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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Jacksonville Beach: What Has Endured

             Elizabeth Stark came to what she called the “perfect paradise” of Mayport, Florida in 1914.  There were too many gray-haired people in the rest of the state to suit her she quipped.  Ambitious and savvy, she and her husband bought all the land they could:   hundreds of coastal acres.  It was christened Wonderwood.  They built a 1,000 foot fishing pier and several houses.  They raised polo horses and grew figs. She anointed herself the Queen of a cast of eccentric characters that included mobsters, movie stars, industrialists and treasure hunters that took advantage of the new rail lines  It endures today as a picturesque car ferry.  Wonderwood became a symbol of the developing South and Elizabeth its defender.  When World War I broke out, she famously protected her bulwark by assembling a stalwart troop of armed Girl Scouts on horseback that patrolled the beaches.  “Although we never had any spies arrested, we kept a lot of them on the move,” she boasted in her memoir. 
making their way South.  Previously the only way to easily reach Mayport was by shooting a gun in the air to call a rowboat ferry which began in 1874 to carry farmers, merchants and travelers across the St. John’s River.
            But time in her paradise was curtailed by the government. In 1940 the Marines evicted the Starks, raised Wonderwood and built an officer’s club.  President Roosevelt insisted that Mayport become a military base. An officer “followed me out on the street and told me to leave and never put my foot on the property again,” she wrote.  Unbowed, she found “a suitable shack” on the beach to live in which reminded her of the Girl Scout “hun hunters”. She claimed she was happy. 
            Meanwhile, along the nearby coast, hotels were springing up to meet the growing demand:  The Continental, The Atlantic Beach Hotel, Perking House and the Palmetto Lodge.  The Spanish-Mediterranean designed Casa Marina was built in 1924. Every one of those hotels except the Casa Marina burned to the ground, victims of the lethal combination of heart pine floors, lanterns and candles.  It was fire proof, constructed of stucco, concrete and tile.  It had the beach’s first sprinkler system.  So it endured.  Its tenacity is reminiscent of Elizabeth Stark’s.  She could have been its muse.
    Like Wonderwood, the Casa Marina and its ocean-side dancing are a symbol of the glamour of the golden age.  In the 1920’s the hotel hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Rockefellers and President Truman.  Jean Harlow and Al Capone were rumored to have been guests.  Machine Gun Kelly came to dine.  Spenser Tracy and Katherine Hepburn may have rendezvoused there. Weekly rates were $25 including three meals per day. Along the 40 miles of beach, women swam in shoes and rented woolen bathing suits that weighed up to 25 pounds when wet.  Just up the beach a Red Cross life-saving station was established in 1915.  It is now the oldest continuing operating
volunteer corps in the country. But then the military cut it all short just as it had for the Starks.  It appropriated the hotel for military housing during World War II.  A succession of owners and businesses followed until 1991.  Then it was boarded up for eleven years until being elegantly renovated and reborn as one of the 240 Historic Inns of America.

The unique Spanish-Mediterranean architecture remains but the hotel has been remodeled into 18 two-room suites and 5 rooms. An attic has been transformed into a stylish rooftop martini bar with unparalleled views of the coastline and a lively, cosmopolitan scene.  The ocean-side courtyard where brunch the dining room attracts a full house for Executive Chef Aaron Webb’s “new beach” cuisine: a combination of local and Southern tastes.  The crowning glory is his whole roasted red snapper which is seasoned and slow roasted while poised in an upright, swimming position.  It’s so photogenic; diners often want the chef to pose with it for snapshots.
            Steps outside the hotel are the other attractions of Jacksonville Beach:  the boardwalk with its souvenir shops and fast food, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird Lounge.  There’s a popular quarter-mile-long fishing pier. There are surfers and swimmers, jet skis and boaters.  Mark Vandeloo, General Manager of the Casa Marina, “took a huge interest in the hotel as I met the people who walked in the door. They had fond memories or a story of its history and what it meant to them.”  He considers
himself the guardian of the hotel’s history which is artfully depicted in vintage photographs that line the hallways.  But he also looks towards the future.  “Hopefully in another 90 years, people will visit and tell their story ….. about the great experience they had.”
More photos are  here

If You Go:
Jacksonville Beach
Casa Marina:

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Art on the Beach to Benefit Charleston Pro Bono Services

Poster Image by John M. Hoffman
            For sixteen years the popular fundraiser Art on the Beach & Chefs in the Kitchen has drawn hundreds of visitors to Sullivan’s Island for an afternoon house tour replete with over twenty-five artists selling their creations, live music and tasty treats from chefs and food purveyors.  On Sunday, Nov. 8 several architecturally significant houses, artists’ studios and an historic battery will be part of the tour benefiting Charleston Pro Bono Services which provides free legal aid to over 800 people in our community each year.  With so many situations requiring a lawyer, Charleston Pro Bono Services ensures that the doors of justice are open to all, regardless of income.  They match low income clients with attorneys to help solve problems ranging from custody to contractual issues to paternity. 
            Typical of their cases is “David” who, when he approached the agency, was living in a camper after losing his job due to years of severe bad health.  The Social Security Administration had already denied his claim twice but with the help of a volunteer attorney from Charleston Pro Bono, David received a favorable decision that provided a monthly income.  Another client, “Mr. Morris”, came seeking visitation of his son.  Since he was not married to the mother of the child, SC law had awarded the mother full custody.  With the help of a volunteer attorney, Mr.  Morris is now able to visit his son weekly.  Volunteer lawyers also helped “Ms. Betty” who was being harassed by a usurious loan company who had taken advantage of her poor mental health.  With the help she received, the loans were resolved.  Another client, Mrs. Guerrero needed a spelling error on her son’s birth certificate corrected.  The error had created an avalanche of problems with school enrollment and obtaining a passport.  After the resolution she said, “When the lawyers from this office helped us to correct the birth certificate then I was able to get a passport and everything was resolved. So I’m very grateful to the attorneys who helped us so much.”  What may be a routine case for the volunteer lawyers is often critically important to the hundreds of clients who seek aid each year since the complexities of the legal system can often be confusing and frustrating.
      Over thirty artists are scheduled to be on site during the tour to talk to patrons about and sell their creations ranging from wearable art to paintings.  Many artists come every year including jewelry maker Marion Berry who said after last year, “Totally enjoyed being an artist at this event. Had a great time meeting everyone that came by and shopped with me.” The celebrated poster artist this year is John Michael Hoffman whose impressionistic paintings are full of vigor, vitality and texture. He will be meeting people at Sandpiper Gallery that day.
The VIP party bus will be a
 lively addition. 
            During the event, patrons can drive or bicycle around Sullivan’s Island using a map provided with their tickets.  A new option this year offers a VIP ticket with party bus transportation.   Tickets for Art on the Beach and Chefs in the Kitchen are $40 in advance, $45 the day of the tour or VIP tickets for $100 which includes lively, comfortable transportation with libations and commemorative gifts. Tickets may be purchased on line at, at Sandpiper Gallery on Sullivan’s Island or at the ticket booth at Battery Gadsden (1917 I’On) on Nov. 8 starting at noon.  Sponsors include Jerry and Cheryl Kaynard, Mt. Pleasant Urgent Care, RPWB law firm, Lucky Dog Publications, Lowcountry Sun Publications, Herlong and Associates, Pratt-Thomas Walker and area restaurants  and food purveyors including the Old Village Post House, The Granary, Bull’s Bay Saltworks,  Palmetto Brewery, Lowcountry Olive Oil and the Americano.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Riches of Cherokee, North Carolina

      In 1813, the brave Cherokee leader Junaluska became a hero. He regretted it forever. Over a hundred Native Americans were recruited by him to join Andrew Jackson’s fight against the Creek Indians. Junaluska swam across the Tallapoosa River, took the Creek’s canoes and helped win the battle. Then he made the fateful move that sealed his people’s future. He saved Andrew Jackson’s life. “If I had known that Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him that day…” he later said. By then he’d survived the Trail of Tears, a 2,200 forced march from North Carolina to Oklahoma and two escapes that finally ended when he walked all the way home. His lineage continues near Cherokee, N.C. where many geographic places bear his name.   
       Faye Junaluska perpetuates the Cherokee culture through her work as a weaver, teacher. Surrounded by beautiful displays at the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee, NC she told me the story of her childhood. She and her siblings learned the Cherokee craft of basket weaving from their mother Emma Taylor. “You have to go into the woods, find your tree,” she explained. “It must be a white oak ten to twelve years old. You have to take the whole tree down, split the trunk, quarter it into sections, split it into strips, scrape it and dye it using the leaves, roots and bark of walnut or butternut trees and digging the bloodroot and yellow root plants”. It’s hard, frustrating work. “Making baskets with grandma, I threw many across the floor,” she remembered. Now her blistered, calloused hands work competently. The shelves of the art center contain a multitude of authentic, museum-quality creations that provide an antidote to the world of anonymous, disposable souvenirs.
      At the Cherokee Museum nearby, I was greeted by the striking appearance of Jerry Wolfe.His long grey braid, cowboy hat, weathered face and beaded bolo necktie attracted me.  In 2013 he was named the Cherokee nation’s “Most Beloved Man”. It was the first time since 1801 that the title had been bestowed. He was recognized by museum archivist Bo Taylor who said, “Jerry embodies everything a beloved man should embody. He’s a veteran, a warrior. Being a veteran carries a lot of weight in our culture. He’s a man who gets out and does - and he does for others. He’s selfless.”  “You might call me an active man,” Jerry demurred. I followed him to the museum’s centerpiece, a life-size statue of a young, muscular warrior in ceremonial dress wearing an antlered helmet and loincloth and holding aloft a burning ember. “That’s me,” Jerry said. His body was cast by the artist decades ago. He stood beside his younger version for a photo, a telescope of history. Interactive displays tell the story of the Cherokees from 12,000 years ago to the present by combining computer-generated imagery, special effects, and audio with an extensive artifact collection. It’s done so well that Van Romans of Walt Disney Imagineering said “The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is revolutionary in its ability to tell stories and should be a model to other museums that are struggling to engage their audience in their message.”

       I spent the night at the incongruous Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort where Ahinawake Littledave showed me around the massive 21-story building.  “There are many things to do here,” she said pointing out a state- of-the-art 3,000 seat performance hall being set up for Jay Leno, the miles of gaming tables, clanging slot machines, sedate poker rooms, various table games and  ten on-site food and restaurant choices.  As a full service resort, the property features a spa, shops, live entertainment and swimming pools. Ms. Littledave
touted the various ways that the resort helps the community by using it as a training ground for tribal members aspiring to become managers and the twice yearly profit sharing checks that all Cherokees receive as well as scholarship, educational and health funds.  An extensive collection of Cherokee art adorns the building.  A rooftop garden spills into 7 waterfalls representing the 7 clans.  Since the casino opened in 1997, “It’s a different way of life,” she noted.  The occupancy rate runs about 95%, drawing people from all over the Southeast hoping to win big jackpots like the $200,000 winner Ms. Littledave saw or to qualify for the World Poker Tour.
       Whether you win jackpots or not, the enrichment from stopping here is invaluable. Despite the tragic and moving history, Cherokee wisdom and humor seem to endure as in this adage: “When the white man discovered this country, Indians were running it. No taxes, no debt, women did all the work. White man thought he could improve on a system like this.” Cherokee, North Carolina has lots of stories to tell.

If You Go:

Museum of the Cherokee Indian:

Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual:

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort:

Originally published in The Island EyeThe Island ConnectionLowcountry Senior Sun, and the Lowcountry Sun.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Big City Buzz in Charlotte


 In 1941, sick and confined to bed, unable to stand at an easel and paint, it seemed Henri Matisse’s artistic life was over. Critics had labeled him the “wild beast” for his startlingly bold colors.  Now he was a broken man.  But Matisse was not bowed.  He began each day with poetry which he compared to oxygen, “just as when you leap out of bed you fill your lungs with fresh air.” From his bed he began “painting with scissors”, cutting out huge color-saturated shapes and arranging them with the help of his assistants and grandchildren until they filled his room. “You see, as I am obliged to remain often in bed…I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk… There are leaves, fruits, a bird.”  He continued to create for 13 more years, pushing his art further than ever.  He called it his “grace period”. He even attached a piece of chalk to a long pole and drew the faces of his grandchildren on the ceiling so he could look up at them while he went to sleep.  “I am deeply contented, happy,” he said.
           Christopher Lawing, Vice President for Programming and Research for the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, enthusiastically recounted this inspiring story as we toured the light-filled galleries where 80 framed prints of these collages are on display through Sept. 7 as part of the exhibition The Art Books of Henri Matisse.  Jazz is the most famous with its imagery drawn from the circus and music halls.  It’s considered one of the greatest illustrated books of the 20th century. Christopher pointed out Matisse’s masterful use of positive and negative space, how he “riffed on philodendron” and his preoccupation with color and light that fueled his intense joie de vivre.  (A two minute narrated video of the exhibit is here.)  Mario Botta, the museum’s architect also “curated light” in the diminutive building where soaring windows frame skyscrapers. Christopher explained that critics responded with shock, amazement and occasional laughter to Matisse’s work, but “we need artists to shock and awe to move us forward.”  We speculated together on which contemporary artists were moving us forward now.   I left inspired, full of new ideas.

           Charlotte is a big city full of the vitality and creative energy, where history combines with modernity.  The Dunhill Hotel is a stellar example.  Built in 1929, the ten-story hotel has been fully restored.  The independent hotel is an Historic Inn of America.  Its refined architecture with neo-classical embellishments adds character to Charlotte’s modern big-city shape. But it is decidedly a 21st century luxury hotel with all the modern conveniences in its 60 well-appointed guest rooms.  As downtown Charlotte pulses and hums around it, the Dunhill is a quiet, elegant oasis right in its center.  We parked our car upon arrival and never needed it again.  Within walking distance are many attractions:  the Mint Museum, the McColl Center for Art, Discovery Place, the Blumenthal Performing Arts center, the Bank of America Stadium, the Time Warner Arena, Spirit Square, the Levine Museum and others. The Dunhill offers a package with the Bechtler with discounts and amenities. 
The exhibit was a perfect introduction to
  In 2014 the hotel challenged Chris Coleman to come aboard and create a fresh, new Southern concept that would put its restaurant The Asbury on the A list for discerning culinary travelers.  A devout locavore, Chris sources from about 40 local farmers, fishermen and food artisans. His inspirations are the bounty of the region, his grandmother and his sense of humor.  “I like to mix it up a little.” He tops deviled eggs with cheeky fried cornichon,  He decorates plates with colorful nasturtiums and serves a cast iron skillet of Maw Maw’s biscuits with sass-worthy Bacon-Onion. “When the world seems crazy and nothing much seems to make sense anymore, turn to Bacon Jam.  It makes comfort foods comfortable…Watch your cares magically melt away.” 
  Creative sparks were also flying up the street at 5 Church where the hostess Mercury Arteaga explained, “I love this restaurant; It’s more of a museum.”  The entire book Art of War was inscribed on the ceiling!  Sea-creature-inspired light fixtures, undulating sculptures and ironic murals gave the space a funky, lively vibe as a young crowd toasted brunch with mimosas and ate sunny-side egg pizzas.  Word on the street is that this restaurant is opening on Market Street in Charleston. Outside the windows teams of crazily speeding bicyclists were racing a course through cordoned off streets.  The big city buzz was electrifying.
            I’ll return to Charlotte again, perhaps for a girlfriends’ get-away, NASCAR, a Panthers or Hornets game, concerts or culture.  A few days in a big city of skyscrapers and vitality is like a Red Bull for the mind and Charlotte is only 3 ½ hours away. In a cab after a long night out that included Margaret Cho at the Comedy Zone followed by late night blues at the Double Door, we were happily satiated by our big-city experience. 
If You Go:
The Dunhill Hotel:
The Bechtler Museum of Modern
5 Church Restaurant:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Unforgettable Festival Moments


             If all the Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto Festivals did was provide us with entertaining ephemeral moments it would be enough.  Moments of joy, harmony, insight or beauty:  enough.  Strengthen our economy with tourist dollars:  enough.  Fill our streets with more colorful and artistic visitors hauling musical instruments, painting in the parks, leaping onto stages:  enough. It would be enough to spend an evening out, see a great show, enjoy ourselves and go home to soon forget it all.  Many of life’s best moments are this fleeting.  But sometimes there’s more.  Sometimes the festivals rock our world. 
             It could be the timing.  In 1993 Lynn Riding was finding her foothold in Charleston after emigrating from England.  On a balmy Charleston evening walking with new friends towards Marion Square she began hearing the Drifter’s tune “Under the Boardwalk”.  As they got closer she choked up.  The songs she had danced to as a teenager were playing in her new hometown. “I couldn’t believe it.   It was a moment of pure happiness with new friends that said to me “everything is working out.”
            It could be a glimpse at art’s cutting edge.  In 1988 my children and I emerged from a piano lesson at the College of Charleston and noticed a cherry picker looming in the Cistern.  It had been transformed into a giant ant puppet.  Of course we had to go watch this rehearsal for “Warrior Ant”.  What a spectacle! Music critic Daniel Webster described the show as “An ant becomes a god, and all kinds of mock obeisances are performed. Singers improvise, drummers frisk and …the stage becomes a town in the rain forest.” There were actors perched in the Cistern’s trees and a Caribbean procession that led the entire audience to dance in the streets. 

            In 2012 when Theater Company 1927 performed “The Animals and Children Took to the Streets”, it was a revelation for Lila Trussler.  “It was an entirely different art form than I had ever seen.  There were so many different things going on at once.  It seemed brand new.”  It was dark, edgy, innovative, creepy and unique.  Anne Birdseye was captivated by the 2008 “Monkey:  Journey to the West” that combined a circus of cartoons, acrobats, Chinese music and a tribe of monkeys flying among bamboo poles. Not the kinds of thing you can see every weekend in Charleston but exactly what the festivals bring to our doorstep.   “It was very engaging.  I like things that are so different, that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see,” said Anne.  Long time Charleston improv impresario Greg Tavares said, "I have so many memories from Piccolo over the years. The one that sticks with me is the first time I saw The Cody Rivers Show at Piccolo Fringe.  They are a two person sketch/physical comedy duo we have had come a couple times.  Their work changes how I saw comedy and what I thought was possible." 
      Then there’s the star power.  Like many  Charleston women, I’ve delighted in extemporaneous hugs from Charles Wadsworth.  I became embarrassingly tongue-tied upon being introduced to Jean Yves Thibaudet.  I once mustered my courage to approach Gian Carlo Menotti in a parking garage, tell him he was my hero and that I’d studied his opera “Amahl” in grade school.  Barry Goldsmith who was the director of arts instruction for Charleston County Schools for many years said, “For me, the most exciting part of Spoleto was, because of my position with the school district, getting to know Gian Carlo Menotti….I admired him and could not have imagined I would one day work with him to develop programs for students.”
              Twenty years ago Corday Rice was playing the recorder and became transfixed by a Renaissance opera record she nearly wore out until she learned to play the motifs.  She and her mother Beth went to that opera and then to many more in a yearly mother-daughter tradition that they cherish. Our son Philip and his friend Derek Cribb still talk about the Latin band Bio Ritmo they saw twenty years ago at a Piccolo Finale.  “It was monumental,” Philip recalls “A whole new musical language.”  They both grew up to be professional musicians.  The festivals have given our children the foundations to build their artistic lives.
            Most of all it’s the transcendent moments that grab our hearts.  These we remember most.  “I was at a Chamber Music performance several years ago, and Charles Wadsworth was introducing the piece about to be played,” Nancye Starnes recalls. “He told us that the composer was very much in love but restricted by her family from moving ahead with the relationship. So, he wrote a chamber piece to express his love. As I sat there listening to the work, I could feel, actually physically feel, his desire, his agony at not being able to be with her, how heartbroken he was. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I've not had such a reaction to a composition since.........but since I'm still attending the Chamber series--there's always hope!”
            Have fun, be entertained.  That’s enough.  But art can change lives.  It’s happening right now, right here in Charleston

If You Go:
Piccolo and Spoleto Festival USA are May 22 to June 7:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Interpreting the Forest


            “Take a guess.  What’s that thing for?” Joel asked while pointing to a telephone- pole-size, wooden post shaped like a giant 7 stuck along the gravel road in the Nantahala National Forest.  “A nesting place?  Maybe a roosting spot?” I guessed.  “No, the park service built if for flying squirrels to cross the road.”  From anyone else, this tidbit would have made us skeptical.  We’d have asked how the squirrels knew to cross at that particular place.  And why do they need it since there’s almost no traffic at all?  Also, flying squirrels?  Really?  But hiking with Kathy and Joel Zachry is like having translators in a foreign country.  They speak forest fluently.  You could attribute it to his 30 year career as a college biology teacher or their 50 years of combined experience hiking and leading trips.  But it’s their passion for the natural world that really distinguishes them.
            When Joel retired in 1999 he anticipated missing the field trips he’d taken with his students.  So he and Kathy, a medical products company vice president, started their company GOAT (Great Outdoor Adventure Travel).  Its name refers to the couple’s pet fainting goats.  “They just pass out and fall down when they’re scared,” Kathy explained with obvious amusement.  It also refers to the animal’s sure-footedness.  Each year the couple leads hikes and workshops at a variety of venues including at J.C. Campbell Folk School, The Swag Country Inn, the Arrowmont School and even to Alaska where they've been over 25 times.  They also lead multi-day hikes on the Appalachian Trail and are particularly proud of their work with the Smoky Mountain Field School.  That 30-year old, award-winning program offers one-day and longer programs on various aspects of nature within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  As the program directors, the Zachrys help arrange the 60 classroom and field offerings taught by a diversified host of experts serving over 700 students a year.
            “Look at the hillside,” Joel said while gesturing across a steep slope. “Notice there are no tall trees.  They were all harvested 50 to 100 years ago.”  He led us to imagine how that was accomplished in those days:  miles of cables strung across the rocky terrain, mammoth rolling logs careening to the river, the impossibly strenuous work and the arduous lifestyle it required.  Another stop was along the gravel forest road that had recently collapsed and been repaired.  He wanted us to admire the engineering work.  They are thrilled with the emerging trillium that are sprouting despite  the recent snowfall. “There is a greater diversity of plant life in North Carolina than in all of Europe,” Joel pointed out.  They seem to know the name and medicinal uses for most every one of them.
 They make us stop to examine droppings.  “Notice the hair in it, “Kathy says as she prodded the poo with her walking stick.  “What animal was it and what did it eat?” They point out the symptoms of the disease challenges facing the piney forest and the Joyce Kilmer nearby.
            I joined their entourage during my stay at Snowbird Lodge in Robbinsville, N.C.  It’s one of several places where the Zachrys offer daily hikes and evening naturalist talks as an amenity.  I was surprised to learn that many of the inn’s guests had come not knowing about the free hikes.  For me it was the selling point.  Their promise of safety, maximized enjoyment and minimized worry had attracted me. Their familiarity with the dozens of hiking trails eliminated my having to do any research or to bumble around looking for trailheads.  The March weather varied like a light switch:  spring to winter, warm to cold.  This early in the season, trails were obscured by leaves and not recently used.  I would have thought we were lost without their confident strides ahead of us as we walked across the frosty, rocky terrain one day and to the sunny foot of a waterfall the next.
         The Zachrys are also experts on bears.  In fact they've written a book about it, Bears We’ve Met .  Although there are about two bears per square mile in the Smoky Mountains, “Black bear rarely attack humans with fewer than 60 human fatalities within the last 100 years …” Joel writes.  When they’re startled, they chomp, huff and snort which are merely anxious blusterings and not signs of imminent attack.    So he advises to make yourself as large as possible by spreading your arms, to back away slowly and to not run which triggers a pursuit response. “They have very little interest in eating us…of course there are always exceptions to that.”  Fortunately the only anxious blusterings  I heard were the hikers trudging uphill as we marveled at spring emerging in one of the most beautiful parts of our country.   

If you Go