Please welcome my guest today, Karen McCullough, an author of mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy novels who will share how a personal adventure played a part in one of her books. Karen is one of my fellow authors from the new e-book 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror, 52 Authors Look Back. I hope you’ll also check out our stories in that essay anthology, a collection gathered to warm your heart, raise your spirits, and compel you to examine your own life. But first, here’s how Karen’s hike up Mount Pisgah helped her create suspense:
Climbing Mount Pisgah
by Karen McCullough
When our kids were younger, our finances were tight. Not desperately so, but we just barely paid the bills and there was no money for fancy vacations or even much traveling. Still, we wanted to give the kids the experience of different places and interesting adventures, so we looked for things we could do at low cost. We were fortunate that a relative owned a summer cabin in Asheville, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway, and she was happy to let our family use it. We live within easy driving distance of Asheville, so we took her up on it often.
Our most adventurous outing occurred the day we decided to climb 5700-foot Mount Pisgah.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is magnificent in spring and fall, but wonderful even in summer, and there are lots of things you can do with an adventurous family for little money. Fortunately we all liked walking and hiking. (Still do.) We set out from the cabin every day with a cooler full of drinks, sandwiches for a picnic, a first aid kit, and a map of the parkway. Our most adventurous outing occurred the day we decided to climb 5700-foot Mount Pisgah.
You start at a parking area off the parkway at almost 5000 feet in elevation, so you only climb about 700 feet. There’s a “trail” all the way to the top. At the time, trails were marked with their length, but they weren’t generally classified as to how strenuous they were. The length was listed as about a mile and a half each way, well within the abilities of everyone in the family, even our youngest, who was around eight.
The trail started out deceptively easy, with a gentle rise through forests of tall old pine and oak trees that provided blessed shade. Even in the moderate elevations of the Blue Ridge Mountains, July in North Carolina is hot. As we progressed, though, the trail grew rougher, rising more steeply, with occasional rocky outcrops, fallen trees, and creeping raised roots as obstacles.
Still, it was a wonderful walk as we spotted various wildflowers, were amused by squirrels and chipmunks, crossed the occasional stream that muddied the trail, and listened to the rush of water and sighing of the wind in the trees. Where the trees thinned we passed through tunnels made by enormous thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel.
We passed through tunnels made by enormous thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel. (This is one of my daughters on that day.)
Then we hit the second half of the trek. The rise grew increasingly steep. The trail became several long series of irregular stone steps that seemed to go on and on and on, until we wondered if we’d ever get to the top. We’d done plenty of hikes of more than a couple of miles, but this came to seem longer than any of those. In places, the steps were so steep we had to use our hands as well as feet for the climb. I worried about my kids. They, of course, were far less concerned and bounced up the difficult climb while my husband and I got winded on the steepest sections.
But we persisted, determined to make it to the top. We’d caught glimpses of awesome views over mountains and valleys as we got higher, promising a fantastic vista from the peak. The last section was so steep we were all but climbing, the stone steps so high and narrow they were more like a ladder than stairs in places.
After what seemed like forever we finally made it to the top. At the base of a television transmission tower on the peak, we found an observation deck with numerous benches and a surprising number of people. We collapsed until we regained the wind we’d lost on the final push.
Then we strolled around the edge of the peak, checking out the views. Those were definitely worth the climb. It was a hot, humid day, which limited visibility somewhat, but we could still see for miles to other ridges, valleys, roads, campgrounds, and beautiful forest.
We soaked it in for a while, resting and rehydrating before undertaking the trip back down the mountain. Once at the bottom, we all voted it worth the effort. Even if we hadn’t had the fantastic view as a reward, the sense of accomplishment we got for completing the climb made it worth the sweat and hard work.
Not long after that trip to the mountains, I wrote the romantic suspense novel, A Question of Fire.
Not long after that trip to the mountains, I wrote the romantic suspense novel A Question of Fire. I wanted to have a climactic confrontation occur in the mountains, one that would leave my main characters stranded for a while. I drew on the experience of that climb to describe the experiences of my characters as they made their way on foot through a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I remembered vividly the heat, the way sweat rolled down our bodies under our clothes, and the walk through thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron. Those thickets had been cut back from the trail, but I wondered what it would be like trying to go through or around them. I worked all that into the scene. I even had my hero climb to the top of a nearby ridge to get the lay of the land.
Karen McCullough is the author of a dozen published novels and novellas. She has won many awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She has been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, and Scarlett Letter contests. Her short fiction has appeared in many anthologies and small press publications. Karen has three children, three grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with her husband.