Chuggin’ your way to glory

Imagine, if you will, the plaintive, lonesome wail of a train whistle in the far distance as the splendid, graceful beast of a machine cuts its way through a ruggedly lovely mountain gorge.

Imagine the faint luminescence that finally becomes a full-on blaze of headlights as a night train whooshes through your placid hometown on some hot summer evening, headed to an exotic point not visible on any map.

Imagine a guy on the porch of his mobile home clutching a cordless phone in one hand and flipping the bird with the other, as a train full of whooping, hollering, beer-swilling revelers chugs down the tracks, bound for the Dillsboro station.

Beg pardon? OK, that last image may not fit with the singularly romantic place that trains hold in the American psyche, but it was one of the real-life wacky scenarios that made last year’s inaugural Craft Brewer’s Excursion, sponsored by Barley’s Taproom, so much fun.

And get ready, folks. Here comes the second annual Craft Brewer’s Excursion, a trip aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railway through the western North Carolina mountains along the Tuckasegee River — featuring all you can drink of 25 different beers from eight distinguished microbreweries. As Barley’s co-owner Doug Beatty puts it, “It’s sort of a marriage between a ride on a historic train and a major beer festival.”

What can you expect (besides random “sign language” from passing porches) on this wild journey? A couple of Xpress staffers shared their enthusiastic memories of last year’s excursion.

“It was like a big but intimate party, in that you meet people from all over,” says advertising representative James Fisher. “And it was so much more social than, say, going to a bar, because you just bond with people. You’re all in motion together, headed toward the same place, and that just somehow makes it easier to talk to people.” (Beer lovers from as far away as St. Louis and New Orleans made the trip last year.)

Even waiting in line for the bathroom, says Fisher, is fun on the beer train (as the excursion has affectionately come to be known): “You’re in this narrow corridor, sort of stuck in line, then you look over and it’s like, ‘Wow. There’s Highland Brewing.’ I tasted six ales just sitting there waiting.”

Contributing editor Peter Gregutt relates how the beer run can cause some folks to wax downright poetic. “One well-lubricated guy gave me a poem he wrote on a cocktail napkin about the train experience,” he recalls, adding, “The poem wasn’t so memorable, but the sentiment was genuine.” Gregutt also sang the praises of the music car: “There was old-time fiddle music, so you could dance and carry on.”

Here’s the drill for “carrying on” at this year’s Craft Brewer’s Excursion: Meet at Barley’s Taproom (42 Biltmore Ave.) at 1 p.m Saturday, April 18, where you’ll board a chartered bus for the 45-minute ride to the Dillsboro station. On the train, you’ll receive a fanny pack containing everything needed for the trip — including a souvenir beer glass (to be refilled many times over) and a boxed picnic supper. Your departure from Dillsboro will mark the beginning of a three-hour run through grand mountain territory alongside the Tuckasegee River (including passage through what’s known in these parts as “the haunted tunnel”). Afterward, chartered buses will deliver you back to Barley’s.

Green Man, Highland, Cottonwood, Blind Man, Palmetto, Blue Ridge and Two Moons breweries, plus Carolina Beer Company, will be serving their finest craft beers throughout the trip.

Gregutt says of last year’s beer samplings, “It’s all good, honest brew, and if you’re serious about beer, this is a chance you may not otherwise have to sample what small brewers have to offer.” Plus, he points out, on future dreary winter days, it’ll be great to pour a beer in your souvenir glass and reminisce about the rollicking springtime jaunt, regaling envious friends with tales of the jaunt.

Oh, and one more thing. The strange, hypnotic influence of the beer train on the natural world apparently knows no bounds: A spectacular lunar eclipse was visible from the train’s open-air smoking car during last year’s Craft Brewer’s Excursion. Coincidence? We think not.

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