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Terror on Brown Mountain

Sometime around 7pm Thursday of last week I found myself sitting on the beat down bed of a dive hotel located in Boone, North Carolina. I was loading cameras into their bags and organizing some things I had just pulled out of the Blue Ridge Outdoors Subaru road-vehicle, which we use at the magazine for such adventures, and wondering why I had decided to go on a UFO hunt in the middle of the night all by myself. Of course, the sun was beginning to drop down behind the mountains and it’s always that initial shock of night that jolts the human psyche while mentally gearing up for any sort of outdoor adventure – especially venturing off into the woods in search of natural phenomenons all by your lonesome.

I could get abducted, I thought to myself, and at the very least I’d go down as a legend. “Travel Writer Disappears at Brown Mountain on First Assignment” the headlines would read. But those thoughts had to be suppressed in order to get on with business, so loading the equipment up became first priority and I quickly made for the door.

Now, just for a little backstory for those who haven’t heard: small glowing apparitions have been sighted from numerous viewpoints surrounding Brown Mountain for centuries. Some sources have even claimed the Native Americans had seen them even before land surveyors reportedly did in the 1700s. Scientists have tried to explain them, but no theory has ever been provided with proof. Native American spirits? Swamp gas? Mineral electricity produced by geological activity? People are still investigating them as I write. Nobody knows for sure, but I knew one thing: I wanted to get a look and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

As I stepped out the back door of the hotel to hit the road and make tracks towards the backwoods, lightning flashed, followed by a comforting roll of thunder, followed by a few more flashes, intensifying in brightness and quantity as seconds passed. Great…

Driving up the long, rugged road to Wiseman’s View Overlook the rain sputtered to a mellow drizzle and fog began to creep out of the woods. The drive was slow going and about as creepy as one could ask for on an October night, but the haunting vibe of the drive had livened my senses, as any dose of fear usually does, and I actually felt quite thrilled to be where I was at that very moment despite not being able to see anything and having no idea where I was in the middle of the woods…

About 15 minutes later I had made it to the top and was surprised to see headlights behind me. Grateful or scared – I’m not really sure which it was – but definitely surprised, I pulled over thinking I could get a little window chat going and possibly a hiking partner. I rolled the window down just to watch the truck pass hurredly by. No dice. I reluctantly followed and met them in the parking lot.

“What you want, bud,” the Southern drawl irritatedly came through the one-inch-cracked window as I stood outside the truck in the parking lot probably looking just like the exact psycho I feared running into myself. The guy clearly wanted nothing to do with me, which became more apparent when I realized there was a female in the car–one he was likely hoping to be spending some alone time with up there. Clicking on my trusty headlamp, I moved on and headed to the trail, partnerless.

Let it be said that the trail to Wiseman’s View Overlook is not long. It’s quite short, in fact. But for a midwesterner on a stormy, foggy October night hiking in the pitch black, the eerie silence intermittently breached by strange noises that were definitely (probably not) bears hunting me down was enough to put me on edge. About five miles in (probably 50 yards) I reluctantly turned back.

The midnight lovers were still in their car and in a last ditch effort to save this mission from failure, I bravely approached the vehicle once more to seek out hiking pals. In retrospect, this was a dumb idea. Retrospect hit me after five seconds of awkwardly lingering in the dark next to the truck as I called out to the vehicle’s passengers and they silently ignored me. Righty-o. Abort mission.

Frustratedly driving back out on the main road foreign bends in highway and strange buildings I didn’t recognize began to catch my attention. Wrong turn. Faaaantastic. This night couldn’t seem to go my way. Suddenly I see it! Brown Mountain Overlook. I knew exactly where I was, I had read about this spot–it was the other lookout point! I abrubtly swerved into the overlook parking lot and felt joyously rejuvenated realizing the mission was not doomed.

Not only was I where I wanted to be, I was greeted by proof that not all North Carolina guys are so bad as a younger guy approached me – I think his name was Zimmer – and began telling me about the lights.

“Oh yeah, you’re in the right place, bud,” Zimmer said. He’d been coming here most of his life, mostly to hang out with his brother and friends and to hike the areas fantastic trails and riversides, but knew all too well that the lights existed. “You keep watching those hills and they’ll show up right on the side of that mountain right there,” as he pointed into the darkness.

Zimmer and his pals hung out for a bit and eventually took off,  warning me to be careful up in those woods at night.

Enter Cindy, a grandmother and strong believer in the lights who frequents the viewpoint hoping to catch a third sight of them. Cindy had brought up two of her grandchildren this particular night, planning to hang around for a couple hours as the kids ran around the hillside whispering of possible sightings and whatever else adolescent girls whisper about.

The view from the Brown Mountain Overlook on Hwy 181
The view from the Brown Mountain Overlook on Hwy 181.

“The first time was about twenty years ago, and it was just over this range here to the left side of the Brown Mountain Overlook, there were red lights that were rising from somewhere near that peak–or just over the other side of that peak–and I thought they were airplanes. But they would rise and stop up not too far above the range and then start coming towards the direction of where we were parked, and then they would disappear,” she said as cricket chirps echoed through the blackness of the canyon.

Cindy’s advice: Patience is key.

The full moon would peek through the clouds every now and then reflecting off of spooky fog patches down in the valley creating ghostly hazes far below. Cindy was excited to be there again staring over that bluff hoping to catch another glimpse of the legendary glowing orbs that every-so-often present themselves to patient viewers, and I was excited to have a few friendly people around as we all stood loyaly watching through the night. As time passed the rain returned, the air turned brisk, the wind began to bellow, and everybody’s patience wore thin. Skunked.

As it turned out, the experience was worth the trouble despite the lack of a triumphant ending. Standing there on the edge, headlights swept passed me as Cindy and her children fled the coming rain and I was left standing alone in the dark once again. “Be careful if you’re going to stay alone,” she had told me while pulling away. But my own fear had subsided long ago, as it usually does when the thrill of adventure begins to peak and fear converts to fun, which, in turn, becomes reward. The lights hadn’t shown that night, but as I walked back to the car at the witching hour, I knew the night was a success. And not only was it a success, I’d never forget it.


Audio interview with Brown Mountain Lights witness:

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