Guides to your most excellent adventure

Everyone agrees that a good guidebook can make or break a trip. But how about actually writing a guidebook? That’s another story, as one unfortunate family can attest.

I met this particular clan at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where, through some cosmic error, I’d been assigned to write about several trails for a new publication. I’d already shamed myself by turning in pages that identified a trail as being the haunt of a strange and wonderful creature called the indigo bunny. “Do you think the park ranger may have said ‘indigo bunting’ and you misheard?” the head writer had queried, referring to that blue-hued songbird. Oh.

Now, as I contemplated the trail ahead, dense with bewildering flora, my heart sank as I envisioned composing an entire piece along the lines of, “At the next bend, you’ll see some pretty green shrubs.” (Pretty green shrubs being, as everyone knows, a favored habitat of the indigo bunny.)

But happy day! The adult members of a family I chatted with at the trailhead turned out to be … naturalists! Real husband-and-wife naturalists! What were the chances?

They’d traveled a considerable distance to show their children the wonders of the Smokies. I shadowed these poor suckers for miles. As the mom stooped to show her son some salamander hidey-hole, I’d ask the boy to duck so I could see better. As the father pointed out a rare wildflower to his daughter, I barked questions over her shoulder. I left the family at the trail’s peak. If they called out for me to rejoin them, I didn’t hear it.

Tips for the open road

In the acknowledgments to his Motorcycle Adventures in the Southern Appalachians: Asheville NC, The Blue Ridge Parkway, NC High Country (Milestone Press, 2002), author Hawk Hagebak mentions, rather touchingly, his parents’ question, “So, are you rich and famous yet?” (The proper response, as every guidebook writer knows, is bitter laughter.)

The best guides aren’t about riches, anyway. They’re about communicating a passion, something Hagebak does in spades. In his hands, the traditional roughing-it guidebook receives (if you’ll pardon the expression) an exhaust-ive makeover. Familiar safety tips about what to do in case of snakebite are replaced by instructive sections on such matters as “Dealing with the Lawman” (something Hagebak, a former Atlanta police officer, should know a thing or two about).

The book outlines 26 scenic rides through our region, from a loop around Grandfather Mountain to the Smokin’ Dragon route through the Smokies. Road conditions, places to eat and points of interest are all colorfully detailed. Hagebak’s style is easy and conversational, and — once you adjust to phrases like “fancy-schmancy” — being along for the ride is really sort of fun.

The mountains look different from the seat of a Harley, as this passage illustrates: “NC 28 from Franklin into Highlands is in excellent condition. Freshly paved and well banked, it is a pleasure to ride. In the Cullasaja Gorge, watch the road. The ‘guardrails’ are actually just one-foot-tall rock curbs. Motorcycle crash dynamics tells us that’s just high enough to jettison you from your bike into the deep chasm [below], so let your passenger do the sight-seeing.” This guide can be ordered online at: (Beware of confusion with another Hagebak book with a nearly identical title that covers North Georgia and East Tennessee, as well as WNC.)

Heaven on wheels

For those who like their rides sans engines — and, for that matter, sans road — Mountain Biking North Carolina by Timm Muth (Falcon Guides, 2000) makes a superb companion. Zealous mountain bikers of my acquaintance have endorsed this volume for its meticulous attention to detail and heads-up appraisal of each trail’s technical difficulty. I admire the book for its fresh writing: “Anything you could want in a mountain bike ride, you can find here somewhere: roots, rocks, twisty sylvan highways, mudholes, tortuous climbs, jagged descents, breathtaking scenery, and lakes of adrenaline,” Muth writes in his introduction.

A list of the equipment exhausted by Muth while riding the 2,000 miles of trail described in this volume serves as his credentials. After a lengthy enumeration of bike hardware, the list turns gory, mentioning “several pounds of flesh,” “a few pints of the red stuff” and 32 trips to the ER. Not surprisingly, no wife is mentioned in the author’s bio. (Muth’s book is available at Black Dome Mountain Sports and at Malaprop’s Bookstore.)

You must inhale

If the idea of taking a dip in a lake of adrenaline leaves you quaking, you may wish to turn to the kinder, gentler (and, at times, kinkier) pleasures of The Underground Asheville Guidebook (Whisper Press, 2000), written by Tom Kerr and photographed by Gail Forsyth-Kerr.

While this volume occasionally saunters beyond the city limits, its M.O. is hip, effervescent and decidedly cosmopolitan. In other words, it’s best accompanied by cocktails, not Gatorade. The book reads like a love letter to Asheville; and, like any good lover, Kerr understands that depicting small gestures and idiosyncrasies is the best way to paint a portrait of his beloved. How else to explain the two full pages devoted to Bonnie’s Little Corner, a downtown tobacco store? (By comparison, lofty Biltmore Estate garners only a half-page mention.)

The self-guided walking tours are excellent, and readers will also appreciate the attention paid to local African-American and Cherokee history. (Available at Malaprop’s.)

Crafty side trips

Interesting things, brooms. I found myself making this unlikely but nonetheless true statement thanks to The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina by Jay Fields and Brad Campbell (HandMade in America, 1998). Now in its second edition, the book invites you to explore the region by car, following seven different “trails” that loop together a constellation of galleries, studios, restaurants, interesting places to stay and not a few hard-to-categorize aesthetic experiences, all of them worth a look.

The observation about brooms, for example, was a bit of wisdom waiting at the end of a country road somewhere near Sandy Mush, in a studio where a father-and-son team had been turning out magnificent specimens of the art for decades. Who knew? Which is exactly the point of this joyful little book: to capture that sense of delicious serendipity, of stumbling across great and beautiful things and moments, that comes with the best road trips. (Available at Malaprop’s.)

For the trailblazer

Of course, when you’re ready to really get up close and personal with the mountains, you can opt for the most classic transportation mode of all: your feet. In which case The Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains by Lynda McDaniel (Longstreet Press, 1998) makes an excellent adviser. With thorough notes about the history, geology and wildlife found at each site, it’s too hefty to find a place in your backpack. Instead, it’s the sort of book you turn to when you’re trying to decide where you wish to go. (I recently used it to pick out trails for a waterfall-themed expedition to Highlands/Cashiers.)

Although my name is listed among the book’s acknowledgments, I beg you not to hold that against this graceful, useful volume. One other request: If, during your travels through the woods this fall, you should happen across an indigo bunny, please give it my fondest regards. (Available at Malaprop’s.)

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