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This past January, my first ex-wife and I observed our 50th wedding anniversary, but also 47 years of divorce. Between that rupture and last year, we hadn’t talked or seen each other. 

But about a year ago, we reconnected and agreed to drive with each other to see our son in Austin, Texas. That trip proved so agreeable, that she suggested a longer trip. I offered that we drive to Maine to visit our college friends, Sandro and Mu, who live in Sullivan, Maine, north of Mount Desert Island. And so, we made plans. 

Anne and Vanessa Redgrape

When I was young, I thought nothing of driving six- or seven-hundred miles in a day. But my old bones cannot take such treatment anymore, and so we decided not to drive more than two hundred miles in a go. That limit was tested several times during the trip.

We figured it would take about six days to make the 1200 mile drive. 

“What do you want to do when we go?” I asked. 

“I’ve got three things: I want to eat lobster,” she said. “And I want to visit Mount Desert Island; and I’d like to see West Virginia. Is that on the way?”

“It can be.” Before Anne got here, I made an itinerary that would take us through West Virginia. Originally, I had thought to drive the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, but I rejiggered the route. It added some miles to the trip, but I wanted to show her the state; I love West Virginia, although maybe for the wrong reasons. I love the decay and the dreariness of those parts I knew best — coal country, with its tipples and meth labs, the nearly empty towns of old brick and service stations. 

And so, the departure date was set and on Wednesday, Oct. 9, we packed up Anne’s car — which she has named Evelyn Angelina Buick — and sidled onto the BRP and headed north.

Not everyone names their cars. When Anne and I were married, four decades ago, we owned a maroon Chevrolet the size of an aircraft carrier that I named Vanessa Redgrape, for a cluster of polyethylene grapes hanging from the back window. Our friend, Hank, owned a green VW beetle that he named Gigi, or G.G., for “Green Gonad.” If you don’t own a dog or cat, you can always pet your automobile. 

Evie, as Anne nicknamed the car, is a 2014 Buick Verano the vaguely silver color of pewter that Anne calls “car colored.” Half the cars on the road these days are “car colored.” 

It is a cyborg of a car. It screams at you if you drift out of lane; it beeps if you are backing into someone; it tells you your gas mileage by the second; it has a key that folds up like a switchblade; and a camera in the rear bumper so you can see front and back at the same time. It also has cruise control, which is, for me and my right foot, a miracle. 

I don’t think we could have made the trip if we were driving my own Kia Forte, which is admittedly a very well made car, but a very badly designed one, and with an engine in it with just enough power to start it moving forward on a flat surface. My legs and feet would have cramped up within a few hours of starting out. We took her car. 

Craggy Gardens

Oct. 9

Almost immediately as we started the fog closed in, and we kept driving in and out of obscurity, up and down the mountains and looping around the tight corners. About 20 miles on, at Craggy Gardens, where we stopped, we were above the mist and the view was pure Caspar David Friedrich, with the sun glaring in patches off the clouds underneath us, as bright as fluorescent lights. To the south, fog filled the valleys, but to the north it was uninterrupted whiteness, with two or three peaks poking through like islands in the sea. It was very like flying above the clouds. 

Normally, from the turnout at Craggy Gardens, you can look to the southeast, back toward the towns of Montreat and Black Mountain and see civilization: houses, warehouses, highways and fast-food chicken franchises. But with the white blanket, that was all hidden, and you could have the fresh look one imagines early settlers had on utter wilderness. 

Altapass

At Altapass, we made the obligatory stop at the orchards. It was too late in the season for many apples in the store, but Anne found a jar of preserves she wanted to take to Mu in Maine. 

We continued north and exited the BRP in Ashe County. I used to live there, many decades ago, in a house on a bluff above the South Fork of the New River. A back porch cantilevered out over the hillside drop, about 200 feet down to the water and gave a similar sense of flying. We took a side trip to Obids to see the old house. Time and the river have both flowed on. 

New River

We drove up the drive to the old house, which is now occupied by a family that, while I didn’t see any cars up on cinderblocks, managed to give that impression anyway.

Beside that, it had all changed. It used to be that the land around the house was all grass. We could see the hills on the other side of the river and Mount Jefferson to the north. But now, four decades later, trees have all grown up around the house and the view is blocked in all directions. The house was closed in, but so, I felt, was I. 

I had been feeling deeply nostalgic. But I also realized that however much I might like to travel back to the places of my younger days, I would also need to be able to travel in time as well as in space.

West Jefferson

We drove into West Jefferson for lunch and found the town busier and healthier than it was back then. Stores were open rather than storefronts with rent signs in them. When my late wife Carole and I lived there, there were two restaurants in the whole county — a breakfast cafe and a pizzeria. Now, the joint is jumpin’ with nice places. We had barbecue for lunch and moved on north, through Galax, Va., and into Hillsville, where we found a motel and, tired from the road, a Chinese buffet across the road.

Oct. 10

“Look out, there’s something in the road!”

“I see it.” A lump in the middle of our lane. I slowed, it began to move.

We got up close to it and it began to waddle across the road. It was a badger. I’d never seen one in the “wild” before.

The roads in West Virginia are notoriously bad, with patches and potholes. But things may be changing. As we drive up along U.S. 219, miles and miles have been resurfaced with rubberized macadam. It’s like magic. All road noise quiets down and the ride is perfectly smooth. As we drove along, I kept looking for more of it and was tickled every time we found another few miles of the stuff.

Driving has been fun for me, but not so much for my passenger. Western West Virginia is all Ridge and Valley Province, and the road constantly climbs up the mountains and down the far side, and to do so they are twisty. More than twisty, they are carefully banked, so that speeding downhill, it’s like the 24 hours of Le Mans. I felt like a Grand Prix driver, banking hard to the right or left as we rounded the hairpins. But it just made Anne carsick. We pulled off the road a few times so she could calm her belly.

Despite that, she loved the countryside, although I was disappointed. I had never been to this part of the state before and it turned out to be notably devoid of coal tipples. Instead, it was rolling farmland interrupted by breadloaf mountains. 

The early morning gave us more low-lying fog dropped into the hollows and coves and for about 10 miles, the ridge to our east was lined with wind turbines. They were a constant presence on the horizon. 

We spent the night at Elkins, WV, home of Davis Elkins College, which by the look of it serves as the safety school for those whose first choice was Elon College.

Elkins did not impress us. We took the concierge’s recommendation for dinner and went to Maggie CG’s. Walked a few blocks to get there. The place was cavernous and dark, and we stood at the hostess podium for about 5 minutes and not a peep from anywhere in the joint. I grabbed a couple of menus from behind the podium and we sat down. Nothing. One other couple was eating already at one table and a very large man was seated by the front door, obviously waiting for something. But nothing. Not a sound, not a person, not a waiter, not a hostess. We sat at our table for another 5 or 10 minutes and decided to leave.

Elkins, W.V.

Went across the street to Beander’s, which was clearly the college dive of Elkins and a hot spot for college students, who, by definition, tend to be loud and rowdy. No hostess again. We again grabbed menus and picked a table. Eventually a waitress came by. Menu was notably unimaginative, but the food was adequate.

Oct. 11

It’s been a long day. We drove 305 miles. Didn’t mean to. Left Elkin at 8:30 a.m. and took U.S. 219 north into Maryland, past a town called Accident. (Internet says people who live in Accident, Md., are known as “Accidentals.”) Picked up I-68 to Cumberland and U.S. 220 north to the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Bedford. Took that to I-81 at the notorious Carlisle, home of the infamous Indian boarding school. The plan was to get a hotel in Harrisburg. We stopped and discovered there were no rooms in the whole town. A giant car show had them all booked.

So, we kept going on I-81 till we got to Frackville and got a room at the Holiday Inn Express. I don’t like Holiday Inn, but after 300 miles and traffic you wouldn’t believe, we had to take what we could get.

Anne really seemed to enjoy the countryside. Lots of long low mountain ridges with barns and silos, with cows and cornfields. It looked like something out of a calendar photo. Right from Central Casting.

The Turnpike is a toll road and when we got off in Carlisle, the tariff was $12.45. A bit more than I had expected. I paid the man in dollar coins. I don’t know if he gets to see many of those.

Dinner tonight at Cracker Barrel. Again: All that was available.

Tomorrow the plan is to drive up the Delaware Water Gap and maybe get to Bear Mountain on the Hudson River.

To be continued

Click any image to enlarge

Linville Falls
It has been nearly 50 years since I first saw Linville Falls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Back then, getting there meant finding an unmarked gravel road and an unmarked dirt parking lot — really just a thicker place in the road to pull over into.Linville Falls 03

Then we followed a spongy, loamy footpath under the hickories and oaks toward the distant roar of the waterfall on North Carolina’s Linville River. No one was there but us and we picnicked on the rocks over the crashing water. The upper falls are a broad, shallow drop, but at the lower falls, the quartzite pulls tight, constricting the river and forcing it down a spiraling chute that drops over the edge of the cliff and down 75 feet to the river and Linville Gorge.Linville upper falls

It is an impressive torrent with a basso profundo roar, and nothing will ever change the way it seemed to me that day, as I leaped over rocks, crossing the white water to the other shore so I could climb on the gnarled rock to see down the waterway.

Leaping from rock to rock across the cataract could easily have got me killed, swept over the precipice, but I was young, and therefore, an idiot.

I’ve been back many times over the years. The National Park Service built a paved road from the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it easier to find. Then they paved the parking lot and built a pedestrian bridge over the river upstream from the falls.Linville Falls from above

The last time I went back, there was a visitor’s center and a souvenir shop and a parade of vacationers trotting down the path to the fenced-in overlook. The falls are just as impressive, but the experience isn’t.

If I speed up those five decades in my head like time-lapse photography, I can see time take shape. It builds and it destroys in a constant rise and fall like an ocean tide.

And what comes in, ebbs.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited another familiar site, on Old Route 16, a dirt road that drops down the side of the Blue Ridge from Ashe County towards North Wilkesboro. When we lived in the mountains, we used to visit an abandoned farmsite along the road, halfway down the mountain face.

There was a clearing in the wood and an old wooden house with a broad porch that looked out over the steep valley below. Above us was the spot ominously known as the “Jumpin’-Off Place.”

We could picnic on the porch with the bluebird and tanager singing in front of us, the buzz of insects all around and the gentle breeze rattling the grass in the field.Linville trillium

It had been 20 years since we visited that farmhouse and we thought we should see what had become of it.

About three miles down the old dirt road, we passed where it should have been, but there was no break in the forest, no open field. We couldn’t find the house. We kept driving, hoping we’d find something that looked familiar, but we didn’t. Finally we stopped the car where the farm should have been and walked deep into the woods.

Buried a hundred yards into the tangle of maple trees was a naked standing chimney, completely eaten up by brush and undergrowth.

When I climbed down the hill towards it, I discovered the forest floor was spongy with rotten boards, completely collapsed in on themselves, with a few nailheads still showing.

In the years since we last visited, the old house had been completely digested by the woods, leaving only the indigestible brickwork of the twin-sided chimney.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And the once-glorious view of the declivity was now completely obscured by trees and brush. Instead of a vacant field overgrown, the house was survived only by complete woods.

In just those few years.

Nature can reclaim an entire farm in 20 years and leave nothing behind but the masonry. And that won’t last much longer.

 
 
 
 
 

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 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’ 

Linville falls from upper look

I first saw Linville Falls 40 years ago. Getting there meant finding an unmarked gravel road and an unmarked dirt parking lot — really just a thicker place in the road to pull over onto.

Then we followed a spongy, loamy footpath under the hickories and oaks toward the distant roar of the waterfall on North Carolina’s Linville River. No one was there but us, and we picnicked on the rocks over the crashing water. The upper falls are a broad, shallow drop, but at the lower falls, the quartzite pulls tight, constricting the river and forcing it down a spiraling chute that drops over the edge of the cliff and down 75 feet to the river and Linville Gorge.

Linville Falls 03

It is an impressive torrent with a basso profundo roar, and nothing will ever change the way it seemed to me that day, as I leaped over rocks, crossing the white water to the other shore so I could climb on the gnarled rock to see down the waterway.

I’ve been back many times over the years. The National Park Service built a paved road from the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it easier to find. Then they paved the parking lot and built a pedestrian bridge over the river upstream from the falls.

The last time I went back, there was a visitor’s center and a souvenir shop and a parade of vacationers trotting down the path to the fenced-in overlook. The falls are just as impressive, but the experience isn’t.

If I speed up those 40 years in my head like time-lapse photography, I can see time take shape. It builds and it destroys in a constant rise and fall like an ocean tide.

And what comes in, ebbs.

Linville trillium

A few years ago, my wife and I visited another familiar site, on Old Route 16, a dirt road that drops down the side of the Blue Ridge toward North Wilkesboro. When we lived in the mountains, we used to visit an abandoned farm along the road, halfway down the mountain face.

There was a clearing in the wood and an old wooden house with a broad porch that looked out over the steep valley below. Above us was the spot ominously known as the ”Jumpin’-Off Place.”

We could picnic on the porch with the bluebird and tanager singing in front of us, the buzz of insects all around and the gentle breeze rattling the grass in the field.

It had been 14 years since we visited that farmhouse, and we thought we should see what had become of it.

About three miles down the old dirt road, we passed where it should have been, but there was no break in the forest, no open field. We couldn’t find the house. We kept driving, hoping we’d find something that looked familiar, but we didn’t. Finally we stopped the car where the farm should have been and walked deep into the woods.

Buried a hundred yards into the tangle of maple trees was a naked standing chimney, completely eaten up by brush and undergrowth.

When I climbed down the hill toward it, I discovered the forest floor was spongy with rotten boards, completely collapsed in on themselves, with a few nail heads showing.

In the 14 years since we last visited, the old house had been completely digested by the woods, leaving only the indigestible brickwork of the twin-sided chimney.

And the once-glorious view of the declivity was now completely obscured by trees and brush. Instead of a vacant field overgrown, the house was survived only by complete woods.

In 14 years.

Nature can reclaim an entire farm in 14 years and leave nothing behind but the masonry. And that won’t last much longer.

Linville Gorge1