Carolina Shangri-La

  • By Jeri Rowe
  • Photography by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council

The views of the Snowbird Mountains captivated Robert Rankin some 30 years ago. He couldn’t stay away and now calls them home.


Robert Rankin lives at the top of a mountain in southwestern North Carolina. Up four twisting curves, at nearly 3,000 feet, he owns and operates Snowbird Mountain Lodge. Almost every morning, he’s at the front desk, the tall guy in the comfortable clothes.

He starts conversations, gives directions, talks history, and says often, “Mother Nature will take care of you.’’

Rankin has owned the Snowbird for 16 years, so he knows every inch of his 100 acres. He looks out his windows, just beyond the rocking chairs, and points out the 17 peaks of the Snowbird Mountains, named by
the Cherokee.

Then, he tells you to just go. He has suggestions, but really, you don’t need to go far. He tells you to hike the places on the property, places with names like Sunrise Point and Sunset Deck, where you discover all kinds of things: a gong, a hammock, two praying angels made of corrugated tin, and two pairs of tiny footprints frozen in a sidewalk.

Or he tells you to walk past his screen door and a metal trio of deputy hounds and hike for 20 minutes up the side of a mountain. There, you discover boulders as big as Volkswagens. All you hear is wind.

Rankin has a name for all those scenes and sensations: Snowbird magic.

But lassoing that magic didn’t come easy.

“American life can spread you out and disconnect you,’’ Rankin wrote a few years back in Lodger, the Snowbird’s newsletter. “It takes a little work to reconnect, but it is worth it. Wholeness feels really good.’’

Old South elegant

Rankin came of age in Decatur, Alabama. But his playground was the Tennessee River. He was the youngest of four, and he hunted, hiked, fished, water skied, and sailed the family’s boat behind the barges on the Tennessee.

He took trips with his family, to places from Maine to Montana, Colorado to Texas. They piled into the family’s brown station wagon, and Rankin — being the youngest and sometimes the loudest — always sat in the third seat, in the back. Those trips gave him his first taste for adventure. The Snowbird Mountain Lodge helped cement it.

He was 18, backpacking through Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, when he stumbled onto the Snowbird. He only wanted a shower, but he found something quite different. He walked in and thought of his next-door neighbor who wore ankle-length dresses and cooked cornbread in a cast-iron skillet. It reminded him of his grandmother Ivy. Or, specifically, Grandmother Ivy’s house.

The Snowbird smelled of old, polished wood. Just Old South elegant. The main lodge was full of antiques, the fireplace was as big as a bathroom, and shelves of books seemed to reach the cathedral ceiling.

But the view is what got him. Rankin looked out the window, and he remembered something he read from William Bartram, the naturalist who explored western North Carolina a year before the Revolutionary War and wrote of seeing what he called “a world of mountains piled upon mountains.”

For Rankin, that world was Snowbird. He got a shower and a towel for $5 and wandered around for a few hours. He knew he’d come back.

He came with girlfriends and good friends. Rankin was drawn back to southwestern North Carolina because he loved the mountains. And he loved the Snowbird, an inn that opened in April 1941.

Years later, Rankin was a financial officer at a small fundraising and publishing firm in Alabama and struggling through the pain of merger. He and his dad, Rex, came to the Upper Nantahala River to fly-fish and get away.

“So, what are you going to do?’’ Rex asked.

“I don’t know,’’ Rankin said.

“Well, you’ve always talked about running an inn,’’ Rex told his son. “When are you going to do that?’’

“That’s something you do when you’re 50 or 60,’’ Rankin responded.

“Well, son,’’ Rex replied. “You’re gonna blink three times, be my age, and say, ‘Woulda, coulda, shoulda.’”

Making a life

The search started. For 15 months, Rankin drove the East Coast in his Isuzu Trooper, visiting 47 inns, one as far as Maine. Almost every time, he said to himself, “This could be the one.’’

But it wasn’t, and he always got discouraged. On a Sunday night, he came to see his friend George Brown, who ran the Fryemont Inn in Bryson City, and over a beer, Rankin told Brown about his fruitless search.

Brown gave him the news: “By the way, the Snowbird is up for sale again.’’

Rankin almost choked. The next morning, right after sunrise, he drove to Snowbird, met with the owners, and gave them his business card.

By the day’s end, they had a handshake agreement.

Six months later, Rankin and his wife, Karen, a trained chef, were owners of an inn. It was spring 1995. Rankin was in his early 30s; he and Karen became Snowbird’s ninth owners. Rankin had no idea what he was doing.

Karen ran the kitchen; Rankin ran everything else. They started a family, and they made a life at Snowbird.

You find that life around the Main Lodge, sandwiched between the Wolfe Cottage and the Chestnut Lodge. It’s in the cement. You see the tiny feet of daughter Elizabeth and elsewhere the tiny feet of her little sister, Sophie. And by the storage door, in a spot hard to find, you find the handprints of Robert and Karen Rankin and the three-word phrase that meant much to them: “Live Your Dream.’’

God’s fairy dust

On Snowbird’s Wall of Fame, halfway up the stairs in the Main Lodge, there’s a message from an inn guest, Harriet Hensler. It’s on Snowbird stationary, framed and yellowed with age:

Up near the stars where the snowbird flies
And the trees both sway and bend
We found a Carolina Shangri-la
Our reward at trail’s end.

She wrote that verse in September 1947.

The Snowbird stokes that kind of creativity. There’s no TV and barely any cell-phone service. So guests hike, fish, bike, visit, and eat exquisite meals prepared by two chefs educated in culinary schools in Charlotte and
New York City.

Guests come for all kinds of things — love, family, reconnection, and peace. They write about it in every journal in the Snowbird’s 23 rooms.

Inside the journal from Room 21, you meet a couple known simply as C&B. They wrote: “Hang on to the joy of the great times we have shared here — no boundaries of age, of time, of who and what. Appreciate, savor, give thanks, and remember that we really all kind of belong to one another.”

In those pages, you also meet Diane. She came to the Snowbird to help herself deal with the impending death of her dad. She wrote: “This helps me to understand that Dad will never die. He will live on, his spirit, long after his body is gone. He will live in the clouds and the wind and in the raindrop that falls on your eyelash, staying there a moment, then slowly makes its way down your face and disappears.’’

By creating that kind of place for his guests, Robert’s inn in the mountains thrived. His marriage didn’t. Being in the middle of nowhere didn’t help. The Snowbird is tough to run, and after 17 years of marriage, Robert and Karen divorced. Karen moved to Birmingham, Alabama, her hometown.

After the divorce, Rankin kept asking himself one question: “Can I do it alone?’’

He does — with the help of his two daughters.

Elizabeth is now 11; Sophie, 8. They come up from Alabama on holidays, school breaks, and summers, and they describe their visits to the Snowbird, the inn of their youth, as “coming to the woods.’’ They are the only kids you see. Snowbird doesn’t allow children younger than 12.

But Elizabeth and Sophie have a place at Snowbird. You see it on Rankin’s business card. It reads: Sophie, Elizabeth, & Robert Rankin, innkeepers. Guests still ask about Karen, and Rankin doesn’t hesitate. He’s written about it, too, in the lodge newsletter. It’s under the heading “Dear Friends.’’

“How can you appreciate the cold without the warmth, black without white, light without darkness?’’ he wrote in 2009. “This is one of the lessons that I learned in 2008, to be accepting. Take the bad with the good and appreciate both because we can’t have one without the other.’’

Like his guests, Rankin appreciates Snowbird’s soothing powers.

“No matter how bad or how good my day has been,’’ says Rankin, now 48, “on those nights, I’ll look up in the sky and see thousands and thousands of stars, and it looks like God has sprinkled fairy dust across the heavens.

“And you sit back and say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty amazing.’”

Snowbird’s Executive Chef Sarah Zell shares recipes for Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, Oatmeal Stout Pecan Pie, and Shrimp and Grits. Click here to view recipes and enjoy!

Snowbird Mountain Lodge
4633 Santeetlah Road
Robbinsville, N.C. 28771
(828) 479-3433

Jeri Rowe, a Greensboro resident, is a staff columnist with the News & Record. Jeri’s most recent story for Our State magazine was “The Town: Murphy” (July 2011).

This entry was posted in Mountains, October 2011 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Carolina Shangri-La

  1. What a special place. Sadly for us it is a two day drive…but have enjoyed our visit so much…we are hoping to return in Sept/Oct.

  2. Terry says:

    My partner and I spent a week at Snowbird in 2010. It was one of the best stays of our lives. Robert, April, Tina & Sarah are the best! We are planning another trip this year (2013). Looking forward to some great food and time to relax and enjoy Snowbird again.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I am his daughter happy we have good comments on our website!!!!(:

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