Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Time to Make Like a Tree and Fall

What has happened to my soul as I drift down the long road that is the life of the travel correspondent? I felt the taint of corruption penetrating frenetically down to my inner core like a mole on ritalin. Perhaps too much time spent near politicians in our capital cities? After recently visiting such exotic locales as Washington, DC and Columbia, South Carolina, I sensed the moment had come to take a break. Why not enjoy some of the beauty that exists in our more immediate surroundings? Since the onset of autumn, I had been hearing the hills of western North Carolina calling me home like the song of the sad sperm whale, wondering how the hell it got beached in the middle of a mountain range.
Much of my childhood was spent amidst the landscape of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, wandering the dusty trails with my mother and father leading the way, my brother and I straining our little legs to keep up with the grinding pace set by our parents. Not since the days of the Bataan Death March of World War II have such arduous treks been undertaken.
Despite my moaning, I admit that I owe a great deal to these hikes. During that period in my life I came to appreciate the brilliance of nature and the astounding diversity of plant and animal life that Mother has to offer. More importantly, I think, I learned the feeling of satisfaction that comes with completing a difficult journey. There are few moments in life that match the instant when you take one last painful step and are suddenly confronted with the awe-inducing panoramic view of tree-lined valleys and wind-sculpted rock that God (or infinite chance for you Atheists out there) has created as the reward for your suffering.
Stuck in the iron grip of such nostalgia, I made my way towards the Blue Ridge Parkway, located just an hour's drive north of most Upstate residents. The park stretches almost 500 miles through the moonshine-drenched mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. You can almost hear the banjo and fiddles pounding out their tunes as you twist along the country roads, wishing you had a bottle of white lightning in your lap. Remember kids, in the wise words of NOFX, "Don't drink and drive - you might spill your beer."
My father had rented a cabin in the area and brought along his new wife and her son. My brother and I arrived without Tommy Lee to complete our motley crew. We set off soon after to explore some of the park, which was built in the 1930s as part of a government works project designed to combat the Great Depression (little known fact: Herbert Hoover was a great inspiration to our current president). The first thing that struck my eye was the beauty of the trees, whose dying leaves created a kaleidoscopic array of reds, oranges, and yellows I had not seen since my latest lapse into the land of the lysergic.
I have painstakingly interviewed various sources in order to ascertain whether the recent drought creates more or less vivid colors in the foliage and they all disagree. I suggest you go check it out for yourself next year, even if you have never visited the parkway and have nothing with which to compare the sight, you can always feign expertise. How do you think I got this column?
In between the colorful canopy of the forest and the breathtaking valley views, we paused along the way in order to make brief excursions to some of the other fine features available in the local wilderness. Looking Glass Falls was our first stop, a cataract that drops sixty feet. The falls are named for Looking Glass Rock, whose expanse the creek runs underneath before making its hasty descent. The view of the falls is especially impressive during autumn and there is no hike involved, so it is a good spot for those who want to check out nature's dripping, naked beauty, but are physically unable to endure the inconvenience of walking in the process.
Not yet tired of watching molecules of water conform to the whims of gravity, we hopped back into the auto and headed toward Graveyard Fields. The area got its name in an age long gone from the tree stumps and surrounding trees that looked similar to grave stones in a graveyard setting. Influences such as forest fires and the living dead have changed the area's appearance greatly in the intervening years. I recommend pausing in the parking area, which provides an awesome view of the surrounding countryside. Once we were done pausing, we quickly dove for the cover of the forest canopy - it was colder than a witch's tit in a brass bra up there!
Once your eyes grow tired of gazing upon one bit of the Earth's majesty and would like to move onto the next, there are a couple of options at Graveyard Fields. You can either visit the lower falls, only a quarter of a mile away or take a longer jaunt to the equally impressive upper falls. Let me know if they are as impressive as I say, frankly we only had time to check out the shorter path.
As the sun fell from the sky and the frigid mountain air began to beat against our skin, we realized that it was time to abandon the wilderness and make our return to civilization. A hot meal was also on the agenda, and we decided to visit the nearby town of Asheville in order to find the best available vittles. Dad's new wife Nalan happened to be turning twenty nine that day for the twentieth time, so we decided to pick out a special spot so we could properly celebrate this joyful occasion.
After a brief discussion we chose to obtain a reservation at Jerusalem Garden, smack in the center of the vibrant city. Colin's girlfriend Arby joined us at the restaurant and we sat down for an impressive repast. I started with an Efes, a Turkish pilsner named after the ancient city of Ephesus, located on the western coast of Turkey. I sipped my beer and laid back to soak in the rhythms of the Middle East.
Surprisingly, despite being the home of several terrorist groups and a religion even more repressive than Mormonism (debatable, I suppose), the Middle East is a source of a lot of great culture. Belly dancing is just one fine example, and we were treated to a fine display by a lovely lass whose sensual movements and penetrating glances would turn even the most stone-faced macho man into a weeping mass of shameful lust. Behind her played a two-man band, cranking out classic hits from 1056 on their ut, a guitarlike instrument, and darbuka, which are somewhat similar to bongo drums.
As we enjoyed their ancient Billboard Top 40 music, we dined upon a smorgasbord of dishes from the region, beginning with baba ganoush, hummus, falafel, and a mouth-watering pie made out of spinach and feta cheese. I was particularly surprised that I enjoyed the spinach appetizer, being that I am the anti-Popeye. Eating a can of the stuff would cause my body to break out in hives and my muscles, limited as they are, to run away and hide.
We finished off our meal by discovering the location of the long lost sheep of Little Bo Peep. Apparently, they were being prepared and served in a cornucopia of entrees by the kitchen staff. Lamb kebabs, lamb schwarma, and minced lamb arrived on steaming plates and the flock soon went to its ultimate fate, digested inside our satisfied stomachs. Colin also took home a very nice new sweater.
For those interested in visiting Jerusalem Garden for a private party, they do have a back room decorated with colorful Arabic rugs and tapestries. If you like chairs, do not apply, the private dining area provides a more authentic experience, which does not include such modern amenities. In exchange, you will receive personal performances from the lascivious, lusty lass with the belly of jelly. You might have to go elsewhere for a happy ending, though, unless in your mind the term connotes the end of another one of my interminable diatribes. If so, you are in luck!

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