Written by Roger McCredie
This is a true story:
On a picture perfect fall morning some years ago, I was walking down Woodfin Street in Asheville. The cloudless sky was that limitless royal blue that belongs only to the mountains in October. The white oaks and poplars along the sidewalk had turned a dignified yellow-gold. But most spectacular were the ornamental maples that dotted the lawns of the hotels and apartments on both sides of the street. They were Day-Glo hunting vest orange and British guards scarlet, and where the sun hit them they appeared quite literally to be burning, as though the Almighty had scattered them around for Moses in case he missed the original memo.
A long, late model Lincoln with an out-of-state tag glided to the curb near one of the maples. The driver popped the trunk, got out, and, as I watched, he walked purposefully over to the little tree, snapped off a particularly spectacular low-hanging branch, tossed it into the trunk, and drove off as casually as he had driven up.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s been said that the South has four seasons: almost summer, summer, still summer, and Christmas. In Western North Carolina, though, the seasons are distinct. Spring is lush and blossomy. Summer is sunny and mild (or so the Chamber would have you believe). And there is a minimalistic, crystalline beauty to winter. But the mountain fall, even for the most blasé or unobservant, is so beautiful it can literally take your breath away. So perhaps, in the spirit of charity, we may forgive the Lincoln driver’s botanical vandalism. Maybe he lived where there aren’t any leaves and wanted to take home proof that he had actually been amid such beauty. Maybe he wanted to hold on to that leafy incandescence for his own soul’s sake, until eventually the leaves withered and taught him a lesson. Whatever his motive, he belonged to a particular species, peeperus leaforum, whose primary behavioral pattern is traveling great distances to ogle foliage.
In the years since I observed that particular specimen’s behavior, however, new species have made Western North Carolina an autumn destination. They have been attracted by the ancillary bait set out for them. The Asheville Convention and Visitors’ website calendar lists a total of 231 events scheduled in and around Asheville from September 1st through November 30th. These include the Wise Woman Herb Fest and the nationally-known Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF), both in Black Mountain. LEAF’s listing describes it as “one of the treasured traditions for families and friends across the Southeast and beyond. A weekend at LEAF is the equivalent of going on a year-long, multi-cultural music, arts, dance, and outdoor-adventures journey, which “recharges our batteries.” The Golden Retriever Nationals are also on tap for October, as is a “stroll” through the rapidly gentrifying River Arts District, which is home to fewer artists than it once was, because the city, concerned for their safety, evicted some of them from their ramshackle-but-affordable studios.
Asheville, having earned the title of Beer City, U.S.A., offers a plethora of events centered around beer. There are craft beer symposia, brewery tours, tastings, and promotional parties, all capped (no pun intended) by Asheville’s very own Oktoberfest, where children under the age of eight must display a designated driver bracelet indicating that they will be conveyed home by a presumably sober adult.
In general, commercial Western North Carolina’s strategy for capitalizing on an annual natural phenomenon—the changing of color of the leaves of deciduous trees—is based on the “Field of Dreams” approach: If you build it / throw it / host it / sponsor it / advertise it, they will come. And they do.
[quote float=”right”]So, like timid woodland creatures venturing out when the forest grows quiet, they make their way to places and activities little known or noticed by the Biltmore House pilgrims or the beer connoisseurs.[/quote]Holden Caulfield, the adolescent protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, spends several pages fretting over where the ducks in Central Park Lake go for shelter in winter. Similarly, we may ask, what of the natives—the people for whom this area is not a temporary destination but the place in which they live and move and have their being? (Then again, we may not ask at all, but for the sake of argument and this article’s theme, let’s just say we do.)
In early September, when the first fall foliage predictions appear in the media and online and the first leaf-peeper room reservations begin trickling in, the locals’ lives begin to turn inward. They, after all, have kids in school and work to go to; and even if their work takes them deep into tourist territory (and perhaps is tourist-related) they tend not to tarry when the workday ends, but to hasten home to roost. To the observant, this is signaled by a noticeable decline of downtown of people who are not wearing shorts and flip-flops.
But Western North Carolinians are no different from their incomer counterparts, in that they crave recreation, relaxation, and human society. So, like timid woodland creatures venturing out when the forest grows quiet, they make their way to places and activities little known or noticed by the Biltmore House pilgrims or the beer connoisseurs, and in fact there is a plentiful and eclectic variety of indigenous entertainments. Here’s a sampling of activities and venues popular with the homefolks:
The Eliada Homes Corn Maze: A venerable and venerated Buncombe County institution, Eliada Homes began its life as Faith Cottage, a refuge for unwed mothers founded by a local clergyman, the Rev. Dr. Lucius Compton. In 1906 Compton also founded an orphanage to care for children whose mothers had not kept them, or whose mothers had died in childbirth. Eliada Homes, Inc., now exists as a residential and non-boarding center for high risk children and adolescents, as well as a multi-faceted child development center. The fall corn maze is a major and popular fundraiser.
Smack in the middle of Eliada’s rolling campus off Leicester Highway is its very own 12-acre cornfield, which every year is transformed into something very like a crop circle on steroids. In early September a team of corn maze specialists (or misanthropic gnomes) carves an incredibly complicated design through the still-green, six-foot stalks. At intervals along this trail they place scorecard posts—also fiendishly painted green—equipped with hole punches of different designs. Contestants are furnished with a map showing the overall design of the maze—which of course can’t be made out from ground level—and the locations of the posts, which are numbered. The idea is to complete the route through the corn station by station and come out the other side without losing children or going mad.
On a busy day the maze sounds like a large family picnic gone horribly wrong. There is a constant hum of muffled conversations involving the map, punctuated by raised adult voices (“Keep together!” “Hold on to my shirt!” “Don’t do that!”) and various juvenile cries (“There’s a snake!” “You’re just saying that!” I gotta peeeee!” ). As the season advances and the stalks turn dry and brown, there is also a fair amount of sneezing. Some adventurers fall by the wayside, but others emerge, sweaty and disoriented, into the open, holding their completed scorecards aloft with palsied hands, having traumatized themselves for a good cause.
High School football games: The South, of course, is a country unto itself. It even has a state religion: football. As soon as the season starts, the same front-porch sockets that held the Stars and Stripes on the Fourth of July sprout the heraldic banners of pigskin allegiance—Carolina blue, NC State scarlet, even the occasional Tennessee orange.
There is no hometown college team to root for—UNC Asheville plays basketball but not football—so allegiance and attendance is transferred to the high school level, where the rivalries are even more intense because they are crosstown or even cross-neighborhood: Owen versus Reynolds; Asheville versus anybody; and, the century-old private school matchup between Christ School and Asheville School, which is held in broad daylight and attended by all the tradition-soaked solemnity of Yale versus Harvard.
And there’s more on the line than school pride and bragging rights. Rest assured, the college scouts are out there. If, as the Duke of Wellington once said, the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the future of the NFL lurks in the shadows of the Friday night lights.
Excursions to somewhere else: Using the sauce-for-the-goose tactic, many natives pick the fall tourist season to become tourists in their own right. This activity is particularly popular among retirees, who don’t have work schedules to worry about and whose kids are long since out of school and never call home anyway.
Globe Treks, based in Hendersonville, specializes in coach excursions ranging from day (or evening) concert or theater outings to long-weekend shopping forays (Atlanta, Chicago, New York) to full-scale, week-long safaris to the Outer Banks, the Great Lakes, and Pennsylvania Dutch country. Packages include lodging and meals, and the operative word here is “coach,” not “bus.” Travelers ride in a vehicle with amenities and comfort features that make first class air travel look shabby.
And for those who really want to get away, Globe Treks offers international group vacations. Ireland, Iceland, and Quebec are on the current menu.
Jamming at Mrs. Hyatt’s: In 1947 Wayne Hyatt, who played the mandolin and built and repaired instruments as a hobby, began inviting some of his fellow Southern Railway workers, who were also musicians, to his home on Brevard Road to make music of an evening now and then. There being no shortage of traditional musicians hereabouts, word soon spread, the jam moved into what had once been the Hyatts’ garage, and the gathering was fixed by consensus for Thursdays after supper. (Nelia Hyatt had been known to feed her husband’s friends, but the catering job became too daunting.)
Over the decades the Thursday jam became not just a salon for accomplished musicians but an informal academy of Appalachian culture where young musicians came to learn the old songs, the old ways of playing, even the old stories and collective memories of generations past. After Wayne Hyatt’s death, Nelia and a nucleus of musicians and neighbors kept everything going. Then commerce encroached, the Hyatts’ neat brick home went under the bulldozer and, despite frantic efforts to save it, so did the “music house.”
Again the musicians, friends and neighbors rallied, holding fundraisers and even organizing a 501(c)(3) charitable corporation to give traction to the preservation effort. Meanwhile, local resort Pisgah View Ranch has stepped into the breach and hosts the weekly jams, now held on Sunday afternoons.
I include Mrs. Hyatt’s here because in a corner of my heart it is always a mild fall evening with the doors wide open at the old place, the music spilling out, the overflow listeners mingling in the driveway, and a fat autumn moon rising over the surrounding fields instead of over car dealerships. Inside, from his old recliner, the bearlike figure of Wayne Hyatt follows a tune, cradling a mandolin of his own making in his enormous sensitive hands. He is surrounded by mountain music makers whose age and accomplishment have earned them the curious Southern honorific of “Mister” before their first names: Mister Tommy Bell, Mister Carl Cochran, and Mister Boomer Lewis.
On one such evening, the legendary fiddler Mister Byard Ray sidled up to me, fixed me with a gimlet eye, and said, “You know what Bluegrass is?”
Intuiting that this was a rhetorical question, I said, “No, Mister Bayard, what is it?”
“Bluegrass,” Mister Bayard Ray said, “ain’t nothin’ but old-time mountain music, played too damn fast and too damn loud.”
Staying home: Even the worldliest and most jaded of Western North Carolina locals (yes, there are a few) are aware at some level that they are fortunate enough to inhabit one of the most beautiful places on God’s green earth. And there are few places from which this beauty is not visible, especially in the fall, when it’s hard to miss, whether from an office window or the back porch, or even in the car, seeing the sun setting the always-looming hills on fire.
[quote float=”right”]“October is the season for returning: even the town is born anew…The tide of life is at the full again, the rich return to business or to fashion, and the bodies of the poor are rescued out of heat and weariness…”[/quote]And it’s not the scenery, or not just. That can be captured, albeit inadequately, with the click of a cellphone’s camera. To those who live here, autumn works changes in the metabolism and in the spirit. It’s difficult to describe, but maybe the essence of fall hereabouts comes closest to being captured by a gangly Asheville kid, born in October, who delivered newspapers in the predawn darkness, and who grew into a larger-than-life man who wrote things, including this:
“October is the season for returning: even the town is born anew…The tide of life is at the full again, the rich return to business or to fashion, and the bodies of the poor are rescued out of heat and weariness…
“All things on earth point home in old October: sailors to sea, travelers to walls and fences, hunters to field and hollow and the long voice of the hounds, the lover to the love he has forsaken—all things that live upon this earth return…”
He too came home again. In the time of the turning leaves.