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.