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“I’m as free a little bird as I can be…
I’m as free a little bird as I can be…
I’m as free a little bird that ever said a word…
I’m as free a little bird as I can be.”

With these words, MorningSong begins. About eighty of us sit in a loose semi-circle of chairs, under tall rafters and before a large, stone fireplace. It’s a massive yet warm room, one that lives up to the welcoming nature of the John C. Campbell Folk School, a place where possibilities feel endless. Indeed, I had felt as free as the little bird in the song from the moment I stepped onto the property.

“One thing we do know from stats is we know you’ll come back,” Jan Davidson, director of the school, tells the room of eager students. This makes perfect sense to me, as I’m already trying to figure out a way to either stay or return in the future. I’ve come to the John C. Campbell Folk School as a visitor this morning and am envious of those who’ll be staying for a full week of classes and mountain life.

Jan sets the banjo he used to accompany the folk song aside and leans forward toward the audience. I wrap my hands around a warm cup of coffee and lean back to listen to him explain the history and philosophy of the school. He’s a master storyteller and the room is filled often with laughter.

John C. Campbell never saw the school that bears his name, but it’s a living legacy of his life. Born in Indiana and raised in Wisconsin, he traveled through the Appalachian area, where he was impressed with the local people, who he found to be living a life of their own making. Blankets were from local fibers and chairs offered to visitors were hand crafted. Evenings were spent entertaining themselves, with singing and storytelling.

With humanitarian goals that included improving rural education, he worked very hard and eventually became ill. His doctor advised him to take some time off. “There was a real doctor,” Jan says to a round of laughter.

Taking his doctor’s advice, John C. Campbell sailed to Scotland, meeting Olive Dame, a New Englander, on the way. It was love at first sight and they went on to Scotland together. They returned to the U.S. to do educational research and look at ways to improve the quality of rural life.

In order to focus completely on this goal, John C. Campbell quit his job. “This is one of the reasons he’s our hero,” Jan adds, to more laughter from the morning group.

Using a wagon as a traveling home, John and Olive Dame roamed the Appalachian mountains, studying songs, crafts and farming techniques of the local people. Based on the philosophy of the Danish folkehojskole (folk school), they sought to establish a place of learning that would be non-competitive and non-vocational, as an option to institutions of higher learning that often took people away from the family farms.

John again became ill and in May of 1919, at the age of 51, he died. Olive continued on, taking her sister, Daisy, and friend Margarite Butler to Denmark to visit folk schools. Combining what they learned there, as well as in Sweden and Norway, they came back to the states and sought a location to form the school that had been John C. Campbell’s dream. Finding community support in Murphy, NC, the school was founded in nearby Brasstown in 1925.

The morning gathering lets out and Jan invites me to have breakfast with students and teachers before visiting classes. Having grabbed only a cup of coffee in my small off-campus cabin, in order to make the 7:45AM MorningSong session, I readily accept. Over steaming hot cakes, sausage and chilled orange juice, I listen to the excited anticipation of the lucky students who’ll be staying for the entire session. Just like every other aspect of the folk school, meals are family-style and community-oriented in spirit. I gratefully inhale the hot meal, take my dishes to the kitchen’s bus station, and head out to observe classes.

My first stop is just outside the dining hall’s door, where students circle a section of ground in the garden. Strings and stakes mark an area that will, by the end of the week, be a waterfall and fishpond. Instructor Tim Ryan and students discuss the project, which will use native stones and rubber lining.

I continue along one of many wooded nature paths and arrive at a building that houses three more classes, stepping into the first.

“Always participate,” Gulshan Singh tells the students of her Northern Indian Cuisine class. “Remember this is your class, and you want to really learn.”

A tray of cumin seeds is passed across the room by one of the students, on its way to be toasted in the oven. Another student asks how they will know when it’s done.

“They will start jumping. They’ll tell you when they are ready to get out.” The instructor offers some additional advice, telling students she highly recommends they take notes. “I am from India,” she says. “I may not say things the way you do.”

As I prepare to move on to observe another class, I pass an easel with a recipe for Chapati Dough, written out by Nanette Davidson, who is assisting the class. Gulshan Singh is explaining the nature of ghee, a boiled butter commonly used in Indian cooking.

“I’ll make you taste today one bread with ghee and one bread with oil. And you will decide.” She looks around the island counters at her students and smiles. “I love the bread with ghee.”

I slip out the door quietly and walk around to another room, entering as Tim Tyndall is answering questions about soap-making. The discussion covers chemical changes, hydrolysis and safety precautions.

“Never, ever, ever pour water into lye,” Tim, who’s affectionately referred to as Dr. T., says. “Don’t be unduly scared of using lye, but take necessary precautions.” He continues to detail a few stories of personal experiences that leave me half in awe and half ready to run for cover. One involves an early experience of his, as a chemistry instructor, when he foolishly did some work in sandals, no socks on his bare feet. Another involves the effects of lye on a one by one inch piece of chicken breast, a demonstration he uses on occasion for students. Fortunately, his toes fared better than the chicken breast, but I still left with a strange desire to wash myself down with white vinegar, a neutralizing agent.

Like many folk school instructors, Tim Tyndall has other projects going when not offering classes. His Blue Ridge Soap Shed, in Little Switzerland, NC, offers 110 varieties of soap. And no safety precautions are needed to visit at http://www.soapshed.com.

I move on as Tim gives students a short break, finding an outdoor stairway that takes me upstairs to a light, spacious room with a gorgeous hardwood floor. To one side, a handful of students balance banjos on their knees and listen attentively to J.D. Robinson lead a sight reading exercise. A question and answer period follows.

“What’s higher than third string open?” J.D. tosses out to the class, then continues on. “Third string, second fret.” Relaxed in pony tail and baseball cap, he’s clearly both comfortable with students and knowledgeable about class content. His students are clearly eager to learn. Perhaps looking forward to the banjo jokes included in the school’s description of the course, as well as new licks, rolls and songs.

Twangs and rattles fill the room as students adjust banjo tunings. This class, “Continuing 5-String Banjo: 3 Finger Style” is just one of many music courses offered.

As a discussion of pick up notes begins (Oh Susanna has two, Tom Dooley has none), I leave and head up to the History Center, packed with exhibits and information on Appalachian life during the 1900’s.

From there, I drop back through the dining hall in time for another delicious meal – this time a lunch of pasta alfredo, caesar salad and fresh, warm bread, accompanied with iced tea. I’m fortunate to be seated at a table with many of the instructors, including Robert Triplett, who’s teaching a “Fountains From Copper & Fire” metalworking class, Paul McClure, who’s offering a wire-crafted jewelry session, and Charley Orlando, who teaches both blacksmithing and knitting, this week holding a class in forge welding. Both Tim Ryan, on break from pond-building and “Dr. T”, without scary lye stories, join in. It is clear to me from this meal, as well as from observing in class areas, how remarkable an educational experience the folk school provides.

I make one last stop, at the Craft Shop, where I find an amazing assortment of hand crafted items from local and regional artists, including many of the school’s instructors. Filled with pottery, weaving, glasswork, jewelry, woodwork and an excellent selection of books, I know immediately I won’t get out without a few purchases. Narrowing my choices down – an extremely difficult task, based on the quality and variety of goods the shop carries – I finally purchase a small, carved wooden rabbit, four assorted carved napkin rings in animal shapes, a small ceramic vase, several bookmark dolls made of straw and a fabulous blank journal with pages that are half-lined and half blank. Enchanted with dozens of other items I’m leaving behind, I’m pleased to find out that phone orders are welcome.

Before leaving, I thank Jan for the opportunity to visit the school, and especially for the wonderful hospitality. This is nothing unusual at John C. Campbell Folk School, where day visitors are just as welcome as those enrolled in classes. Over 380 acres of grounds provide nature trails for wandering, surrounded by breathtaking mountain scenery. The History Center is available for self-guided learning and the Craft Shop is open from 8:00-5:00 Monday through Saturday and from 1:00-5:00 on Sundays.

Classes run on a weekly basis, beginning with an orientation session on Sunday and ending with farewells on the following Saturday. The catalog of offerings, also available online, shows such a wide variety of offerings, it would be almost impossible to not find something of interest. Stained glass-making, bookbinding, artisan bread baking, fiction writing, storytelling, printmaking, fly fishing, gourd painting, herbal facials, mixed-media collage, scrimshaw, nature photography, dance calling, corn husk dolls: it’s all offered. Looking to make an old fashioned apple pie? Ladderback chair? Chocolate truffles? Glass beads? Metal flowers? It’s all offered here.

Children between the ages of 7-17 are welcome during a special “Little/Middle Folk School” session, held in the summer. Adult classes are held at the same time, so other family members can join in. For parents and children aged 12-17 who wish to take classes together, the “Intergenerational Week” session provides this opportunity.

The folk school is a 501(c)(3) not for profit corporation and maintains small class sizes with remarkably low tuition. Room and board is available for an additional fee. Elderhostel, work/study, student host and scholarship programs are also available on a limited basis. Community gatherings are also offered, including concerts, dances, festivals and auctions.

John C. Campbell would be proud to see the blend of artistry, tradition, history and community that lives on at the folk school. A close look at what goes on here can only lead to one simple phrase: Sign me up.

John C. Campbell Folk School
One Folk School Road
Brasstown, NC 28902
(800) 365-5724

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Within ten minutes of arriving in Cashiers, NC, I knew I wouldn’t want to leave. I followed my instincts and stayed for two nights and three days. I easily could have stayed longer.

I had intended to keep driving, but something pulled me off the road. I might say it was the attractive sign and well-tended grounds in front of the Cottage Inn, on my right as I approached Cashiers westbound on Hwy 64. But the real answer is serendipity. I walked up just as Judy Gray was closing the office. Owner and innkeeper with her husband, Gordon, she greeted me with enthusiasm, introduced me to other guests, and told me about the property and cottages.

I was soon settled into Poplar Place, a wonderful cabin-type accommodation, complete with bed, bath, kitchen, writing table, couch, wood-burning fireplace and outside porch. It felt like home from the second I walked in. A guest phone in the nearby parking lot even allowed me Internet access while sitting beneath the trees. It was perfect, very reasonably priced and immaculately clean. I was a happy No. Carolina camper.

Gordon recommended several restaurants in town. I would come to find out that Cashiers is packed with excellent choices for fine dining, as well as options for casual fare. I looked over the possibilities and settled on The Market Basket, which turned out to be exactly what it sounds like, a former market turned restaurant. Tables were spread between remaining market shelves and bear statues climbed support poles, surrounded by various pieces of artwork. With the live music of Joe Walton, a regular for many years, flowing from a corner piano, I took a seat at a table with a tree-trunk votive and wooden bear in the center. I ordered a delicious pasta dish and enjoyed watching a nearby family group celebrate a fifty-fifth wedding anniversary. Great place.

Back in my cabin later, I built a fire for the late evening hours, when the mountain air took on a chill. Gordon had loaned me a book on local history, so I curled up on the couch and read, finally turning in for a good night’s sleep.

I didn’t opt the next day to explore local galleries and shops, though Cashiers, like nearby Highlands, has many. Instead I headed for the hills, so to speak, hiking to impressive Whitewater Falls, then heading over to Whitewater Equestrian Center, where I had the luxury of being the only person for the 4:00 trail ride.

For one amazing hour, under the skilled guidance of Kaye (and expert steps of Sunny, my assigned horse), I wound along old logging roads adjoining Gorges State Park. It was a breathtaking ride through the lush spring green of the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills. Well worth the $30. riding fee. I was also given a great tour of the stables by teen worker Brittany, who introduced me to many of the well-cared-for the horses, including an adorable pony named Skittles. Meeting Brittany, a beautiful, bright and enthusiastic young lady, was a highlight of the day.

I had a chance to explore a bit more of the Cashiers area before heading out the following day. I stopped into Two Hands, a gallery on Hwy 64 with some wonderful pieces of art. I grabbed another great meal at Lightwater Grille, where I was fortunate to get a railside table on the outdoor balcony, even without a reservation (strongly recommended). A stop at the Farmer’s Market gave me a chance to pick up some local jam, as well as to meet Biscuit, the friendly pot-bellied pig. I got to hear a little outdoor bluegrass music at the Smokehouse and stopped by Schoolhouse Coffee to take a few photos, unfortunately after it was closed for the day.

And I fit in one more waterfall hike, this one from a secret “treasure map of waterfalls” that Cottage Inn has available for guests:

At Gordon’s suggestion, I grab my treasure map of local waterfalls and head south out of Cashiers on Rte. 107. Just over four miles down the road, I pull over into a gravel area where the guard rail splits. I can see the trail from the car, so I grab my camera, lock the vehicle and start hiking. I know I’m in the right place, though there’s no sign by the side of the road. After all, this is secret treasure I’m after, this is the reason I have the map.

The path isn’t steep and it’s clearly well traveled. Obviously others have the secret directions, too. Hints of what lies ahead come to me through the breeze, mixed sounds of wind and water, growing stronger as I continue down the trail. Gnarled roots jut out into the dirt, twisting above and around each other. Sounds of birds echo through the mountain air. The leaves and bushes are still, though I know there could be rustling at any time. Wildlife is not a stranger to these Blue Ridge Mountains.

I approach a wooden bridge, newly constructed and rough in nature. Basic and sturdy, it leads me a few steps up, a few more across, and finally closer to my goal. The sound of water grows louder now, as I follow the curving path. Pine trees tower above me and the sun is hidden among thick branches and leaves.

The bridge behind me, I round several corners and see the sunlight open up in the distance. Hurrying now, I ready my camera, as if what I seek may disappear quickly when I find it. I’m almost there.

I take the last few feet of the trail with one giant leap and step into the light and sound. The trees fall back into open space and I look up to see tumbling white water rushing down from the granite above. Sun reflects brightly on the cascading water and mist sprays into the open air. I know I have found Silver Run Falls.

Slick, flat walls of rock climb before me, trickles of water running down through cracks, passing over loose leaves and twigs along the way. I look around and there is no one. Amazingly, I have this paradise to myself. A narrow, sandy beach wraps around the rocks below. Logs form a natural passageway to the base of the waterfall.

I climb the logs and make my way to flat rocks and from there hop to yet another rock, even closer. I can feel the spray of the water on my face now. The sun flirts with the scene by fading in and out, dancing with scattered clouds. Still there is no one there. Looking up into the water itself, I work to keep my balance and take advantage of the photo opportunity. Between shots, I simply stand in awe of the power of this water, which plunges forcefully into pool below.

Finally, I simply sit down, oblivious to the mist that now clings to my clothing, carefree in my solitude with nature. I close my eyes and hear nothing but the sound of rushing water, feel only the warmth of the sun on my face, smell the fragrance of spring’s windswept leaves. It is a perfect moment.

Treasure is an understatement for what I have found. Wonderful doesn’t quite tell it all. And Glorious leaves something to be desired. Perhaps a word doesn’t even exist to describe it. But I’ll be forever grateful to Gordon for pointing me in the direction of this trail, this tumbling water, and this moment of peace.

Both Cottage Inn and the town of Cashiers will be forever planted in my memory as a little mountain miracle on a long cross-country drive. Whitewater Falls was spectacular and Silver Run Falls, a secret treasure. Market Basket offered excellent dining. And the trail ride at Whitewater Equestrian Center was breathtaking. Judy and Gordon were the perfect hosts. I’ll definitely be back. Even coming from California, it’s well worth the drive.

If You Go:

Cottage Inn
71 Brocade Dr. – Hwy 64 East
P.O. Box 818
Cashiers, NC 28717
(828) 743-3033
(877) 595-3600

The Market Basket
Highway 107 S.
Cashiers, NC
(828) 743-2216

Whitewater Equestrian Center
1350 Highway 281 South
Sapphire, NC 28774
(828) 966-9646

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A cool mist floats across the Blue Ridge mountains, hovering above the gazebo and stretching across the gardens. I love this particular room, a corner room on the top floor. Instead of one window, like many of the rooms, it has three. The extra two make all the difference.

This is a good room for writing, a good inn for writing. Comfortable feeling, spacious, quiet. It’s definitely out in the midst of nature, an ant the size of a small dog scaring the daylights out of me by deciding to show up on my bed for a visit. And a long-legged flying insect surveys the window to my left, as I type.

Soothing green and mauve tones decorate this room. I can hear birdsong from the grassy hillside just outside. I have morning time, a good hour before breakfast is served, to lean back against pillows, wrapped in high thread count linens, and ease into the day.

Woodfield Inn was built in 1852, the oldest operating inn in the state of North Carolina. It’s haunted, they say, with Capt. Morris’ ghost, who was stationed here during the Civil War with his confederate soldiers. His room, with dark, masculine decor in blues and golds, is on the third floor. But he’s a non-discriminatory, equal opportunity ghost and is said to make his presence known in many parts of the inn.

I didn’t choose Capt. Morris’ room (which was available,) nor the room known as “The Secret Room,” (#22) which has a trap door to a room below the floor where valuables were hidden from Union Soldiers. Instead I chose The Peony Room (#38), on the top floor in the far corner, for it’s light and view of the English Garden and gazebo.

New innkeepers Wayne and Rhonda Nelson, who purchased the inn in August of 2002, have done a beautiful job redecorating the rooms, many of which have fireplaces. Two are spacious family suites, another a bridal suite. Each room is different, and all are wonderful. If Wayne Nelson’s name sounds familiar to music fans, it’s no coincidence. Wayne is bass player and lead vocalist for Little River Band. Away for a concert the night I was there, I did not get a chance to tell him how much I enjoyed both his historical inn and many years of fabulous music from his band.

The 18 elegant rooms are not the only treats at this historic getaway. Chef Michael Atkinson whips up some mouth-watering dishes in the Garden Dining Room, as I found out when I feasted that evening on Sauteed Chicken Breast with lemon, wine, garlic and capers, served with an absolutely fantastic medley of fresh vegetables. Presented on a square, contemporary dish, which provided a fun contrast to the historic surroundings, this delicious meal gave me a chance to sit peacefully in the Garden Dining Room and look out over Woodfield’s 23 acres of blooming gardens. A culinary and visual treat combined. I only regretted knowing I would only be staying one night, faced with other menu choices such as Potato-Crusted Crab Cakes, Blackened Mahi-Mahi and Maine Lobster. Seafood is a specialty here, though meat-lovers can be tempted with Filet Mignon, Rack of Spring Lamb or Pork Medallions with Shitake Mushrooms and Slivered Almonds.

If I had thoughts of going easy the next morning after my evening splurge, those thoughts were dashed when I sat down to a complimentary breakfast. On a sage satin placemat, with swirls matching the leaves outside my tableside window, landed a plate with a Belgian Waffle topped with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Banana Slices and Rum Raisin Caramel Sauce, Served with slices of Applewood Smoked Bacon. OK, so there was an option for a granola and fruit cup meal instead, as well as some divine-sounding Huevos Rancheros and other egg dishes. But I’m not one to pass up a waffle.

After breakfast, I settled into one of many rocking chairs on the front veranda and took in the view., the same view that travelers have enjoyed for over 150 years. Blue Ridge foothill vistas, nature trails, soothing downslope of green grass, woodside pavilion below: all enjoyed by guests for many years before my own arrival. It’s no surprise Woodfield Inn is a popular choice for weddings and corporate functions.

Typical of many historic inns, phones are not located in guest rooms. Before leaving, I hooked into one of two guest lines provided downstairs, checked email, then reluctantly packed up and headed into Flat Rock and on into Hendersonville, just three miles away.

One stop on the way deserves a note, though. I popped into
Hand in Hand Gallery, located next door to The Wrinkled Egg, home of Flat Rock Bakery and the delicious Carribean Root Stew I had upon my arrival the day before. It turns out The Wrinkled Egg is housed in a building formerly known as Peace’s Grocery from 1890 to the early 1980’s, a regular destination of locals.

Also representative of the community actvity on this block for so many years, Hand to Hand Gallery is packed with stoneware, paintings, stained glass and other works of art by local artisans. Owners David Voorhees, who makes wonderful floral pottery creations, and Molly Sharp, who adds inspired, peaceful jewelry selections to the mix, were both present and very welcoming. I enjoyed browsing and visiting. David and Molly have created a gallery that feels like more than just a shop offering quality art. On this particular morning, it felt like a peaceful resting point before continuing on my way.

All in all, Flat Rock was a breath of fresh mountain air. I never did see the ghost of Capt. Morris at Woodfield Inn and I wasn’t able to purchase all the goodies I found at The Wrinkled Egg and Hand in Hand Gallery. All the more reason to return someday. But there’s always something else waiting ahead, down the highway, when experiencing life on the road. I finally pulled myself away and headed out.

If You Go:

Woodfield Inn
P.O. Box 98, Flat Rock, NC 28731
(828) 693-6016
(800) 533-6016

Hand in Hand Gallery
2720 Greenville Hwy., Flat Rock, NC 28731
(828) 697-7719

The Wrinkled Egg
2710 U.S Hwy 25, Flat Rock, NC 28731
(828) 696-3998
(800) 736-3998

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The inn is very quiet. I assume all the other guests are asleep. I’m the only night owl here, the California girl who feels it’s only 9 o’clock, when by east coast standards it’s three hours later. I have heard footsteps in the hallway recently, though. Another guest on this floor, the third? Or could it be the ghost said to haunt this building, coming to pay his midnight respects?

His room is just down the hall, on the back side of the building. Nicely furnished, like the rest, it has a fireplace and comfortable chair. I wonder if ghosts like to sit in front of a fire and feel the warm ooze through their vapors. He likes to sit on people, they say. Makes it feel as if their legs won’t work. And a scent of cherry pipe tobacco is known to appear and disappear at mysterious times. His sign, they say.

I took Hwy 25 north out of So. Carolina into No. Carolina, in awe of the greenery that lined the sides of the roads. Such a contrast to the bare branches of these Blue Ridge Mountains, just months ago.

A short, straight, easy drive led me into Flat Rock, just outside Hendersonville, NC. Past lunchtime, a sign for coffee, bread and pizza caught my eye, to the side of the road and in front of a small white building Directed by another sign to enter around front, I followed the driveway toward the street, arriving at The Wrinkled Egg gift shop.

A path to the right of the shop led me to Flat Rock Bakery, a little hideaway with four small indoor tables and some additional patio seating. Humid outside, I took a round corner table, a mosaic inlay decorating the top, with a circle of copper edging. Walls in shades of melon, slate, blue, chartreuse and brick red gave the place a fun, artsy feel. Fresh-baked loaves arranged in front of the order window reminded me my appetite was calling.

One bowl of delicious, spicy Carribean Root Stew (sweet potato, carrots, potato, malanga, fresh ginger, garlic and other spices, topped with feta and cilantro) and a glass of water later, I thanked Briana, Matt and Scott, who all work there, along with one other employee. I browsed around The Wrinkled Egg for a bit, which was filled with colorful, whimsical merchandise and bore a name that originated with a farmer who once held the property and had chickens with calcium deficiencies. As a tribute to the unusual eggs produced, the store gained its name. Clever.

Just down the block, I pulled into the parking lot of the Carl Sandburg Home, a National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service. High on a hill, overlooking a lake, this 165 year old house has been preserved with Sandburg’s own belongings, which consist of books, books, books, some furniture, and some more books. Tours are given by park service volunteers. I had just missed the start of one, so took advantage of the wait until the next one to view the barn and visit with the resident goats, descendants of the goats Lillian Sandburg bred.

I landed in the last tour slot of the day and owe heartfelt thanks to Dorothy Hall, an extremely knowledgeable guide, for offering me a private showing. Inside the walls of this 165 year old house, the life of the Sandburgs became very real, not just a part of history. Purchased in 1945 for the sum of $40,000., this property offered Pulitzer prize-winning author Carl Sandburg the privacy he needed for writing, while providing ample pasture and barn areas for Lillian’s champion goat herd. They called it Connemara Farms.

Walking from room to room, I was able to see where family dinners were shared, where Carl read aloud or sang with children, grandchildren and guests, and where he hid away to work during the late hours of the night to work on fiction, non-fiction, poetry and children’s literature. His typewriter rests on a small desk, his green visor from early journalism days lies in a flat letter tray. Books reach from ceiling to floor, row after row. It’s not difficult to envision the life led in this treasured home.

I thanked Dorothy for the wonderful tour and took some time to walk the grounds. circling the lake. I came to rest on a quiet bench near the water, where I reflected on the life of this great man, who dropped out of school after eighth grade to work delivering milk and who later failed math and grammar exams for entrance to West Point. Steadily pushing ahead, he became a journalist, a world traveler, a singer and a lecturer. He enrolled at Lombard College, wrote and edited for numerous newspapers and published many wonderful works, including Rootabaga Stories, The American Songbag and both Abraham Lincoln: The Prarie Years and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. Here on this property, Carl Sandburg continued to write prolifically, received many honors, and enjoyed a rich family life until his death on July 22, 1967.

I lingered just a bit longer, then decided it was time to head off in search of lodging. For a change, I knew exactly where I was headed this time…

If You Go:

Carl Sandburg Home
Open Daily 9:00-5:00, Closed Dec. 25

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“Ocracoke isn’t a place, it’s a planet,” Russ Newell tells me, as he leans against his open-back vehicle and pulls out a copy of his latest poem, just published in the local Ocracoke Observer. Propped against the car, he carefully places reading glasses on his nose and takes on the tone of a master storyteller. He reads to me of his friend Wahab, a perfect cadence of words floating across the island air.

Wahab was a man as tough as the sea,
We fished together, that Wahab and me.

Russ is accompanied by his dog, Downside Tack, who tosses curly, floppy ears to and fro and waits patiently for the reading to end. Downside Tack is responsible for eating at least half the interior of the car, Russ tells me.

He had a white skiff boat,
He was always looking at the ocean, the horizon and the sky.
When a tern bird broke on the water, he was quick to reply.

My trip to Ocracoke was impulsive, clinched by a phone call from Nags Head to Berkley Manor Bed and Breakfast, located in Ocracoke Village, the only portion of the 16-mile island that isn’t a part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. A short conversation with Amy, the innkeeper, was enough for me to know I’d be missing something special if I passed up the chance to visit the island. Besides, if Ocracoke was good enough for Edward Teach, better known as the infamous pirate Blackbeard, it was good enough for me.

He might take a beer, and he might take a smoke,
But he was quick to laugh before you spoke.
We fished together, that Wahab and me.

Isolated and undeveloped, the majority of the island stands in sharp contrast to Ocracoke Village itself, which is packed with quaint shops, cafes and galleries. It’s a great combination: wilderness and small-town comforts rolled into one locale.

Early thick foggy morning as we headed down sound,
We were behind Portsmouth Island, first light of day.
He cut the motor and listened: something swimming in the water.
You could hear quite clear — might be a man and might be a deer.
We fished together, that Wahab and me.

I settled into a spacious room at Berkley Manor, with woodsy decor, sitting area and luxuriously soft bed. Originally built as a hunting and fishing lodge, this island retreat is now a perfect combination of rustic charm and modern amenities. Inside common areas offered additional places to relax, including a four-story tower with views of the island and water. Ice and refrigerator are easily accessed in the hospitality room, also where breakfast is served. A phone line in the central room allowed easy Internet access with my laptop.

We glided to the sound; it was quite hard to see.
But it wont no man and it wont no deer.
Just a bear who wanted to get in the boat with me.

For dinner, I took a short drive through the village to get to The Back Porch restaurant, a well-known island eatery which offers indoor and outdoor seating. With a floral tablecloth, oil lamp and jazz music playing, I feasted on mixed organic spring greens with a dijon-vinaigrette dressing, followed by scallops in a lime-cilantro butter sauce, which was delicious. Service, ambiance, and presentation were all excellent here. It was a good choice.

Wahab hit the throttle, leaving the bear behind.
Wahab said, “That bear just wanted to be a friend of mine.”
We fished together, that Wahab and me.

Breakfast at Berkley Manor was served buffet style, which allowed me to yawn my way into the morning with some flexibility of time, sneaking a cup of coffee back to my room before sitting down to scrambled eggs with herbs, biscuits, fresh cantalope and grapes, orange juice and last, but not least, apple turnovers. (These were fabulous and Amy was kind enough to send me off with extras when I left).

It takes two days to paint a boat; it took Wahab and me about a week.
We scraped her down and fixed every leak.
We fished together, that Wahab and me.

With only one day to explore, I still tried to see everything on the island. At this I failed, but given time limitations, I saw quite a bit, including a nice hidden beach and the Ocracoke Lighthouse. I had time to browse at Books to be Red and Island Ragpicker, plus do a little window-shopping at a few other stores.

We saw a hammerhead shark as long as the boat.
I was scared to move.
Wahab thought it was a joke.
We fished together, that Wahab and me.

At the recommendation of the innkeepers, I slid into Cafe Atlantic for brunch, a wood structure with seating areas both downstairs and upstairs. I landed at a great corner table and ordered shrimp and grits, served with a creole sauce and crumbled bacon. With excellent service from Tim, the waiter, and sweet potato biscuits alongside, it was wonderful. Why stop there? I indulged in some of their Coffee-Toffee ice cream on my way out.

I was looking at the shark
It was hard to see where the shark was looking
His eyes were three feet apart.

I caught the 6:00 Ocracoke-Cedar Island ferry, a crossing that lasts approx. two hours and fifteen minutes. Fifteen dollars got me across to the mainland. With a little exploring inside the ferry, I found a comfortable writing booth near the back, with a view of the setting sun out the window.

Elizabeth cooked the supper: fish, clams, crabs, scallops and evey vegetable we
hoped to see; cornbread, cakes, a pie, whipped cream.
The men ate first and there was an unexpected crowd, and the women ate, too.
We fished together, that Wahab and me.

I spent much of the journey in conversation with Daniel E. Dempster, a photographer working on a second book of lighthouses for Voyageur Press. His photographs in Lighthouses of the Great Lakes gave us plenty of subject matter for photo-talk. It was one of those serendipitous meetings that seems nothing less than perfect. The ferry ride passed quickly and Daniel soon headed for Cape Lookout, while I took off for the Beaufort/Morehead City area for the night.

Wahab got sick and we couldn’t fish anymore,
We sat on the porch and told of fish we caught before.
Wahab was a friend and a mentor of the sea.
We fished together, that Wahab and me.

I fell asleep with memories of an Ocracoke adventure, with images of lighthouses, small shops and galleries, and soaring egrets zooming across deserted dunes. As I drifted off to sleep, I could still hear the echo of Russ Newell’s words drifting through the island mist.

I might forget the fish.
I might forget the sea.
But I never will forget
That we fished together, that Wahab and me.

Wahab and Me, by Russ Newell (Reprinted with permission)

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It’s not news to anyone who follows my meanderings that I change course unexpectedly. Just as I hadn’t planned to go through Asheville, I also had no plans to go into the No. Carolina mountains, especially with threats of snow. It made sense to catch the Interstate and zoom east, then north into Virginia.

Why then, about fifty miles east of Asheville, did I suddenly take an offramp and head north? I have no idea. This is just what I do sometimes.

The best I can put it together in retrospect, I ended up on Rte. 18, then Rte. 321, arriving late afternoon in the mountain hamlet of Blowing Rock. This is a town I’ve long wanted to visit, maybe because of its unusual name or maybe because of cabins in that area that I’ve had bookmarked for awhile. In any case, this is where I landed, amidst snow banks and chilled air, with the sun minutes from dropping below the horizon.

I didn’t have to look hard for lodging. It was midweek, off-season and, aside from those establishments which were closed altogether, there were plenty of vacancies. In this case, The Green Park Inn found me before I even entered the town. This Victorian structure, which dates back to 1882, was waiting on the right side of the road. I stopped in, looked at a few rooms and chose one on the top (third) floor.

Now, I have to say right off that it’s not easy coming from The Grove Park Inn and trying not to compare the two. But I tried to look at it objectively and it was really fine.

My room was decorated in a Victorian theme and had all the desired amenities. Cleanliness is probably my biggest issue in general with accommodations. This place was fine, though I think the off-season lack of customers had a slight effect. (Cleaning crews are not going to go into rooms daily without customers). I had free local Internet access through nearby Boone, which was a nice surprise. And being on the top floor (corner room) of a historic building was pretty cool, since the winds kicked up quite a howling that night.

Though practically deserted when I was there, The Green Park Inn held a feeling of history, with many pictures displayed of times gone by. This hotel was the site of many lavish galas in the late 1800’s and early to mid 1900’s. Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt and J.D. Rockefeller are just a few of the guests who brought entourages with them to enjoy the mountain air. Breakfast was served in the former ballroom, where many of these events took place. Business meetings and banquets are still held there. I see from my notes that Annie Oakley was also a guest here, as was Elizabeth Dole, more recently – last year.

I drove around the Main St. section of the town, but didn’t get a chance to explore any shops. This may have been timing (arriving late afternoon, leaving the following morning) or due to off-season hours. I also didn’t get out to the namesake “Blowing Rock” itself, a cliff that hangs 4,000 feet above sea level and 3,000 feet above Johns River Gorge, located slightly out of town.

I was told the legend behind this rock by several different locals and each one offered a different story. But the brochure I picked up (you know how I collect those…) says that a Chickasaw chieftan brought his daughter to The Blowing Rock to protect her from the white man’s admiration. One day, while daydreaming on the rock, she shot an arrow playfully at a young Cherokee brave below, which started a flirtation and courtship. At some point a reddening of the sky brought the two of them to the rock. He felt this was a sign that he needed to return to his tribe. She pleaded with him to stay and, torn by conflict, he jumped from the rock.

Grief-stricken, she remained on the rock, praying daily to the Great Spirit for her lover’s return until, one evening, a gust of wind blew him back onto the rock. Since then (so the legend goes) the wind has blown up from below. This became the explanation for The Blowing Rock’s mysterious wind, noted in a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not cartoon which calls this “the only place in the world where snow falls upside down”.

Well, I never saw The Blowing Rock, but I did see The Woodland’s Barbeque & Pickin’ Parlor, where I had a BBQ plate of chopped pork, baked beans, hush puppies, cole slaw and jalapeno cornbread. You know, the low-cal special. The place was almost empty, but I still caught the tail end of a banjo/guitar duo, which was fun. I packed up most of the meal into a to-go box and saved it for the next day.

The next morning I knew I had to make some tracks, though I still had one more day before I needed to reach Philadelphia (based on weather reports and personal schedule). Though several people informed me the Blue Ridge Parkway was open, it was closed three miles down the road. I did the three miles anyway, though, looking for photo opportunities. I backtracked from the barricade on the parkway and passed through Boone, where I browsed a few shops, including the Mast General Store, founded in 1883 (barrels of candy, old-fashioned items).

And then I headed for Virginia, via Rtes. 221 and 16 – a breathtakingly beautiful drive.

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At twilight I came into Asheville, NC, landing in a massive rock structure that I can only refer to as heaven. I hadn’t intended to go through Asheville, but it was an easy stretch from Rabun Gap, Georgia. A flip through my AAA guide book pointed me toward a 1913 historic hotel, The Grove Park Inn. A quick phone call informed me of an amazing discount – 99. for a room that would normally be over 200. during peak season. I headed over to check it out. One step inside the lobby won me over instantly.

The great room was expansive, with high ceilings and solid oak Arts & Crafts-era furnishings. A long row of rocking chairs stretched before a huge stone fireplace, where guests lounged comfortably in front of the warm flames. A waitress served drinks from a bar to the right. The front desk greeted me with warm and efficient hospitality and I was soon on my way to a room on the third floor of the main, historic section.

The elevator ride up to the room is worth a note in itself. Built inside the interior of the chimney, this elevator (and a second, located at the opposite end of the lobby in another fireplace) can be found listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Stairs are also available, but not nearly as fun as the ride offered by the hotel’s elevator operator, who also offers history tidbits.

Grove Park Inn was the dream of Edwin W. Grove, the owner and founder of Grove’s Pharmacy and Paris Medical Company of St. Louis, Missouri. He amassed his fortune by selling turn-of-the-century medical treatments, including Grove’s Tasteless Oil Tonic. Following his doctor’s advice, Grove started spending summers in Asheville in the last 1800’s and came to love the area. Over time he became involved with the development of the city and on July 9, 1912, started construction of the resort hotel. It opened the following year to rave reviews. In 1955 Charles and Elaine Sammons purchased the inn and continued expanding the inn toward its current glory.

F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed at The Grove Park Inn while his wife, Zelda, underwent treatment in a mental hospital in Baltimore in 1935, as well as during 1936, when he moved her to Asheville’s Highland Hospital. He occupied rooms 441 and 443, which are included in a tour given during the yearly Salute to F. Scott Fitzgerald weekend (this year’s dates: Sept. 19-21). The guest registers list numerous other celebrity names, including Will Rogers, Thomas Edison, Bela Bartok, George Gershwin, Baryshnikov, Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR and seven additional presidents.

My room was wonderful. The ceilings were high and the sheets were luxuriously soft. Every amenity a guest could hope for was there: leather chairs, stereo system, small refrigerator, microwave oven, two phone lines, data ports, cable television, and in-room coffee maker (not always common in luxury hotels). The bedspread and shams were of elegant fabric and glasses (not disposible cups, which I have found, amazingly, in some high end lodgings) were provided in both the room and spacious bath. Additional details included plentiful electrical outlets. (Anyone who has ever desperately searched a hotel room and moved multiple pieces of furniture in search of a plug for laptop knows the value of this).

I had dinner in the Blue Ridge Dining Room, one of several choices within the hotel. It offered a view of the Asheville skyline, linen tableclothes, tiffany lamps and the peaceful ambiance of classical music and candlelight. A vase with fresh red and pink carnations graced my table. I chose a pasta dish with yellow squash, red and green peppers, pesto and pine nuts, which was accompanied by a small green salad with a delicious sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. A basket held cheese/chive bread, as well as a flatbread with white and cayenne pepper. I found the flatbread especially good.

Arriving late, and staying only one night, I didn’t have a chance to take advantage of all that The Grove Park Inn has to offer, but the facilities available are every bit as fabulous and varied as the rooms. An 18-hole golf course, designed in 1924 by Donald Ross, and a state-of-the-art sports complex with indoor swimming pool, fitness classes and circuit-training equipment are two of the on-site offerings for guests. Tennis and racquetball are also offered. Built into the hillside below the hotel itself, The Spa at The Grove Park Resort gives 40,000 square feet of new meaning to the term luxury. (Note: Some services require additional fees).

I did make a point of stopping in at The Spa before leaving, in order to snoop around a bit and especially to admire the breathtaking architecture, much of it out of natural stone. This facility ranks among the most luxurious in the world and is designed around a theme of fire, water, rock and sky. The aesthetic appeal is as intoxicating as the menu of services offered, which don’t end with standard massages and facials, but offer such tempting treatments as a Heaven Scent Aromatherapy Massage, Carolina Mud Pie Masque, Buttermilk and Honey Bath, and the Walk in the Clouds Pedicure.

I grabbed lunch at the cafe. My orzo and tomato soup was excellent, accompanied by a half sandwich with ham, swiss cheese, tomato, red onions and dijon-chive mustard on sunflower wheat berry bread. Again I had a chance to munch on the homemade flatbread I’d enjoyed at dinner. Though I couldn’t enter the main area of the spa itself – day passes are $50. for hotel guests and $75. for non-hotel guests – I observed spa guests arriving in the cafe between treatments, clad in thick white robes. I readily admit I watched with envy.

I finally dragged myself out and got back on the road, but only after fighting the urge to check back in.

**Additional notes on The Grove Park Inn:

This place was fabulous. There’s one on each trip that really stands out and this is absolutely it, for several reasons. For one thing, this place has everything. Not only services that require fees (golf, spa treatments, etc.) but many bonuses inherent in the set-up they have. Sitting in front of the fireplace in a rocking chair, journal in lap.

Extremely reasonably priced food in the Spa Cafe – a great chef who enjoys experimenting with homemade soups and other recipes – we talked for awhile. The luxury of the architecture itself. Something very soothing and grounding about the stones. Many, many lobby and small sitting areas, all beautifully furnished with Arts and Crafts pieces. Hidden nooks for reading all over.

Of course, an immaculate room, beautifully furnished, with GREAT attention to detail and amenities is always nice. And rarely found. I’ve become (sadly) a terrible critic about this and I can truly say that absolutely nothing is overlooked here.

The biggest joy about The Grove Park Inn is the hospitality. From the front desk to the elevator operator to the waitress in the dining room to the guy stocking the fire to the chef in the cafe to the front desk at The Spa – well, you get the idea. High praise is to be given to the management of this resort for whatever they’re doing, as the morale is high among staff and this carries over to guests. As it should. Zero snootiness. Perfect hospitality. The best I’ve seen in years of travel. No preference to high-rollers, at least as far as I could see (since I can’t imagine any better treatment than what I received). As someone coming in on a discount rate, grabbing an inexpensive cup of soup in the cafe and limiting my recreation to reading and writing in front of the fire, I was given the same courtesies as others who might have stayed in pricier suites and stocked up on spa packages.

They do get you on the phone charges here. A buck for 15 minutes (local), then it kicks in high. So you need to sign off, then sign back on. I only used the phone as needed, especially with that big fireplace and all the cozy rockers in the lobby.

This place was perfect. Perfect. Perfect. Some day I want to go back and enjoy the spa, even just with a spa pass for a day, to lounge around in the pools and saunas. Having stepped inside that building, I’m telling you the world disappears in there.

Not to mention everything else Asheville has to offer – The Biltmore, etc. I didn’t get a chance to see any of that. (Both time limitations and the $38. ticket price for the estate.) Another time.

Information:

The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa
290 Macon Ave.
Asheville, NC 28804
(800) 438-5800

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