The road in the afternoon was not unpicturesque, owing to the streams and the ever noble forests, but the prospect was always very limited. Agriculturally, the country was mostly undeveloped. The travelers endeavored to get from the rider an estimate of the price of land. Not much sold, he said. "There was one sale of a big piece last year; the owner enthorited Big Tom Wilson to sell it, but I d'know what he got for it."
All the way along, the habitations were small log cabins, with one room, chinked with mud, and these were far between; and only occasionally thereby a similar log structure, unchinked, laid up like a cob house, that served for a stable. Not much cultivation, except now and then a little patch of poor corn on a steep hillside, occasionally a few apple-trees, and a peach-tree without fruit. Here and there was a house that had been half finished and then abandoned, or a shanty in which a couple of young married people were just beginning life. Generally the cabins (confirming the accuracy of the census of 1880) swarmed with children, and nearly all the women were thin and sickly.
In the day's ride we did not see a wheeled vehicle, and only now and then a horse. We met on the road small sleds, drawn by a steer, sometimes by a cow, on which a bag of grist was being hauled to the mill, and boys mounted on steers gave us good-evening with as much pride as if they were bestriding fiery horses.
In a house of the better class, which was a post-house, and where the rider and the woman of the house had a long consultation over a letter to be registered, we found the rooms decorated with patent-medicine pictures, which were often framed in strips of mica, an evidence of culture that was worth noting. Mica was the rage. Every one with whom we talked, except the rider, had more or less the mineral fever. The impression was general that the mountain region of North Carolina was entering upon a career of wonderful mineral development, and the most extravagant expectations were entertained. Mica was the shining object of most "prospecting," but gold was also on the cards.
The country about Burnsville is not only mildly picturesque, but very pleasing. Burnsville, the county-seat of Yancey, at an elevation of 2840 feet, is more like a New England village than any hitherto seen. Most of the houses stand about a square, which contains the shabby court-house; around it are two small churches, a jail, an inviting tavern with a long veranda, and a couple of stores. On an overlooking hill is the seminary. Mica mining is the exciting industry, but it is agriculturally a good country. The tavern had recently been enlarged to meet the new demands for entertainment and is a roomy structure, fresh with paint and only partially organized. The travelers were much impressed with the brilliant chambers, the floors of which were painted in alternate stripes of vivid green and red. The proprietor, a very intelligent and enterprising man, who had traveled often in the North, was full of projects for the development of his region and foremost in its enterprises, and had formed a considerable collection of minerals. Besides, more than any one else we met, he appreciated the beauty of his country, and took us to a neighboring hill, where we had a view of Table Mountain to the east and the nearer giant Blacks. The elevation of Burnsville gives it a delightful summer climate, the gentle undulations of the country are agreeable, the views noble, the air is good, and it is altogether a "livable" and attractive place. With facilities of communication, it would be a favorite summer resort. Its nearness to the great mountains (the whole Black range is in Yancey County), its fine pure air, its opportunity for fishing and hunting, commend it to those in search of an interesting and restful retreat in summer.
But it should be said that before the country can attract and retain travelers, its inhabitants must learn something about the preparation of food. If, for instance, the landlord's wife at Burnsville had traveled with her husband, her table would probably have been more on a level with his knowledge of the world, and it would have contained something that the wayfaring man, though a Northerner, could eat. We have been on the point several times in this journey of making the observation, but have been restrained by a reluctance to touch upon politics, that it was no wonder that a people with such a cuisine should have rebelled. The travelers were in a rebellious mood most of the time.
The evidences of enterprise in this region were pleasant to see, but the observers could not but regret, after all, the intrusion of the money-making spirit, which is certain to destroy much of the present simplicity. It is as yet, to a degree, tempered by a philosophic spirit. The other guest of the house was a sedate, long-bearded traveler for some Philadelphia house, and in the evening he and the landlord fell into a conversation upon what Socrates calls the disadvantage of the pursuit of wealth to the exclusion of all noble objects, and they let their fancy play about Vanderbilt, who was agreed to be the richest man in the world, or that ever lived.
"All I want," said the long-bearded man, "is enough to be comfortable. I would n't have Vanderbilt's wealth if he'd give it to me."
"Nor I," said the landlord. "Give me just enough to be comfortable." [The tourist couldn't but note that his ideas of enough to be comfortable had changed a good deal since he had left his little farm and gone into the mica business, and visited New York, and enlarged and painted his tavern.] I should like to know what more Vanderbilt gets out of his money than I get out of mine. I heard tell of a young man who went to Vanderbilt to get employment. Vanderbilt finally offered to give the young man, if he would work for him, just what he got himself. The young man jumped at that—he'd be perfectly satisfied with that pay. And Vanderbilt said that all he got was what he could eat and wear, and offered to give the young man his board and clothes."
"I declare" said the long-bearded man. "That's just it. Did you ever see Vanderbilt's house? Neither did I, but I heard he had a vault built in it five feet thick, solid. He put in it two hundred millions of dollars, in gold. After a year, he opened it and put in twelve millions more, and called that a poor year. They say his house has gold shutters to the windows, so I've heard."
"I shouldn't wonder," said the landlord. "I heard he had one door in his house cost forty thousand dollars. I don't know what it is made of, unless it's made of gold."
Sunday was a hot and quiet day. The stores were closed and the two churches also, this not being the Sunday for the itinerant preacher. The jail also showed no sign of life, and when we asked about it, we learned that it was empty, and had been for some time. No liquor is sold in the place, nor within at least three miles of it. It is not much use to try to run a jail without liquor.
In the course of the morning a couple of stout fellows arrived, leading between them a young man whom they had arrested,—it didn't appear on any warrant, but they wanted to get him committed and locked up. The offense charged was carrying a pistol; the boy had not used it against anybody, but he had flourished it about and threatened, and the neighbors wouldn't stand that; they were bound to enforce the law against carrying concealed weapons.
The captors were perfectly good-natured and on friendly enough terms with the young man, who offered no resistance, and seemed not unwilling to go to jail. But a practical difficulty arose. The jail was locked up, the sheriff had gone away into the country with the key, and no one could get in. It did not appear that there was any provision for boarding the man in jail; no one in fact kept it. The sheriff was sent for, but was not to be found, and the prisoner and his captors loafed about the square all day, sitting on the fence, rolling on the grass, all of them sustained by a simple trust that the jail would be open some time.
Late in the afternoon we left them there, trying to get into the jail. But we took a personal leaf out of this experience. Our Virginia friends, solicitous for our safety in this wild country, had urged us not to venture into it without arms—take at least, they insisted, a revolver each. And now we had to congratulate ourselves that we had not done so. If we had, we should doubtless on that Sunday have been waiting, with the other law-breaker, for admission into the Yancey County jail.
From Burnsville the next point in our route was Asheville, the most considerable city in western North Carolina, a resort of fashion, and the capital of Buncombe County. It is distant some forty to forty-five miles, too long a journey for one day over such roads. The easier and common route is by the Ford of Big Ivy, eighteen miles, the first stopping-place; and that was a long ride for the late afternoon when we were in condition to move.
The landlord suggested that we take another route, stay that night on Caney River with Big Tom Wilson, only eight miles from Burnsville, cross Mount Mitchell, and go down the valley of the Swannanoa to Asheville. He represented this route as shorter and infinitely more picturesque. There was nothing worth seeing on the Big Ivy way. With scarcely a moment's reflection and while the horses were saddling, we decided to ride to Big Tom Wilson's. I could not at the time understand, and I cannot now, why the Professor consented. I should hardly dare yet confess to my fixed purpose to ascend Mount Mitchell. It was equally fixed in the Professor's mind not to do it. We had not discussed it much. But it is safe to say that if he had one well-defined purpose on this trip, it was not to climb Mitchell. "Not," as he put it,—
"Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,"
had suggested the possibility that he could do it.
But at the moment the easiest thing to do seemed to be to ride down to Wilson's. When there we could turn across country to the Big Ivy, although, said the landlord, you can ride over Mitchell just as easy as anywhere—a lady rode plump over the peak of it last week, and never got off her horse. You are not obliged to go; at Big Tom's, you can go any way you please.
Besides, Big Tom himself weighed in the scale more than Mount Mitchell, and not to see him was to miss one of the most characteristic productions of the country, the typical backwoodsman, hunter, guide. So we rode down Bolling Creek, through a pretty, broken country, crossed the Caney River, and followed it up a few miles to Wilson's plantation. There are little intervales along the river, where hay is cut and corn grown, but the region is not much cleared, and the stock browse about in the forest. Wilson is the agent of the New York owner of a tract of some thirteen thousand acres of forest, including the greater portion of Mount Mitchell, a wilderness well stocked with bears and deer, and full of streams abounding in trout. It is also the playground of the rattlesnake. With all these attractions Big Tom's life is made lively in watching game poachers, and endeavoring to keep out the foraging cattle of the few neighbors. It is not that the cattle do much injury in the forest, but the looking after them is made a pretense for roaming around, and the roamers are liable to have to defend themselves against the deer, or their curiosity is excited about the bears, and lately they have taken to exploding powder in the streams to kill the fish.
Big Tom's plantation has an openwork stable, an ill-put-together frame house, with two rooms and a kitchen, and a veranda in front, a loft, and a spring-house in the rear. Chickens and other animals have free run of the premises. Some fish-rods hung in the porch, and hunter's gear depended on hooks in the passage-way to the kitchen. In one room were three beds, in the other two, only one in the kitchen. On the porch was a loom, with a piece of cloth in process. The establishment had the air of taking care of itself. Neither Big Tom nor his wife was at home. Sunday seemed to be a visiting day, and the travelers had met many parties on horseback. Mrs. Wilson was away for a visit of a day or two. One of the sons, who was lounging on the veranda, was at last induced to put up the horses; a very old woman, who mumbled and glared at the visitors, was found in the kitchen, but no intelligible response could be got out of her. Presently a bright little girl, the housekeeper in charge, appeared. She said that her paw had gone up to her brother's (her brother was just married and lived up the river in the house where Mr. Murchison stayed when he was here) to see if he could ketch a bear that had been rootin' round in the corn-field the night before. She expected him back by sundown—by dark anyway. 'Les he'd gone after the bear, and then you could n't tell when he would come.
It appeared that Big Tom was a thriving man in the matter of family. More boys appeared. Only one was married, but four had "got their time." As night approached, and no Wilson, there was a good deal of lively and loud conversation about the stock and the chores, in all of which the girl took a leading and intelligent part, showing a willingness to do her share, but not to have all the work put upon her. It was time to go down the road and hunt up the cows; the mule had disappeared and must be found before dark; a couple of steers hadn't turned up since the day before yesterday, and in the midst of the gentle contention as to whose business all this was, there was an alarm of cattle in the corn-patch, and the girl started off on a run in that direction. It was due to the executive ability of this small girl, after the cows had been milked and the mule chased and the boys properly stirred up, that we had supper. It was of the oilcloth, iron fork, tin spoon, bacon, hot bread and honey variety, distinguished, however, from all meals we had endured or enjoyed before by the introduction of fried eggs (as the breakfast next morning was by the presence of chicken), and it was served by the active maid with right hearty good-will and genuine hospitable intent.
While it was in progress, after nine o'clock, Big Tom arrived, and, with a simple greeting, sat down and attacked the supper and began to tell about the bear. There was not much to tell except that he hadn't seen the bear, and that, judged by his tracks and his sloshing around, he must be a big one. But a trap had been set for him, and he judged it wouldn't be long before we had some bear meat. Big Tom Wilson, as he is known all over this part of the State, would not attract attention from his size. He is six feet and two inches tall, very spare and muscular, with sandy hair, long gray beard, and honest blue eyes. He has a reputation for great strength and endurance; a man of native simplicity and mild manners. He had been rather expecting us from what Mr. Murchison wrote; he wrote (his son had read out the letter) that Big Tom was to take good care of us, and anybody that Mr. Murchison sent could have the best he'd got.
Big Tom joined us in our room after supper. This apartment, with two mighty feather-beds, was hung about with all manner of stuffy family clothes, and had in one end a vast cavern for a fire. The floor was uneven, and the hearthstones billowy. When the fire was lighted, the effect of the bright light in the cavern and the heavy shadows in the room was Rembrandtish. Big Tom sat with us before the fire and told bear stories. Talk? Why, it was not the least effort. The stream flowed on without a ripple. "Why, the old man," one of the sons confided to us next morning, "can begin and talk right over Mount Mitchell and all the way back, and never make a break." Though Big Tom had waged a lifelong warfare with the bears, and taken the hide off at least a hundred of them, I could not see that he had any vindictive feeling towards the varmint, but simply an insatiable love of killing him, and he regarded him in that half-humorous light in which the bear always appears to those who study him. As to deer—he couldn't tell how many of them he had slain. But Big Tom was a gentleman: he never killed deer for mere sport. With rattlesnakes, now, it was different. There was the skin of one hanging upon a tree by the route we would take in the morning, a buster, he skinned him yesterday. There was an entire absence, of braggadocio in Big Tom's talk, but somehow, as he went on, his backwoods figure loomed larger and larger in our imagination, and he seemed strangely familiar. At length it came over us where we had met him before. It was in Cooper's novels. He was the Leather-Stocking exactly. And yet he was an original; for he assured us that he had never read the Leather-Stocking Tales. What a figure, I was thinking, he must have made in the late war! Such a shot, such a splendid physique, such iron endurance! I almost dreaded to hear his tales of the havoc he had wrought on the Union army. Yes, he was in the war, he was sixteen months in the Confederate army, this Homeric man. In what rank? "Oh, I was a fifer!"
But hunting and war did not by any means occupy the whole of Big Tom's life. He was also engaged in "lawin'." He had a long-time feud with a neighbor about a piece of land and alleged trespass, and they'd been "lawin'" for years, with no definite result; but as a topic of conversation it was as fully illustrative of frontier life as the bear-fighting.
Long after we had all gone to bed, we heard Big Tom's continuous voice, through the thin partition that separated us from the kitchen, going on to his little boy about the bear; every circumstance of how he tracked him, and what corner of the field he entered, and where he went out, and his probable size and age, and the prospect of his coming again; these were the details of real everyday life, and worthy to be dwelt on by the hour. The boy was never tired of pursuing them. And Big Tom was just a big boy, also, in his delight in it all.
Perhaps it was the fascination of Big Tom, perhaps the representation that we were already way off the Big Ivy route, and that it would, in fact, save time to go over the mountain and we could ride all the way, that made the Professor acquiesce, with no protest worth noticing, in the preparations that went on, as by a natural assumption, for going over Mitchell. At any rate, there was an early breakfast, luncheon was put up, and by half-past seven we were riding up the Caney,—a half-cloudy day,—Big Tom swinging along on foot ahead, talking nineteen to the dozen. There was a delightful freshness in the air, the dew-laden bushes, and the smell of the forest. In half an hour we called at the hunting shanty of Mr. Murchison, wrote our names on the wall, according to custom, and regretted that we could not stay for a day in that retreat and try the speckled trout. Making our way through the low growth and bushes of the valley, we came into a fine open forest, watered by a noisy brook, and after an hour's easy going reached the serious ascent.
From Wilson's to the peak of Mitchell it is seven and a half miles; we made it in five and a half hours. A bridle path was cut years ago, but it has been entirely neglected. It is badly washed, it is stony, muddy, and great trees have fallen across it which wholly block the way for horses. At these places long detours were necessary, on steep hillsides and through gullies, over treacherous sink-holes in the rocks, through quaggy places, heaps of brush, and rotten logs. Those who have ever attempted to get horses over such ground will not wonder at the slow progress we made. Before we were halfway up the ascent, we realized the folly of attempting it on horseback; but then to go on seemed as easy as to go back. The way was also exceedingly steep in places, and what with roots, and logs, and slippery rocks and stones, it was a desperate climb for the horses.
What a magnificent forest! Oaks, chestnuts, Poplars, hemlocks, the cucumber (a species of magnolia, with a pinkish, cucumber-like cone), and all sorts of northern and southern growths meeting here in splendid array. And this gigantic forest, with little diminution in size of trees, continued two thirds of the way up. We marked, as we went on, the maple, the black walnut, the buckeye, the hickory, the locust, and the guide pointed out in one section the largest cherry-trees we had ever seen; splendid trunks, each worth a large sum if it could be got to market. After the great trees were left behind, we entered a garden of white birches, and then a plateau of swamp, thick with raspberry bushes, and finally the ridges, densely crowded with the funereal black balsam.
Halfway up, Big Tom showed us his favorite, the biggest tree he knew. It was a poplar, or tulip. It stands more like a column than a tree, rising high into the air, with scarcely a perceptible taper, perhaps sixty, more likely a hundred, feet before it puts out a limb.
Its girth six feet from the ground is thirty-two feet! I think it might be called Big Tom. It stood here, of course, a giant, when Columbus sailed from Spain, and perhaps some sentimental traveler will attach the name of Columbus to it.
In the woods there was not much sign of animal life, scarcely the note of a bird, but we noticed as we rode along in the otherwise primeval silence a loud and continuous humming overhead, almost like the sound of the wind in pine tops. It was the humming of bees! The upper branches were alive with these industrious toilers, and Big Tom was always on the alert to discover and mark a bee-gum, which he could visit afterwards. Honey hunting is one of his occupations. Collecting spruce gum is another, and he was continually hacking off with his hatchet knobs of the translucent secretion. How rich and fragrant are these forests! The rhododendron was still in occasional bloom' and flowers of brilliant hue gleamed here and there.
The struggle was more severe as we neared the summit, and the footing worse for the horses. Occasionally it was safest to dismount and lead them up slippery ascents; but this was also dangerous, for it was difficult to keep them from treading on our heels, in their frantic flounderings, in the steep, wet, narrow, brier-grown path. At one uncommonly pokerish place, where the wet rock sloped into a bog, the rider of Jack thought it prudent to dismount, but Big Tom insisted that Jack would "make it" all right, only give him his head. The rider gave him his head, and the next minute Jack's four heels were in the air, and he came down on his side in a flash. The rider fortunately extricated his leg without losing it, Jack scrambled out with a broken shoe, and the two limped along. It was a wonder that the horses' legs were not broken a dozen times.
As we approached the top, Big Tom pointed out the direction, a half mile away, of a small pond, a little mountain tarn, overlooked by a ledge of rock, where Professor Mitchell lost his life. Big Tom was the guide that found his body. That day, as we sat on the summit, he gave in great detail the story, the general outline of which is well known.
The first effort to measure the height of the Black Mountains was made in 1835, by Professor Elisha Mitchell, professor of mathematics and chemistry in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mr. Mitchell was a native of Connecticut, born in Washington, Litchfield County, in 1793; graduated at Yale, ordained a Presbyterian minister, and was for a time state surveyor; and became a professor at Chapel Hill in 1818. He first ascertained and published the fact that the Black Mountains are the highest land east of the Rocky Mountains. In 1844 he visited the locality again. Measurements were subsequently made by Professor Guyot and by Senator Clingman. One of the peaks was named for the senator (the one next in height to Mitchell is described as Clingman on the state map), and a dispute arose as to whether Mitchell had really visited and measured the highest peak. Senator Clingman still maintains that he did not, and that the peak now known as Mitchell is the one that Clingman first described. The estimates of altitudes made by the three explorers named differed considerably. The height now fixed for Mount Mitchell is 6711; that of Mount Washington is 6285. There are twelve peaks in this range higher than Mount Washington, and if we add those in the Great Smoky Mountains which overtop it, there are some twenty in this State higher than the granite giant of New Hampshire.
In order to verify his statement, Professor Mitchell (then in his sixty-fourth year) made a third ascent in June, 1857. He was alone, and went up from the Swannanoa side. He did not return. No anxiety was felt for two or three days, as he was a good mountaineer, and it was supposed he had crossed the mountain and made his way out by the Caney River. But when several days passed without tidings of him, a search party was formed. Big Tom Wilson was with it. They explored the mountain in all directions unsuccessfully. At length Big Tom separated himself from his companions and took a course in accordance with his notion of that which would be pursued by a man lost in the clouds or the darkness. He soon struck the trail of the wanderer, and, following it, discovered Mitchell's body lying in a pool at the foot of a rocky precipice some thirty feet high. It was evident that Mitchell, making his way along the ridge in darkness or fog, had fallen off. It was the ninth (or the eleventh) day of his disappearance, but in the pure mountain air the body had suffered no change. Big Tom brought his companions to the place, and on consultation it was decided to leave the body undisturbed till Mitchell's friends could be present.
There was some talk of burying him on the mountain, but the friends decided otherwise, and the remains, with much difficulty, were got down to Asheville and there interred.
Some years afterwards, I believe at the instance of a society of scientists, it was resolved to transport the body to the summit of Mount Mitchell; for the tragic death of the explorer had forever settled in the popular mind the name of the mountain. The task was not easy. A road had to be cut, over which a sledge could be hauled, and the hardy mountaineers who undertook the removal were three days in reaching the summit with their burden. The remains were accompanied by a considerable concourse, and the last rites on the top were participated in by a hundred or more scientists and prominent men from different parts of the State. Such a strange cortege had never before broken the silence of this lonely wilderness, nor was ever burial more impressive than this wild interment above the clouds.
We had been preceded in our climb all the way by a huge bear. That he was huge, a lunker, a monstrous old varmint, Big Tom knew by the size of his tracks; that he was making the ascent that morning ahead of us, Big Tom knew by the freshness of the trail. We might come upon him at any moment; he might be in the garden; was quite likely to be found in the raspberry patch. That we did not encounter him I am convinced was not the fault of Big Tom, but of the bear.
After a struggle of five hours we emerged from the balsams and briers into a lovely open meadow, of lush clover, timothy, and blue grass. We unsaddled the horses and turned them loose to feed in it. The meadow sloped up to a belt of balsams and firs, a steep rocky knob, and climbing that on foot we stood upon the summit of Mitchell at one o'clock. We were none too soon, for already the clouds were preparing for what appears to be a daily storm at this season.
The summit is a nearly level spot of some thirty or forty feet in extent either way, with a floor of rock and loose stones. The stunted balsams have been cut away so as to give a view. The sweep of prospect is vast, and we could see the whole horizon except in the direction of Roan, whose long bulk was enveloped in cloud. Portions of six States were in sight, we were told, but that is merely a geographical expression. What we saw, wherever we looked, was an inextricable tumble of mountains, without order or leading line of direction,—domes, peaks, ridges, endless and countless, everywhere, some in shadow, some tipped with shafts of sunlight, all wooded and green or black, and all in more softened contours than our Northern hills, but still wild, lonesome, terrible. Away in the southwest, lifting themselves up in a gleam of the western sky, the Great Smoky Mountains loomed like a frowning continental fortress, sullen and remote. With Clingman and Gibbs and Holdback peaks near at hand and apparently of equal height, Mitchell seemed only a part and not separate from the mighty congregation of giants.
In the center of the stony plot on the summit lie the remains of Mitchell. To dig a grave in the rock was impracticable, but the loose stones were scooped away to the depth of a foot or so, the body was deposited, and the stones were replaced over it. It was the original intention to erect a monument, but the enterprise of the projectors of this royal entombment failed at that point. The grave is surrounded by a low wall of loose stones, to which each visitor adds one, and in the course of ages the cairn may grow to a good size. The explorer lies there without name or headstone to mark his awful resting-place. The mountain is his monument. He is alone with its majesty. He is there in the clouds, in the tempests, where the lightnings play, and thunders leap, amid the elemental tumult, in the occasional great calm and silence and the pale sunlight. It is the most majestic, the most lonesome grave on earth.
As we sat there, awed a little by this presence, the clouds were gathering from various quarters and drifting towards us. We could watch the process of thunder-storms and the manufacture of tempests. I have often noticed on other high mountains how the clouds, forming like genii released from the earth, mount into the upper air, and in masses of torn fragments of mist hurry across the sky as to a rendezvous of witches. This was a different display. These clouds came slowly sailing from the distant horizon, like ships on an aerial voyage. Some were below us, some on our level; they were all in well-defined, distinct masses, molten silver on deck, below trailing rain, and attended on earth by gigantic shadows that moved with them. This strange fleet of battle-ships, drifted by the shifting currents, was maneuvering for an engagement. One after another, as they came into range about our peak of observation, they opened fire. Sharp flashes of lightning darted from one to the other; a jet of flame from one leaped across the interval and was buried in the bosom of its adversary; and at every discharge the boom of great guns echoed through the mountains. It was something more than a royal salute to the tomb of the mortal at our feet, for the masses of cloud were rent in the fray, at every discharge the rain was precipitated in increasing torrents, and soon the vast hulks were trailing torn fragments and wreaths of mist, like the shot-away shrouds and sails of ships in battle. Gradually, from this long-range practice with single guns and exchange of broadsides, they drifted into closer conflict, rushed together, and we lost sight of the individual combatants in the general tumult of this aerial war.
We had barely twenty minutes for our observations, when it was time to go; and had scarcely left the peak when the clouds enveloped it. We hastened down under the threatening sky to the saddles and the luncheon. Just off from the summit, amid the rocks, is a complete arbor, or tunnel, of rhododendrons. This cavernous place a Western writer has made the scene of a desperate encounter between Big Tom and a catamount, or American panther, which had been caught in a trap and dragged it there, pursued by Wilson. It is an exceedingly graphic narrative, and is enlivened by the statement that Big Tom had the night before drunk up all the whisky of the party which had spent the night on the summit. Now Big Tom assured us that the whisky part of the story was an invention; he was not (which is true) in the habit of using it; if he ever did take any, it might be a drop on Mitchell; in fact, when he inquired if we had a flask, he remarked that a taste of it would do him good then and there. We regretted the lack of it in our baggage. But what inclined Big Tom to discredit the Western writer's story altogether was the fact that he never in his life had had a difficulty with a catamount, and never had seen one in these mountains.
Our lunch was eaten in haste. Big Tom refused the chicken he had provided for us, and strengthened himself with slices of raw salt pork, which he cut from a hunk with his clasp-knife. We caught and saddled our horses, who were reluctant to leave the rich feed, enveloped ourselves in waterproofs, and got into the stony path for the descent just as the torrent came down. It did rain. It lightened, the thunder crashed, the wind howled and twisted the treetops. It was as if we were pursued by the avenging spirits of the mountains for our intrusion. Such a tempest on this height had its terrors even for our hardy guide. He preferred to be lower down while it was going on. The crash and reverberation of the thunder did not trouble us so much as the swish of the wet branches in our faces and the horrible road, with its mud, tripping roots, loose stones, and slippery rocks. Progress was slow. The horses were in momentary danger of breaking their legs. In the first hour there was not much descent. In the clouds we were passing over Clingman, Gibbs, and Holdback. The rain had ceased, but the mist still shut off all view, if any had been attainable, and bushes and paths were deluged. The descent was more uncomfortable than the ascent, and we were compelled a good deal of the way to lead the jaded horses down the slippery rocks.
From the peak to the Widow Patten's, where we proposed to pass the night, is twelve miles, a distance we rode or scrambled down, every step of the road bad, in five and a half hours. Halfway down we came out upon a cleared place, a farm, with fruit-trees and a house in ruins. Here had been a summer hotel much resorted to before the war, but now abandoned. Above it we turned aside for the view from Elizabeth rock, named from the daughter of the proprietor of the hotel, who often sat here, said Big Tom, before she went out of this world. It is a bold rocky ledge, and the view from it, looking south, is unquestionably the finest, the most pleasing and picture-like, we found in these mountains. In the foreground is the deep gorge of a branch of the Swannanoa, and opposite is the great wall of the Blue Ridge (the Blue Ridge is the most capricious and inexplicable system) making off to the Blacks. The depth of the gorge, the sweep of the sky line, and the reposeful aspect of the scene to the sunny south made this view both grand and charming. Nature does not always put the needed dash of poetry into her extensive prospects.
Leaving this clearing and the now neglected spring, where fashion used to slake its thirst, we zigzagged down the mountain-side through a forest of trees growing at every step larger and nobler, and at length struck a small stream, the North Fork of the Swannanoa, which led us to the first settlement. Just at night,—it was nearly seven o'clock,—we entered one of the most stately forests I have ever seen, and rode for some distance in an alley of rhododendrons that arched overhead and made a bower. It was like an aisle in a temple; high overhead was the somber, leafy roof, supported by gigantic columns. Few widows have such an avenue of approach to their domain as the Widow Patten has.
Cheering as this outcome was from the day's struggle and storm, the Professor seemed sunk in a profound sadness. The auguries which the Friend drew from these signs of civilization of a charming inn and a royal supper did not lighten the melancholy of his mind. "Alas," he said,
"Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day, And make me travel forth without my cloak, To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way, Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke? 'T is not enough that through the cloud thou break, To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face, For no man well of such a salve can speak That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace: Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief: Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss."
"Loss of what?" cried the Friend, as he whipped up his halting steed.
"Loss of self-respect. I feel humiliated that I consented to climb this mountain."
"Nonsense! You'll live to thank me for it, as the best thing you ever did. It's over and done now, and you've got it to tell your friends."
"That's just the trouble. They'll ask me if I went up Mitchell, and I shall have to say I did. My character for consistency is gone. Not that I care much what they think, but my own self-respect is gone. I never believed I would do it. A man ca'nt afford to lower himself in his own esteem, at my time of life."
The Widow Patten's was only an advanced settlement in this narrow valley on the mountain-side, but a little group of buildings, a fence, and a gate gave it the air of a place, and it had once been better cared for than it is now. Few travelers pass that way, and the art of entertaining, if it ever existed, is fallen into desuetude. We unsaddled at the veranda, and sat down to review our adventure, make the acquaintance of the family, and hear the last story from Big Tom. The mountaineer, though wet, was as fresh as a daisy, and fatigue in no wise checked the easy, cheerful flow of his talk. He was evidently a favorite with his neighbors, and not unpleasantly conscious of the extent of his reputation. But he encountered here another social grade. The Widow Patten was highly connected. We were not long in discovering that she was an Alexander. She had been a schoolmate of Senator Vance,—"Zeb Vance" he still was to her,—and the senator and his wife had stayed at her house. I wish I could say that the supper, for which we waited till nine o'clock, was as "highly connected" as the landlady. It was, however, a supper that left its memory. We were lodged in a detached house, which we had to ourselves, where a roaring wood fire made amends for other things lacking. It was necessary to close the doors to keep out the wandering cows and pigs, and I am bound to say that, notwithstanding the voices of the night, we slept there the sleep of peace.
In the morning a genuine surprise awaited us; it seemed impossible, but the breakfast was many degrees worse than the supper; and when we paid our bill, large for the region, we were consoled by the thought that we paid for the high connection as well as for the accommodations. This is a regular place of entertainment, and one is at liberty to praise it without violation of delicacy.
The broken shoe of Jack required attention, and we were all the morning hunting a blacksmith, as we rode down the valley. Three blacksmith's shanties were found, and after long waiting to send for the operator it turned out in each case that he had no shoes, no nails, no iron to make either of. We made a detour of three miles to what was represented as a regular shop. The owner had secured the service of a colored blacksmith for a special job, and was, not inclined to accommodate us; he had no shoes, no nails. But the colored blacksmith, who appreciated the plight we were in, offered to make a shoe, and to crib four nails from those he had laid aside for a couple of mules; and after a good deal of delay, we were enabled to go on. The incident shows, as well as anything, the barrenness and shiftlessness of the region. A horseman with whom we rode in the morning gave us a very low estimate of the trustworthiness of the inhabitants. The valley is wild and very pretty all the way down to Colonel Long's,—twelve miles,—but the wretched-looking people along the way live in a wretched manner.
Just before reaching Colonel Long's we forded the stream (here of good size), the bridge having tumbled down, and encountered a party of picnickers under the trees—signs of civilization; a railway station is not far off. Colonel Long's is a typical Southern establishment: a white house, or rather three houses, all of one story, built on to each other as beehives are set in a row, all porches and galleries. No one at home but the cook, a rotund, broad-faced woman, with a merry eye, whose very appearance suggested good cooking and hospitality; the Missis and the children had gone up to the river fishing; the Colonel was somewhere about the place; always was away when he was wanted. Guess he'd take us in, mighty fine man the Colonel; and she dispatched a child from a cabin in the rear to hunt him up. The Colonel was a great friend of her folks down to Greenville; they visited here. Law, no, she didn't live here. Was just up here spending the summer, for her health. God-forsaken lot of people up here, poor trash. She wouldn't stay here a day, but the Colonel was a friend of her folks, the firstest folks in Greenville. Nobody round here she could 'sociate with. She was a Presbyterian, the folks round here mostly Baptists and Methodists. More style about the Presbyterians. Married? No, she hoped not. She did n't want to support no husband. Got 'nuff to do to take care of herself. That her little girl? No; she'd only got one child, down to Greenville, just the prettiest boy ever was, as white as anybody. How did she what? reconcile this state of things with not being married and being a Presbyterian? Sho! she liked to carry some religion along; it was mighty handy occasionally, mebbe not all the time. Yes, indeed, she enjoyed her religion.
The Colonel appeared and gave us a most cordial welcome. The fat and merry cook blustered around and prepared a good dinner, memorable for its "light" bread, the first we had seen since Cranberry Forge. The Colonel is in some sense a public man, having been a mail agent, and a Republican. He showed us photographs and engravings of Northern politicians, and had the air of a man who had been in Washington. This was a fine country for any kind of fruit,—apples, grapes, pears; it needed a little Northern enterprise to set things going. The travelers were indebted to the Colonel for a delightful noonday rest, and with regret declined his pressing invitation to pass the night with him.
The ride down the Swannanoa to Asheville was pleasant, through a cultivated region, over a good road. The Swannanoa is, however, a turbid stream. In order to obtain the most impressive view of Asheville we approached it by the way of Beaucatcher Hill, a sharp elevation a mile west of the town. I suppose the name is a corruption of some descriptive French word, but it has long been a favorite resort of the frequenters of Asheville, and it may be traditional that it is a good place to catch beaux. The summit is occupied by a handsome private residence, and from this ridge the view, which has the merit of "bursting" upon the traveler as he comes over the hill, is captivating in its extent and variety. The pretty town of Asheville is seen to cover a number of elevations gently rising out of the valley, and the valley, a rich agricultural region, well watered and fruitful, is completely inclosed by picturesque hills, some of them rising to the dignity of mountains. The most conspicuous of these is Mount Pisgah, eighteen miles distant to the southwest, a pyramid of the Balsam range, 5757 feet high. Mount Pisgah, from its shape, is the most attractive mountain in this region.
The sunset light was falling upon the splendid panorama and softening it. The windows of the town gleamed as if on fire. From the steep slope below came the mingled sounds of children shouting, cattle driven home, and all that hum of life that marks a thickly peopled region preparing for the night. It was the leisure hour of an August afternoon, and Asheville was in all its watering-place gayety, as we reined up at the Swannanoa hotel. A band was playing on the balcony. We had reached ice-water, barbers, waiters, civilization.
Ashville, delightful for situation, on small hills that rise above the French Broad below its confluence with the Swannanoa, is a sort of fourteenth cousin to Saratoga. It has no springs, but lying 2250 feet above the sea and in a lovely valley, mountain girt, it has pure atmosphere and an equable climate; and being both a summer and winter resort, it has acquired a watering-place air. There are Southerners who declare that it is too hot in summer, and that the complete circuit of mountains shuts out any lively movement of air. But the scenery is so charming and noble, the drives are so varied, the roads so unusually passable for a Southern country, and the facilities for excursions so good, that Asheville is a favorite resort.
Architecturally the place is not remarkable, but its surface is so irregular, there are so many acclivities and deep valleys that improvements can never obliterate, that it is perforce picturesque. It is interesting also, if not pleasing, in its contrasts—the enterprise of taste and money-making struggling with the laissez faire of the South. The negro, I suppose, must be regarded as a conservative element; he has not much inclination to change his clothes or his cabin, and his swarming presence gives a ragged aspect to the new civilization. And to say the truth, the new element of Southern smartness lacks the trim thrift the North is familiar with; though the visitor who needs relaxation is not disposed to quarrel with the easy-going terms on which life is taken.
Asheville, it is needless to say, appeared very gay and stimulating to the riders from the wilderness. The Professor, who does not even pretend to patronize Nature, had his revenge as we strolled about the streets (there is but one of much consideration), immensely entertained by the picturesque contrasts. There was more life and amusement here in five minutes, he declared, than in five days of what people called scenery—the present rage for scenery, anyway, being only a fashion and a modern invention. The Friend suspected from this penchant for the city that the Professor must have been brought up in the country.
There was a kind of predetermined and willful gayety about Asheville however, that is apt to be present in a watering-place, and gave to it the melancholy tone that is always present in gay places. We fancied that the lively movement in the streets had an air of unreality. A band of musicians on the balcony of the Swannanoa were scraping and tooting and twanging with a hired air, and on the opposite balcony of the Eagle a rival band echoed and redoubled the perfunctory joyousness. The gayety was contagious: the horses felt it; those that carried light burdens of beauty minced and pranced, the pony in the dog-cart was inclined to dash, the few passing equipages had an air of pleasure; and the people of color, the comely waitress and the slouching corner-loafer, responded to the animation of the festive strains. In the late afternoon the streets were full of people, wagons, carriages, horsemen, all with a holiday air, dashed with African color and humor—the irresponsibility of the most insouciant and humorous race in the world, perhaps more comical than humorous; a mixture of recent civilization and rudeness, peculiar and amusing; a happy coming together, it seemed, of Southern abandon and Northern wealth, though the North was little represented at this season.
As evening came on, the streets, though wanting gas, were still more animated; the shops were open, some very good ones, and the white and black throng increasing, especially the black, for the negro is preeminently a night bird. In the hotels dancing was promised—the german was announced; on the galleries and in the corridors were groups of young people, a little loud in manner and voice,—the young gentleman, with his over-elaborate manner to ladies in bowing and hat-lifting, and the blooming girls from the lesser Southern cities, with the slight provincial note, and yet with the frank and engaging cordiality which is as charming as it is characteristic. I do not know what led the Professor to query if the Southern young women were not superior to the Southern young men, but he is always asking questions nobody can answer. At the Swannanoa were half a dozen bridal couples, readily recognizable by the perfect air they had of having been married a long time. How interesting such young voyagers are, and how interesting they are to each other! Columbus never discovered such a large world as they have to find out and possess each in the other.
Among the attractions of the evening it was difficult to choose. There was a lawn-party advertised at Battery Point (where a fine hotel has since been built) and we walked up to that round knob after dark. It is a hill with a grove, which commands a charming view, and was fortified during the war. We found it illuminated with Chinese lanterns; and little tables set about under the trees, laden with cake and ice-cream, offered a chance to the stranger to contribute money for the benefit of the Presbyterian Church. I am afraid it was not a profitable entertainment, for the men seemed to have business elsewhere, but the ladies about the tables made charming groups in the lighted grove. Man is a stupid animal at best, or he would not make it so difficult for the womenkind to scrape together a little money for charitable purposes. But probably the women like this method of raising money better than the direct one.
The evening gayety of the town was well distributed. When we descended to the Court-House Square, a great crowd had collected, black, white, and yellow, about a high platform, upon which four glaring torches lighted up the novel scene, and those who could read might decipher this legend on a standard at the back of the stage:
HAPPY JOHN. ONE OF THE SLAVES OF WADE HAMPTON. COME AND SEE HIM!
Happy John, who occupied the platform with Mary, a "bright" yellow girl, took the comical view of his race, which was greatly enjoyed by his audience. His face was blackened to the proper color of the stage-darky, and he wore a flaming suit of calico, the trousers and coat striped longitudinally according to Punch's idea of "Uncle Sam," the coat a swallow-tail bound and faced with scarlet, and a bell-crowned white hat. This conceit of a colored Yankee seemed to tickle all colors in the audience amazingly. Mary, the "bright" woman (this is the universal designation of the light mulatto), was a pleasing but bold yellow girl, who wore a natty cap trimmed with scarlet, and had the assured or pert manner of all traveling sawdust performers.
"Oh, yes," exclaimed a bright woman in the crowd, "Happy John was sure enough one of Wade Hampton's slaves, and he's right good looking when he's not blackened up."
Happy John sustained the promise of his name by spontaneous gayety and enjoyment of the fleeting moment; he had a glib tongue and a ready, rude wit, and talked to his audience with a delicious mingling of impudence, deference, and patronage, commenting upon them generally, administering advice and correction in a strain of humor that kept his hearers in a pleased excitement. He handled the banjo and the guitar alternately, and talked all the time when he was not singing. Mary (how much harder featured and brazen a woman is in such a position than a man of the same caliber!) sang, in an untutored treble, songs of sentiment, often risque, in solo and in company with John, but with a cold, indifferent air, in contrast to the rollicking enjoyment of her comrade.
The favorite song, which the crowd compelled her to repeat, touched lightly the uncertainties of love, expressed in the falsetto pathetic refrain:
"Mary's gone away wid de coon."
All this, with the moon, the soft summer night, the mixed crowd of darkies and whites, the stump eloquence of Happy John, the singing, the laughter, the flaring torches, made a wild scene. The entertainment was quite free, with a "collection" occasionally during the performance.
What most impressed us, however, was the turning to account by Happy John of the "nigger" side of the black man as a means of low comedy, and the enjoyment of it by all the people of color. They appeared to appreciate as highly as anybody the comic element in themselves, and Happy John had emphasized it by deepening his natural color and exaggerating the "nigger" peculiarities. I presume none of them analyzed the nature of his infectious gayety, nor thought of the pathos that lay so close to it, in the fact of his recent slavery, and the distinction of being one of Wade Hampton's niggers, and the melancholy mirth of this light-hearted race's burlesque of itself.
A performance followed which called forth the appreciation of the crowd more than the wit of Happy John or the faded songs of the yellow girl. John took two sweet-cakes and broke each in fine pieces into a saucer, and after sugaring and eulogizing the dry messes, called for two small darky volunteers from the audience to come up on the platform and devour them. He offered a prize of fifteen cents to the one who should first eat the contents of his dish, not using his hands, and hold up the saucer empty in token of his victory. The cake was tempting, and the fifteen cents irresistible, and a couple of boys in ragged shirts and short trousers and a suspender apiece came up shamefacedly to enter for the prize. Each one grasped his saucer in both hands, and with face over the dish awaited the word "go," which John gave, and started off the contest with a banjo accompaniment. To pick up with the mouth the dry cake and choke it down was not so easy as the boys apprehended, but they went into the task with all their might, gobbling and swallowing as if they loved cake, occasionally rolling an eye to the saucer of the contestant to see the relative progress, John strumming, ironically encouraging, and the crowd roaring. As the combat deepened and the contestants strangled and stuffed and sputtered, the crowd went into spasms of laughter. The smallest boy won by a few seconds, holding up his empty saucer, with mouth stuffed, vigorously trying to swallow, like a chicken with his throat clogged with dry meal, and utterly unable to speak. The impartial John praised the victor in mock heroics, but said that the trial was so even that he would divide the prize, ten cents to one and five to the other—a stroke of justice that greatly increased his popularity. And then he dismissed the assembly, saying that he had promised the mayor to do so early, because he did not wish to run an opposition to the political meeting going on in the courthouse.
The scene in the large court-room was less animated than that out-doors; a half-dozen tallow dips, hung on the wall in sconces and stuck on the judge's long desk, feebly illuminated the mixed crowd of black and white who sat in, and on the backs of, the benches, and cast only a fitful light upon the orator, who paced back and forth and pounded the rail. It was to have been a joint discussion between the two presidential electors running in that district, but, the Republican being absent, his place was taken by a young man of the town. The Democratic orator took advantage of the absence of his opponent to describe the discussion of the night before, and to give a portrait of his adversary. He was represented as a cross between a baboon and a jackass, who would be a natural curiosity for Barnum. "I intend," said the orator, "to put him in a cage and exhibit him about the deestrict." This political hit called forth great applause. All his arguments were of this pointed character, and they appeared to be unanswerable. The orator appeared to prove that there wasn't a respectable man in the opposite party who wasn't an office-holder, nor a white man of any kind in it who was not an office-holder. If there were any issues or principles in the canvass, he paid his audience the compliment of knowing all about them, for he never alluded to any. In another state of society, such a speech of personalities might have led to subsequent shootings, but no doubt his adversary would pay him in the same coin when next they met, and the exhibition seemed to be regarded down here as satisfactory and enlightened political canvassing for votes. The speaker who replied, opened his address with a noble tribute to woman (as the first speaker had ended his), directed to a dozen of that sex who sat in the gloom of a corner. The young man was moderate in his sarcasm, and attempted to speak of national issues, but the crowd had small relish for that sort of thing. At eleven o'clock, when we got away from the unsavory room (more than half the candles had gone out), the orator was making slow headway against the refished blackguardism of the evening. The german was still "on" at the hotel when we ascended to our chamber, satisfied that Asheville was a lively town.
The sojourner at Asheville can amuse himself very well by walking or driving to the many picturesque points of view about the town; livery stables abound, and the roads are good. The Beau-catcher Hill is always attractive; and Connolly's, a private place a couple of miles from town, is ideally situated, being on a slight elevation in the valley, commanding the entire circuit of mountains, for it has the air of repose which is so seldom experienced in the location of a dwelling in America whence an extensive prospect is given. Or if the visitor is disinclined to exertion, he may lounge in the rooms of the hospitable Asheville Club; or he may sit on the sidewalk in front of the hotels, and talk with the colonels and judges and generals and ex-members of Congress, the talk generally drifting to the new commercial and industrial life of the South, and only to politics as it affects these; and he will be pleased, if the conversation takes a reminiscent turn, with the lack of bitterness and the tone of friendliness. The negro problem is commonly discussed philosophically and without heat, but there is always discovered, underneath, the determination that the negro shall never again get the legislative upper hand. And the gentleman from South Carolina who has an upland farm, and is heartily glad slavery is gone, and wants the negro educated, when it comes to ascendency in politics —such as the State once experienced—asks you what you would do yourself. This is not the place to enter upon the politico-social question, but the writer may note one impression gathered from much friendly and agreeable conversation. It is that the Southern whites misapprehend and make a scarecrow of "social equality." When, during the war, it was a question at the North of giving the colored people of the Northern States the ballot, the argument against it used to be stated in the form of a question: "Do you want your daughter to marry a negro?" Well, the negro has his political rights in the North, and there has come no change in the social conditions whatever. And there is no doubt that the social conditions would remain exactly as they are at the South if the negro enjoyed all the civil rights which the Constitution tries to give him. The most sensible view of this whole question was taken by an intelligent colored man, whose brother was formerly a representative in Congress. "Social equality," he said in effect, "is a humbug. We do not expect it, we do not want it. It does not exist among the blacks themselves. We have our own social degrees, and choose our own associates. We simply want the ordinary civil rights, under which we can live and make our way in peace and amity. This is necessary to our self-respect, and if we have not self-respect, it is not to be supposed that the race can improve. I'll tell you what I mean. My wife is a modest, intelligent woman, of good manners, and she is always neat, and tastefully dressed. Now, if she goes to take the cars, she is not permitted to go into a clean car with decent people, but is ordered into one that is repellent, and is forced into company that any refined woman would shrink from. But along comes a flauntingly dressed woman, of known disreputable character, whom my wife would be disgraced to know, and she takes any place that money will buy. It is this sort of thing that hurts."
We took the eastern train one evening to Round Nob (Henry's Station), some thirty miles, in order to see the wonderful railway that descends, a distance of eight miles, from the summit of Swannanoa Gap (2657 feet elevation) to Round Nob Hotel (1607 feet). The Swannanoa Summit is the dividing line between the waters that flow to the Atlantic and those that go to the Gulf of Mexico. This fact was impressed upon us by the inhabitants, who derive a good deal of comfort from it. Such divides are always matter of local pride. Unfortunately, perhaps, it was too dark before we reached Henry's to enable us to see the road in all its loops and parallels as it appears on the map, but we gained a better effect. The hotel, when we first sighted it, all its windows blazing with light, was at the bottom of a well. Beside it—it was sufficiently light to see that —a column of water sprang straight into the air to the height, as we learned afterwards from two official sources, of 225 and 265 feet; and the information was added that it is the highest fountain in the world. This stout column, stiff as a flagstaff, with its feathery head of mist gleaming like silver in the failing light, had the most charming effect. We passed out of sight of hotel and fountain, but were conscious of being—whirled on a circular descending grade, and very soon they were in sight again. Again and again they disappeared and came to view, now on one side and now on the other, until our train seemed to be bewitched, making frantic efforts by dodgings and turnings, now through tunnels and now over high pieces of trestle, to escape the inevitable attraction that was gravitating it down to the hospitable lights at the bottom of the well. When we climbed back up the road in the morning, we had an opportunity to see the marvelous engineering, but there is little else to see, the view being nearly always very limited.
The hotel at the bottom of the ravine, on the side of Round Nob, offers little in the way of prospect, but it is a picturesque place, and we could understand why it was full of visitors when we came to the table. It was probably the best-kept house of entertainment in the State, and being in the midst of the Black Hills, it offers good chances for fishing and mountain climbing.
In the morning the fountain, which is, of course, artificial, refused to play, the rain in the night having washed in debris which clogged the conduit. But it soon freed itself and sent up for a long time, like a sulky geyser, mud and foul water. When it got freedom and tolerable clearness, we noted that the water went up in pulsations, which were marked at short distances by the water falling off, giving the column the appearance of a spine. The summit, always beating the air in efforts to rise higher, fell over in a veil of mist.
There are certain excursions that the sojourner at Asheville must make. He must ride forty-five miles south through Henderson and Transylvania to Caesar's Head, on the South Carolina border, where the mountain system abruptly breaks down into the vast southern plain; where the observer, standing on the edge of the precipice, has behind him and before him the greatest contrast that nature can offer. He must also take the rail to Waynesville, and visit the much-frequented White Sulphur Springs, among the Balsam Mountains, and penetrate the Great Smoky range by way of Quallatown, and make the acquaintance of the remnant of Cherokee Indians living on the north slope of Cheoah Mountain. The Professor could have made it a matter of personal merit that he escaped all these encounters with wild and picturesque nature, if his horse had not been too disabled for such long jaunts. It is only necessary, however, to explain to the public that the travelers are not gormandizers of scenery, and were willing to leave some portions of the State to the curiosity of future excursionists.
But so much was said about Hickory Nut Gap that a visit to it could not be evaded. The Gap is about twenty-four miles southeast of Asheville. In the opinion of a well-informed colonel, who urged us to make the trip, it is the finest piece of scenery it this region. We were brought up on the precept "get the best," and it was with high anticipations that we set out about eleven o'clock one warm, foggy morning. We followed a very good road through a broken, pleasant country, gradually growing wilder and less cultivated. There was heavy rain most of the day on the hills, and occasionally a shower swept across our path. The conspicuous object toward which we traveled all the morning was a shapely conical hill at the beginning of the Gap.
At three o'clock we stopped at the Widow Sherrill's for dinner. Her house, only about a mile from the summit, is most picturesquely situated on a rough slope, giving a wide valley and mountain view. The house is old rambling, many-roomed, with wide galleries on two sides. If one wanted a retired retreat for a few days, with good air and fair entertainment, this could be commended. It is an excellent fruit region; apples especially are sound and of good flavor. That may be said of all this part of the State. The climate is adapted to apples, as the hilly part of New England is. I fancy the fruit ripens slowly, as it does in New England, and is not subject to quick decay like much of that grown in the West. But the grape also can be grown in all this mountain region. Nothing but lack of enterprise prevents any farmer from enjoying abundance of fruit. The industry carried on at the moment at the Widow Sherrill's was the artificial drying of apples for the market. The apples are pared, cored, and sliced in spirals, by machinery, and dried on tin sheets in a patented machine. The industry appears to be a profitable one hereabouts, and is about the only one that calls in the aid of invention.
While our dinner was preparing, we studied the well-known pictures of "Jane" and "Eliza," the photographs of Confederate boys, who had never returned from the war, and the relations, whom the traveling photographers always like to pillory in melancholy couples, and some stray volumes of the Sunday-school Union. Madame Sherrill, who carries on the farm since the death of her husband, is a woman of strong and liberal mind, who informed us that she got small comfort in the churches in the neighborhood, and gave us, in fact, a discouraging account of the unvital piety of the region.
The descent from the summit of the Gap to Judge Logan's, nine miles, is rapid, and the road is wild and occasionally picturesque, following the Broad River, a small stream when we first overtook it, but roaring, rocky, and muddy, owing to frequent rains, and now and then tumbling down in rapids. The noisy stream made the ride animated, and an occasional cabin, a poor farmhouse, a mill, a schoolhouse, a store with an assemblage of lean horses tied to the hitching rails, gave the Professor opportunity for remarks upon the value of life under such circumstances.
The valley which we followed down probably owes its celebrity to the uncommon phenomena of occasional naked rocks and precipices. The inclosing mountains are from 3000 to 4000 feet high, and generally wooded. I do not think that the ravine would be famous in a country where exposed ledges and buttressing walls of rock are common. It is only by comparison with the local scenery that this is remarkable. About a mile above judge Logan's we caught sight, through the trees, of the famous waterfall. From the top of the high ridge on the right, a nearly perpendicular cascade pours over the ledge of rocks and is lost in the forest. We could see nearly the whole of it, at a great height above us, on the opposite side of the river, and it would require an hour's stiff climb to reach its foot. From where we viewed it, it seemed a slender and not very important, but certainly a very beautiful cascade, a band of silver in the mass of green foliage. The fall is said to be 1400 feet. Our colonel insists that it is a thousand. It may be, but the valley where we stood is at least at an elevation of 1300 feet; we could not believe that the ridge over which the water pours is much higher than 3000 feet, and the length of the fall certainly did not appear to be a quarter of the height of the mountain from our point of observation. But we had no desire to belittle this pretty cascade, especially when we found that Judge Logan would regard a foot abated from the 1400 as a personal grievance. Mr. Logan once performed the functions of local judge, a Republican appointment, and he sits around the premises now in the enjoyment of that past dignity and of the fact that his wife is postmistress. His house of entertainment is at the bottom of the valley, a place shut in, warm, damp, and not inviting to a long stay, although the region boasts a good many natural curiosities.
It was here that we encountered again the political current, out of which we had been for a month. The Judge himself was reticent, as became a public man, but he had conspicuously posted up a monster prospectus, sent out from Augusta, of a campaign life of Blaine and Logan, in which the Professor read, with shaking knees, this sentence: "Sure to be the greatest and hottest [campaign and civil battle] ever known in this world. The thunder of the supreme struggle and its reverberations will shake the continents for months, and will be felt from Pole to Pole."
For this and other reasons this seemed a risky place to be in. There was something sinister about the murky atmosphere, and a suspicion of mosquitoes besides. Had there not been other travelers staying here, we should have felt still more uneasy. The house faced Bald Mountain, 4000 feet high, a hill that had a very bad reputation some years ago, and was visited by newspaper reporters. This is, in fact, the famous Shaking Mountain. For a long time it had a habit of trembling, as if in an earthquake spasm, but with a shivering motion very different from that produced by an earthquake. The only good that came of it was that it frightened all the "moonshiners," and caused them to join the church. It is not reported what became of the church afterwards. It is believed now that the trembling was caused by the cracking of a great ledge on the mountain, which slowly parted asunder. Bald Mountain is the scene of Mrs. Burnett's delightful story of "Louisiana," and of the play of "Esmeralda." A rock is pointed out toward the summit, which the beholder is asked to see resembles a hut, and which is called "Esmeralda's Cottage." But this attractive maiden has departed, and we did not discover any woman in the region who remotely answers to her description.
In the morning we rode a mile and a half through the woods and followed up a small stream to see the celebrated pools, one of which the Judge said was two hundred feet deep, and another bottomless. These pools, not round, but on one side circular excavations, some twenty feet across, worn in the rock by pebbles, are very good specimens, and perhaps remarkable specimens, of "pot-holes." They are, however, regarded here as one of the wonders of the world. On the way to them we saw beautiful wild trumpet-creepers in blossom, festooning the trees.
The stream that originates in Hickory Nut Gap is the westernmost branch of several forks of the Broad, which unite to the southeast in Rutherford County, flow to Columbia, and reach the Atlantic through the channel of the Santee. It is not to be confounded with the French Broad, which originates among the hills of Transylvania, runs northward past Asheville, and finds its way to the Tennessee through the Warm Springs Gap in the Bald Mountains. As the French claimed ownership of all the affluents of the Mississippi, this latter was called the French Broad.
It was a great relief the next morning, on our return, to rise out of the lifeless atmosphere of the Gap into the invigorating air at the Widow Sherrill's, whose country-seat is three hundred feet higher than Asheville. It was a day of heavy showers, and apparently of leisure to the scattered population; at every store and mill was a congregation of loafers, who had hitched their scrawny horses and mules to the fences, and had the professional air of the idler and gossip the world over. The vehicles met on the road were a variety of the prairie schooner, long wagons with a top of hoops over which is stretched a cotton cloth. The wagons are without seats, and the canvas is too low to admit of sitting upright, if there were. The occupants crawl in at either end, sit or lie on the bottom of the wagon, and jolt along in shiftless uncomfortableness.
Riding down the French Broad was one of the original objects of our journey. Travelers with the same intention may be warned that the route on horseback is impracticable. The distance to the Warm Springs is thirty-seven miles; to Marshall, more than halfway, the road is clear, as it runs on the opposite side of the river from the railway, and the valley is something more than river and rails. But below Marshall the valley contracts, and the rails are laid a good portion of the way in the old stage road. One can walk the track, but to ride a horse over its sleepers and culverts and occasional bridges, and dodge the trains, is neither safe nor agreeable. We sent our horses round—the messenger taking the risk of leading them, between trains, over the last six or eight miles,—and took the train.
The railway, after crossing a mile or two of meadows, hugs the river all the way. The scenery is the reverse of bold. The hills are low, monotonous in form, and the stream winds through them, with many a pretty turn and "reach," with scarcely a ribbon of room to spare on either side. The river is shallow, rapid, stony, muddy, full of rocks, with an occasional little island covered with low bushes. The rock seems to be a clay formation, rotten and colored. As we approach Warm Springs the scenery becomes a little bolder, and we emerge into the open space about the Springs through a narrower defile, guarded by rocks that are really picturesque in color and splintered decay, one of them being known, of course, as the "Lover's Leap," a name common in every part of the modern or ancient world where there is a settlement near a precipice, with always the same legend attached to it.
There is a little village at Warm Springs, but the hotel—since burned and rebuilt—(which may be briefly described as a palatial shanty) stands by itself close to the river, which is here a deep, rapid, turbid stream. A bridge once connected it with the road on the opposite bank, but it was carried away three or four years ago, and its ragged butments stand as a monument of procrastination, while the stream is crossed by means of a flatboat and a cable. In front of the hotel, on the slight slope to the river, is a meager grove of locusts. The famous spring, close to-the stream, is marked only by a rough box of wood and an iron pipe, and the water, which has a temperature of about one hundred degrees, runs to a shabby bath-house below, in which is a pool for bathing. The bath is very agreeable, the tepid water being singularly soft and pleasant. It has a slightly sulphurous taste. Its good effects are much certified. The grounds, which might be very pretty with care, are ill-kept and slatternly, strewn with debris, as if everything was left to the easy-going nature of the servants. The main house is of brick, with verandas and galleries all round, and a colonnade of thirteen huge brick and stucco columns, in honor of the thirteen States,—a relic of post-Revolutionary times, when the house was the resort of Southern fashion and romance. These columns have stood through one fire, and perhaps the recent one, which swept away the rest of the structure. The house is extended in a long wooden edifice, with galleries and outside stairs, the whole front being nearly seven hundred feet long. In a rear building is a vast, barrack-like dining-room, with a noble ball-room above, for dancing is the important occupation of visitors.
The situation is very pretty, and the establishment has a picturesqueness of its own. Even the ugly little brick structure near the bath-house imposes upon one as Wade Hampton's cottage. No doubt we liked the place better than if it had been smart, and enjoyed the neglige condition, and the easy terms on which life is taken there. There was a sense of abundance in the sight of fowls tiptoeing about the verandas, and to meet a chicken in the parlor was a sort of guarantee that we should meet him later on in the dining-room. There was nothing incongruous in the presence of pigs, turkeys, and chickens on the grounds; they went along with the good-natured negro-service and the general hospitality; and we had a mental rest in the thought that all the gates would have been off the hinges, if there had been any gates. The guests were very well treated indeed, and were put under no sort of restraint by discipline. The long colonnade made an admirable promenade and lounging-place and point of observation. It was interesting to watch the groups under the locusts, to see the management of the ferry, the mounting and dismounting of the riding-parties, and to study the colors on the steep hill opposite, halfway up which was a neat cottage and flower-garden. The type of people was very pleasantly Southern. Colonels and politicians stand in groups and tell stories, which are followed by explosions of laughter; retire occasionally into the saloon, and come forth reminded of more stories, and all lift their hats elaborately and suspend the narratives when a lady goes past. A company of soldiers from Richmond had pitched its tents near the hotel, and in the evening the ball-room was enlivened with uniforms. Among the graceful dancers—and every one danced well, and with spirit was pointed out the young widow of a son of Andrew Johnson, whose pretty cottage overlooks the village. But the Professor, to whom this information was communicated, doubted whether here it was not a greater distinction to be the daughter of the owner of this region than to be connected with a President of the United States.
A certain air of romance and tradition hangs about the French Broad and the Warm Springs, which the visitor must possess himself of in order to appreciate either. This was the great highway of trade and travel. At certain seasons there was an almost continuous procession of herds of cattle and sheep passing to the Eastern markets, and of trains of big wagons wending their way to the inviting lands watered by the Tennessee. Here came in the summer-time the Southern planters in coach and four, with a great retinue of household servants, and kept up for months that unique social life, a mixture of courtly ceremony and entire freedom, the civilization which had the drawing-room at one end and the negro-quarters at the other,—which has passed away. It was a continuation into our own restless era of the manners and the literature of George the Third, with the accompanying humor and happy-go-lucky decadence of the negro slaves. On our way down we saw on the river-bank, under the trees, the old hostelry, Alexander's, still in decay,—an attractive tavern, that was formerly one of the notable stopping-places on the river. Master, and fine lady, and obsequious, larking darky, and lumbering coach, and throng of pompous and gay life, have all disappeared. There was no room in this valley for the old institutions and for the iron track.
"When in the chronicle of wasted time I see descriptions of the fairest wights, And beauty making beautiful old rhyme In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights, We, which now behold these present days, Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise."
This perverted use of noble verse was all the response the Friend got in his attempt to drop into the sentimental vein over the past of the French Broad.
The reader must not think there is no enterprise in this sedative and idle resort. The conceited Yankee has to learn that it is not he alone who can be accused of the thrift of craft. There is at the Warm Springs a thriving mill for crushing and pulverizing barites, known vulgarly as heavy-spar. It is the weight of this heaviest of minerals, and not its lovely crystals, that gives it value. The rock is crushed, washed, sorted out by hand, to remove the foreign substances, then ground and subjected to acids, and at the end of the process it is as white and fine as the best bolted flour. This heavy adulterant is shipped to the North in large quantities,—the manager said he had recently an order for a hundred thousand dollars' worth of it. What is the use of this powder? Well, it is of use to the dealer who sells white lead for paint, to increase the weight of the lead, and it is the belief hereabouts that it is mixed with powdered sugar. The industry is profitable to those engaged in it.
It was impossible to get much information about our route into Tennessee, except that we should go by Paint Rock, and cross Paint Mountain. Late one morning,—a late start is inevitable here, —accompanied by a cavalcade, we crossed the river by the rope ferry, and trotted down the pretty road, elevated above the stream and tree-shaded, offering always charming glimpses of swift water and overhanging foliage (the railway obligingly taking the other side of the river), to Paint Rock,—six miles. This Paint Rock is a naked precipice by the roadside, perhaps sixty feet high, which has a large local reputation. It is said that its face shows painting done by the Indians, and hieroglyphics which nobody can read. On this bold, crumbling cliff, innumerable visitors have written their names. We stared at it a good while to discover the paint and hieroglyphics, but could see nothing except iron stains. Round the corner is a farmhouse and place of call for visitors, a neat cottage, with a display of shells and minerals and flower-pots; and here we turned north crossed the little stream called Paint River, the only clear water we had seen in a month, passed into the State of Tennessee, and by a gentle ascent climbed Paint Mountain. The open forest road, with the murmur of the stream below, was delightfully exhilarating, and as we rose the prospect opened,—the lovely valley below, Bald Mountains behind us, and the Butt Mountains rising as we came over the ridge.