Sunday, June 3, 2012

Turning 60 in unfamiliar territory sans golf

Two years ago, I celebrated my 58th birthday with a spur of the moment 58 holes of golf at Lonnie Poole Golf Course on the NC State University campus. Last year when I turned 59, I planned to play 59 holes, but my brain didn’t get the message so I played 72 holes of golf that day. No walking either year; took a gas-powered golf cart. It’s an age thing.

On May 26, I celebrated my 60th birthday; thanks to God and to my wife Nancy, who is in charge of healthy food and pushing me to exercise at the very least every now and then, for another year. And, thank God for Nancy. On that Saturday, I was not near a golf course, on purpose, believe it or not. No 60 holes of golf for me. Not even 18 holes of golf. After talk of a huge birthday bash at home and then consideration of renting a large house or two on the coast of North Carolina and inviting lots of family members, Nancy and I decided on unfamiliar territory in the mountains. We planned and executed a get-away Thursday-Monday of Memorial Day weekend at the Blue WatersMountain Lodge near Robbinsville NC in Graham County, two hours west of Asheville. There’s lots of North Carolina to see out that way. The state does not stop after Buncombe County.

Lake Santeetlah from front porch of Blue Waters Mountain Lodge
Not until we arrived did we realize Graham County is dry (no alcohol sales in the county or within any town limits except at resorts of which Blue Waters Mountain Lodge and two other Graham County B&Bs on steroids are considered) except for the creeks, rivers and lakes. And while there, we learned Graham County has a population of about 9,000 people and that 90% of the land is National Park. We were told and reminded more than once you do not go to Robbinsville to shop or play golf. While the local Ingles grocery store couldn’t sell beer or wine, Blue Waters could because a law passed some time ago that was pushed by legislators who wanted to be able to purchase fire water even when their favorite retreats are in dry counties. Of course, we’re sure Macon County residents offer some on the non-revenue-collected kind of alcohol, but we didn’t come across any.

We enjoy a nice glass of wine or a beer with dinner so being in a dry county—even though my native Lee County was dry at the time of my youth—was a little shock to our lifestyle. On the other hand, except for the restaurants at the resorts, dining opportunities in Graham County are severely limited. Please note the billboards announcing the soon to arrive Bojangles in Robbinsville. The local non-chain establishments will not know what’s hit ’em when Bo’s opens. And the two or three chain eateries are also in for a shock. Anyway, and to our credit, we stocked up on beer and wine on our way out of Cary, and, on purpose, the golf clubs remained in the garage. This was to be a relaxing and adventurous trip. And it was.

Do I look small with tulip-poplars in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest?
We hiked the Yellow Creek Falls Trail (click for video), a short but hilly-terrain walk of about six-tenths of a mile round-trip just off of highway 129 north of Robbinsville to a beautiful little waterfall and knew we were in the throes of nature when, on the way out, we passed an awful smell that had to be either a skunk or bear droppings. We hiked through the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, a two-mile figure-eight loop. We were advised by our resort host, Mike Stewart, to hike through Joyce Kilmer counterclockwise even though the entrance sort of forces you to the left. Good advice as the climb to the right is much more gradual than it is to the left, so going up to see the very large tulip-poplars was easier than if we had hiked the steep climb to the left of the entrance.

We drove about 20 miles on the Cherohala Skyway, a Blue Ridge Parkway-type ridge-crest highway that was only completed and opened in 1996 and built at a cost of $100 million after 30 years of construction. Later that Friday evening at a lakeside dinner including Blue Waters guests and several “locals/timely visitors” living along Santeetlah Lake, we met one of the owners of one of the many road builders that took part in the Skyway’s construction. Listening to his stories was an entertaining as the drive which took us from 90-degree temperatures at a 2,660 feet elevation to just under 70 degrees at the peak of 5,390 feet. Small world that he and I have many of the same acquaintances, all NC State University connected.

At the Lodge, with only nine guest rooms, we met several interesting people including three Italians—one spoke very good English, one understood English and knew enough to communicate, and the third, with no English skills whatsoever, smiled, shook her head and said “good” to everything—who had driven 15 hours from Miami to spend the weekend and hike the same trails as we did and then some. We met a man and his wife who are Corvette enthusiasts. They took to the roads every morning and returned late in the afternoon after driving hours and many miles throughout the area mountains, taking hairpin curves at daring speeds in “his” 1974 ’Vet. Twice, maybe three times, they drove the Tail of the Dragon, an 11-mile mountainous stretch that includes 318 sharp bends. 

Lake Santeetlah from dockside at Blue Waters Mountain Lodge

We played pool with strangers in the beautiful lobby of the Lodge while keeping an eye on the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball tournament on the nearby flat screen; we went for 45-minute walks—uphill going out for 25 minutes and downhill the 20 minutes back—every morning before a tasty, filling breakfast; we ate dinner dockside at Santeetlah Lake, and sat in front-porch rocking chairs during evening hours, getting to know the others staying with us.

We visited three of the current 107 North Carolina wineries for the first time. There was Calaboose Cellars in Andrews which bills itself as the smallest winery in North Carolina; Cherokee Cellars in downtown Murphy where the proprietor purchases grapes from several sources and makes several good wines on site; and Valley River Vineyards just a little southeast of Murphy. Bill Reece, the winemaker and owner of Valley River Vineyards is a retired farmer who, after retiring, sat around his home just long enough for his wife to get irritated at him, asking him to go do something. So he started growing grapes and making wine, one of muscadine grapes he named “Hooray (WHO-ray) White” because, as Bill said, “If the French can have Vouvray, we can have Hooray.” We also made our way across the state line to nearby Young Harris GA and the Crane Creek Vineyards where a day long festival was in progress. It looked like a lot of fun but time did not permit more than a tasting before departing. At least that’s the excuse we used to get away from the couple at the tasting counter next to us who obviously had spent way too many hours in the sun and, how do I say this politely, they stank.

We watched bus load after bus load of water-rafters make their way to the whitewater rapids of the Cheoah and Nantahala rivers. We stopped along the side of the highway during a drive through the beautiful Nantahala Gorge long enough to watch the fun-and-thrill-seekers floating past, a site that encourages us to return to the area and to be prepared for the same.

And we enjoyed some of our own frothy liquid when we drove to Bryson City and the Nantahala Brewing Company, downing a pint or two of its Up River Amber and enjoying an interesting and tasty pizza that we bought next door at Anthony’s Restaurante & Pizzeria. (If you put an “e” on the end of “restaurant,” it adds a letter to the word.) We sat on the Brewing Company’s front porch deck across Depot Street from the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad which has trips from Bryson City to Dillsboro and back as well as from Bryson City through the Nantahala Gorge and back. We want to return for that but were told to do so when school is in session.

While this was supposed to be a relaxing four-night, five-day adventure, we were constantly on the move except when sitting on the front porch of the Lodge or on the deck at Nantahala Brewing, or sleeping with the curtains drawn and the windows wide open on the clear and cool nights, watching the moon dive into the lake.

My loving wife, Nancy, enjoyed the front porch chairs at Blue Waters

While it was not 60 holes of golf, it was a very enjoyable few days, traveling with my lovely and loving wife, Nancy, exploring new places, discovering areas of our great state that were beyond our prior reach. However, once we departed the area for the drive home, we had one more stop, a special visit to see our son Chris, daughter-in-law Christy and granddaughter Livy at their home in Hendersonville, a drive of about 135 minutes from Blue Waters Mountain Lodge. Being with them was a wonderful way to end my birthday celebration. Chris grilled hotdogs and added his delicious chili, not best for my health but superb for my taste and Nancy okayed it; Chris also picked out John Grisham’s “Calico Joe” as a present. It is a good read, especially for baseball fans. Christy made a very light yellow cake with a homemade milk chocolate icing, my favorite combination. Maybe I really need to play and walk 60 holes of golf to work off that meal.

Livy, our granddaughter who will be four in September, was a joy for Nancy and me. She can be a little self-determining at times and play hard to catch, but just after lunch and just before we departed for the four-hour drive home, Livy climbed into my lap and offered me a kiss, which absolutely made my birthday complete. The entire weekend and that moment was more gratifying than playing 60 holes of golf.

Livy gives a birthday kiss to her Grandpapa


  1. So glad to stumble on to another NC wine enthusiast! Read my ramblings on NC beer and wine @

  2. Glad you had a great Birthday Weekend.. did you get my bbm??? just checking.. hugs to all of you..


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