After the Cabin – A Trip to Switzerland

Well, it’s Little Switzerland, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Lest anyone be concerned we somehow managed to weasel our way into Europe despite our perceived status as coronavirus carriers. No such luck. But Little Switzerland seemed about as far away from the plague-ridden swamp of Florida in late July 2020 as the actual country would have been.

Following our idyllic two days without electricity in the cabin on Sandy Mush Bald – one of the most beautiful places we’ve been and our explorations of the “balds” – it was time to venture north. Even though our summits were severely curtailed this year, there was a chance for one – Mt. Mitchell – the highest mountain east of the Mississippi at a whopping 6,684 feet. It was an easy (if seriously winding) drive from Asheville along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which, despite its reputation for summer traffic jams was practically deserted this year.

We’d planned to do the “easy” hike up to the summit, only to find it was closed, so there was no alternative but the “harder” “Old Mitchell Trail.” We had a quick picnic lunch at the welcome area which normally houses a restaurant – needless to say, this year it was closed. By now our daughters A and S  were quite tired of the picnic food we had lugged from Florida and had been dutifully eating for the last several days, and were questioning their parents’ fondness for non refrigerated cheeses (read Laughing Cow), not to mention the other dietary staples of life without electricity (read dried salami). A’s boyfriend N, however, was quite polite and ate his salami and laughing cow sandwich without comment.

In any event, we all ate enough to fortify ourselves for the couple hours hike to the top. It was a very beautiful trail, a bit too crowded for my taste, but had some fun moments of easy clambering up and down some steep cliffs and rocks. But the Razers Edge at Katahdin in Maine – where we were supposed to have been in a pre-pandemic world – it wasn’t.

Regardless, a good time was had by all, and it was time to journey on along the rhododendron-bordered parkway to our next stop – the Skyline Village Inn in Little Switzerland. J found the place on the internet (where else) and it was reasonably priced. Things we didn’t know about it:

  • The inn has been around for decades, backs up to a cave, and was used as a site for transporting moonshine during prohibition;
  • It’s a well known spot for motorcyclists and has a special open air garage for parking bikes;
  • The rooms are small but are wood paneled through and through, including the ceilings. I’ve never seen more wood in one room in my life, short of a log cabin.
  • There’s a great game room with darts, pool, and an elderly mannequin sitting at the bar dressed in her motorcycle garb; and
  • We were the only non bikers staying at the entire place.

And the other thing – the Skyline Village Inn offered one of the best meals I’ve had recently, which was enhanced by the view of the mountains from the outdoor patio where we ate.  There were only a few items on the menu and steak was the order of the day. Cooked by the owner on a grill on the patio – just as if you were at a neighbor’s cookout, the steak was accompanied by a potato salad that I can only describe as  a deconstructed baked potato, sour cream and bacon included. The green broad beans tasted like they’d just been picked from the garden. And the three desserts offered included homemade strawberry pie. Goes to show that when you offer a few items and prepare them remarkably well, you create a remarkable meal.

Breakfast was equally good and gave us the strength we needed for a complicated day. A, boyfriend N, and S were driving south to Oak Island, North Carolina south of Wilmington to open up the AirBnB beach house we’d rented for the week. We were driving north and east to pick up my parents in Durham and then immediately turn south again to meet everyone in Oak Island. Mountains, meet beach. It was time for the next leg.

A Cabin in the Woods – Sandy Mush Bald, N.C.

Once it became clear that our permits to camp in Baxter State Park and climb Katahdin in Maine were going to linger, unused, in my desk drawer – thanks to the fact that Floridians are generally unwelcome in many spots – a Plan B was in order. Where could we go for a few days before venturing to the North Carolina beach that would allow at least a semblance of adventure?

J stumbled across a website with the improbable name of Hipcamp – an Airbnb type application for those who are interested in staying in yurts, tents, RVs, tiny houses – basically anything that might cause most people to ask, but “why?” It seemed to list the perfect spot for J, me, daughter S, daughter A and boyfriend N – a cabin with no electricity reached via a steep uphill hike of a couple of miles. Just the thing, we said! Well, J and I said. The girls were not enthralled with the lack of electricity and N wisely made no comment.

After a logistical puzzle that involved an automobile adventure from Florida to Asheville, plane flights from Austin, Texas and Providence, Rhode Island, and a rendezvous in an Aldi’s parking lot where A and N met us with a rental car, we organized ourselves and all our mountain gear into the appropriate back packs to head off for adventure. There’s something inherently difficult in packing for both beach and mountains.

The parking area for the starting point of our hike was about 45 minutes from Asheville, past lots of large estates that ultimately morphed into much more modest dwellings. Eventually we ended up at our turnoff where a large homemade sign announced that we were about to start a 24 mile drive on “The Rattler.” The road lived up to its name but after miles of literally hair raising turns we found the mailbox that marked a small parking area. I had worried about leaving things in the cars for two nights – but we were so far in the proverbial boondocks there was no need to fear.

The trek to the cabin lived up to its reputation, at least as memorialized in the online reviews. It was seriously uphill; probably 1500 to 2000 feet of altitude gain. J and I were carrying about 30 pounds apiece (started to wonder about bringing beer at a certain point!), but we persevered nonetheless, and it felt so good to be away from Covid and the generally sad state of the world for a while.

Rhododendrons were in full bloom and wildflowers edged the trail, interspersed with meadows of tall wavy grass. It reminded me a little of the rhododendrons on the lower part of the Everest Base Camp trek, but instead of splashes of fuscia, these were white, fading into a pale pink.

Once we reached the cabin, our hosts, a young couple who lived in two small rooms on the bottom level of the cabin greeted us. Their goal was ultimately to farm, and they had several ambitious looking gardens planted at the 4500 foot or so elevation. They also had an absolutely adorable part Siamese cat, Kasmar, who provided an endless source of entertainment.

The cabin was originally a 19th century barn. Its owner was a 99 year old, former pilot and physician to coal miners who had bought up old barns and similar structures in the Appalachians and turned them into rental cabins. The downstairs had a kitchen and living area and one of the cleanest bathrooms I’ve ever seen. An old claw foot tub with a shower, and plank floors that absorbed water with no need for any mat. Despite the lack of electricity there was a propane stove for cooking with a full range, and a large hot water tank, so we felt we were living quite the life of luxury.

The five of us slept in the upstairs loft, up a ladder to a semi divided attic with dormitory style beds. Very reminiscent of some of our Balkans accommodations.

The porch overlooked a meadow – little Sandy Mush Bald (more about balds in my next installment). The ridges of the Blue Ridge were iridescent against the sunset. And the NY Times recipe for ramen noodles, eggs, and precooked bacon, all of which we’d lugged up the mountain, actually made something approximating mac’n cheese. Who knew that dried Parmesan would actually turn into cheese. That, with some boxed wine, boded well for the start of a pandemic vacation.

So it took a pandemic…

I’ve been writing this blog for close to six years – which is an eternity in blog world. Can I win a prize, please?

And when all this started I had such grandiose dreams – I wrote about empty Orlando and a follow up; then I was going to write about a hike into the Florida wilderness – and took lots of photos but the post never emerged.

Is it the strange secrecy of working at least half the week in your own little private Idaho – with plenty of communication but all of it virtual? Is there some element of privacy I never experienced before that makes you dole out public viewings in a more abstemious fashion?

Who knows. The world appears to be changing and all I know is I want to see my children and my parents next month. If I need to maintain my semi hermit world to do that – at least for the sake of my parents – it’s worth it.

So, we now have a booking for a cabin (unclear about electricity) that’s a 2.5 mile steep hike up a mountain in NC for three days, followed by a beach week with – I hope – my parents, children, and significant others. Not exactly summits, but in these days of coronavirus I’ll take what I can get.

We were supposed to climb Katahdin in Maine in July. I even have the Baxter State Park permits. But before booking plane tickets I made the sensible decision to check Maine’s visitor rules and discovered we would be subject to a 14 day quarantine. Don’t think that will work.

I have absolutely no idea how that emoji appeared but I can’t erase it without deleting the last paragraph so I guess we are stuck with it. Cheers!

Hidden Things in North Carolina – A New Decade Awaits

A trip to my family home in the Piedmont of North Carolina is always full of the hidden. Shadows of the past; remnants of the present. And Christmas of 2019 was no exception.

Some remnants of the present were literally remnants. There’s a place called the Scrap Exchange in Durham, run by a not for profit organization, that houses bins of about anything you can think of. Egg cartons, for example. Door knobs. Left over and partially used craft projects. I scored 6 Christmas stockings for a dollar each (you can never have too many), two Irish linen handkerchiefs in their original souvenir packaging for fifty cents (my brother had the temerity to ask what I would do with them), and a holiday adorned roll cover for my mother (there is such a thing). The latter two were in a bin optimistically labeled “vintage linens.”

Beyond that, there are always hidden things at Five Oaks, the weekend home my parents bought many years ago north of Durham. There is now only one big oak tree, four having been felled by various hurricanes, but “One Oak” doesn’t have the same ring. Over the years, my father has created multiple vistas designed around one or more objects he’s made from whatever happened to be on hand. But as time has crept (leapt?) by, the underbrush has become above brush and said objects peek forth through a chaos of leaves and branches. Can you see the pot?

The Smokehouse

Five Oaks was also the scene of a hide and seek adventure this year – involving Teddy, my parents’ extremely large furry 8 year old dog, who looks like a Swedish Lapphund. As a dog, he is allowed to be identified by his full name, rather than an initial.

There’s a dog in there somewhere

We all took a walk across the meadow through the woods and down to the bluff that overlooks a creek. Teddy lumbered along beside us, staying quite close, until we reached the bluff. At which point, N (boyfriend of daughter A for those of you who don’t read this regularly) confidently predicted Teddy wouldn’t try to make it down because he’d be worried about making it back up. At which point Teddy decided to prove N wrong and took off down said bluff, across the creek, over and through a neighbor’s pond. Repeated calls by humans were much less tempting than the gobble gobbles of the wild turkey he had decided to chase. It was particularly disconcerting because we could hear loud cracks of gunshot from some nearby hunters.

Ultimately S (as in daughter S’s boyfriend) undertook the task of tracking down Teddy (who by now was a blur in the distance), which required S heroically removing his shoes and socks, wading through creek and pond, and somehow convincing Teddy that he was more interesting than a wild turkey. In the meantime I had run back to the house to get Teddy’s leash to prevent any further escapes. Teddy rather sheepishly made his way back up the bluff and N has now been banned from speaking things into existence.

Downtown Durham itself has turned hidden things into an art form. Who knew that the rundown Jack Tarr motel I remember from the 1970s really wanted to be a fancy cocktail bar all this time?

So as we close out 2019 and roll into 2020 – the beginning of a new decade after all (will they be roaring?) I hope we all appreciate the hidden things around us, whether human, animal, or other. The 2010s were full of summits for J and me, most of them very visible. I hope the 2020s will be the same. But it’s important to remember that not all summits are mountain peaks, and some of those hidden ones are just as significant. Happy new decade, one and all.