Grayson Highlands State Park, VA

"You heard of New York?" the round man growls. "You heard of Bellevue Hospital, where the poor people go?" Heads wobble noncommittally in his audience, a small group of young adults sitting on the grass in front of the Boone Community Center. The round man continues to address his conscripted listeners: "I was in a dorm with people smoking marijuana, hash, and crack cocaine so, you know what? I called the cops on 'em." His fat face is beet red under a forest green baseball cap and the whites of his bulging eyes form a moat around gray irises. He does not smile, but he pauses for dramatic effect before resuming with a scowl. "You know what they called me for that? The Carolina Squealer!" His face darkens to the maroon of his t-shirt as he begins recounting how one of his fellow patients retaliated by attacking him. His double-chin quivers as his temper rises. "I used to play football and hockey when I was young. I loved blood when I was young. Don't mess with people like that unless you know you can crush the life out of them. I can, I played football. Nothing I'd like more than to have crushed his skull." He stops, eyes wide, mouth slightly parted to reveal teeth that look purple and eroded at their roots. "I love blood."

The Appalachians are subtle, a sine wave of lush hills that gradually increases in severity as one approaches North Carolina's border with Tennessee. Westerners can seldom restrain snarky comments about the Appalachians, comparing their height to the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, or the Cascades. The Appalachians are overdeveloped, over-hiked, and thus, the argument goes, overrated. But these forms of quantification are as shallow as measuring a person's character by the size of their tax return... or their anatomy. The Appalachians are different from western ranges but they are no less beautiful. Five minutes of winding along a crumbling North Carolina backroad could silence even the most obnoxious skeptic: low gray skies hang over the charged greenness of shimmering deciduous trees as hot pavement steams under the gentle patter of cool rain. Decomposing barns appear and vanish around rolling hills. Rivers flow next to the road, then under the road, then off into canyons, their foamy white water polishing black rocks. The air smells perfect—damp, heavy with vegetation, but strangely clean, a far cry from the dry crispness of the west or the sickly rankness of the southern lowlands. Lichen encrusted chunks of granite protrude from hillsides, their pale complexions stained brown in by seeping water. From the top of a rocky plug in western Virginia, the Appalachians ripple outward in every direction. Gray skies develop an orange backlight as the sun fizzles. Nothing about the view is jaw-droppingly sublime, but the scene is profoundly calming in a way that showier landscapes will never rival.