Much Ado: A Sense of Place

Published 12:01 pm Monday, June 29, 2015

By Steve Wong
Life in Our Foothills, July 2015

As you leave the Friendliest Town in The South, you’ll take the left turn at the fork in the road and find yourself at the entrance of a green valley that will eventually climb the Hwy. 176 grade to the mountaintop town that has capitalized on cute, crafty, and culinary. Slow down because from welcome sign to welcome sign it’s only 7.2 miles, and you don’t want to miss what has not changed very much in your lifetime no matter how old you are. Turn off the A/C and open all the car windows: you want to breathe the air.

The astute observer might argue that plenty of things change in the valley continuously, but to the casual and infrequent visitor, the cathedrals of kudzu, the winding two-lane road, the eclectic mix of homes, the rush of river water are the same as the last time you passed through, maybe to eat some cole slaw and country ham, maybe to buy a piece of pottery, maybe just to enjoy the dappled sunlight.

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Most people don’t look for the changes in the valley, rather they look for what has not changed.

Almost immediately you sense that you have entered a place protected by a gentle force of nature. A few people are allowed to live here — the lucky ones — but most are only passing through, and to leave a footprint would somehow seem wrong.

To the left, the mountain looms high with an occasional house nestled into its green surface. To the right are forests, and in between are the erratically spaced homesteads with large green yards of mowed grass and domestic shrubs, sitting a respectful distance away from each other and away from the road. Some of the homes are obviously old, others are newer, even modern. Some are small; some are not visible behind locked gates. There’s even a trailer park. Stonework architecture is plentiful and so are log cabins. Probably weekend getaways. But some people live here year-round… the lucky ones.

Before long, it seems that the road has narrowed, but it hasn’t really. You are beginning to ascend the grade, and the road begins to twist and turn, and going fast is not an option.  Once you cross the little bridge, the kudzu begins creeping out of the ravine, grabbing the metal guardrails, and sending doomed-to-die tendrils into the blacktop road. The marital joke is that a body thrown over the side would never be found. The mossy rock wall on your right is so close you could touch the miniature waterfalls. Tall hardwoods and hemlocks create a canopy that is interrupted by sporadic passing lanes. Be extra careful for strong-hearted cyclists are often encountered huffing and puffing up the grade, and just-over-the-hill business men with sporty convertibles and trophy wives often drive too fast and cross over the yellow line when you least expect it.

There’s supposed to be a train track here somewhere, but I’ve never seen it. It is said to be the steepest railway grade in the nation, gaining more than 600 feet in less than three miles. I know it’s true because once at the top, the picturesque town of Saluda has a depot turned gift shop. If a train ever did run through this valley and up the grade, I bet it was a ride to remember.

Once you’ve had your fill of barbecue or gourmet delights, once you’ve shopped for arts and crafts, once you’ve seen a real general store, the ride back down the mountain and back through the valley is just as beautiful, but despite your best efforts, it will be quicker.

Your foot will hardly ever leave the brake pedal, your eyes will be wide and alert, and you’ll grip the steering wheel a little tighter because now you know that not everyone coming from the other direction will be slow and observant of the wild pink roses and orange daylilies. Your mind is split between caution and trying to enjoy the parting glances. And when you emerge back into the Friendliest Town in The South, back into the real world, you’ll wonder when will be your next opportunity to take a slow ride between here and there. •