Black Mountain (Kentucky), Spruce Knob (West Virginia), Backbone Mountain (Maryland), Mount Davis (Pennsylvania)

In High Places

By: Burton A. Falk


It was the middle of March, certainly not the ideal time for such a venture, but my wife, Jo, and I were in Atlanta, GA, and we had nine uncommitted days ahead of us. With the books, "Highpoints of the United States," by Donald Holmes and "Road Food" by Jane & Michael Stern, plus a set of AAA maps covering the southeastern U.S. in hand, we set off on a cool morning, heading NE for South Carolina. Our intent was to bag up to nine state high points and as many'Road Food"- recommended restaurants as possible within our available time frame. But before going one meal further let me tell you about 'Road Food." This self-proclaimed 'classic guide to America's best diners, small-town cafes, BBQ joints, and other very special eateries serving great, inexpensive regional food" authored by two veteran restaurant reviewers, was recommended to me by my son, Steve, who was raised with the notion that peak-bagging was as vital as, say, good eating. Before Steve and his wife, Nancy, settled down to raise their family, they had the opportunity to travel, and in the process of doing so they came across a copy of "Road Food." Soon thereafter they were zig-agging across the U. S., collecting Road Food restaurants. Then Jo and I got hooked---begin one list, begin them all. Thanks to "Road Food," we have discovered the pleasures of such outstanding eateries as The Tuba City Truck Stop in Tuba City, AZ (scrumptious Navajo Tacos], Gloria's (Dora's, prior to the owner's remarriage) in Hatch, N.M., the chili capital of the U.S., and, perhaps best of all, Jo-Ann's Cafe in S.San Francisco, where the entire menu is absolutely mouth-watering.

That first afternoon we first toured the campus of Clemson University, bagged 3,560' Sassafras Mtn., the drive-up high point of South Carolina, and then continued on to Asheville, N.C., where we decided to hunker down for the night. On one hand, because the S.C. high point had been so easy, I was encouraged. On the other hand, because the weather report predicted bitterly cold temperatures for the next few days, I was concerned. That night the barometric reading at the Washington D.C. National Airport was the highest ever recorded, while the temperature in Asheville fell to 12 degrees above, a record low for that date. Also that night, there being no Road Food restaurant in the vicinity, we were delighted to discover the Emporium Restaurant, near the intersection of I-40 and U.S. 240, in south Asheville, where we enjoyed a delicious dish,"Hoppin' Juan," a succulent combination of rice and beans served in a piquant sauce, accompanied with pita bread.

The next day dawned cold as predicted. Snow crystals seemed to materialize out of the clear blue sky. The mountains to the N.E. of Ashevllle, where 6.684' Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina's high point, lay, were hosted with snow and ice. Our plan was to visit the Vanderbilt estate, Biltmore, in the morning, then drive up Mitchell in the afternoon when temperatures might be a bit warmer. Because we found the circa 1890s mansion and its grounds so interesting, however, (there's a winery on the premises, for instance, that produces a surprisingly good Chardonnay) we didn't leave until late in the day, and thus didn't get on the Blue Ridge Parkway until after 5 p.m. Unfortunately, eight miles east of Asheville, the Parkway, the lone access road for Mitchell, which runs from the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee to Shenandoah Nat'l Park in Virginia, and is a part of the National Park System, was closed due to icy road conditions. No North Carolina highpoint that day. I wasn't overly concerned, however, as I thought we could still bag Mitchell on our way back to Atlanta, where we were to return the car eight days later. That night we drove on to Winston-Salem, only to find that ah the local motels were filled due to the regional NCAA basketball playoffs being held there. Continuing on to Tobaccoville, N.C., we took the recommendation of our Econolodge front desk clerk and dined at the nearby Town & Country Restaurant--a big mistake. The affair started going downhill when Jo asked to be seated in the nonsmoking section, and it snowballed from there. Indeed, it was the culinary low-point of the trip--perhaps the decade. In retrospect, we would have been better off dining at the local Waffle House (a chain), which is where we did have breakfast the next morning. [Try their pecan waffles. Ummm, good).

On our third day we decided early on not to attempt a climb 5,729' Mt. Rogers, Virginia's high point, as It remained extremely cold and there was an 8.4 mile round trip hike involved. Instead, since we were heading into the Shenandoah Valley, an area with plenty of Road Food restaurants, we planned to bag not one but two of the establishments; the Roanoker in Roanoke, VA becoming our choice for lunch. Arriving there about 1 p.m., we found a hue of locals, most presumably on their way home from church (it was Sunday), patiently waiting to savor the specialties of the house. When we were finally seated, I ordered the country ham steak with red-eye gravy. "What a gorgeous sight this ham is," the Sterns had rhapsodized. 'Fanned out--are wafer-thin slices, as deep red as mahogony, submerged in a pool of wonderful gravy." Jo, not a ham fancier, sampled the mixed vegetable plate, while for dessert we both tried a wedge of the highly acclaimed sugar-crusted apple pie. Unfortunately, this kind of fare, while obviously appealing to Virginians, didn't strike us as anything special. Then again, perhaps for Southern Californians, anything made without Enoki Mushrooms and Tofu leaves something to be desired. That night in Charlottesville, we dined at Tiffany's Seafood, whose motto is 'If it's from Tiffany's, it's fresh, " and where the Sterns claimed they had an immensely satisfying meal. I opted for a mixed sea food platter, consisting of Maryland soft-shelled crab, snow crab legs and crab cakes, plus a side order of hush puppies; Jo had the Clam Chowder. Once again we were disappointed, especially when we compared our meals to the fare served at Walt's Wharf in Seal Beach or The Fish Company in Los Alamitos. Once again, however, the locals seemed to be hugely appreciative.

Days four and we were spent on the trail of Thomas Jefferson--one of our all time heroes--at the U. of Virginia, which he founded at his home in Monticello, and in Williamsburg, where he attended the College of William and Mary and where, later, he presided as an early governor of the new state of Virginia. Since we were guests of my brother-in-law and his wife, who live in Richmond, we didn't get a chance to test any of the several Road Food choices in the Richmond -Williamsburg corridor during this period.

Day six, we drove from Richmond to western Maryland, bagging both the Barbara Frltchie Candystick Restaurant In Frederick, MD and Mt. Davis, the high point of PA. At the Candystick--with trepidation--we ordered the recommended creamed chipped beef on toast and, unfortunately, found it to be lacking. (I remain convinced that there is no good way to fix this dish). For dessert we had the Apple Dumpling, which is described by the Sterns as a'big, rugged-crusted dumpling, loaded with supple, spicy silvers of baked apple." Fortunately, this dish was really good and it almost made up for all the previous shaky recommendations. As for Mt. Davis, it lies about 20 miles north of I-70, and, in addition to being an easy drive up, it possesses a summit lookout tower affording a great overview of the ancient Allegheny Range. That evening we checked into the Comfort Inn in McHenry, Maryland, home of the Wisp Ski Area, after which we set off for brisk hike through the darkened village. One of our trip's highlights was the festive sight of the illuminated ski slopes across the still frozen Deep Creek Lake. Still later, we dined at the rustic Silver Tree Restaurant, on a lakefront about 5 miles out of town, where, in spite of a romantic fire in the fireplace and chocolate parfaits for a mere ten cents (1950 prices) , our dinners were only so-so.

Day seven started out ominously when we found the road leading toward 3.360' Backbone Mt, Maryland's high point, to be posted with several "Private--Absolutely No Trespassing" signs. We, therefore, opted for the alternate 'Highpoints" route, which involves a 1.2 mile hike with 800' of gain) up an old logging road. interestingly, this route for Maryland's highest actually begins in West Virginia, Under a cloudy sky and enduring occasional sprinkles, it took us about 45 minutes to gain the ridge, then another 15 minutes to scramble through the bare trees and over the snow-covered rocks to locate the sign proclaiming that we were, indeed, on the summit.

That afternoon, after picnicking in the car, we bagged 4,863' Spruce Knob, the high point of West Virginia. This ascent was made possible thanks to our trusty Plymouth Neon rental car in which we blasted through several long patches of snow on the unpaved access road. An interesting aspect of Spruce Knob is that the vegetation, especially the spruce trees along the summit ridge, because of almost constant winds, have branches only on their lee sides. That evening in Lexington, VA, back in the Shenandoah Valley, we made the Virginia House our next 'Road Food" conquest. Although the restaurant was a bit hard to find, our meal, which consisted of fried chicken (I didn't have the heart to ask h their birds were free-range or not), breaded broccoli and corn pudding, was quite good. Unfortunately, as Jo succinctly put it, the place was 'a dump." The drapes were soiled, the ceiling tiles water stained; the last time it saw new paint must have been in the fifties. Again, however, the locals seemed to love it. The Lexington Kiwanis Club, in fact, was meeting there concurrent with our 'dining experience."

We stayed in Roanoke that night, and on day eight we bagged 4,145' Black Mt, the high point of Kentucky--an easy drive up. The only comment to make on this peak is that the summit observation tower pictured in 'Highpoints" is no longer there--a situation which we also encountered on South Carolina's Sassafras Mtn. We then drove back to Asheville, where, once again, we found the Blue Ridge Parkway closed due to ice. That evening, while enjoying yet another "Hoppin' Juan" at the Emporium, we discovered that our waiter, Jeremy, had spent two years working and rock climbing in Yosemite. He suggested that we bag Mt. Mitchell on foot the next day--an Idea that fell on deaf ears. Instead we drove on to Cherokee, N.C., at the base of the Great Smokies, in preparation for an easy drive-up and short hike of 6,643' Cllngman's Dome, Tennessee's highest.

Talk about bad timing. Next morning, our last day out, arriving at the crest of the Smokies, where the a side road leading to Clingman's Dome heads south, we found a National Park Employee locking Its entrance gate. The road was being closed due to the highly unfavorable weather forecast for the day.

Disappointed but not dismayed, we sped off to bag 4,784' Brasstown Bald, Georgia's highest. The drive was made interesting by: 1. A tornado warning, causing us no end of looking over our shoulders; 2. Our purchase and consumption of a pound of boiled Georgia peanuts, and 3. The mile-long hike from the parking lot to the summit of the Bald and back in a raging wind storm.

Late that afternoon, continuing south toward Atlanta, we stopped for dinner at the "Road Food"- recommended Smith House, located in a pre-Civil War home in Dahlonega, GA. This is a popular restaurant where the food is served family style, i.e., as soon as the requisite number of diners is assembled at a table, the various dishes start arriving, and fast. And what food it is: steamed shrimp, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, hushpuppies, fried okra, turnip greens, several-other vegetable dishes, cracklin' corn bread, angel biscuits—all topped off with fresh strawberry shortcake. The meal was made even more memorable by our tablemates, including a local realtor who defnitely missed her calling as a stand-up comedienne and another fellow who would not be convinced that Jo wasn't Joan Rivers incognito.

Later that evening, driving to Atlanta in a terrfic thunder and lightning storm, we promised ourselves that someday--in times of better weather--we'd return to the Southeast to bag the three summits that had eluded us--and, of course, to try out the region`s many 'Road Food" Bar-be-que recommendations.

Odd and Ends
It has been suggested that the Biltmore is the precursor to and the Inspiration for the Hearst Castle. Entrance free to that privately run estate is $24.95 each.


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