I knew I was in for a blast from the past when I saw the radioactive-minerals display at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals. A geiger counter crackled and buzzed as a many-spoked wheel — with a different mineral perched at the end of each spoke — spun round and round inside a glass case.
I could have been back in elementary school, lost in time: But this was 1999 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a place of hazy blue views, rolling waves of distant mountain peaks, flaming azaleas bursting with blooms along winding highway, hawks soaring the thermals. It’s also very much a place of the past: Conceived in the 1930s, most of the road and many of the facilities were built in the late 1950s and early ’70s. The Mineral Museum — at milepost 331, near Little Switzerland — was built in 1957, the attendant told me the day of my visit.
Managed by the National Park Service, the museum reveals little-known facts about feldspar, kaolin and mica mining in the mountain counties, such as: 90 percent of the feldspar mined here since 1910 goes for making glass (a little old Coca-Cola bottle is exhibited as proof). Another display notes, with a schoolteacher-ish air, “Spruce Pine mica is the hydrous potassium aluminum silicate mineral called muscovite.” As if you didn’t know.
Visitors can also mine more-instantly-gratifying nuggets of wisdom, such as: The dark, weathered rock exposed along the Parkway is probably Carolina gneiss.
If rocks don’t knock you out, try the gift shop — which, like many Parkway shops, offers such curios as “Smoky Mountain Hymns: The Video,” and the National Geographic Society’s ever-helpful “Guide to Bird Sounds” (on CD, no less). The kid in you will appreciate the circle of giant rocks — just the right size for climbing — that rest outside the museum: One white, weathered stone sparkles with the flecks of mica forever embedded in it.
Down the road from the museum, you move forward just a speck of geological time: up to 1964, when the Crabtree Meadows Coffee Shop was built. Managed by National Park Concessions, Inc., it boasts the stone-and-timber design common on the Parkway; but the coffee shop also has an old-fashioned, soda-fountain-style cafe, complete with shiny, blue-cushioned chrome stools. Here, you can come home to cornmeal cakes, Southern-style barbecued pork and homemade cobblers. (The menu does include a nod to the ’90s, however: instant cappuccino and black-bean burgers are available for those with trendier tastebuds.)
But for all that, things haven’t changed much since I visited the area with my family in the early 1970s: The camp store — Crabtree offers 97 campsites, May 1-Oct. 31 — still stocks the real Jiffy Pop (the kind with the little aluminum pie plate that you shake-shake-shake gently over the heat.
Says Crabtree Manager Tom Lacy, “The campers here, they can’t use that microwave popcorn!” But finding old-fashioned Jiffy Pop was no easy task, he notes. Discriminating tastes call for drastic measures, apparently.
“We had to special-order that, because you just can’t find it anymore,” he laments, telling how he had to send an employee down to the city stores to copy Jiffy Pop’s address off the label of one of its other products, so that he could write directly to the company.
Other timeless camp-store delicacies include Beanie Weanies and Vienna Sausage, peanuts and the inimitable Moonpies. And of course, there are the must-haves that never drop out of fashion: Peptol Bismol, paper plates, charcoal, insect repellent and firewood bundles (the most popular item, Lacy notes). And let’s not forget the Paine’s Log Cabin Incense Burner, meant for cedar or balsam-fir incense sticks.
My fellow Parkway traveler, Liz Lang, swore she was feeling a definite retro trend at that point. Still, there’s something oddly comforting about it, a sense of nostalgia.
Lacy agrees: The Kentucky native says he’s worked in other parks where NPC operates shops and campgrounds, such as Olympic National Park in Washington. But the Parkway and Crabtree, in particular, remind him the most of Kentucky’s rolling hills and its people — down-to-earth folk.
Winding on down the road, we left Crabtree for the only Parkway stop in the Asheville vicinity that provides a gas station, laundromat, camp store, overnight lodging and haute cuisine all in one place: Pisgah Inn at milepost 409.
Oh, there was Jiffy Pop, all right, and all the other camp store fare you’d expect to find, past or present. But for the adventurous gourmet camper, the store also offers resourceful, self-heating meals: Pull the string on the outside of the brown bag, and in mere minutes you have Vegetarian Five-Bean Casserole. “And look: You can get everything from Jiffy Pop to condoms,” Lang observes, holding up a certain other boxed item. Completing the picture were personalized Parkway souvenirs and mugs and apple-shaped spoonrests (made in Thailand).
To be fair, plenty of local arts and crafts are on hand in the gift store across the parking lot, near the Inn and restaurant. Campers weary of Jiffy Pop and freeze-dried fare can clean up and savor the views in the large, sunny dining room, where Sunday-afternoon fare ranged from grilled buffalo rib-eye steak with hunter sauce to the house specialty: fresh mountain trout (baked or charbroiled in lemon butter, and filleted at your table).
For the adult palate, the Inn also offers Biltmore Estate wines — naturally, since this land once belonged to George Vanderbilt. The site of his turn-of-the-century hunting lodge is but a short hike away; almost hidden among a thick grove of rhododendrons, you can still find the stone foundations and steps of the old Buck Spring House. You can almost see the guests making the long journey up the mountain from the Biltmore House (George owned all the land in between). Here on the ridges of the Appalachians, they could escape the growing hustle-bustle of 20th-century life.
But Vanderbilt’s lodge was eventually lost to the inevitable creep of time: The buildings were razed in the early 1960s to make room for progress. These days, the only things you’ll find near Vanderbilt’s old lodge are Harleys and Hondas and SUVs and top-down Mazda Miatas and fancy mountain bikes and Winnebagos.
There are still wild bears in them hills, though: A Pisgah Inn staffer warned that black bears have been spotted perilously close to the hotel, trails and campground. Visitors are being cautioned to store their food carefully and maintain a respectful distance, should they see any bears — and, most urgently, not to feed them under any circumstances. One of the critters was so brazen as to trot right onto the hotel deck recently — and munch every bite of someone’s popcorn.
Surely, it was the Jiffy Pop.
Open for business
The Parkway campgrounds closest to Asheville are located at Mount Pisgah (milepost 408) and Crabtree Meadows (milepost 339). Both are regularly open May 1-Oct. 31 and charge $12 per campsite (families or adults with two adults, plus $2 for each additional adult over age 18). Trailers and RVs up to 30 feet long can be accommodated, but no water or electrical hookups are available. Drinking water, restrooms and RV dumping stations are provided. Discounts are available for blind or permanently disabled visitors.
The Crabtree Meadows Coffee Shop is open Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 a.m-8 p.m.; and Sundays, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. For more information, call (828) 675-4236.
The Pisgah Inn Camp store is open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. The restaurant is open for breakfast, 7:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m., lunch 11:30-4 p.m., and dinner 5-9 p.m. daily. For more information, call 828-235-8228, or check out the Inn’s Web site at www.pisgahinn.com.
The Museum of North Carolina Minerals is open daily.
In nearby Spruce Pine (July 29-Aug. 1), there’s the Mineral and Gem Festival, featuring (of course) rocks, minerals, and jewelry, plus mine tours. Admission is $3 for adults; children under 12 free, when accompanied by an adult. For more information, contact the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce, (800) 227-3912, or visit its Web site at www.mitchell-county.com/north-carolina.
The Parkway also has a Web site, at www.nps.gov./blri/.