A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Paranormal investigator Joshua Warren is silhouetted by cloud-shrouded moonlight. The points of his trench coat collar are turned up, two daggers jutting toward Brown Mountain. Though he’s just returned from

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Paranormal investigator Joshua Warren is silhouetted by cloud-shrouded moonlight. The points of his trench coat collar are turned up, two daggers jutting toward Brown Mountain. Though he’s just returned from

In Search of the Brown Mountain Lights

Paranormal investigator Joshua Warren is silhouetted by cloud-shrouded moonlight. The points of his trench coat collar are turned up, two daggers jutting toward Brown Mountain. Though he’s just returned from a three-month expedition to the tropics — where he was researching curiosities near the Bermuda Triangle — his skin is impossibly pale.

In this light, with that jacket, the Asheville-based ghost hunter looks like a mythological vampire in the flesh. Of course, I’m not going to be the one to tell him this.

Not now. Not here.

Warren would probably get a kick out of the association. But we’ve got enough spookiness to deal with. After all, we’re at Burke County’s N.C. Highway 181 overlook to catch a glimpse of the Brown Mountain Lights — unexplained orbs reportedly seen here in every season, at all times of night.

Like many North Carolinians, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the lights. But I’d venture to guess I first heard about them in elementary school, during a history lesson. Because — if the cardinal is our state bird and the dogwood is our flower — the Brown Mountain Lights are our mystery.

An introduction to the phenomenon usually comes with at least one associated legend: that they’re the lanterns of someone searching for a lost hunter, or those of a woman looking for fallen warriors. Nearly all the stories feature people on a quest for someone or something.

This has inherent beauty, since the lights make seekers of us all.

• • •

The first recorded sighting occurred around 1854, despite popular claims of Cherokee stories dating back hundreds of years. Additional reports came in the early 1900s. These stories captured the public’s attention and led to a fascination that lives on.

“All we really have here is a mysterious phenomenon,” Warren says. “So people bring their own perceptions to bear on it. If you’re a physicist, you’re going to say it’s plasma. If you’re a spiritualist, you’re going to say it’s ghosts. It’s this blank slate on which you can project your desires and interests.”

For Warren, viewing the Brown Mountain Lights was the genesis of an entire career.

Back before he hosted his own Travel Channel show, before he’d published even one of his 13 books, Warren was just a kid sitting in the backseat of his parents’ car headed up to this lookout, where he watched the Brown Mountain Lights dance up and down in the distance. They seemed like fairytales brought to life. “This is where I made the leap from sitting around and reading stories to getting out and searching,” he says.

Warren returned as soon as he got his driver’s license. In his 20-odd years of coming out here, he’s seen the lights just six times. “It doesn’t happen often,” he says. “But, when it does, it’s really exciting!”

Above, the sky has matured into deep night, hardening from flannel-gray to onyx. Along the spine of Brown Mountain, a dot of yellow comes into focus. “That’s a light in Lenoir,” Warren says. “Some of the most well-known images of the Brown Mountain Lights are ATVs. I believe the authentic Brown Mountain Lights have the power to disrupt radio signals.”

Warren has brought the sort of equipment he uses in paranormal investigations. “When the lights are about to appear, this usually goes off,” he says of a small electromagnetic monitor that he’s placed on a picnic table. He finds it helpful, if not reliable. Cell phone activity can make it hiss. “Sometimes, even the magnetic field of the body can set it off,” he says, waving his hand above the monitor, as if he’s holding a magician’s wand.

The gauge moves, ever so slightly.

“To me, it doesn’t matter as much what’s happening as much as it matters that something is happening. That’s the real story,” Warren says. “People are out here looking at this for some reason or another. People come out and tell ghost stories or they talk about science. It stimulates all sorts of discussion. Even if somebody thinks the whole thing is baloney, they’ll want to talk about that.”

Warren is open to alien connections and government conspiracies, as well as scientific-minded explanations. In 2012, he was a speaker at Burke County’s Brown Mountain Lights Symposium. Recently, the county hired him to write a pamphlet, Brown Mountain Lights: A Viewing Guide. In it, he gives general suggestions like: Visit in fall, after the leaves are gone.

But there are no guarantees.

“We sort of have this sense that science has explanations for everything,” Warren says. “But the fact is: Exploration would come to an end if everything was known. I always find it exciting when I am researching something and I look on Google and it’s not there. Science, like paranormal investigations, is a quest to explain the unexplained. We’re all just trying to make sense of the world.”

And we have yet to make sense of Brown Mountain. But not for lack of trying.

In 1913, the U.S. Geological Survey made its first research trip. Their representative decided that the sightings were locomotive headlights. Three years later, a flood washed out train tracks, but the lights were still seen. Not long after, the U.S. Weather Bureau and Smithsonian Institution made inquiries, followed by the National Geographic Society. Institutional interest has since dwindled. But questions remain.

This composite image of several photos shows some sort of light above Brown Mountain. Could it be an airplane? Lightning? Or, the Brown Mountain Lights? • Photo by Charles Braswell Jr.

• • •

Warren, despite his background, believes the lights are a wholly natural phenomenon. This, to him, makes them no less wondrous or interesting. He says, “Meteors were once considered paranormal. In ancient times, everyone knew rocks didn’t just fall from the sky. Duh! Someday, I think we’ll know what the Brown Mountain Lights are. Once we figure it out, scientists will totally take over.” He shoves his hands into his coat pockets. “That’s the curse of being a paranormal researcher. You’re on the fringe until you discover something. Then, you’re pushed aside again.” He shrugs. “But so be it.”

• • •

Are the Brown Mountain Lights even real? That’s what The Brown Mountain Lights Research Team wants to know. The group, formed after the Burke County Symposium, is made up of roughly a dozen scientists and curious locals. Most of the time, they meet in private homes. Tonight, they’ve gathered in a Spruce Pine cottage.

Ed Speer, retired geologist and resident skeptic, fires up a projector to share a PowerPoint presentation, starting with a list of possible light sources. Earthquake lights — which could be caused by thrust faults in the area — sun-related lights, fireworks, lightning. Could people be mistaking these things for something else? After all, people are spending more time inside, and it’s estimated that nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population no longer experiences true night due to light pollution.

Ironically, forest-isolated Brown Mountain — known for its lights — is precious for its darkness.

Not long ago, Speer found glowworms near Wiseman’s View. He says, “We knew they were there from when we were kids, but they hadn’t been documented.” Yet there they were, glowing. He’s also seen foxfire, light produced by fungi. Ultimately, though, he thinks most reported lights are campers’ flashlights moving up and down the mountain. The team has done experiments on headlamp visibility, with surprisingly long-range results. But it’s not a popular theory.

“Everybody wants their light to be the actual Brown Mountain Light,” Speer says. “But I’ve personally come to the conclusion that just 1 percent of the lights are unexplainable. I know some of you feel differently. And I’m interested to hear what you have to say.”

Ron Swofford, a retired college dean, gives Speer a sideways glance. “Someday,” he tells Speer, “you have to figure out what I saw that night.”

That night was a Saturday. It was the early 1950s. Swofford’s family was at a local overlook. “When the lights appeared,” he says, “They put on quite a show. They moved around. They rose up into the air and some of them would split in two. I might never be able to find what I saw again, but I know trains don’t wander around and split in two. And it certainly wasn’t fireflies!”

The team, determined to solve the mystery of the 1 percent, is planning new experiments. Methane, or swamp gas, has not been proven to exist in the area. But recreational hikers have confirmed the presence of bogs. The group muses: Maybe, if they sloshed around, they could release methane and induce the wetland-borne phenomenon known as will-o’-the-wisp, or ghost lights?

Speer can barely contain his excitement. “Scientifically, this could exist!”

Debbie Glover nods encouragingly. Still, she’s not convinced any of this would explain her sighting. She was at Wiseman’s View when an illuminated ball of energy rose from below an overlook, just 10 feet away from where she was standing. “It was this large,” she says, holding her arms out. “Size of a basketball. It was a yellowish light, and it had an aura around it. I didn’t feel any heat coming off of it. It didn’t have an odor. Everybody started backing up when they saw it.”

As quickly as the light had risen, it went back down again. Everyone around her started shouting: “What was that?”

In her crisp white button-up shirt and boat loafers, with the recorded names of additional witnesses, Glover looks honest enough to turn even the most staunch skeptic into a bona fide believer. She rolls her eyes, recounting one of the far-reaching theories that’s been put out on the Internet. “When they talk about paranormal stuff, I just shake my head,” she says. “But my mother had passed away in May and that was September. My sister was with me, and that was unusual — for both of us to be there, together.”

Glover looks around, lowers her voice, and adds: “I do feel those who’ve passed on visit us. I don’t think they visit us through the lights, necessarily. I mean, the significance of my mother’s passing, the timing, wouldn’t have meant anything to my neighbors who were up there with me.”

But, for Glover, the appearance was extraordinary for more than obvious reasons.

Because meaning, like believing, is a deeply personal thing.

• • •

Dan Caton and Lee Hawkins, two physicists from Appalachian State University, claim to be the world’s experts at not seeing the lights. They can’t count how many times they’ve been out in search of them since a student first approached Caton — a professor with multiple silver-stud earrings — to tell him about the phenomenon after an astronomy class in the late 1980s.

They just know they’ve been skunked every trip since.

Tonight, they’re headed out to Wiseman’s View — part of Pisgah National Forest — on a road so bumpy it rattles their van. Gravel turns to dirt. The road is the worst they’ve ever seen it. And — should something go wrong — there’s no cell phone reception. Theatrically, Caton proclaims: “As I go through the valley of potholes, I fear no broken axles!”

When they finally reach a parking lot, Hawkins takes the lead with a flashlight. Caton trails behind, toeing the ground. Near the edge of the overlook, the path turns to rough stone leading down to two crow’s nests, or pulpits. They visit the upper pulpit first, where a craggy tree blocks the moon. A cricket is racketing a song carried on the damp, cool air.

Hawkins points to his left. “That’s what we’re seeing on camera one right now.” Nightly, he has a camera on Jonas Ridge, shooting video of Brown Mountain. It’s streaming a live feed at this very minute. Anyone with a computer could log on to see it.

He points out city lights in the distance. They are small, faint as fireflies. “You’ve got air currents bubbling around between here and there. That’s what makes them twinkle,” Hawkins says. The town of Hickory appears to glimmer, swirling air turning it into an earthbound constellation.

Speer believes these lights are often mistaken for the unexplained. But it certainly doesn’t sound like what Glover experienced. And then there are stories of people — well-respected, local people — who have actually touched the lights, teeth chattering as if they’ve put their hand in a light socket. Close encounters like these are the ones that keep Hawkins and Caton going.

Caton says there was a time when his feelings about the lights swung from pessimistic to cynical. He almost gave up on them altogether. But then he started hearing stories like Glover’s, stories that make it highly unlikely the lights were misidentified. What could people possibly be seeing? And, if they could see it, why couldn’t he?

He traverses a puddle of rank mud to scope out the lower pulpit. “This one’s my favorite,” he says. “It gives an opportunity to not see the lights from a greater variety of angles!”

Caton and Hawkins would like to install a second camera here. Trouble is, they don’t know how they’d transfer the feed. But Caton has an idea. “See that string of lights?” he says, extending an arm toward the town of Lenoir, which appears just above the ridge of Brown Mountain. “That’s the Google data center.”

The facility, built in 2008, is a global hub of information.

And it hovers on the edge of our state’s great mystery.

The dark skies around Brown Mountain reward sky-gazers with stunning views of stars, planets, and even an occasional light show, courtesy of the aurora borealis. • Photo by Charles Braswell Jr.

Caton thinks, with the right funding and equipment, he could shoot an image feed of the Linville Gorge right into Google’s facilities, given its vicinity. But even if the camera were to record something of note on those servers, the information would lead to a cascade of ever-lengthening questions: Is this something not yet known to science? If it’s ball lightning — a rare, little-understood atmospheric phenomenon that Caton suspects — how did it form? Why is it so prevalent? There would be plenty to unravel, even without broaching the conspiracy theories of Joshua Warren’s fans or the larger questions raised by Debbie Glover’s experience.

In a few hours, as the moon rises, whitecaps will be visible on the Linville River, more than one thousand feet below. Hawkins and Caton know this from experience. They’ve grown as familiar with this landscape as with any on earth. Because — despite rutted roads and late hours, and despite the lack of reliable predictions — they leave the comfort of their homes to search for the lights in person, with all their senses.

The drive behind this impulse is, especially during frigid winter months, hard for Caton to ascertain. He crosses his arms and stares into the inky ocean of unknowns that stands between him and the twinkling lights of the Google compound. “I don’t know what compels me to keep coming out here,” he says, shaking his head. “I really don’t.” Still, he returns. Night after night. Year after year. He pushes his belly up against the hard stone of this pulpit. He gets as close to the mystery as he possibly can. Then, in darkness, he waits.

This story was published on May 28, 2014

Leigh Ann Henion

Henion is a writer and photographer based in western North Carolina. Her essays and articles have appeared in Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian, Oxford American, Orion, Preservation, and a variety of other publications. She has garnered a number of accolades for her work, including a Lowell Thomas Award, and her stories have been noted in three editions of The Best American Travel Writing. Her debut book – Phenomenal – was published by Penguin Press in March 2015.