November 9, 1891, was an unusually cold day in Snowden, Virginia. The season’s first snowfall had come the week before. Miss Nannie Gilbert, teacher at the one-room schoolhouse at Tower Hill, today Bluff Mountain, sent her students out to gather firewood for the pot-bellied stove which sat in the open aisle between the students’ desks. Among the students was Ottie Cline Powell, aged four years, eleven months.
When the other students returned, Ottie did not. After an initial search, Miss Gilbert wisely sent her students home to retrieve their parents for a more exhaustive canvas. As night fell, Ottie had not been found. A cold rain, the beginnings of an icestorm, began falling that night.
Ottie’s body would not be found until the following April, when hunters, following an old trail over Bluff Mountain, discovered his remains, seven miles from the school.
On May 5, 2019, a drizzly, fog-enshrouded day, I hiked the Appalachian Trail up Bluff Mountain, past a memorial stone for Ottie. What I felt as I stood in front of it, was the overwhelming grief, loss and despair left here by those who loved him. No one had thought to search a mountaintop seven miles from the school. Why would they?
I hiked down the mountain a few miles. That night I stayed, alone, in the Punchbowl Shelter. Hikers tenting nearby had left their bear-proof cannisters in front of the shelter and gone to bed. I laid awake, as is my unfortunate habit, until well after midnight.
Light footsteps crunched in the gravel immediately in front of the shelter. “Ooohhhh!” I heard an unmistakably childish voice, as if discovering the bear cannisters’ contents in their clear containers. A complete, unintelligible sentence followed. In less than a second I grabbed my headlamp and shined it toward the sound. Nothing but the cannisters were visible.
There are a thousand natural explanations for my experience. I hope one of them is true; any one of them is preferable to the spirit of a five-year-old, however tenacious, wandering Bluff Mountain for eternity.