Appalachia Revisited

Consider this Part II.

Despite a few unfortunate meals, the trip to the western end of North Carolina offered ample activity and food for thought.

Some people follow a regular physical regimen, with routine visits to the gym or other daily physical activity.  Mr. NewYorker, for instance, goes bicycling three or four times a week, and when he doesn’t he swims laps.  Lifelongnewyorker prefers a more sporadic approach to fitness.  Sedentary for most of the year, she thinks of vacations as boot camp and throws herself in, headlong.

Last September’s trip to southern Utah was a case in point, although in truth I prepared for that by walking from Worth Street to Prince Street every morning.  We arrived in Utah, drove to Cedar Breaks, elevation about nine or ten thousand feet, and took our first hike.  For the next ten days we hiked about six hours a day.  I then returned home and resumed my sitting.

Since North Carolina’s elevation was considerably less — between 2,500 and 6,000 feet– I felt no need to prepare in any way.  True, the farthest I walk here in Alabama is from the garage to the elevator, but I’m resilient. I always bounce into shape.

By the way, we usually do these intense activity vacations out West, where it’s hot but dry.  And I firmly believe that, yes, it is not the heat, it’s the humidity.  

The first few days in Asheville were not taxing at all, but the walk through the Biltmore gardens and around the pond did produce the first injury:  a blister on my foot.  Once we hit the mountains,  and began to hike, I wore appropriate footwear and used poles.  No hike was more than six miles, with elevation gains of less than 2,000 feet, but I seemed to feel every step.  The Abandoned One strode forward, never needing to stop and rest as I did, frequently (claiming that it was important to enjoy the view).  I had mixed feelings.  On one hand, I remembered trudging and gasping back from the canyon bottom to the rim at Bryce Canyon when he was about 10 years old, and seeing him run up ahead, impervious to the elevation, the exertion or the heat.  On the other hand, I remember his grunts of complaint and sloth-like sluggishness when, at the age of 15 and 16, we tried to urge him along on other hikes.  It was good to see him return to his youthful form, but his 20-something vigor did not contrast well with my middle-aged labor.

The fact that parts of Smoky Mountain National Park are considered a temperate rain forest didn’t help.  Neither did the fact that my overlong shoe laces kept getting caught in the hooks of the opposite shoe.  Usually I caught myself, and used my poles to prevent a fall.  But the “walk” up to Clingman’s Dome was paved, and poles were useless and silly.  So when my looped lace latched onto the opposite hook, all I knew as I pitched forward and toppled over like a felled tree was that my feet were suddenly and completely hobbled together.  I made a two-point landing on my knee (a scrape any 5-year old would be proud of) and the heel of my hand.  Bewildered by super-consciousness of the slow-motion fall, I just rolled over and sat down right there on the path thinking “who the hell am I trying to kid?” 

There is a bit of a lesson here.  Yes, you can bounce back into shape, but it gets harder each time.  I swear I’m going to start a routine.

Lesson number two:  tuck the shoelaces into the shoe. 

We did about four hikes all told.  In the national forests we were usually alone, but in the park, we encountered lots of fellow hikers.  The variety of hikers never ceases to amaze me.  There are those who read the signs at the trailhead, see that it’s 5 miles in with an elevation gain of 2,600 feet, and set off without water while wearing flip flops.  Then there are the through-hikers, coming along with their 60-pound packs, bandannas, and joyless determination.  And there are the seniors — folks in their 60s and 70s who take their time and manage quite well, thank you.  The trail we hiked in the park was tough underfoot–rocky and laced with roots–and hard to get a good stride going.  I was feeling the climb and making mildly complaining noises when a pair of older ladies passed us coming down.  One had a cane and a knee brace.  I shut up.

Zip-lining helped prop up my wounded pride.  In fact, it requires little in terms of physical endurance or strength.  You can’t be shy about looking ridiculous, because you will be strapped up into a harness that allows for no residual dignity.  Next you don a huge pair of gloves with sueded palms that look a bit like fireplace gloves.  These, the guides explain, are your brakes.  What zip-lining mainly requires is that you have no fear of heights–or of gravity–good hand-eye coordination, and a reasonable degree of upper body strength.  Being able to yell like Tarzan helps. My only canopy tour injury came when I braked a little late and grabbed the cable to stop rather than using the flat of my hand under steady pressure.  It felt like my shoulder got pulled from its socket, but only briefly. 

The ultimate proof that I am not yet over the hill was our decision to take single inflatable kayaks out on the Nantahala.  Mr. NewYorker and I have tried the double kayak in the past.  For the sake of our marriage, we’ve agreed not to in the future.  The Nantahala is a dam-fed river with a daily release of water that begins around 9 am.  The release guarantees that there will be whitewater (class II and III mainly) and that the water will be cold — about 43 degrees. 

One cannot stay dry in an inflatable kayak, so we all opted for yet another assault on our dignity–wet suits.  Well worth it, though.  A man and his youngish son, perhaps nine or 10 years old, were the only others renting kayaks and heading up with us in the van to the put out spot.  They did choose  a double, and I heard the kid claim the front.   Bob, the Dad, told us that they’d never done this before (they’d gone in a group raft previously), and so they’d stay close to us if we didn’t mind. 

When we got to the put-out point, eight miles up river from the take-out point, I suggested to Bob that he might want to take the front because that was the power position — the rear man (or kid) helped steer, but the front had to dig through the holes.  “I know,” he said, “but I want to keep on eye on him.”  I understood.

Mr. NewYorker and the Abandoned One set out first and were soon into the first set of rapids and out of sight around a bend.  I let Bob and the kid go ahead of me, so I could keep an eye on them–actually I figured in a motherly way that by being in the rear I could keep an eye on everybody. 

And then I was in the moving water and whisking around the bend, only to see Bob and the kid in the water, their kayak overturned, their paddles floating rapidly downstream.  I managed to manuever to them and grab their kayak so that Bob could concentrate on the boy, who was crying and panicking at the same time.  Bob was kinda panicked, too.  “I knew this would happen,” he said.  Over and over again. 

I watched as the paddle skimmed five feet past a guy fly-fishing from the bank, and watched too as he steadfastly ignored both it and us.  Bob managed to get the kid into the kayak while he and I held onto it and I grabbed a tree branch with my other hand to keep us in from heading farther downstream.   We started to consider the next course of action.  That when the kid discovered his bravado.  “Let’s just go down without a paddle–the river isn’t that rough.” 

I bit my tongue to keep myself from saying, “Kid, there’s a reason for that saying about being up a river without a paddle.”  But Bob was faster and simply said, “NO.”   All he wanted was off that river.  

The fisherman had now left, but where he had stood was a small beaching spot on the opposite bank, about 60 feet away.   We discussed how best to get across.  I wondered whether we could go in tandem with one of us holding the kayaks together and the other paddling on just one side.  I knew I probably wasn’t strong enough, and frankly, I didn’t really want to give the only remaining paddle to Bob.

Finally we realized that the bottom wasn’t too rocky and, while the current was strong we were out of the whitewater, so Bob decided he would walk across, pushing the kayak, beach the craft and walk back to the take-out point and surrender to whomever showed up first.

I have a feeling the rest of the day wasn’t a happy one for the kid, who alternated between “I’m sure we can do it,” and “I’m sorry, bwah bwah bwah.”  Bob, I suspect, would not be angry at anyone other than himself.  He let go of his paddle, true, but all he was focused on when I got to him was holding onto the kid.

So I left Bob and kid behind and set off downriver myself wondering if I’d ever catch up to Mr. NewYorker and the Abandoned One.  That’s when I hit the first set of real Class III and wondered if  my arms would fall off before the 8 miles was over.  But, surprisingly, the arms got used to it.  And once I rounded another bend and the rapids played out into calm water, I found my two guys waiting for me.

I only got dunked once — and not in a rapid either.  In fast water I ran into some tree branches.  The kayak rode sideways up the branches and simply overturned and dumped me out.  I got a noseful of water and a nice bruise on my hip, but the Abandoned One was nearby and headed over to steady my kayak as I scrambled back in.

At the end, I looked at my hands — two matching sets of raw skin on either thumb from the paddles.  So, to recap: one blister on the foot, one scrape on the knee, one bruised heel of hand, one black-and-blue on the hip, and two stigmata on the hands.  

That was yesterday.  After we showered we headed to a stable and did the two hour trail ride with the taciturn mountain man wrangler who only spoke to me (I was on the horse behind him).  I got to hear about his whole family.  Granddaddy helped build the Fontana Dam.  His Daddy and his Uncle were in the logging business before it ended and now, like so many others, “they jest head down to Florida fer the winter.” 

Speaking of the logging business — virtually all of the forests and woods in the area are second or third growth.  There are only pockets of old growth forest left.  It’s immensely green and dense, but it’s a shadow of what it all was–40 percent of the Great Smokies were covered with American chestnuts trees before the blight hit in the early 20th century.  Today, invasive insects are sucking the life out of hemlocks and certain kinds of firs.  Although the yellow and white pines tower a couple of hundred feet in the air — straight up — and the tulip poplars also soar aloft, few of these tree are more than 80 years old.  What was there, before the logging, was mind-boggling.  Trees with circumferences so large that it took a dozen men to circle them.  Trees so large that a single tree would provide all the lumber needed to build a settler’s cabin. 

As we rode through the woods, I thought about what wasn’t there anymore and the words from the end of the Great Gatsby came into my head — the ones about the “fresh green breast of the new world …

“…Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

I thought of this, sadly.   And then my wrangler spat, and started talking about the time him and his brother decided they were going to get themselves a baby bobcat. It involved a BB gun. 

We ended the night having a wonderful dinner at Thirteen Moons restaurant in Nantahala Village.  The picture windows overlooked those blue mountains covered in trees and shrouded with mist.  And I thought about our capacity to wonder.

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Applachian Interlude

All those things that people say about the South–the terrible food, the accents, the double-wide trailers, the poor dentistry–are misconceptions, if not downright mendacity.  Although, having recently visited Appalachia, it’s pretty easy to see the source of the tropes.

Lifelongnewyorker, along with Mr. NYer and the Abandoned One,  just spent a week in Western North Carolina (yes, they upper-case the “W”), aka the Southern Highlands or Southern Appalachia.

We drove to the Atlanta airport last week and stopped just long enough for the Abandoned One to load his gear and jump into the car.  Then we headed north through Georgia and into North Carolina.

It rained most of the way, but no matter.  We stopped at a roadside farmers’ market in Georgia where no fewer than six different varieties of ripe peaches were for sale, and ordered some pulled pork BBQ sandwiches from the nearby stand.  We didn’t buy the peaches, figuring “hey, it’s high summer … there will be more ahead.”

We did not realize that the roadside stands in North Carolina would offer other specialities.  Yes, these include the ubiquitous “boiled p-nuts” found throughout the South.  I have yet to figure out why anyone thinks it’s a good idea to boil peanuts, or what they offer that unboiled peanuts don’t.  Along the roadside here you can also buy fresh pork rinds (surely an oxymoron), jellies, eggs, chicks, quails and goats.

This part of North Carolina is an intensely odd mixture of the urbane and the backwoods, the hip and the heavenly, the affluent and the poor.  It’s also nature-rich.

We began our trip with three nights in Asheville, at a lovely non-chain hotel called the Princess Anne.  A single trip to downtown confirmed the town’s rep as a center of highland hipness.  The old downtown, its 1920s-era buildings filled with restaurants, bars, yoga studios and bookstores, was peopled by 20-somethings with the tattoos, body piercings, ironic facial hair and retro-avant garde fashion sense that screams “here there be hipsters.”  Alongside these native denizens strolled grey-haired couples, he in khakis, she in white capris and a nice pastel shirt, sensible shoes, and money in their pockets.

All the urbanity and hipness in the world can’t stop religion, though.  So I held back my surprise at seeing a full-page ad proving that the United States was founded as a Christian nation dependent on Jesus Christ in the Asheville paper one morning.  The proof?  A dozen or so quotes, taken out of context, from notables from Thomas Paine (oh, the richness of that!) through John Adams and Abe Lincoln right up to Theodore Roosevelt.

That theme was repeated farther west, where local churches rented billboards proclaiming that the United States was founded on the 10 Commandments, and then thoughtfully laid an image of said commandments, inscribed on tablets, atop an American flag.

If you go north, west or south from Asheville, and you’re not in a Baptist church parking lot, you’re in either a national forest, a national park or a state park.  The Blue Ridge Parkway passes through town.  It’s an island of civilization in the midst of a natural garden.

And what an island of civilization:  Asheville is not just a haven of hipness, it’s a foodie’s town.  We had our choice of restaurants, vegan and non-vegan, and dined happily.

And while there we did what you must do while in Asheville: visit Biltmore, the largest private home in the United States (250 rooms), built by George Vanderbilt, grandson of Staten Island’s own Cornelius.

As I said, it’s virtually impossible to visit Asheville without a stop at Biltmore.  It’s more impossible to be a student of American history and not visit.  So many threads get woven together at Biltmore.  The first two generations of Vanderbilts built an empire (shipping and railroads) and accumulated two fortunes.  The next generation began to spend it.  So at once you have the legacy of one of the country’s first and greatest tycoons, the taint of robber-barony, the excesses made possible by an official government policy of laissez-faire (these were pre-income tax fortunes), and the untold stories of ruthless competition and worker exploitation that lay behind the fortunes.

On the other hand, there’s this incredible vision and talent that came together to create the estate: Richard Morris Hunt, the architect, travels with his client to Europe doing research on castles and villas before designing the French-style château; Frederick Law Olmsted is brought in to design the landscape and the gardens.  Vanderbilt bought a mountain top and tens of thousands of acres of forest.  He eventually hired Gifford Pinchot, who believed in managing forests for sustainability (i.e. not just for this current generation), to manage his forest.  In some ways, this Vanderbilt’s effort contributed to the creation eventually of the National Forest Service.

You walk through these gardens and these rooms–filled with European antiquities, Renoirs, family portraits by John Singer Sergent, porcelain, silk wallcoverings, gilded walls, fireplaces in every room, a dining room that soars seven stories up to the rooftop–and you realize that this wasn’t even the richest guy in America at the time.  But at least we have it now.

Sort of.  Biltmore is still owned by descendants of the Vanderbilts.  Their ancestors built an empire of steam; they’ve built an empire of tourism that wants to be a lifestyle empire a la Martha Stewart.  Your admission ticket buys you access to the house, garden and estate.  During your garden visit, you can shop at the nursery.  Inside the house, you can buy the audio tour or one of several “behind the scenes” guided tours.  The stables have been converted to a series of eateries and giftshops.  Drive a little further along and you come to Antler Village, with yet more restaurants, an outdoor center where you can rent bikes, arrange a rafting trip on the French Broad River (it runs through the estate), a kayak on the same, or visit an establishment called the “Biltmore Legacy.”  Part museum, part high-end gift shop, here you can learn yet more about the family enterprise and order the china, fabrics and furniture that constitute the Biltmore lifestyle.

You don’t have to be a Vanderbilt, I guess.

Anyway, after having our fill of refinement, we sought out a bit of wilderness with a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a stop at the Folk Art Center, and another fine dinner before setting out to the West.

And here’s the amazing thing.  Travel twenty miles to the west and you’re in a different world. Between the Pisgah National Forest, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and the Nantahala National Forest, most of the western part of the state is protected and natural.  It’s a land of unbelievable lushness, with scores of rivers, hundreds of waterfalls, thousands of miles of trails, and more nature than is, well, natural east of the Mississippi.

As you would expect, there are lots of vacation homes and hotels to support tourism, which is undoubtedly the area’s chief industry these days.  And yet, and yet, well … there’s plenty of evidence of an older–and impoverished–culture lying pretty near the surface.

We rented a cabin in Bryson City, a site we chose because of its proximity to a number of nature destinations AND because as a somewhat major town we figured we’d be able to find decent food.

The first night we ate at a Mexican restaurant with the charm of a bus station, and service to match (the check came along with the entrée), but the food was very good.  Little did we know how quickly downhill it would go from there.

Happy and full, we walked to the other end of the strip mall that housed the Mexican place to Fred’s, a local supermarket.  There we found several varieties of salt pork and fat back for sale, boxes of  lard but not a single tub of butter (margarine is the spread of choice), a brick of something called “liver mush,” a three-foot long tube of meat which I mistook at first for salami but then realized was ground beef, and the most anemic and paltry selection of produce that has ever been assembled in a grocery store.

Our meals in Bryson City were best when we ordered the local specialty, buffalo burger.   But after a day hiking in the woods, tubing a river, kayaking or ziplining, it filled you up, even if every menu choice was grilled or fried, and nary a fresh vegetable was to be seen.

The lowpoint came after a day in the national park.  We passed through Cherokee, the chief town in the Cherokee reservation — a tiny parcel of land that these American Indians managed to hold onto despite the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the immense popular will of the (white) American people to take it all away.  Not all Cherokee traveled the Trail of Tears; some stayed here, but no doubt shed a few tears of their own.

The homes are rusted out trailers or run-down cabins with washers on the porches.  The main drag is lined with souvenir shops, and old motels from the 50s may now be out of business, but their names (e.g. The Warrior, complete with neon moving hatchet) can still make you wince.

Billboards told us that there were Indian casinos, including a Harrah’s, but these must have been tucked up parklike roads.  We didn’t see them.  We’d had a long day in the park, with a couple of hikes, and were hungry.  We knew Bryson City didn’t offer much, so when we saw the sign for Paul’s, a non-chain restaurant with a wide porch, we figured it looked promising.  The sign noted that it was “Indian-owned” and we fell, hook line and white guilt sinker.

We checked the menu–that night’s specials included rabbit’s leg.  This we took as a sure sign of authenticity, so we sat at a table on the porch.

Let’s just say it went downhill from there.  The Abandoned One came back from the bathroom with the surprising news that this place had a higher health score than any place even in Asheville, where the highest we’d seen was a 98.5 rating.  Paul’s had a 102.5, which we thought odd, because we had assumed it was a 100-point scale.

They served no alcohol. In retrospect I suspect that was the first sign.  Or perhaps it was the notation on the back of the menu, “Menu designed by Sysco.”  Food was also designed by Sysco–packaged dressings, imitation bacon bits in the salad that I’m sure were outlawed by the FDA in 1972, barbecued ribs that had never seen a grill.

Midway through the meal, a mangy sad-looking dog appeared on the porch and settled next to our table. Eventually the proprietor came out and attempted to shoo him away.  Frankly, we’re kind of surprised they didn’t take out a shotgun and shoot him.

The dog gone, we soldiered through the meal.  As I gamely took another bite, I glanced at the floor.  There, next to my chair, was a large toenail clipping.

‘Nuff said.  Probably too much.

Lest you think this was not a great vacation, well, that’s not the case.  We hiked, we tubed, we rode horses (our wrangler, who spoke only to me on the two-hour ride, also reached into his pocket every so often for his can of chaw), we rode the class II and III rapids of the Nantahala on inflatable kayaks called Duckies, and we went zip-lining.

We didn’t see many squirrels.  Long since stewed, I suppose.