You don’t always need a plan. Sometimes you just need to breathe, trust, let go and see what happens.

 –Mandy Hale

For anyone who knows me, the idea of my making a trip without an “agenda” is a foreign concept. I cannot remember any trip taken in the last fifteen years that didn’t include a list or a plan for “must-see” places at “must-see” times to plan ahead for a workshop. I’m a list maker. I even love to add things to my lists just to check them off or, better yet, to run the yellow highlighter across the items.

So, when we planned to spend a week in Valle Crucis, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, last month, I said to myself, “. . . no agenda.” Then, I had to figure out what that really meant. Well, it meant that I wasn’t there specifically or solely to scout for another workshop – though I would never go anywhere without my cameras. It meant that there were a few places on my “list” that I wanted to visit, experience and photograph, but the day, time and hour were not set in stone. It meant that I was open to everything, including doing “nothing.” How is that even possible?

What else did “no plans” mean? It meant that I was open to not being fanatical about getting any specific shots of any specific subjects – no icons, no iconic scenes – regardless of whatever mental list existed in my head. It meant that I was free to explore and experience the time and places we visited without also thinking about whether the locations would work (or how they could work) for a workshop. What a weight lifted. I was able to hike and stop along the way and simply enjoy the unencumbered time in beautiful places with my husband.

Colorful views while walking around the Valle Crucis Community Park.

Porch Time with Dahlias

“No agenda” meant not having to set the alarm clock for the morning and race to meet the sunrise. (Truth be told, I enjoy sunsets more …) It meant having meals whenever and wherever we wanted. It meant being able to sit on the covered porch at the cabin at Mast Farm Inn and listening to the rain on the tin roof, the wind and the birds while rocking in our chairs. It also meant a run to the farmers’ market in Boone to find flowers – dahlias, specifically – and being okay with spending a few hours of one day on that back porch photographing them while the rain passed through. For the record, doing that under any circumstances is always okay with me.

Rainy day dahlia on the porch with Lensbaby Sweet 80 & macro filters.

Rainy day dahlias on the porch with Lensbaby Velvet 56 & diopters.

Steps Detour & Re-Engagement

I can tell you that when you head to the hills and venture anywhere, you’re going to log some steps. And, once I logged in 12,932 steps on our third day, I did add a small agenda to our days. I hit 10,000+ steps three days in a row and surrounded them by meeting my 7500-step daily goal for five out of seven. It was the first time in a long while that I had accomplished that goal. Those great strides were followed by some pitifully under 1,000-step days on our return as I worked inside. That said, the “no plans” trip helped me re-engage with my Fitbit and get moving more since.

After this, the steps goal was re-engaged.

Day 2 of over 10,000 steps … not a fluke.

Worked the over 10k steps three days in a row.

A Few Places

As I said, for the first time in years, we made a trip that included only a few places we really wanted to visit. For me, it was Craggy Gardens, which meant an over two-hour meander along the Blue Ridge Parkway to get there. For Jeff, it was a return to Roan Mountain in Tennessee, which meant a shorter drive – as long as you listen to your memory (and your gut) instead of your GPS. I’m not sure how we would have gotten to Carver’s Gap if we kept going as directed, but turning around ended up being the better choice – far better.

This lone, scraggly tree along the Parkway stopped me in my “wheel tracks.” Oh, what time can do …

Craggy Gardens Meander

The trek to Craggy Gardens and our exploration there was awesome. At the “gardens”, I brought only one camera and my tripod on the hike. I photographed only in infrared and only with the 850nm filter (b/w). I was enthralled with the trees on and off the trail and will definitely be back. Having gone this far on the Parkway, we also stopped to visit Mount Mitchell, he highest peak of the Appalachian Mountains and the highest peak in mainland eastern North America (6,684 ft). There, we discovered the Balsam Nature Trail, designated “moderate” in ease or challenge. And because I was “lazy” and didn’t bring my tripod with me on that very lush and wooded trail, it has become a “must-go-back-again” place. It was absolutely magical. I referred to the visit to Craggy Gardens as a meander because in comparison to this next trek that’s what it felt like – challenging in some areas, but overall, quite doable and pleasant.

This scene didn’t appear until I explored a stand of three trees on a meadow ridge in Craggy Gardens AFTER I finished shooting the stand and walked closer.

Just one of the cool rocks and trees and grasses scenes along the trail at Craggy Gardens.

A more intimate interpretation of the bigger scene. Always ask, “Is there more?” There usually is.

Roan Mountain “Moderate” Slog

In case you want a more specific definition of “slog,” here goes … “a spell of difficult, tiring work or traveling. If you’ve ever been to Roan Mountain, you might understand.

At Roan Mountain we hiked up to Round Bald and, after catching our breath, decided to keep going up to Jane Bald (5,807 ft. elevation, according to the signpost). It was a beautiful day – cooler temps and lots of clouds and even a reasonable breeze. We were smarter this time than we were on our first visit and brought water and snacks. (I also went light on the gear – really light – one camera & lens, tripod and extra batteries.)

As “flatlanders” from Eastern North Carolina (elevation 670 ft), these hikes are not the easiest. I can walk five miles (according to my Fitbit) in about an hour and a half without stopping. Not so – at all – in these hills, but I wouldn’t trade all the huffing and puffing for anything. The views were phenomenal.

The awesome view of Jane Bald at Roan Mountain from Round Bald in infrared (590nm). The “way” of mountains always seems to look easier than they are. We went there anyway, but Grassy Ridge Bald will remain a mystery …

A bonus to the no-agenda approach to the trip was discovering another “come-back” place – the Cloudland Trail above Carver’s Gap near the Rhododendron Gardens. For once, “easy” really meant easy in the trail description. It should have added “muddy” on our venture, but those areas were easily navigated. And, even though we got “clouded out” at the end of the trail, it was a great stretch of moments to stand on the overlook deck and watch the clouds swoop up the mountain and listen to the winds that were taking them there. I can only imagine what this place must have been like long ago. Except for an incredibly brief moment when the clouds broke and allowed a fleeting peek across the valley to the mountains beyond, we never did get to see the panoramic view we heard so much about. Just one more reason to return.

Smiling faces … Happy Trail.

Playing with motion and Cloudland trees.

Valle Crucis “Chill”

This is a place tucked away in the hills and is home to the original Mast General Store, cool and very old barns and farms and rural life. The roads are narrow and windy and not for the faint of heart or visually challenged – especially at night or in the rain. From blind curves to wild animals along and on the road, getting “home” to the cabin after dark meant being able to breathe a sigh of relief and gratitude.

The stay in the cabin at Mast Farm Inn offered opportunities to “chill”, and take some easy walks in the nearby fields and along the Watauga River at the Valle Crucis Community Park. It also offered some visits with the horses and a cute, little donkey, time with the dahlias in their gardens and a time to unplug and unwind. While we had internet available, there was no television in the cabin. Did we miss anything? No. In fact, we gained quiet time, porch time and a view of nature’s show. It was okay – really, completely fine – to sit and rock and be.

The Original Mast General Store in Valle Crucis after a rain and before it opened (infrared image).

It’s simple things like field grasses that catch your eye when you’re not on a mission.

Parting Words

I will admit that it was a challenge for m