At the peak of afternoon heat I hike to Wildflower Cove. The walk is easy; just about one mile on an old gravel road that turns into forest road, abandoned houses, and long forgotten pastures, eventually petering out into game trails and creek beds. As simple as this hike seems to me now, I lived here for three years before I discovered the true riches of Wildflower Cove.
Preferring long, meandering walks in the wintertime, in 2004 I turned this route into a loop that spit me back out on the old Doug Road to the National Game Lands border and eventually to the little cabin I was living in at the time. It was a walk I cherished in winter, ignorant of the sleeping beauties that were hidden beneath the soles of my boots, under the snow, past the layers of dried oak leaves, and deep, deep in the rocky soil.
But like most hollers around here, it is named properly and for a reason. The first spring I hiked through Wildflower Cove my quick hiking trot was forced to a careful walk as the trail was rimmed with fresh, waxy, purple poison ivy in patches as dense as prairie grass. Make no mistake, where there is poison ivy in abundance there is one of two things: Either repeated human disturbance or something so precious, as the Cherokee believed, that almost as soon as any large mammals trespassed near what needs to be protected poison ivy springs up in ferocious revolt.
In Wildflower Cove the poison ivy protects hundreds of rare pink lady slipper orchids, among dozens of other wildflower species. Haunted by flowers that had not yet bloomed, I gazed at the poison ivy and the forest floor beyond it, searching for flowers. That first spring, I had no sense of timing – the need for light, warmth, and most importantly rain were lost to me. I saw a few leaves for trillium and orchids, but nothing was flowering. I recognized bleuts and marveled at the swallowtails and monarchs, but saw nothing of the Cove’s potential. Still, the thought that something brewed beneath the soil, some crock pot simmering with the golden lentils of nature’s wealth, was enough to keep me curious.
The next spring I returned to the Cove several times over the course of three weeks. There were trillium and wild geranium, and the occasional lady slipper. But again, my visits were too spaced out. I missed the peak of the trillium and lady slipper, and almost everything in between. This spring, I was determined to catch the Cove on the right day, and follow up with intentionally timed visits to track the flowers’ progress.
And oh if there is a heaven on earth its gates are made of blooming white dogwood at the entrance to Wildflower Cove, the sad pasture of humanity at my back filled with rusted farm equipment and forgotten Appalachian shelters, the glory of natural color, the softness of petals, and the shade of protected forest straight ahead. The Cove bloomed in multitudes.
I saw white trillium one hundred, two hundred fold. And for the first time since leaving Oregon, I saw two glorious purple trilliums, each standing strongly atop dense sixteen inch stalks and framed geometrically by a triplicate of leaves. The impulse to touch these flowers faded in me years ago, as a child growing up around trilliums, I learned quickly that it takes seven years for one to grow back if it is picked. Their petals are so velvety and luscious that one touch is almost enough to coerce even the friendliest nature lover into picking one in a flash of greediness. I put my nose to the flowers, crouch down to look at their undersides, and I do not touch.
But there is more. The lady slipper leaves were up, healthy and strong as cabbage heads and hinting at what’s to come. My estimate is that there were at least as many orchids as trillium and continued visits will tell if there is any chance their blooming periods will overlap. Better yet, in an easy quarter-mile stretch I saw more than twelve different species of wildflowers, discounting the ones I couldn’t identify. There were wild geranium, wild lily, chickweed, daisy fleabane, marsh marigold, and common cinquefoil. With almost every undulation of the path I saw golden ragwort, bluets, and mayapples.
The abundance was breathtaking and though I walked only two miles in two hours, camera in one hand, field guide in the other, my heart leapt into another world whose distance is impossible to measure.
Wildflower Cove is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets in the valley. No one bothers with signs or markers. There are no guided walks or local “conservation groups” to guard its heritage. It takes a little trespassing and know-how just to get there in the first place. Primary protection is afforded by the poison ivy; sentinels of the silk of spring bordering the trail from start to finish. Second, is the treasured understanding that Wildflower Cover is sacred. If a trillium blooms in the middle of the path, the hiker marks it with sticks standing upright in front of the flower, so that others will not trample it in ignorance.
As for picking the flowers – there is no question – one simply does not indulge. The Cove looms with such sacredness that one fears the surrounding foothills might topple down in an unforgiving wave of soil and rock, burying the magic and anyone who dares to pick just one forest jewel. And that magic is feverish, spreading like roseola across the skin, unstoppable, or like a faint, persistent whisper of a grandfather clock through the wall, always lying in wait for the strike of midnight.
Still, those of us who visit find ourselves turning back to it year after year, knowing the Cove possesses some ancient enchantment that is unearthed only once a year in spring. To walk the path is to bathe in the unquantifiable radiance of a forest’s most quiet, and wildest inhabitants – the flowers themselves. Annually, we turn our heads nose-first in a southwesterly direction, hearts pounding in anticipation of something greater than ourselves, something gentler than we’ll ever be, and step slowly through the sweet dogwood doors of heaven on earth.