Archive

Tag Archives: appalachians

Part 1: Bad weather and Longinus

Mt. Washington

Mt. Washington

It is not at all unusual to drive past the most imposing mountains in the East and not even see them.

The White Mountains of New Hampshire may not be taller than those in the Smokies down South, but because they are so much farther north, their tops bust through the tree line and leave their summits raw with rock. They are craggy and wild.

Between Mt. Washington and Mt. Clay

Between Mt. Washington and Mt. Clay

But the weather can hide them in swirling mists and all you see is a whitish, nebulous screen blotting out the roadsides as you drive past.

The northern Appalachians strive to reach the Whites, beginning with the low Litchfield Hills in Connecticut that grow into the Berkshires in Massachusetts and the Green Mountains of Vermont. The White Mountains cap this part of the cordillera, climaxed with the Presidential Range in northern New Hampshire and its imposing Mount Washington, which, at 6,288 feet, is the highest peak in the Northeast.

It is an impressive sight, if you are lucky enough to see it.

But Mount Washington’s other claim to fame is that it suffers the worst weather in the world outside the polar regions — at least the worst weather reported by an official weather station. mt washington chained building

On April 12, 1934, the wind spat across the top of the mountain at 231 mph, the highest wind speed ever recorded on this planet. That’s about a third the velocity of a shotgun blast. Winds in excess of 100 mph are not uncommon, and there are fog and mist at the summit at least part of 300 days every year.

The building at the summit has to be held down with guy wires.

And then there are the snow and ice. Most of the annual 70 inches of precipitation comes in the form of snow. But this whiteout isn’t unique to Mount Washington. Other mountains also hide in the clouds.

When Henry David Thoreau climbed Mount Katahdin, which rises 5,267 feet above sea level in Maine, he faced more winds and mist.

”It was like sitting in a chimney and waiting for the smoke to blow away,” he wrote in his book The Maine Woods. ”It was, in fact, a cloud factory.

”Occasionally, when the windy columns broke in to me, I caught sight of a dark, damp crag to the right or left, the mist driving ceaselessly between it and me. It reminded me of the creations of the old epic and dramatic poets, of Atlas, Vulcan, the Cyclops, and Prometheus. Such was Caucasus and the rock where Prometheus was bound.”

"Crawford Notch" by Thomas Cole

“Crawford Notch” by Thomas Cole

One can see the weather in the painting by the great 19th-century American artist Thomas Cole, whose Crawford Notch captures the mizzly scene: A mountain on the left is obscured in scud; on the right, sunlight glows from the opposing crest. At the bottom of the valley, a horseman heads for a log cabin.

The painting, at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., looks as wild and Romantic as it sounds. You certainly don’t believe for a moment that Cole has not exaggerated the effect to make a more dramatic painting. But I’ve driven through Crawford Notch, a valley just south of Mount Washington, and seen the same blowing clouds, sweeping from the peaks on my left to those on my right.

The northerly end of the Appalachians is less populated than the southern or central parts. There are more animals, and it is not that unusual to see moose wandering the roadsides. Loons swim in the lakes, and black bears rummage through the woody underbrush.

Lake Ambejejus, Maine

Lake Ambejejus, Maine

As the mountains hunker down again north of the Whites, their loss of altitude is made up for in the profusion of lakes. Western Maine is as wet as Minnesota, and as good for canoeing. The lakes have long, difficult Indian names, such as Mooselookmegunticook, Apmogenegamook, Nesowadnehunk and Ambajejus. Such names are a linguistic wilderness all their own.

Mt. Katahdin

Mt. Katahdin

But in Baxter State Park, the land rises high once again, reaching its peak at Katahdin, a monadnock, or mountain remaining after erosion has washed away the rest of the range. Katahdin can be seen from Interstate 95, 30 miles away, rising above the green-treed plain.

At least, when the weather is clear.

NEXT: Kancamagus Highway

 Part 3: A chance to pull overroadside america exterior

 

The central Appalachians — through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York — is the natal home of the cheesy roadside attraction. Many are now gone, but many also remain, often looking cheesier and more shopworn than ever. The Catskill Game Farm is no longer there, but Santa’s Workshop is still going strong.

They are also home to many early resorts and vacation hotels, pitched on mountain ranges not far outside the cities of Philadelphia or New York, where urban dwellers could spend a week or two breathing healthy mountain air — the Poconos or the Catskills.

And hikers can follow trails through the many state parks, or the long Appalachian Trail, which courses through the three states, weaving a path that avoids urbia and suburbia and finds the long, bent ridge lines of the breadloaf mountains.

Roadside America

Roadside America

This section of the Appalachians is the most highly populated, but there are still bits of woods and rock. But that population also meant it was economically feasible to build those legendary roadside attractions — Crystal Caves and Frontier Towns — that once punctuated the now-forlorn backroads and highways.

The quintessential tourist mecca is Roadside America in Shartlesville. It is a model-train layout the size of a department store. Opened in 1941, the exhibit is run by the descendants of its creator. Stay for the simulation of night, when all of the buildings light up and Kate Smith sings God Bless America while a spotlight shines on the Statue of Liberty. roadside america 4

Not much can live up to that. But there is the Sturgis Pretzel House in Lititz, which is the nation’s oldest operating pretzel factory, where you can learn the craft.

Also in Lititz are the Wilbur Chocolate factory and the Heritage Map Museum. wilbur chocolate facade

In nearby Ephrata is the Ephrata Cloister, which has a dozen well-preserved 250-year-old wooden buildings, including dormitories for the communal society of religiously celibate German Pietists.

In York, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, you can visit the Weightlifting and Softball Hall of Fame and the Harley-Davidson assembly plant and museum.

In Columbia, there is the Watch and Clock Museum, and Meadeville is the ”birthplace of the zipper.”

And near Harrisburg, Three Mile Island and its remaining nuclear power plant is on the Susquehanna River. Gettysburg, Pa copy

More serious sites include Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg and the Johnstown Flood National Memorial near Johnstown, where the National Park Service is showing its version of an Imax-style film with stunning special effects re-creating the devastating 1889 flood that killed more than 2,000 people.

Only a slice of the Appalachians cuts through New Jersey. The most important stop is the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area along the Delaware River. There are some exhibits, 200 miles of roads through the mountain country and uncounted hiking paths. high point state park

High Point State Park is the highest point in the state. Both it and the Water Gap include portions of the Appalachian Trail, the 2,000-mile footpath that runs along the Appalachian crest from Georgia to Maine.

The rest of New Jersey’s mountains are kind of pathetic: The Watchung Mountains in the center of the state peak out at 879 feet above sea level.

Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls

But New York, home to the Catskills and the Adirondacks, is one of the champions of roadside kitsch. There are dinosaurs, giant lumberjacks, recreated 19th century villages and Niagara Falls — the granddaddy of all vacation (and honeymoon) hucksterism.

Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, N.Y., is called the oldest theme park in the U.S. It opened in 1949 and used to have a petting zoo. There are dozens of Santalands and Christmas villages around the country, but this one, in northern New York, was the first, and it still gives an idea of the old-fashioned roadside attraction that has been eaten up by the Disney Worlds and Five Flags of the world.

Washington Irving wrote about the Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley in such stories as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. His estate in Tarrytown is called Sunnyside and is a delightful look at life in the early part of the last century.

Sunnyside

Sunnyside

A little farther north and on the other side of the river are Harriman and Bear Mountain state parks. Seven Lakes Drive takes you through the crisp lake country of Harriman, and Perkins Drive takes you to the summit of Bear Mountain, where, on a clear day, you can see as far as Manhattan.

Just north of Bear Mountain Bridge is the National Military Academy at West Point, with its parade grounds, faux medieval architecture and stunning view of the Hudson River and Storm King Mountain.

And naturalist John Burroughs’ birthplace and final home are commemorated in the John Burroughs Memorial Field, near Roxbury. On the way, don’t miss Kaaterskill Falls, one of the most famous and oft-painted waterfalls in the country.

John Burroughs' Woodchuck Lodge, Roxbury, NY

John Burroughs’ Woodchuck Lodge, Roxbury, NY

And in Cooperstown, there is not only the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Fenimore House, the home of James Fenimore Cooper, best known as the man who invented John Wayne — aka Leatherstocking, Hawkeye, the Pathfinder and Natty Bumppo — and the Farmer’s Museum and Village Crossroads, home to the Cardiff Giant, greatest archaeological hoax of all time. cardiff giant recumbent

NEXT: New England Appalachians

Part 1: In which the mountains change character

Bear Mountain Bridge, Hudson River

Bear Mountain Bridge, Hudson River

If you look at a map of Pennsylvania, you will notice that all roads through the central part of the state seem to travel in long parallel curves, sweeping like lines of marching soldiers taking a ”column right.” eastern pa map

In few places in the country do the road maps so accurately reflect the topography: Those highways follow the valleys between the Appalachian ridges that bend through the state. One ridge lies behind another, lined up like so many pleats in a curtain.

The high, wild Appalachians of the South give way to the rural hillsides of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

The central Appalachians are even pronounced differently. In the South, the middle syllable rhymes with the ”a” of ”apple;” in the North, the ”a” becomes long and rhymes with ”hey,” a word you will hear with increasing frequency the closer you draw to Philadelphia. harvestore silo and barn

So, as the ”Apple-LATCH-ins” give way to the ”Apple-LAY-chins,” the whole character of the land changes. Hardscrabble family farms give way to large dairies. Small gray weatherboard barns give way to large red barns with blue Harvestore silos. Tobacco gives way to coal mining and steel mills.

Finally, as you travel north and east near Philadelphia and New York, the land becomes suburban.

The roads do manage to cross the ridges occasionally, although something as big as the Pennsylvania Turnpike finds it easier to tunnel under Tuscarora and Blue mountains on its way to the flatter eastern portion of the state.

What is more surprising is that at least three major rivers cut through the mountains, too.

Susquehanna River

Susquehanna River

The Susquehanna and Delaware rivers in Pennsylvania slice through them in what are called water gaps. The most famous of these, the Delaware Water Gap, knifes through the Kittatinny Ridge and divides its Pennsylvania and New Jersey halves.

Old post card

Old post card

And in New York, the Hudson River cuts through the Ramapo and Catskill mountains as it drops south from Albany to Manhattan.

These rivers helped create the history of the area, providing routes for early settlers to cross the difficult mountains.

Most famous among the early settlers are the Pennsylvania Dutch peoples of Lancaster and York counties — although you will find them north well into the mountains. Among them are the Amish and Mennonite ”Plain People” of the popular imagination.

They were German immigrants who began coming to the religious-tolerant commonwealth in the 1600s. Others were Swiss, and French Huguenots.

The Pennsylvania Dutch, though, were not Dutch. They were mostly German, and the German word for themselves, ”Deutsch,” was mistranslated.

By 1790, they made up a third of the state’s population.

But there were many real Dutch immigrants up the Hudson River Valley. Their influence is found in such names as Yonkers, Peekskill, Staatsburg and the Catskills.

Catskill Mountains and Hudson River

Catskill Mountains and Hudson River

All through the region you can find the influence of ethnic groups unheard of in the more culturally uniform Southern mountains: There are Irish, Italian, Spanish and Jewish enclaves in the mountains. It is in the Catskills of New York that the famous ”Borscht Belt” of Jewish resorts gave rise to a whole generation of stand-up comics. Does the name Shecky Greene ring a bell?

Shecky Greene

Shecky Greene

What may be surprising, though, is how much nature there is surviving in the central Appalachians. So close to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City, there are still forest and wild lands.

You can find much of this along the Appalachian Trail as it curls through the region.

The footpath, which begins in Georgia and ends in Maine, enters Pennsylvania near Gettysburg, climbing through the Michaux State Forest and along the ridge of South Mountain. Geologically speaking, this is the northernmost tip of the Blue Ridge. Snowy Mountain, Mount Alto and Pleasant Peak are all just about 2,000 feet high.

Devil's Den, Gettysburg, Penn.

Devil’s Den, Gettysburg, Penn.

The trail crosses the Susquehanna just north of Harrisburg and climbs along Blue Mountain, the largest of the parallel ridges.

Big Mountain, Penn.

Big Mountain, Penn.

There it passes Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, where geology and prevailing winds create a perfect spot to view migrating birds, and especially a series of birds of prey, including Cooper’s, sharp-shinned, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks and bald eagles.

On the ridge, at about 1,500 feet, you can see the quilt of farms and forests that spread out in the valleys below. The gray Tuscarora sandstone is tumbled about the peak, covered by patches of green lichen.

Past the resort-area Poconos, the trail follows the Kittatinny Ridge to the Delaware Water Gap and on into New Jersey, following the wooded northwestern edge of that state past long, clear lakes and Boy Scout summer camps to High Point State Park, at 1,800 feet the highest elevation in the state.

The trail loops to the southeast for a short bit before heading north into New York near Greenwood Lake.

There, it follows the Ramapo Mountain into Harriman and Bear Mountain state parks, finally crossing the Hudson River on the Bear Mountain Bridge before heading north again, across the Taconic Mountains and into New England. Hudson panorama

At the bridge, the Appalachian Trail is only 35 miles north of Manhattan and only about 100 feet above sea level.

The woods along the trail are increasingly littered with boulders — chunks of granite or sandstone torn from the bedrock by the continental glaciers of 18,000 years ago. It makes for a beautiful woodland vista, but it is hell for farming.

Storm King Mountain, Hudson River

Storm King Mountain, Hudson River

And unlike the woodlands in the South, cluttered with undergrowth, the woods of Pennsylvania and New York are easy to traipse through. There are rocks underfoot, but not a lot of shrubbery. You step through a cushion of rotting leaves, brown and soft to the sole of your shoe.

It is true that the central Appalachians are less distinctively mountains than their brothers to north and south. They often feel more like hills. Yet the farther you manage to find yourself from the population centers, the more you will uncover the familiar Appalachian culture.

In the plateaus south and east of Pittsburgh, for instance, you still can be eyed suspiciously by a farmer who wonders why you are taking a photograph of his farm. If you hear him talk, you still will hear the short syllables and clipped speech of the mountaineer. You will find homesteads with kitchen gardens and men on autumn weekends walking the gravel back roads with their sons, shotguns slung middle-broke over their shoulders and the two in matching red plaid coats, out for a bit of hunting, hoping perhaps to scare up a turkey.

NEXT: Home of the diner

Part 7: In which the author’s belly bursts

shatley meal

‘Forty-five years ago, I broke out with a most terrible skin disease all over me, which remained on me seven years, supposed to originate from measles; I also had indigestion, and the last two years of that seven years, I had a bad cough. I had bleeding of my right lung and had nightly sweats for two years.”

How’s that for an appetizing advertisement for a good restaurant?

It is the opening of a testimonial written by Martin Shatley in 1925 about a radium spring he discovered in 1890 in northwestern North Carolina that miraculously cured his ailment.

”It has been about 35 years since I found the spring and got well. I have done as much hard work since that time as any man I know of, and after I was cured, many people went to this spring with skin diseases, rheumatism and nervous diseases, and were all cured.”

People still come to Shatley Springs in Ashe County, and they still drink the water. But most people don’t come to have their afflictions cured, but rather to have their hunger assuaged. shatley springs exterior 2

For while the radium water still flows freely, and free — anyone can drive up with a bottle and fill up — it is the restaurant at Shatley Springs that is the real miracle.shatley springs spring

Shatley Springs is on North Carolina 16, five miles north of Jefferson and eight miles south of the Virginia border.

It is found in a grassy hollow with a fishing pond in the middle. Around the pond are a handful of ramshackle cabins. shatley cabins with ducks

Their floors creak and the breeze blows through the walls; a single, 100-watt bulb hangs in the middle of the ceiling in each room. There is nary a picture on the wall, and the exterior red paint is flaking off the clapboard.

It is spartan in a way a Spartan would never tolerate. But then, the room costs only $45 per night for two. And the air is cool and clean, and you can hear the birds in the trees and the rustling leaves. There is no interstate, and the quiet is salutary.

But walk up to the large, red ranch house with the roaring kitchen fans. Screen doors slam and ruddy-faced people laugh and talk as they always do in the North Carolina mountains.

Dinner is the specialty of the house. If you need to save money, you can opt for the single entree dinners. Fried chicken is $7.95, country ham is $8.95. But I’ve never actually met anyone who has ordered them.

No, the meal of choice is the ”Family Style Country Meal,” which gives you, for an outrageous $16.95 per person, enough food to bloat an army. Greenfield's meal

There are ham and chicken,

Mashed potatoes,

Green beans,

Creamed corn,

Fried cabbage,

Pinto beans,

Fried apples,

Cole slaw,

Country gravy (the white kind),

Red-eye gravy,

Buttermilk biscuits,

And your choice of fruit cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

All washed down with radium water and iced tea as sweet as molasses.

And refills on everything, if the first round doesn’t rupture your diaphragm.

This is all Blue Ridge cooking, so the vegetables are all fresh and boiled with fatback or bacon and set down in front of you in bowls. This is not ”lean and healthy” cuisine, but it is real eatin’. Shatley Springs

People walk into the large common eating area, but they waddle out. On the long wooden porch that runs the length of the building, old-timers sit in rocking chairs, smoke and chat with their neighbors.

And if you do stay overnight and manage to right yourself for breakfast, the family-style breakfast — which will set you back $9.95 — includes cereal, juice, eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, gravy, biscuits, hotcakes, potatoes, grits, baked apples, strawberry preserves and coffee. That’s not a list of possibilities to choose from; that’s breakfast. You get them all, set down on an old wobbly table by a bustling waitress.

NEXT: The Central Appalachians

Part 6: In which a sour old man says some difficult things about some very nice people

Alan Hollar

Alan Hollar

Alan Hollar is a wood carver from Crossnore. He stands about 6-foot-seven and wears a ball cap and big frame glasses. He is giving demonstrations on cutting lathe-turned wood bowls at the craft center at the Moses Cone mansion along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The craft center is a kind of fantasy world, filled with quilts, stained glass, preciously carved wood and beautifully glazed pottery. As soon as you enter, you are hit with the odor of sachet and the sound of Irish flute and dulcimer music.

None of this has anything to do with the Appalachian Mountains, except as it is marketed to wealthy yuppies looking for faux-authentic mountain crafts.

“It’s true, I suppose,” says Hollar. “It used to be that mountain crafts were things that people couldn’t buy and so made for themselves. Now, they can buy pretty much anything they need at the Wal Mart. Crafts have become things that cannot be made by machine.”

Folk Art Center, Blue Ridge Parkway

Folk Art Center, Blue Ridge Parkway

The problem is one of integrating a past of poverty and make-do with a present of money and art galleries. Hollar is certainly correct when he says, “A culture cain’t stand still.”

Appalachian mountain crafts has suffered from the same forces that stultify Native American arts. both cultures have not stood still and are part of the same 21st century that we all live and breathe, but the market has identified their niches, and forced a “brand” or identity on them that is inauthentic.

In terms of Native American art, there are many fully-integrated artists working, as Native Americans, without having to resort to Indian stereotypes — artists such as Rik Danay, Bob Haozous and Kay Walkingstick — but too often the art-buying public wants instead pots and blankets. It is why artist Fritz Scholder once exhorted, “Stop painting Indians!”

by Harrison Begay

by Harrison Begay

Despite his warning, the market for so-called “traditional” Native American art is clotted with talking blue coyotes, lance-carrying warriors and never-ending rainbirds. And the inevitable “Bambi paintings” of deer and bear.

Originally, the creation of this Dorothy Dunn-style of Indian art was to help promote Native American arts and give talented Native artists a chance to make a living from their art. Perhaps it was too successful: Now, that style is considered “traditional,” and ordinary buyers of the art don’t want to look at anything that doesn’t fit the mold. And “Indian art” is a ghetto from which the truly talented feel pulled two ways: They want to escape the ghetto, yet, they want to create art from their cultural roots.

The Southern Highland Craft Guild has done something of the same for mountain crafts. It was formed in 1929, and was an attempt to make some money for poverty-sticken mountain folk.

Perhaps it has also worked too well, for there is little left of the mountains in these elegant doo-dads.

The tourists who glide through the Parkway Craft Center at Moses Cone Memorial Park, or the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Asheville, N.C., want souvenirs more than art, and they want something that portrays the fantasy of a “simpler way of life” that people “used to live” in the rural mountains. So, they find candles, stained glass, soft-colored quilts and jewelry in the form of dogwood flowers or bluebirds and feel they have come in contact with a more authentic way of life.

But it ain’t so. Instead, they have come in contact with a successful marketing strategy.

Some of the art is very nice, even beautiful in its way, but it is a far cry from anything that was made back in the hollers and coves when if you needed a ladle, you carved one from a chunk of wood.

“We were born into a world filled with random shapes and odd angles,” Hollar says, “but we made for ourselves a world of wallboard cubicles and we long for something with a touch of that randomness we miss. That’s why people like those bowls with the uneven edges turned from wood boles.”

Burl vase by Alan Hollar

Burl vase by Alan Hollar

And Hollar’s bowls are beautiful: They exploit the essential beauty of woodgrain and its colors. He is a master craftsman. But no matriarch living in the cut-off coves of Appalachia before electrification who required a bowl for kneading dough would have been happy with one that sported a great hole in its side.

It isn’t only the visual arts. The mountains are full of music. There was church music — some of it nearly unlistenable — and dance music, and the music that was played on front porches when the aunts and uncles gathered together and played old “chunes.”

Emmett Lundy

Emmett Lundy

You can find old recordings of some of that in the Alan Lomax collections. It is rough-hewn music, in a style that valued a keening, flat-affect voice — a style copied by Bill Monroe that he called the “high lonesome” — and always clearly amateur.

You can hear the old music in re-releases of those Lomax recordings, like those made in 1941 of Emmett Lundy from Graham County in Virginia. There is a plaintive sourness in the playing, learned from his teacher, Green Leonard. No one would call the music pretty, yet it is intensely beautiful. It is authentic.

The racks of CDs at the craft centers feature instead the commercial recordings of professional musicians who have created an ersatz “traditional” music that is hardly distinguishable from New Age pap. It is music with no angles or edges — completely unlike the hard-muscled people of the hills, who were all angles and edges — “with the bark still on.”

The soft-toned flute jigs on the stereo are like no music I ever heard in the Appalachians. Where were the scratchy fiddle tunes with every note slightly flat? Where were the affectless hymn tunes sung by straight-lipped mountain families? Why is that hammer dulcimer playing The Two Fairy Hills instead of the the strummed dulcimer playing Rock of Ages?

This is the mountain experience smoothed out and made marketable, giving the uninitiated the illusion of authenticity with none of the wood soot and bacon grease.

The CDs are on a rack by the register. They are all prettified.

“Do you have any really ugly music?” I ask. The young clerk — probably a college student from the flatlands come up to the mountains for a summer job among the “plainer, simpler folk” — doesn’t understand what I mean.

NEXT: food

 

 

Part 4: In which a mountain county is described

Mt. Jefferson

Mt. Jefferson

This morning, an incandescent white fog filled the river valley and the ground was covered with frost. The cows that graze on the bottom land exhaled steam, when you could see them at all. Yesterday was much the same; most of the afternoon was ”whited out,” meaning that everything past four or five feet from your eyes was obliterated by the mist.

Weather like this is one of my reasons for loving these mountains in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina. I have never seen so much weather. It is as though the weather were condensed, like a stew cooked down from a soup. Ashe County Holler vert

Even fair weather is magnified, the air clearer, the sun bigger and brighter, the clouds more manic. The air is often so clear that you’d swear you could resolve individual blades of grass on the side of Mount Jefferson, five miles away.

And the weather changes quickly and dramatically. It is all foretold on the face of Mount Jefferson, in the middle of North Carolina’s Ashe County.

We can see the mountain from the house we are staying at, out the kitchen window. It dominates the more populous half of Ashe County, raising its humped peak over the surrounding hills like ”a Charlemagne among his peers.”

Mount Jefferson will glow with sunlight one moment and turn dark and baleful the next, signifying the coming of a storm. He will evaporate before your eyes in portent of snow, growing whiter and whiter as the snow becomes a veil between our window and the peak. Some days he is blue, some days, gray. In early morning, the sunlight sparks the peak into a glowing orange. At other, very clear times, the mountain is green. Blue, Gray, Orange, Green — Union, Rebel, Protestant, Catholic — they all war on the mountainside.

And every day, the mountain has shown me something new in color, tone, shape, shadow, contrast, mist, camouflage.

And all night long, when the winds calm, as they seldom do, I can hear the rush of water over the rocks in the New River.

New River

New River

Ashe County, in the extreme northwest corner of North Carolina, is 427 square miles of wrinkled green mountain irrigated by clear cascading streams. Away from any major highways, and with no high-profile attractions, it is not overrun with tourists, even in the height of summer.

The people who are sprinkled through these hills and hollows are open, friendly and helpful, especially in winter, when cooperation is a necessity.

The whole county, populated by only about 27,000 people, is a haven for outdoor activities, and visitors find plenty of fishing, canoeing, hiking and camping.

West Jefferson

West Jefferson

The New River flows through Ashe County, or rather, both New Rivers, for it is divided into the North Fork and South Fork. Between them, they section off the county by thirds, running from the southwest to northeast.

The river is very old, the oldest in the New World according to some geologists, and it meanders like the Mississippi rather than straightaway seeking its own level and cascading over anything in its path, the way most mountain rivers do. And every other river in the state flows, eventually, southeast. The New River flows north, eventually joining the Kanawha River in West Virginia and then following the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico.

The river twists and folds on itself so mazily that you are constantly surprised, on coming to the river by the highway, that it always flows in the opposite direction you would have thought it should.

About half the roads in the county are paved, but a large percentage are only gravel. Some are only Jeep trails. And all along these roads there are random mountain houses and bordering fences. Actually, the county seems divided in character into its southeastern and northwestern halves. Near Meat Camp NC copy

In the southeast, rolling knolls of pastureland at average heights between 2,500 and 3,000 feet above sea level look as if they had been misplaced from England’s Yorkshire. This half of the county is well populated. The county seat is Jefferson, with about 4,700 people; West Jefferson is slightly less populated but is more developed. When people go ”to town,” they mean West Jefferson. It’s where you’ll find Geno’s Pizza.

There are many farms with tobacco patches, cornfields and oceans of wheat. The biggest industry is beef cattle, and nearly every farmer in this half of the county grows his own steers. Dairy cows are common, too, and Ashe County has its own cheese factory, the only one in the state. Tours are popular, and so are samples. Ashe Co. hillside cows

Also in Glendale Springs is the Last Supper fresco painted by artist Ben Long IV in the 1970s at Holy Trinity Church. Long spent years in Italy studying the technique for painting on wet plaster and had searched vainly in the United States for a place to practice his craft. When he came to Ashe County in 1973, he approached Father Faulton Hodge with his proposal to make a fresco in his church and Hodge told him, ”We’ll take it. What’s a fresco?” lastsupper

Actually, Long’s first work for Hodge and the parish was at the smaller and older St. Mary’s Church in Beaver Creek. His first work was a large painting of the pregnant Virgin Mary, holding her swollen belly. Some 75,000 people come each year to see the frescoes. Both churches are open 24 hours a day.

But the northwestern portion of the county is broken up with long, high mountains, and settlers have built tiny wind-weathered shacks in the coves. A few longer valleys are nicked with strings of homes, but there is none of the broad farmland that makes the other half of the county so habitable.

Ashe County was once called ”the Lost County” because it was hidden up behind the Blue Ridge — a virtual escarpment that separates the Appalachian Mountains to the west from the rolling hills of the Piedmont to the east — and there was virtually no way to travel up and down the Ridge to communicate with the rest of the state.

What travel and communication early Ashe County residents had was with Virginia, not North Carolina. Even now, there is only one road — North Carolina 16 — that dares climb the face of the Blue Ridge to enter Ashe County.

One of the results of the isolation was that early settlers felt an alienation from the rest of the state. Because they believed that the Raleigh government was ignoring them, portions of mountain North Carolina — including Ashe County, and parts of what would later become eastern Tennessee — seceded and formed their own state, which they named Franklin. It lasted from 1784 to 1788, eventually fizzling out when no one paid it much attention. Ashe County branch

Historically, the mountains of the South have always been distinct from the rest of the region. Even during the Civil War, when Southern patriotism was supreme, abolitionist sentiment ran high among the poor farmers of the mountains, and the ”Underground Railway” had a regular stop in Ashe County. In fact, before the United States Geological Survey named the central peak after our third president, it was locally called Negro Mountain, or some less polite version of that, after the number of runaway slaves that found shelter in its shadow.

In 1840, there were just under a hundred registered (and legal) distilleries in Ashe County. When North Carolina voted itself dry, the distilleries went underground, or more properly, uphill.

Corn liquor is still being made. It is popular and available, despite the ”revenooers.” Commercial whiskeys are now available again, but many prefer the corn squeezings; it has a reputation for smoothness. ”Goes down like a pussycat; flies through your veins like a wildcat.”

A tax-paid legal and commercial version of the moonshine is available in some portions of the mountains for those who want to find out legally what it’s like to drink their hooch from a Mason jar. Ashe County hillside

The best times of year to visit Ashe County are the spring, when the season works its way up the mountain, trailing clouds of azalea and rhododendron glory behind; and fall, when the season comes back down the mountain, coloring all the trees with orange, yellow and red. Fall colors in the North Carolina mountains have few rivals anywhere.

NEXT: North Carolina Pig Pickin’ 

Part 3: In which a Freethinker goes to Church

Big Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Big Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tourists flock to Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They come to see old houses, old mills, the wooden tools of the past and the peculiar folkways of the Tennessee mountain people.

The Smokies are among the highest mountains in the East — their tallest peak is Clingman’s Dome, at 6,643 feet — but they aren’t a neatly organized range of peaks like the Tetons. Instead, they are a maze of headlands and coves, forks and ridges. And also unlike most Western mountains, they have been thoroughly lived in. At the bottom of every valley — which are locally called ”coves” — you can find either a farm or the remnant of one. cades cove panorama

Cades Cove is particularly attractive, for it is a broad valley surrounded by darkly treed hills. It is rare to find a valley this wide and flat in the Southern Appalachians. And it was an attractive place for settlers to build and raise families.

So Cades Cove began its existence as a community in 1819, when the first settlers moved in. By midcentury, there were about 685 people living in 137 households.

The 5- by 2-mile cove now seems remote. To get there you have to drive 10 miles from the nearest town, or about 20 miles from the Sugarland Visitors Center down narrow, winding, crowded roads. If it is midsummer, you can expect to average 20 mph at best, although it will be frequent stopping and starting around congested areas where vacationers are tubing down Abrams Creek and the Little River. log cabin

It seems remote, but when it was a thriving community, it was no more remote than most like it in the mountains. It was not considered unusual to take three days for a shopping trip to Tuckaleechee to bring back the salt and sugar that you needed to go along with the produce you grew and the animals you raised.

Cades Cove got telephones and electricity about the same time as other communities in eastern Tennessee. It was not any place special.

But when the national park was created in 1934, Cades Cove was chalked off for abandonment. Most private properties were bought up; the remaining ones were bought up giving their residents lifelong leases. By the 1960s, all the residents were gone.

Cantilevered barn

Cantilevered barn

I feel an odd sensation driving the 11-mile loop trail through the Cove following a caravan of tourists. For most of them, the log cabins and weathered corn cribs must look like something from hillbilly mythology. I’m sure most of them think of the Cove’s late residents as backward and misbegotten. They see the rough-hewn beams and the sorghum mill with its long pole for the mule to pull in a circle. They see the potbellied stoves and the rope beds and think the residents must be something out of a time machine, some forgotten remnant of the 19th century.

But it is different for me and my wife. Her folks came from these mountains and we once lived there together. She made corn-husk dolls as a girl, she cooked on a wood stove as an adult — and not all that long ago.

For the Southern mountain life has not disappeared. It is everywhere out there in the hills of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. It is a shame to see the log houses and cantilever barns presented as museum pieces. You can see dozens more like them, with people living in them and using them, all through Buncombe, Ashe, Watauga and Mitchell counties. church

We stopped at the Primitive Baptist Church in Cades Cove, where a wiry, wizened old Southern man stood at the pulpit, reading through the Bible that rested on the lectern. He could have been the lean, sinewed type of farmer that used to work the fields here. But he was a visitor. He’d been here before and seemed proud that the Bible that he’d seen on his last trip was still there, unmolested by the tourists.

”Hit’s been there three years now and none the worse for wear,” he said. He also pointed at a box of a single layer of bricks on the floor in the middle of the room and said, ” ‘At’s where the stove use ter be, you can see the flashin’ for the stovepipe in the ceiling.” He obviously knew the church, or churches like it.

For you still can find them, whitewashed clapboard, warped foundations, unfinished floors and stiff pews, in scores of community churches throughout the region.

And that is the most peculiar part of Cades Cove. It is presented as a kind of museum. But you can attend a service at a church not one board different from its exhibit, an active congregation of the same leather-faced, hard-farming people.

They still grow apples, they still grind corn. They still slaughter hogs and make sausage. They still singe off the pinfeathers of a chicken that they are going to fry for dinner.

"Leather britches" drying

“Leather britches” drying

Honey for saleThey still make apple butter, still put up fruits and vegetables. They still make half-moon pies from biscuit dough and dried fruit. They still make ”leather britches” — the dried green beans threaded together on a string. Many a home still has a springhouse where milk is kept cold in the running water.

They still make hay from the grass in the bottom lands and keep hives of honeybees. These things are not quaint customs of the past, but a way of life.

Sure, the log cabin very well may have a satellite dish on its roof, and the mule has given way to a John Deere.

But what is important is not the remoteness of history, but its continuity.

NEXT: Ashe County, NC