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Friday, July 1, 2022

In the hunt for the elusive powdery snow: A postcard from Boone!

ardain and ardyBy Ardain Isma

CSMS Magazine

Taking my son to one of the most thrilling sensations on earth has always been an awesome desire—a longtime promise that I could no longer ignore. For three years, I had been promising my son, Ardy, who had not seen snow in his life, to take him to ski on the mountains. I had always found an excuse to put it off. Last month, I found myself running out of options. News of snow blizzards on the Northeast simply enflame the urge to go skiing. Ardy is a senior this year. At 17, he will be graduating with honor; and if he goes off to college, taking him to ski will certainly prove costlier.   

Last week, as he came home from school one afternoon, I told him the time seemed right for the ride to the mountains. As kids in a candy store, it was difficult to contain his joy. Because of his inexperience in the snow, as a parent I felt it incumbent upon myself to take him to some place where the highest thrill could be found, but also where the distance and the risk could be substantially minimized. So, we zeroed in on the North Carolina Mountains where I have always known it to have one of the best ski resorts in the country. I checked out few of them, all centered around the town of Boone, some 77 miles to the northwest of Charlotte deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia, near the border with Tennessee.

Until last week, I knew very little about Boone. To me Boone was simply the sleepy town that time forgot, the frontier outpost that Glenn Causey for 41 years had used to entertain us in his role as Daniel Boone, the rugged frontier man and iconic folk hero in American history after whom the town was named. On Friday morning, before the first rooster crowed, my son and I packed our bags and headed north. Off to Appalachia, we went.

When the first ray of the morning sun shot its glow from behind the thick gray clouds, we had already crossed the Florida-Georgia state line; and two hundred miles up the road, we swung west on I-26 towards Columbia, South Carolina. There, we got off the Inter-Sate and pulled over a small American diner for lunch. Didi, as I lovingly call my son, could not wait to get back on the road again. His mind, body and soul dwelled on one thing: Skiing in a winter wonderland!

His gleeful heart went feverish. Understandably, we hurried and ate. Within minutes, we were back on the highway, taking I-77 this time—a direct hit to Charlotte, North Carolina, 92 miles to the north. By 2 o’ clock in early afternoon, we were approaching Lancaster County, effectively entering Greater Charlotte.  Securing Charlotte that early would probably put us on the path to reaching Boone before the sun went down, so we thought. Once again, we exited the Inter-State and drove to a nearby shopping mall to get some rest inside a Sweet Tomato (salad restaurant) that offered free Wi-Fi. At that point, I felt no rush to hurry north.

A tinge of disappointment was clearly visible on Didi’s face, but I wrapped my arms around his neck and reassured him that we would be at destination before sunset. While he was busy enjoying himself eating salad and fruits, I was seizing the moment to make some urgent business calls. We spent nearly 2 hours there. By the time we walked out of the salad restaurant, it was already rush-hour. Traffic tightened on every direction, and we found ourselves pinned down, unable to move forward. We tried to circumvent I-485, which would have taken us to I-321 on the road to Boone, but an accident on the left lane completely grounded us. So, we waited—impatiently.

It was 6 pm when we finally had the chance to continue our journey. This was the final push toward the elusive Boone, and the excitement quickly thawed all anxiety of the previous hours. We drove through town after town until we reached the town of Granite Falls sprawled on a ridge between Catawba River to the west and Gunpowder Creek to the east. The Appalachia Mountains loomed in the distance. Dusk, however, was undoubtedly making its spectacular entry. Because of this, we pulled over by the roadside against the backdrop of a large Walmart parking lot to check out our headlights before rolling into unchartered territory.

Something else caught our attention. Very few people were spotted walking down the vast and condensed lot. Suddenly we heard a voice coming from behind. In a high pitch tone of dry endurance,    someone said, “Are you okay?”

We abruptly turned around. There came a tall and feebly woman in a gray overcoat, sauntering to our direction. It was cold and windy in this early evening. Her hair hang loose about her face as she pressed against the ever-increasing wind gusts. Her scarlet cheeks seemed in sharp contrast with the intense whiteness of her tan. My son moved to say something, but I quickly preempted him. “We’re fine. We’re simply checking the headlights before we hit north,” I said with a dry smile, trying to weather the bone-cracking chill.

The stranger quickened her march to cross the road and disappeared inside a furniture store. We then maneuvered northward, and within 20 minutes, we drove into Lenoir (Pronounced like Lee-Nore), a town nestled in the Blue Ridge foothills, precisely in the hollow of Brushy Mountains. Lenoir is the last structured community on the road to Boone. By the time we passed the fringes of town, the last vestige of what was left of the day had already been consumed by the power of darkness. The road was still a four-lane road, but few mountaineers drove along with us, and every once-in-a-while, a vehicle passed by from the opposite direction, toward Lenoir. The deeper we drove into the mountains, the higher was the elevation. The road snaked and curved around sharp-edged cliffs, and it was stunning to see that every now and then the twinkling lights of a lone cottage that perched on a hilltop near a mountain gorge.

Didi tried several times to get my attention on the breathtaking view of the town below each time a curve would offer that opportunity. Like children everywhere, he was fearless. “Take a snapshot, and I’ll enjoy it when we reach the ridge,” I kept on telling him. I had to keep a firm grip on the steering wheel with my eyes glued to the unfamiliar terrain.

Fifteen minutes into the driving, Boone was still nowhere in sight. Nor did we spot any sign of its silhouette on the horizon. The road suddenly narrowed into a 2-lane trail that felt slippery, for we could see the silvery sparkles of ice over giant boulders on both sides. We pressed on, determined to be at destination safely. In a blur, the road widened again as we entered a small village on the mountaintop. Then, the highway sloped down towards what appeared to be the fringes of a suburban town. We rejoiced, but it was too premature. We drove passing the village to enter a dark alley framed by snow-covered hills. Our GPS navigation system had yet to tell us that we were near destination.

Disappointed, we navigated downward. “Where the hell is Boone?”Didi screamed out of disillusion.

“Be careful, son. Children do not curse, remember?” I reminded him, but I could understand his frustration.

“Sorry, dad,” he muttered.

Suddenly, we ran into a sign hooked onto a low wooden pole at the bottom of a low hill. “Welcome to Boone, the heart of the high country,” it read in pure far-western style.

“Hooray,” we cried in unison. Then, we pushed around a curve to discover a dazzling town with its imposing buildings and beautiful homes of snow-covered rooftops. We rolled into a breathtaking boulevard with fancy shops and boutiques and a shopping mall and some of the finest restaurants one can find in any suburban town in America. Boone looked like an oasis hidden behind one of the steepest mountains in the land, a winter wonderland like those dreamy towns found in the Swiss Alps.

ardain in appalachiaTemperature dipped to 13 degrees, and no pedestrians were seen walking along the exotic streets. We could only see the fancy cars weaving through in full speed. At the center of Boone, the GPS guided us toward a twisty road that meandered up to King Street, the main boulevard which ran to Downtown Boone. A couple of blocks down, on a hilltop, perched in imposing hotel where we were going to spend the night. Within seconds, we pulled into the driveway blanketed with snow—pure and powdery. Didi smiled, walked out of the car and, irresistibly, stuck his hand in the filtered snow. For the moment, he forgot about the shivering from the cold. His ebony cheeks went aglow. “Papi, this is a dream comes true,” he uttered in one the happiest moments of his young life.

We then hurried and checked into our room—cozy and nice. We were starving, but there was no appetite to get back out on the chilly night. We called home to talk to our anxious loved ones to let them know that were okay. I ordered pizza for Didi, but I ate none of it. I fell asleep even before the pizza deliveryman showed up.

The next morning, we woke up, well rested. We ate breakfast and ready to hit the ski resort. There are ten ski resorts scattered around the hinterlands of Boone. At the concierge, we were given a map and some information about each resort, from the closest ones to the farthest ones. We quickly bundled up, got in the car and drove off, passing through the fashion district near Downtown and soon we took a windy trail that led to Beech Mountain Ski Resort, the highest of all in the Blue Ridge Mountains, located at an altitude of 5,074 feet, some 20 miles out of town.

It was cold, but sunny. The wind had died down and the road was clear and snowless. The transportation authorities are quite proactive in keeping the road safe. Still, I had to make sure that my car had all-season tires equipped to deal with any unexpected event. We drove through frozen ravines, enchanted valleys filled with herds of sheep, countless of sleepy villages and a myriad of houses—cottages and mansions, all perched disproportionately on the mountainside.

The picturesque countryside stole our minds away from what would be coming next. Our Caribbean music—blasting away—seemed at odds with this bluegrass country now morphed into a winter wonderland. Soon, the road curled up, zigzagging, and bending around sharp-edged curves as we pushed northward. At every curve, the road stretched higher, sending us completely nerve-wrecked. For the mountain-folks, however, this was business as usual. Every now and then, a car would pull behind us, and I could sense the impatience of the driver. I had to keep my mind fixated on what was important: reaching the mountain ridge safely. There was this last curve that I will never forget, just before we reached the ridge. The road stretched up to an unbelievably nerve-wrecking peak that sent my head spin. At one point, I thought I was in a dream. I glanced over the passenger seat, and Didi was right there, visibly shaky. I stepped up hard on the accelerator. Within seconds, we had entered the ridgeline of Beech Mountain surrounded by a slew of other snow-capped mountains in the distance, all with wide-extending ranges of sharp-cuts. A sense of dominance suddenly invaded our minds, taking a complete hold of our bodies. We felt we were clearly standing on top of the world. Below us, on the other side of the mountain, lay an upland valley through the heart of which thick and wintry dried vegetation traced the course of a creek beyond which a cove forest stretched out for miles to ultimately end at the foot of lofty, snow-blanketed mountains.     

We then drove cautiously through a tiny village to get to the main entrance of the ski resort, and it was amazing to see so many cars, tour buses and the many skiers up on the platform. I guess there are many roads that lead to Beech Mountain Resort as Tennessee is just 40 miles away. Didi and I surveyed the height of the hill that sloped towards the base of the ski platform, and we quickly determined that it was made only for pros, but not for novices like us—too steep and obviously too dangerous to ski.        

Consequently, Didi and I decided to check out another resort. We took some souvenir snapshots and got back in the car. We went back into that village where we met a group of parents and children snowboarding at a small park crafted in the center of the village. We pulled over and packed by the roadside. We exited the car and advanced knee-deep into the snow. Didi went up on a sled. Oh, he was having fun. We spent about 30 minutes there before going back into town to check out the other resort.

By then, it was already past midday, and Didi suggested that we eat first before hitting any other ski resort. I agreed because going skiing with an empty stomach could certainly take away the thrill. We rolled back into Boone and headed straight toward King Street. We wanted to test a local cuisine, and Daniel Boone restaurant would be the perfect place for that adventure. When we got there, however, the waiting list was too long. We were facing two options: Staying here to eat and miss the ski or finding a fast food place to grab a sandwich, for we were not about to let the sun go down on us in the mountains. So, we opted for the latter choice. We went to Mr. Bojangles and quickly had grilled chicken sandwiches. We then headed for the Appalachian Ski Resort, located just 8 miles outside of town. It sits at a much lower elevation than Beech Mountain Ski Resort.

ardyIt was 2:30 in the afternoon when we pulled into the parking lot of the Appalachian Ski Resort, swamped by cars, mountaineers and tourists alike. Didi jumped to his feet, leaping out of joy. We immediately went to the clothing store to rent our protective gears. We hurried and dressed. Because Didi had never skied before and I hadn’t been on a ski platform in many years, we had to pay an extra fee for some lesson on safety. Helmets firmly suited on our heads, protective gears on and ski poles and boards in hands, we maneuvered toward the entrance. We handed our tickets. A gentleman with a strange Spanish mustache surveyed our gears and allowed us to move in. I felt strange inside my boots, quite heavy to move around.

There was a bittersweet feeling when we got on the ski platform. On the one hand, we were happy, beyond anyone’s imagination. The snow was powdery and filtered, just like we wanted it to be. The base depth was 45 inches. The temperature rose to 37 degrees under a clear, blue sky—perfect weather for skiing. We couldn’t ask for more. On the other hand, we were equally chagrinned, missing our folks back home. We wanted to share this moment in time with them. I wanted to tell my wife how much I loved her. I soon reached out to my phone and asked a chubby boy who was standing next to us to take a souvenir picture (father and son), which he did. Didi immediately sent it to mom via Text Messenger.

We then joined the training before skiing on our own. Training went well, and the moment of truth had arrived. I was terrified to leave Didi by himself, though he insisted several times. Twice during the training, he nearly went on a freefall on a slope. As a father, I wanted what was best for my son whom I love from the deepest end of my heart. But how could I deny him this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity after all this sacrifice? I soon had an idea. The resort had three slopes, each at a different elevation. I chose the lowest one made for children—12 and under. Poling in the snow, we went toward the conveyer belt that led to the top of the slope.

We stood there, pondering and watching wave after wave of children skiing down the slope. Didi got really scared. After about 15 minutes, I took off my ski boards and literally walked down and asked Didi to join me. I reminded him that once he was down on the slope, the poles didn’t matter anymore. I stood about 2 feet away from him, at a distance close enough to grab him should it come to that eventuality. Suddenly, Didi let go of his fear and sloped down. He fell, but timidly, though. He repeated the try several times until he felt confident enough to ski around the base. I stayed as close as I could be with him all afternoon. As the sun started turning yellowish around 6 PM, we got off the resort and went back to town.

Mommy called just as we were edging towards the foothills. I let Didi, gleeful and ecstatic, tell it all to her while I was being careful on the road. We went back to our hotel room and took a much-needed shower before facing the chill again for nighttime dinner. On the way to dinner, we stopped by a Dollar General to buy some AAA batteries. There, we meet a lady named Tracy, gray-haired with a big smile on her face reminiscent to that of the mountain-folks. Her ebony face shone to an unforeseen glamor when we came to talk to her. “Are you a tourist in town?” Didi asked.   

“No, that’s my hometown,” she uttered with a cherubic pride that sent my heart into crimson tender.

Really?” I cried.

“Yep. Born and raised!” She replied while edging closer so we could talk.

“Apart from some of the students we met in town earlier at a restaurant and a few black folks on the ski base, we had no idea there are African American in Boone,” I said.

“Yes, there are, and most of them live on Junaluska Road.” That road was named after the leader of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians who lived in western North Carolina in the 1800s.

“We’re not that many, but we’re here, have always been here,” she added.

“Albeit the few that live in this town, is Charlotte the closest place to a heavy black population?” My son asked.

“No. Behind the mountains, in Wilkesboro, there is a huge presence of African-Americans. Also, in Lenoir, there are many black families,” she said in a whispery tone. Tracy went on to tell us of untold stories of the mountains, of the slippery roads, of her childhood in Appalachia and of what made her so attached to Boone with such an unforeseen adroitness and precision in every word that came out of her mouth. We talked for few more minutes; then we hugged and said goodbye.

Boone’s population is estimated to be 17, 000, but this number could be misleading, for Boone is the site of Appalachian State University, a branch of North Carolina State University, making it a dazzling college town, like Bloomington Indiana where I did my higher studies or Gainesville , Florida. 

A booming town, Boone was nominated by US News in 2010 as one of the ten best places to retire in the United States. Boone is also the birthplace of many Appalachian Storytellers and bluegrass musicians, including the most famous of all, Grammy-Award guitar player Doc Watson whose statue could be seen right in Downtown Boone. If Beaufort, South Carolina, claims the title of “Heart of the Low Country,” Boone is without question the capital of “The High Country.”  

The town seemed crazy about Daniel Boone, for every summer since 1952, Horn of the West, a dramatization depicting the lives of the early people who settled in the mountain areas is performed in an amphitheater on a hilltop overlooking the town. Daniel Boone played by first Ned Austin and then Glenn Causey is its main character.  Boone, who died in 1820, was largely recognized to be the most famous pioneer who, according to many historians, had settled on and off in the area that is now the city limit. The first church in town, Three Forks Baptists, was believed to have founded by Boone’s two nephews: Jesse and Jonathan Boone, sons of Israel Boone, Daniel’s brother.

The next day after breakfast, with a bitter chagrin wrapping our crushing souls, we reclaimed the road back home, leaving Boone with its surreal, enchanted hinterlands now buried in snow. I hope to return someday in the spring when the town recovers from its wintry fold, and the towering red maples and other deciduous giants turn green again—giving the Blue Ridge Mountains its quintessential title.

Note: Dr. Ardain Isma is a novelist. He is the author of Midnight at Noon, his latest novel. He teaches Cross-Cultural Studies at UNF (University of North Florida). He is the chief editor for CSMS Magazine. He may be reached at publisher@csmsmagazine.org. To order a copy of Midnight at Noon, click here: Midnight at Noon. More pictures can be found on our Facebook fan page: www.facebook.com/csmsmagazine   

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