Reconnecting with My Mountain Roots: Day 1

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The kids had a couple days off for fall break last week, and so, because we are rugged people, we made a dash to the mountains of North Carolina.

Having grown up and lived almost my whole life in Florida, you might not expect me to be a mountain man, but I most definitely am. In fact, many years ago when I went away to law school in Virginia for six weeks, I bought a pair of hiking boots, which still sit in my closet under a pile of pillows to this very day. It’s not so much that you live in the mountains, it’s that the mountains live inside you.

On our first foray into my homeland with all three children in tow, it quickly became apparent that they share my mountain blood. When we pulled up to our Airbnb, which didn’t require a 4x4 to access but that’s okay because we didn’t want to overdo it, the four-year-old requested that I carry him inside because otherwise his feet would get cold. It was in the high sixties, so it was a valid concern.

Later that first night, while the boys were enjoying playing Roblox on the laptop and iPad at higher elevation, my wife and I were busy searching for activities to fill the next two days. Gem mining was already penciled in because our six-year-old had already told everyone who’d asked that was what we were doing in the mountains. Otherwise, we were wide open. I suggested that we hike to a waterfall. The six-year-old countered by saying we could just hike, but not to a waterfall because he had already seen a waterfall twice while playing putt-putt. It was a fair point, but I penciled in waterfall hike in bold letters anyway.

Our first full day in the mountains started early because we have children. To be fair, it actually started later than we expected considering that all three kids slept in the loft on a bunk bed with a pullout trundle bed on the bottom. It took a good deal of exasperation, but they did all fall asleep and stay asleep until nearly dawn. Perhaps it was the mountain air or unlimited screen time that did the trick.

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The first stop on our Friday adventure was, of course, the gem mine. We pulled into the empty gravel parking lot in the late morning. The mine was empty save for the one employee: a young man who seemed nice enough. We purchased a two-gallon bucket of dirt for a reasonable price that was somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred dollars and the young man, who appeared to have a lovely head of hair hidden under his baseball cap, instructed us to grab some scoops and follow him outside. We took turns scooping dirt from the bucket into the sluices and arguing over who was and who was not supposed to be scooping. This process lasted about twenty minutes. We were fairly careful for the first ten minutes or so, but it was bitterly cold, so by the time we were done, we chucked most of the rocks and sand that was left in the baskets into the scrap containers. In addition, the two-year-old got loose with the scoop for a few minutes and dumped several scoopfuls of dirt straight into the water. With my luck, one of those scoopfuls probably contained the Hope Diamond.

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When we finally finished, we scampered back inside with frozen hands and three little plastic bags filled with gems and rocks. Mostly rocks. My wife asked the young gentleman with luxurious hair if he could help us identify our gems. He replied by saying that he wasn’t actually much of a rock or person, but he could try. His career in the tourist gem mining industry might be short-lived, but he is quite affable and reasonably tall, so I’m sure he’ll turn out fine. Together we were able to determine that we might have a couple good-sized amethysts and some tiger’s eye. My wife then asked if they cut gems into jewelry as indicated on the website. He pulled out a laminated sheet, waved it in our direction vaguely, and said yes, they could do that, but he wasn’t pushing it. In case you were wondering, gem mining employee is my favorite person in the world and I hoped we would run into him later at the pub so we could hang.

Grandfather Mountain was our next stop. We pulled up to the window at the entrance and told the park employee we had two adults and two children over age three. He demanded that we surrender something like two thousand dollars and then he let us in. After he took our money, he told us that everything was open except for the hiking trails and asked if that was okay. I wanted to reply, “I guess so, since we already paid three months’ salary,” but I decided to just say “yes, that’s fine” because in addition to being very rugged, I’m also an extremely cheery person.

We popped the audio tour CD we received in exchange for our seven-hundred-dollar ransom into the car CD player, which I had forgotten existed, and headed up the mountain. We learned that Forrest Gump ran one of the curves, and while Tom Hanks had planned to send his brother as a body double for the scene, he couldn’t resist the chance to come to Grandfather Mountain, so he made the trip over from an adjacent state where he was filming. Hopefully he brought his wallet.

When we made it to the top, we disembarked in the parking lot and I was nearly blown off the edge of the mountain by the howling winds. That would have been unfortunate because I would have missed out on the opportunity to buy an assortment of Grandfather Mountain-themed items with my name on them in the gift shop for forty-two dollars and fifty cents each. We walked through the gift shop and up the stairs to access the iconic swinging bridge that doesn’t swing and the mountain summit. The moment we stepped outside, and the icy winds whipped against our faces, the two-year-old started howling because she is the smartest member of the family. My wife and I then took turns accompanying the boys across the bridge, so we could take pictures by the sign, while the other waited inside with the two-year-old where it was warm and there were Skittles.

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After I bought a uniquely terrible cup of coffee because I was desperate, we made our way back to the car without losing anyone over the edge. The extra pound or two I packed on by eating a milkshake and fries from Cookout the day before probably saved me from being buffeted off the mountain and toppling to my death. We learned later, when our four-year-old made us play the CD after we left, that we missed the fudge shop somewhere halfway up the mountain. My wife and I were both bummed, but it probably saved us at least seventy-five dollars.

We stopped for lunch and real coffee at The River Dog Coffee House and Café in Linville. Perhaps it was because the taste of the Grandfather Mountain burnt tar coffee was lingering in my mouth, but The River Dog’s coffee with pecan notes tasted exquisite. We also bought sandwiches and hot chocolates and a couple bottles of water, so, of course, our total bill was around eight hundred dollars.

Most importantly though, the lady running the café asked where we were from and when we said Florida, she was astonished because we were the second family in a row from Florida. She pointed to the other family, who were the only other customers present. They were still picking at the remnants of their lunch. I glanced over at the fellow Floridians but looked away quickly because they clearly hadn’t heard the momentous news. I didn’t want them to think I was a weirdo gawking at them. I gawked at them later from the safety of our table. They had the look of western Florida people. No thanks. Anyway, we later learned that the teenaged boy also working at the café was born in Florida. He moved to Beech Mountain after his mom, who had immigrated from Scotland, fell in love with the place. She hated Florida. His dad was a Florida native and loved it, but apparently, he ruined his life for the sake of the family. I asked the boy if he had ever been to Scotland and he said no. “There are a bunch of us, so plane tickets are too expensive.” The conversation only lasted about a minute, but it was a wild ride.

Nearly as wild was our next stop at Linville Falls. I am a waterfall fiend, so no matter what my six-year-old said, hiking to a waterfall was a must do. When I was searching for falls near Beech Mountain, Linville Falls sounded familiar. I suspected it was the one my brother and I had hiked maybe twenty-five years ago. When we pulled off the Blueridge Parkway into the Linville Falls parking lot, nothing seemed familiar. First of all, the parking lot seemed much bigger and there was a small visitor center I had no memory of. As we embarked on the hike, the path was smooth and well maintained. I thought it might get more difficult the farther we went, but it didn’t. It certainly wasn’t as hardscrabble as I remembered. Hardscrabble is how I like my hiking and most other things come to think of it. Once we reached the falls, they looked much different, too, and were pointing in the opposite direction from what I remembered. It is likely that it was a totally different place, but the possibility remains that they made significant upgrades to the facilities in the past twenty-five years and repositioned the waterfalls.

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The kids did pretty well on the hike. They seemed to enjoy it and I only had to carry the four-year-old a few times. My wife and the two-year-old turned back before we reached the second, more distant waterfall viewpoint, but she also walked the whole way on her own. The only hiccups were when we were leaving the second viewpoint and the four-year-old insisted on walking on the fence rail leading up the steps. He inched along, taking about ten minutes to traverse forty feet of fence. All the people who passed by him seemed thrilled. Later, about half way back to the start of the trail, the six-year-old was playing around, slipped, and almost fell down the slope. His feet went out from under him and he fell on his bottom. Luckily, he was right by a tree, which kind of blocked his slide. It would have only been a slide of fifteen feet or so anyway, so it was fine. And don’t worry, I played it completely cool. The college kids passing by were almost certainly impressed by my unflappability.

After wrapping up our very full day of mountaineering and general ruggedness, we made the drive back to our house. We ordered take-out pizza from a restaurant on top of Beech Mountain. There were no prices on the take-out menu, so we were surprised to learn that our total bill for two pizzas, a pasta dish, and a side of garlic bread was approximately two hundred dollars. Perhaps you have noticed a theme in this post with my continual reference to (slightly exaggerated) prices of various items: The altitude at Beech Mountain isn’t the only thing that is elevated.

After I ate an entire pizza because I wasn’t about to let pizza made of gold go to waste, and the kids played two hours of Roblox because they were experiencing withdrawals, we settled in for bedtime. I could say it went smoothly, but I’ve already told enough lies. However, considering our children’s ridiculously finicky sleep requirements, I was pleasantly surprised that they went to sleep at all in the shared bunk bed, trundle bed set-up. Sure, both parents ended up back upstairs for the night within a few hours, but still, it was a decent end to a pretty good day.

And since this has gotten really long, I’ll save the day two recap for another time. Sneak preview. It was rugged and cold and there was a hay ride that we had to sell one of the children to afford. More on that later.

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