Monday, December 19, 2005

August 2005 Trip: NC Mountains Trip

We leave Greensboro on Friday evening, after work. We take my car, since the gas prices are so high nowadays: $2.52 at Sam’s (I’m sure we’ll laugh 20 years from now). We head West to the Blue Ridge parkway, and our destination is this dot on the map (literally): Celo, NC, or thereabouts: we have the name of Celo Inn for our host, but the address of Burnsville, NC… so…somewhere in the Mountains is as close as we wanna be.

We stop on the way and eat the last familiar, “normal” dinner of a Wendy’s chicken sandwich with a side of crispy fries and some drink that comes with the combo: we have no idea this is the end of the normalcy for the weekend and we’re heading towards the unknown.

After a long and busy ride on I40 West towards the Smokies, and some winding mountain roads, after that, we get to Celo Inn right after dusk. Nancy(the Innkeeper) told Jeff over the phone that our room was to be the “yellow one” and the bathroom was to be across the hallway, also yellow: so, we unload the trunk, and try to find out where all the people that must have driven them up there are, but upon pausing, we hear nothing but crickets and the very distant noise of US-80 cars driving by. We walk up the pebble driveway, up some stairs towards the inn, under an old wood sign that reads simply “Celo Inn”, we read the “cats live outside” sign on the main door and smile and “aawww…”, we enter the quiet lobby, looking for some sign on human presence. Again, we pause and try to listen for a noise. Nothing but our heavy breaths and crickets, and maybe frogs in the nearby stream.

On the old wooden and heavy table in the lobby we find a sign that lets us know the innkeepers are away, will be back around 10PM and if we’d like breakfast to put our names and order on the signup sheet on the table. We decide we’re not going to commit to breakfast, since it’s between 8 and 9 am. We decide to walk up and find the “yellow room” we were promised: up to the second floor we go (still no sign of humans, no noise…), and we sure enough find a yellow door of what seems to be a hotel room open: we walk in and slightly surprised we’re starting to familiarize with the surroundings were going to share for 2 days : the room has “collapsed” ceilings, as in what I call “attic rooms”, but as in what’s more known as a dormer room; it’s tiny, since the bed, dresser a coffee table and a rocking chair take up pretty much the entire floor space, with hardly any room for us to stand!

We’re quiet, and just looking around: no air conditioning unit, the thermostat-looking thing on the wall tells us we can have heat, but there is nothing about air, or “cool” marked on it; there is no tv set not a phone. We did see a square white stand up fan that would hopefully keep up cool in the NC hot and humid summer night. We realize we’re literally away from the big wide world, and for 2 days we’re just going to have each other and the mountains to entertain us. There was no lock on the door, either, and Jeff asked how is that safe? I just said lazily: “you hope it is and not worry about it.” He didn’t think I was too convincing. I have been to Celo Inn before, but these details escaped me when describing the inn to Jeff who is now looking at me with a “where the hell did you bring us, woman” look on his face???

I did tell him that Burnsville is in the county of Yancey and that would be a dry one, so we did bring a cooler with beer. We checked the bathroom across the way, and sure enough it had a yellow door, and all you could expect in it: luckily, running and hot water as well. Upon seeing that Jeff realized that not all hope is gone: he can at least enjoy the shower in the morning and the privacy of his own bathroom.

We opened up some beer, and started walking the grounds. We did run into another couple who had another yellow room at the end of the hallway, but we didn’t converse: the quiet and peace were contagious, obviously, and we just respected that: we whispered to each other and hardly made any eye contact with anyone we saw for the next 2 days.

That night, city geeks that we are, we both pulled our laptops from the bags and started writing, or playing computer games. Drinking beer to unwind, of course, too…We were hot, and hot we stayed pretty much the entire night.

We woke up the next day, avid for a shower and some air conditioning. We knew we had to drive to the town of Burnsville for the latter, and that was at least 25 minutes away on the mountain roads of US 80 and I believe US 184? Or 191? Somewhere in there…

We drove to the town, admiring the small, quaint houses beading the highways, the mountains still smoking from the morning fog, and the lazy traffic along the streets. As we have learned the night before in all the quietness, and the laid-back-ness at the inn, time here is lived at another pace: there is no need to hurry, the sun will still rise in the East the next morning, the crickets and the frogs will be holding their concerts at night, every night, and the mountains will continue to smoke in the morning as they’ve done for ages, so why rush?!

We came to a sign that pointed us towards the downtown of Burnsville and after a short, maybe 2 mile ride we got in the heart of the town: old looking mountain little shops were outlining the 2 lane road that was cutting through he middle of it. We decided “Mountain Top” was a good name for a homemade breakfast, and we parked on the side of the road, and went in to have a huge meal of ham and cheese omelet, bacon, hushpuppies and biscuits, coffee and orange juice for about $4 a piece. After the breakfast we walked the streets in search of the taste of the town and mountain souvenirs…

Slow walking locals … college students part-timing in souvenir shops … dogs at the front doors of “general stores” … artsy overpriced shops of local artists …a couple of restaurants with odd hours (only open 11-2 for lunch, or open 5-8 for dinner) … 3 very Southern, middle aged ladies speaking about a common neighbor that just got married, and “oh, she’s so tiny and fine, and oh, he’s so chunky, but you figure she always liked chunky …look at all her boyfriends”… an architecturally Swiss or German church in the middle of the town … a police car … and clouds gathering …

A couple of souvenirs later, and a handful of shots, we hurried towards Mount Mitchell, the tallest mount East of the Mississippi river. By the time we got to the car and drove maybe 100 yards the rain started pouring… We took a joy ride through the mountains, and stopped for lunch in the small (and that is an understatement!) town of Little Switzerland: we entered the Little Switzerland Café, and on the menu we found out that the town was established somewhere in the early 1800’s by miners, and today it “boasts” a fire station, 12 shops, 6 restaurants and 2 hotels, a church I believe… It was one of those settlements that is clustered around the main street that cuts through it, and if you’re driving through, and decide to sigh and close your eyes, you missed it all together! Not even 100 yards long.

Amazing, to me, how wild views, cold streams, plenty of trout, breathtaking sunsets in the Smokeys didn’t urge some developers to overbuild, commercialize and practically destroy the peace and wilderness of this land, like it so happens with most of our national parks nowadays!

Being a mountain child myself, I have always prayed that mountains will always whisper so humans may never notice them, and leave them alone, to the wild, where they belong! My prayers were answered, for Little Switzerland it seemed, anyway. We had the special of the day: hearty home made chicken and noodle soup, with all grain bread. Just enough for a midday snack. And being in a different county, a beer to go with it, just for extra-fuel.

After an hour or so ride through he mountains and after the rain went away, we got to Mount Mitchell. This was our second attempt ever to climb to the top and see the views: not lucky the first time, when the rain was settled and stubborn to stay: this time there were clouds, but there was sun, too…

People with dogs of all sizes, and kids, too, and all mountain gear you can dream of. We felt above the skies on top of the world. A family called home and sang happy birthday to their brother and son, from the top of the observation tour. That was awkward, but they didn’t seem to care.

We stopped at the restaurant just below the top of the mountain, and had a cup of coffee (again, for fuel) and some iced water. Their air conditioning didn’t seem to function either, and the air in the lodge was heavy with humidity. The log cabin neighboring the restaurant, we found out, was home of 11 or 12 people that come there for the summer to work in the Mount Mitchell Park. They come from as far as 8 hours away to be in the mountains and attend to visitors. The house looked a little bigger than a double wide, made of logs and complete with a DirectTV antenna on the roof! I guess civilization tried to creep in every way it could.

We headed back home, and to some peace and quiet, and crickets again… We realized when we got back that the day had been indeed tiresome. I was not at all convinced that it had been the day, but just the stress accumulated over the week, in a stressful city and a stressful job.

After the fresh air and the quiet majesty of the mountains, after the slow moving people of the heights, we just now realized our lives do need to slow down some: we became more aware of the speed we’re used to, and be came to a screeching halt. We knew we had to drive back to Burnsville for dinner, and although hungry we just didn’t want to move.

Jeff took the rocking chair, and I took the bed: and we were lazily sipping a cold beer and hardly even talking… For an hour, we just let ourselves absorb the day. We tried to go to dinner at a close by restaurant, also, on US 80, at the foot of Black Mountain, called Albert’s, an authentic German restaurant that I remembered from my previous visit there, but they were booked for the night.

And thus we knew we had to drive back to the downtown area. I had to have trout, and fried too, since it’s my favorite fish and pretty much the only thing I ever eat in the mountains! We went to this family owned inn called Nu-Wray Fireside Grill: a colonial house, turned into a B&B and restaurant with a porch full of rocking chairs that reminded me of Cracker Barrel (I know, not as cheesy though).

The trout was delicious! A whole fish, de-boned and fried, fishy and fresh, served with a baked potato, steamed carrots and steamed cauliflower with “cheesy sauce”…. It was all out of this world! The service was outstanding, too: the mother and 2 daughters, it seemed, were the wait staff and they ALL waited on us, and the grandmother was the cook! The dining room had probably 8 or 10 4 chair tables out of which only 3 others were occupied when we got there and we were left alone, towards the end of our meal.

The closeness, and intimacy of these places makes you feel at home, and make you realize that the world is indeed small… You feel like your own person there, not swallowed in the big traffic of the city, amongst thousands of other lonely passers by like yourself.

Life has purpose and sense there and you have plenty of time to acknowledge that too, because you don’t have to rush towards your next chore! You just literally “take your time” and savor the day… while actually having the peace to "listen".

Happy, full and tired, we headed back home, and after reading a few pages from our books we fell asleep early, most definitely with a tingle in our feet and a smile on our faces. Our batteries were slowly recharging now… We needed them full by the end of the second day. The crickets were the perfect lullaby, too…Them, and the buzz of the fan…

The next morning, we did sign up for the breakfast at the inn, because we knew we had to get an early start to be able to enjoy more of the mountains. We took showers, and walked downstairs to the dining room: Mexican tiles on the floor, old antique furniture against the walls, huge wooden barn doors lead into the kitchen, and fresh mountain flowers on each of the 6 tables welcomed us. Nancy, also welcomed us, calling us “the Ghost Guests”, because she never talked to us, no one in fact talked to us over the weekend, and no one really knew we were in fact there… She said she figured we were, just because our door was closed, and she leaves it open at all times…

She started the breakfast with a bowl of fresh fruit, and fresh coffee, followed by a home made bacon-egg and grits “real” meal. Everything tasted greasy and thus delicious! We were full, and happy once more. We paid the whole remainder of the bill, said our good bye’s and please come back’s, and left as quietly as we came on Friday night.

Again, the driveway full of Japanese cars, but no people: we were starting to have a ‘Sixth Sense’ type of feeling all of a sudden: were WE the ghosts?? Or the people that allegedly drove all the cars, but we never saw? Hhhmmm…

We headed towards Grandfather Mountain for the first stop of the day, to continue our wanderings through the NC Mountains. The day was gorgeous! Poofy clouds here and there were resting on top of mountaintops like winter hats! The air was clear and sharp, one of those days when you just know the pictures are going to turn out great. The air was cool and fresh. Humidity almost died overnight, because we felt probably the first sniff of fall in the air… Springs were washing mountain rocks into the roads, and church parking lots were full… It was a happy day!

After an hour or so drive from the Inn to Grandfather Mountain, at the foot of it, when we pay the $14 fee, we find out that the wind is now blowing at the top with a constant speed of 56 mph, and they’ve registered gusts of up to 78 mph and 83 mph that day. Jeff’s eyes pop, and he asks the man why don’t they close the bridge then? The man politely says with a smile : “No, Sir, we close the bridge when we have 65 mph constant winds or higher. Right now, we’re open”…. Jeff thinks : “Oh, crap!!! Great then!” but doesn’t say anything.

I am thinking: “How cool!!! The mile high swinging bridge will be even more interesting in such a wind! All right then! Let’s go!” – but I don’t say anything either…We drive up, on the rocky, very steep roads, where the speed limit is 10mph at times, and my only fear is the little Echo we’re driving might be blown away! At he top I remember the man telling me my sun glasses might be blown away off my head, so I fasten them on my nose, then change shoes, to be able to climb the rocks, and step out of the car with nothing but my camera around my neck. We go towards the swinging bridge, people roaming around woo-ing and aaaww-ing around us. The view into the valley was picture perfect: no clouds, no fog, nothing but crisp mountain air and a flood of sun into all the valleys and lakes around us! And wind! Lots and lots of it!!! You felt like you had to scream for the person next to you to hear you. We all stood with legs apart, to acknowledge our surroundings, for a firmer foothold.

The sign on the bridge tells us that there are not to be more than 40 people at one time on he bridge and I’m thinking, looking around : Who’s here to count 40 people? No one, of course… I guess the trust in common sense is huge around these parts… We’re also told to be very careful while climbing the rocks: we are on the “craggiest” mountain in the Blue Ridge and it’s very hazardous to try to climb he peaks…

There are 2 peaks once you’re at the top, both rocky and bare, and in between them, a mile high up in the air from the sea level, the swinging bridge… Jeff is nervous; he laughs with fear that he’s not crossing. I grab his hand firmly and drag him after me, telling him there are 4 and 5 year olds around us that are crossing the bridge in a laughter, and shame on him! He’s laughing to kill the stress he’s in, and crossing, without looking down!

It’s windy all right, but despite the wind the bridge is not really moving much… It’s made of steal, and with not so tall railings, and I keep wondering how people don’t just jump over the railings more often? Or maybe we don’t hear about it?

Once on the second peak everything is quiet, and calm. We can hear the wind, but we don’t feel like we’re going to take off the ground anymore. We climb the rocks, take pictures, and head back. I stop in the middle of the bridge, to take some shots of the precipice, and to look at what the bottom of the bridge must be looking at every day, for may years now…Jeff keeps going towards the safe side, not thinking that looking down in the middle of a 80 mph gust at 1 mile up in the air is way cool…

I find him relieved on the other side of the cliff. We visit the small museum at the top that tells you a bit of the history of the bridge, the park, and gives you pictures of famous people that made it to the top; including Forrest Gump, who has a bend in the road named after him.

We head to the mini-zoo on he mountain, lower altitude, and we laugh at the goofy bears begging for more peanuts, and the playful otters, and we’re melting after the handsome cougars, and keep a moment of silence, as always near the bald eagle exhibit. To me they keep centuries worth of secrets! They are the most native American creature there are; they’ve seen it all, and are witnesses to ages for history… They don’t bother talking, although they could. They lead by example and advise us just to sit, be quiet, and listen to the wind, and watch the movement of clouds and passing of the seasons. And then, only then, we’ll understand the secret of life. But first we must learn to be quiet! And have good eyes to see…

After the zoo, we continue the descent towards the bottom. We’re about to leave the quiet and peace and serenity all behind, and head back into he “real world”. I feel lonely and regretful…

We head on the Parkway towards Blowing Rock…. The wilderness of the day (and of the weekend) is left behind, and we’re slowly sliding into the “civilized” city world: traffic lights, stores, cars and lots of them, Harleys, are welcoming us in Blowing Rock, a little after lunch time.

We stop for a late lunch of trout (of course) and catfish, and we decide we too can be tourists for half of a day. And we browse the souvenir shops, stop to talk to strange owners of small dogs, and listen to an awfully sounding Jewish, it seems, singer in the park.

The sun is hot and the asphalt almost melting: the cool wind of the woods is definitely left on the Parkway, and the town is overheated, overpopulated and noisy! No crickets …We’ve arrived back to our daily world…and I have to admit, I became kind of sad. Even if the batteries were charged, I wouldn’t have known it at that point: I couldn’t hear myself think from all the noise! Back to the world of real people. The ghosts are left behind… But it’s nice to know they’re only about 3 hours away from here…


Anonymous said...

I know it has been 3 years since this trip to the beautiful NC mountains. I live near the Celo Inn you stayed at. I am an artist. Thank you for sharing your trip with the "web world". It is wonderful to hear peoples thoughts and likes and dislikes about our area. Yours was wonderfully written. I personally have never gone to the Celo Inn, but have always been curious about the place. I might just wander over and check it out. I love these mountains, and the slow pace of life here. I am so glad you had a good time. I hope you get my comments even though it was 3 years ago.Please come back and enjoy it again. said...

I know it has been 3 years since this trip to the beautiful NC mountains. I live near the Celo Inn you stayed at. I am an artist. Thank you for sharing your trip with the "web world". It is wonderful to hear peoples thoughts and likes and dislikes about our area. Yours was wonderfully written. I personally have never gone to the Celo Inn, but have always been curious about the place. I might just wander over and check it out. I love these mountains, and the slow pace of life here. I am so glad you had a good time. I hope you get my comments even though it was 3 years ago.Please come back and enjoy it again.