Travel

Blowing Rock

  • By Leigh Ann Henion
  • Photography by Cheryl Zibisky
  • Illustration by Steven Noble

In the small town in the mountains, the people look after nature, and nature looks after the people.

Ethan-Schilling-at-The-Blowing-Rock

Carol Knight eavesdrops. No, she’s not nosy. She’s concerned. Knight, of Blowing Rock, regularly listens to a scanner because she wants to make sure her neighbors are faring well. One icy night last winter, she was listening to reports of closings and realized that the workers who were repairing electrical lines, clearing roads, and responding to accidents were stranded without warm meals. This, she quickly decided, was not acceptable. She told her son Tim that he should open his restaurant, Knight’s On Main. He obliged because he knew it would be nice for the crews to have someone working the restaurant’s grill even if they didn’t necessarily need him to open the doors. After all, they have their own keys to the place.

On weekdays, town workers let themselves into the restaurant at 5 a.m. in a tradition that started 30 years ago at the now-defunct Sonny’s Grill where Tim learned to cook. Tim often arrives at work to find coffee and conversation already brewing. He explains, “There are a lot of police that come in the mornings. I feel like the place is pretty safe.”

This community use of a private business is a bit unorthodox, but Blowing Rock is a town where almost every year-round resident holds a key to someone else’s business or home — even the mayor is known as caretaker to a house that’s not his own.

Ginny Stevens — a sprightly attendant at the tiny white cottage-turned-history-museum adjacent to the town’s picturesque Memorial Park — says Blowing Rock’s status as a tourist mecca began in the 1800s. Early guests stayed in private homes or camped in the wilderness. When the demand for accommodations grew, the town’s grand hotels — The Watauga Hotel, Mayview Manor, and Green Park Inn — were built. The Watauga Hotel burned down twice before its owners decided it was cursed, and the Mayview Manor was demolished in 1978 to make way for a condominium complex. Only the Green Park Inn survives, and just barely. The Victorian-era structure was purchased this year by Irace Realty Associates, who are renovating it.

The loss of these early hotels still distresses many people in a town that prides itself on valuing preservation and the arts. These interests are clearly illustrated in the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum, a 21,000-square-foot structure now under construction that will house a collection of work by Elliott Daingerfield, a renowned painter and former seasonal resident. The museum and such resources as the Mariam and Robert Hayes Performing Arts Center and even the local hospital are rare for a town the size of Blowing Rock. But tourism and seasonal residents make such luxuries possible.

Blowing Rock has a full-time population of approximately 1,500, but in the summer, the number swells to around 8,000. According to Tracy Brown, executive director of the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority, Blowing Rock real estate is approximately 90 percent absentee owned, meaning that only 10 percent of property owners actually make the town their permanent home. “Old timers used to say, ‘Poor Blowing Rock. They don’t have the land to grow anything,’” Brown says. “You know, because it’s so rocky. A lot of the tourism economy comes from survival. People had to make a living out of something.”

The town, founded in 1889, covers three square miles, but its unique, vacation-minded demographic supports more than 100 shops, two-dozen restaurants, and nearly 20 accommodation choices. Up until the 1990s, Blowing Rock boarded up in the winter months, but it has since come into its own as a year-round community, welcoming visitors in all sorts of weather.

Storybook town

High noon means big traffic at Knight’s On Main. It’s a weekday, but the gathering crowd doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Brown is hungry. He eyes the others hoping for a table — a mix of familiar and fresh faces — and taps a dress shoe impatiently. When a female acquaintance joins the line, she puts a hand on her chin, gestures toward Brown’s unshaven face and asks, “You trying to hide under that beard?”

He chuckles and replies, “I sure wouldn’t be here if I was trying to hide!”

Soon, Carol Knight waves Brown into the roar of the busy dining room, and he greets her, “Hey, Mom!” Knight’s On Main is a family restaurant, and if you’re a local, you’re family. Brown’s right; the place would be an ill-chosen hideout. Several waitresses make their way over to see him before he gets down to business, ordering without looking at the restaurant’s down-home menu. When social time slows, he glances at a poster on the wall and says, “Doesn’t look anything like Blowing Rock, does it?” He’s referring to an artist’s rendering of Mitford, the fictional town in author Jan Karon’s Mitford series, a collection of novels that follow the adventures of Father Tim, an Episcopal priest living in a small mountain town.

Karon lived in Blowing Rock when she started writing the novels, publishing the first of the series chapter-by-chapter in The Blowing Rocket. The local newspaper gave her a first taste of success when its circulation doubled in response to her column. Many of her novels have debuted in the No. 1 spot on The New York Times best-seller list, making Blowing Rock’s fictional counterpart a desirable destination in its own right. “Blowing Rock is a storybook town,” says Amanda Lugenbell, the assistant director of the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority.

Often, tourists come to the Blowing Rock Visitor Center to ask where Father Tim preaches. Lugenbell directs them to the two stone churches on Main Street and tells them, “You be the judge.” She has her own ideas about how Mitford and Blowing Rock line up. In a hushed voice, she says, “It’s St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church, of course.” She rethinks the claim and says, “Really, Mitford could be anywhere. It’s a feeling, a state of mind.”

Brown chimes in, “It’s the sort of place, Blowing Rock, where the police chief still gets out every day and directs school traffic. I know. It’s too cute.” He comically breaks into a raspy chorus of “God Bless America” before saying, “The town is so small they used to sell a tourist book, Blowing Rock’s Best Kept Secrets. It was wrapped in cellophane. You’d buy it and open it up, and there was nothing in it.” He gives a measured pause before delivering the punch line: “There are no secrets in Blowing Rock.”

Well, there might be a few. Lugenbell and Brown concede that the town has some little-known spots of interest. There’s Village Café, a lovely restaurant with garden dining that’s hidden behind Main Street. And there’s Lover’s Leap, a lookout in the Mayview neighborhood, former site of Mayview Manor.

After lunch, they take a drive to Lover’s Leap. As Brown navigates the gently curving streets of the historic neighborhood, he reels off house names: “Serendipity, Sunrise, Green Gates.” In Blowing Rock, an unnamed house is the exception, not the norm.

The road soon turns to gravel and an under-construction, high-end home is visible on the left. “I’ve never even seen this house!” Brown exclaims. It’s a grand structure, covered in poplar-bark siding, and it is affixed to the side of the mountain with steel bars. Due to topography, Blowing Rock is running out of buildable land. New construction often requires an engineering feat rivaling the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway’s Linn Cove Viaduct. Brown pulls past a construction dumpster and gets out to survey what remains of Lover’s Leap.

The landmark is a small clearing at the end of the road, crowned by a rock formation. The outcropping is not as impressive as The Blowing Rock — the storied lookout that gave the town its name — but this beloved spot has a few legends of its own. “A lot of hand-holding and smooching took place here,” Brown says. Below, Johns River Gorge spreads out like a crazy quilt of multihued green velvet.

Lugenbell thrusts her index finger in the air to trace the distant ridgelines, calling the mountains by name: “See how Grandmother goes down that way? That’s Attic Window.” In most towns, residents use buildings as landmarks, but in Blowing Rock, nature is the compass.

From town to wilderness

It’s rare to come across a municipal pothole on a hiking trail, but it’s just as rare to come across such a path in a municipality. The Glen Burney trail starts roughly a block from Blowing Rock’s Main Street. The trailhead is hidden near the Annie L. Cannon Memorial Gardens, directly behind the parking lot that plays host to popular Art in the Park events on weekends from May through October. According to Town of Blowing Rock literature, the Glen Burney trail was formed by Native American hunters and adopted by loggers before becoming the domain of tourists. The trail was formalized in 1936 when rustic bridges and stone pathways were put in. Today, the steep, 1.5-mile foot trail is a little-known getaway that connects the town limits of Blowing Rock to the tip of the Pisgah National Forest.

Tim Gregg knows the trail better than most. He grew up here, and he remembers traversing the Glen Burney trail on his own as a preteen. “If you didn’t stop by the Visitor Center and nobody told you this was here, you’d never find it,” Gregg says. The refined shops of downtown and the manicured lawns of Annie Cannon are in stark contrast to the trail. As soon as visitors pass the sign indicating that the inconspicuous path is, indeed, ahead, they are enveloped by native rhododendron and towering trees.

Gregg lives a few miles outside of town, but for 15 years he was the main caretaker of the trail. He turned his contract over to the town more than a year ago to focus on the 20 homes he maintains as a professional caretaker, but keeping the trail in shape is a hard habit to drop. As he walks the trail, Gregg pushes loose stones aside with a boot. When he reaches the first of the three waterfalls along the trail, he pauses and says, “There’re native brook trout in there.” Then, he points to a faint trail across the stony crown of the falls and explains, “That was the old servants trail. There was a trailhead up at the old Mayview Hotel behind their quarters. I imagine that the servants came down here to wash clothes, picnic, and visit with each other.”

Gregg looks at the canopy of leaves that forms cathedral-worthy stained glass against the sun. He points to nearby trees and identifies a dizzying variety of species, including witch hazel and red oak, then turns his eyes to the trail ahead where he spots a wild-turkey feather. He picks it up and twirls it between his fingers before slipping it into his rucksack. “A friend of mine is a potter, and he’s working with feathers in a process that leaves imprints in clay,” he says.

Blowing Rock has similarly imprinted itself on Gregg. “When you’re young, you want to explore and see new things, but I started to work here and got to know people,” he says. “There’s a tremendous sense of community. If somebody’s roof blows off, everyone gets together to help. This is my home. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.” He’s speaking of Blowing Rock, in general, but the trail seems to hold a unique sense of gravity. He glances around, as if he might catch sight of one of the woodland creatures that frequent the area. “I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve walked this,” he says. “Instantly, you go from town to wilderness. I’ve always loved it.”

As he’s grown, so has his relationship with the trail. “When I was a child, I enjoyed it because it was my own world,” he says. “As a teenager, it was a place to come with my girlfriend. We’d put cans in the creek to cool.” As an adult, Gregg’s relationship with the trail is one of pure admiration for natural beauty. “With the theme parks and shopping and the rest of it, people sometimes forget, but nature is really what brings people here,” he says. “I think over the years, people have tuned it out. Many young people aren’t impressed by the outdoors. But when families come to Blowing Rock, they come here because the focal point is nature. It’s a place to reconnect.”

Tender touches

The Glen Burney trail dead-ends at a 70-foot waterfall that zigzags down an acute rock face before flowing into pools as clear as air. Gregg pushes his sunglasses onto the top of his closely shorn head and surveys the scene. A butterfly the size of a teacup saucer glides by, inspiring Gregg to announce that an immature swallowtail has arrived. Several other butterfly species move through with equal grace.

The leaves above cast shadows on his face. “As many times as I’ve been down here, I always see something new,” he says. “It might be a rock formation or a tree that five people could reach around. … Most areas, with buildings and parking lots, keep changing, but this is always pretty.” He rests for a moment, rolling a piece of found quartz between his fingers before turning to make the climb back to town. “I’ve heard this trail called moderate, but I don’t think whoever said that walked the whole thing,” he says, clipping on his pack. “It should be labeled strenuous. Climbing up is like scaling an 80-story building.”

On his ascent, Gregg pauses by an enormous, silvered tree stump. “I remember when that was alive,” he says. “It must’ve been 150 feet tall. When I was a kid, I would just stand there and stare at it.” The tree spurs Gregg to search for a young American chestnut — a member of the species devastated by blight — which seemed to be faring well when he last saw it more than a year ago. He wants to check on its growth, so he scans the edge of the trail until he discovers half-eaten chestnuts strewn about. Pleased to see that the tree is thriving, he tugs at its leaves as one might the ears of a beloved puppy.

Soon, he comes across a granite formation so tall and solid it appears as a wall between the trail and the woods beyond. He reaches out and pushes himself along the lichen-mottled surface. Suddenly, he stops. There’s a crack in the stone. A small fern has found unlikely footing and made a home, shooting forth with graceful curves and a formidable life force. Gregg bends down to touch its tender leaves, shaking his head at the plant’s unexpected loveliness. Instinctually, he brings it to the attention of a fellow hiker, eager to share the fragile beauty of his hometown with a guest who’s just passing through.

Knight’s On Main
870 Main Street
Blowing Rock, N.C. 28605
(828) 295-3869

Glen Burney Trail and Annie Cannon Memorial Gardens
229 Laurel Lane
Blowing Rock, N.C. 28605
(828) 295-7851

The Village Café
Off Main Street, behind Kilwin’s
Blowing Rock, N.C. 28605
(828) 295-3769

Bob Timberlake Gallery
946 Main Street
Blowing Rock, N.C. 28605
(828) 295-4855

Leigh Ann Henion is a freelance writer based in Boone. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post, and Oxford American. Henion can be found online at www.leighannhenion.com.

This entry was posted in Mountains, November 2010, Outdoors, Western N.C. and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Blowing Rock

  1. Pingback: Birdhouse Mansions in Blowing Rock | Our State Magazine

  2. Pam says:

    Love the Blowing Rock article! My husband and I recently bought a home in Blowing Rock after looking in the area for years. We love spending as much time as possible there. It doesn’t get much better than this beautiful, friendly town!

  3. Ed says:

    Great article, but you failed to mention the many accommodations available in the Main Street area and the monthly juryed “Art in the Park” program from early Spring to late October. Plus many small motels and inns for short term stays, as well as a Gold Crown resort on the north end Main Street.

  4. Barbara Ackley says:

    Love this place, traveled through here in 1969. It was so peaceful and quiet I can still remember it today 40yrs. later.

  5. Pingback: 10 Places To Cool Off In N.C. | Our State Magazine

  6. Lois Chartier says:

    I am one of the ” absentee” owners however even though my main home is in Sarasota Florida and I am from Toms River NJ to me Blowing Rock is home! thanks to all the “fulltime” people who make you feel that way and one of these day’s I too will be a “full time resident”

    • David Rogers says:

      Hi, saw your post, Lois, on the Our State site. Wanted to make sure you knew about our new online publication, Blowing Rock News (www.blowingrocknews.com).

      Please feel free to spread the word to other like-minded devotees passionate about Blowing Rock!

      Best regards,
      David Rogers

  7. Donna Reeve says:

    What a wonderful article! Somehow you capture the charm of Blowing Rock in your words.
    And I remember the town closing down for the winter. After many recent years visiting in the middle of winter, I wondered if I had remembered incorrectly.
    Thank you this beautiful piece on a beautiful place.
    A BR fan for decades

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