Our Big Tour of the South started out on July 3. The dates we could be gone were strictly dictated by a fancy choir that India is in this summer. She was allowed to miss no more than three rehearsals or she would be sacked. So we had to be very selective about where we went and what we saw. Starting out on this trip, I wanted to make sure we saw as many states as possible; my kids have seen very little of this country due to the fact that we go to the same places again and again, as dictated by where our extended family lives (Utah, Arizona and Oregon. Rinse and repeat).
Our first destination was North Carolina. We zipped through Arkansas and Tennesee on the way. Arkansas was flat and looked pretty much like Texas. (The town of Texarkana is pretty scuzzy, by the way. In case you wanted to form a mental picture.)
My kids had to endure me singing “The Arkansas Traveler” about a hundred times. In particular every time we’d pass by a broken down shack. (You may think you don’t know this song but I promise you’ve hear the tune before; just click to listen.)
My grandparents lived in an adorable, quaint little town called Tryon. It is in the very hilly part of western North Carolina that skirts the border of South Carolina. Growing up it was my happy place. My grandparents loved antiques and had a couple of shops that I would spend as much time in as possible. They were filled to the rafters of interesting odds and ends. Even as a little child I used to wonder how many hands had opened the same dresser drawers that I was now opening. Their house was almost as fun, being filled not only with interesting antiques, but closets bursting with old dresses and fur coats, drawers stacked with black and white pictures, perfume bottles and dainty white gloves. The musty rich smell of old things still makes me feel happiness and serenity.
The strangest thing is that their town is not the same. Everything looks very much the same; even the sweet little hardware store downtown has stayed put. There is still a giant toy horse in the middle of downtown (it’s the town mascot). There are new coffee shops and boutiques in the old buildings where ladies clothing stores used to be, but for the most part it’s eerily similar to the way I remember it. But it just doesn’t feel the same. You know what I mean? It’s like listening to music that you haven’t heard in twenty years. The music might be the same but your life is completely different and that changes everything. My grandparents are gone and so is my reason for being there. They were quite old when they died and their friends have all passed on. I doubt anyone remembers them. Their antique shops are now other stores. We drove past their old houses which now seem impossibly small. It was nice to be there but I felt a melancholy and homesickness for a place in the past that is impossible to travel to.
Tryon is still outlandishly lush and green, and is parked on the side of the poetically named Hogback Mountain. This is the street where my grandparents lived the longest. My kids all swear they want to live in North Carolina when they grow up.
We showed up on the Fourth of July. Not only was everything closed up tight, including the pizza joint where I had planned on eating dinner, it was raining crazy cats and dogs (much worse than regular cats and dogs). My plan before I left Texas was to buy some flowers and visit my grandparents’ graves, have some dinner in town and find a local firework show. When we actually arrived in Tryon I forgot which church their ashes were at (Methodist? Presbyterian?), there are only local mom and pop stores and nobody selling flowers was open on a holiday, and all the fireworks were rained out.
I haven’t been to Tryon since my grandmother’s funeral over a decade ago and I don’t anticipate I’ll get back there in a very long time, so I was determined to show the kids their grandparents graves (they were cremated so their graves are quite small and consist mostly of a small metal plaque in a church garden). We drove for twenty minutes until we found a grocery store that was open and I could buy some flowers, then we drove 20 minutes back to town. We spent the next hour searching for the right church (it was the fourth one on my list of possibilities). The rain let up when we got there, however the kids were stir crazy and acted like spazoids and generally it was nothing like the scenario I had imagined.
At this point let’s address the obvious: travelling nonstop in a car full of six children can be a bit . . . trying. I’m naturally a very patient person, but this pushed me to the limits. In some ways being without a husband can be nice–having a husband is sometimes like having another child (“what, you’re going to start complaining too???”), but on a car trip another adult is really nice to deflect the quarelling and squabbles. After twenty hours of being trapped with each other we were all rather testy. I completely lost it in The Pizza Hut parking lot (yes, Pizza Hut was the only restaurant we could find that was open) and uttered several choice words that may or may not have included the phrase “can’t you all just shut up for five minutes before I go insane?”. The guy in the car next to us with his window rolled down was probably a little worried for us, but he looked pretty redneck and I’m sure he’s seen worse things that that at the trailer park.
The next morning, we set out to to hike up the waterfall we used to visit when I was a child and my grandparents had gotten sick of us. We hadn’t brought any crappy shoes that I felt OK about ruining so we stopped and bought everyone a new pair at Dollar General ($6 each! Bargain!). In case you’ve never been to a small town, Dollar General is the closest you’ll get to one-stop shopping. It’s like a tiny WalMart, but grosser–if you can imagine such a thing.
Because the rain had been so bad the waterfall was closed. I was determined to show my kids how beautiful Pearson’s Falls is, and I found a spot where the barbed wire wasn’t attached to a pole. Wouldn’t you know it, my kids all refused to sneak in. Even after I explained that we totally had the right to go inside because how can anyone even own a waterfall, much less tell other people when they can and can’t see it? It’s nature, man! But my kids were being all prissy and refused. I told them they were lame and that sneaking through barbed wire is exhilarating.
So we piled back in Betsy and headed off to Chimney Rock instead. Have you ever seen Last of the Mohicans? Chimney Rock is where the little sister throws herself off of at the very end. They even have one of Daniel Day-Lewis’ costumes from the movie on display. It’s a stunning place. I remember going there as a little girl and all I recall is one thing: fright. I have always been deathly afraid of heights. But as I am a grown-up now, things would be different.
The road was windy and I had to give several kids dramamine, but it didn’t take us much more than an hour to get there. Chimney rock is right in the middle of a very touristy little village. The kids wanted to stop and buy tacky crap as they always do, but I wanted to get started before it either 1) started raining again–or heaven forbid– 2) got sunny and hot.
So here’s how Chimney Rock works: you drive through the little village of Chimney Rock to the entrance of the park. Then you drive up a super curvy little road for a couple of miles til you get to the ticket window. You buy your tickets, drive even higher on the road until you get to a parking lot. Then you park and have this view right in front of you. That lake down below is Lake Lure, where they filmed Dirty Dancing. Not a huge fan of Dirty Dancing, but maybe you are and might care.
After you oooh and aaah, you walk into a cave and take an elevator 27 stories up through the middle of pure rock. Then you come out of the elevator into a gift shop and snack bar. You exit the snack bar onto a deck and immediately have a coronary because OHMYGOSH-it’s-so-high-up-and-what-was-I-thinking-I’m-still-totally-scared-of-heights. I almost fainted as my kids skipped off to hang over the railing completely unaware that the railing would most likely break at any second and they would plunge to their deaths. I was pretty much paralyzed with fright. Seriously, what was I thinking? There’s a rickety wooden bridge where you can climb up to this thing:
The kids all climbed it but I stayed put. Lame. I was completely lame. But even the thought of going near the edge made my pulse speed up, my face sweat and my head start spinning. I just sat there praying that my kids wouldn’t die. Nobody died and then we went to wait in line for the elevator back down. Of course the elevator broke just as it was our turn. But don’t worry because there are stairs down to the bottom! Stairs barely clinging to the sheer rock face. My passel of mountain goats skipped happily down all 27 flights while I slowly trudged down, holding onto the railing with a death grip, never looking anywhere but at my feet. The strangest thing about being in a situation where I’m up high is the worry (mostly unreasonable, but you never know) that I will suddenly go insane and fling myself over the edge. This is so preposterous, but it runs though my mind the entire time.
Besides almost having a heart attack from fright, the worst thing about having to march down a thousand steps is that my calf muscles hurt so badly over the next three days that I could barely walk. Apparently I need to walk backwards on the stair-stepper at the gym sometimes too.