I am sitting on a bench on Main Street in Highlands, and nobody knows me.
Main Street is a wide patch of asphalt with slanted parking spaces on either side of both lanes. There are brick sidewalks. There are storefronts. Actual, functioning storefronts. And everywhere, there are people. Women in flats. Men in jackets. They are dressed in Aspen chic. Some men smoke cigars. Couples dart out from behind cars to cross the street. The hair is styled. The sunglasses look sharp. The shopping bags are full.
Downtown is the place where about 15,000 people come up over the hills from their country clubs and second homes and compress themselves into a three-block nucleus of restaurants, stores, and churches. People walk up to each other, walk next to each other, talk about work or real estate or their spa appointments. They pet each other’s dogs. They wave at people on the other side of the street. Everybody knows each other. How can this be?
I decide to try an experiment. I want to see how long it takes for someone, anyone, to talk to me. I find a bench on Main Street, next to the Stone Lantern, just yards away from the town’s epicenter, the corner of Main and Fourth. I sit down. I wait.
It’s not as if I haven’t talked to anyone. Last night, my fiancée and I started off with drinks at Wolfgang’s, a place on Main Street made to look like a mountain house with rustic wooden walls. It was full of older people in jackets, dressed in their finest business-casual uniforms, the couture that says, I’m rich, but I’m relaxing. We chatted with a couple from Atlanta, Georgia, and a busboy from Belarus. There seem to be a lot of both here.
A few doors down, Ristorante Paoletti was packed with people in between the wine bottles and portraits on the walls. A guy named Julio came out and aerated a bottle of red by rhythmically pouring it in a long stream between two carafes, as if he was pulling apart a piece of burgundy taffy. The menu was full of special-occasion Italian food at special-occasion prices, although the people here looked like they’re accustomed to eating this way quite often. At any one time, a table’s worth of people stood, talking to a table full of people sitting. They talked in a way that let other people in on the conversation. At one table, a guy started talking about Ronald Reagan, only to be interrupted by a woman who wanted to talk about Rick Perry.
We also checked out Madison’s, a breathlessly beautiful restaurant with fresh cuisine. Our reservation came with a wine navigator named Kurt. He helped us make our pinot noir decision quickly. The immaculately dressed couple at the next table over asked a lot more questions. Does this one have bite? What’s its character? Kurt made recommendations. They shot them down. It took several minutes to come to a consensus. Suddenly, I felt as if I had not used Kurt to his full potential.
There are five restaurants in Highlands honored by Wine Spectator. Three of them, Wolfgang’s, Paoletti, and Madison’s, all sit on the same block of Main Street. All three won the Best of Award of Excellence. By comparison, Charlotte, with a population 792 times higher than Highlands, only has two of those award winners in the entire city.
Madison’s inhabits a wing of the Old Edwards Inn, a brick and stone relaxation compound on Fourth and Main. It is somehow simultaneously able to be labyrinthine and quaint. Each corridor seems to lead to something refined. Condé Nast Traveler readers voted the hotel spa here the best in the country. Old Edwards is at Highlands’s core. On the margins, surrounded by million-dollar homes, are the country clubs. The golf here is so legendary that Bobby Jones himself honed his game in 1930 at the Highlands Country Club, a Donald Ross-designed course where, Jones says, “every hole has at least one good shot on it.” Jones won the Grand Slam later that year.
There are no great mountain peaks towering over Highlands. At 4,118 feet above sea level, Highlands is the second highest town east of the Mississippi. Its downtown sits on a plateau above the valleys below. Highlands is a place that’s used to being on top.
The upper crust
In a way, Highlands has always been a place of high expectation. It was founded in 1875 by Samuel Kelsey and Clinton Hutchinson, two developers from Kansas with long, white beards. The story goes that they looked at a map and drew two lines: one from Chicago, Illinois, to Savannah, Georgia; the other from New York to New Orleans, Louisiana. They founded the town at what they thought would someday be a great population center between those cities.
What ended up here was a health resort of sorts. A tuberculosis sanatorium up on the hill ran ads across the United States. People came up here for the cool, clean air, at first. Then they came up to get away from city life. In the 1970s, they came here to build their second homes. More people wanted to be here, but the town, an island constrained by the steep mountain topography and the Nantahala National Forest, couldn’t expand. The price of things went up and up. In Highlands, the average price to buy a house is now nearly four times what it is in nearby Franklin. It costs nothing to drive through. It costs a lot to stop.
That doesn’t mean this is the Hamptons of the South. “People don’t ask, ‘Do you rent or own?’” JT Fields says. “It’s the antithesis of that.” But still, “You can spend a lot of money here; there’s no doubt.”
Fields owns Mountain Fresh Grocery at the foot of Main Street, a market that doubles as a deli where you can stop in early for organic roasted coffee, bacon, and eggs; the newspaper; and a conversation. The line at the checkout doubles as a meeting place. People have to put their conversations on hold to pay. Fields wears a blue polo; black hair; a young face; and a wide, toothy grin. He says hello to the regulars. Everybody seems nice. But you have to be ready to handle the alternative. “If people are going to be mean, it’s when you’re serving them food,” Fields says.
Fields went from a weekend visitor to a second-home owner to a store owner. He bought Mountain Fresh in 2007. He shrugs at its success. “When a little town like Highlands loses its grocery store on Main Street, that’s not ever anything that comes back.”
People try to define this place, he says. Nobody ever really does. There are no back-lit signs. No chain restaurants. The businesses cater to high-end clientele, yet the town is too small for a Wal-Mart. Could you call this a rich town? Yes, Fields says. It’s rich in a textural sense. In Atlanta, his friends were similar to him. In a big city, despite all of its diversity, you don’t have to cast a wide net to find people who are like you. You can insulate yourself in a big place. Here, something different is always thrust upon you. Fields talks about a poker game he plays, with a plumber from New Jersey, a landscaper, a Harvard-educated architect, and a fifth-generation Highlander.
Change is slow, but Highlands isn’t living in the past. “It’s a town but not a museum,” Fields says. He has a story about the people who come here from lower elevations and try to go for a hike. If they try to keep their normal routine and pace, the thin air sucks the energy out of them. They have to adapt. It takes time to fit in.
Into the forest
For six nights in a row, a bear has been nosing through the dumpsters behind the shops and restaurants downtown. The other night, a guy opened the lid on one to throw in a coffee cup, and the bear jumped right out. In Highlands, if you don’t see the wildlife, the wildlife comes to you.
Sonya Carpenter believes the bear is a 3½-year-old male, which resembles the stuffed one that sits along a back wall in the Highlands Nature Center. Carpenter is the administrative director for the Highlands Biological Foundation, the nonprofit that funds the center. The place is a mix of a laboratory and reptile house, appropriate for an area she calls the salamander capital of the world. The center is 84 years old. Its founders believed there ought to be a place to research all of the flora and fauna. Now, it’s open for kids to roam around and for adults to do the more formal sit-down lecture. The University of North Carolina has a biological station here, where 11 students spend a semester in residence, rooting around in the woods and dissecting what they find. Meagan, a staffer, studies social spiders. She’s versatile. “I can also talk for hours about salamanders,” she says.
Inside there are all sorts of animals, live and stuffed. Honeybees buzz around inside a working hive, safely separated from humans by a pane of plexiglass. A cross section of a hemlock tree dating from 1489 looks more like a table with rings. An Eastern king snake, long and black with yellow bands, ended up here 10 years ago after someone hit him with a rock. His name is B.B. King. Sometimes he gets nervous and bites his own tail.
Highlands sits at any number of intersections. It straddles the eastern Continental Divide, so depending on where a raindrop falls, it could end up in the Mississippi or the Atlantic. It is the meeting place for northern and southern species. During the last ice age, glaciers pushed a lot of animals down from the north. Once the ice receded, they decided to stay. The place is technically a rain forest — the mountains push the moisture from the lower elevations up, where it cools and dumps about 90 inches of rain on the area every year. The dampness that creates rutted roads and muddy streets also creates an astonishing amount of life. Nearly 10,000 species exist in the southern Appalachians. In a single cove in Highlands, there are more types of trees and shrubs than in all of northern Europe.
Carpenter walks down a stone staircase to the trailheads behind the nature center. She walks slowly. She gets that from her dad, who’s a botanist. “He moves at 10 feet an hour,” she says.
Here, in the Botanical Garden, there are all sorts of things like shortia, a rare species of herb rescued from the site of what’s now Lake Oconee. There’s some heart-shaped galax and some ferns. It’s all labeled. “We even labeled the poison ivy,” she says. You can’t ever tell the true age of the rhododendron. It might be young. It might be hundreds of years old, growing up from the stump where it was cleared decades ago. Around the turn of the 20th century, this area was heavily logged, but it slowly came back.
Today, the forest has returned with a variety of poplar, cherry, oak, and maple. A few national champions grow here — trees taller and wider than any other in their species. The national champion eastern hemlock is west of here on U.S. Highway 64, towering over everything at 159 feet tall. The Padgett poplar here is a national champ, too. And out back is the national champion clammy locust, the robinia viscosa, which stands at a spindly 59 feet tall. It’s by the cottages.
It’s a 10-minute hike from the Nature Center to the top of Sunset Rock, a blustery knob where trees have branches that don’t grow on one side, overlooking a village where only the spires of churches rise over the green carpeting of trees. Sunset Rock is the spot where you come to take your picture to prove that you were here. This is the epicenter of cool for leaf peepers.
The other spot, the quieter, more serene spot, might be Sunrise Rock, which is on the other side of the clearing where the trail to the hilltop ends. There, the wind is just a gentle, warm breeze. Whiteside Mountain, a rocky knuckle, rises up to the left. You hear the wind rustling the trees in every direction. Here, you’re protected.
The valley opens up below, trailing off toward Georgia. Kay and Thomas Craig live here. They moved to Highlands 23 years ago and discovered something: Nothing stayed open past 7 p.m. If you were hungry back then, you had to find something in the aisles of the gas station. After a while, they found themselves in a position to make a change. Thomas, with his architecture degree, got into contracting. Kay had a cabinetry business, but business slowed down.
One of them said it: “Let’s start a bar.”
They split up the duties. Kay did the design work. Thomas built the Ugly Dog Pub in a space at the top of a hill on South Fourth Street. They didn’t want another Wine Spectator restaurant. They wanted a place that serves beer and uncomplicated food. They wanted a place to meet friends for a couple of drinks.
“People are pushing us to become a ‘real’ restaurant,” Kay says.
Kay and Thomas want to move upstairs because their 10-minute commute from the valley seems excruciatingly long. To go see a movie, it’s at least a 45-minute drive to Franklin or Seneca, South Carolina, which may as well be a transatlantic voyage. In their effort to simplify, they want their home to be simple, too.
Two types of people move here, they say. First, the retirees who come up, stay for a few years, then move closer to wherever their kids are. Then come the young people, who expect to simplify their lives in a small town. They think it’s easy to make a living here. They’re mistaken about that. Most of Highlands’s workers can’t afford to live in town. And this is not an easy place to start a business. Nearly 97 percent of the available space in downtown is full. There is just no space to grow.
That limitation, in a perverse sort of way, allows Highlands to thrive, says Dr. Ran Shaffner, the town’s de facto knower-of-everything. Schaffner wrote the book on Highlands, an 800-page history called Heart of the Blue Ridge, a heavy, self-published labor of love that has nearly as many pages as Highlands has permanent residents. One theme he keeps coming back to is the idea that it’s not what Highlands has, it’s what it doesn’t have that makes it special. It’s missing the strip malls, fast food, and car lots that frequently pop up in small towns. But in a way, it’s not missing a thing.
Shaffner kicks on an old desktop computer in the back of the Highlands Historical Society. Black-and-white landscape pictures from the photographer George Masa line the walls. There are more shots here on this hard drive, Shaffner says. He finds an 1883 picture of Dry Falls, one of many waterfalls that surround Highlands. The picture is straightforward; water tumbles over a rocky shelf, surrounded by forest.
“Do you see it?” he asks. See what? Shaffner starts moving the mouse and zooms into a dark spot to the left of the falls, under the rocky overhang. There, almost ghostly, are the images of two women and a child. This isn’t a picture of a waterfall. It’s a portrait.
Shaffner is full of anecdotes like that. He has so much history and knowledge locked up in his brain, so many stories of freezing winters and family names and brave rescues on Whiteside Mountain. He knows enough to fill up an 800-page book. Which, of course, he did.
People here have always gotten along, he says. In a small town, you have to coexist. Long ago, the locals and the summer people got together at Helen’s Barn. They danced to banjo music. They clogged. They talked. Helen’s Barn is gone. But people still talk.
Which brings me back to my experiment. I’ve been sitting on the bench on Main Street for 10 minutes. People talk. Just not to me. Finally, a man in a flannel shirt with a pack of Marlboro Reds and a Mountain Dew in his hand walks by. He stops.
“How’s it going?” he asks.
“You a writer?”
I look down at my open notebook. “Yeah.”
“I thought so,” he says. “What’s your story about?”
I don’t really know what to say. I’ve been trying to figure that out all day.
“It’s about Highlands,” I say, sheepishly.
“Oh, I know plenty about that,” he says. “I’ll help you find what you’re looking for.” We set off down the sidewalk, talking, just like everyone else.
Ten things not to miss in Highlands
Highlands’s visual arts center boasts classes for locals (they make pottery in a barn original to the property) and lots of local and regional art on display. The six-acre campus also includes a covered bridge transplanted from New Hampshire. 323 Franklin Road. (828) 526-4949.
You can find four waterfalls within a few miles of Highlands. Some are just a short hike away from the road. And then there’s Bridal Veil Falls, a 60-foot-high falls just 2.7 miles west of town on U.S. Highway 64. You can drive right behind it, roll down the windows, and catch a little spray.
To get ready for (and directions to) the waterfalls, get gear here. Highland Hiker has been a mainstay in town for 29 years, and the people here know about more than just the outdoors — Mayor David Wilkes owns the place. 601 Main Street. (828) 526-5298.
The Highlands Inn
The Old Edwards Inn gets most of the attention, but don’t overlook the Highlands Inn, a historic, whitewashed hotel that’s right across the street. With rocking chairs out front and a rock garden out back, the inn has 31 rooms and hardwood and history throughout. It’s been open for more than 130 years, serving summer visitors looking to get away from the Southern heat. Corner of Fourth & Main streets. (828) 526-9380.