensboro, N.C. train station

My hometown of Greensboro, N.C., doesn’t have a lot of notable architecture. A wonderful exception is the train station. I recently took this photo of the ticket window there. Southern railway originally built the station in 1927, and it currently has three trains daily on both northbound and southbound routes.

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The Good Samaritan

“Mrs. Jane Calthrop, of course, is not your average vicar’s wife,” whispered Ethel to her cousin Gladys, just after the chorus closed out the last harmonies of “Teach the Children.”

Bringing popular music into the service had been Jane Calthrop’s idea. To appeal to the young people, Ethel supposed. But it was really an unexamined assumption on her part since most of the songs were more suitable for her generation than the young people of today. Ethel preferred the old hymns, not because she disliked the popular songs in their place. But between the granite walls of the village’s centuries-old church they just seemed more fitting.

Ethel had no time to tell Gladys about the bra burning that Jane Calthrop had organized as a young woman years ago when she was a college student in London. We were all a bit radical back then, Ethel admitted to herself. It was the times. But the way she talks about it so freely with that full-throated laugh was just too much. “I made the evening papers,” she once said with a laugh. “Standing on top of a VW Bug without a bra on–you could tell because I didn’t have a shirt on either. The caption called me a modern Lady Godiva.”

Ethel, almost an exact contemporary of Jane Calthrop, recalled her own early ’20s. I didn’t have time to go around showing off my breasts in public. I was too busy sacking groceries and trying to scrape enough money together to get my own flat.

The congregation had flipped to the back of the hymnal for the responsive reading, and Ethel had done so automatically as well. This was always her favorite part of the service. The collective voices of the church-goers rushing past her like a river of words.

The passage was the story of the Good Samaritan. For a moment, Ethel wondered who she might be if she was a part of the parable. Would she walk on past or help the poor, injured soul?

Now, as the congregation settled back into the pews, she said to her cousin, “She studied with a guru in India for three years, and she has started a yoga class here at the church, and I’m not talking about yoga just for exercise.”

“Does anyone come?” asked Gladys, eager to hear more.

“Of course, they do. She is the vicar’s wife,” replied Ethel, as if Jane Calthrop’s influence were the most obvious thing in the world.

Vicar Calthrop began his sermon with a story about a trip to the mall, and it was hard to tell were his message might be leading. He was very handsome man, which she felt gave him an unfair advantage when it came to his winning souls or even enlisting the ladies of the church for the annual bake sale. She knew it was hard to say no to the good reverend. But it was such a shame about that wife of his, she reminded herself.

Ethel was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she really wasn’t following the sermon very well. Or for that matter even paying attention to the dress of the other women in the congregation, which she sometimes critiqued when she was bored. She loved nothing better than getting together with her friends after church and discussing the fashion successes and failures of the day.

That’s why it came as a surprise to look up to see Jane Calthrop hurrying past her in the aisle. Her eyes looked watery, though she did her best to hide them behind a raised hand. Her face was flushed as if she had been crying.

It was only an instant, but it was as if her world had shifted suddenly. Hadn’t anyone else seen Jane Calthrop’s distress? Apparently, not. Vicar Calthrop continued his sermon, the congregation appeared as it always did in rapt attention.

“Excuse me,” Ethel said under her breath to Gladys. She got up and quiet slipped out of the pew to follow Jane Calthrop.

I’m hardly the best person to comfort her, she thought as she made her way toward the door. When she emerged from the church, Ethel saw Jane Caltrhop looking at the roses in the far corner of the small graveyard that was directly next to the church.

By the time she reached Jane Calthrop, she had already seen Ethel coming. She greeted her with a faint smile.

“Are you all right” Ethel said, her voice trailing off.

Ethel could see for herself that Jane Calthrop had been crying.

“How good of you to come,” said Jane Calthrop. “And I’m so glad it’s you; I’m not sure anyone else would understand.”

“What?” asked Ethel with real surprise. “What’s the matter?”

“I’m sorry, I know that we’re hardly spoken, but I’ve always had the feeling that there is some sort of connection between us.”

Ethel nodded her head, feeling a bit hypocritical for remaining silent. But she was here to help, wasn’t she?

“I’m so embarrassed. It’s just I heard Emily Dalton make an unkind remark about my dress. I don’t know why it bothered me so much. It’s just so hard being the vicar’s wife sometimes.”

Ethel reflexively looked at Jane Calthrop’s dress. It was rather formless and a dreary pink, she quickly concluded.

“I knew you would understand. You and I are alike, don’t you think? Like sisters,” she said with a note of excitement in her voice. We’re like sisters separated at birth, I can tell. What do you think of my dress?” she asked as she made a girlish curtsy.

Ethel stood for a moment, taking in the woman before her. “It’s lovely,” she said at last. “So lovely, I think you should wear it as often as you like.”

Jane Calthrop gave her a hug then. “I knew it,” she said impetuously.

“It’s lovely,” Ethel repeated again, as she stood stock still in Jane Calthrop’s embrace. For now, Ethel had decided to enjoy the moment. But later, she thought, I must figure out why I advised her to wear that horrid dress.

–Mark Caskie

Note: The closed captioning on my television occasionally freezes on a random line. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to use these lines as writing prompts. The rules of my writing game are that I must write a short-short story in a single sitting.

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Debut Jubal’s Kin CD Has Depth, Lyricism

Jubals Kin CD_CoverReleased in 2010, Jubal’s Kin self-titled debut album is one of the most original roots albums of the past few years. The spare instrumentation, haunting lyrics, compilation of songs from a wide range of sources and subtle vocal shifts give this album an ability to transport listeners to different worlds, from the tragic story of a pedlar in Elizabethan England to America’s great depression to the modern dilemma of a singer-songwriter trying to make a living in an era when file sharing has made copyrights virtually worthless.

Composed of Gailanne Amundsen (fiddle, banjo, guitar and vocals), Roger Amundsen (guitar and vocals) and Jeffrey Amundsen (upright bass), the band on its website describes their music as “Appalachia-infused cosmic Americana.” On the one hand, I think the description is perhaps a sign of how difficult it is to describe their music. On the other hand, having listened to the album a good many times now, I suppose the description is as good as any label as it suggests a host of associations such as acoustic instruments, themes of living close to the land and close to the bone, and the ultimate transcendence of the human spirit.

Besides being a talented multi-instrumentalist, Gailanne has a vocal style that ranges from a slight twang in songs such as “No Depression” to a more rounded, full-bodied style in melodies such as the “Rowing Song.” Roger’s whispery harmonies make a nice complement to Gailanne’s strong leads. At times, the pair’s voices are slightly off-kilter and intentionally out of sync, an effect put to good use in songs such as in Cuckoo Bird.” The “bird,” or woman, of the song is beautiful but bound to bring her lover plenty of trouble.

The influence of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings is apparent in both the vocals and the instrumentation. (I suspect it may be nearly impossible to gauge the influence of these two performers on younger roots musicians.) Their style is clearly in evidence here, starting with the lovely cover of Rawlings and Welch’s “Everything Is Free Now.” There are also the songs with a Carter Family-style, Depression-era delivery. In addition, The instrumentation is often spare. At times, Roger’s guitar work is primarily a way to deliver accent marks over key passages and lyrics by giving a percussive effect to the chords. Gailanne’s driving fiddle on several of the songs infuses the music with much of its resilient spirit. Both of these, for example, contribute to the sense of distress and disorientation–and perhaps a sense of guilt too–in “Raleigh and Spencer” after the town’s tavern burns to the ground.

This album has songs of tragedy, loss and pathos. For example, the song “Eli, the Barrow Boy” tells the story of an Elizabethan pedlar who drowns himself as a result of unrequited love. Even in death, he is not free, but pushes his barrow just as Sisyphus pushes his famous rock: “Would I could afford to buy my love a fine gown/ Made of gold and silk, Arabian thread/ But I am dead and gone and lying/ in the church ground/ And I push my barrow all the day/ Still I push my barrow all the day.”

By now, you’ve probably realized that Jubal’s Kin is not the album to play at your next party. But, if you listen to it when you are in a quiet, more reflective mood, you’ll find it full of heartfelt emotion.

Check out the band”s “Cuckoo Bird” video on YouTube to experience the depth and lyricism of its music.

–Mark Caskie

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Cook’s Wall, Hanging Rock State Park Photos

While hiking at North Carolina’s Hanging Rock State Park this past fall on the Cook’s Wall Trail, I was struck by the dramatic clouds in the sky–and the raptors riding the thermals along the cliff-faces. In these photos, I like the way the vultures silhouettes are in sharp contrast to the the amorphous shapes of the clouds–and how the clouds add drama to the mountain views.

Clouds and Raptor Raptor and clouds

Raptor with Sauratown Mountains in background Pilot Mountain and Sauratown Mountain viewed from Cook’s Wall

Clouds over Hanging Rock Hanging Rock viewed from House Rock

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N.C.’s Stone Mountain Photos

While N.C.’s Stone Mountain is a long ways from Yosemite’s Half Dome and El Capitan in terms of both size and distance, they do share something in common. Granite! Stone Mountain, an outlier of the Blue Ridge, is a geological feature known as a pluton, a large mass of granite originally underground but long since eroded to the surface. Like El Capitan and Half Dome, Stone Mountain is a favorite with climbers who like the variety of routes provided by the massive 600-foot cliff face. Also, hikers are drawn to the popular Stone Mountain Trail that traverses the summit, offers views of the cliff face from a meadow at the mountain’s base and includes a large waterfall. I photographed Stone Mountain in black and white, which emphasizes the texture and striations of the granite, in tribute to one of my favorite photographers, Ansel Adams.

Stone Mountain in the distance

Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain

Center section of Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain with tree in the foreground

Center section of Stone Mountain with tree in foreground

Stone Mountain with a crown of trees

Just right of center section of Stone Mountain

–Mark Caskie

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Hidden Falls and Window Falls, Hanging Rock State Park

Hidden Falls and Window Falls are two of the most visited falls at N.C.’s Hanging Rock State Park. That’s due to their proximity to one of the main parking lots and picnic areas. It’s less than a half-mile to Hidden Falls and less than three-quarters of a mile to Window Falls from the trailhead. While neither fall is large, both are scenic and worth the short walk, and Window Falls has some unusual features that deserve special mention. Because the water there free-falls off a large overhang, you can walk behind the waterfall (or even stand in it when the weather is warm). There is also its namesake window, a hole in the rockface just to the left of the falls, no doubt carved by the water in the distant past. But there is something else that is not so obvious. If you go up the left bank and around the end of the rockface, you will find a dark ravine that leads to another hidden waterfall. Think of it as a bonus waterfall (no signs will tell you that it is there), and the view out the window is much more interesting from this direction as well.

Hidden Falls

Hidden Falls

Window Falls

Window Falls

The window

The window

Bonus waterfall just above Window Falls

Bonus waterfall just above Window Falls

–Mark Caskie

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Until the War Ends


“Deprive me of a husband, but he would deprive me of kindness as well,” Laurel confided in her best friend Summer, barely suppressing her anger.

She didn’t dare speak the king’s name for spies were everywhere. So long as she didn’t speak his name then she could perhaps deny her words–say she was speaking on an overattentive suitor, blame such actions on the shepherd or the village blacksmith.
“You must run away,” replied Summer. Her face colored as she suppressed the name of Laurel’s fiance, but his name “Hunter” hung in the air nevertheless. She know the dangers of speaking too freely of this matter.

It was an impractical suggestion. Where would she run to? How would she find Hunter on the distant battlelines where thousands of men fought and died daily? But she loved her friend Summer all the more for the indignation and defiance that ran through her veins on Laurel’s behalf. And one day she would run away, she told herself, but not until she could do so with Hunter.

She remembered the sudden appearance of the young king in her humble cottage in the late spring while her parents were away tending the sheep in the mountain pastures. His crown had bumped against the doorframe as he entered, and, unlike the young men of the cottages, his skin was as fresh and unmarred as a baby’s.

She had been so flustered by his unlikely visit, that at first she didn’t catch the drift of what he was saying. He patiently repeated his assertion of the divine right of kings, she understood that all right, but it was the part about bestowing the “blessings of God” on her upcoming wedding that she didn’t fathom. The “right of Primo Noctur,” he called it.

When she finally figured out his meaning, she had been terrified and humiliated. “I love Hunter and only him,” she declared, before fleeing into the nearby forest. She had hidden in a small clutch of fallen trees, her heart pounding along with the pounding hooves of the king’s horses as they criss-crossed the forest searching for her. By morning, the king and his men were gone, and she wondered if she had simply dreamed the strange events.

But that same day the king had suddenly sent Hunter off to the battlelines. She barely had time to say good-bye to him, much less tell him what had happened.

Then the rumors started. Rather than sympathy, her neighbors blamed her. She found herself ostracized by the village for somehow tempting the young king, though she had barely laid eyes on him before that night. It was difficult without Hunter or her family to support her. Only Summer had stood by her. They would met in secret and talk without naming names. She was determined that Hunter would return to her to find her as chaste as the day he left.

A month later, the king had made it known by secret messenger that one day he would come to her cottage again, and this time he would stay till sunrise, welcomed to her bed.

“Don’t worry,” she said reassuringly to Summer. “I don’t think he will come, after all,” she said as she took out a small pouch from the folds of her dress. “Men don’t like it,” she whispered hurriedly.

Summer gasped at the sight of the pouch. Laurel thought for a moment that Summer might be imagining that Laurel planned to poison the king. He might have wronged me, but he is still divine, she thought. To clarify she said, “Wives don’t like it either.”

It had been relatively easy to sneak into the king’s castle disguised as a scullery maid and sprinkle the substance from the pouch onto the king’s dish. She had done it nightly for three weeks now. The truth was that the pantries in the bowels of the castle were largely unguarded, if you knew which passages to take. And the pedlar had not lied about the substance’s properties.

“Rumor is that she sleeps alone,” Laurel said. “And he avoids her at every turn.” Laurel leaned in closer to her friend. “I fear theirs will not be a happy marriage until the war ends.”

–Mark Caskie

Note: The closed captioning on my television occasionally freezes on a random line. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to use these lines as writing prompts. The rules of my writing game are that I must write a short-short story in a single sitting.

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Lower Cascades, Hanging Rock State Park

Lower Cascades at North Carolina’s Hanging Rock State Park, near the town on Danbury, is sometimes overlooked by casual visitors because it lies outside of the main park, but the short detour to see the falls is well worth the trip. (Turn right on Moore’s Springs Road just before the park entrance, then left on Hall Road. The falls’ parking area is a short distance from the second turn.) After descending a series of elaborate stairs perched on the side of the gorge, you will find yourself at the falls. While it isn’t especially high (perhaps 35 feet), there is usually plenty of water and a lovely bowl-shaped pool at its base. To the left of the falls a massive rockface creates a dramatic contrast to the flowing water. A series of stepping stones across the pool will allow you to get close enough to the falls that you can feel the waterfall’s spray. In warm weather, you may find yourself tempted to go for a swim in the cool water.

Walkway to Lower Cascades


lClose-up of Lower Cascades

–Mark Caskie

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Sisters in Shadowland


“We are sisters in more ways than you know.” The words ran through Liz’s mind as she walked along the city streets of midnight, hurried from one pool of light to another fearing the darkened stretches in-between.

What could Jen possibly mean? She was always so ridiculous with her oracular pronouncements. It was something in the way that she looked Liz straight in the eyes and leaned in, arching her eyebrows. It was as if she had access to all the secrets of the cosmos. It was a little trying, but Liz had always found Jen’s mannerisms tolerable because she had known her, at least distantly, since childhood.

They were from the same small town in the coal country of West Virginia but had not been close. Liz remembered sitting near Jen in third grade and how weird she had thought it was that Jen drew pentagrams, goblins and monsters all over her notebook.

Years later, they had met again in this distant city. Liz had just finished art school and was in a post-college malaise of under-employment, unsure of what direction her life was taking. She had bumped into Jen at a mutual friend’s party, and there had been an immediate connection because of their shared roots, Liz supposed.

Liz pulled her black, wool cape tighter around her shoulders to keep the brisk fall air out. It had been a gift from Jen last Christmas. Jen had bought it for her after Liz had complemented her on the one she was wearing. It was an exact match, right down to its silver buttons. It was a thoughtful gift, really. Totally unexpected. It had become Liz’s favorite. They liked to joke about their appearance when they found themselves both wearing the capes at the same time.

Somehow, Jen had managed to get a college degree and a law degree in just five years–and was now working for one of the major firms in the city. It was a revelation because as children Liz had always assumed, like the other girls in her school, that Jen was not particularly smart or gifted in anything. Jen had been a loner, sometimes subject to taunting by the other children. Liz remembered her own indifference to Jen, more afraid of being taunted herself than willing to speak up against the class’s injustice to the sullen, quiet girl. Children are so mean, sometimes, Liz thought. That goes for me too.

And now, Liz was going to apply to law school. She had spent many an evening with Jen discussing if it was the right fit. If she got in, it would be expensive, but Jen had already offered to let her rent a room at her row house, just blocks from the university.

So Jen tried to not let it bother her too much when Liz intimated that she had supernatural powers and insights. Jen would fix weird concoctions that she would serve her, while reciting a list of their magical properties. OK, so Jen has swallowed this new age crap hook, line and sinker, thought Liz. It’s just herbal tea for God’s sake, and Liz is a good friend. And indeed, the concoctions while strange and unrecognizable were always delicious.

Tonight, it had been a concoction that would summon the “wraiths of the underworld.” It was always unsettling when Jen said things like that. And her smile seemed vaguely menacing, as if she knew more than she would say.

Liz tensed now as she turned the corner onto Shadowland Avenue. This part of her walk always made her uneasy and led her to curse herself for not taking a cab at this time of night. Yet she had walked it a thousand times without incident. It was just that the street seemed somehow darker, more cramped and without the occasional traffic found on the other streets. Then there was the story of the art student who had been murdered on this street many years ago while walking home. It creeped her out, though she didn’t even know if it was true.

The wraiths of the underworld. Now, it was that phrase she found herself mulling over. She quickened her steps as she thought she saw a figure of a man in the shadows at the mouth of an alley. Had she imagined it? As she walked on, her peripheral vision told her he was real and now walking along behind her.

Just two blocks to go, she reminded herself as she chided her paranoia. On the other side of the street, another man appeared out of nowhere and was walking along on the other side of the street at the same pace. It was unusual to see so many people out this late, but we were after all near the college–and college students were likely to be out anytime of night, she told herself.

At last she was in her block, still reciting in her mind the phrase, the wraiths of the underworld. Was it her imagination that the men had been drawing slowly closer? Her shoes rang out as they struck the sidewalk.

Just as she reached her porch, a third man stepped out of the darkness. She realized the danger around her was very real. She could feel that the other two men were now standing very close behind her. Without saying a word, the man in front of her drew out a knife.

What happened next became sort of a blur. Later she would remember how the wind suddenly kicked up with a mighty gust. Streams of fog that somehow looked like galloping horses with cloaked figures riding them seemed to fly in from all directions. Her cape filled with the wind and seemed to lift her off the ground.

Then, she found herself standing in the bay window of her apartment looking down at her street. The fog swirled for a moment below her like a tiny swirling galaxy, going faster and faster. When the fog cleared suddenly, the men were all gone.

Liz continued to look out the window for a long-time at the spot were she might have died at the hands of the men. It was a good thing to be alive, but how had it happened?

“We are sisters in more ways than you know.” Liz’s heart beat fast as she realized the meaning of the words. How had it happened that she had become a witch? She didn’t know. She needed to calm down and think. A cup of herbal tea from the mixture Jen gave me just the other day, she thought, will soothe my nerves and help me make sense of my new-found powers.

–Mark Caskie

Note: The closed captioning on my television occasionally freezes on a random line. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to use these lines as writing prompts. The rule for my writing game is that I must write a short-short story in a single sitting.

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