By Doc Lawrence –
For lowlanders the steep winding road up to Cataloochee Ranch is daunting, While the highway to heaven isn’t easy, bountiful rewards await those who reach the pinnacle: welcoming smiles and open arms, clean air and pure water, blue skies and lush landscapes. There’s the bonus of laughing children, sighting a red tail hawk and the aromas from bacon frying in the kitchen. It’s like a fairyland where all can enter.
North Carolina’s Brigadoon is a panorama of original America where visitors come to shed all the burdens of the big city.
Mountain trout, red apples, gorgeously colored vegetables and wildlife thrive here in Haywood County, a special part of Western North Carolina that includes the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, now the eastern home of majestic elk. Moonshine is the Southern elixir that still inspires Bluegrass songs and Hollywood movies. Here, the legendary Popcorn Sutton sold his whiskey with added cherries in Mason jars and attained a hero’s status after rejecting prison by ending his life at Smoky Mountain home.
Breakfast at the 50-year-old Carver’s Maggie Valley Restaurant is loaded with Popcorn’s colorful legacy. James Carver, a masterful raconteur, relates hilarious stories about his friend Popcorn while diners enjoy local sausage, fresh eggs and authentic country grits.
Tourism thrives during each season: a summer refuge, water colored fall landscape, winter skiing and the glories of new life in the spring. With many heralded trails Haywood County is hiking headquarters, an alternative to brain-numbing television. The health benefits-there’s no charge-are obvious.
Western North Carolina claims much of today’s “farm-to-table.” food production and restaurant dining. Gardens practice permaculture, accomplishing sustainability by working harmoniously with nature. Esteemed chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller, whose Asheville presence has become transformational for dining in the Southeast, has supercharged the popularity of fresh and local.
Owned and managed by third generation members of the Alexander family, Cataloochee Ranch features mountain hospitality, comfortable lodging, outstanding food plus highly regarded hiking and horseback riding trails. Western North Carolina’s winter skiing began here, revealed Alice Alexander Aumen who manages the operations, taking time for some nice touches like romantic fireplaces that inspire evening conversation. The wine list is impressive and live entertainment extends from Bluegrass music and dancing to, petting Rob Gudger’s adorable wolves.
Nature’s wonders, mountain folk traditions and modern entrepreneurism coexist comfortably. Country ham, today’s version of Native American pemmican, makes a breakfast special before a long hike. Canton’s magnificently restored hotel, The Imperial with its luxurious bar and gourmet restaurant fulfills the vision of Canton’s former mayor Pat Smathers. Sid’s, a gourmet restaurant in The Imperial compliments fine dining at Frogs Leap Public House in Waynesville and Frankie’s Italian Trattoria in Maggie Valley.
Haywood County provides a showcase for comfortable communities like Waynesville, Maggie Valley, Canton and Lake Junaluska. Waynesville’s busy sidewalks make Saturday storefront browsing fun again.
A morning at the high-energy Haywood Farmer’s market, a blaze of peppers, melons, tomatoes, corn, cabbage and carrots, sets the stage for an culturally enriching visit to The Shelton House, home of the Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts and one of the many stops on the Haywood County Quilt Trail.
Like the Smoky Mountains National Park, the highly popular Blue Ridge Parkway remains a triumph of the New Deal. With 46 miles of the Parkway in Haywood County, overlooks that feature stunning views like Cold Mountain, the title of Charles Frazier’s best-selling book and the Nicole Kidman movie.
Luxurious Swag Mountaintop Inn is accessible by car or hiking trail from Cataloochee Ranch. I followed Alice who has the gait and stamina of an accomplished athlete, arriving just in time to catch my breath and dine alfresco beside the magnificent mountaintop gazebo with its breathtaking view of the Smokies.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of America’s treasures. A tour in the park’s Cataloochee Valley takes on the benefits of a graduate course in nature under the expert guidance of certified naturalist Esther Blakely of Cataloochee Valley Tours. The thrill of watching the elk herds is a prelude to a dazzling Smoky Mountain sunset.
Heirlooms and open-pollinated crops are part of the operative vernacular at family-owned Walnut Cove Farms. You learn up front that permaculture is the prevailing relationship with nature. Nothing from this rich soil is genetically modified; there are no hybrids. What you see is what you eat and a glass of just-pressed apple juice while you chat with the owners rejuvenates a weary city boy.
Brigadoon is the mythological backdrop for Cataloochee Ranch. Nature provides colors worthy of a Van Gogh painting while trumpeting male elk harmonize with songbirds. Strangers soon transition into friends:
This is a higher life. Healthy farms prosper and solid culinary traditions are honored. Lovely dahlias, unspoiled parks, and nature trails abound. Folkways welcome craft breweries, gourmet restaurants and ambitious young people. An ancient movie theater, saved by an attractive couple from the wrecking ball, features free cartoons for kids plus delicious ice cream and fresh buttered popcorn during ongoing restoration. Enchantment and progress do well together.