highlands

The drive from Lake Burton to Highlands, North Carolina isn't long, just steep and winding. I suffer from wicked carsickness, so Bill agreed to white-knuckle it as my passenger and guide while I did my best to keep us from careening through a guard rail into the Appalachian mountainside. There's a country club coming up on the right here, very nice property, exclusive membership, all that jazz. Too rich for my blood. Really pretty though.

I'm sure it was pretty, but I barely glanced at it.

You know how carefully you drive when a -- well, when a senior member of society is in the car? Now imagine you're driving that person for the first time. On a narrow country road. And he's mentioned repeatedly how good a driver his granddaughter is, making you feel absurdly competitive, because being around him is triggering a kind of weird, quasi-filial reaction. Nothing bad. Rather nice, in fact; just not what you expected to find when you unpacked your cutoffs and sunscreen.

Okay well I guess that's a more complicated scenario to identify with, but you get the idea. I was concentrating.

Highlands is an alpine town of less than 1,000 residents high up in the Nantahala National Forest, just north of the Georgia state line. It was founded by a couple of surveyors who drew map lines from Chicago to Savannah and from New York to New Orleans, believing that the point of intersection would make an excellent trading and commerce hub. That point of intersection became Highlands, which at an elevation of 4,100 feet makes it one of the highest towns east of the Mississippi.

In other words, it's a great spot to cool off in the summer.

It's also a great spot to drink, because it's home to the Old Edwards Inn, a self-described "European-style resort" that seems to have earned a ranking on pretty much every 'U.S. best of' hotel list. And while I can't speak to that, as the only amenities I experienced were the terrace bar and its adjoining restroom, I will say they make a damn fine salty dog. Old Edwards Inn is on the National Register of Historic Places, which sets Bill up beautifully for some sort of age-referencing wisecrack. He'd make one, too, if he wasn't busy socializing with his blogger friend from LA and the couple seated to her right. Let's join them.

---

Tina is tiny. I won't fully appreciate how tiny Tina is until a few days later, when she's dangling helplessly in front of me on a zip line. But even now, everything from her doll hands to her Cupid's bow to her size five shoes seems diminutive. Everything except her personality.

Tina loves blue. And sparkle. Everything Tina wears is blue, or sparkly, or both. Drapey tunic, sleek leggings, heeled espradrilles. Rhinestones on her accessories, real ones on her fingers. Eyeshadow and nail polish that gleam like the dust of crushed sapphires. A bohemian rhapsody in blue. I suspect she's an Aquarius and purposefully dresses the part. I like her a lot. I've known her ten minutes.

Tina is an artist. She's swiping through her phone's photo album, showing me what she makes. She didn't volunteer this information; I had to ask to see pictures. Bags, jewelry, hairpieces. Brass hardware, peacock feathers, jewel tones, rich fabrics. Ornate and old-fashioned things. Things for women who like things older than themselves. And though I'm only seeing photos, it all appears well-made. Tina is talented.

Tina is originally from West Virginia. She reveals this with a wry, lopsided smile, as if to acknowledge there's something shameful about her roots. Actually, I'm totally intrigued. She thinks I'm thinking, Psshh, what a hillbilly. In truth I'm thinking, Wow, what a badass. I bet she's seen some shit.

Tina loves Bill, naturally. Everyone loves Bill. He's got a joke or a kind word for everyone, quick to self-deprecate and never taking himself too seriously. Smart as a whip, ready to defend his opinions but diplomatic enough to know when just politely listening is the better call. He's suggested this day trip to Highlands thinking I'd get a kick out of it, enjoy the mountain air. He's right on those counts but his notion that I want to go explore the three block drag of touristy shops (Go on! I'm fine here, I've got this nice young gentleman to refill my drink when I'm done.) is wrong. I'm content to just sit here, just enjoy his company. And Tina's, to whom I turn again.

Are you on Etsy?

No.

What?? Why not?

I don't knowww. Her accent thick on this. It's just a hobby, really. She smiles and shrugs, shrinking back in modesty. I don't know how much I could really sell. Though I did have a show recently! That was fun. Taps at the phone again, shows me a display table draped in black velvet, carefully arranged with her treasures.

You should open an Etsy shop. These are so pretty, really.

Thank you, that is so sweet of you. What about you? She flips the conversation, self-conscious from talking about herself at length. When I explain how I know Bill, my blog comes up. She's keenly interested. What do I write about? Do I make money from it? Who reads it? Why don't more people read it? Why don't I try to make a living from it? Same reason you don't have an Etsy shop. We agree: self-promotion isn't our forte. 

Tina tells us a story about the freak accident she had in the spring. Slipped in the shower, alone in a hotel room, traveling by herself. Knocked the entire front row of her teeth clean out. Jaw wired shut for nearly a month. Dentists and surgeons didn't think they'd be able to reconstruct. But looking at her now, watching her elegantly spear salad greens and sip rose, you'd have no idea. I'm gobsmacked, not by her tale but by the tranquil tone with which she tells it. The woman must have nerves of steel. What's there to be afraid of, after something like that?

Her husband sits beside her, watching the game on a television mounted behind the bar. Swarthy and huge, dark ponytail and mustache. He listens with half an ear to our conversation, only occasionally turning his body to fully engage. When he does, a comment he makes leads Bill to correctly guess he rides a Harley. This earns Bill a proud nod and the rest of his attention. They discuss Lake Burton, boats, fishing. Southern stuff.

Husband, whose name I don't catch, rolls his eyes at something Tina says. Not nasty, just ribbing her. They've been together a long time. I get the sense they have wildly opposing interests, that the things they connect over have little to do with fashion or motorcycles. But there's a contentedness between them, a nice energy to be around. Like they've figured it out. Like they know they've got what the other one needs.

The four of us talk dogs; between us we have four of them. Phones come back out, get passed around. Everyone exclaims over everyone else's. The children of the childfree, the babies of the empty-nesters. No kids for Tina, either, and we click on that, too. We'll come back to that topic when we go zip lining, in fact. But right now she's talking about shopping. I have got to go check out such-and-such, on Main Street. Cutest clothes ever, candles and pillows and things too. Don't worry; she and her husband will entertain Bill while I'm gone. I smile; she's got that backwards.

Bill nods emphatically. Yes! Go! Don't you worry about me. Go explore! Have fun! Promising to return in 30 minutes (the town is tiny), I climb wobbily down from my bar stool. Oof. Good salty dog. 

---

There is nothing of interest to me, in the twee shops of Highlands. I hate tchotchkes. I hate burdening other people with them, as gifts. And I don't need any clothes, though I dutifully stop in the boutique Tina recommended. A delicious-smelling candle tempts me but its heft makes me put it back down. Goddamn baggage restrictions. 

I briefly considering hurrying down to the wine shop we passed on the way into town, trying to find a bottle of Sauternes for Bill and Woody. But it's getting close to the time I promised I'd be back, and chances are I'd make a poor selection anyway. Though they'd never tell me if I had.

---

Back at Old Edwards Inn, everyone has a fresh drink. Water for me, though; I'm driving. Knowing Bill will give me hell, I order a slice of chocolate cake. Partly to mess with him, but mostly because I've noticed how long hot food orders take here. When it comes it's a terrifying mound of whipped cream and sprinkles that I can barely put a dent in. Tina helps me though, while Bill shakes his head, pretending to be scandalized.

Tina asks what my plans are, for the rest of my stay.

Well, actually I'm thinking of going zip lining. We passed a place on the way up, they do canopy tours. Through the tree tops or whatever. I don't know how much it is or if they're booked up though...

Zip lining? Oh my gosh that sounds so fun, I want to go zip lining!

And just like that, I have a date for zip lining. I can't wait to see what she wears.

---

We stop at Dry Falls on the way back, so named for the walkway underneath where visitors can pass through untouched by the water. Bill, understandably shy of the stairs, waits on the walkway above while I pop down to see. Just head down right here, make a left around the corner, you can't miss it. Take your time, no rush. Seen it a hundred times myself.

Metal grid stairway, three steep flights. Narrow paved path into the ravine. You hear it before you see it. Feel it, too. That muggy, misty haze. Then the vista opens on a surprisingly impressive cascade of white foam. It's the first waterfall I've seen since the trip to Argentina with my dad.

The falls are pretty scarce of tourists, so while I hate making Bill wait, I linger, enjoying the spray and the solitude. Video for Terence, snapshots from every angle. This green though. I want to get it into my bloodstream.

Back upstairs Bill is admiring improvements that have been made: a new walkway running alongside the eastern end of the parking area, allowing for a nice view even this high above. We lean on the railing and look out. I tell him about Iguazu Falls, about the massive network of walkways running through the park, inches above the water. I try to impress him with the one fact I remember: Apparently when Eleanor Roosevelt saw them she said, 'Poor Niagra!'. He chuckles appreciatively.

I make a point of driving more slowly on the way home, so I can get a good look at the country club this time. Bill chats about the area, its history and the people who settled it. Hardscrabble, he calls them. Nothing grows easily up here. He points to the ropey green vines blanketing the cliffs we drive past. That's called kudzu. It's actually a weed. They brought it in to help shore up the bluffs but it ended up choking all the trees, killing them. I'm struck speechless at the perfection of this metaphor. Something that both supports and destroys that which it supports.

It's the second day of my visit.