A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

We love our children, I swear. So please read this all the way to the end before you judge us too harshly. For many years, our kids, Markie and Jack,

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

We love our children, I swear. So please read this all the way to the end before you judge us too harshly. For many years, our kids, Markie and Jack,

We love our children, I swear. So please read this all the way to the end before you judge us too harshly. For many years, our kids, Markie and Jack, attended Camp Cheerio, a mountaintop sleepaway camp in Alleghany County, and Julie and I had a winner of a plan for their last night there — and our last night as empty nesters. On pickup weekends, we would hightail it to the Hampton Inn in Dobson, in the stunning countryside of pastoral Surry County. We would eat and drink at nearby Shelton Vineyards, knock out a big hike the next morning, then wind our way up the mountains to reunite with our beloved larvae.

More on that in a minute, but you should know that the Hampton Inn in Dobson is The Most Interesting Hampton Inn in the World. Owned by Shelton Vineyards, the hotel has sitting areas with fireplaces scattered about an expansive lobby, a wide sunny patio that looks out over the rolling horizon, and a wine bar with tastings that nearly entice you to set up shop and not leave till closing time. We would arrive on a Friday night in time for a glass of wine, then hop on the dedicated shuttle bus that runs door-to-door on Fridays and Saturdays from the hotel to Shelton Vineyards and its Harvest Grill restaurant. The food was splendid, the views sublime, and the sense that our freewheeling days were coming to a close was impossible to escape.

If you’ve ever sent kids to sleepaway summer camp, you probably know what I’m talking about. Sooner or later, they come home. And it isn’t always a Walton’s Mountain reunion.

• • •

You can’t go home again, but you can sure take a peek beneath the covers, and that’s what Julie and I have in mind when we decide to pull off a re-creation of our old Cheerio pickups. We book a night at the swanky Hampton Inn, lock down a vineyard restaurant reservation, and plan a big hike for the next morning. Memory Lane beckons.

At dinner, Julie takes a bite of crab cake and reminisces. For parents, summer camp was like empty-nesting practice, she used to say, but we’ve learned that we’re a little rusty when it comes to reliving those days. The first year that both kids were in summer camp at the same time, we went out on the town every single night. By the time our wedding anniversary rolled around midway through July, we were exhausted and in bed by 8 p.m. “The last time we were original nesters,” Julie reflects, “we were a lot younger.”

For parents, summer camp was like empty-nesting practice.

I take a bite of freshly baked multigrain bread slathered with a strawberry Riesling jam. Those were some hilarious periods. Parents of campers were encouraged to avoid contacting their kids directly, and vice versa, but emergencies happen. One year, halfway through summer camp, our television remote went haywire. We must have punched a couple of buttons out of the prescribed order, but for whatever reason, we couldn’t get the TV to work. After a couple of nights, we were at the end of our rope. Should we try to call Jack, our resident IT expert at the ripe old age of, oh, 11? Would he get in trouble? It was already after suppertime. Was this really an emergency?

Heck, yeah, it was. I dialed the emergency nurse number and told the flat-out truth: Jack’s parents needed to speak to him immediately, and no, it really couldn’t wait. The staff had to radio down to Jack’s cabin, and Jack had to trudge in the dark to the camp office. When he picked up the phone, I whispered, “Hey, buddy, all’s good. Try to play along here. How do we turn the TV on?”

“That was good parenting, Julie,” I say. “I hope we were proud of ourselves.”

Julie takes a bite of Gorgonzola-and-pear salad, and I scoop up a forkful of tender rabbit in a rich hunter’s sauce, a dish inspired by Executive Chef Mark Thrower’s beagle-loving grandfather. We chuckle thinking about the kids’ favorite camp foods. “They always came back from camp eating things they would never eat at home,” Julie says. “Remember the year Jack came back eating salad?”

The Ramblin’ Man found the views sublime at Shelton Vineyards. photograph by Joey Seawell

“A miracle,” I say with a laugh. There were definitely times when summer camp supercharged our kids’ growing-up times. Each of them went through a counselor-in-training summer, during which they functioned as assistant counselors and on-call gofers for staff. When they returned home, they hopped up after dinner to clear the table of dishes and silverware. Julie and I exchanged glances and kept our mouths shut.

“Of course,” Julie recalls, “I remember when Jack came home after a two-week camp stay and all his towels were still folded and unused in his camp trunk. So, there’s that.”

Yes. There is that.

The next morning, we drive toward the Blue Ridge, past the secondhand clothing store that was always good for hats and vintage golf shirts, past the “Cheerio store” where we always stopped for last-minute supplies before drop-off, past the turnoff to Camp Cheerio itself. Those were all the landmarks that were bid a sad adieu when we came back down the mountain with the kids in the car. “Goodbye, Cheerio road!” they would cry, literally. “Goodbye, Cheerio store!”

• • •

As they grow older, their excitement of reunion — the happy times of sharing details about camp songs and camp friends — devolved into a less, er, pleasant experience. Markie and Jack knew that the end of summer camp meant curfews and responsibilities and shopping for school supplies. Too soon, sullen faces and grouchy demeanors were as likely to greet us on pickup day, and silence might trail us all the way down the mountain. During one of those ugly mid-teen years, my mom called to check on us while we were driving home.

“Were the kids happy to see you?” she asked.

I looked over at Julie. I glanced in the rearview mirror. Nothing but furrowed brows arched sullenly over iPads. “Half of us don’t want to go home,” I replied, “and the other half are thinking maybe we don’t want them back. So to answer your question, no, there is not a single happy person in this car at the moment.”

Julie laughs and takes another bite of crab cake. “Such sweet memories,” she says.

The next morning, we knock out a nine-mile hike from Bluff Mountain deep into the steep country of Doughton Park. A lifetime ago — or was it just 25 years? — we hiked these same woodlands. One of my favorite photographs is of baby Markie on a blanket beside the trail, as I changed her diaper. I still have Markie’s teeny first pair of hiking boots. They hang from a curio shelf above my desk.

While the kids were feasting on s’mores, their parents got by on Harvest Grill’s lump crab cakes. photograph by Joey Seawell

Back in the car and headed home, we can’t stop thinking about funny stories from our — wait, their — summer camp years. “It seems like the kids went from teenagers to grown-ups really quickly,” Julie says. “This trip made me think of things I haven’t thought of in forever.”

“Think we’ll hear from the kids today?” I ask.

“Maybe,” Julie says. Jack is skiing in Vail. We aren’t sure what Markie is up to for the weekend.

“I bet we will,” I say. “I hope we will.”

The road down the mountain opens up into one of those long mountain grades that cling to a rock wall, with views of the vast Piedmont unfurling to the east. It’s one of those views that makes you think you can almost see forever — almost see into the future — if you squint just right.

But you can’t, of course. You still have to make the drive, ears popping with the elevation change. You still have to take it all one curve at a time.

Shelton Vineyards
286 Cabernet Lane
Dobson, NC 27017
(336) 366-4724

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This story was published on Jun 27, 2023

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.