Hiding in Plain Sight
Sometimes you can walk past the same building every day before discovering there’s a delicious restaurant that’s been there since the 1930s that you’ve somehow ignored your entire life. When you try to share with others this miraculous discovery you made, you’re met with a blank stare or a roll of the eyes letting you know you’re the only person who didn’t know about it. That’s how I feel writing this article, because to me I feel like I discovered the motherlode of adventure areas but I’m afraid people are just going to stare in disbelief at the fact I didn’t know about it.
I needed a few days away to do some hiking and relaxing before a grueling 3 week long work trip, so I started looking for a cabin to rent somewhere in the mountains in early June. My search turned up a barn that had partially been converted into a 2 bedroom cabin on a woman’s 600 acre sheep farm, about 45 minutes north west of Boone for only $55 a night. I know a screaming deal when I see one, so I booked a 4 night stay and we hit the road the following week. If anyone is interested, search on AirBnB for “Bunkhouse over the hill” to find out where we stayed.
Boone has been locked in my mind as a 4 and a half hour drive, but once I actually jumped on 321 and headed north I was picking up a few things at the Mast General Store downtown in about half that time. How I have completely missed Boone and its close proximity to surrounding gems I’ll never know; I’ve been to Roan Mountain, Linville Gorge, the New River near West Jefferson, Grayson Highlands, and Damascus but never penetrated the heart of the area which Boone sits in the middle of. An hour drive in any direction brings you to a gem that could easily take up an entire weekend.
The barn / cabin was located a few miles shy of the small community of Ashland NC, where cell service is a rarity and spectacular views common place. We settled down in the cabin which had been built by the owner to house her son and grandchildren when they visited from Bolivia; the décor was an interesting mix of South American (cheetah print curtains) and trailer-park chic (laughably bad deer heads), but it had a full kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room so who can complain? (Note: if staying in the summer, there is no AC; a box fan is recommended). The owner invited us to walk around her property as much as we wanted, to fish in the New River that bordered the road, and even play tennis in the dilapidated old court someone in the past had thought a good idea to build. “Do not play with the Great Pyrenees dogs guarding the sheep and goats and lock the gates behind you”, were the only restrictions we had, so we wandered her fields to some of the most spectacular views in NC. The type of views that make you think about quitting your job and selling everything to just wake up to it every day; I checked Appalachian State Universities job listings but came up empty.
As we headed back to the cabin, a herd of young goats and a nanny were on the opposite ridge making their normal goat noises. On a lark, I decided to imitate and try to call them from across the pasture…after the first call, this small herd came running across to me as fast as their knobby knees could carry them. My wife, not a fan of “those soul-less eyed creatures” took off running and put a fence between her and the goats because she was convinced she was going to be trampled. As Cameron, king of the goats, I held court with my subjects for a while before leaving them to continue their grazing duties. There were sheep on the farm as well, but we never could seem to meet up with them in the pasture; I’m already planning a trip back to try and find them. In the spring, you can actually be there for the lambs being born which would probably kill your desire for most Greek dishes ever again.
Early in the morning, we decided to hit the road for Roan Mountain on the Tennessee North Carolina border, to see the famous rhododendron gardens in bloom. After an hour through beautiful country, we ended up at Carvers Gap and when we went to the gardens on the High Knob….there were no blooms. None. Not a single flower. Reading the sign, I realize that their definition of “peak bloom only lasts 2-3 weeks at the end of June” really means that “they only bloom the last 2-3 weeks of June”. Since there were no flowers to be seen, we decided to take a hike down memory lane and hike a section of the AT from our very first trip together 7 years ago. On our way back down, as we approached the parking lot, we were stopped by a group of 5 thru hikers who asked if we could give them a ride into town. I offered them the bed of my pickup truck since that’s all the room available, but I had no problem taking them down to Roan Mountain. The leader hemmed and hawed a little and asked, “We actually…uh….need to go to Spruce Pine. I met this guy on the trail whose son in law owns a pizza parlor / brewery there, and said he would hook us up with a great deal. We will pay you for gas and pizza!” Even though it was a full hour and a half out of our way, we had nothing better to do, so before long we were swinging down twisty mountain roads with a load of smelly thru hikers in the back of my truck. When we arrived at the pizza place, all I can say is it was like Mellow Mushroom meets Deliverance in the best way possible. The pizza was excellent, the people watching superb, and according to my companions the beer they served for $7 per 32oz Mason Jar was the best thing they’d tasted ever. Stomachs stuffed, and 3 sealed mason jars per hiker stashed in their packs, we dropped them off again at Carvers Gap which was the happiest I’ve ever seen 5 people in my life. On the way back to our home for the weekend, we stopped by the Mast General Store in Valle Crucis which is one of the coolest stores I’ve ever been in before; if you’ve never made the stop there, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s the oldest general store in continuous operation in the United States and has everything from cast iron cookware to Chacos.
The next morning, we decided that we’d try something new and visit Elk Knob State Park that had been opened just a few years before. There’s not much there other than hiking trails and some primitive camping, but they strive to keep this park open 365 days a year as well. If cross-country skiing is something you want to do it’s one of the few state parks where it’s allowed and at a high enough elevation where there’s a good chance you’ll have enough snow to actually do it. We took the 4 mile round trip Summit Trail which was the best designed and maintained trail I’ve ever seen at a state park. Once you top out at the summit, the views are staggeringly beautiful where you can see for miles and miles over open farmland and mountain peaks. The park is so new they don’t have enough rangers and have a position open for seasonal help…again, the temptation to sell everything, quit my job and move there came on strong, but the seasonal nature of the job meant my dream would be short lived.
That final afternoon was spent watching thunderstorms roll across the valleys and exploring sections of the New River as they flowed towards West Jefferson and the different sections of New River State Park. I decided Boone is going to be the future hub of many weekend trip, whether trout fishing in the fall or coming back next year to make sure I actually see the blooms. The variety, the elevation, and relatively inexpensive costs of everything from campsites to good restaurants after a long day of hiking are hard to beat. It’s the same distance as Asheville, but with far fewer people that you see in a normal weekend at Pisgah which makes me feel like maybe this really is a hidden gem and I just made a big mistake writing about it.