A Highway and a Hike

First, a riddle. I ate lunch in McDowell County, I browsed among shelves of jars of jam in Avery County, and I paid my bill in Burke County. Where was I? (Hint: it was in NC.)

Famous Louise’s Rock House Restaurant sits on the spot where the above-mentioned counties meet. Inside there are signs saying “Entering Burke County,” etc. We were on a return trip to the places we missed on the Christmas tree adventure, and we arrived at lunch time, as planned. The location was interesting; the food was delicious.

I wanted to explore NC Highway 221, as it was described in a recent issue of Our State magazine, and the restaurant was the first stop. Another highlight along this road is the Crossnore Presbyterian Church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The church is built of stone from the Linville River; the inside walls as well as outside walls are stone. Even the chairs behind the pulpit, where the pastors sit, are stone. The wall forms the backs of the chairs; the seat, arms, and front two legs are stone. Fortunately for the pastors, there are red cushions on the seats and backs!

There is another church, E. H. Sloop Chapel, on the campus of Crossnore School and Children’s Home, also built of river stone. On the inside back wall is a fresco painted by Ben Long ( who has painted 14 other frescos in churches in the area). Called “Suffer the Little Children,” it depicts Jesus surrounded by children, with one arm around one child’s shoulders and the other hand over a child’s head in blessing. He looks like the Jesus in art that everyone is familiar with, but his face is the kindest, tenderest I’ve ever seen. Adults are standing around, watching. It’s an intimate scene that draws the viewers in. If you’re ever on Highway 221 on the way to somewhere else, take a few minutes to see this art.

I had never heard of “The Linville Look,” referring to bark shingles. I first saw them on the outside wall of a building that’s part of the Crossnore Presbyterian Church. Up close, it looks and feels like what it is, tree bark. From a distance it has a distinct texture, with every shingle being slightly different. After I saw it the first time, I began to notice it everywhere, from the roof of E. H. Sloop Chapel to stores and businesses in Jefferson and West Jefferson.

This was on the Friday following Christmas and we hadn’t made specific plans for Saturday. Sometime in the afternoon John said “Tomorrow I’d like to go back to Elk Knob State Park and hike the Summit Trail.” Good idea! There is something good about making plans so you see what you want to see, and there is good in leaving room for spontaneous activity!

We quickly found out that the trail, labeled as moderate to strenuous, is 1.9 miles, one way, and that there is a gain in elevation of about 1,000 feet. The “strenuous” part sounded ominous and I warned John that I may have to stop before reaching the summit. I had everything I needed: hiking boots, binoculars, bird book, water bottle, but I hadn’t brought my hiking back pack to carry it all in. No matter; I had two hands.

Have you ever stopped to notice the air? The smell? The feel? As soon as the parking lot at the trailhead was out of sight, I noticed. I stopped and inhaled deeply. Aaahhhh, the forest air! There was no scent that I could detect – just pure, clean air that somehow was different. The weather was moderate, low humidity, no wind, sunshine. I had to take off my jacket (something else to carry). The look of the forest was also different from my experiences. There were no leaves, no evergreens. Looking into the woods, up on my left, down on my right, seeing shades of gray and brown and shadows of trees on the leaf-covered ground, was lovely. I think the air and the sights of the forest kept me going.

I’ve never been on a mountain with such good switchbacks- they were engineered and constructed perfectly. I actually felt like I was just walking instead of hiking, most of the way. Near the top the strenuous part appeared, where even the switchbacks were steep. Steps had been built into the trail, some with large stones and some with timbers. Steep, but doable. It would have been easier if my legs had been longer. Sigh.

At the top were two overlooks, so we had awesome views in two directions. I’d hiked 1.9 miles uphill, which I’d doubted I could do. I was elated over that success, and the views were an additional reward.

When we got back to the park office I asked about the trees. At the top were beech trees, short because of the climate at that elevation, and lots of flame azaleas which are deciduous. No evergreens grow on the mountain because of the ph of the soil. I didn’t ask about the absence of birds; I hadn’t seen or heard a single bird the whole time. So I needn’t have carried the bird book. But the binoculars were good for looking down into the valley.

I bought the obligatory tee-shirt, and as we were walking to the car I was thinking how ready I was for lunch. Got in the car, looked at the clock, and it was 3:00 p.m. Wow! We ate in Boone, not knowing if it was a late lunch or an early dinner. Yum.

Wishing you so much fun you are unaware of the passing of time.

Best Laid Plans…

A friend shared something that he’d read somewhere, and I paraphrase: It is better to read two or three books of high quality two or three times each than to read six or eight books of low quality one time each.

The same must be true of movies. I’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life many times, and each time I get something else from it. The first time, it was cute and had a pollyanna ending. And how did they come up with Zuzu as a name? A few nights ago I came away with more.

Modern wisdom is that people should be goal-oriented — have a dream and a plan for making it come true. From 16 years of age (or so), people should have a career goal and everything they do should take them one step closer to the goal. Don’t take “side trips,” don’t get distracted. Find out what you need to do, and do it. Etc, etc.

George Bailey had a dream and a plan. Four years doing this, four years doing that, seeing the world, building big things. He certainly was doing things right to make his dream a reality.

But… life happens. At every turn his plan was thwarted. His father’s death left him with responsibilities. Then business affairs left him with new responsibilities. Of course, he had choices. He could have walked away, shaken the dust off his feet. But being who he was, the kind of person he was, he couldn’t do that. So he did what was to him the right thing in each situation. It was costly! Both financially and personally.

It took a crisis for him and his community to see the value of his life, even though it had been far from the way he had planned it. He hadn’t built airports or big buildings. But he had build something BIG: a community.

We’ve all had life events that get in the way of our plans – some big and some less significant. George Bailey and his life are fiction of course, but there is truth in fiction.

My take-away: dream and plan, of course. But hold on lightly to those because you never know what lies around the corner or what each day will bring. Character, not plans, will determine what you do in each situation.

And by the way, when I need a guardian angel, send Clarence please.

Wishing you dreams that can come true!

A Series of Unfortunate Events (apologies to Lemony Snicket)

Slow lane. Slow lane? What slow lane? I must have missed the sign: “Lane Ends Ahead.” Which is why I spent two days at the beach in October, and still have not published a description.

But… December 12! It would be ridiculous to say, “We went to Jefferson NC to buy a Christmas tree at Food Lion.” Except for the second time the word “to” appears, it is true.

We have been to the mountains to choose a tree almost every year for about ten years, and were excited about this year’s day trip. You need to do some homework, right? We decided on Ashe County, for no particular reason, and I googled Christmas Tree Farms in Ashe County, and wrote down the names and locations of two of them.

Mistake #1: I broke one of my own rules (never assume anything) and assumed either of these places would be eager to sell us a tree.

Mistake #2: I didn’t call either of them.

Mistake #3: I thought since I knew the locations and had a GPS, it wouldn’t take long to choose and buy a tree, so I had plans to drive down Highway 221 afterwards to Linville Falls and have lunch at a restaurant I’d read about. Where was my brain? This plan was not based on rational thought concerning time and distance.

The reality. We left later than I’d originally thought we would, and we stopped in Wilkesboro for a tasty lunch at Olive Garden. In Jefferson we found one of the places – at least we found their wholesale facility. No one was there. We never saw a place to choose and cut, even though it had been described as such.

Within sight there was another farm with an actual office. No one was there. I called the other place I’d written down. No one answered.

When we are in the mountains in off-season, we see Christmas trees growing everywhere, so we just rode around a bit, and came upon Happy Holidays Tree Farm. Someone was there! He told us there is a tree lot in Jefferson where they sell trees, cut two days ago. “Can’t miss it. Same name.” On the main road through Jefferson we didn’t see it, so googled it, got an address, put it in the GPS, and smugly went to find it. We turned onto the indicated street and were met with a gate house to a residential community! “No, no Christmas tree lots here,” the gate keeper told us.

In all the riding around we happened to notice a building with a sign: NC Christmas Tree Growers Assn. The man in the office said all the choose and cut places have closed for the season! We’ve always gotten a tree in mid-December! The retailers who make you think you’re behind if you haven’t finished shopping and decorating by Thanksgiving have gotten to the tree sellers too.

Okay. There are no trees in Ashe County. It’s too late to drive to Watauga County. “I saw Christmas trees at a Food Lion we passed. I bet they were cut more recently than those in Sanford,” John suggested. So, to Food Lion to buy a tree!

In keeping with the spirit of the day, when we started down Hwy 221, there was construction – not only did we encounter one-lane traffic, the scenery had been destroyed to make way for more lanes. We got on the Blue Ridge Parkway when we could, only to see a sign, “Road Closed Five Miles Ahead.” We turned around, got on #421, drove though Boone, had dinner at Yadkin Valley Seafood Restaurant (good fish there).

A trip that was so different from our expectations wasn’t wasted (high expectations can ruin an event if you let them). We spent the day together, got away from our routines, saw some mountains and bare-boned trees, and came home with a tree!

Wishing you a Merry Christmas!

Reflections on Camping

Pop! PopPop! PopPopPop! Pop! Say it aloud and see if it sounds like corn popping. That’s the sound raindrops make when they hit the rain fly over the tent, and the sound we woke up to on the first full day of camping. I wasn’t alarmed; the rain from the day before wasn’t supposed to continue.

When the Pop! slowed to one every few seconds, we crawled out of the tent. By the time we’d made coffee and cooked some bacon and eggs, the clouds were breaking apart. That day and the next two were perfect late-August days in the mountains: sun was shining, it was neither hot nor cold, humidity was low. The comfort of that wasn’t the only advantage; the long-distance views were sharp and clear. The 360° view from the top of Mt. Mitchell was astonishing.

Camping is living outside; the living is more pleasant if the weather is nice! We were in a Forest Service campground in the Pisgah National Forest, nestled at the foot of Mt. Mitchell. The only man-made amenity was the bath house. Hosts kept the sites clean and usable. The tent pad was level and smooth; the fire pit was clean.

We arrived on a Tuesday when there were empty sites so we were able to set up beside the South Toe River. What a sound to go to sleep by! The river is rocky, shallow, and slow-moving at this point. One afternoon I walked in the river a bit, one of my favorite activities there. It was slow walking. I had to find a spot for each foot, being sure one foot was steady before I picked up the other one. Don’t do it without water shoes! Some rocks are slippery, and others wobble. The water is cold but feels good flowing over and around the feet.

Up a campground road about 1/2 mile is a short trail leading to Setrock Creek Falls. That’s always the first thing we do after setting up camp. In dry years there is little more than a trickle of water. In rainy years there is a roaring gush of water; this year it was moderate, and it’s always pretty. It feels special, like it’s “our” waterfall, because we’ve been coming here so many years.

My field guide to wildflowers was a handy companion this year. I always notice the flowers but don’t know their names. This time I identified four flowers. My favorite was the spotted jewel weed. I already knew the galax although I’ve never seen it in bloom. When our children were young we always opened the car windows as we approached the Continental Divide near the campground so we could “smell the mountains.” We didn’t know what we were smelling. Later I read that early in spring, before galax blooms, there is a fungus near its roots that gives a distinctive scent. In late summer one doesn’t smell this.

After having visited Mr. Mitchell, the Orchard at Altapass, numerous overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and relaxed in our “yard,” on Friday we were leaving. The campground was full and we vacated our site for someone else. We decided that instead of going straight home we’d go to Flat Rock to visit Carl Sandburg’s home. Good decision! The farm was beautiful, the house was lovely but not showy (we didn’t go inside). My favorite was the goat barn. Mrs. Sandburg was as well-known in the dairy goat world as her husband was in the literary world. Their daughter managed the dairy; Mrs. Sandburg was breeding goats and keeping meticulous records. Some goats won world-wide prizes for milk production. There were three breeds of goats, and their descendants are still there. There is no dairy, but there is careful breeding so there are no hybrids. They were beautiful animals for the end of our vacation, which came too soon. When it feels like a vacation ends too soon, that means you’ll be back.

Wishing you sunshiny days outdoors!

Montreat, Retreat, Treat

“Montreat isn’t a word with a meaning, just a place name in the mountains of North Carolina. I thought the “mon” part was derived from “mountain,” and “treat” was a shortened form of “retreat.” When I looked up the place, Wikipedia confirmed my notion by saying the name is a contraction of “mountain” and “retreat.” Montreat Conference Center is a Presbyterian facility next to the town of Black Mountain. It was my good fortune to go there for a weekend in August for the Montreat Women’s Connection. I and 11 friends were a part of about 500 women.

Sometimes a retreat involves solitude and opportunity for individual reflection. This one was indeed a retreat from normal day-to-day activities, but it was active and stimulating. There were gatherings of the whole group, and there were many workshops offered, which provided small-group gatherings. We were retreating, backing off a little, to replenish our minds and spirits.

The whole thing was a treat. The beauty of the place! Assembly Inn is built of stone – beautiful stone. Even inside, on the lower levels, the walls are stone. On the floor with the dining room and a large lounge there are stone walls and columns. The upper floors are dormitory-style housing with “regular” walls, and the halls are lined with enlarged prints of photographs taken at the place. Anderson Auditorium, where we had our large meetings, is also stone.

It was a treat to learn that coffee was available in the Lounge long before the dining room opened for breakfast. Several of us took our coffee onto a patio behind Assembly Inn, near the dining room. There were tables and chairs, and a variety of plantings, most of them in bloom.

To go from Assembly Inn to Anderson Auditorium, one walks on a sidewalk over the dam which makes Lake Susan, a small lake with a few beautiful ducks. In the Montreat Store they sell coffee called Wake Susan, as well as books, shirts, local crafts and a variety of gifts/souvenirs.

One didn’t go anywhere without going uphill or downhill, always with a view of mountains. The workshop I’d chosen for Saturday afternoon was a hike on Lower Piney Trail. We walked single-file (the trail was that narrow), slowly and quietly, paying attention to what we saw, heard, and smelled. After 3/4 mile we stopped at a rock outcropping and talked about what we’d noticed: the galax all along the trail, a bright red mushroom, a crooked tree, etc. While we were stopped the hike leader gave each of us a rock from a creek on the property, to take in our pockets to remind us of the beauty. She asked us to return the rock to its “home” creek or another one. Mine will go into the South Toe River next week.

Just before leaving that spot we felt a few sprinkles, just a drizzle. A little ways down, those raindrops had mustered a whole army, and we got a good soaking! Nevermind. The rain was cooling after we’d sweated all the way up, and no one cared about wet hair, as we were all going back to our rooms.

The people I was with were a treat to me. Twelve women, some about 30 and some pushing 80. I’d known some of them since the younger ones were being born, and some were newer friends; one I just met the day we left Sanford. The talking, laughing, singing together were good. On Saturday evening, after the general meeting, we sat around a table in the lounge, some playing a game and the others laughing. And then a woman joined us, saying, “If you’d like to sing, I have my ukulele.” So we sang folk songs and gospel hymns from a book our newest friend had with her.

The programming was inspiring, refreshing, and well-planned. My Saturday morning workshop was on the importance of gratitude in infusing one’s spirit. From the keynote speaker, Valerie Kaur, to the worship, to the special appearance of Amy Grant, nothing was ho-hum. Although Amy Grant was a familiar name to me, I was not familiar with her music; now I’ll be ordering a couple of albums.

In a short weekend we received food for our friendships, food for our spirits, and food for our bodies. Thank you, Montreat Conference Center.

Wishing you well-fed days!

Tree Musings

Trees provide shade. Leaves turn yellow/red and fall off in the fall. Apples grow on trees. Pecans grow on trees. When I was in third grade that was about all I knew about trees, and I never thought about them. Then I learned in science that trees give us oxygen, and I already knew that we needed oxygen! For two or three weeks, wherever I went, I looked around to be sure there was a tree in sight. I didn’t want to be caught in an oxygen famine!

This fixation wore off in a couple of weeks, and again I ignored trees.

Fast forward a few decades — I had learned more about the importance of trees, and began to notice the aesthetics of trees. Occasionally I see a tree with a straight trunk, and at just the right height off the ground there is an orb-shaped crown, with no thin places and no branches sticking out. Across the street from my house is a pine tree whose trunk is straight up the middle, and the shape of the tree is symmetrical; the branches at the bottom are wide and gradually get narrower near the top. But Mother Nature doesn’t do that very often. That would be too “Stepford.”

The strangest tree I’ve ever seen is the Palmetto Palm. When we were in Charleston I looked at some closely for the first time and thought “what odd bark.” The trunk was covered with woody slats that criss-crossed up the tree, making a basket weave pattern. Under the woody “things” and visible between them at some places was a hairy, fibrous, stiff substance.

I did a little research about them when we returned home. One article did not call them “trees,” but “plants.” The “trunk” was called a “stem.” Botanically and structurally, they are different from trees. I never learned what the fibrous layer is, but the woody, basket-weave formation is made of the remnants of frond stalks when the fronds fall off. Fascinating.

Not too many weeks later we went to the NC coast, not to check out palms. But at Sunset Beach we were in a place where there were Palmettos, and a place to stop the car and get out. An opportunity to look up into the palm and see this phenomenon for myself! Indeed, each stalk of a fan-like frond emerged from a slat that looked already hard. I am glad there were palms around the parking lot at our motel in Charleston so I could become friends with this plant.

I enjoy noticing trees. Some are graceful and flow-y, all the branches growing upward at maybe 20° angles off the vertical. Others are full of sharp angles going in all directions. They look hard and rigid instead of willowy, and sometimes even spooky.

In spring the leaves are delicate and fresh; when in sun they appear to be lit from within. In summer the leaves are mature, steady, reliable, sturdy, shading the ground. In fall the paintbrush comes out with all the glorious colors.

But, give me the bare winter trees. With no leaves, their structure, their bare bones show, in all their astonishing variety. I love the mountains in winter when I can look up a slope into the forest instead of at the forest, and see the shapes, and the shadows on the snow or the brown leaf litter.

Like the Lorax, I’ll speak for the trees.

Wishing you a tree you can call your own.

Wet Shoes, Muddy Jeans, and Waterfalls, O My

It’s just an ordinary thing, a waterfall. A stream is flowing along, the elevation suddenly drops, and the law of gravity requires that the stream drop too. Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse 5, describes a waterfall as a stream jumping off a cliff. Sounds playful, or suicidal. But, it’s amazing to see this natural law acted out – to hear the roar, feel the spray, sense the power.

A few years ago my brother gave us a book, Great Waterfalls of North Carolina by Neil Regan. The next November we set out on our first waterfall trip. Big Bradley Falls is in Polk County, and we followed the directions to the trailhead and carefully chose the correct path, avoiding the ones described as dangerous. We knew we would have to cross a creek, without a bridge, but we were not deterred. The creek had rocks across it, but they were wet, unevenly spaced, too far apart, so I chose to wade in the ankle-deep water. It was not a cold day, and the water was not too cold, so I sloshed along in my wet hiking boots until we got to the fall, which was worth the effort. Then back across the creek.

Right across the road is the entrance to Little Bradley Falls. Once again, three creek crossings, steep banks to scamper up, and boulders to climb over (we were seven years younger then). Little Bradley was even more fantastic, with several tiers of falls and a pool at the bottom.

A shameless plug for Vasque hiking boots: when they dried, I couldn’t tell they’d ever been immersed in water!

Muddy jeans. The next November we went to Transylvania County, the waterfall capital of NC. Cathey’s Creek Falls was on our agenda for the day, having seen the ones by the highway the afternoon before.

There were some challenges. We had good directions, but of course they didn’t mention the bike race. Forest Service Roads are not paved, they’re narrow, they are hilly and curvy. Add to that many bicycles. We crept along because we didn’t know what was around the next curve or over the next hill. Some hunters who were driving large pickup trucks kindly moved over to let us squeeze by.

Then we turned onto Cathey’s Creek Road (almost there, finally), and after just a few miles encountered a ROAD CLOSED sign. Sigh. No workers or equipment being in sight, we pulled over as far as possible and walked the final 1/2 mile. When we knew we were there because we could catch glimpses of water through the trees, we didn’t see a trail. Actually, the “trail” was a tiny path down a steep bank from the road to the creek. It was muddy and covered with slippery wet leaves; fortunately there were small trees and bushes to grab to keep our balance. We stood amazed at the bottom – amazed that we actually got there, and that this beautiful thing was so hidden. How many more treasures are hidden from us? We thought that not too many people had ever seen this waterfall.

Soon I pointed out that we had to go back up that bank!! There was no way I could walk up it. There was nothing for it but to put knees and lower legs on the ground and use hands on trees to pull up by. Some of the mud and leaves could be brushed off but, well, we were stuck with muddy jeans.

Our next stop was a Wildlife Resources Commission fish hatchery where an enthusiastic volunteer told us more than we could remember about three varieties of trout. It was interesting, but the main effect on me was a strong desire to have local rainbow trout for lunch. The men in the office gave us directions to Pisgah Fish Camp. It was delectable! And by that point I didn’t mind that I was poorly groomed.

I noticed that when we stopped along the highway, walked on a sidewalk to a viewing platform and saw a waterfall, I recognized its beauty, but it didn’t thrill me. The waterfalls hidden away in a forest, requiring effort to reach them, were a different story. I felt that I’d been given a great and valuable gift to be allowed to see such a thing.

Somewhere on one of our waterfall trips I came across this quote by anthropologist Loren Eiseley. “If there’s any magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

Wishing you some magic!