Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Spring In the Blue Ridge Moutains

I am disappointed in myself. I had hoped to post to this blog everyday while I was on the trip to western North Carolina. The three-hour time change and lack of WiFi made writing and posting more difficult than expected. So, here’s the recap of the week in the mountains.

Day 1. Took the redeye from Los Angeles to Atlanta, grabbed the rental car and was on the road by 7:00 am. We stopped for breakfast at a Waffle House. First time at a Waffle House, even though they are on almost every other corner in that part of the country. It was hardy and filling and the service was friendly.

I was born and raised in the west, so the opulent beauty of the southeast always astounds me. As we began the climb into the southern Blue Ridge Mountains, the lush beauty struck me. Even though the large deciduous trees were just beginning to leaf, the delicate Dogwoods were in bloom and wildflowers were popping up along the roadside.

We were staying in Sapphire, a small ski resort in Jackson County in southern North Carolina, which is an area known for its waterfalls. Although we had only dosed on the plane, we decided a hike was in order to see Glen Falls. We made it to the top third of the falls, but lack of sleep and being completely out of shape prevented us from descending the full 1.6 miles to the bottom. It was lovely and once again, we were revived and excited about the upcoming week.

Day 2. Today we headed for Ashville, home to the Biltmore, known as the ‘largest home in America.’ We didn’t visit the Biltmore, but wanted to spend the day taking in the rest of the town. It’s a city of about 70,000. We didn’t have an agenda, so decided to start from the visitor’s bureau, which was also the chamber of commerce. It was a wonderful building in the heart of town. They offered trolley site seeing tours, which we decided to take. The tour lasted an hour and half, but you could get off and on at the various stops. Our tour guide was a wonderful man named Kenneth, who had written books about the area. You could tell he was delighted in sharing the wealth of the history of the town.

We left the tour for a detour of the art district down by the river. Artists took up residence in the old abandon warehouses that dotted the wharf. We were only able to sample a small block that included potters, weavers, glassworks, woodworking and traditional paint on canvas artists. Everyone was friendly and delighted to stop and talk about his or her art. After a bite to eat at a small café, we hopped back on the trolley to finish the tour.

Ashville is a delightful town, combining a wonderful blend of old south and new world. The downtown had been renovating and we would have liked more time to look around.

Even though it was the longer way home, we decided to hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Built as a WPA project during the depression, the parkway stretches from Virginia to Tennessee. Having grown up in the mountains of Colorado, I am familiar with the hairpin curves as one rises and descends through the mountains. It was a delightful surprise to discover that once you get to the parkway, you actually stay on the ridge. One second you’re looking at the mountains and valleys to the north, the next to the ones on the south. Overlooks appear every quarter mile or so, allowing for better viewing of the panoramic landscape that stretches for miles in every direction.

At first, I was disappointed the trees had not sprouted their leaves yet. As we peered through the branches at the landscape beyond, it occurred to me that in a few weeks the leaves on the branches will make visibility impossible. There was a tradeoff. The hills were still brown, dotted with the occasional evergreen, but you could see clearly in every direction. Don’t get me wrong, it was a spectacular sight in any season. I can only imagine the bumper-to-bumper traffic that occurs at the peak of the fall colors.

Day 3 – We woke up to a gray and drizzly day. As is common on most of trips, we take a time to look at real estate. We were surprised at the development in the mountains area where we stayed. The little town of Highlands ten miles to the west boasted condominiums on the lake with a sales price of 900 thousand dollars. Way too rich for these Californians.

We decided to spend the day at a lower altitude with hopefully lower prices. We are interested in finding a new area to retire, but not necessarily a retirement community. The tour guide in Ashville recommended we visit Hendersonville, a small community to the south.

All the towns we passed through were charming. Hendersonville had a small downtown area that had been completely renovated. It boasted with planters filled with tulips and pansies in front of refurbished storefronts over a hundred years old.

We toured through some interesting new housing developments. We found an area just outside of town where the homes were clustered into one lever four-plexes. We liked the layout and design, but I was concerned about the lack of outdoor privacy.

One of the reasons we always look at homes when we travel is how it increases the knowledge of what we want. The more I struggle with keeping landscaping at our home in California, the more I’m interested in finding a place without yard work. I still love to be outside and would like outdoor privacy, however, it is nice to look at the different options available. With each tour, we learn more about what we want in a new home.

Day 4. The community center where we stayed provided an advertising rack for local businesses that cater to tourists. I looked through it our first day and was delighted to find a brochure for the John C Campbell Folk School. Established in 1925 as a way to preserve the music and culture of the people of the Appalachian region, the school draws instructors and students from all over the world to study and preserve folk art.

The school is nestled in a beautiful valley a few miles east of Murphy, North Carolina. Tucked in the hills of the southern Blue Ridge Mountains, the school rests among a grove of trees. The number of buildings for the school is actually larger than the town of Brasstown where it’s located.

We arrived in the late morning, took a tour of the museum that tells the story of the school and the people of the Appalachian Mountains. We were invited to visit classrooms and got to three before the lunch break. The classrooms were small with less than twelve people.

In a woodworking class, we were greeted by John surrounded by five students who were to learn how to make and play a flute. Many of the students had been to the school before and they welcomed us to the class. As they were shortly taking a break, John was more than eager to have new people in attendance as he leaned back in his chair to tell us the legend of the beginning of music.

We also visited a woodworking class where students were making a shaker bench from hand. When we passed through, they were forming the base of the seat. In the weaving class, a group of advanced students were working on tiny looms to create a sampler of patterns from the area.

We were disappointed we weren’t able to visit more classes before lunch, but were delighted to discover the school. We acquired a huge catalog of classes for 2009. They last for extended weekends to a full week. Many classes are centered on music, both making and playing instruments. If it could be considered folk art, they most likely have a class for it.

Day 5. It was a culture shock, to say the least, to go from the folk school to the Biltmore the next day. As we drove to Asheville, more trees were popping leaves, and wildflowers of every color dotted the roadside.

The Biltmore is touted as the largest home in the United States and it doesn’t disappoint. As one of the most visited homes in the country, it is all very organized as hundreds of people descend daily to view the house and surrounding estate.

Built at the turn of the twentieth century by George Vanderbilt, the Biltmore is a testament to the opulent wealth of the guided age. Guests receive a guidebook and are allowed to tour the estate at their own pace. Audio guides and special tours are also available for an additional charge.

While the house is impressive, it is definitely crowded, so I enjoyed to freedom to roam through the gardens and conservatory. We were a couple of weeks early for the azalea garden, although there were a few plants that were starting to bud. Instead, we feasted on hundreds of tulips that were in bloom.

The Biltmore is the primary draw to the western North Carolina Mountains and is certainly necessary for everyone’s list.

Day 6. We elected to take a tour for the day, which consisted of a bus ride to Bryson City and then the train ride into the Nantahala Gorge. I found it ironic that only a month before I had ridden the train with my grandchildren into the Grand Canyon.

We had driven every day since our arrival to the mountains, so it was nice to have a break and let someone else take charge. The train follows the banks of the Nantahala River. It’s a gentle ride through lush mountainsides. We could see rafters on the river below. Although, the rapids seemed tame, on a cool spring day, I wouldn’t want to fall into a stream of melted snow.

While I thought the scenery of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad was prettier than the one leading to the Grand Canyon, there’s no comparison in destination. As we reached the end of the line, I asked when we’d be arriving at the gorge, only to find out we were already in it. No one has ever looked over the Grand Canyon and remarked, “Is that all there is?”

Day 7. It was our last day in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Once again, we jump in the car. Today we stayed close to home, as we drove less than twenty miles to visit some of the numerous waterfalls that dot the area. Signage was a bit of a problem as we had to backtrack at one point, because the turnoff was missing a road sign. With that said, we saw five waterfalls, all within a short drive of where we were staying.

Cashiers Sliding Rock is a swimmers delight in summer as people can cascade down the rocks into a large pond. The Chatooga is also a destination for swimmers and fishermen in summer, but on this day we were alone. We ended the day at the impressive Whitewater Falls, the tallest falls in the eastern US.

The western North Carolina mountain area was some of the most beautiful county I’ve seen. It wasn’t the hillbilly land I expected. Huge homes, worth millions dot the hillsides, but much of the charm still of the area remains. Everyone we met was gracious and friendly. We were never treated as intruders, but always as guests in this distinctive and diversified area.

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