Curiously enough

“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”
— Kurt Vonnegut,
Cat’s Cradle

Some aspects of Western North Carolina’s grand past and glorious present are known across the country and, indeed, all around this big blue marble.

But we won’t bother with them.

Instead, we’re here to report on what lurks out on the fringe.

Our state’s official motto is “To be rather than to seem.” And indeed, while exploring its peculiar corners, we found that the state can be every bit as weird and wonderful as it seems—provided you know where to look.

Here are six special spots lying just off the beaten path near Asheville, culled from our new book, North Carolina Curiosities (Globe Pequot, 2007).

Andrews Geyser

Mist opportunity: At Andrews Geyer in Old Fort, you can get wet every day.

Sometimes a man just wants to spurt a sizable shaft of water into the air.

And so it was for the railroad executives who built the lines through perilous mountain country. For decades, the rail line had stopped dead in Old Fort, as engineers had not yet conjured the means to take trains through the peaks and valleys just to the west.

But in the 1870s, the men who built what would later become the Southern Railway put the pedal to the metal, as Col. A.B. Andrews, the company’s colorful vice president, spearheaded the effort to run rails up the mountains. He pulled it off—but it took more than three years to get through one serpentine, three-mile stretch. Meanwhile, the work proved so dangerous that more than 200 men lost their lives in the undertaking.

That stretch completed, the railway honchos decided to do something to commemorate all those who had died. After some discussion, they settled on an artificial geyser. It seemed a natural choice, given that the area was flush with creeks, rivers and quick drops in altitude.

They picked a prime spot in a small valley that’s all but surrounded by the railroad, which meanders almost a full 360 degrees through the hills above the geyser. If you’re there when one of the longer trains rolls through, you get the pleasant feeling that you’re a miniature figurine in the middle of a model-train set.

And oh yeah—you’ll also get to take in a mighty, misty column of mountain water that shoots straight up for around 70 feet, twisting a bit in the wind, while at the same time always raining down. Andrews Geyser, named for the man who drove the railroad through, is free, open to the public, and surrounded by a sizable concrete wading pool that’s a super spot to get your mist on.

Isaac Newton would be proud: Gravity is the sole force powering this fun fountain. All it takes is a strategically placed dam on a mountain creek and some good pipe to carry the water down a steep mountain face.

To get to there from nearby Old Fort, take U.S. Highway 70 West (for three-tenths of a mile) to Old U.S. Highway 70. Turn right and travel 2.4 miles to Mill Creek, where you turn right and go 2.1 miles. Andrews Geyser will be the aquatic eruption to your left.

Moonshine Junction

You pays your money, you takes your chances: Moonshine Junction will drive you batty.

Don’t let the name throw you: Moonshine Junction is not some kind of mountain speakeasy serving illicit corn liquor. “Everyone wants to know if we sell moonshine,” says Richard Tedesco, who co-owns the store with his wife, Linda. “I don’t think they realize that it’s illegal.”

Still, there’s plenty of legal—if passing strange—fun to be had at this souvenir/craft/curio emporium tucked into the curvy, tree-lined road that runs between Lake Lure and Asheville. Roaming Moonshine Junction’s 4,000-square-foot premises, you never know what you’ll encounter next.

There are, of course, the mainstays of the region’s roadside shops: Appalachian antiques, quilts, jewelry, knives, canned goods and the like. There’s also a good share of gag gifts, from old-fashioned pea shooters to modern-day spray cans of fake poop.

The longer you wander the place, the weirder it gets. On one shelf, a giant frog is suspended in formaldehyde. (His last swim?) On a wall hangs a vintage Soap Box Derby racer emblazoned with the Kentucky Fried Chicken logo and a likeness of Col. Sanders. (“Do not touch. Really. This means you,” a sign commands.) The next room houses an old-timey ice-cream shop—normal enough, until you notice the nearby glass tank with two “baby rattlers” nestled among the rocks.

But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Around the corner sits Moonshine Junction’s premier attraction: a curtained cage with a sign proclaiming, “See two rare white bats—if you dare.”

Well, we dared, and what we saw in that cage cannot be described here—you really must see it to believe it. We can offer some advice, however: brace yourself.

Likewise, it pays to be prepared to meet Cletus, the Junction’s resident hillbilly. Just ask the Tedescos nicely, and they can usually arrange for him to appear.

And while you can have scads of fun just exploring Moonshine Junction, don’t forget that it’s a store, after all. “Most of the people who come in here say, ‘Wow, you have a lot of stuff, a little bit of something for everyone’—and they usually are the people who don’t buy anything,” Richard deadpans. “I like the people who don’t like my store and spend lots of money more than the people who love my store and don’t buy anything.”

Moonshine Junction is on U.S. Highway 74-A, about seven miles from Lake Lure and 20 miles from Asheville. From either direction, you can’t miss it. The store’s hours varies with the seasons; at present, it’s open Thursday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Find out more at moonshinejunction.com or by calling 625-1535.

The Jim Bob Tinsley Museum

Saddle up: Treasurer Thomas Fredrickson of Brevard’s Jim Bob Tinsley Museum — a place where the late cowboy crooner’s many pursuits are lovingly memorialized.

Jim Bob Tinsley—craftsman, cowboy crooner, sportsman nonpareil, naturalist, polymath, antiquarian and lover of the wide-open spaces—was one of those rare people who always seem to be in the right place at the right time.

Tinsley died in 2004, but his complex legacy—not to mention a bunch of his stuff—lives on at the eponymous museum in Brevard.

Born there in 1921, Tinsley fell under the spell of Western music while still in his teens. Eventually Tinsley headed up a musical group that broadcast from Asheville, and he later toured the United States with Gene Autry for a spell.

Called into service during World War II, Tinsley spent four years as an aerial photographer. In 1943, he crossed paths with no less an eminence than Winston Churchill in Casablanca. Tinsley was sitting on a barracks steps strumming tunes with friends when a limousine pulled up. “Can you play ‘You Are My Sunshine’?” asked a jowly Englishman within. Tinsley said he could, and what followed was a brief world summit in song.

In 1949 Tinsley married Dottie Wilson; the couple honeymooned in Florida, where Tinsley went Gulf Stream fishing and set the single-day record for catching the most sailfish. One of his preserved catches hangs on the museum’s wall; nearby is a sailfish pennant flown from the boat that day, plus a photo of Jim Bob in the fighting chair.

Inspired by his catch, Tinsley went on to write the first definitive book on the sailfish, the museum notes—and, later, a “hemispheric study” of the puma, or mountain lion, another game animal he had a knack for bagging.

In later life, Tinsley focused most of his attention and pride on the waterfalls of his native Transylvania County. And through it all, the couple saved a lot of interesting things.

“He and his wife didn’t throw anything away,” says Thomas Frederickson, the museum’s self-described “docent, maintenance man, treasurer, general factotum.”

“It turned out nice for us that they did keep all this stuff, because now we have all of it on display,” he adds. That “stuff” includes a Gillespie rifle dating from the mid-1800s, a collection of Western saddles and a fluoroscope—a type of X-ray machine some readers might remember as having been common in shoe stores years ago. There are Indian blankets, cowboy portraits and a huge chair carved by Tinsley.

Standing watch over all this is a TV that loops a video of Jim Bob leading a sing-along, his warm voice as big and clear as the high plains: “Tumblin’ along with the tumblin’ tumbleweeds.” Tumble on, Jim Bob.

The museum is at 20 West Jordan St. in Brevard. Call 884-2347 or visit jimbobtinsleymuseum.org for hours and additional info.

Judaculla Rock

See it before it’s gone: Prehistoric Judaculla rock, near Sylva, is slip slidin’ away.

According to James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee (Dover Publications, 1996), the tribe’s lore speaks of a “slant-eyed giant” named Judaculla who—when he wasn’t busy striding across the mountains, step by gargantuan step—liked to doodle on rocks. (Of course this was years ago, before giants’ lives became so very busy.) What remains of Judaculla’s handiwork today sits next to Jerry Parker’s driveway in a cattle-grazed creek bottom, a half-mile off a state road near Sylva.

Judaculla Rock is big, brown and mysterious. The soapstone boulder measures roughly 16 feet by 11 feet. Its surface is etched with swirls and straight lines, as well as more specific figures that seem to represent turtles and salamanders. The oddest ones look like octopuses (or seven-fingered hands, depending on where you’re standing).

There is a certain urgency about visiting the rock, though; its surface is eroding fast, and no one, it seems, is overly concerned about preserving it. Some years ago, Jackson County built a viewing platform and a series of nearby displays to give the place a little more gravitas, but other than a few yellowed newspaper clippings and some more recent carvings along the railing (JEANNE, DUSTIN, MELISSA G. etc.), there’s not much to see.

Still, the rock itself is well worth the trip. The Western states are brimming with this sort of ancient rock art, but it’s much less common here in the humid East. Judaculla Rock is North Carolina’s only easily viewed, sizable petroglyph, and the site has national significance.

Archaeologists have dated the carvings to the Archaic Period (3000 to 1000 B.C.) but haven’t yet come up with any specifics about their origins or meaning.

So for now, we’ll stick with the Judaculla story. According to Mooney, the Cherokee considered Judaculla a great hunter, but the visual evidence suggests that he also had artistic leanings, a Renaissance man long before there was such a thing. There’s a thick screen of river cane behind the rock, and it’s easy to imagine that the slant-eyed giant will emerge from it at any moment, snack on a cow, and put a few finishing touches on his masterpiece. Who knows? Maybe he’ll tidy the place up a bit while he’s at it.

To get to Judaculla Rock, take U.S. Highway 74 to Business Route 23 through Sylva. Stay on Route 23 for 1.3 miles, then turn left onto Route 107. Drive eight miles on 107 and take a left onto Caney Fork Road. Go 2.5 miles and turn left onto a gravel road. The rock is on the right about a half-mile ahead. No carving, spray painting or even sitting on the rock, please: It’s having a hard enough time already.

Mineral & Lapidary Museum of Henderson County

Jurassic omelet: It’s not every day you get to touch dinosaur eggs — unless, that is, you visit the Mineral & Lapidary Museum of Henderson County every day.

Don’t hold us to it, but we’re fairly confident that the Mineral & Lapidary Museum of Henderson County is the sole place in our great state where you can have a geode cracked while you wait.

“Geode,” you ask? Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines it as “hollow, concretionary or nodular stone often lined with crystals.” The museum gets its supply from a particularly bleak part of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. For a sum that varies according to the size ($12 to $39), visitors can pick out a geode from the bins, and an obliging museum volunteer will crack it open with a stout device armed with a length of chain and formidable metal teeth.

On the day we visited, a handful of museum visitors gathered round for a cracking good time. A boy of about 10 chose a promising-looking specimen and handed it to Robert Snowball, who placed it in the cracker and mashed down on a yard-long handle. The plain rock broke open with a flourish, revealing an intricate, crystalline heart.

“Wow,” said the wide-eyed boy.

“It’s 45 million years old, and you’re the first person to see inside it,” said Snowball, his British accent tailor-made for the wonder of the moment.

Minutes later, Snowball revealed that ancient water occasionally dribbles out from a geode’s center. “Reckon I should put it with a little whiskey and drink it, just to see what it tastes like,” he said.

But you’d be wrong to believe that it’s geodes-only at the museum. Behind a black curtain sits a glass case containing luminescent rocks. Press a button and a dignified female narrator describes “the wonders of fluorescence.”

“Under normal daylight, the rocks in this display are downright ugly,” she says. “Fluorescence transforms these ugly rocks into the spectacular beauties of the mineral world.” And so it does.

Other items on display include: a mastodon-tusk replica, fish fossils, a saber-toothed-tiger skeleton; dinosaur, plant and bug fossils; ornate minerals; arrowheads of varying sizes from all over country; petrified wood; figurines cut from jade, soapstone, onyx, cinnabar and wood; jewelry; and a whole lot of coral. A gift shop sells all manner of mini-minerals for the junior collector.

We were especially taken with a half-dozen dinosaur eggs encased in Plexiglas; a hole allows one to reach in and touch this peculiar bit of history. They look like something Fred Flintstone might pick up in a pinch at the convenience store.

The basement museum is at 400 N. Main St. in Hendersonville. Hours are 1 to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. For rock-solid directions, call 698-1977 or visit mineralmuseum.org.

St. Jude’s Chapel of Hope

Mini miracle: Small prayers go a long way at St. Jude’s Chapel of Hope in Trust.

It’s a long, slow haul up winding mountain roads to reach St. Jude’s Chapel of Hope, but if you believe in miracles, this pilgrimage is well worth it.

St. Jude’s, you see, was built to mark a miracle: Beverly Barutio’s unexpected recovery from advanced-stage cancer. Diagnosed in 1981, the then-Florida resident underwent 11 rounds of chemotherapy over the course of the next year. But the cancer seemed unstoppable, and the side effects eventually led Barutio to stop the treatments.

When all seemed lost, she turned to God, as she would later explain—and subsequent checkups revealed no sign of the disease. “The praying worked,” she said later. “I am a miracle.”

So Barutio decided it was her duty to pay something back. “I promised St. Jude—he’s the saint of hopeless and impossible causes—him and God and my husband, that one day I’d build a chapel. Over the years, I’d feel more and more strongly about it.” After moving to the tiny town of Trust, N.C., the Barutios completed St. Jude’s Chapel of Hope in 1991; to this day, it remains continuously open to the public.

The 12-foot-by-14-foot structure is a small wonder of sizable charm. Made of cedar, the chapel features stained-glass windows; four small, polished pews; a prayer bench and shrine to St. Jude; and even a bell in the belfry. A Bible sits open on the bench, and the shrine in front of it glistens with candles and small objects left by visitors: trinkets, buttons, pictures, shells and stones.

It’s a quiet, meditative place, with sunlight streaming warm colors through the windows. A nondenominational church, St. Jude’s leaves visitors free to practice their own brand of spirituality, which is how Beverly wanted it. She passed away in 2002, but the chapel remains in fine shape and continues to fulfill its mission. “If just one person comes over the mountain and it gives them a moment’s peace, it has done what it was intended to do,” she said when the structure was finished. “It’s about giving something back to the world for what you’ve been given.”

But Beverly and her husband, Bill, didn’t stop there. Visitors can also take in two other unique mountain attractions nearby. Just down the hill, a large wooden cross is set into a rustic stone base. A sign on it reads, “Fear not tomorrow, Jesus is already there.” And across a gushing creek sits the lovely “Bridge of Madison County,” a quaint covered bridge that pays homage to the novel and film The Bridges of Madison County.

St. Jude’s Chapel of Hope sits near the intersection of Route 209 and Highway 63, about 30 miles northwest of Asheville.

[Jon Elliston can be reached at jelliston@mountainx.com ; Kent Priestley can be reached at kpriestley@mountainx.com]


Curious?

High on the hog: Authors Kent Priestley (left) and Jon Elliston in Pack Square. photo by Rebecca Bowe

Far be it from us to toot our own horn, but this week finds Mountain Xpress touting a book, North Carolina Curiosities, that was written by two of our own staffers. It’s true that these writers may garner wealth and fame from such exposure (or so they’d like to think), but our senior editors reviewed the material and decided our readers would gain from it as well. Enjoy!

— The editors

Curiouser and curiouser

North Carolina Curiosities authors Jon Elliston and Kent Priestley will make several local appearances, including those listed below. Visit www.myspace.com/nccuriosities for more information.

Sunday, May 27, 3 p.m.: Book-release reading/slideshow at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St., Asheville; 254-6734)

Saturday, June 3, 7 p.m.: Reading/slideshow at Osondu Booksellers (184 N. Main St., Waynesville; 456-8062)

Saturday, June 9, 1-3 p.m.: Signing at “North Carolina Authors Extravaganza,” Barnes & Noble (83 S. Tunnel Road, Asheville; 296-9330)

Friday, June 15, 7:30 p.m.: Reading/slideshow at City Lights Bookstore (3 E. Jackson St., Sylva; 586-9499)

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About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

2 thoughts on “Curiously enough

  1. Jonathan

    I am a native of WNC as is most of my family. I have to say that I have always appreciated how your paper has represented the area, however, the latest cover is in very poor taste. Without being told, I know that there was no intentions of creating ill feelings but the artwork of the folks that look like “country bumpkins” isn’t cool. It’s bad enough that so many folks think of the population in WNC and the rest of the South in that fashion. It’s made worse when the largest, liberal newspaper in WNC who should be respecting and/or protecting its readers from that type of stereotype exploits it. There are still some folks deep within these mountains that may look like that but you don’t have to poke fun at them. Also, combine the word weird with that picture and it becomes even more insulting. I’ll conclude by saying that growing up in this area, I never experienced “weird” until the last 10 – 15 years when a large percentage of transplants moved in. Look in the mirror before you cast judgement on my home.

  2. Jon Elliston

    Jonathan: Thanks for giving your perspective on this week’s cover illustration. I’m one of the co-authors of the article (and the book it was drawn from), so I’d like to respond to some of the issues you raise.

    True, the people in the photo appear as something of a caricature — but rest assured that’s the way they wanted it. The folks you see there are Linda and Richard Tedesco, who live in Bat Cave and run the mountain curio shop Moonshine Junction (the store is profiled in the article). Linda and Richard chose to pose that way, and I expect they intended a good deal of irony and humor, rather than any slight to mountain folks. In fact, to me, their getups are so over the top that they seem more like a parody of a stereotype than an actual one. Check out their store sometime, and I think you’ll see that they pay tribute to mountain culture rather than dismissing it.

    Another important point, I think, is that the story didn’t just tout the “weird” in WNC — it touted “weird, wonderful WNC.” And in my book (pardon the pun), weird and wonderful aren’t mutually exclusive. Like you, I grew up in this area, and most of my family’s here. And when you say you didn’t experience much weirdness here until some recent transplants arrived, I have a different take on the matter: I’ve seen and experienced much that’s weird and wonderful here from the day I arrived in 1976.

    All that said, I think you’re spot on in resisting the notion of dumb country bumpkins. It truly is a stereotype that doesn’t do our region justice. But this article, like much of what appears in Xpress, was all about showing what’s special and extraordinary (if sometimes “weird”) about mountain folks. Like you, I don’t care for quick, cartoonish takes on mountain culture, and my co-author and I made a concerted effort to pay tribute to what’s admirable and engaging about the quirks in said culture.

    Fortunately, we’re not the only ones doing so. For example, see a story I did last year on author Jeff Biggers’ case that our region’s mountaineers aren’t just sophisticated and savvy — they’ve actually proved a source of enlightenment for the entire country. (Read it at http://www.mountainx.com/features/2006/0222appalachia.php — but I notice that part of the article is missing from our online archive, so we’ll try to get the whole thing up in the next couple of days.)

    Again, thanks for your perspective, and I would love to hear more about what you and others think about the issues we’re discussing here.

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