For Patricia DeNinno — my favorite aunt — who fondly remembers living in Blowing Rock when she was 4 years old. On my dusky inaugural trek to Blowing Rock, some
For Patricia DeNinno — my favorite aunt — who fondly remembers living in Blowing Rock when she was 4 years old.
On my dusky inaugural trek to Blowing Rock, some years back, I wended up and up U.S. Highway 321 North, along blade-thin switchbacks hacked into the ever-increasing altitude, nothing but the flimsiest purchase on the quaking blacktop tethering me to earth.
When, finally, I crossed the Eastern Continental Divide at 3,600 feet or so and reached Blowing Rock proper, coiling fog cloaked Main Street. I spied the shrouded beacon of Tijuana Fats, since closed, and barged through its front door just in time for last call. The restaurant was abandoned, except for a few hangers-on and the mop-up crew. The kitchen had closed, but I managed to score a beer, chips, and salsa. I sat brooding contentedly in my bright corner, until spirited out with the diehards. Beyond the threshold, the world had disappeared.
Back on Main Street, I couldn’t find my car. I couldn’t find my hand. The impenetrable fog was a living thing, hauntingly cinematic, the seductive moorish mist of Wuthering Heights. I’d entered a fable, stumbled through a magic portal secreted in the ether into a tiny hamlet of romance and danger. I froze there on the sidewalk, wondering what in the world to do. The shops had long closed. The gauzy streetlamps flickered anemically. I was lost.
My invisible car, parked along the sidewalk curb, was but a few meters off, and I minced in what I hoped was the right direction. Finally, I discovered it, fired it up, and engaged the headlights. They proved useless, simply churning up roiling billows of relentless fog. Not a soul, not an automobile, was around. Seemingly the only person left on earth, I motored blindly along — hopefully toward my lodging — at two miles an hour, a flashlight and my head dangling from my open window to locate the yellow line bisecting Main Street, while the interior of the car pulsed with vapor.
The next morning was glorious — blinding in an entirely different vein. The fog had not quite dissipated, but rather had transformed into swirling wreaths and buntings of alabaster down, regally scarving the distant, ancient Appalachian peaks and ridges. I had to look away, shield my eyes, as the sun torched the heavens — perhaps like that first storied morning, recorded in Genesis, when light was first conjured. The illumination was that sudden, miraculous.
Revelation often occurs at such magnificent altitude, and is precisely why people are beckoned to places like Blowing Rock. One experiences, perhaps, a kind of hubris and insignificance simultaneously. You can see so far beyond the boundaries of self. The known world stretches miles and miles, counties and counties — and the beauty of that immensity is shocking, humbling, at times daunting. The firmament perches at the brim of your hat.
But 12 inches from plummeting more than 3,000 feet, I stood that morning at the edge of an ancient stone ledge and gazed through the eye-level wisps of cottony pink fog, shot with excelsior, at the distant Piedmont. I had to back off. The proximity to Heaven was a tad dizzying.
• • •
The Blowing Rock itself, the village’s namesake, is unassumingly grand — a gargoyle-like gneiss (a kind of striated, metamorphic rock) promontory that looms approximately 277 stories over Johns River Gorge and affords a mythic view that, in truth, defies description. It is the proverbial wild blue yonder, the abyss, reminiscent of what the great poet Elizabeth Bishop, in her poem “The Fish,” calls “the terrible oxygen.” It is frighteningly exhilarating, a palpable adrenaline jolt. Standing in the void, you unequivocally reckon the electricity and grandeur of sheer altitude, from your boot soles to the roof of your skull. Across the marbled amethyst chasm, Grandfather and Grandmother mountains reassuringly preside, as well as a panorama that takes in Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in mainland eastern North America, and Table Rock, Hawksbill, and Beech mountains.
Since 1933, The Blowing Rock has been proclaimed North Carolina’s oldest travel attraction. The complex features trails and gardens; an observation tower guaranteed to induce vertigo, where folks stage weddings choreographed quite literally in the clouds; the main building overflowing with gifts, souvenirs, and memorabilia; an annex gift and snack shop; and a photo gallery and museum, an invaluable archive of truly fascinating vintage photographs and artifacts that brilliantly narrate the intrepid history of The Blowing Rock, but also of the idyllic, storybook village, founded in 1889, christened after it.
The site is still plenty wild. It’s a precipice nearly three times taller than the Empire State Building. The U.S. Geological Survey believes that The Blowing Rock is roughly 1,055 million — more than a billion — years old. However, two decades into the 21st century, approaching its 90th anniversary since opening officially as a branded tourist destination, the site has definitely been tamed. Nevertheless, it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like in the old days, without the fences and rails and warnings, in bold red, to Climb at Your Own Risk.
Those early photos in the gallery attest to the precarity: folks teetering from the rock, perched in the troposphere, taking mad chances for immortality, one false step from kingdom come. There’s an unforgettable daredevil shot of a chap, hands intrepidly on his hips, standing on what seems to be the seat of an early 20th-century automobile, perhaps a Pierce-Arrow. The car is parked astonishingly at 45 degrees on the rock itself. This very image appears in Donna Akers Warmuth’s Blowing Rock, part of the Images of America series. It’s actually an antique postcard, with a 1910 postmark and a headnote in the upper left corner: “America’s Switzerland. The unrivalled Blowing Rock Country. The famous ‘Blowing Rock’ (altitude 4090 feet) near Blowing Rock, N.C.”
• • •
The earlier allusion to Wuthering Heights is anything but arbitrary. The story of The Blowing Rock — and, by association, the eponymous village — is, after all, a love story, rooted in lore and legend. The language describing the legend varies, depending on the source, but I prefer, especially for its unapologetic sentimentality and swooning diction, the 152 words in greening bronze relief, installed in the early 1970s, at the site of the rock itself.
It begins in the manner of fairy and tall tales — “It is said …” — and goes on to recount how a Chickasaw tribal chief, distraught over “the white man’s admiration of his beautiful daughter,” journeyed from the plains and “hid her atop a high craggy cliff …” — in this case, The Blowing Rock — in the keep of her mother. There she remained, so reminiscent of the “maiden in the tower/damsel in distress” archetype, cloistered for an indeterminate amount of time. “One day, she spied a Cherokee brave in the wilderness below and playfully shot an arrow at him” — an unmistakable homage to Cupid, the winged Roman god of love and desire.
Thusly summoned, the Cherokee man predictably “appeared before her wigwam and in the days that followed they became sweethearts.” Such romances are never without the requisite complications. In the very next sentence, we learn that “[one] evening a prophetic red sky beckoned him to return to his people.” Again, I love the poetic schmaltz and stock melodrama. “The lovely maiden begged him not to go.” Being “torn between his love for her and his duty to his people, he leaped from the rock into the ominous night.”
Utterly bereft, the young woman fell to her knees and “prayed to the spirits for his return.” Such lovelorn petitions, in the medium of legend, are always rewarded. (This tale also harkens back to Penelope’s mythic wait for Odysseus.) Lo, “[A] strange heavenward breeze blew her lover back into her outstretched arms.” This fantastically imaginative, compressed snatch of micro-fiction concludes, appropriately, with: “Since that day, this cliff with the mysterious upward winds has been known as The Blowing Rock.” We can only surmise that they lived happily ever after, and only the most boorish of spoilsports would dare want more.
I am not, I hope it’s plain, that spoilsport. I admire this tale, this ample allegory, exactly as it is. In fact, I hope every jot of it is gospel truth. However, and of course, there exists a scientific explanation for the meteorological aberration upon which the story turns. The towering rock walls of Johns River Gorge create a flume — a deep, slender channel through which the Johns River flows. The northwest wind discharges through that flume with such velocity that it gusts literally upward, designating The Blowing Rock, in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon, as “the only place in the world where snow falls upside down.”
• • •
But let’s tarry a moment, because there is, indeed, more. Just an inch or so beneath those 152 words rests a cameo-shaped bronze bas-relief, portraying the actual heartrending reunion of these sweethearts. The Chickasaw woman — headbanded, long-haired, siren-like, indisputably beautiful — kneels in profile, at the very edge of The Blowing Rock. The Cherokee man, in defiance of gravity, levitates in midair above her. His long hair is tied off with a feathered headband. Immortally, they clasp hands. About them, like haloes, swirl upraised ovals to mime the torrential winds, and what can only be a trinity of hovering birds conferring benediction. It is most remarkable, nothing short of authentic iconography. Yet there’s something else, and there’s no other way to say it: This portrait is rather risqué — in truth, eroticized. Neither sweetheart is, for the most part, clothed. They are breech-clouted at best. Period. The artist who executed this bas-relief, cast in a foundry in Charlotte and installed in the early 1970s, is the late Jack Pentes Jr., a Korean War veteran, who also designed Land of Oz on Beech Mountain. Astoundingly, Pentes extrapolated his bold vision of the sweethearts’ tryst solely from the text of the story.
The author of the original text, purportedly penned in the late 1800s — before that, it surely was passed down in the signature oral tradition of Appalachia — remains anonymous. Likewise, the more recent 152-word version, in bronze at The Blowing Rock, was — again purportedly — adapted and rewritten in the 1920s by an anonymous woman who lived near Camp Yonahlossee. Mired as it is in the apocryphal, the legend of The Blowing Rock is burnished with even more allure and mystery.
Interestingly, that language in bronze is slightly edited in the “Legend of The Blowing Rock” section of the brochure available at The Blowing Rock’s gift shop. In it, there is but a lone “white man” in admiration of the young Chickasaw woman. The Cherokee man, at the behest of the woman’s “flirtation,” not only answers the overture of that fateful arrow but also “[courts] her with songs of his land and they became lovers, wandering the pathless woodlands and along the crystal streams.” The image of the two lovers, in the brochure and on the large sign on 321, at the intersection of The Rock Road, directing folks to The Blowing Rock, has been appreciably toned down to accommodate a G rating. The woman still kneels on the rock; the man still floats in midair above her. Their hands are still locked. A massive falcon beats beneath them in the glowing orange and yellow sunset sky. But they are rendered featureless, androgynous silhouettes, yet nonetheless elegiac — all that longing, the timeless wiles of love at dizzying altitudes, thoroughly intact. Forever.