My great-aunt Kathleen was a road hog. With an imperious wave she'd dismiss any vehicles slowing her brand-new Cadillac's relentless trajectory on the narrow byways that soar and dip through the Great Smoky Mountains west of Asheville. When thwarted by slowpokes, her favorite saying was, "Scoot, scoot. Scoot on down the road." Every time she took a sharp switchback down a holler, I'd clutch my sister, Kaki, as the two of us bounced around on the brocaded upholstery in the back seat of her great white shark. (Seat belts?Not back then.) As teenagers, in 1971, we spent two weeks roaring through tiny North Carolina mountain towns and honky-tonk tourist traps with Aunt Kat and my grandmother. On that trip I dripped chocolate ice cream on my great-aunt's immaculate car seat, bought a silver-and-turquoise ring at the Cherokee Indian Reservation, and had an epic battle with Nana over a plastic rain poncho at Ghost Town in the Sky.
Kaki and I are not the only family members to have made this seasonal journey between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the 520,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For generations, my clan and others like it have escaped the triple-digit heat of Charleston, Atlanta, or Savannah for cooler altitudes in western North Carolina. In 1887, one distant cousin wrote long letters to her fiancé back home about the moonlit walks, the picnics, the ice cream socials, and the prayer meetings she attended with her parents during their annual stay in Saluda, a town hovering just above the South Carolina state line.
Back then, whole communities catered to the "summer people." They'd turn up in June to occupy genteel boardinghouses and resort hotels in Flat Rock, Tryon, Asheville, and Hendersonville, and left when the maples colored in late September. Mountain folk called them lowlanders. Considering the craggy peaks in these parts, formed 250 million years ago toward the end of the Paleozoic Era, it doesn't seem fair to call the locals hillbillies in return. Descendants of the first settlers—a tidal wave of rambunctious Scotch-Irish, English, German, Welsh, and Dutch immigrants—they began spilling into the Appalachian backcountry on the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road during the 1720's, slowly squeezing out the Cherokee, introducing shape-note singing and moonshine stills to a virgin wilderness of towering chestnut trees and clear mountain streams.
On an early-summer drive, I'm scooting into the high country again, to see if anything has changed in the past 30-odd years. Turns out, not much. Climbing Interstate 26, which beelines from Charleston to the eastern ramparts of the Appalachians, I tune the car radio to WNCW 88.7 to catch the Carter Family trilling "Keep on the Sunny Side." For the next couple of weeks I listen as the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Cox Family, Doc Watson, and the Whites blanket the mountain airwaves with the kind of roots music now dubbed Americana by record-label executives. Perhaps I should have ground gears up the old Saluda Grade (Highway 176), the route my grandmother and sister and I took on our grueling eight-hour bus ride from Charleston to rendezvous with Aunt Kat near her home in Knoxville. Back then, sick with diesel fumes and dehydrated from the heat, I gazed out the bus window at a solid wall of kudzu vines cascading next to this famously steep road. Never in my life had I seen so much tangled greenery. But now I find it more exciting to exit I-26 and whip down the 50 curves between Saluda and Tryon. (After all, as a teenager, I sat behind a pro.) These 30 years later, kudzu still throttles the hillside.
Since 1945, the Caro-Mi dining room in Tryon has been a lodestone for those who hanker after golden-fried spring chicken or sautéed mountain rainbow trout. Old-timers get there when the doors open, at 5 p.m., to claim a red-checked table; of course, it's also agreeable to wait your turn in a rocker on the log porch next to a rock-tumbled creek that drowns out the traffic on 176. Annette and Charles Stafford, the current owners, haven't changed a thing. The pine-plank walls are plastered with faded felt college pennants, the women's bathroom sign says YES MAM, and Preston Vernon, the chef since 1958, is still behind the grill. The welcome is genuine and the vinegar slaw, macaroni salad, buttermilk biscuits, and fried apples that accompany my order of brine-cured country ham are worth the hair-raising descent. Annette plops down at my table to chat. "Have you tried the peanut butter—chocolate shake at Ward's up in Saluda?My oh my."
How could anyone pass through Saluda without stopping at Ward's Grill?It's the town's heartbeat. Under the awning is a forest-green bench for retired gents who want to sit in the shade and catch the breeze. Next door is Thompson's Grocery, Market & Grill, where 73-year-old Charlie Ward sells Vidalia-onion dressing, sweet-potato butter, crickets and red worms (for bait), cans of Betty Ann "creecy greens," Society snuff, and banana Moon Pies. By noon, Ward's red vinyl banquettes are usually packed and laughter bounces off the pressed-tin ceiling as regulars order corn dogs and root beer floats. While waiting there for my cousins Harry and Jane Gregorie, who still come up here from Charleston every summer, I watch the short-order cook slap burgers silly on the grill. And, yes, Annette is right. The thick shakes—made with Mayfield ice cream from Athens, Tennessee—are dynamite. Harry, Jane, and I plot strategy for the Saturday after the Fourth of July, when, every year, this railroad town's population swells to almost 10,000 for Coon Dog Day. As we leave, Charlie Ward pokes his head through the store's side entrance and calls after us: "Y'all come back." Really, he does.
For the past 40 years in Saluda, preparations for Coon Dog Day have taken precedence over national holidays, weddings, and funerals. Think Best in Show crossed with Petticoat Junction and you're close. One year, a local couple got married just before the festival's big parade but didn't immediately depart for their honeymoon because they had dogs entered in the competition. (The bride went straight from white tulle to khaki camouflage.) Coon Dog Day always kicks off with a pancake breakfast at the firehouse, followed by the procession up Main Street. We position ourselves around the bend from the grandstand, where Mayor Kim Talbot greets the crowd: "Welcome to Coon Dog Day! If you ain't here, you ain't nobody!" Fire trucks, antique tractors, and decorated floats roll past. Grand marshal Myrtle T. Phillips waves to the crowd from an open convertible. The Sweet Tea Queens from Spartanburg throw Mardi Gras beads. A flatbed sponsored by the Saluda Sittin' & Sippin' Society carries a party crowd dressed in old-time outfits—Victorian-era straw boaters, parasols, corsets—under a banner that reads: THE SUMMER PEOPLE, 1896. The Dogmobile chases the Coonmobile, and the first Miss Coon Dog (1963), Mary Margaret "Dooder" Sexton, née Blackwell, still looks damn good in her rhinestone crown. Then the loosey-goosey, floppy-eared hounds put in an appearance. It's hard to miss their distinctive bawl, which threads through the sound track of every chain-gang flick from Cool Hand Luke to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Cousin Harry points out the different breeds—redbone, black and tan, Plott, bluetick, Treeing Walker—as the pack of overall-clad owners and their champion dogs march past. Tree Talking Ty and Tar River Jill look like solid contenders.
Coon hunting has always been a little rough around the edges. It started as a frontier sport: the Plott hound was named for a German breeder who settled in North Carolina in 1750; the Marquis de Lafayette gave George Washington seven Grand Bleu de Gascogne hounds (progenitors of the American bluetick) in 1785. And even though they usually ride around in battered pickup trucks, breeders can command up to $20,000 for top dogs. The all-night field hunt isn't my cup of sweet tea, but I do catch up with Coon Dog Queen Dooder. A trim brunette, she now owns Dooder's Hair Care on Macedonia Road. I want to know how she got elected. She laughs: "Ever'body put pennies in jars to vote for certain girls and raise money to buy coons and turn them loose in the area." Fault me for being a city slicker, but I ask why anyone in his right mind would do that. Dooder sets me straight: "Lots of people eat 'em. My first husband, Roy, said coon tastes like venison."
Another dumb question: Why is the Blue Ridge blue?Jimi Hendrix had the answer: purple haze. The Cherokee tribe called the area shaconage, meaning "mountains of the blue smoke." From the balcony off my room at the Sourwood Inn, a handsome cedar-and-stone retreat 10 miles north of Asheville, I watch the surrounding peaks soften to indigo as the sun dips lower in the sky and an evening mist drifts up from Reems Creek Valley. From here, it's a quick hop, skip, and jump onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to reach Craggy Gardens at milepost 364.6. Standing at a lookout just beyond Mount Mitchell, munching on a Moon Pie, I can see darkening wrinkles between tight ridges carved by rainfall and seismic turmoil. At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell (milepost 355.3) is the highest point in the eastern United States. It's named for Dr. Elisha Mitchell (no relation to me), a geologist from the University of North Carolina who measured the mountain in 1835. On neighboring peaks and in fertile coves—once favorite hunting grounds of the Cherokee—black bear, bobcats, and turkeys still roam free.
Back at milepost 382, the Southern Highland Craft Guild's Allanstand Folk Art Center refines my definition of craftwork, which previously embraced tacky stained-glass suncatchers, quilted pot holders, and wind chimes made from rusted auto parts. In the 19th century, mountain folk discovered that travelers (and a few experts from the Smithsonian Institution) would pay cash money for poplar-bark berry pails, corn-husk dolls, handmade dulcimers, and cross-stitched bedspreads. Since then, a brisk trade with the summer people has kept the old handicraft traditions thriving and attracted new artisans to the mountains. (Look for Luther Thomas's yellow-birch brooms, Nanette Davidson's rag- weave runners, and Billie Ruth Sudduth's white-oak baskets.)
Matt Jones is a lowlander. Raised in Charleston, he exchanged low-country humidity for the red-hot fires of a massive brick kiln, built four summers ago at his Big Sandy Mush farmhouse outside Leicester. He may have apprenticed at Cornwall Bridge Pottery in Connecticut, but Jones takes his creative cue from primitive mountain mud-slingers. My cousin Jane has two of his massive clay planters on the porch of her North Carolina mountain house, and even though I detest pottery, their earthy glazes and simple lines make me reconsider a drive on Early's Mountain Road to Jones's studio in a secret valley in Buncombe County. Arriving as a heavy skeptic, I depart with a heavier load of flower urns. Not to mention a receipt for a huge temple bell, exactly like the one hanging from a pear tree in Jones's front yard.
Bible camps, tent revivals, Episcopal retreat communities, hard-shell Baptists, Moravians, Angel Touch psychic healers. Why do certain places in the world attract a deeply religious, if not downright fringe, population?This corner of North Carolina has more churches than deer ticks on a bloodhound. (A sign outside my favorite: GOD'S FILLING STATION. COME IN AND BE BLESSED.) Standing in line at a convenience store in Brevard, waiting to pay for an IBC root beer and a tank of gas, I overhear a conversation between two sales reps in suits. "I could tell we were in a different culture," says one, putting his money on the counter. "We all stopped and prayed at lunch." The guy behind the register looks up and says firmly, "Amen, brother."
Deener Matthews, who turned her family's summerhouse into a moun-taintop lodge, says the blessing every night at the 21-year-old Swag, 13 miles outside Waynesville. Her husband, Dan, is rector at Trinity Church, Wall Street, in downtown Manhattan, and she plays hostess at the Swag during the season. A little nondenominational grace at dinner never hurt anyone, and it's a small price to pay for the congenial gathering at this rustic inn that, at 5,000 feet, literally butts up against Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 15 guest rooms face a mountain meadow, or bald, and the walls are covered with mounted animals (grouse, bears, deer), not hunting trophies, as I first suspect, but reclaimed roadkill.
Walking out the breezeway, I grab a bottle of Coke from the old cooler and head down the rough stone steps to a clearing called Gooseberry Knob, where I watch the "smoke" rise off the streams that flow through Jonathan Creek Valley. I look east; from this lofty perspective, patches of light and clouds scudding across the Black Mountains seem like pebbles skipping over the surface of a pond. My thoughts turn metaphysical: no wonder this rippled landscape inspires the faithful. If you look south, you can spot Cold Mountain in the distance. By early July, the Smokies are blanketed with pale pink Catawba rhododendron, white mountain laurel, and orange flame azalea. George Ellison, a lanky naturalist with a dry sense of humor, leads Swag guests on occasional bird walks, pointing out goldfinches and red-tailed hawks and also stopping to explain the medicinal uses of squawroot and sassafras.
Deener packs me a picnic lunch for the two-hour drive to Robbinsville, in the far western corner of the state. There the Cherohala Skyway dovetails at Santeetlah Gap past Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, an old-growth sanctuary thick with giant yellow poplars and beeches. Kilmer, a poet and journalist who was killed in action during World War I, wrote the simple ode "Trees," which every grade-school kid was once required to recite on Earth Day. Reading his words on a wooden plaque at the trailhead actually puts a lump in my agnostic throat.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree. . . .
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
I'm a sucker for nature imagery.
The sun-dappled woodland that memorializes Kilmer is one of the most stunning in North Carolina. The massive hemlocks dip into mossy brooks, bright green lichens and hairy ferns cover granite boulders and deadfall logs at the base of rushing waterfalls. I walk the trails here until sunset, when hunger pangs induce me to stop at the Snowbird Mountain Lodge. Karen and Robert Rankin recently restored this 1941 log-and-stone guesthouse, which sits on 100 acres. The great room has a granite fireplace, hewn chestnut beams, and butternut paneling; during sporadic bluegrass and hammer dulcimer concerts, sound swirls around the cathedral ceiling. Snowbird's chef, Mark Crim, does a mean grilled rainbow trout with chili oil and roasted potatoes.
Late for a trail ride at Cataloochee Ranch in Maggie Valley, I almost speed past the sign. But then, after all these years, at the turnoff from Highway 19, I stumble across Ghost Town in the Sky. Have you ever forgotten a place, and then suddenly, thanks to a shift in the space-time continuum, wound up back there again?
Brainchild of local entrepreneur R. B. Coburn, Ghost Town is a cutout Wild West attraction with gunfights on the hour and cancan girls in the Silver Dollar Saloon. It defines hokey. In 1971, my grandmother and Aunt Kat decided this was impeccable entertainment for two cynical teenage girls, so we rode an incline railway up the hillside to watch a bunch of college kids in ten-gallon hats and leatherette vests shoot it out on a gravel-paved Main Street. After traveling with these two bossy women for days, Kaki and I were less than thrilled, especially when rumbling clouds billowed over Buck Mountain. Ever ready, my grandmother pulled a little plastic pouch from her handbag, unfolded a rain poncho, and insisted that I put it on. Was she kidding?As a junior member of the fashion police, there was no way in hell I was going to put that stupid-looking thing on. So while Nana hollered at me over the fake gunfire, I stubbornly got drenched in the sudden downpour.
It just goes to show that you never know where and when the awful past will bite you in the ass. Cutting through Ghost Town's empty parking lot, I zoom up Fie Top Road. I make it to Cataloochee, jump on a gentle quarter horse named Brother, and follow my group's guide, Sandra, up the narrow trail to Hemphill Bald, a high, lonely pasture where beef cattle graze. Looking smart in her worn leather chaps and riding boots, Sandra tells us about the 19th-century potato farmer who settled this ridge.
That's when it happens. We crest a hill looking into Maggie Valley, where a dark cloud is lurking, ready to boil up and over us and spill a cold shower. I grab for the pack tied to Brother's saddle, and what comes out?A plastic rain poncho. Somewhere my dear, departed grandmother is laughing her head off.
After the ride, I can't resist returning to Ghost Town's gift shop, where I pick up some garish cancan girl postcards for Kaki. I tell the elderly clerk that I visited here 30 years ago. "Why, honey," she drawls, "everybody always comes back." Amen, sister.
The three major regional airports that serve western North Carolina are in Knoxville, Tennessee; Greenville, South Carolina; and Asheville, North Carolina. It's dry and hot in the valleys in July, but the mountains can be misty and cool in the mornings and evenings.
WHERE TO STAY
The Swag 2300 Swag Rd., Waynesville; 800/789-7672 or 828/926-0430; www.theswag.com; doubles from $265. Fifteen rooms, some in log cabins with wood-burning fireplaces and whirlpool tubs, are scattered around this mountaintop lodge. The 250-acre property has its own private entrance into Great Smoky Mountains National Park; the staff can arrange nature walks and wildlife seminars.
Charles Street Garden Suite 76 Charles St., Saluda; 828/749-5846; www.saluda.com/charlesstreet; $85. On the ground floor of a shady house a block from Main Street, there is one dainty suite, with wicker chairs and a queen-sized bed, facing a pretty Southern garden.
Sourwood Inn 810 Elk Mountain Scenic Hwy., Asheville; 828/255-0690; www.sourwoodinn.com; doubles from $140. This Arts and Crafts—style inn, two miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway at Bull Gap, has attractive details: fir beams, stone terraces, local pottery. Each of the 12 rooms opens up to a balcony overlooking Reems Creek Valley.
Snowbird Mountain Lodge 4633 Santeetlah Rd., Robbinsville; 800/941-9290 or 828/479-3433; doubles from $175. A two-story log building, just three miles from Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The six-room Chestnut Lodge was recently added, bringing the total room count to 23. All the beds have hand-sewn quilts. Don't miss the restaurant's mountain trout.
Orchard Inn Hwy. 176, Saluda; 800/581-3800 or 828/749-5471; www.orchardinn.com; doubles from $119. A simple 13-room country inn on a crest of the Warrior Mountain Range.
WHERE TO EAT
Caro-Mi 3231 Hwy. 176, Tryon; 828/859-5200; open Wednesday—Saturday; dinner for two $30. Country cooking at its finest. Try the sautéed chicken livers.
Ward's Grill 24 Main St., Saluda; 828/749-2321; breakfast for two $10. A bowl of grits costs just a buck, and jelly biscuits are served with country ham. Ward's also blends the best milk shakes in the county.
WHERE TO SHOP
Allanstand Craft Shop Folk Art Center Bldg., Blue Ridge Pkwy., milepost 382; 828/298-7928. A superb collection of mountain quilts, woven baskets, musical instruments, pottery, and wooden bowls for sale from members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.
Jones Pottery 209 Big Sandy Mush Rd., Leicester; 828/683-2705. Wood-fired clay platters, bowls, large planters, and bells, finished with handsome, earthy glazes.
M. A. Pace Store 60 E. Main St., Saluda; 828/749-2401. Ward's Grill has a small shop attached to it, but M.A. Pace is Saluda's real general store. Robert Pace greets you at his 103-year-old emporium of old-time treats—peanut brittle, sorghum, peach butter.
WHAT TO DO
Cataloochee Ranch 119 Ranch Dr., Maggie Valley; 800/868-1401 or 828/ 926-1401; www.cataloochee-ranch.com; trail rides from $45. Guides lead half- and full-day horseback rides on a 1,000-acre guest ranch. Private trails wend into Great Smoky Mountains National Park; some include a stop at the Swag for stunning views of the Black Mountains.
Nantahala Outdoor Center 13077 Hwy. 19 W., Bryson City; 800/232-7238 or 828/488-2175; www.noc.com; rafting trips from $30. Head here for guided three-hour whitewater trips down the wild Nantahala River, which has both Class II and III rapids cutting through spectacular gorges.
Lowe's Fly Shop & Outfitters 15 Woodland Dr., Waynesville; 828/452-0039. Roger Lowe will take you to the best trout-fishing spots in the Cataloochee Valley's Caldwell Fork.
Coon Dog Day Main St., Saluda; first Saturday after the Fourth of July (July 6 this year). Pancake breakfast, parade, dog competition, barbecue, bluegrass and Southern folk concerts, and a square dance.
Flat Rock Playhouse 2661 Hwy. 25 S., Flat Rock; 828/693-0731; www.flatrockplayhouse.org; Wednesday—Sunday through December 15. Broadway hits competently recycled for the summer stock circuit.
Brevard Music Festival 1000 Probart St., Brevard; 828/884-2011; www.brevardmusic.org; through August 4. For 66 summers, this has been one of the top open-air events in western North Carolina, with classical, pops, jazz, and opera performances on the bill.
Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread & Scuppernong Wine: The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking by Joseph E. Dabney (Cumberland House Press). Recipes, history, and intriguing first-person accounts of highland life.
The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina by Jay Fields and Brad Campbell (HandMade in America). An informative guide to galleries, restaurants, studios, and back-road drives.