by Gene Owens
The Smoky Mountains had experienced a brisk windstorm the week before our annual pilgrimage to the chalet in Maggie Valley, so the trees had shed most of their leaves.
The lower slopes still boasted splotches of color, but the upper altitudes wore winter gray except for patches of deep green where the balsam pine prevailed over the hardwoods.
Instead of taking the civilized route via the Interstates, I put the Golden Girl, Miss Peggy's latest Buick, on a collision course with the "Blue Wall," the steep southern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Alpine scenery has always been a tonic to my soul.
Miss Peggy sat beside me and concentrated on an electronic game, one of the bells and whistles on her cell phone.
“Ain’t that pretty?” I would say as I wheeled the Buick around a horseshoe bend that afforded a magnificent view of towering peaks and yawning valleys.
“Ummm hummm,” she would reply as she glanced momentarily out the window.
We drove through hardwood forests that had spread a carpet of leaves over the pavement. They seemed to lie there undisturbed.
Between the North Carolina mountain towns of Sylva and Waynesville, we stopped for a jug of cider, some jellies and a pie from the fruit stand in the stone building at Barber's Orchards, where we normally stock up. Ron and Donna from Greensboro, N. C., joined us a couple of hours after we reached the chalet. We came to the chalet together around 1990 and have made a tradition of meeting there each year around the beginning of November.
The first year featured romps at The Stomping Grounds, the local square-dance emporium. We made side trips to Cherokee and Gatlinburg and toured the Biltmore Mansion in Asheville.
Each year the pace has slackened.
This year, we went determined to do nothing. I left my computer at home. Ron brought his laptop, but not for work. He knew Miss Peggy was hooked on computer games, and figured the laptop would curb her zest for action.
We knew not and cared not whether the Wild West town atop the mountain was still open. We
avoided the town of Cherokee, where the trappings of Western plains Indians have been slathered over
the authentic Cherokee culture to form a gaudy tourist trap. We never gave a thought to Gatlinburg or
“I have nothing to prove,” I said as I settled into a chair and opened a mystery novel that explored no deep truths and forced no deep introspection.
“You got that right,” said Donna as she nursed her cup of hot cider with a splash of Jack.
“Snrxxxxxx,” said Ron as he fell asleep by the gas fireplace.
So went the week. We would sit on the deck, sipping whatever and watching the robins, cardinals and woodpeckers flit among the tall hickories. A couple of squirrels entertained us with feats of acrobatics, swinging like furry Tarzans from dangling limbs no thicker than a pencil.
Ron and I took turns with breakfast and kitchen duty. I caught Miss Peggy one morning sitting at the laptop, electric toothbrush in her mouth, determined not to let oral hygiene interfere with her computer games.
We went home directly over the Blue Wall, and Miss Peggy opened a book of crosswords.
“Who’s the patron saint of Wales?” she asked as we cruised beside the wooded shores of Lake Logan, with the mountains looming above it.
“Which king did Saul spare?” she asked, as a middling-sized doe danced into the roadway, took a few leaps in front of us, then disappeared into the forest.
As I rounded one curve, I saw a car stopped in the middle of the oncoming lane, its door wide open. The driver had crossed the road and was holding a cup up to a waterfall.
Miss Peggy looked up and marveled that he would risk life and wheels for the drink.
Later, she put down her crossword and ventured that maybe she’d like to take home some of that mountain water, should we pass another spring coming off the hillside.
I found one and pulled into a turnoff a quarter of a mile beyond it. She emptied a bottle of Sam’s Club plain water, and I took it to the spot where the water fell from the Cliffside.
I stepped into a shallow pool lined with dead leaves and held the bottle up to the cold spray cascading from above. It was like trying to fill a bottle from a rain shower. I collected about an inch’s worth of water and returned to the car.
“Smell it before you drink it,” I warned her.
It smelled of rotten leaves.
She poured it out and returned to her crossword.
I headed home to resume my retirement and the process of aging gently.
Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.
As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers last year named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.
He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers
and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He recently went into
semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.
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