A Dark and Unexpected Discovery in the Mountains: The Plane Crash of Waterrock Knob

If you ever find yourself wandering up to the top of Waterrock Knob, then you might just stumble upon something unexpected and fascinating. Waterrock Knob is a prominent mountain an hour west of Asheville right off of the Blueridge Parkway. If you get to the top of the mountain, there is a dirt intersection. Go left down the shaded backside of the mountain, down a heavily forested and rooted ridge. About a hundred yards down is something you don’t want to miss. It happened to rain the day before I went so the steep and abundant slippery roots on the poorly maintained trail made the descent require a focused attention with foot placement. One slip and you will find yourself having a very bad hiking day. But a trek about a hundred yards down from the top will have you stumbling upon an old plane crash site burrowed into the side of the mountain like some morbid shrine.

This immediately caught my attention and had me scrambling for my phone to get the details on it. The plane crash apparently happened in the early 80s on Thanksgiving Day. Two people were on board, heading from Illinois to Western Carolina University to visit family. The pilot was experienced but the storm that had rolled in that night gave them practically no visibility. And being unsure about how low their altitude was, well you can put the pieces together. It wasn’t due to a failed engine or any kind of frightening descent into the mountain like I had imagined, it was fog and haze, and then sudden mountain, and then boom. Both people immediately perished in what must have been a spectacular fiery blaze. They slammed directly into the mountain, fiercely disrupting the songs of cold gentle breezes hinting at the coming winter, and carving out a bare wound on the otherwise lush mountainside. Wind and rain and fire plus time naturally leave scars throughout these ancient mountains, but here was one that we left in an abrupt, dramatic, and violent fashion. It’s just the thing to spark my imagination and morbid curiosity. I don’t know what it is, perhaps it’s the suddenness and immediacy of it. What a striking, sensational end. The mountainside became the face of death to these two travelers in the last precious seconds of their lives. The visualizations and questions that emerged from my mind drew me in like some kind of vortex.

I had hiked early that morning, which I prefer because there are far less people roaming about versus the mid-morning and early afternoon. I had this place to myself for a time. I deeply appreciated this, because taking my time walking around the site and contemplating it was oddly serene and meditative for me. I find places of decay and ruin provoking and intriguing, especially something like this. I think it forces me to contemplate death and the finiteness of life. It’s invigorating and revitalizing knowing we are still alive, that we exist here and now among the wreckage. Its twisted metal, exposed bits of wire, and frayed upholstery were tarnished and weathered. The outer shell of it all was oddly illustrious though, with its white/silvery surfaces, almost gleaming against the backdrop of the greys, browns, and greens of the forest. It was like some holy shrine in a way, honoring life, respecting death, and grounding me in the immediacy of the moment. I couldn’t help but vigorously start taking pictures. I love photography, for one because it is a snapshot of a time and place that you can create and capture. But this was like a live, 3-D snapshot of one moment of devastation that leaves so much room for the mind to try to fill in the gaps and sift over the grisly details. We are the story creators after all.

One of the wings was still impressively pieced together, but more surprising was that the fuselage was still largely intact. The circular windows revealed the gutted interior of the plane. It was a metallic skeleton. As I cautiously stepped inside through a door on the lefthand side, I noticed that near the tail end of the plane was some kind of seat or storage area. You could lean back into this elevated piece to face the hollowed-out upward slopping nose of the plane. There in that little nook, I felt a childlike calmness and enthusiasm. It was ironically like finding a little safe space cradled in this macabre chamber, the metal holding and enrapturing me. As strange and ironic as it may sound, there was a quiet, enclosed security about it. It began to function like a church in the emotion it invoked. It gave me a moment of pause and drew me into its rusty beauty. It provided a place to reflect and breathe and take in the warped and distorted but alluring details.

I circled the plane one more time, weaving myself in and out of the heaps of metal for one last fleeting look. I took some deep breaths, taking in the surrounding forest and song birds around me. It was an uplifting sympathy in contrast to the bleak finality of this old, charred ruin. As I headed up the ridge and then back down the mountain on the main trail in the mid-morning, groups of people began pouring onto the trail. Stopping at resting spots and overlooks, I talked with many who were interested in this plane crash they had read about or heard. They were asking me where exactly they could find it. As I gave more people the details, I kept thinking how curious it is that so many people seek out such a dreary spectacle. They are like me, there is some innate fascination with death that we have, especially dramatic forms of it. There is something that speaks to us between the tangled and contorted metal scraps, beckoning us towards some truth and begging us to create a story out of it, to make sense of it.

Some people had asked if the plane site had been tarnished with graffiti, which it definitely had been. Some verbalized their disdain for this, which I can understand. I personally didn’t mind the graffiti. It isn’t like it was defacing a natural monument or spectacle. The plane was manmade just as the graffiti and art and writings etched into its sides were. Over the years, as people have wandered upon this site, they have added to this grime sanctuary with their own experience and contributions. In a way, it expressed why people come to these places in the first place. People want to be remembered. People want to proclaim that they are alive. They want to leave a mark. They want their lives and their experience there to be remembered in a way, to mean something. They want to add to this display of death. In a way, it is like saying “Here I am. I am alive. I still survive and persist among the destruction. Here is my message, here is my grasp at immortality.” The plane crash is not stagnant, as nothing really is. It will transform either by the layers of spray paint and knife carvings that will inevitably be added, or the slow takeover of the surrounding vegetation. It will become something new. And even though it symbolizes death, it also symbolizes life and change and growth. What a strange thing to encounter on such a beautiful hike. I will take the gratitude and assurance given by this place with me, and change and grow over the years along with it.

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