Randy Johnson Books


Appalachian Spring—A Best Kept-Secret Season

Randy Johnson, Hemispheres Magazine, 2006

I didn’t know what to expect from my first Appalachian music festival. I imagined some big beer-swilling crowd hooting in a muddy field to the electrified twang of bluegrass or country. But that image faded fast in the darkened auditorium of Glenville State College, West Virginia where I first heard southern highlanders sing sorrowful tales, their richly accented voices underscored by dulcimers and fiddles. The craggy faces betrayed the bone structure of the Scotch-Irish who’d first settled the region. Poignant, discordant harmonies gave me goose bumps.

The music wasn’t exactly Aaron Copland's classic symphony Appalachian Spring, but events like these, at this time of year, are the perfect way to celebrate nature's reawakening in one of the most scenic, and culturally distinctive parts of the US. Mountain culture emerges starkly in the spring when residents gather to celebrate the season, traditional music, and food. Some are popular with travelers, others are more like family reunions, some are a bit of both. All welcome the beauty and bounty of spring.

The Appalachians arc from Alabama to Canada’s Gaspe peninsula, but nowhere is spring as showy as in the verdant Southern Appalachians from Virginia and West Virginia, to North Carolina and Tennessee.

Rustic was the rule, but today, Appalachia’s legendary hollows hide sophisticated lodging with a growing national renown for gourmet fare.

The greening summits and waving wildflowers are music to the eyes for visitors in this global capital of biodiversity. Bud-burnished trees tint mountainsides with hues reminiscent of fall as they creep higher up the peaks with each passing week. Whether you pause long enough to hear a mountain fiddler, the scenery alone is worth the trip.

The Great Smokies

By May, deep snowdrifts are gone and the nearly 7,000-foot summits of the Great Smoky Mountains crest like a lime-green wave on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.

There’s no better place than The Swag to savor the spectacle. Named for a swale between summits, the inn’s magical collection of lodges was built from the massive logs felled from Appalachian virgin forests for historic cabins (the oldest is from 1795). Arriving guests pull up to a dog-trot breezeway amidst a breeze-filled, mile-high forest. Gaze one direction off the porch into cloud-filled valleys far below. In the other direction, and 30 feet away, a rustic, flower-bordered fence marks the boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A huge tree trunk full of hiking staffs (with a wooden name medallion for each guest) sits nearby inviting you to grab one and stride through the gate and into the green enclave.

The Swag is all about nature. This and many lofty Southern Appalachian resorts bask in crisp high-elevation cool that sets them apart and above the ordinary world of the sultry South. The earliest visitors entered the region to escape the South’s summer heat—and they still do.

Wildflower walks are everywhere on The Swag’s 250-acre parcel. Wonderfully private little nooks called “hideaways” beckon. Spring to fall, expert naturalists engage guests with interpretive programs and guided hikes.

The Swag is known for delectable post-hike fare a nd four-star amenities such as XM radio in rooms and an abbreviated morning version of The New York Times by fax. That’s understandable. Owners Dan Matthews and wife Deener lived in New York City until recently. Dan, a native of nearby Waynesville, North Carolina, retired as the rector of Trinity Church, the historic Wall Street church so close to the events of 9/11. Not surprisingly, husband and wife came home to The Swag.

For a counterpoint to the fancy shallots of The Swag, drop in on the annual Ramp Festival in early May down in Waynesville, a pristine and stereotypical mountain downtown. Isolated mountain residents of the past were so tired of dried foods by spring that they’d eat anything that resembled fresh greens—including the wild leeks called ramps. This notoriously strong onion with a powerful hint of garlic is a traditional garnish that can get schoolchildren banished from class until the aroma subsides. Local volunteers prepare plentiful ramp-laced dishes at the American Legion hall. Options include country ham and ramps, ramps and scrambled eggs, ramp meatloaf, and raw ramps are for sale. There’s a raw ramp-eating contest—the winner gets 2 minutes to eat the most bags with about 18 ramps each.

The festival kicks off the summer travel season. Saturday night after the ramp event, the first of the Waynesville Street Dances draws folks downtown for bluegrass and mountain music. The night before, the summer’s first Art After Dark invites visitors to galleries and craft studios for demonstrations and hors d’oeuvres. Like events all over Appalachia, these types of fests often benefit local volunteer fire departments and rescue squads.

More Urban Appalachia

From the Smokies and Waynesville, follow the winding motor trail of the Blue Ridge Parkway north over the ridgetop jumble of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests to trendy Asheville. Foremost among the city’s wealth of festivals is the Biltmore Estate’s April Festival of Flowers. The estate’s formal gardens are an explosion of allergens that inspire and enchant. America’s largest private home is the centerpiece, but the outdoor and conservatory gardens, and even vineyards, add up to stellar spring experience.

Thousands of acres of Frederick Law Olmstead-landscaped grounds and rich surrounding forests (home to the first forestry school in the Americas) abound with blossoming shrubs and trees.

Stay on the grounds at the Inn on Biltmore Estate an it’s easy to feel “to the manor born.” Asheville may be the base for a memorable roam through the region but the estate will be difficult to leave. Trails lace the idyllic setting with horseback riding, mountain biking, and hiking close at hand. The estate’s outdoor center rents all the equipment and guides many trips, including raft rides through the estate on the French Broad River. The Land Rover Driving School offers another kind of insight into the estate’s rolling hills and valleys. The Inn’s patios, pool, and restaurants overlook the entire list of options, including the winery. Dining includes estate-raised meats and produce in traditional regional dishes—and settings as diverse as a winery bistro and reinvented stable.

For a truly empowering vista, overlook the city’s lush setting from the Grove Park Inn, a massive boulder-built lodge nearing its hundredth birthday but updated to first-rate resort status. From the flower-potted patio steakhouse, just below historic rooms favored by F. Scot Fitzgerald, the view sweeps across the leafy city’s art-deco landmarks to the surrounding Blue Ridge. Immediately below, the sounds of a cascade lead your gaze to the Grove Park Spa, an enticing subterranean oasis of new age music and waterfall-filled grottoes that could convince you to hole up for your entire stay.

But don’t. Downtown Asheville is a vibrant, reborn oasis of granola mountain culture. The art-festooned Urban Trail leads you through the city’s architectural, literary, and musical history. Thomas Wolfe’s Home is on the tour, as is Asheville’s classic Grove Arcade, a recently reclaimed urban market like Seattle’s Pike Place or Reading Terminal in Philly. Asheville gave birth to the first traditional mountain music festival in 1925, and the summertime Shindig-on-the-Green is just one of many music and crafts fairs that carry on that tradition. Restaurants, nightlife, and regionally significant craft galleries, make Asheville a spring destination worth even a long flight.

Higher Country

The Blue Ridge Parkway soars north out of Asheville and back even earlier into spring on the way past Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain in the East (6,684 feet).

In northwestern North Carolina, near Boone, a college town named after the explorer, the Appalachian Trail leads through vast open vistas on the highlands of Roan Mountain. The mountain’s meadows, filled with rare species of flowers and covered with natural gardens of rhododendron, are a landmark spring destination.

At more than 6,000 feet, lethargic bumblebees careen through the chilly air, spurred into erratic action by acres of blossoms. In late June, the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival celebrates the bloom, proof that spring is just getting going on the high peaks when summer is already unbearable elsewhere in the South. Visitors circulate between the mountaintop gardens and Tennessee’s nearby Roan Mountain State Park, the setting for mountain music, crafts, and natural history programs.

At the base of nearby Grandfather Mountain in Linville, check in to Eseeola Lodge, an atmospheric chestnut bark-shingled inn from the late 1800s.

The Lodge and a cluster of structures from Linville’s early days form the heart of a national historic district that preserves one of the nation’s first planned resort communities. This quaint summer colony is still sheltered by towering forests of hemlock and rhododendron. Today’s inn has twenty-four rooms flanking a beautiful chestnut-paneled hallway. The trees succumbed to the chestnut blight not long after the lodge was built with the golden wood.

A stay at Eseeola invites you to take a book, go see where the trout stream courses beneath the inn’s dining room, then pick a chair on the flower covered grounds. The lawns are worthy of a putting green. Eseeola’s Donald Ross-designed golf course is still a classic, and being a guest is the only way the public can play.

Chef John Hofland’s cuisine is four-star, so bring a jacket for dinner (in a nod to informality—ties are no longer required). Breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate, and an indulgent Thursday night seafood buffet is considered the best in the High Country (you can dine at Eseeola even if you’re not a guest).

Bark-sided style continues at the romantic Ragged Garden Inn in nearby Blowing Rock, a stereotypical small town fictionalized in the Mitford series by onetime resident and author Jan Karon. The rambling, white clapboard Green Park Inn perches on the Continental Divide, a 120-plus year old monument to the appeal of the town’s cool summer climate.

A Musical Finale

Follow spring north, to southwestern Virginia, and the Parkway leads through a hotbed of traditional music. Near Galax, the Parkway’s Blue Ridge Music Center just opened last summer. The new museum’s exhibits trace the region’s pivotal and continuing role in music uniquely identified with the United States—country, bluegrass, gospel. The center refers visitors to a wealth of local musical venues and the center’s stage hosts continuing warm-weather concerts.

Near the Parkway’s northern terminus at Shenandoah National Park, Wintergreen Resort stages its Spring Wildflower Symposium in late May. Even one of the South’s best ski areas and fanciest mountain resorts has preserved most of its acreage as wilderness that explodes in springtime bloom. Hikes on resort trails and workshops feature experts, authors, and diverse opportunities to learn about the outdoor Appalachians.

The Blue Ridge Parkway and its adjacent events, inns, and outings are just part of the story. Any Appalachian byway can lead to inspiring spring scenery and contact with people glad to be alive in a beautiful and elemental part of the world. The sounds of fiddles and the footfalls of cloggers may not seem as sophisticated as Aaron Copland’s well known ode to Appalachian spring, but the season itself is sure to spark the artist in anyone.

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