Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Into the Land of Pasaquan

            Eddie Owens Martin was deathly sick.  His days being a young hustler in 1930’s New York were catching up with him.  “I was just coughin’ and heavin’…like I was cleansin’ myself of my past.  And durin’ the worst night of all, when I thought I had died, my spirit seemed to leave my body and I encountered this vision of a great big man sittin’ there like some kinda god, with arms big around as watermelons...  And he said to me, ‘If you … follow my spirit, then you can go…,’” he told biographer Tom Patterson.   Visions instructed him to start a new religion, “Pasaquoyanism”, to change his name to St. EOM.  “You’re an artist,” voices said.  “I really didn’t ever know what I wanted to be in life until I began to dabble in the arts and learned to depend on that inner voice…” Soon paintings of Mayan temples, bizarre landscapes and ancient civilizations filled his squalid apartment.  His image changed from slick to mystic, a guru without followers.  His tribal robes and coiled long, spindly locks added to his allure as he became a popular fortune teller.   

            He’d run away from the family farm outside of tiny Buena Vista, Georgia when he was just 14 years old.  “I threw myself on the mercy of the world,” he’d said about leaving an abusive father and a community that labeled him as different.  Then, at age 49, the spirits told him to move back to the now-vacant family farm and begin building his legacy: the Land of Pasaquan.  “I never had any overall plan.  All I knew was that I could see these designs in my mind… I hadn’t ever built nothin’ before.  I was experimentin.’” Peaking through the woods, townspeople were astonished and mystified as Eddie created 900 feet of  masonry fences emblazoned with weird and risqué images, psychedelic totems, decorative walkways, sculptures, a dance platform, murals and fanciful copulas. Hammered tin embellishments turned the modest farmhouse into a temple.  He toiled relentlessly, mostly alone, for 30 years.  He funded the construction with income from fortune telling. One of his regular customers was Plains resident “Miss Lillian” Carter.
   Rumors of trained rattlesnakes kept out interlopers. Teenagers dared each other to go in. One of them, Fred Fussell, took the dare.  He came to get his fortune read and left with a fascination that lasted 30 years. Fred was among the first to recognize the value of St. EOM’s creation and the possibilities it brought to the region.  When Eddie died by suicide in 1986, Fred and his neighbors founded the Pasaquan Preservation Society.  Years of struggling to find funding finally attracted the Kohler Foundation.  It has spent three years and millions of dollars to restore it: everything from stabilizing foundations to bringing the vibrant artwork back to life, the largest and most complex project the Foundation ever undertook.  “It’s beyond our wildest dreams.  We’d tried every avenue we could think of,” Fred says.

            Michael McFalls led Columbus State University’s collaboration during the restoration work and will direct the project as the college takes responsibility for its future preservation. The vision is to “to give visitors a unique insight into the intuitive artistic process… through diverse programming, interdisciplinary workshops, lectures, seminars, retreats, and performances, which challenge established ideas about the arts. We envision Pasaquan becoming a culturally enriching leader…while assisting in economic development.”

            Buena Vista, population 2,000, could use some economic development.  There are hardly any restaurants.  The one B&B is looking for a buyer.  Michael says that the town is “coming around to the idea of Pasaquan being an opportunity. They recognize the genius in their backyard.”   It’s a slow process. When I visited in Nov. there weren’t even any signs directing visitors to the remote art environment.  In nearby Richland though, entrepreneurs have been quick to sense opportunity and raise economic development money.  A shiny rum distillery dominates the still-shabby downtown. The sugar cane’s provenance is just up the road making them the only U.S. rum manufacturer with their own farm. The high quality sipping rum is distributed as far away as Europe.  Amy Stankus moved her artisanal Chocolate South from Atlanta and is gearing up to make gourmet rum balls. Regional artists are being enticed by the low cost of living and progressive ideas.  It’s an ironic outcome for St. EOM who bragged of being “too bold and brazen for them people that run the art world”.  None the less, he created one of the most significant intuitive arts environments in the country. On October 22, 2016, Pasaquan will reopen to the public with great fanfare.  St. EOM’s spirit will certainly be in attendance.  


Kohler Foundation: http://www.kohlerfoundation.org/

Pasaquan tour information and links to digital images: https://art.columbusstate.edu/pasaquan.php

Where to stay: http://www.sign-of-the-dove.com/ a small B&B in Buena Vista

In Americus, 25 miles away: http://www.windsor-americus.com/

Richland Rum: www.richlandrum.com

Chocolate South: www.chocolatesouth.com

Thursday, May 12, 2016


            Jonathan Green says that costume designer Annie Simon understands his vision for Porgy and Bess “in a glorifying way.”  But it took awhile.  After all, he’s using the opera to change a paradigm that has plagued the African American community incessantly.  When Spoleto Festival director Nigel Redden approached Jonathan about creating the opera’s visual design and costumes, he agreed only if he could do it from the perspective of free Africans.  In the rural Gullah community of Garden’s Corner, S.C. where he grew up, extended families live close to the land.  Colorful traditions, crafts, and stories are passed down.  Fishing and farming provide a shared prosperity.  Contrarily, the image of African Americans in the wider culture is much less flattering.  He points to our general population’s impression of Africa: wild animals and abject poverty.  An entire continent summed up bleakly, simplistically, ignorantly.  The image of “enslaved derelicts, I don’t know anything about that culture and I never saw it.  I know my culture.”  So Jonathan insisted that his design concept would be Africans coming to the United States not as slaves, but as immigrants like anyone else.  He wanted to “shift the paradigm to a modern day people, to give them back their culture, not built on slavery.”
            Annie Simon is a Brooklyn based costume designer who received her MFA in Design for Film and Theater in 2010 from NYU.  She’s designed for dozens of feature films, music videos, commercials, theater productions and dance performances.  The opera’s director David Herskovits, with whom she’d worked previously, brought her to the project.  Jonathan, she says with the utmost admiration, was “hired to bless us with his image and creativity.” Her goal was to realize his vision of combining traditional African clothing and 1930’s dress. It required “a ton of research” but blending genres was not new to her. She won the Kennedy Center’s Outstanding Costume Design Award for Bartholomew Fair which melded 1600’s English clothing styles with punk rock. 
She began sketches for each of the 72 costumes, head wraps and accessories months ago.  Jonathan’s paintings inspired her:  women standing in the wind with billowing patterned dresses, puffy shoulders and high waists.  She worked until she could “really feel his paintings,” and then sent the sketches to Jonathan for approval.  When he gave positive feedback, she “felt fantastic”. 
          Next she supervised turning the costumes from sketches to clothing for the 55 actors and singers in the show.  “I never buy fabric on-line because you can’t touch it and the colors are different,” she says.  So she shops inHarlem where African fabrics are plentiful and there’s “a little man with a sewing machine,” who can whip up prototypes.  Three shops in Harlem worked non-stop to complete the job.  Once the costumes were sewn they were shipped to Charleston and fitted by the expert seamstresses in the Spoleto costume shop.  Finally she met with the actors to personalize the head wraps, wigs and accessories for each role.  It’s a labor intensive process that lasts until the opera’s premier on May 27. 
            Pushing the envelope this way is not new to the opera.  It has been an agent for social change throughout its history.  Musically, Gershwin had to defend this “folk opera” that brought “the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits” of African Americans to the operatic stage.  “I have created a new form…quite naturally out of the material.”  Outraged critics called Gershwin a Tin-Pan Alley hack and an affront to Wagner and Mozart. Socially, turmoil and controversy have surrounded it too.  Gershwin didn’t debut it at the Metropolitan Opera in 1930 because they insisted on actors in black-face. Instead, it premiered five years later where an integrated audience was the first of many it prompted.  Despite 124 Broadway performances and a national tour it was a financial and critical failure.  It has endured a love/hate relationship with Black critics. Journalist William Warfield wrote “In 1952 the black community wasn’t listening to anything about plenty of nothing being good enough for me.”  But overseas it’s been a sensation. La Scala had never hosted a cast of African Americans before 1955 when Maya Angelou played Ruby: “Time and again, the audience came to their feet, yelling and applauding.  We had performedPorgy and Bess as never before …”   In Charleston’s own Dock Street Theater, a plan to integrate the audience for the first time in 1954 was met with such backlash that the performances were cancelled.  It wasn’t until 1970 that it was performed to an integrated audience in Charleston.  Critic Rodney Milnes wrote, “If ever a twentieth century opera aspires to make the world a better place…it is Porgy and Bess.”  So in the hands of Jonathan Green and Annie Simon it is again doing what the arts do so well:  entertain, inform and create change.

If You Go:
Spoleto general information:  www.spoletousa.org  Tickets to the live performances of Porgy and Bess are sold out but free simulcasts will be broadcast On Mon. May 30 at 7:30 p.m., in Marion Square and Tues. May 31 at 7:30 p.m. at West Ashley High School.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Searching for the Food of the Gods

            Our driver came back to the van to tell us that he’d been given “Costa Rican directions”. In other words we were still lost.  We’d driven four hours from San Jose towards the Caribbean coast. The twelve of us were weary and looking forward to a pit stop but this sparsely populated jungle did not look promising. 
            I felt like I was heading to the beginning of a story that I had started in the middle.  Two years ago I visited the Chocolate Lounge in Asheville and toured their French Broad Chocolate factory  where the long lines, delicious treats and the story of the founders had impressed me tremendously. 
In Jael Rattigan’s blog, she recounted her literal “follow your bliss” experience that occurred as she toyed with making truffles during a dark point in her life.  “My hands were covered in melted chocolate (up to my elbows, Dan remembers) as I rolled the truffles into the dark, molten liquid. Suddenly, I distinctly felt my hands tingle; I moved my gaze to them, held them outstretched in front of my face, and stared. I felt the gut-twisting, dizzying feeling of pure inspiration. With clarity, I said to my hands:chocolate is the thing that will make me happy.”  She credits Dan with holding her accountable for this revelation which she might otherwise have dismissed as frivolous.  Instead her notion became a hugely successful business which processes 4 ½ tons of chocolate a year and ships to over 100 retailers throughout the country as well as serving over 300 retail customers daily.  Now we were searching for the provenance of their chocolate.
            The van continued bouncing down the rutted road.  A man on a bicycle emerged from a field and signaled us to follow him.  He walked ahead of the van very slowly and turned into a small path between the banana trees.  Soon the bus couldn’t go any further so we got out to walk up the steep hill.  At the top there were sheds, platforms, machinery and long buildings covered with tarps.  We’d found the once abandoned cacao farm the Rattigans had purchased and restored.   It provides French Broad Chocolate with some of the beans to make truffles, confections and pastries, making them one of a handful of chocolatiers in the world to be bean-to-bar-to-truffle confectioners.      

     We were met by Mauricio, a farm worker, who explained the methodical process required to grow and prepare the product.  “At first we plant the tree.  We get fruit in two to three years.”  He plucked a cacao fruit off a tree and broke it open. It’s the size and shape of a papaya.  We sucked white pulp from the large seeds.  It tasted vaguely like lemon yogurt.  Hard to believe that this is related in any way to chocolate truffles, I thought.  It was also a revelation to learn from Mauricio how much work is involved to turn this sticky mess into the candy confection we love.  The pulpy seeds are fermented in the sun for six days, growing hot as they sit and are stirred.  Then they’re dried on racks 10 to 15 days, moving them each day.  Some processors use a shortcut by cooking the seeds “but I think it’s not the same taste,” Mauricio says. “It’s forced.”  We noticed that the equipment to accomplish all of this looked homemade: ingenious assemblies of gears, convertible platforms, covers moving on runners and jerry-rigged arrangements.  They were reminiscent of the Willy Wonka-esque equipment at the factory in Asheville that Dan built from cast-off parts, saving them tons in start up costs.
            The farm ships the beans to Asheville for roasting but for our visit they were roasted in a cast iron kettle over a fire.  The chaff was blown into the wind similar to rice in a fanner basket.  The roasted beans were ground into a coarse powder in a hand cranked grinder.  For our benefit, our hosts had made some brownies.  Coconuts were picked, cracked open with machetes and equipped with straws.  What a treat!  No wonder the Aztecs called chocolate the “food of the Gods.”  Mauricio had his own commentary.  “Chocolate keeps you young and strong.”  
      Our familiarity with chocolate’s folklore was just beginning. Later in the week we were going to stay with the indigenous Bri Bri people.  There chocolate is practically a sacrament and has a deeply spiritual importance.    Babies are bathed in it when they’re born.  Deceased people are embalmed with it. But that’s another story. 
            As we left the cacao farm a fellow traveler Jennifer remarked about the investment of time, energy, money and attention that’s required to grow our craved confections and the new found respect we’d gained for the process.  “This will make you feel better about paying $7 for a chocolate bar,” she quipped.     

If You Go
French Broad Chocolates https://frenchbroadchocolates.com/

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Things We Do For Love

        When unrequited love turns into craziness spurned lovers might binge on reality TV and Ben and Jerry’s, turn into stalkers or post revealing photos on the internet. Bonfires of discarded clothes and curse words scratched into cars can result. As passion turns to obsession, pets have even been poisoned. But Edward Leedskalnin took crazy love to a whole new level.
       When he was 26, he was engaged to Agnes Scuffs, his “Sweet Sixteen”. It wasn’t just because of her age that he called her that. He had strong opinions about love and lust and wrote, “When a girl is sixteen or seventeen years old, she is as good as she ever will be but when a boy is sixteen years old, he is then fresher than in all his stages of development.” He valued Agnes purity. He wanted to dedicate his life to protecting her. Somehow, she saw red flags and broke the engagement one day before the wedding. For Edward it was a tragedy beyond measure. He would win her back or spend his entire life trying, which he did.

    He left his homeland of Latvia in 1913.  After wandering for a few years, suffering from tuberculosis, he went to Florida City where he hoped the climate would agree with him.  A grand gesture to bring his Sweet Sixteen running back, that’s what he needed.  So he began digging the rocky ground with hand tools, working alone by lantern light.  Ed was only 5 feet tall and weighed only 100 pounds but he fashioned block and tackle wenches and chipped away at the coral that was sometimes 4,000 feet thick.  Bit by bit he painstakingly began a monolith to his unrequited love. 
        Meanwhile, Florida was being developed and a subdivision was being planned nearby. Ed felt his privacy eroding so he decided to move the gargantuan blocks of coral rock he’d harvested ten miles up the road to Homestead. He laid two rails upon a chassis from an old Republic truck. A friend pulled the loaded trailer along slowly. Moving all of the huge blocks of rock took three years and attracted on-lookers who began to ask questions about this reclusive, obsessed man. Curiosity followed him to his new home where people dared each other to approach the site.
        He bought ten acres in Homestead where he worked fifteen more years on his Coral Castle. First he built walls with look-outs to watch for interlopers. Then he carved a place for his future life with Agnes: a coral desk, a coral table shaped like the state of Florida, a coral sundial, his and hers coral beds, a cradle, a wishing well. His masterpiece is a nine ton gate that’s 180 inches wide, 92 inches tall and 21 inches thick that can be turned like a revolving door with just one finger. Throughout it all he lived simply in a make-shift bedroom without electricity or running water. He rode his bike into town for supplies and began to allow paying visitors who asked the same questions people ask today: “How did a 5 foot tall, 100 pound man, with only a fourth grade education move tons of limestone rocks by himself?” Edward always explained that he used the same principles that were employed in the building of the pyramids. But Egypt had thousands of slaves. Maybe aliens had helped Edward, some suggested. Maybe he had supernatural powers. Did anybody actually see him working? Theories and questions continue to feed the mystery today.
  Agnes never saw Coral Castle or even came to the United States. She probably didn’t even know it existed and may even have forgotten Edward. But he never gave up on her joining him in Florida. In 1951, Edward left a sign on the Coral Castle entrance “going to the hospital”. He took a bus to Jackson Memorial and died three days later.
        In Ed’s time there was a sign “Ring Bell” outside a locked gate. Another said “Ring Twice”. If the directions were followed precisely and if Ed wasn’t busy, he’d come give a tour for 10 cents. Now tourists pay about $15 to hear the story, see the incredible structures and peak into Edward’s humble living quarters consisting of a plank bed wrapped in burlap and repurposed junk turned into shelves and rudimentary benches. Outside there’s a 5,000 pound rocking stone throne for Ed, the king of the castle and smaller ones for Sweet Sixteen and an imagined child. There’s also a purposely uncomfortable one for his would-be mother-in-law. To complete the homey tableau there’s Ed’s heart shaped Feast of Love Table with his original flowering ixora plants growing in the center. It’s an inspiring place to sit and contemplate passion, obsession and the mysteries of love.

If You Go:

Coral Castle is in Homestead, Florida near Miami: www.coralcastle.com


Monday, January 25, 2016

Swim with the Manatees

            For a wildlife adventure that you’ll remember forever, head to western Florida.  Swimming with the manatees is one of the Southeast’s greatest outdoor experiences.  During the winter, over 400 of these docile creatures migrate to the headwaters of Crystal River where they enjoy the constant 72 degree water.   Unlike ersatz dolphin encounters where nearly domesticated animals are corralled into an enclosure to engage with swimmers, these manatees are really wild.  They’re free to approach people or swim away.  Amazingly though they seem to want interaction and routinely come up to swimmers.  Crystal River is one of only a few places where you can legally engage with manatees in their natural habitat. 

            Manatees have no known predators. Most fatalities are caused by run-ins with boats or loss of habitat.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulates swimming with manatees and the establishment of sanctuaries for them. Florida began passing laws to protect manatees beginning in 1893.  They’ve been on the endangered species list since 1967.  Concerned guests on our tour asked questions about the creature’s welfare and environment.  Guides explained the regulations that make it a safe activity for both the swimmers and sea life. We were instructed to not chase them, crowd them or make loud disturbances in the water.  They are gentle and curious, our guides said.    
     My husband and I began our tour early in the morning with the winter temperature hovering around 45 degrees.  Swimming seemed like the last thing I wanted to do.  Coffee seemed like the first thing.  Fortunately River Ventures had it waiting along with hot chocolate when we checked in to get oriented and fitted for wetsuits and snorkels.  At the dock, a blanket of steam laid ethereally upon the warmer river.  We mustered our courage, pulled on our masks and slipped into the clear water.  I consider myself a good swimmer and not fearful but when I put my masked face underwater and saw SUV-sized creatures lolling nearby, I gasped.  These West Indian manatees are between 1,000-3,000 pounds and 10-13 feet long.  Their wrinkled, whiskered heads are massive.  Their blubbery bodies are huge.  Despite being told that they are gentle, I was intimidated at first.  I had expected to see just a few if we were lucky but they were plentiful and easy to see. The underwater world of dappled light and graceful movements soon calmed me though.  It was easy to glide along with just a flick of my flippers and mosey behind one as it slowly searched for aquatic plants to eat.  I drifted alongside as it surfaced to breathe: an explosive exhale and then a languid dive down again.  One rolled over and looked down at me expectantly.  I rubbed its rough belly lightly.  Floating was easy.  I wasn’t cold. There was no wake, no discernable tide, no waves.   We swam for hours in amazement.

            The nearby town of Cedar Key smells like seafood and still resembles an old Florida fishing village.  On the beach we stopped to speak to a man who was fixing a brick wall that had been
damaged in a close call with a hurricane.   Just this morning, he told us, he’d picked up his dinner on this beach.  He’d dug Quahog clams at low tide and hung a large conch upside down to remove the meat which he beat to tenderized before cooking.  He also regaled us with stories about his fascinating profession as a bee pollinator, taking his hives across the state to pollinate orange groves.  At the popular Island Hotel Restaurant we ordered their specialties:  succulent crab bisque and palm salad.  The hotel takes special pride in having invented that salad which was unexpectedly sweet with fruit and dates along with the fresh hearts of palm.

            The town also prides itself on its slow pace.  This is the old Florida “before the traffic, deadlines and demands occupied your life and swallowed your lifestyle” their website touts.  People are unhurried and friendly.  At the marina, a local sailor invited us for a sunset cruise and told us about his life living at the marina.  He was so proud of his new cedar and mahogany sailboat.  Until the tourist season, he planned to cruise around and fish.  As we sailed towards the setting sun, he waved at another marina family coming back into port.  They held up a string of fresh catch for him to admire.  “Looks like tonight’s dinner,” he said hopefully. “People are so laid back here,” I observed.  “Maybe they’re just bored,” he quipped.  If so, it’s a welcome boredom away from the hustle and bustle of the Disney-esque Florida where people rush madly to stand in long lines.  Here, the pace is leisurely, like a manatee ambling through the warm water and rolling onto its back for a gentle scratch. 
If You Go;
The manatee tour:  www.riverventures.com
The town of Crystal Riverwww.crystalriverfl.org

Manatee photo credits:  River Ventures 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Travel Resources for This Year's Adventures


        You’ve booked flights on Expedia.  You’ve relied on Tripadvisor. As you look ahead to what fun and excitement you can cook up this year, take some some tips from my toolbox.         

        Just have time for a daytrip or short weekend?  Check out www.skiway.netGo “on an astonishing journey into the past, where historic figures appear on stage…you question them... the audiences are always a part of the show...and the shows are FREE!” at Greenville’s Chautauqua.  Kick up your heels Myrtle Beach’s “Square and Round Dancers’ Fun in the Sun”.  At “iMagine Upstate Festival” in Greenville six stages “include a maker-space, robotics battle, live science demonstration, drone flight experience and an augmented reality experience.”  At Florence’s Pecan Festival you can “Run Like a Nut”. There’s ice skating in town squares, steeplechases in Camden, championship rodeos in Blythewood and festivals and runs galore.  All at our doorstep.

       Scenic drives are a wonderful way to spend a vacation and each state has routes designed to appeal to traveler’s interests.  Among the several listed at www.visitflorida.com is the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail. To the tune of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home”, you can drive to “a collection of springs, fishing villages and Class III rapids” over the 207 miles from northern Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. Georgia does a particularly good job of marketing driving tours that are arranged to highlight presidential, civil war or plantation history. They’re at www.ExploreGeorgia.com.   

        Photos from a gigantic twig sculpture, Coral Castle, the world’s biggest cherry pie, a ten-acre whirligig farm, a house-size chest of drawers and other oddities fill our family albums.  Find these crazy pit stops on one of my favorite websites:  www.roadsideamerica.com.  It will remind you that the journey is the destination.

Let a soundtrack guide you to your next trip.   Start at www.musicfestivaljunkies.com where you’ll see hundreds of worldwide music festivals listed.  How about Serbia’s Exit Festival that takes place in a17th century Petrovaradin fortress? Or the Jam Cruise out of Miami: a “one of a kind music and vacation experience featuring 5 days of music aboard a luxurious cruise ship”?
Eschew the chain hotel for a more authentic experience. www.vrbo.com has been a great resource for us. On a girl’s trip to Chicago we stayed in a huge loft with a gourmet kitchen. In Amsterdam, friends joined us in a two bedroom apartment overlooking a canal. The friendly owners in Puerto Rico recommended restaurants near their lovely pied-á-terre. Often the cost is less than multiple hotel rooms if you’re with a group or if you’re staying a week or more. With Charleston being such a popular destination, it would be easy to take part in house swapping. Check out www.lovehomeswap.com and consider trading for a 3-bedroom apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower or penthouse on the sea in Tuscany. Annie and her family had a “fantastic experience” trading their Sullivan’s Island house for a rural farm in Tuscany. “He even let us drink his wine and olive oil” as they toured the countryside from Pisa to Cinque Terre. Here’s a website I’ll be exploring this year: www.glampinghub.com. It offers unique properties worldwide including barns, treehouses, caves and cabins ranging from rustic to luxurious. How does a vineyard yurt in Barcelona sound? It’s only $88 per night. Or a treehouse near Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii. You can even stay for free if you’re willing to couch surf which involves staying with locals in their homes (or hosting travelers in yours) Sign up at www.couchsurfing.com, a network of 10 million interesting locals in over 230 countries. 

    Travelling has joined the emerging sharing economy.  On
www.vayable.com locals in cities around the world share authentic experiences with travelers.  A photography walking tour in Paris, a food crawl in Rome, a tour of Cuenca, Ecuador for those considering retirement there are all examples on their extensive website. On www.eatwith.com and www.travelingspoon.com vetted chefs host small pop-up dinners in their homes.  While in Bali, Meryl and her family spent 3 hours in a family compound preparing multiple dishes from scratch with their Indonesian hosts, using only ingredients grown nearby.  “We shredded coconut with a little bark grater while two little ladies cooked over a fire all night.  We ground spices into pastes for the sauces.”  It was one of their most memorable experiences, especially the delicious corn fritters.

      For active vacations, check out bicycling trips at www.backroads.com, or horseback riding at www.hiddentrails.com. The independent travel sites www.bootsnall.com or www.gonomad.com and www.travelsignposts.com have extensive compilations of first-hand experiences that stray from the beaten path.
      Armchair travelling, I love it. I can spend hours reading reviews and imagining trips. If you’re like me and enjoy the planning almost as much as the going, these resources will launch you on your next adventure.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Roaming the Rooms at Snowbird Mountain Lodge

            My cozy room came with earplugs.  Floors creaked beneath me.  Footsteps pattered above.  I didn’t mind.  I had lots more rooms.  Steps away was the massive living room/lobby lined with books, games and a blazing fireplace.  Sunny porches adorned with fancifully painted totems were outside; hammock swayed on verandas.  A smiling Buddha statue and fluttering prayer flags invited serenity along the walking path.  Further on was a thriving garden and clucking chickens, a firepit stocked with wood and s’more fixings, and overlooks situated perfectly to watch the sunrise or sunset.  I spent an afternoon reading in a scenic gazebo, nestled in an upholstered banquette, warmed by the push-button fireplace.  Charmed guests wrote “My heart slows down and I have time to reflect…” and “the very essence of relaxing vacation, this is at least our 15th time here…” 
         Snowbird Mountain Lodge is on the Register of National Historic Places and was built by Arthur Wolfe, a Chicago travel agent (1922-42) who brought adventurous groups to the Great Smoky Mountains.  Like the poet Joyce Kilmer, Arthur Wolfe had never seen a “poem as lovely as a tree” and relished bringing visitors to the 3,600 acre old- growth forest established in Kilmer’s memory in 1936.  But getting there was an arduous ordeal by train and bus over unpaved roads.  Arthur envisioned a lodge where travelers could shake off the road dust.  So he determinedly built one above Robbinsville, North Carolina, opening The Snowbird Lodge in 1941.  It’s had nine owners since, mostly former guests so impressed that they bought the place.  Elmer and Gladys Smith bought it from Arthur in 1953.  They added an ice maker which was such a sensation that schoolchildren came to see it on fieldtrips.   They also added events and hikes which continue to be a big part of the lodge’s attraction today.  Robert Rankin, the current owner since 1996, says, “All of us have been caretakers of the Lodge, preserving it for future guests so they will be able to enjoy her special
treasures as we do everyday.”  Robert and his retrievers are welcoming hosts, offering trail maps or complimentary mountain bikes, fly rods, canoes or kayaks.  In addition to the 15 smaller rooms in the Main Lodge, there are six premium rooms in the Chestnut Lodge and the secluded Wolfe Cottage with private hot tubs and fireplaces for the numerous honeymooners and anniversary celebrants.  Over half of the guests are repeat customers.  One young couple had come on the suggestion of their parents who’d vacationed there as a young couple themselves.

            There is plenty to do nearby but Snowbird also offers many optional activities at no extra charge.  There are naturalist-guided hikes, yoga, music and art workshops, birding, fly fishing and paddle sports and a variety of culinary and holiday events.  I joined about a dozen guests on hikes led by Kathy and Joel Zachry.  The information about the flora, birds, history and wildlife enriched the trip tremendously.  They also gave informal talks each night on their specialty:  bears.  I was surprised to learn that there are two bears per square mile in the Smoky Mountains and that “They have very little interest in eating us…of course there are always exceptions to that,” Joel said. 
    On a ten mile hike, I chatted with chef Frank Davi.  He’s responsible for each guests’ three daily meals including a picnic lunch and a four-course wine dinner.  “I grew up in a garden family,” he said and cooked in a pizzeria before going to culinary school.  His father was a pastry chef and his Sicilian grandmothers, who didn’t get along except in the kitchen, nurtured his love of cooking.  He fondly recalled making maccaruna (a hollow pasta) with them. “My job as a kid was to grab the pasta as it’s made and put it to dry over broomsticks.”  Today his signature dishes are “anything with my grandmother’s tomato sauce.”  As we gingerly hiked the rocky trail, he enthused about “playing with colors in the kitchen” and described how to roast beets.  “Let the beet be the star of the show, keep it simple.”  Later I admired the vibrant beets artfully arranged with grilled squash, sliced mozzarella, mascarpone and Tasso ham in a salad with fresh pesto.  It preceded the main course of fresh trout, a lodge favorite.  “I was not prepared for such a great meal tucked back here in the hills,” wrote a recent visitor.
At Snowbird there’s time to relax completely, eat sublimely, and reconsider trees through a poet’s eyes:

“…A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.”

If You Go:

Snowbird Mountain Lodge is open February through November yearly.
Joyce Kilmer, poet
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest