Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Mountain Country.

Posted on | October 18, 2012 | 3 Comments

I know I am fudging it when I say we live in the country.  It used to be the country.  When we first moved here the 2 surrounding towns had nothing except for a post office.  And the local post office is still only open from 8:30am-12pm and 2pm-4:30pm.  In small towns we often close for lunch (or else we’d have to more than 1 employee) and we like to get home before it’s too dark to milk in the winter time.  Although postal employees will call you at 6am if your chicks arrive from the hatchery so you can come pick them up immediately.  No one wants to be responsible for dead chicks.  Also, the incessant peeping is distracting when you are sorting mail.

Since our small town exists along a highway, the development eventually arrived.  And now both of the surrounding towns are swamped by chain stores of all types along their highway exits.  We are now in the graceless age of directions that start with “Get off the exit at the WalMart….”  You have to get at least 4 miles away from the highway before the directions start with “Turn at the gravel road where you’ll see old Shambley’s bull in the pasture….”

I have never been particularly grateful for directions involving bulls.  I don’t text and drive but I find it just as dangerous to be scouting bovine nether regions when I’m cruising down the road.  We are surrounded by fields of cattle out here and unless there’s a frolicking calf, I’m not sure how people judge gender from a distance.

But last week I would have loved some directions involving bulls.  Because last week I was in the real country.  Mountain country.  Where development at the exits means there might be a gas station.  Maybe.  And it might be open.  Maybe.  But the pumps sure as heck won’t be the kind that take credit cards (Pay Inside First Please) and the owner may just stick her head out the store window while you’re trying to figure out if the metal gas pump with reeled meters is functioning or an antique decoration and announce, “We don’t have any more Regular.  It’s $4.15 for Premium or there’s another station just down the road.”

Therein lies the problem.

“Down the road” means different things to different people.  To me, “down the road” means in a mile or 2 there will be another gas station.  To mountain people, “down the road” could mean down the mountain, through the valley, and 2 towns over.

People, if you are in the mountains and under 1/4 tank of gas, take the Premium.  Trust me on this.  Don’t let your big city skepticism fool you into thinking the station owner was trying to scam you into buying Premium.  She was not.  When she said “down the road,” she was trying to warn you.

Because the mountains are real country.  Those of us who live 4 miles from a WalMart, regardless of how many goats we have in milk or the chicken scraps container we keep on the counter, are just city slickers.  Lost city slickers.

Because there’s another type of directions given in the mountains.  It involves the direction-giver pointing into the hazy landscape and saying, “Just go up and around the mountain ’til you get there.”  People, this is what that landscape looks like:

Oh, I get the “up” part.  You’ll know you’re going “up” by the tilt of your seat and the way the ground disappears at the edge of the guard rail.  When there is a guard rail and not just a sickening drop off designed to cull the speeders and the careless of the population.  Survival of the fittest is alive and well in the mountains.

And I understand the “around” part.  “Around” is the only way to navigate the steep inclines and you’ll know you’re going “around” by the sound of children barfing in the back of the car.  But which mountain are we talking about??????  I could go up and around mountains all day and never find the one I’m looking for.  Shouldn’t there be some kind of virtual labeling system like those yardage lines they have on football games?  Or a superimposed directional device like the Batman beacon?  When you’re driving “up and around” in the mountains shouldn’t the view look like this?

I mean, what is technology for if not to keep us from getting lost in the mountains?  How many iPhones will need to be developed before they can tell me how to get back to my hot tub?  C’mon, IT people, c’mon.

Because as anyone who has been lost can tell you, being lost is bad for family unity.  It starts out with a bit of heavy sighing.  Then someone says, “Do you really think this is the right way?”  Then someone else says, “I’m not saying you’re wrong but….”  Then someone else says, “Did you see that sign?”  To which someone else replies, “Well, if you weren’t driving so fast I would have seen it.”  To which someone else replies “Well, do you want to drive?”  Which results in “Well, don’t you want to stop and ask for directions?”  Before you know it this progresses to “Well, maybe if you remembered the GPS!” and the eventual “Well, of course, I have to remember everything!”  Sooner or later someone says, “Well, maybe next time you can plan the family trip.”  And God help the child who pipes up from the back seat, “Hey are we lost?”

I’m not saying that happened on our trip.  I’m saying I’ve heard of that happening.  You know, to families that are less amicable and not as well-adjusted as our family.  We were fine with it.  Just fine.

Of course, part of the problem was that we jinxed ourselves.  Just as we entered the foothills, we called a friend from the mountains and asked for restaurant suggestions.  He told us all about the Pizza Hut and Burger King and KFC in town.  We rolled our eyes and told him that was ridiculous.  We could eat at those places at home.  We were going to eat local.  And then we proceeded to drive “up and around” trying to locate the local places.  And when we finally found them we realized, that, no, we were not going to eat local when we didn’t arrive until 8:30pm.  The locals were all at home eating with their families by 8:30pm and their restaurants were closed.  Locked.  Dark. Shuttered.  With empty parking lots.

Ha, ha.  Guess it was going to be Burger King after all.

But, no.  By the time we had come back down and around it was 9:30pm.  And Burger King was closed.  Well, according to the sign it wasn’t closed.  But according to the people locking up, it was.

So it was, eventually, after much going “up and around,” and much chuckling about how other less amicable and not well-adjusted families would be grumpy and snarky and pissed off (Not us, mind you!  We were fine.  Just fine.),  that we ate WalMart pizza and Lunchables at the cabin for dinner.

Ha, ha.  Welcome to Family Vacation.

Good thing that cabin had a hot tub on the deck.  A nice 6-seater hot tub with fancy jets and an incredible view over the mountains.  I don’t have any pictures of the hot tub.  Mainly because you can’t take good pictures with wet fingers.  Also it was hard to juggle my wine cooler and the camera in the hot tub.  So you’ll just have to take my word for it.  It was a nice hot tub.

All in all, the cabin was lovely.  It was perched over the mountains, with a great view, like most mountain cabins.  But, unlike other mountain places we’ve stayed, the Rieke Retreat had quite a lot of yard.

Enough yard for badminton….

….and a separate area for horseshoes.

Which meant we didn’t have to spend all our time going “up and around” the mountain to have family fun.  Plus, I could supervise the children and their playing from the hot tub.  Bonus!  Well, I couldn’t actually see them from the hot tub.  But over the swooshing sound of the jets I could just make out whether they were laughing, crying, or fighting.  Which is the same as supervising.

And if they couldn’t play nice with the lawn games, there was always the giant checkerboard.

Playing giant checkers was like going on a trip to Cracker Barrel.  Without the Cracker Barrel.  Since I don’t think there was a Cracker Barrel.  Or if there was, it wasn’t labeled appropriately in the landscape.  And even if we found it, it was probably closed.  Regardless of the posted hours.  That’s probably the way the Cracker Barrel rolls in the country.  Mountain country.  So we played giant checkers in the cabin and passed on the actual visit to Cracker Barrel.

We also passed on the fire pit and picnic table set up on the hill for scenic marshmallow cooking.

Because we are at least country enough that we burn marshmallows over fire all the time.  As a matter of fact if I run out of things for the kids to do between dinner and bed time, letting them have a bonfire is my go-to activity.  Try saying to 4 country kids, “Hey don’t you wanna go outside and burn something?” and watch how fast they disappear.  Although burning “something” is usually a bad way to phrase it.  Specifying the items suitable for burning is safer.  Unless you never want to see your kitchen chairs again.

But despite getting lost repeatedly and the random business hours of the local establishments, we had a great time.  Just down the street was a beautiful waterfall.

Perfect for climbing in….

….and under.

Plus good ol’ fashioned leaf racing in the currents.

And although Grassy Creek waterfall wasn’t crowded at all, we weren’t the first ones to visit it.  There was a geocache tucked behind the rocks that we added to while we were there.

Roaring Fork Waterfall was a bit further away but impressive enough to be worth the visit.

I know it doesn’t look big until you put the kids next to it to get proper perspective.  Kids are handy for that.

And although the water was running too deep and fast for the kids to play in it….

….it didn’t seem to be a problem for these tiny snails

….that were clinging to everything.

We have lots of freshwater mussels in the creeks in our country.  Apparently mountain country has snails in their creeks.  Who knew?

We ended that day visiting a true tourist attraction—-Mount Mitchell, the highest elevation on the east coast.

Which was my favorite mountain for several reasons including:

1.  We could clearly see the way “up and around” to get there.

2.  The parking lot was extremely close to the observation deck on the tip top of the mountain.  My thighs that had been hiking up and down to waterfalls all day were incredibly thankful for that small courtesy.

3.  The elevation was high enough that those of us who have to visit the mountains off season (not in the peak leaf color when the cabin rates double and the crowds triple) got to see a little bit of the first of autumn color.

The next day we woke to a ghostly fog during sunrise.

Which gradually broke up into perfect blue skies….

….while I soaked in the hot tub.  And Little had some beer and cereal on the deck.

Ha, ha!  Just kidding.  We were not actually up at sunrise.  This is vacation, people!  The fog was there long after the sun came up.

Oh, wait.

J/K about the beer thing, too.  It wasn’t Little’s.

Not as far as I know.  At least it didn’t appear to be his.

From where I was supervising.  In the hot tub.

In any case, that blue sky led to a perfect day spent exploring a nearby apple orchard, the Orchard at Altapass.  I actually planned this whole trip around going to that orchard.  I discovered an article about the Orchard at Altapass a couple years ago and have been trying to figure out a way to get there since then.  The orchard is over 100 years old and lies right on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

And from the minute we arrived to taste fresh picked golden delicious apples….

that you could peel and core….

into yummy curlicues….

….it lived up to all our expectations.  There were a couple miles of trails through the property, through sunny fields of trees….

down shady apple-covered paths….

log bridges over creeks….

and meadows embraced by mountain views.

The apples were everywhere.  Filling the trees….

covering the ground….

and framed against Carolina blue skies.

There were apples almost as big as your head….

….and some smaller than your palm.

As we hiked, the children gathered seeds….

and nuts (maybe?)….

and rocks….

and wildflowers to identify later.

As a matter of fact, I would say our hiking over the property was a perfect moment during our trip.  Until it happened.  We got freaking lost.  I mean, there were signs.  And we had a map.  But apparently that’s not enough for us.  We need individualized directions.  Which we got.  From some workers we found cutting limbs damaged by a storm.

“Just head up and around the mountain,” the worker suggested.  I hesitated.  Up and around had not worked for me previously.  Not even once.  He noted my doubt.

“Just up and around.  ‘Til you see the red barn,”  he added.  Right.  Except I never see what you mountain people tell me I’m going to see.  I just keep going up and around until I start thinking about becoming less amicable and not well-adjusted.  The worker sighed and put down his branch cutter.

“Walk straight up this hill here,” he said, pointing through some brambles.  “Cross over the next path and when you hit the gravel road, follow it to the red barn.”  All right!  A gravel road!  I can do directions like that!  Add in a bull and we are on our way!

We excitedly cut through the brush feeling rebels for going “through” instead of “around.”  We crossed a grassy path.  We shoved through some more weeds and hit a second path.  We kept heading up.  Until, from down below, we heard yelling.  We looked down.  The worker was frantically yelling and waving his arms.

“Right there!  You’re on it!  Follow that gravel road right there to the barn!”  I looked at ground below my feet.


That’s when I realized it.  We didn’t stand a chance up against mountain directions.  The people in the mountains have been around long enough to remember when those 2 wheel ruts were a gravel lane.  That worker probably grew up playing in its rocks while his grandaddy worked at sawing apple limbs.  Those of us who arrived for a 4 day visit just don’t have the history on our side.  Or the thigh muscles.  Because I was about to send the kids on ahead for a 4 wheeler rescue when the red barn finally came into view.

So we had time for a relaxing lunch on their covered deck.  Which involved sitting still.  And eating.  Practically my favorite vacation activities.

From the picnic area we could watch the butterfly garden and the Monarchs fluttering around.

The orchard is a way station for Monarchs and although we didn’t get to see a mass migration, there were plenty of them around, filling up on nectar for their long journey.

We even snagged some milk weed pods to take home for our farm.

I plan to scatter some of the seeds in the herb bed.

If they take, maybe we’ll have our own Monarchs to view next summer.  Or maybe the milkweed will invade the wildflower bed, spread all over the farm, choking out native species, and poisoning the goats and sheep.  Gardening is not really as soft a hobby as people make it out to be.  You could get pretty butterflies.  Or dead ruminants.  Yep, danger and daring around every corner.  And those sky divers think they have the market on an adrenalin rush.  Please.

In any case, after examining the butterfly garden we let our meal of Goober Grape sandwiches settle in our tummies (Really, is there anything better than Goober Grape sandwiches on vacation?  The PB and the jelly all in one jar?!  Brilliant!) as we headed out on a hay ride with Bill Carson, one of the owners of the Orchard at Altapass, author of Stories of Altapass, and storyteller extraordinaire.  For over an hour we jostled through the orchard, listening to the tales of the Overmountain boys, the local people who founded and lived in the area, and the history of the orchard and its varieties of apples.  To give you an idea of his storytelling prowess, the kids did not fidget or sigh or roll their eyes or even make a single peep, except for when they were laughing or playing along with the stories.  Impressive work, Mr. Carson!  Thank you for the wonderful tour.

Before we left we climbed down to the railroad tracks that we could glimpse cutting through the orchard.

There was an impressive train tunnel, gouged into the mountain.

Perfect for exploring.  Or trespassing.

I figured if we were stopped and questioned, we could just say we were lost.  Because on this trip that has been true 99.99998% of the time.  Also, I could always just shrug and say, “I don’t know these people.  I saw them trespassing and came down to tell them to get off the tracks.  Please, does this body look like it gave birth to 4 children?”  That’ll stop him in his tracks (Hah!  Get it?? Tracks?).  No man, railroad authority or not, is going to answer that question.  And while he’s standing there, stumped about the safest way to respond, we’ll make our escape.

The last stop on our orchard adventure was the old graveyard, hidden in the woods, down a wooded footpath.

It was a sobering trek.  How difficult must their lives have been if this steep mountainside, rocky and root bound soil, was the softest place for their final resting place?  How treacherous was daily existence if a man needed 4 families and 48 children just to have enough surviving descendants to erect his memorial?

Because without all that fecundity, the families and their histories just slowly meted away.  The memory of their existence as faded as the names on the tombstones.

Until, finally, there was nothing left except for a stone, tilted precariously, being swallowed by the trees and vegetation.

Really, how fierce were these people?  How formidable?  Who could make their way through the endless canopy?

Who could stand against the inexorable forces of these mountains?

Yet the mountain towns, the roads and overpasses, the homes clinging to the rocky outcroppings, are all testimony to their strength and endurance.  Yes, it was a sobering thought.  It made me kind of sad for those hardy souls who had passed on those mountains.  It made me grateful for my easy, gentle, rolling Piedmont hills.  It also made me grateful for the delicious fudge back at the orchard.  You can’t really get that sad when there’s fudge around.  Yum.  Fudge.

But whether you come for the apples, the tour, the scenery, the train, or the fudge, you do not want to miss the Orchard at Altapass.  Check it out, you’ll be glad you did.  They are open daily through October.  Which is more than we can say for a lot of mountain places.

Because on our last day we tried one more time to dine locally.  Again.  Since I couldn’t take one more morning of this:

So Pretty (the only other coffee connoisseur in the cabin) and I headed into the local town for some real brew.


Please note the empty parking lot.  Outside the cafe and general store in Little Switzerland.  At 9:30am.  On a weekday morning.

Apparently, mountain country means having a stomach strong enough to avoid carsickness on the curves, having internal GPS, keeping an extra gas container in your car in case the gas station is too far “down the road”, and always having your own supply of coffee to brew in your coffee pot.  You are your own back up plan in the mountains.  There is no Plan B provided by anyone else.  It’s self-sufficiency or die, people.  And it doesn’t get more country than that.

We were beginning to adapt.  Driven by the same spirit of determination that pushed the Overmountain Boys to victory, we kept going.  We refused to give up.  And we drove down and around, inching along behind trucks cooling their brakes, passing all the closed gas stations and businesses, knowing that somewhere, somehow, the mountain people had a place tucked away to get coffee.  Even if it was just a coffee shop opened by an expat yuppie that had retired to the mountains.  I had Courage.  Faith.  Persistence.  And a caffeine withdrawal headache.

We whooped with joy when we finally spotted a citizen strolling down a sidewalk in Spruce Pine carrying a white cup and a cardboard koozie.  We slowed down, circled the block, and there it was!

In the middle of a quaint street by an old railway station was a little coffee shop.  With a chalk board describing heavenly drinks like Mocha Twister and A Shot in the Dark (coffee with 3 shots of espresso) and a cooler filled with muffins and pastries.  All this only 11 miles from the cabin if you have mapquest.  And 22 miles if you just go “down and around” until you stumble upon it.  Eh.  Whatever.

With that success under our belts we gathered the rest of the family and carried all the rocks the kids had been collecting to the Museum of NC Minerals. It was the perfect place to identify their specimens and to learn about the local mining industry.  It was very educational.  Which means the kids were done with that place in about 20 minutes.  Good thing it was also free.

Then we headed to the place that the younger boys had been waiting for from the minute we left our house.  The gem mining at Emerald Village. I had played it down as much as possible.  Tell children they’re going gem mining and they immediately imagine finding an emerald the size of the Duke of Devonshire.  Imagination in kids is impressive, inspiring, and incredibly tantrum-inducing when it comes crashing down.

I tried to keep them focused on the dramatic geography of the mine….

and thoughts of what mining was like in that deep, gaping hole.

And when they finally sat down to sluice through their buckets of dirt, I braced myself for their disappointment.

But in a shocking blessing from the fickle and mischievous gods of Family Vacation, the kids were thrilled with their little finds.  They raved over their shiny and brightly colored pebbles.

It was enough to make you cheer, or light some incense, or climb back into the hot tub with another wine cooler in celebration.  Too bad my hot tub days were over.  It was time to head for home.  Where we recognized the gravel roads, especially our own.

And all our critters were waiting in the barn yard, safe and well-cared for by our country friends.  Carmen and her 3 new goat kids, born the morning we left on vacation, were happy and healthy.

Even some of our city friends got in on the action while we were gone—-feeding, milking and loving on those babies.

Turns out even city folks have a bit of country in them.  And country folk come in all degrees of country.  My hat’s off to you, mountain country.  See you again next fall break.  With my GPS and my own coffee.


3 Responses to “Mountain Country.”

  1. lin
    October 18th, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

    BEAUTIFUL! I enjoyed the photos 🙂

  2. Jodi
    October 21st, 2012 @ 7:41 am

    Just found your blog. You are so so funny! Now I have to go back and start from the beginning. I will get nothing done today. Thank you. I need a day filled with unending cups of coffee and unending bursts of laughter where I spit said coffee out.

  3. treatlisa
    October 21st, 2012 @ 9:13 pm

    I enjoyed seeing the pic of you… It’s nice to be able to put a face with the writing! I very much enjoyed your story. (As always!)

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