Saturday, October 10, 2009

Stepping Back in Time...and Out on a Ledge!

I was so proud of myself! For once I hadn't made my hotel reservation six weeks (if not six months) in advance. Of course, that was because I was waiting to see how the weather played out during my week's vacation...

This was to be the beginning of getting reference photos and sketches for a "scenic NC" painting series. Old Salem (located in Winston-Salem) was closed on Mondays. The weather report indicated that the sunny day of the week would be Thursday, followed by a partly-cloudy Friday. Armed with a new car player for my new iPod Nano, plus a few Pepto pills because I was a tad queasy, I set off.

Found my hotel after taking the exit after the one I was supposed to. It was definitely okay. My room was supposed to have been $130, but I got an AAA/AARP discount for $78. They never asked to see my card. Never checked my picture ID when I presented my CC either.

Hotel customers had to park in the back, which had a stairway to connect it to the hotel. Where was the handicap-accessible entry, I wondered. The rooms wing was connected to the conference wing by another flight of stairs, this time with a strange handrailing that looked like some kind of automation was in place, maybe perhaps. Weird.

When I left, ambulance personnel were trying to get their empty gurney up that flight of stairs. They needed help to do so. When I stood in line at check-out, one of the hotel people had to WAIT (I motioned for him to go ahead) to get the key to unlock the mechanism that would allow them to affix a pallet to the railing so they could load the gurney onto that for their return journey.

How awful is that?

The hotel folks had assured me that Old Salem was 2 1/2 blocks from them, easy walking distance. It turned out that the Old Salem historic district was about five blocks from them at its nearest, but that the business end of OS with all the exhibits and stuff was a few miles away. Glad I took the car.

Old Salem, a restored village clustered around Salem Academy, is a town the Moravians founded when an offshoot of that sect came to NC from PA. Guides dress in historic costumes and many buildings are open to show what life was like way back when. Centuries alternate: 18th Century one day and 19th Century the next. Some buildings are open during the 18th Century and others only open during the 19th.

If you want to tour the buildings and get all the lectures, the cost is about $20. You can walk around for free (which of course is what I chose to do).

The oddest part of it all is that, way back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I attended Salem Academy for 6 weeks one summer as part of NC Governor's School. I had absolutely no recollection of Old Salem except the sugar cake and the nauseating smell of the tobacco factories downtown. Walking around the Academy just a bit, I had little memory of it. The dorms all looked alike; I couldn't recognize the one I stayed in, much less which building I had French in. Maybe it was all too traumatic? I hit myself on the head. I'd stayed practically all summer in my room, when there was all this interesting STUFF out there to walk around to see! Duhh!

But Old Salem was delightful. There were only three school buses in the visitor center, school was in session, and so there were few families with children about. I strolled for four hours to my heart's content, and there were public restrooms available for when the Pepto didn't quite work as well as it should have.

I really should have looked at the gardens more carefully. They had all ranges of gardens to show what the town as a whole would have raised, to what individual houses would have, to what the Single Brothers would be growing, etc. (The Moravians housed their unmarried people in dormitories.)

The Salem Tavern only required a 15-minute wait for lunch, during which I was regaled by stories from one party who talked about their worldly trah-vels and Mercedes Benzes and such. My table opened up and I was led into a room with another couple eating, and then a party of eight women from some local club. They talked loudly about how they were going to split the check (the menu clearly stated one table, one check, but they managed to talk the waitress into two checks). It was money, money before they were served, then one woman complained at great volume that her German potato salad was just roasted potatoes, money, potatoes, money, potatoes, then they got the check and it was money money money and then a little more about the potatoes. What a lovely lunch they must have had! (One of the ladies came up to me as they were leaving and said she hoped they hadn't been too loud.)

As for me, I was presented with a bread bowl containing a light-as-air wheat roll and a tiny pumpkin muffin that obliterated everything with a heavenly waft of cinnamon, ginger and pumpkin. The tavern knew how to make real iced tea, just perfectly right, ahhh. I ordered the blackened chicken salad, thinking that was the safest thing stomach-wise and most healthy item. It was covered with sinus-clearing spices. Okay, sue me. I'd never had blackened anything before. I didn't know. But it was lovely!

(I heard two non-money/potato comments from the other ladies: that the chicken pot pie was presented beautifully and the pot roast was delicious.)

After lunch I went upstairs to the Facilities (again, where was handicapped access?) (the public restrooms located in two places in the village were the only wheelchair access places I could see), and found the world's tiniest semi-modern bathroom. One of the stalls had a door that opened inward, so it hit the front of the toilet. Because of the placement of the toilet paper holder, one had about six inches--maybe less--to wedge oneself inside. Luckily for me, the other stall's door opened outward. It was still tricky to move inside, but whatever needed to be done was possible if one was determined enough.

The day was gorgeous and the houses were picturesque. Because there were so few people there, I got to chat with some of the costumed folks who hung around their doors waiting for patrons. So friendly! Oddly, everyone was concerned that Hillsborough's (where I work) Colonial Inn is still closed after being the longest-functioning inn in the US. I assured them all that it is finally undergoing extremely extensive renovations. (Asbestos and lead were merely the first of the problems the latest owners have to overcome.) (And in my experience, the food was lousy and quite over-priced there anyway.)

Over at the Book & Gift Shop I got in a bit of trouble when their computer broke down after half-charging me for my purchase. I gave them name & address so they could contact me later once they'd straightened things out to see if I'd been double-charged, and then went upstairs to see the little art gallery they have. I wanted to see what my competition was. They had a few really nice paintings, but most were (sorry!) very amateurish but with high prices. The gallery takes a 25% commission. When I came downstairs, the people were delighted to see me as the system was online and I had indeed been double-charged, and if I could fish out my CC again we could straighten everything out. Which we did.

The largest crowd of course was at the C. Winkler Bakery, where there was a line to purchase the goodies. Most of the cookies and coffees could be bought elsewhere in town (and at ), but here you could also get fresh-baked breads, scones... and the famous Moravian sugar cake. I'm afraid I was responsible for getting two families to buy some. Now they'll be hooked for life. (You can buy the stuff online as well. Wrap the cake well and put it in your freezer, then bring it out and heat it up for serving.)

Walked a bit more, took something like 80 pictures, and realized I hadn't applied sun screen. Still, with all the overhanging trees it was fairly shady (which was why I was aiming for a sunny day and not a partly-sunny one), so things weren't that bad.

Eventually I took my shaky stomach back to the car and headed back to the hotel. I was going to go out to "Restaurant Row" on 4th street to see what I could find, but ye stomach advised staying in. The hotel made an excellent hamburger. Not so great slaw. Okay salad. Good tea. (But they always forgot to bring sweetener.)

Stomach didn't let me sleep much that night. Got a late start as I catered to it, and finally figured I could stand a quick trip to Pilot Mountain, though I didn't think I could take in Mt. Airy, located about 10 miles further down the road. (Darn, I wanted to get a shot of the "Snappy Lunch" diner, which came BEFORE the TV show, not after.) The day was not the "partly sunny" day the weatherman had promised. It was overcast, but every now and then the clouds would clear. It might make for good pictures at that if I timed things right.

As I drove down Hwy 52, I suddenly got a very good glimpse of Pilot Mtn through a break in the trees, like, boom, there it was from nowhere. There didn't seem to be other mountains in the area, though there was a high horizon far beyond. Ignoring every safety rule, I dug into my tour bag for my camera, got it out, turned it on, and managed a couple shots through the windshield in the next few miles.

Then the state actually gave us a "Photo Op Viewpoint": an exit, a parking lot, and a ramp back onto the highway. I got out and took a shot, then got back on the highway.

The next time I saw the mountain it had gone all blue. Darn! Some cloud must be sitting on it. It'd probably be all foggy by the time I got there.

Then the sky fell in. I drove through a mammoth downpour. Some partly cloudy! But the turnoff was right ahead. I took it. The information station turned out to just be a ranger station with a map posted outside (and public bathrooms).The rain was just a drizzle now. Oh, what the heck. I was here. I figured there'd be an outlook at that bump just to the left of the knob where I could take a few pictures looking up at it. The map didn't seem like the road would be that long.

So I took the left fork and started going up. And up. And seriously UP. It was a tiny paved road. There was zero shoulder on the side I was on (a part of me said thank goodness, I'll be against the mountain coming down). Occasionally there'd be a barrier made of short pieces of 2x4's that looked like I'd been in charge of the hammering and sawing. I didn't trust it at all. I drove down, or rather up, the center of the two-lane road at 15 mph (speed limit was 25 except on the curves, which were many), and thanked the universe that I seemed to be the only car up here.

Well after I thought the road should have come to an end, just about the time I was beginning to get dizzy from panic at being so incredibly high (don't look down! I ordered myself whenever a bit on my right opened up), I finally arrived at a parking lot (and public bathroom) with wood-fenced overlooks. We were at the very top of the mountain, looking down. There was no mountain to photograph, just the view. While I'd been sweating and making bargains with God, the rain had completely disappeared and the sky was blue.

(Okay, we weren't at the VERY top, but were close enough. Near enough to sneeze at it. There were trails around us, including one called the "Pinnacle View" trail, but I was too dizzy and sick to consider taking it. Studying the map afterward, it still seems to me like we must have been within just a few lateral feet of the very top of the place.) ('Scuze me; I'm starting to feel ill just remembering it.)

I didn't really feel like taking in the view. My heart was pounding, I was dizzy, and worst of all, if I actually had a heart attack or full-out panic attack, if I could actually get out a 911 call (was there reception up here?) for help, at some point I'd have to return for my car and drive back down.

I had a serious talk with myself in the rest room, and finally, not looking at all the sky surrounding us at eye-level, I quaked back to the car. Praying furiously, I put it in second gear and started down. At one point I may actually have made it to 23 mph, but I tried to keep it at 15. My brakes had been done recently; I hoped the mechanic had done a good job.

At last! The ranger station! I put the car in drive and didn't recall from before how steep it was getting up to that point. But I made it to the stop sign below the station, and from there it was a hop back to the LEVEL highway and home.

Uhh. Must remember... DO NOT ATTEMPT HEIGHTS!!! This will certainly eliminate the Blue Ridge Parkway from my list of places to be photographed, unless I do it while it's still relatively low, like it is around Asheville. Think I'll keep to a lot of sea level ocean views instead.

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