When I reached the top of Waterrock Knob, under rather malicious-looking skies, a 60-year old man with wild gray hair caught me totally by surprise.
“Do you know how to get to heaven from here? he asked, seemingly appearing out of thin air.
“Um, no,” I responded, half-startled. “I don’t think I do.”
It was a couple hours before sunset. Late afternoon thunderstorms were rolling in hard and fast. A raindrop splashed on my arm.
“We seek out places like this because we want to get high,” he said. “But what happens when we can’t get any higher? Where do we go?”
“Everest, maybe Disneyland,” is what I wanted to say. But I resisted this mischevious urge and instead stupidly shrugged my shoulders.
“When we reach heights like this, it can make us feel so empty,” he continued. “The temporal realm can only offer us so much. To go higher – to transcend – we have to welcome Jesus into our hearts. It’s the only way.”
I had no desire to dive into a deep religious discussion. But there was no escape. He was on a roll and wanted an audience, so I listened – and intently so – because I figured I might learn something.
He told me his story: he came of age in the ‘60s, “when all the world felt like it was coming apart,” as he put it. He was, in no small terms, a flower child. Certainly not religious, at least not at first. But then he found Jesus during his mid-20s in California after what he called a “destructive couple of months.” He did not elaborate on this period of his life.
Now he owns a boxing gym in Kentucky, near Cincinnati. He was in WNC to do some world-class trout fishing.
I quite liked him, really, save for a couple matter-of-fact comments he made about Islam being “satanic,” Buddhism being “empty” and a tangent about Benjamin Franklin that I simply could not follow. But I glossed over these hiccups and gave him the time of day. Then I found a gap in conversation, thanked him for the willingness to share his story, and ducked around the corner.
Like I said, I hadn’t marched up here for a Sermon on the Mount. I came for a hike (this is, after all, the sports and outdoor section), but not just any hike: the mythical Waterrock Knob plane crash hike. I hadn’t seen it listed on any hiking websites, so I wasn’t sure it even existed in any official sense – hence the decision not to include it in the recently-started “Amateur Hiker” series.
Nonetheless, I was determined to find out what it was all about.
There is plenty of unofficial information online about how to get to the crash site, yet few easily obtainable facts about how and when the plane went down. After some research, though, I stumbled upon a Reddit post with a link to the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the crash.
The gist of it is that, on the night of Nov. 24, 1983, a possibly semi-drunk pilot flying a CESSNA 414A with one passenger got a little squirrely in cloudy weather.
Things did not end well.
“THE FINAL RADAR CONTACT WAS AT 6,100 FT & ABOUT 1 MI FROM THE CRASH SITE,” reads the report, in all caps, for some reason. “THE PLT’S BLOOD ALCOHOL LEVEL WAS 0.04%”
The investigation determined two probable causes of the accident: “ALTITUDE...INADEQUATE...PILOT IN COMMAND” and “IMPAIRMENT...(ALCOHOL)...PILOT IN COMMAND.”
So armed with nothing more than some confusing directions I screen-shotted from a random blog, I departed for Waterrock Knob late one Sunday afternoon with a storm looming. The sky looked bloated and unstable when I arrived.
About seven-eighths of the way to the top of the knob, I passed an older gentleman and what appeared to be his grandson heading back down. Once behind me, I heard the grandpa say, quite loudly “People never cease to amaze me.”
Maybe they had just had a fateful run-in with the Waterrock Knob preacher. Or perhaps he was referring to my questionable decision to hike to the top of a mountain in a potential lightning storm. Either explanation would have been fitting.
After my own encounter with the preacher, I sought out the trail leading to the fabled crash site.
My directions read “after reaching the outlook, retreat back to the last set of stone stairs. Once there, you’ll notice a well-worn path to the left.”
I was already confused. Did that mean on the left when facing down the hill, or on the left when facing up?
Thankfully, five teenage boys saved the day.
“Just follow the yellow paint on the trees, dude,” said one of them.
And that’s exactly what I did, because if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that you should never not trust advice given to you by a teenager.
The trail was steep, winding and a little treacherous. Not long after I began, the real rains came, hard and heavy, as they had been promising to do all afternoon. The downpour gave me a second wind, and I sprinted through the forest like a madman, tripping over several exposed roots and sloshing mud all over my legs. It was getting dark and I was alone, with only a general idea of where I was going. Ah, but I felt alive!
The screen-shotted directions turned out to be completely useless. They foretold of a “paper sign nailed to a tree stating ‘Browning Knob’” and a plaque of some sort located along the trail. I saw neither of these. About 20 minutes into my journey, I came to a clearing, then a fork in the road. Hiding in the grass near a path that split off to the left was a small piece of debris. I figured this was a makeshift waypoint placed there by a helpful soul, and decided to follow it.
I tramped down a hill, and boom, there it was: a gray monster looming devilishly amidst the trees.
The fuselage – which read CESSNA414 – was surprisingly well-preserved for being almost four decades old (and, you know, slamming into the mountainside at an untold speed). Someone had spray-painted “TRENT” in red on one side. Furthermore, there was an enormous amount of debris scattered everywhere, like the crash had just happened the previous night. It seemed odd that, after all these years, no one had cleaned up the mess. But then again, what would be the point?
I didn’t stay long. It was far too eerie. The rain had stopped, but it was still endlessly gray and unsettingly quiet. I half-expected the ghost pilot – still semi-drunk on Tennessee whiskey, or whatever it was he had been drinking – to emerge from the shattered cockpit, warning me to “NEVER FLY AT INADEQUATE ALTITUDES.”
This didn’t happen, though, because ghosts probably aren’t real. But I’m not firm in this belief, so I didn’t take any chances.
I retraced my steps, through the mud, to the place where I had encountered the amateur preacher (a.k.a the owner of the boxing gym, a.k.a the former hippie). He was long gone, of course, forced down the mountain by rain and the potential lightning storm. No one else was up there.
Yet the question he had posed hung unanswered in the muggy air: how do you get to heaven from Waterrock Knob? When we’ve reached all the heights this world has to offer, where do we go next? How do we step beyond ourselves – beyond this life – and grasp onto something more permanent, perhaps more real? If we’re religious, how do we solidify our faith? If not, how do we mine meaning from an existence that, from a certain perspective, has been forced upon us?
There are, of course, only two people who know the path from Waterrock Knob to the Great Beyond. And both of them were careening through the sky in a CESSNA on a cloudy winter’s night in 1983 when things started going terribly, irreversibly wrong.
Mike Schoeffel is the sports editor at Mountaineer Publishing Inc. and an avid outdoorsman who goes hiking every chance he gets.