Escaping Everything Else
Sapphire Valley, N.C. – I don’t remember the name of the Fort Lauderdale company that was involved up here in the early 1970s. Was it Real something or Cen something, or something like that? Anyway, the public relations woman representing the developer was Patty Doyle, one of the best, and she set us up in the Fairfield Inn, which was one of the early hotels in the mountains when people from Atlanta began coming up to escape the sultry summers. Later, Florida took over, and it is now hard to go to church or the supermarket without running into somebody from home. Just yesterday, while crossing the main drag in nearby Brevard, somebody in a car shouted my name. I couldn’t make out the greeter, who was crossing with the light and could not hesitate, but the voice sounded familiar. Hello, whoever you are.
That first trip, and subsequent visits over the next several years, were largely working vacations. The Fairfield Inn, sitting above the lake by the same name, with famous Bald Rock looming high above, had all the charm and handicaps of an old building. The virtue of a cozy wooden bar was offset by the fact that it was a fire trap, for starters. The outside fire escapes told the story. The inn is long gone, not deemed historic enough to overcome its aging liabilities. And long gone are the petty ordeals of having to ride up and down muddy, bumpy mountain trails, dodging yellow monsters mauling rock and soil, listening to developers in grimy boots rave about the beauty and uniqueness of their site. It was almost as tedious an exercise as visiting countless newly finished condos on the Gold Coast, each more like the next, pretending to appreciate a salesman’s rave reviews of their own product.
The difference is that some of those Florida condominiums newly completed 40 years ago are considered as obsolete as biwinged airplanes, their small balconies no match for modern buildings with as much outdoor terrace space as interior room, and elevators that open directly into units. For the most part those condos, despite what their authors claimed four decades ago, are architecturally indistinguishable from their neighbors, as look alike as brick row houses in an old city.
The mountains are different. Those developments active in the 1970s have long been finished. Those builders respected nature; all trees which could be saved have been. Now the landscaping, invariably including native mountain laurel and man-sown perennials, is mature. Route 64, out of Cashiers, is lined with such developments, and you wouldn’t turn many of them down. In fact, there are people up here who originally bought places as summer escapes, but now spend at least part of winters here. Those well up the mountains stock up with firewood and food, and on those occasional days when snow blocks the roads, they are content to hole up by the fire, until the roads clear. That is rarely more than a day or two.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of life in the Carolina Mountains this Fourth of July is, despite the growth, how uncrowded the place seems. The roads, which have undergone some welcome improvements, are hardly busier than they were 40 years ago. Maybe that has to do with the fact that half the vehicles in the 1970s were construction-related, slow-moving beasts, concrete mixers dripping water, or flat beds filled with logs or bearing earth-moving machines, which created their own traffic jams. Surely there are many more visitors here, but you hardly feel it, except for the busiest times at supermarkets – none of which existed four decades ago. One has to have left South Florida, where roads nonexistent in the '70s are now clogged, often maddeningly so, to appreciate the relative tranquility of a place that physically could hardly be different from flat Florida. Part of the reason – a big part, according to locals – is that water treatment facilities have lagged behind population growth; new developments are being rejected until the situation is remedied. One hopes it never will be. In South Florida, nobody cares about such petty concerns as no water. Buy a politician and the problem doesn’t exist. Leave it to the next generation to work it out.
That is just one reason people from Florida who originally came to the mountains to escape summer heat now tend to stay here to escape everything else. Just about everybody we meet in business here has a Florida connection. The house the family is living in, this fine morning as the birds salute the dawn, was marketed by a man who in the 1970s called Stuart home. The fellow we called on to de-winterize the house moved up from Pensacola. For those seeking to make a living in the hills of North Carolina, the fact that traffic remains little different from a generation ago may suggest stagnation. But that has an unpleasant sound, suggesting decay, the farthest thing from what, to a visiting flatlander, is better counted as a blessing.
On the other hand, there is water leaking under the fridge, and the nearest handy relative is 700 miles away. A perfect world incessantly recedes before us.