02 09, 2012
Ran In Toro Magazine
Having an exciting destination is like setting a needle in your compass. From then on, the compass knows only one point—its ideal. And it will faithfully guide you there through the darkest nights and fiercest storms. — Daniel Boone
Nestled between the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, the charming towns of Boone, Banner Elk, and Blowing Rock make up the North Carolina High Country. The kite high moniker reflects the awesome elevation, not hydroponic funny business.
Many of the roadways in these picturesque mountain towns were built for luxury auto commercials. While driving from a foothill to a peak you often feel like you’re on an F1 circuit, albeit at a leisurely pace, cornering and accelerating through steep uphill sections into hairpins at less than a quarter the speed Jenson Button would reach if he was climbing Eau Rouge and that’s a good thing. This way you have ample time to appreciate the scenic mountain landscape without feeling at risk of plunging off the edge.
American hero Daniel Boone, the frontiersman who blazed the Wilderness Road, called the area home from 1760-69, with his pied-à-terre on the grounds of what is now Appalachian State University’s campus right by the duck pond smack dab in the ample bosom of the High Country. If you ever stroll through the U’s quad you may be struck that the statue of Boone is wearing a broad brimmed beaver felt hat. That is in fact the headgear he wore, the movie image of D.B. rocking the coonskin cap is one of the many Hollywood myths surrounding the folk hero. Donning a funky timeless chapka myself, I set out to do everything Daniel Boone would do if he could see how far things have come since the colonial age.
Wrestle with a Chairlift Operator
While tearing up the slopes of Sugar Mountain I kept finding myself humming the chorus to Neil Young’s song of the same name. While thousands of miles and decades removed from the folk singer’s lament of his teenage years in Winnipeg passing him by, there’s a mellow vibe to the slopes of Sugar that fits the ballad’s energy. Sugar boasts a sweet 1,200 foot vertical from summit to base, that’s 500 feet higher than Collingwood’s Blue Mountain for point of comparison. If you’re an intermediate skier there won’t be any runs that give you much trouble but frankly that’s the appeal. I tackled all the black diamonds Sugar served up with Tom Terrific earning top honors in my book. It’s also worth seeking out the elusive Big Red. It took more than a few ganders at the trail map to locate this slice of wide-open powder carving heaven. As I unbuckled my ski boots one last time I couldn’t help but feel that I like Young was leaving there too soon.
For some extra winter cardio action Sugar offers ice skating on a large outdoor rink, guided snowshoe tours, and tubing with a magic carpet (winterized version of the moving sidewalk in airports) to maximize squeals of weeeee and minimize ah-man-now-I-have-to-walk-back-up-again groans. When you’re pooped, retire to the Last Run Lounge on the top rung of base lodge to swap wipeout stories with friends and ogle the ski bunnies below. Beech Mountain, a twenty-minute drive from Sugar is another High Country ski resort well worth the lift ticket. Unless you’re a newbie avoid Appalachian Ski Mtn. It’s a great place to learn the fundamentals with their onsite French-Swiss Ski College but its 365 foot vertical is a mere bunny hop for seasoned skiers.
Get Schooled on Sonnets by a Cowboy Poet
In practically every destination on the planet that has even a cracker’s worth of agrarian land, there are outfitters who help tourists mount up on a horse and fulfill their Spaghetti Western fueled fantasies. What separates the good riding tours from the bad & the ugly are the ones that have guides that can spin a yarn. You can ride a pretty pony and take pictures of beautiful scenery in plenty of places but its stories you remember.
Dutch Creek Trails’ proprietor Keith Ward is a cowboy poet and a darned good one at that. He makes his way to Elko, Nevada each year for the national gathering of Stetson hat wearing wordsmiths. He caught the Western prose bug back in third grade but didn’t realize he had any talent for it till his first year of high school because his marks were below par.
“In my freshman English class I turned in two poems from third grade that I had made C’s on and got an A+. That is how I knew I had high school licked,” Ward confides.
Before going on our ride Ward recites Fancy Horses, his tale of a wannabe cowboy inspired by guys who buy pickup trucks just to impress the ladies. “I write like I talk and that’s too much,” he explains on why he picked a shorter poem for our pre-ride inspiration.
The kicker at the end of the cautionary tale says it all: “But when you’ve done it for a while a thing or two will come to light and then I’m sure that you’ll agree with me and say that I am right. A cowboy’s life is kinda hard, there’s much you might endure, and it’s hard to impress women when you’re covered in manure.”
Scoping out the Chickas with a Bird Nerd
Going to the NC high country without checking out Grandfather Mountain is a lot like visiting the Grand Canyon and wearing horse-blinders while you walked around the rim so you wouldn’t notice that giant hole in the ground. While the mile high swinging bridge and the wildlife habitats where you can spot cougars and black bears roaming around sans zoo-bars are the big draws, to really get down with this ole G you must get your boots up in his craw, and hike his weathered terrain.
Jesse Pope, the director of education and natural resources is a self-described bird nerd and leads hiking tours where you’ll discover that our feathered friends are way more than meets the chirp.
Along with his binoculars, gators, and other walking in the woods essentials Pope’s go-to gadget when leading groups is his iPod Touch and Bird Jam, an app filled with photos and sound clips of bird-calls. I made a joke faux seriously that if you were to give a lonely bird a shout out during mating season that would give them false hope, and interestingly the ornithology crowd actually does debate the ethics of that exact scenario. While it’s not exactly in the same ballpark as sexual harassment, it could definitely leave a bird hot and bothered.
Pope is a font of knowledge and has the rare ability to bring Bird Watching Digest caliber esoterica down to an accessible level that any layman with only a passing interest in warblers and finches can appreciate.
“Birds would rather see danger, and know exactly where it is rather than run and hide,” explains Pope on why crows and other birds seem to brazenly gang up on and antagonize hawks. While the safety in numbers concept is reasonable, think how differently a group of people would react when confronted with a similar threat.
“If a Mountain lion comes out of the bush right there, we’re all going to get out of dodge. I’m going to make a run for the building and someone’s going to climb a tree and another person’s going to try to get to the car. People just get out of dodge while birds feel safer knowing where the predator is and if they know there’s a predator there they mob it and make alarm calls.”
If our species can glean something from birds’ instinctual playbook maybe it is that there’s always an audible to call when confronted with a bully. Aside from standing pat and taking a whupping or heading for the hills, you can tell him to say hello to your little friends and hope they rally around you.
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