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Carolina On My Mind

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.

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