A former mayor named Fred and his trusted neighbors make the highest town east of the Rockies work.
Fred Pfohl, of Beech Mountain, is attempting to trespass on private property — again. He looks to his accomplice, Rory Ellington, to confirm some insider intelligence. There’s a security gate they must break through. Ellington, who bears a striking resemblance to Lance Armstrong, the mountain-loving cyclist who brought the town’s recreational prowess to national attention more than a decade ago, spouts off a string of numbers. They’ve cracked the code.
The two men are here to figure out where to put additional trail markers on the Emerald Outback, eight miles of backcountry trail that runs through the gated Emerald Mountain housing development. They aren’t officially trespassing, of course. If they were walking instead of riding in Pfohl’s SUV, they wouldn’t even need a code. The development has given the Town of Beech Mountain an easement, inviting hikers and bikers to slip past the entry system. But it’s raining. So Pfohl punches in the semi-secret key giddily. “We’re not supposed to know this stuff,” he says.
But Pfohl and Ellington seem to know pretty much everything about the Town of Beech Mountain. Pfohl — who raised five kids here in an apartment above Fred’s General Mercantile, the store he runs with his wife, Margie — was in attendance when the town was born. Beech Mountain, established circa 1981, is still a young thing, much younger than the nearby town of Boone (1872) or neighboring Banner Elk (1911).
In the mid-1970s, the corporation that owned the mountain went bankrupt, and a handful of residents began the process of turning their developer-created community into a public township. They oversaw the transfer of infrastructure. Resort security guards became town policemen. Established ski slopes continued operations as Beech Mountain Resort, which still thrives in what is now Eastern America’s highest incorporated town at 5,506 feet.
Pfohl, an attentive man with a manicured white beard, was the town’s first elected mayor. He served four terms, and he’s never given up his sense of responsibility. Pfohl begins every morning making a list of what he needs to do for his store — only to find that, somewhere along the line, his to-do items morph into civic duties. “I call him the list man, but I’m the same way,” Ellington says.
Pfohl, in turn, gestures toward Ellington. “Yeah, how many towns have the groundskeeper of a golf course taking care of the lawn in front of their fire station?” Ellington, a superintendent at the private Beech Mountain Club, blushes.
The two men — alongside Daniel Scagnelli, the town’s Parks and Recreation director — were instrumental in creating the Outback. It is the first phase of a 25-mile Mountain Adventure Trail Park the town plans to complete in 2014, and it consists of mostly slender, woodland paths. Ellington helped design the system, marked by cedar signs. “I watched where the deer went to figure out where the trails should go,” Ellington says. “The deer know the best routes. They flow with their family through the seasons.”
Mountain bikers make good use of the trail, streaking through the forest, their brightly colored gear flashing in and out of view. Ellington points to a narrow trail where surrounding tree limbs seem poised to reach out to tap a hiker’s shoulder. “This trail is at 5,400 feet,” he says. “I come up here to train on my bike, and I suffer.”
Resilience brings rewards. Training in high altitudes increases red blood cells, pushing more oxygen into the blood.
“There are actually some people that say just because we’re up here day to day we’re going to live longer and our hearts will be stronger,” Ellington says. “But I don’t know about that.”
More than a store
A man chases Pfohl’s car through downtown Beech Mountain, a small cluster of buildings reminiscent of the chalet-style architecture required by the mountain’s early developers. It’s raining, but Pfohl rolls his window all the way down. “I’ve got those papers you asked for,” says the runner, who turns out to be a building inspector. He shoves a stack of papers into Pfohl’s hands.
Pfohl requested the information because someone recently came in asking about Beech Mountain’s building regulations. “I didn’t want to tell him the wrong thing, and I wanted to do right by him,” Pfohl says, slipping the stack of papers onto his dashboard until he can deliver them into his curious customer’s hands.
When Pfohl and his wife opened their store, they hoped it would be a community hub. “Little did we know that it was going to become an unofficial town hall, chamber of commerce, and welcome center,” Pfohl says. “People come to us before they’ll go to anyone else.”
It’s nearly lunch, time to head back to the store. When Pfohl bounds across wide, wood-plank floors on the way to his office, a local couple stops him. They want to introduce him to a visitor from out of town.
“See,” the woman says to her friend, “I told you there really was a Fred!”
This isn’t the first time Pfohl has been mistaken for a myth. The store orbits him as he exchanges pleasantries. In a back hallway, beyond walls stocked with high-end footwear and outdoorsy clothing, kids pick out rental videos. Cash registers tick off receipts for canned goods and bottles of wine. Beyond the counter, a man jingles a drawer of bolts in the corner designated for hardware. Above his head, a poster of wild bird species hangs from the ceiling. It waves in greeting each time an exterior door opens — and that happens a lot.
A PVC pipe, planted upright by the store’s front entrance, marks each year with the mountain’s annual snowfalls. In 2010 and 2011, the marks almost reached the building’s second story. Beech Mountain isn’t an easy place to spend the winter.
Most of the town’s 350 year-round locals — and a few of the savviest part-timers, who number in the thousands — know that Wednesday is grocery day on the mountain. That’s when shipments arrive at Fred’s, the only grocery store in town. When there’s a heavy snow and it appears that tractor-trailers aren’t going to make it up the mountain, Pfohl drives his pickup down to Banner Elk to meet them on a lower delivery route.
Last winter, Pfohl made the trek half a dozen times. Occasionally, he drives across fields because he can’t get traction on the road. He keeps a plow attached to the front of his vehicle several months of the year.
The fact that Pfohl often doubles his workload in service to the town doesn’t directly make him money. It substantially increases his operating budget, but he believes that making his town welcoming might encourage people to come around more often. “I wish everybody in America could live in a small town for a little while to understand what they’re all about,” he says. “I think they would get a feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.”
Rich in nature
Pfohl’s pockets are full of hardware. He tosses a power drill into the backseat and continues his rounds. Ellington has gone back to work, but there’s a town bulletin board in need of updating. Pfohl needs to post laminated maps and informational panels. He drives toward a lookout, one of the most popular sites on the mountain. There, he points toward a gray tourist kiosk. “I just finished that one up yesterday,” he says. Below, cloud shadows roll across a forested sea.
He moves past the Beech Mountain Club, where Ellington maintains an 18-hole, ridge-top golf course, and on to a pond that supplies water for snow-making on Beech Mountain’s ski slopes. Roughly the size of an Olympic pool, the pond has a lone, smoothed-over boulder sticking up from its placid waters like the arch of a turtle’s back. In the distance, he spots B.J. Hughes, one of Beech Mountain’s parks and trails coordinators, unloading a power blower. Pfohl wonders how the town’s guided-hike program is going, so he makes a detour.
After Hughes gives Pfohl the stats on his last hike — 20 city-bred visitors, most of whom had never spent time in the woods — Hughes points at a jack vine. It’s the sort of thing he shows guests to the mountain. He walks over and pulls out a pocketknife, grabbing the rough, twig-like vine between his thumb and forefinger before slicing into pine-scented meat. “People use this to make crafts, like birdhouses,” he says.
Hughes sometimes shops at Fred’s, but he sees all of Beech Mountain as a wild sort of general mercantile. His lists — mostly grocery lists — are a little nontraditional. They include: morel mushrooms, branch lettuce, salamanders, and bass. “I’ll get a full meal from the woods,” he says. “This place is full of all kinds of food, medicine, cures. You’ve just got to know where to look.”
Hughes stands in a town parking lot, but, without moving his feet from gravel, he’s able to secure another forest-born necessity. “If you’re ever in the mountains and can’t get a fire started in the rain,” he says, “you can use birch bark.” He pulls a handful of bronze-colored paper from a yellow birch’s trunk. “This goes up like kerosene,” he says.
He points to the tender ends of silvered limbs. “You can also make tea from this tree,” he says. “All the flavor’s in the green shoots. You boil them.” He pulls at a small branch until it snaps. “Old-timers used to use this as a toothbrush,” he says, scratching at smooth bark with his fingernail. The smell of spearmint wafts through the afternoon’s cooling air.
Beech Mountain is rich with natural amenities, and it sometimes surprises even Hughes. Last year, he found some wild apricot trees on one of the town’s municipal hiking trails and took a bite. “It was like biting into a hunk of honey,” he says, adding a warning, “You’ve got to get to them before the bears.”
Pfohl shakes his head at the thought of competing with wildlife for a taste of sweetness. He’ll stick to the seasonal produce stocked in his store. But as he speeds away — he still has that billboard to take care of, not to mention the part he needs to order for the town flagpole — it’s clear that he respects what Hughes adds to the community. “B.J. used to work in a manufacturing plant before he started at Beech,” Pfohl says. “But he’s in his element here. We all are.”
Life in Beech Mountain is surprisingly busy from Pfohl’s perspective, but in spite of his charted days and never ending to-do lists, he maintains that living here isn’t stressful.
“Maybe there’s something to that stuff Rory was talking about earlier, about living at 5,000 feet,” Pfohl says. “Sometimes, it does feel like we have a little advantage. We don’t feel pressured by our surroundings. Up here, we can really breathe.”
Five Things Not to Miss in Beech Mountain
- At the Mile High Kite Festival, colors and cares are tossed into the wind every Labor Day weekend. There are prizes for the best decorated, smallest, and largest kites. If you’re unsure of your crafting skills, you’re welcome to attend one of the building and decorating clinics held each year before the festival.
403-A Beech Mountain Parkway
- During its annual Autumn at Oz event, Beech Mountain’s historic Land of Oz theme park temporarily reopens to the public. Visit Auntie Em’s farm, complete with hayrides and a cast of Wizard-seeking characters who will follow you down the yellow-brick road.
2669 South Beech Mountain Parkway
- The town plays host to Summer Street Dances several times each summer, when sand borrowed from the traps at the Beech Mountain Club golf course covers the parking lot in front of Town Hall. Even though the atmosphere will be warm, temperatures tend to drop with the sun at high altitudes. This is one beach party where it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a sweater on hand.
403 Beech Mountain Parkway
- Take advantage of Beech Mountain’s guided hikes, which teach — among other skills — plant identification. They launch from the Buckeye Recreation Center on the first Tuesday of each month from April through October.
206 Grassy Gap Creek Road
- The town has one of the only municipal snow blowers in the state, and the blower creates a free, seasonal sledding hill located just a few feet from Town Hall. Beech Mountain Resort also manufactures snow, day and night, to assure that the mountain’s nearly 100 skiable acres stay covered throughout the season.
Fred’s General Mercantile
501 Beech Mountain Parkway
Beech Mountain, N.C. 28604
Beech Mountain Resort
1007 Beech Mountain Parkway
Beech Mountain, N.C. 28604
Leigh Ann Henion’s debut book is forthcoming from Penguin Press. Visit leighannhenion.com to learn more about her work. Leigh Ann’s most recent story for Our State was “Soaring Legacies” (January 2011).