BROWN MOUNTAIN LIGHTS ON THE COAST

The people wonder what happened to the Lost Colony, but in the North Carolina mountains, the most celebrated mystery is the Brown Mountain Lights. As mysteries go, this is about as good as it gets.

The lights have dazzled viewers for centuries. Supposedly, the Cherokee knew of the lights as early as the year 1200. According to one Cherokee legend, the lights are spirits of Indian maidens searching for men who had died in battle. Other spirited tales tell of the ghost of a slave searching for his master and the ghost of a murdered woman searching for her severed head. UFOs and angels also make the list in the supernatural category. And then there’s the explanation offered in an X-Files episode that the lights lured people into caves so that an enormous hallucinogenic mushroom could digest the living tissue from their bodies before exhuming the bones to the surface. Well, what do you expect from Mulder and Scully?

German engineer William Gerard de Brahm offered the first scientific theory in 1771 when he wrote that the lights were caused by windborne vapors that had ignited. Scientific explanations abound, but none have been proven. Among the unlikely theories are automobile or train headlights (the phenomenon was seen before trains existed in the area and also seen right after the 1916 flood that grounded all motorized transportation), methane gas (no source for it), bioluminescence (that type of light is too faint), and refraction from distant electric lights (electric lights were not in existence in the area when the lights were first seen). Among the not-yet-disproved theories are ball lightning, magnetic plasma, and charges resulting from seismic activity.

The truth is that no one knows what causes the Brown Mountain Lights, although many people are searching hard for the answer. If you want to try to see them for yourself, the best place to look is probably Wiseman’s View. Those who have seen the lights from here say they appear on the opposite rim of the gorge or down in the gorge near the river. They can be white or bright red or other colors, and they can dance in erratic patterns. If you go, just don’t make the mistake that many observers do and assume the distant lights from Lenoir or from airplanes are the real thing.

Beginning in the community of Linville Falls, our route circumnavigates Linville Gorge on mostly unpaved roads and provides easy access to all the sights. At the start is the Pisgah National Forest trailhead for Linville Falls (the National Park Service trailhead is accessed from the Blue Ridge Parkway). Plan to spend several hours exploring the many viewpoints for the waterfall, which is among the most remarkable in the state. It’s even more fascinating when you know a little bit about its geology.

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