BLOG #8, SERIES #7
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
AUTUMN IN APPALACHIA
UNEXPECTED SPLENDOR – Part 4
February 24, 2016
We now come to the conclusion of our Appalachian Autumn journey.
After regretfully having to leave the Greenbriar, we jagged up Highway 19 to Hillsboro, and then a few more miles to Pearl Buck’s birthplace. Even though it wasn’t open for tours, we were able to walk around it and take photos. Pearl Buck, the only American to be honored by both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Since I have anthologized a number of her stories, this was a very special stop for me.
Then it was on down the river canyon, then up and up to Pipestem Resort State Park on the canyon rim of the Bluestone River Gorge. After checking in and enjoying the spectacular view while having dinner, we relaxed by the fireplace. Next morning, we took the tramway over 1100 feet down to Long Branch Lake. The lodge proved most difficult to leave.
A short distance away brought us to one of America’s most spectacular bridges, the New River Gorge Bridge: third highest (876 feet) bridge in the United States, 3030 feet length, and longest open steel arch in the world. From the Visitor Center we had a stunning view both of the bridge and the canyon. The bridge is a favorite launching platform for daring bungee-jumpers.
Underneath the bridge is of course the fabled New River, said to be the world’s oldest river. The three intersecting national park gorges are home to some of the greatest whitewater in America. In the fall, when the up-river dams unleash their deep reservoirs upon the canyons below, rafters and kayakers from around the world come here to compete.
Then it was on through peak Autumn colors, as we slowly meandered down the curvy Blue Ridge Parkway to Boone, NC; then next day it was on to Asheville, a retirement and tourist mecca (9,000,000 people visit the town each year). Our first stop was an old hotel that wasn’t expected to survive, the historic Grove Park Inn, the brain-child of E. W. Grove, creator of Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, that once outsold Coca Cola.
The Inn opened in 1913 to instant acclaim. A crew of about 400 men had accomplished what was considered impossible: constructing the majestic landmark in only twelve months. At an opening dinner, William Jennings Bryan declared that it was “built for the ages.” Regulars included stars of the age such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Houdini, Will Rogers, and George Gershwin—as well as ten presidents: from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama. But like all hotels, sooner or later, age caught up with it. Just in time, it was saved by the Dallas husband/wife team of Charles and Elaine Sammons in 1998 – 2002; $45,000,000 was spent on restoration and expansion. Today, Omni Resorts has elevated it into the highest echelon of world-class hotels.
It was a beautiful morning on Asheville’s Sunset Ridge, where the inn is perched with a commanding view of Asheville. Feellng it would be the perfect place for a meal, we waited an hour and a half until a table opened on the outside terrace. It was well worth the wait.
Next we toured the Thomas [Clayton] Wolfe home in downtown Asheville. Wolfe was born and raised in Asheville, and thanks to books such as Look Homeward, Angel; Of Time and the River; The Web and the Rock; You Can’t Go Home Again; and the short story collection, The Hills Beyond, he is today considered one of America’s great novelists. Since I had studied him in depth, this was a real serendipity to be able to see this museum-home. And we were incredibly lucky to have as a tour guide a young scholar who was passionately excited about the Wolfe story. As she led us into room after room, she brought the family, boarders, townspeople, to life before our eyes. By the time she finished, we felt we knew them..
Next we visited the historic Riverside Cemetery, in which are buried Asheville’s two most famous sons, Wolfe and William Sydney Porter (O. Henry). Both graves are prominently pointed out in nearby signs. But our real serendipity was finding a mother and little daughter Astria hovering over a tombstone. The little girl was lovingly running her hands over some coins they’d just attached to the stone. When we came up to them, we could see a long line of coins–unfortunately, so many coins had been stolen they were unable to bring them up to one dollar and eighty-seven cents, all the money Della had left, as immortalized in one of the greatest Christmas stories ever written: O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” a story I included in my own Christmas in My Heart© story anthology series. At any rate, this mother and daughter’s life-long gift of love is tending the grave of a man buried here in 1910, 106 years ago, and on each visit, bringing the coin total back up to one dollar and eighty-seven cents. What dedication!
Then it was time to move on, traveling the most spectacular stretch of Autumn splendor of the entire two weeks: the almost unknown and unsung “Cherahola Skyway, undulating up and down between 5,000 and 7,000 feet in elevation (the best colors showing up between 4,200′ and 5,400′. Eventually we left North Carolina and descended into Tennessee, encountering the rain that had mercifully held back until then, at Fall Creek Falls. Ordinarily this park would have been spectacular too in Autumn but, in the rain, it was muted. Then it was on to Murfreesboro, concluding our several thousand miles on the back-roads of America. We will never forget the memories we made there.