As a member of the trip committee for the Happy Hearts, Cary First Baptist Church, I suggested we do a two-night, three-day trip to Bryson City NC. We would stay at The Hemlock Inn and ride the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad from Bryson City to Nantahala Gorge. Of course, the one that suggests a trip becomes the planner and leader of the trip. I was hoping we could fill one of our church’s 15-passenger buses. Little did I know the interest, and by the sign-up deadline, we had 29 adventure seekers.
We left on Thursday, September 19, at 7 a.m., stopping at Kostas’ Family Restaurant in Dillsboro for lunch. We arrived at the Hemlock Inn at about 3:00 p.m. Our rooms were ready upon arrival, and Penny, our official Happy Hearts leader, and I gathered the keys as Mort White, the proprietor of the Hemlock Inn, dealt them to us for distribution to our group. We unloaded the luggage, and like a mini-scavenger hunt, everyone retrieved their bags, received their room keys, and scurried to find their rooms.
Dinner was to be served at 6:30. With about two hours to fill, most discovered the rocking chairs on the dining room porch and found out they fit them perfectly. The view from the porch was stunning, with three ridges of mountains stair-stepping to the highest ridge in the distance. The field in the foreground gave us an unobstructed view and, although I did not see them, deer would sometimes wander into the field. “Ghost like,” was how one of the lucky sighters described them.
With great anticipation, we all gathered on the porch and game-room waiting for Mr. White to ring the dinner bell. Precisely at 6:30, we heard the bell ring, and we all filed in and stood behind our chairs, facing the large, Lazy Susan tables for ten. Nobody sat until Mr. White said grace. Each table was laden with delicious fried chicken and rice; steamed vegetables; homemade, spiced apple chips; and corn bread or home-made biscuits. Iced tea and coffee were repeatedly filled, when our glasses and cups showed the slightest need for refilling.
The lively conversations slackened as we filled our plates with the offering, as the table slowly turned by guests seeking food they especially wanted. All you had to do was wait, and every dish would come past you. Our delightful and congenial table hosts kept our drinks full and as any dish was about to empty, replenished it immediately. My guess is we spent at least an hour eating and engaging in small conversation. Nobody was in a rush. It was a throw-back to times past.
After supper, some of our group delighted in a lively card game, several worked on a jigsaw puzzle. Others chose the rocking chairs on the front porch and at least one hiked on the large 65 acre Hemlock Inn property. Retiring to our rooms as sleep became the highest priority; many turned off their air conditioners, opened the windows, and enjoyed God’s night air. It was delightful!
The next morning was bracingly cool. The sun was about to break over the mountain tops and I snuck out with my smart phone camera, ready to take a few pictures of the sunrise and the disappearing shadows of the Hemlock Inn’s rustic buildings and flowers. Returning to our room, I found my wife, Georgeanne, ready and anxious to find out what delectables awaited us at breakfast. At 8:30 sharp, we heard the bell ring for breakfast and filed into the dining room to gather at different tables and wait for Mr. White to say grace. The lazy Susan was once again laden with food. Of course, it was breakfast, so we had eggs, bacon, cereal, biscuits, and muffins (my favorite); as well as orange, apple, and cranberry juices and the obligatory bottomless coffee. We had to be at the train station by 9:30, so our lingering was limited, yet I believe everyone ate heartedly and left energized for the busy day ahead.
At the train station, Penny found our train travel agent, who had made our reservations, and she had all the tickets ready for me to hand to each one of our group. She told us we were assigned to car 3, and we should begin walking toward our car, ready to load. Car 3 seating was arranged four to a group, two facing forward and two facing backward. Georgeanne and I settled in an unoccupied seat waiting for another couple to fill the other side of the seat. Soon, two of our group, Don and Cindy, came by and asked if they could be our seat mates and what a delight it was to get to know them better. Both had a farm background and hailed from Tennessee. Since I was also raised on a farm, we swapped stories for the entire five-hour train trip.
We enjoyed traveling along the banks of Fontana Lake, crossing a long, 700 foot trestle, and observing the rock ledges that the workers had to blast out with gunpowder. Our car host reminded us that the work was all done with horse and hand power, which seemed almost an impossible task to most of us. As we approached Nantahala Gorge, the lake was left behind and replaced by angry white water. Soon we spotted rafters and kayakers, decked out with life vests and helmets, plunging through what were now up to class three rapids, maybe approaching class four. Stopping beyond the gorge the engines disengaged from the train and, using a siding, reengaged the cars at the other end for our return trip. Pulling us back to the gorge, we were told we had about an hour to detrain and catch a sandwich from one of the restaurants and re-board for the return trip. When we returned to the train, everyone was asked to swap sides to get a different view coming home.
It seemed to me the return trip was a bit shorter. Funny how my perception works. When we arrived at the Bryson City station the group opted not to spend time in the train museum. Our bus drivers quickly retrieved the buses, and we started the adventuresome 10-minute drive back to Hemlock Inn. I call it adventuresome, because of the steep, hairpin curves to the motel. I heard some oohs and aahs from some thinking the bus might fall off the road. It didn’t. I think our drivers reveled in making the trip as exciting as possible.
The evening meal was different food, but the same ambiance of gracious eating and fellowship. After the meal the card games resumed in earnest, the jigsaw puzzle afficionados studied the picture on the box and began to painstakingly find pieces that fit the picture. By now, our group had become rocking chair experts. Some suggested we stay another night, because the quietness and, laidback atmosphere was becoming addictive. I agreed with their assessment, but said they might be sleeping in tents, since our rooms were probably rented to others.
The next morning, breakfast was a repeat of the previous morning, with a few extra treats added to each table. We had more leisure time this time, so after our big breakfast we said our “thank yous” to Mr. and Mrs. White, our waitress, and new friends we made; and with some disappointment upon leaving such an ideal place, we loaded our buses and headed for home. I made last minute instructions to my drivers to stop at the first big produce stand, so we could buy some of the delicious mountain apples that we spotted in orchards just miles from Bryson City.
We stopped for supper and, of course, necessary rest stops and arrived back at Cary First Baptist about 5:00 p.m., excited and ready for our next trip adventure to Horne Creek Living Historical Farm.
A big thank you go to our two bus drivers, Bruce and Jake, who were assisted by two excellent navigators, Penny and Suzanne .
About the author:
OLLI member, Larry Kingsley, a member of OLLI Writers Group, began writing stories about 18 years ago. He draws much of his material from his rich boyhood days while living on his grandparents’ farm in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. He uses both fiction and non-fiction story lines to add to his exciting adventurous writings. He hopes his writings are educational, inspirational and fun to read. Grippo The Friendly Shark was written, and published, in response to a request by the first and second grade students at Briarcliff Elementary School, Cary NC. When the author asked them what other stories they would like to hear, following their summer vacation, they answered in one voice, “shark story.” And in response, Grippo The Friendly Shark was born.
Larry now resides in Cary NC with his wife, Georgeanne, and their dog Archie. They have nine grandchildren scattered from Apex to Durham to Charlotte.