Sunday, December 9, 2012

Roadtrips Charleston: Soaking Away the Stress in Hot Springs, N.C.

 
           Several years ago my book club introduced me to what has become one of my favorite road trip destinations: Hot Springs NC. Giggling in a Jacuzzi together proved to be quite a bonding experience. We got massages and talked about that month’s book, Cold Mountain, hiked and drank wine. Our group of six filled an entire bed and breakfast where the tantalizing aroma of warm brownies greeted our nightly returns from our soak. Since then I have travelled there several times, staying in many different accommodations. You can drive there from Charleston, SC in just under five hours and return with a whole new perspective. 
             I’ve been to other “spas”: fancy, expensive places with scented air and new age music. This is decidedly a different sort of experience. If you arrive at the baths on a chilly evening, you’ll be greeted by a bonfire. You’ll check in at a shack. Until recently the massage rooms were in double-wide trailers. The tubs are actually Jacuzzis buried in the riverside which are filled with 100-plus degree mineral water when your hour-long rental begins. They’re private and simple affairs, surrounded by trellises and shrubbery. But in the moonlight on a chilly night they are magical. The rushing of the French Broad River, the gushing jets of water, crickets. Very soothing. The masseuses are right next door in a newly constructed building and they’re very well trained. Afterwards you’ll feel like a wet noodle.
            But you have to earn your relaxation and that’s where Hot Springs really wins me over. The Appalachian Trail goes right down the little Main Street. It’s common to see heavily laden backpackers trudge into town looking for hot showers, big meals and rest. Do a day hike on the AT to glimpse the through-hiker’s experience by reading the log books stashed in trailside shelters. We read earnest inscriptions with quotes like this one from Aldous Huxley: "Your true traveler finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty - his excessive freedom” and descriptions of meals of GORP, ramen and protein bars. It’s also very pleasant to hike shorter trails like the Spring Creek Nature Trail which winds along the river or the many others in the Pisgah National Forest that begin nearby. 
On our many visits, my husband and I have stayed in a variety of accommodations including vacation homes we’ve rented on www.vrbo.com, camping cabins, bed and breakfasts and cottages. The camping cabins across the street from the spa are tiny and inexpensive. We woke up one morning in our cozy, warm cabin to see the campground and all of the tents covered in snow. At the spa itself there are more expensive suites, some with private (heart-shaped!) thermal tubs. A short walk away there are a variety of cottages and small inns. The town’s best bed and breakfast is the Mountain Magnolia Inn and Retreat which has been the sight of the most elegant resort in the area since one was built on the sight in 1886.            
            Full of history and destroyed twice by fire, the current hotel was restored by the new owners Pete and Karen Nagle in 1997. The architectural details tell of the costly and careful modernization that resulted from careful study of historic photos. Now there are 5 guest rooms, a 2 bedroom suite and two larger cottages available. Sitting on our private deck overlooking the mountains, we couldn’t have been more comfortable. The Inn is very popular with anniversary celebrations and small weddings. Guestbook entries exclaim, “…our new favorite weekend getaway spot”, “…most beautiful inn I’ve ever seen,” and “This makes me want to renew my vows.” The Inn’s restaurant is the only up-scale place to eat in town. Chef Chris Brown uses fresh ingredients to create imaginative dishes like pork stuffed with cherries, pecans and bleu cheese. “Keep it simple is my philosophy,” he says. “Good ingredients speak for themselves, which is why I hand pick all that I use myself.” He visits Hickory Nut Gap Farm to purchase local beef, pork and breakfast meats and gets seafood fresh from Blue Water Seafood Company. Breakfasts at the Inn are sumptuous and, to my husband’s delight, you don’t have to listen to anyone tell their life stories since there are private tables. Up the road is the Smoky Mountain Diner where breakfast comes cheap with plenty of local color. You can watch the hikers loading up on the huge portions and enjoy the friendly banter as neighbors greet each other. 
            Residents say that the town is rejuvenating. Empty storefronts and hotel rooms give a different impression but Hot Springs was just voted the “Best Small Mountain Town” in Blue Ridge Outdoor Magazine and travelers have been seeking it out since Native Americans discovered the mineral water over 200 years ago. If you’re looking for a place to relax and reenergize, Hot Springs, NC may become your favorite road trip too.  

If you go:
Hot Springs is 40 miles north of Asheville in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 
http://www.hotspringsnc.org/index.php
Mountain Magnolia Inn: www.mountainmagnoliainn.com
Hot Springs Spa: www.nchotsprings.com
Nearby hiking: http://www.hikewnc.info/trailheads/pisgah/appalachian/frenchbroad/

















Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Finding My New Tribe in the Wilderness


            Do you have these problems: your friends don’t want to hike anymore? Complaints of knees, feet or exhaustion follow your invitations. They prefer wine tastings to GORP. Cooking classes to camping. Bar-be-ques to bird watching. Call them when you’re in the mood for quiet fun but go find a new tribe like I did at Wilderness Wildlife Week. Pigeon Forge, Tenn. is a strip of go-carts, laser tag, an Elvis museum, a gem mine, a “tastefully decorated year-round” Christmas hotel, growling dinosaurs, flashing billboards and themed arena dinners. Incongruously it’s also the gateway to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, our country’s most visited (and one of only a few admission-free) national parks. Approx. 24,000 people attend this free event each January which celebrates the wonders of the park through walks, talks, workshops and exhibits. 
            Over breakfast at the Music Road Hotel and Convention Center conversations are about bears, hikes and arcane gardening tips. Overheard snippets are about “the size of its antlers” and “what do you think a bear might look like without its fur”? Artie Hodgson has been coming for fourteen years. “As long as I can get my bones out, this is what I’m gonna do”, she says. Typical of the mid-week crowd at Wildlife Week, she is a spry senior citizen with a thirst for learning and engaging with nature. Weekend workshops draw children and families.
            There are hundreds of one-hour workshops led by experts where I learned about whistle pigs, courting rocks and fly ginnies; about how teachers were driven from their classrooms by the bad breath of the children during ramp season; that possums have bifurcated sex organs and that Little Debbie oatmeal cookies float. Fascinating stuff. We played mountain dulcimers, heard wonderful storytellers, watched slide shows of trips to the Dolomites and learned camera and compass skills. All of the workshops had large attentive audiences. With so many offered, it was hard to choose. History, gardening, camping, concerts, fishing, travel, mountain climbing, conservation, trees, bears, birds... In every case, I found interesting information about subjects I may not have ever considered interesting before. 
                  The free hikes, with transportation provided, are a big draw. Forty-eight hikes are offered during the week and typically attract over 600 participants who collectively hike more than 3700 miles. On the Porter’s Creek hike I was part of a group of about 20 who signed up for the eight hour, seven and a half mile moderate trek. Among us is a group from Georgia that met 17years ago when they all took a continuing education class on hiking. After that class they continued to hike three times a week up to 12 miles a day. “We joined to meet people and learn the hikes to do ourselves but we met so many wonderful people we just kept coming” Our guide Martha Smith is a grandmother who set a quick pace. Her backpack is adorned with patches, especially one that she is most proud of. “I hiked them all” she says of the 800 miles of trails in the park. In order to reach all 150 trails, she had to walk a total of 2700 miles over nine years. Only 300 people can claim this feat. When she worked in the tourist office people sometimes thought Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smoky Mountains Park, was a waterslide. It turned her into a self-styled ambassador for the park. She is intent on getting people out of their cars and into the wild. At occasional stops along the trail she educates for example pointing out pock holes on trees made by yellow bellied sap sucker birds, not to get the sap, but to get the bugs that eat the sap.  
 
            Wilderness Wildlife Week was begun twenty-two years ago by the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism as an effort to fill the hotel rooms that go empty there in the off-season. As a marketing idea it has been phenomenal, growing every year. I was surprised to learn that the January weather is usually more moderate than I expected for the mountains in winter. The hotel has spacious rooms where my Jacuzzi tub was a welcome sight after the hike. The park is just a few minutes away. 
            During a speech called “Watching and Being Watched” Ken Jenkins, one of the originators of the event, inspired the large crowd with incredible close-up photos of wildlife he’d taken as he quietly explored the area. “Watch like you are being watched: with wide-eyed wonder and childlike wisdom.” he instructed. The reverence for the area, its history and natural beauty is evident among the thousands who attend Wilderness Wildlife Week. So if you find fewer friends to have active fun with as you get older, you can join my new tribe too. Our motto is “I’m going to leave this life exhausted.” 

If you go:
Wilderness Wildlife Week is Jan. 12 to 19, 2013 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. For more information:
The workshops and hikes are free. 



           



           

Thursday, October 18, 2012

It’s All Downhill From Here


            I thought I had planned the trip so well but it started out very badly. My sister Lila and I had driven from Charleston to Abingdon, Virginia stopping along the way in Charlotte to pick up our third sister Barbara. A long drive. When we arrived at the hotel I’d booked, it was full of Little League teams. Carousing boys jumping in the swimming pool and dashing through the lobby. Adult “chaperones” drinking beer in the hallways. The room was too small for the three of us. “Don’t unpack.” I said. “We’re not staying.” In the small charming downtown, the regal Martha Washington Inn beaconed. Against all odds and budget constraints we asked for a tour. Built in 1932 as a huge private residence (for the grand sum of $15,000!), “The Martha”, as it’s affectionately known by locals, has a rich history. It’s been a women’s college, a training barracks for riflemen, a hospital during the Civil War and a rooming house for actors. Its renovated Victorian splendor has attracted such illustrious guests as Eleanor Roosevelt, President Harry Truman, Lady Bird Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Elizabeth Taylor. The room rates were much higher than “Little League Lodge” of course. “Can’t you find us one room that we could afford for three nights?” I asked the manager somewhat pleadingly. “Well, there is one room on the top floor. The elevator doesn’t go there so you’d have to use the stairs.” We did some creative math, divided the cost among the three of us and went to get our luggage which was promptly carried upstairs by waiting valets. A huge suite with king sized bed; daybed and view overlooking the garden immediately put me back into my sisters’ good graces. 
     We had come to Abingdon to bike ride the Virginia Creeper Trail. It’s billed as one of the “easiest, prettiest mountain bike rides..and the most popular biking destination in the Eastern United States.” But what really sold us on it is that it’s downhill the entire 34 miles. Popular is right. This town has transformed itself by creating this Rails-to-Trails adventure and the 200,000 people who ride it each year have brought an influx of economic prosperity. Eight bike rental outfitters shuttle van-loads of riders on and off the trail continuously every day of the year. After fitting us with new Trek bikes and helmets, we were dropped off seventeen miles away and spent the day leisurely riding back into town. Because it used to be a railroad line, the route stretches across farm land, past lakes, houses and campgrounds and over 47 scenic trestles. Entrepreneurial locals have opened cafes along the route where we enjoyed hearty country lunches. A jewelry maker nearby the trail provided beautiful souvenirs. 
        After refreshing ourselves in our grand suite, we headed next door to the Barter Theatre. When it began in 1933, patrons who couldn’t afford the 40 cent admission could barter produce and chickens to see a show. "With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh." was their slogan. The scheme of “ham for Hamlet” proved successful and many prominent actors began their careers there including Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, Ned Beatty and Gary Collins. The entertaining evening was a perfect cap to our active day.
            After a second day of biking, we relaxed in the gorgeous cascading pools at “The Martha”. A bride was having wedding photos made in the nearby flowering gardens. We were amused to see her duck into the shrubbery to sneak a cigarette between shots and also that her mother kept dabbing make-up onto the bride’s arm to cover her extensive tattoos. That evening, the thumping bass from the wedding reception drew us to the hotel ballroom to peak. Suddenly the bride came up behind us and said “Do you want to see my centerpieces? I made them myself. It’s a gangster wedding theme!” The groomsmen were wearing black suits, black shirts, red ties, dark sunglasses and black hats. They were carrying plastic Tommy guns. The tables were named “Scarface”, “Bugsy Malone” and “Al Capone”. What a concept. “Fabulous centerpieces!” we gushed as we admired the vases of huge red and black ostrich plumes and silver skeletons. We tried to mosey out inconspicuously since we were dressed in shorts and t-shirts but gangsters kept asking us to dance. We were afraid to say no. And then we had to try the cake. Black Forest of course.  
By the end of the trip we could brag that we’d ridden 34 miles (no need to mention that it was all downhill), seen a great play, stayed in a luxurious suite, escaped from Little League, crashed a wedding and danced with gangsters. Not a bad weekend.                                                                             If You Go:
Barter Theater: www.bartertheatre.com
Virginia Creeper Trail information: www.vacreepertrail.us
The Martha Washington Inn www.marthawashingtoninn.com  
 

Moon Over Moncks Corner

            Got an anniversary coming up?  How are you going to celebrate?  Another over-priced restaurant meal?  How about a little romance in (don’t laugh!) Moncks Corner! Rice Hope Plantation, one of South Carolina’s only bed and breakfast plantations, is just an hour from Charleston but centuries back in time. 

            For history buffs, it’s a treasure trove.  The original house was built in 1840. After some renovations, additions and a fire, the forty room mansion sprawls across the hillside. Formal gardens bursting with camellias and towering oak trees draped with Spanish moss create a scene of serenity and affluence.  The past oozes from every corner.  Formal portraits, including the plantation’s founders and some “instant ancestors”, share wallpapered display space with fine china and art.  Huge collections of books fill several walls.  An entire room devoted to artifacts found on the grounds is a mesmerizing hodge-podge of taxidermy animals, hinges, shells, decoys, bones, nails, sharks teeth, documents and a model “trunk” which demonstrates the way the historic rice fields were flooded and drained for harvesting.  There’s even a decaying dugout canoe that was salvaged offshore.  A recent guest commented: “one of the best accommodations that an archeologist can dream of enjoying”. 
 
 
      Lou Edens, a local entrepreneur, is the charming proprietress.  She knows a million stories about Rice Hope.  Colorful stories.  Bawdy stories and gossip.  Stories of men who took slaves with them when they became soldiers; of visits by Clair Booth Luce; about hunting parties and wild nights drinking the plantation’s signature drink, shrub.  “Shrub is made from orange juice, rum and brandy” Lou explains.  “We made it for a party once and that’s the only time I saw the plantation’s ghost “Mistress Chicken”.  “I didn’t know it was a ghost.  I invited her to the party!” Lou’s quick, girlish laugh accompanies many of her anecdotes. 
            There’s an extensive art collection with notable acrylics and prints by Elizabeth Porcher.  As a member of the Charleston Renaissance, she became well known for her dignified paintings of African Americans in a time when Caucasian painters usually depicted African Americans as caricatures.  A large rendition of the plantation painted by Charles Fraser shows the rice cultivation that historically covered most of the 300 acres of land.  “I tried to grow some rice myself”, Lou says pointing to an artful arrangement of dried rice stalks in a vase.  “But I didn’t get enough for even a casserole.”

            The gardens are the highlight.  Established in 1795 and enhanced in the 1930’s according to a design by noted landscape architect Loutrell Briggs, they boast an astounding array of camellias including, reputedly,  the largest bush in the country which towers over twelve feet high.  Many brides have made their entrances down the garden’s sweeping brick walkway.  Their photos depict the authentic Southern charms that movies can only hope to imitate.  But anniversary couples seem to enjoy their stays the most.  Many return yearly and have written in the guest book:  “The best stay in an inn to this day.”  And “This is one of my favorite destinations in the whole world.”             

            Breakfast is included in the room and is elegantly served overlooking the gardens.  Previous guests have raved about the shrimp and grits.  We enjoyed a scrumptious tomato and shrimp pie and other delicacies.  For other meals, head to The Dock where a fresh seafood dinner overlooking the river will set you back a mere $20 for two.  Barony House is an upscale choice. Or for a truly Southern experience, head to Sweatman’s BBQ near Eutawville on Friday or Saturday and get the real flavor of the South for $10 a plate.  But I recommend doing as we did.  Bring a little picnic to enjoy in the privacy of your room.  If you rent the bridal suite, you’ll have a large private porch as well as a sitting room and huge bedroom with a rice bed.  Sit and relax. Unwind.
 
 
            There’s bird watching, canoeing and games on site.  “No-thinging” is highly recommended.  Other activities include fishing from the plantation dock where 100 pound catfish have been caught.  Mepkin Abbey is nearby.  The peaceful monks graciously allow visitors to ramble or picnic.  There’s plenty of hiking and biking in the area including the 12,000 acre Bonneau Ferry Preserve.  For a romantic end to the day, drive to the Canal Recreation Area and walk up the few steps to the dike surrounding Lake Moultrie.  Watch the sunset across the expansive, shimmering lake and try to imagine where you are. I bet you’ll never guess Moncks Corner!         

 

Sidebar:

Rice Hope Plantation www.ricehope.com

Sweatman’s BBQ       www.sweatmansbbq.com


 This story was originally published in The Island Eye News

 
 

Going to the Chapel, Chapel Hill that is.


            The long stretch of I-95 between Charleston and Chapel Hill is filled with opportunities to enjoy the journey. And to learn a few things on the way to college.  
            Before I left for example, I wondered why anyone would go to Fayetteville, NC. My image: an unprogressive, unimpressive town with no ethnic restaurants, no cultural diversity and no natural attractions. I started to learn how wrong that was immediately as Mustafa Somar presented me with an appetizer platter of Turkish delights at his Sherefe Mediterranean Grill. While I enjoyed the very garlicky hummus, tabouli, eggplant, stuffed grape leaves and shrimp he told me about the three years he’d spent familiarizing people with his cuisine. Mustafa is a man who cannot be denied. His enthusiasm is contagious and the message got out. Now he’s always busy. “It’s really a very diverse population here” he said “because of the military. At our International Festival, there were forty five countries represented from the Fayetteville community.”        
 
 
            Walking off the meal at the seventy-seven acre Cape Fear Botanical Garden, I discovered what must be I-95’s best rest stop. A dazzling array of camellias, daylilies and expansive gardens wind through wooden paths and down to the Cape Fear River. A Heritage Garden with 1886 agricultural crops contrasts artistically with the magnificent visitor’s center that attracts dozens of weddings each year as well as classes and a cheerful café.      

            I learned that Fayetteville has some of the best soccer fields on the East Coast and hosts tons of amateur sporting events. I hope some of them stay at Home 2 Suites where environmentalism is more than a marketing tool. Tremendously green conscious and modern, I was especially pleased to find a complimentary breakfast that included a granola and fresh fruit bar and wholesome breakfast sandwiches instead of the usual over-processed sugary choices. 

             Later that evening I enjoyed an open mic night at “The Coffee Scene” where a multiracial crowd alternately fiddled with their smart phones and attentively listened to earnest guitarists and singers. Talking with the friendly audience members, my last misconceptions of Fayetteville fell. “You never feel like an outsider here because everyone is from elsewhere.” Melody Foote told me. And this revelation from Ashleigh Dippolito: the military is an agent of social change. “Fayetteville made me appreciate diversity” she tells me. “In the military everyone learns to work together and gets training in how to live with all kinds of people.”     

           Even if you don’t have children at UNC Chapel Hill, you owe it to yourself to spend a couple of nights at the historic and luxurious Carolina Inn. Its mix of early American and English Regency styles creates a unique atmosphere of easy elegance and historic ambiance that earned it a place on the National Historic Registry, one of the first hotels to do so. “I’m the keeper and the curator. I do the same things I did in the museum I worked in.” Ken Zogry tells me as he proudly points out woodblock printed wallpaper similar to that used by Jacqueline Kennedy in the White House renovation, a lighted cabinet displaying custom designed pine-motif china, portraits by Thomas Sully, extensive North Carolina-made furniture, botanical prints by Catesby, twelve hallways of photos of illustrious alumni and a bar lined with provocative cartoons from the Tar Hell Press. Displays are all annotated with descriptive labels that draw history-minded visitors. This approach to “pubic history” was another revelation to me. An “un-museum”. 

             The star of the culinary scene in Chapel Hill is undoubtedly the Southern Season, a sprawling department store-size food emporium. Carly Varney, VP of marketing explains that their goal is “to be the tastemakers of specialty food because it’s part of everyday existence that makes life brighter.” I happily wandered the expansive aisles. From bakery to deli to wine, to accessories to gadgets and finally to the high tech cooking classroom upstairs where Lynn Edgar greeted me.
Here’s where my education really kicked into high gear. I learn about manchego cheese, what a brunoise cut is, how to properly crack an egg, about bouquet garni and the very sophisticated “wiggle and mush” technique of whisking. Meanwhile twenty students and I prepared a delicious menu of tapas. Wine was pored as Lynn charmingly instructed us. “I’m not a measure-er. I’m a taster” she said. Classes are offered every day in every imaginable subject by a wide cast of instructors.          

            Franklin Street reset my calibration of Chapel Hill as a college town. Among the art galleries, cafes, boutiques and ethnic restaurants I reconsidered my misconceptions about the area and all that it has to offer. I’d learned so much on the way to college. 

 If you go:
Sherefe Mediterranean Grill: www.sherefe.net
Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau: www.visitfayettevillenc.com
Chapel Hill Visitor’s Bureau: www.visitchapelhill.org
The Carolina Inn: www.carolinainn.com
Cape Fear Botanical Gardens: www.capefearbg.org

This article was originally published in The Island Eye


Beach Bonfires are the Best


          One of fall’s greatest pleasures is a bonfire on the beach. What’s better than s’mores, hot dogs on sticks, maybe some guitars or drumming? This adventure doesn’t even require a long roadtrip. Although most local beaches do not allow fires, you can get a permit to have fires on Sullivan’s or Caper’s Islands.

           Having a party on the beach eliminates the need to clean house, cook an elaborate meal and get dressed up. All ages enjoy it. After hosting dozens of pot luck parties and bonfires on the Sullivan’s Island beach, my family has this down to a science. With our wide-tire wagon we can haul a folding table, trash can, cooler full of food, baskets of paper goods, drinks, bocce game, chairs, tablecloth and a backpack of sweaters in one trip. It’s like a Chinese puzzle. Once the wagon is empty, we use it to haul fire wood from the car. Vehicles are not allowed on the beach.
            Earlier in the day, we dig a hole for the fire. That shields it from the wind and makes it easier to bury afterwards. We make our hole about five feet in diameter and about two feet deep. Stacking the wood in a teepee arrangement with lots of fat lighter or a Dura-log in the middle gets it started quickly. It’s tricky to bring just enough wood to burn that night because you don’t want to haul any back and you can’t leave it on the beach. Bring a large shovel to bury the fire at 11 PM when the permit expires. Sand buckets double for hauling water to put the fire out easily.

            Our friends love these parties and bring fabulous food that can be eaten cold or heated on the fire. Some tips are to bring garbage bags and recycling containers and get the guests’ help in carrying trash and leftover food back up. Make sure to check the tide chart and set up where you won’t be swamped by incoming tide or the wake of passing freighters. We learned this the hard way when we lost all of our fried chicken (but saved the brownies thank goodness). On one particularly memorable occasion, we stood in awe as the harvest moon rose hugely on one horizon and the sun set on the other. That’s the kind of night that makes you grateful to live in South Carolina. 

            Anyone, even non Sullivan’s Island residents, can get a bonfire permit at Town Hall. The permit is free but a security deposit is required. Island property owners pay a deposit of $250, non residents pay $500. You’re only charged if you disobey the rules, otherwise the money is refunded afterwards. You’ll need to indicate a location, clean up completely afterwards and not include alcohol or loud music. Once the permit application is filled out, you must obtain a signature from the Town’s Fire Department and return it with the deposit to Town Hall. Bring a copy of the permit to the fire site. It’s not uncommon for the police to patrol the beach. This permit process can take a couple of days and they aren’t issued in cases of severe drought or fire danger. Cancellations are possible when there are strong winds, flood tides or other conditions.

            On Caper’s Island you must have a camping permit to stay overnight. They are free. With that permit, you’re allowed to have an “Indian fire”, a small bonfire. The number of permits is limited and very popular during the fall. Of course, you’ll need a private boat to get to Capers Island which is two islands north of Isle of Palms. An authentic South Carolina experience was a camping trip we took there with another family and our boatload of kids. While we women set up camp, the men went out and got bushels of fresh oysters which we cooked over the campfire that night. What an adventure! Reservations for camping at Caper’s Island are made through the Dept. of Natural Resources at 843-953-9360. 
            There are not many places on the coast where bonfires on the beach are permitted and those of us lucky enough to live here can enjoy this close-by adventure with just a little effort and planning. It’s an opportunity to have simple, wholesome fun with family and friends and enjoy the natural beauty of South Carolina. 






Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Girl's Roadtrip: Savannah Pajama Party!

            When Flannery O’Connor, Savannah’s gothic Southern writer and winner of the National Book Award, was six years old she taught a chicken to walk backwards and said, “That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. It’s all been downhill from there.” Obviously, she needed to get out more. To bad she didn’t live long enough to see Savannah transformed into one of the South’s best girl’s roadtrip destinations.

        Don’t remind Mayor Edna Jackson that her city was a Christmas gift from General Sherman to President Lincoln. As the city’s first female African American mayor, she’s having none of that attitude. She’ll tell you that today Savannah is full of people with many differing ideas but it “maintains Southern graces.” Her role, she says is to “bring a level of calmness.” That may not be so easy since she’s surrounded by feisty women like Diane McCray who turned an abandoned duplex full of transients into the quaint Green Palm Inn. Or Shannon Romaine who manages the Dresser Palmer House where the resident ghost of a child killed in a house fire leaves lucky pennies for guests. Or Teresa Jacobson of the Azalea Inn where rococo murals feature Juliet Lowe, Ted Kennedy, Oglethorpe, Indian chiefs and the inn’s building contractors among others. These women are savvy and smart and they’re taking care of business…all while wearing their pajamas.

       Yes, pajamas. And they’re inviting you to wear pajamas too. Imagine a girl’s trip where all you had to do was pack your toothbrush and pj’s. No dressing up. No big suitcase. Not only are they making you comfortable but they’re giving you fifty reasons to come in December. That’s the number of merchants, tours, restaurants and galleries offering discounts if you stay in one of the historic inns and shop in your pj’s. They’re calling it the “Pajama Shop Hop”. You’ll meet go-getters like Shoshanna Walker from “Nourish”. The story of how this aromatic soap store began stars Shoshanna’s mother, a serial crafter, who got carried away with a soap-making hobby. Soon all of her closets, tables and drawers were full of soaps. They took over her kitchen. She called her daughter who left college to help and Nourish was born. And there’s honey fanatic Ted Dennard of Savannah
Bee Company. Climb inside the store’s giant bee hive sculpture. Learn the subtleties of honey in a tasting and see the myriad of products made from the nectar.

       Or take a city tour with Old Savannah Tours. If you’re lucky you’ll get Angel as your guide. She’s sassy and ready to set you straight as she explains her city to you. “There’s haint blue and there’s ain’t blue. Haint blue keeps the spirits away. Ain’t blue is neither green nor blue.”

        Girls gotta eat too, right? So there’s the incomparable Ms. Wilkes Kitchen where Grandma’s original recipes are still served, every table is laden before you sit down with twenty items from collards to fried chicken to rutabagas to banana pudding. All you can eat for $18. No credit cards and everyone clears their own plate. Even President Obama. Their shirts say it all: “If the colonel had made chicken this good, he’d be a general.” And don’t miss one of Savannah’s landmarks, Leopold’s Ice Cream, where Mary Leopold carries on the
family tradition that began 93 years ago. Tutti Fruitti was invented here and they make all their own ice creams, syrups, cookies, even the gummy bears. Still hungry? Kick it up a notch and head to Vic’s on the River for a riverside dinner of gourmet creations.

        This is the city where Juliet Lowe is almost elevated to saint status for founding the girl scouts. Talk about feisty. Despite becoming deaf from a piece of rice that was thrown during her wedding, got caught in her ear and became infected, she started a counterpoint to the Boy Scouts and saw 168,000 members in her lifetime. There are 3.8 million Girl Scouts today. This year is the 100th anniversary of the founding and they’re expecting 185,000 visitors to tour her house.

        And what would a girl’s trip be without a little wildness? Well, the Pajama Shop Hop includes a key to Savannah’s secret speak-easy, Mata Hari’s. Down a steep staircase by the river, in a dark alley you wouldn’t normally venture, there’s a door. Give the secret knock and a small panel opens. Say the password and you’ll be welcomed into an exotic hidden nightclub. Absinthe is ignited and poured over antique spoons and sugar cubes. Torch singers in elbow length gloves emote. A red velvet curtain theatrically parts to reveal a mysterious stage show of dancers, fire eaters and singers.

        Actually everyone knows that Mayor Edna Jackson’s calmness is a cover for a fiery soul. For over fifty years she has participated in countless campaigns to improve her city beginning with “wade-ins”, sit-ins and “kneel-ins” that marked the start of Savannah’s Civic Right era. Today she is one of Savannah’s spirited women that makes the city vibrant, exciting and a great place to visit. And maybe to shop in your pajamas.

If You Go:
http://savannahinns.com/itinerary-suggestions/holiday-pajama-shop-hop-event-and-toys-for-tots/
www.savannahInns.com












 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Art and Wisdom on the Beach

 
 
 

            Behind the commendations and awards, including recognition for decades of service from the US Congress and meritorious civic engagement from the State of South Carolina, lives a philosopher. He’s been lauded for his years on Sullivan’s Island Town Council during the island’s incorporation and the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo. He started the Town’s first Little League team. The fire station is even named in his honor. But Red Wood also artfully bestows wisdom. 
            Paint on simple signs is his media. A bench in his front yard is his display. Poignant ideas about courage: “If you want a place in the sun, you have to expect a few blisters.” Ideas about living together: “Advice is like snow, the softer it falls the deeper it sinks.” Significant but funny ideas: “Middle age is actually the prime of life. It just takes a little longer to get primed.” and “If the shoe fits, keep looking for the other one.” Strangers sometimes knock on his door to learn more. For Red Wood, the reason for the display is simple, “I love people, to talk to people. I want to give people a message. Let them stop and think.” While recovering from a broken ankle years ago, Red started collecting and writing messages. When he’s inspired, he jots one down on a scrap of paper or paints it on a sign for the yard. They are scattered throughout his house and workshop: “The only one who listens to both sides of the argument is the neighbor.”; “The peacock of today may be the feather duster of tomorrow.” ; “If you are not afraid to face the music, you may one day lead the band.” 
            The photos and mementos in his modest marsh-side home on Thompson Ave., which his family bought from Fort Moultrie in the 1940’s, tell of a rich family history. Red married an island girl, Maggie McGuire, whose family had lived on the island since the 1800’s. In the backyard is his workshop where Red claims he “can build anything.” A large pile of old signs share a workbench with small repair projects. The joggling board in the yard is one of several he’s built for his large extended family which gathers often for dinners there. Several of his children live nearby including Woody Wood who helps with the construction projects these days. His daughters come visit and help around the house. Since his retirement after thirty years with the Naval Shipyard, he lives by these sayings: “With a hobby you can find yourself and lose yourself at the same time.” and “Live a happy life so when you get older you can think back and enjoy it again.”
            On Sunday, Nov. 4 from 1 to 5 PM, Red Wood’s home will be one of the featured stops at Creative Spark’s Art on the Beach and Chefs in the Kitchen. During the house and artists’ studio tour to ten island destinations, patrons can sample recipes from seven chefs, attend a reception at Station 22, purchase from over thirty artists, enjoy live music and choose a signed placard of Red Wood’s wisdom. Natasha Lawrence, a S.C. calligrapher, is artfully reproducing some of Red’s best quotes for the event. They are free in exchange for any donation to Creative Spark. Tickets are available at www.creativespark.org, at the Sandpiper Gallery and at Everyday Gourmet for $35 in advance. On the day of the tour, tickets will be sold at Sandpiper Gallery beginning at noon for $40.

 This article was previously published in the Island Eye News





Thursday, October 11, 2012

Getting to Spoleto the Hard Way: Hiking the Olive Grove Trail


         In Italy, they call it the “Festival Dei Due Mondi” (Festival of Two Worlds). The box office even has some of the same posters we hang in Charleston. “I’m from ‘the other world,’” I blurt. Glancing up disinterestedly, the ticket seller is decidedly unimpressed by the fact that we have traveled from the other “mondi” hiking more than 50 hilly, sweaty miles to get there.

         Ten days earlier my husband Mark and I had sat waiting at the appointed meeting spot in Foligno, anxiously asking ourselves, “Can you make a plan with a stranger via the Internet from 3,000 miles away, reveal your credit card number, and actually expect someone to show up?” But exactly at 2 p.m. Luc arrived. “I’m Swiss; I’m always prompt!” From a hilltop café with the next day’s destination on the horizon, he described our self-guided route along the Olive Grove Trail. Our walk would take us through some of the most untouched parts of Umbria down a trail lined with olive groves, past charming fortified villages, down ancient cobblestone streets and past Romanesque churches. St. Francis Di Assissi wandered this area in the twelfth century and today it’s home to some of the country’s best culinary delicacies, especially truffles. Most every family makes a signature olive oil from their groves. It sounded exciting, exotic, difficult and daunting. We quizzed him: “What if we get hurt?” “What if we get lost?” “What if we want to quit?” “Are we too old to do this?” “Why are we the only crazy ones going?” As we finished the first of the trip’s many bottles of Prosecco, Luc answered all our questions and we mustered our courage to begin.

        As we stepped into the olive groves early the next morning, farmers waved and wished us a good journey. The arcane directions became our Bible although they seemed to have been written by someone who was speaking English as a second language, was directionally dyslexic, and didn’t know the English definition of “path”: “After climbing all the steps up to the lovely village of Pale, you reach the Piazza de Castello. … it might sound weird but you must cross it and climb what looks like a path in front of you.” We bantered: “This rocky, overgrown, dried up streambed? It can’t be!” Reading further: “As the trail disappears, look sharply up the hill to the left and spot the roof of a pink house. This is your hotel.” We balked: “What?” “Where?” “That little building way up there?” “There’s no sign!” Mark threatened: “Tell me we’re not going to knock on someone’s door in the middle of nowhere! If that’s not it, I’m going to kill somebody!” Guess who. Bloodshed almost occurred when a confused woman answered our knock. Fortunately, the guesthouse owner intervened and we soon cooled off in the much-appreciated swimming pool.

         Our next day’s directions warned of “the most difficult day with many climbs and a long stretch on the asphalt road.” Ancient stone lanes meandered through Roviglierto, Santa Maria in Valle and other ancient villages, each surrounded by crumbling walls and simple farms. Hot and thirsty, we were surprised to find no stores at all. Not even someplace to buy a cold drink or sandwich. People tended their gardens and livestock, and shared the shade in the square where we ate our salami and bread and rested. Since it was a Sunday, the echo of church bells reverberated through the valley between the towns, the only sound as we walked. Deep in the forest, clinging to the rocky hillside, the Abbey of Sossavivo appeared as from a Grimm’s fairytale. Famous for its 14th century frescoes and chanting monks, today it was quiet and spooky. Maybe the monks were hiding or too hot to sing. Further on, we zigzagged up and down the hillside, catching sight of our next destination: the walled medieval town of Trevi in the distance.
 
     In the blazing midday sun, we began the long asphalt section that led into town. Although we drank plenty of water, dehydration caused our hands to swell and we could hardly close our fists. We decided to veer off course and treat ourselves to lunch. Despite our disheveled appearance, we joined a crowd of nicely dressed families and uniformed policeman raucously enjoying Sunday lunch and delighted in ample servings of pasta with truffles. Then we called the hotel to come and get us. We’re no fools. Arriving at the Casa Guilia, we reveled in the huge room at the top floor of the sprawling 17th century estate. We thought this was living the good life until we saw the next destination.

        The hike’s highlight was walking to Il Castello di Poreta described as “surrounded by lush forest and overlooking valleys of olive groves…the ultimate in tranquility, panorama and comfort.” Really? A castle? Or more like a Boris Karloff kind of castle? Leaving Trevi in the cool of early morning, we
arrived at noon after walking five hours. We were the only guests. The manager was very glad to see us, as our early arrival meant he could go home for the afternoon, leaving us all alone. King and Queen of our own castle. And it really was one too. It even had a private sixteenth century frescoed church and miles of views in every direction. Later that evening, the manager returned to cook us a sumptuous meal of stuffed pork, truffled potatoes, home made bread and local wine as we enjoyed the starry view from the terrace. It was hard to leave the next day. 
        “Rough and ready, ready to roll” was our daily mantra. We obstinately put faith in directions such as “Turn right by the red washtub”. And often got lost. Once we stopped a motorist to ask for directions, and he insisted on driving us to where he thought we should be. He let us out on a country road a few miles later and we were completely off the trail. We encountered very few walkers, no hikers at all. Villagers we passed smiled in amusement as we trudged by sweating in the heat. Two young Italian men were on a one-hour stroll and joined us one day, practicing their meager English. We were proud to tell them that we had walked ten days and were finally reaching Spoleto that afternoon. 

        Safe and exhilarated the next day in the wonderful Hotel La Macchia just outside of Spoleto, we were surprised to be summoned to the lobby for a visitor. It was Luc from the tour company coming to host a celebration for us. The friendly family that runs the hotel and Luc had prepared a little feast to toast our journey and hear our adventures. We had a tremendous sense of accomplishment, not only for reaching the destination but also because we had never had to call Luc for help. 

        Later in the week, crowded into our stone seats in the Teatro Romano, we watched Chip Menotti enter the 2,000 year old amphitheater with his entourage of high-fashion glitterati. Chatter in several languages surrounded us as the panorama of the Italian sky turned dark and the enrapturing sounds of Andy Garcia’s Cuban band began. This was the moment we had walked for. We Charlestonians at The Festival Dei Due Mondi.

Originally published in Charleston Magazine

Saluda: A Traveler's Refuge since the 1880's

         Back when summers in Charleston meant malaria and inescapable heat, Saluda North Carolina was a refuge. In the late 1800’s, it had over thirty boarding houses where families spent the season. Visitors often arrived via the East Coast’s steepest mainline railway which crested there. Today, Interstate 26 follows that route into the suddenly cooler air and continues to attract artists, vacationers and people with respiratory ailments. Saluda welcomes them with small town charm and history. The entire main street is a registered National Historic District filled with beautifully restored buildings housing art galleries, cafes and small businesses. Salamander Gifts is one of them. Home to over one hundred artists, this lively shop is just one of many that showcase the cosmopolitan talents of North Carolina artisans. Nearby are the gourmet offerings of the Purple Onion Café and the Wildflour Bake Shop where accomplished chefs and bakers provide sophisticated meals in casual settings. There are also the more down-home local diners like the Saluda Grade Café where a hearty breakfast will set you back just a few bucks. Many of the businesses are owned by escapees from the rat race, folks who have reinvented themselves. Here people still stop on the streets to chat, have pot luck dinners in the park and gather in the picnic shelter for weekly sing-a-longs. As I strolled around, a hearty rendition of “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain” drifted from the park. An all-ages ensemble was playing accordion, guitar, and dulcimer. A wooden dancing toy tapped a lively rhythm as neighbors laughed and sang together. This is the wholesome small town America that still exists just up the highway.  
         Joni and Rich Rauschenbach are part of the town’s resurgence. Traumatized and looking for change while living in post-911 New York, the Rauschenbach’s heard about a huge dilapidated inn in Saluda. Built in 1881 as a boarding house and a short walk to town, the inn had passed through several owners and fallen into disrepair. “There was no way in the world we were going to buy that place,” Joni recounts. “A year later, we were the new owners”. Rich had been a Harvard-educated computer expert working on Wall Street and Joni had a career in the wine industry. They were expecting their first child and yearned for a better way of life to raise a family. He envisioned a new career as a small town firefighter. But first they had to become instant renovation experts. To begin with they tore out walls and got rid of ratty rugs and furniture. “We’d hire contractors and plumbers who would work one day and never come back. So we’d have to do it ourselves. After the first bill came from the tile guy, we decided that we had to learn to do tile work.” Working in sections, sometimes around guests who had been coming for years, the inn was reborn as a 7,200 square foot gem that can accommodate up to 32 guests. One previous owner, local dentist Steve Michel, was “amazed”. Each room is uniquely and tastefully decorated with handmade quilts, claw foot bathtubs and antiques. A well stocked catering kitchen and an assortment of sitting rooms and porches provide space to spread out. Outside there are lawn games and sculptures. Downstairs Joni discovered a basement that looked “like they’d been having séances down there.” Now it’s a local gathering spot where fine wine, cheeses and chocolate are served around a fireplace. Recently she also opened the town’s only wine shop on Main Street. The inn caters not only to vacationers but is ideal for family reunions and retreats. The best deal is to rent the whole place with all 18 bedrooms for a week which comes out to about $150 per room for the entire week. Nightly rates are also offered. 
           The cool Carolina Foothills surround Saluda and offer a variety of outdoor adventures including hiking, picnicking and antiquing. The nearby Green River Game Lands offer more than 10,000 acres and sixteen miles of trails. The Blue Ridge Mountains are a short drive away and there is tubing and kayaking on the Green River just outside of town. Historically it was only the wealthy that could spend some of the hot summer months in Saluda. Now it is an opportunity for everyone.




Originally published Island Eye News    

www.saluda.com
www.saludainn.com











The Power of Pawley’s Island



A house by any other name…
            The fanciful names of the houses let you know this place has character: Pawley Wawley Doodle All Day, Justavacation, Fantasea, Tottering on the Drink, Dad’s Lega-sea, Conched Out, Snail’s Pace, As it Was, Mommy’s Relief. It’s obviously a place full of characters too who prominently display their iconic bumper sticker “Arrogantly Shabby”. Before I came to Pawley’s Island, I asked some folks who go there often what they do there. “Well, I spend the day walking to the inlet and back,” one said. “I sit on my porch and drink wine all day,” said another. There is really nothing to do on Pawley’s Island and that’s why people go there. No filling stations, no hotels, no grocery stores, no cruise ships. Pawley’s is really just a narrow four mile sand bar off the South Carolina coast with the marsh on one side and the vast ocean on the other. A hodge-podge of cottages, cabins and shacks started being built there in the 1850’s. A sprinkling of newer McMansions complete the mash-up of styles perched on the sand dunes among the oak trees and sea oats.

A stop at the Santee Coastal Reserve

            It takes about an hour and a half to drive to Pawley’s from our home in Charleston, SC. On the way my husband and I took the opportunity for some of the best bicycling in the state with a stop at the Santee Coastal Reserve just north of McClellanville. Once a huge rice plantation, the reserve is now a protected Wildlife Management Area. The 24,000 acres are arranged roughly in a grid with the lines providing easy, flat bicycling or hiking and the flooded areas hosting an abundance of migratory birds and alligators. The diverse habitats include rare Carolina bays, forests, brackish ponds and salt water marshes next to the Intracoastal Waterway. It has the reputation of being one of the finest and best managed wildlife areas in the Southeast but we practically had the place to ourselves as we rambled the trails through the forests and out to the marsh. “Every time I go on one of these excursions with you I come home bleeding. That’s how I know it was a good time” my good-natured husband joked as he put our bikes back on the car and bandaged some cuts and bruises from running into a thorn bush.  

Don’t let the factory fumes scare you off
            Farther up the coastal highway we came to the industrial town of Georgetown with its belching steel factory which reopened in 2004. From Hwy. 17 Georgetown looks uninviting but the reinvigorated riverfront has a lively boardwalk of boats, restaurants and bars where we joined a few others for a well deserved happy hour.  

Old fashioned and proud of it

            Just sixteen miles later, before the garish Disney-esque Myrtle Beach, we came to the tur-off for Pawley’s Island. Unless you rent a house, there are only two places to stay on the island. And they are open only seasonally. The Pelican Inn was still closed when we arrived in early April so we headed to the Sea View Inn. “Well this is…uh…quaint,” I said upon stepping into the screened porch entry. The Inn was built in 1937 and prides itself on maintaining its old-fashioned charm. “I want people to know what to expect,” the manager Kipp Chrismer said. “We keep everything the same year to year. If we have to renovate, we rebuild what was there.” This is one of the country’s last remaining beachside bed and boards. Meals are served at appointed times with weekly menus posted on the wall. Come when the dinner bell rings and eat what they’re serving. There’s no central air conditioning or heat in the main building and no place to sit in your room except the bed. Cellphones are prohibited. Read the prominent signs. Shared showers are down the hall. I was surprised to see that the rooms have no locks but somehow no one has reason to be concerned. A sign says that if you’re the last one up in the evening to “please turn out the lights.”
         
         Throughout the day and evening, the porches and the living room provide gathering places where people play games, read and relax. There’s lots of camaraderie. In fact many visitors have become part of a “Pawley’s Island Family” that gathers each year on the same week to vacation together. The culture of the Sea View Inn is incredibly strong and enduring. Kipp succeeded his parents who managed the inn previously. He’s been coming here since he was a small child when his godparents owned it. Some of the staff have been here for two or three generations. “They’re as much a part of the Sea View as the walls and beds are,” Kipp says. The kitchen staff is comprised of women and often their kin serving bountiful Low Country fare with Gullah and local adaptations: fresh seafood, rice, clam soup, sweet potato casserole, fried okra and green tomatoes, snap peas, shrimp n’ grits, cheese biscuits, BBQ chicken and Lowcountry shrimp boils are typical dinner fare. Meals are served with a decidedly unfussy attitude and are followed by homemade desserts with recipes that have been handed down in families. Pawley’s Island Pie is a favorite as well as lemon cream cake and strawberry cake with cream cheese frosting. Sometimes tourists or locals come just for these hearty authentic meals. If you stay a few days, the kitchen staff warms up to you. During our stay Mary Francis Duncan, who has been working at the inn for fourteen years, gathered her coworkers around a table and sang “Happy Birthday” to a child in a spiritual rendition inspired by years of singing in country church choirs.
            The setting couldn’t be more perfect. I could actually watch the sunrise over the ocean from my pillow. The beach is at the doorstep and everything needed to enjoy the sun and surf is just below the porch, help yourself. Boogey boards, kayaks, beach chairs, umbrellas. The common room is stocked with games and books, magazines and brochures. Photos and news clippings are tacked to the walls. During the chilly evenings, a fireplace blazed. There’s a shared refrigerator with labels to mark your wine and snacks but everyone shares them in the evening as life stories are told and scrabble or card games assembled.
            This lack of pretense has struck a chord with people. “I’ve dreamed of a place like Sea View Inn all my life and finally got to visit this summer. I hope to return again and again,” wrote one guest. Even more rhapsodic: “Here at last, here at last. Thank God Almighty, we’re here at last,” wrote another. Visitors often reserve their next stay before leaving. Impressively, the inn is booked pretty solidly throughout the season, mostly with returning guests who stay a week or more. Kipp creates a collage of smiling visitor’s faces each year for a mass mailing postcard as if every visitor has become part of the Sea View Inn family. One of the guests during our visit had been coming for fifty years in a row. I asked a mother and her two teen age daughters who were visiting for the first time from New Jersey if they could imagine themselves coming back every year for fifty years. I was remembering my own children’s reluctance to travel with our family when they were teenagers but to my surprise it was the fourteen year old Gabrielle who answered the quickest. “YES!” she immediately shouted. Such is the power of Pawley’s Island.


Originally published in the Island Eye News











Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Inside the Outsider Art of Vollis Simpson



            Vollis Simpson’s hands are like Paul Bunyan’s. Huge. Callused. Rough from a lifetime of farm work and welding. He approached us from across the field wearing scruffy overalls and a tattered straw hat. I somehow knew he was the artist although his appearance did not jibe with the image of someone who had recently been visited by the curator from the Smithsonian.

             My friend Rose and I had made the drive to rural North Carolina the previous day. A book had inspired us to seek out outsider artists. The South is particularly rich with these unschooled artists who are often driven by obsessive visions or religious passion. The route had been full of wrong turns and misdirection. We’d asked several of locals where the field of giant whirligigs was but until we stopped at the Ryan’s Steakhouse, no one seemed to have heard of it. “You mean those fancy telephone pole things that twirl around?” the waitress asked, “I know where that is.,” she’d told us. We’d driven back out into the darkness past moonlit fields of knee-high hay, sleeping cows and shadowy farm houses. “We better come back in the morning. I think we’re lost again.” I suggested. But as we went around one more curve on the asphalt road, our car’s headlights illuminated a sight that caused us to slam on the breaks. Stretching for acres were towering sculptures covered chock-a-block with reflectors, shooting sparkles of colors in every direction. As the wind blew, gears spun the giant blades, shooting kaleidoscopes of colored lights to the horizons in both directions. Party favors from Alice in Wonderland. A couple of cars went by without stopping, somehow jaded to the sight. We were awestruck and stayed until midnight.

             The next morning we were eager to return to in the daylight. As we ate at the B&B in Wilson, we showed the other guests and the innkeeper photos in a book we were using as our guide (Self Made Worlds by Mark Sloan). “Look at these!” Rose exclaimed. “And it goes on for 10 acres! If ya’ll want to come with us, you can follow us.” “Whirly whats?” the woman from Charlotte asked. “They look very….interesting but we’re going antiquing” The innkeeper had never been there and it was only 5 miles away.  

        In the daylight it was even more impressive. Craning our necks back, we watched the kinetic display. Each telephone pole size whirligig was a scene that turned as the wind blew. Ferris wheels spun, ducks and chickens flew past smiling cats, trains traveled down tracks, men sawed wood, suns and moons revolved. The rudimentary shapes of the farm tools, gears and tractor parts that the sculptures were made from were vaguely identifiable. 

            As Vollis Simpson, the artist, approached us from the shed a field away, I felt like I was about to meet a legend. A tall man, he walked straight and upright despite his apparent age. His face told of years in the sun on a tractor. “How did you get started with this?” I asked him. He explained that after sixty years of working his farm, he retired to find his land littered with spare parts, cast-offs and garbage. Without a clear artistic plan or training, he had started welding them together and had become an accidental artist. He acted like he had all the time in the world to stroll around pointing out his favorites: Mules pulling a wagon and a huge rock and roll band modeled after his son’s that required strong gusts of wind to turn it. There were no other visitors. Eventually he led us to a large barn and we walked in and gasped to see thousands of smaller sculptures in heaps and piles and smaller whirligigs on shelves and tables in various states of completion. The enormity of his vision and the boundless energy and drive he had for his artform astounded us. There was also an edge of madness.  

If you go: Wiggins Mill Road, between Wilson & Lucama, North Carolina 

For more information on Vollis Simpson and other outsider artists, see Self Made Worlds, by Mark Sloan and Roger Manley or

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/06/arts/design/06vollis.html?pagewanted=all

















Up Mt. Le Conte and Back into History

                                    
           In the 1920’s, before any national parks existed in the Eastern part of the country, visionaries from Washington climbed the 6,300 foot peak to Mt. Le Conte and perceived the vast spectacle of what they would later name the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. As we gazed at the same wondrous vista of rugged peaks and forested ridges, we understood their resolve.

             Our adventure had begun when I’d turned the page on my calendar and seen the note “book Le Conte Lodge”. “Why did I write that?” I wondered. After a quick Google, I remembered that it is one of the country’s only hike-to inns. Each night from March to November, about sixty guests make the arduous climb to sleep in roughly hewn cabins. Despite the primitive conditions and challenging journey, most of the reservations are filled as soon as the yearly booking process begins.

            So the following May, my husband and I headed out. The Rainbow Trail, one of four to choose from, begins incongruously a few miles outside of Dollywood, Tenn. One minute you’re looking out the car window at plastic flower bouquets, the next you’re admiring rhododendrons. Sturdy walking sticks that considerate hikers had abandoned at the trail head awaited us. The day was sunny and warm. We removed layers of clothing as we went. Two hours in, a beautiful waterfall was a picture-perfect picnic stop. We were luckier than some previous hikers who recounted rain “…got caught in a torrential downpour with about 1 mile left…we struggled though the last mile soaking wet, slipping on rocks…” or bears “Saw three different bears… They were not a threat, just looking for a free meal”. Some hikers had telescoping ski poles and rugged hiking boots, and matching Patagonia ensembles. Others like us, had shorts and t-shirts and running shoes. The rocky, relentlessly steep path was challenging for everyone. By the fifth hour, we were happy to see the rustic lodge ahead, ramshackle though it is.
         Jack Huff began the lodge as a tent camp in 1926, before the National Park was established. He and his wife lived there until 1960. Their story is one of our country’s great pioneering tales. Everything had to be brought up by pack mule. Llamas still bring up supplies today. Jack even carried his invalid mother up the mountain in a specially built chair strapped to his back. His vision was to create an authentic experience for adventurous visitors. Today there is still no electricity, hot water, or telephones. A stay at the lodge begins with a quick orientation and a bucket. From the communal spigot we took water to our bunk house to clean up. There was hot coffee, hot chocolate and rocking chairs on the porch to take in the views. Peak after peak of forested mountains and rocky summits surrounded us in every direction. Not a sign of civilization until nightfall when we could see the twinkling lights of Gatlinburg on the horizon.

            At the communal dinner table, we met our fellow travelers of various ages and fitness levels. One woman barked at my husband “Don’t talk to me. I’m exhausted” but most were friendly. Everyone told stories of other outdoor adventures. Some had been to the lodge numerous times. The food reminded me of my high school cafeteria but plentiful. Fortunately we had the “bottomless” glass of wine. The sleeping accommodations include one-room cabins or larger ones like we had with a shared area surrounded by bunk rooms for two. There was a propane heater which we needed even in May and plenty of blankets and pillows. The bathrooms have flush toilets but no showers.

            The next morning we savored the setting before starting the surprisingly challenging downward hike. The lodge had packed us a lunch and refilled our water bottles. By the time we reached Dollywood, we were sweaty, tired and happy to enjoy the Hard Rock Café’s a.c. Tall cool margaritas in hand, we toasted our accomplishment and Mt. Le Conte: one of the Southeast’s greatest adventures.
   
Originally published in the  Island Eye                                                                                                                    
Want to go?
Booking the trip: www.leconte-lodge.com For reservations, fill out the form on the website beginning in August to put your request into the lottery for reservations beginning Oct. 3. Or call or email starting Oct. 3.
Cost: Current rates are $116 per adult including food and lodging. Bottomless glass of wine is an additional $9 per person.













Join the Conga Line at The Lake Eden Arts Festival

The Lake Eden Arts Festival waterfront.

            Does your routine, conventional daily life ever get you down? Do bumper stickers like “What if the hokey pokey is what it is all about?” or “Normal people worry me” amuse you? Have you worn enough khaki for now? Want to reach into the back of your closet for that tie dye or colorful Guatemalan shirt, maybe even splash on some glitter? Make reservations now to go to the October Lake Eden Arts Festival.

            We and our friends started going to the festival thirty years ago and have attended dozens of times. Held on the site of a boy’s summer camp in Black Mt. North Carolina, the festival includes several stages, dancing, a poetry slam contest plus vendors and healing arts areas. A huge children’s area has stages, craft-making and activities like climbing walls and trapezes. Most people tent camp, which is free with a weekend pass. Or you can rent a rustic 9-12 bunk bed cabin. Sitting on the cabin’s shady porch sipping coffee and listening to the music begin is a great way to start the day.
       
        Headliners draw folks to LEAF. Galactic, Leo Kottke and Sweet Honey in the Rock are among the dozens of bands coming this October. One year we stayed until the closing act on Sunday afternoon to hear Richie Havens. My friend Annie wanted him to sign the poster he had autographed for her at Woodstock. The same songs that had moved our younger selves moved us again. LEAF is when we are reminded of the power of music. Magical moments like joining Sarah Lee Guthrie in a sing-along of her grandfather’s “This Land is Your Land”. Healing moments like The Brotherhood Gospel Group after the 9/11 disaster: 200 tearful people with arms uplifted swaying together.

         But it’s the acts you never heard of that are the most exciting: African rock, world music, electrifying Appalachian, roots of the Blues... During a particularly energetic samba band, my friend Terese and I were trying to emulate the curvaceous Latina dancers, even though we have neither the bodies nor steps. Suddenly a tall muscular woman bounded towards us and pushed Terese out of the way. “Let me show you!” she demanded taking me forcefully into her arms. With her compelling lead, I started to get the idea. As the music ended she tightly encircled my waist and lifted me high into the air. “That was great!” she said before vanishing into the crowd. A real LEAF moment.

            Watching the contra dancing, which resembles square dancing, is almost as much fun as doing it. Almost. You can dance about ten hours a day. Some people do. A huge roomful of twirling, entwining, swirling dancers follow calls like “gypsy”, “allemande left” and “doesy-do” accompanied by stellar bands. Lines and squares separate and rejoin in intricate patterns that the caller repeats until a kaleidoscopic order magically forms. Then the calling stops and the dancers continue by memory. Once a loud thunderclap suddenly shut off the electricity and the room went dark. Only vague unamplified music was left. Without missing a beat the dancers continued, driven by their own claps and foot stomps. So exhilarating. It reminds me of my father swinging me around by our hands when I was a little girl, up into the air, around and around. Whee!

        There’s nothing like a drum circle to get your ya-yas out. At the top of the mountain, around a bonfire, people of all ages and cultures beat on djembes, congas, tambourines or even buckets. The leaderless mélange of extemporaneous music stops and starts with its own logic. No bystanders here. Dancers gyrate around the fire. No one seems sleepy or remotely self conscious. For a young boy like our son, it was mesmerizing. Many nights we’d see Philip’s bed empty and find him enthralled at the drum circle.

        For our group of friends and the children we raised, the LEAF Festival has been one of our most formative family experiences. Our kids sang and played music for us, got tossed by acrobats, danced with us, splashed into the lake on zip lines, made crafts to sell and reveled in freedom and safety. After spending pocket money with vendors, they’d return looking like Jerry Garcia’s children with beanie hats, hacky sacks and tie dye shirts.  

       LEAF is more than an arts festival. It’s wholesome, entertaining and enlightening. It’s a place where everyone can unabashedly let their hair down, take a break from normal and join the conga line.

Originally published in the Island Eye News

 Want to go?

LEAF Festival is each Oct. and May.  Tickets are ONLY sold in advance and almost always sell out. See www.theleaf.com for more information.