Day trippin, off the grid

Renae Brabham

One of the best parts about living in Charleston, is that if you are missing out on a season, you can drive 4 hours in any direction and be in another one. I lived in the foothills of NC for 25 years, so this is a good thing for me.

I don't think there are many flatlander's who don't get a hankering for the hills when the weather cools (yeah right) to a tepid 78 degree's. We love fall too, but rattling palm fronds, pine straw and dead yard leaves just don't do the trick do they? 
That’s why I had no arguments when Don commandeered the fall vacay plans. Destination — Hot Springs, NC. 

I wanted to surprised by the region, so other than checking the altitude (a mere 1332 feet above plough mud) the cabin, it’s amenities and nearby attractions, I didn't Google much else. 
We packed Snowy, our 17 year old Lab, some new flannel shirts, wool socks and hats into the Bertha Butt Expedition we rented for the 4 hour trip. 

The trip had a rocky start. Don believe a road breakfast is the best way to start a vacation.. His favorite? The old tried and true, smothered and covered at Waffle House. We didn't make it far down the road, Orangeburg to be exact, when he pulled off of the interstate.  “The good ole Waffle House.” he exclaims. That was until this morning, let's just say, both the food and the service put the affle in Waffle. Don shook his head in disbelief for miles later. "This isn't good, this is an omen." 


Fortunately that wasn't the case, but the trip sure wasn't shy of it's hairy moments. What I DIDN'T Google was the altitude of the pass BEFORE the valley town of Hot Springs, the area of Max Patch to be exact, 4660 feet! 
We lost GPS signal outside of Asheville while searching for a grocery store to stop at before we got to Hot Springs. We stopped at a little country store and bought some beer, wine, bacon and eggs just in case we couldn’t find another store on the way, gratefully so because we didn’t. GPS came back on, but took us (so help me God, I think the thing was set on walking route option) straight up the mountain. Every now and then one of our phones would catch a signal and we were told we were on the right path. Path? Really?


I can't even begin to tell  you how white my knuckles were and how tight my gluteous maximus was. There were hairpin turns every 100 feet with dizzying drop off views for about 30 miles as we climbed that mountain.



Finally at Max Patch we leveled out for a few miles and then I saw it, the driveway to the cabin. It looked like a mule path and we were in a Expedition. It was so steep that when I turned to go up it, it just slung rock and grinded. I had to back up and get a gunned start.

I couldn't see the road at all on the left side of the vehicle, just steep mountain cliff’s and Don wasn’t offering me a single inch from the passenger side.

We unloaded the vehicle and I chewed the cork out of the wine bottle. Don was looking at the amenities book on the table when we realized that we didn't have a phone signal or Wi-Fi.  And—that's how it remained for the next 4 days.

The amenity book told us that there was a phone, a house phone attached to the pump house at the bottom of the hill. We looked on the map and decided that the nearest restaurant was 10 miles from us, down the treacherous driveway, more hills and twisty roads and decided that bacon, eggs and grits would suffice for dinner. Jacuzzi afterwards and reading soothed my frazzled nerves. 


The next morning we ventured down the mountain to check out Hot Springs, found it quite charming!  We didn’t stay out long enough to even chance coming back after dark. Smokey Mountain diner was our favorite restaurant, we came down the hill every day to eat there.

Hot Springs is a resort town about a mile long. They pack a lot in that mile — a couple of general stores, art, 3 restaurants, library and welcome center. The welcome center is adorable and informative. I asked the attendant “Is there an easier way to get back down the mountain than where we came in?” 

He chuckled when I told him of the road we were on, “You came in on the Rattler.” he told me. “That road doesn’t hold a candle to this one though.” he said as he pointed to a squiggly road on a tourism map.


The only way I know how to describe it is that it looked like a print off of an EKG monitor. He told us that these roads were some of the favorites for biker’s.

When we left I wondered why a town as quaint as Hot Springs would have a Welcome Center. But then remembered the nearby spa. There has a been a resort facility at Hot Springs since the mid early 1800's.

However, the Native Americans were celebrating the benefits of the springs for centuries before and were the first to discover the 100-plus degree mineral water from which the Town of Hot Springs received its name.

They often held spiritual ceremonies five miles down the French Broad River at Paint Rock where some of North Carolina’s best known examples of American Indian pictograph’s can still be seen today. Traders from the colonies came next.

By 1778, the lame and the sick were traveling over the mountains to the hot springs for the healing waters. The industry from word of the healing waters facilitated the building of several hotels over the years, sadly all burned down.

Most famous, the Mountain Park hotel, a 200 room facility was touted as one of the most elegant resorts in the country during its heyday. It consisted of barns, stables, spring house and a bath house with sixteen marble pools.

The pristine property was surrounded by landscaped lawns, croquet, tennis courts and a nine hole golf course. Today, the sleepy little town fueled by commerce of the railroad is still a destination for those who want to rest their weary bones. 

Another gem of the trip was Sandy Bottom Trail Rides. My oldest granddaughter Abby and I enjoyed a 3 hour trail ride. I knew it was going to be an interesting day when we pulled up. There was a lot of clamoring going on when we got out of the car.



A group gathered on the porch of the barn office. 

"He's got something cornered again." A lady yelled and pointed to a wood pile and some scrap building items at the base of the mountain.
"I'll go see what he's got" a man said as he headed across the field. We looked over to see a Jack Russell giving something a little "down in the country." We all met together on the porch about the time the man got to the dog. 

"I bet it's a wolf rat, they are huge! I sure hope he doesn‘t bring it over here!" the lady, Jacquelyn said. We all looked on as the man in the field picked up the 8 foot PVC pipe, the object of Peanut's affection and bounced it on the ground.

At that point I didn’t know whether to root for the furry object in the pipe or the anxious furry dog at the end of the pipe opening. The dog stood attentively at the base of the pipe when the man bounced it to the ground, nothing came out. He then turned the pipe over and bounced the other end. A rabbit shot out of the pipe and up the mountain with Peanut in hot pursuit. We didn’t see him again the rest of the day.  

I was so looking forward to this horseback ride but hurt my back before we went. I called ahead to tell them that I wouldn't be able to ride and Jackie Ball, the owner assured me they would take care of me. He actually said "We'll have it figured out when you get here."

When we pulled up a Polaris ranger sat in front of the office for me to ride behind Abby on the trail! It wasn’t nearly the same as riding, but I hadn’t been behind her on a horse in 15 years and the last time she was missing a tooth or two.

So, it was priceless when she turned back in the saddle to smile at me as she had done so many years ago. 

It was the first really cold day of the year and although we weren't dressed like Floridian's, we could have done better in the clothing department. Bruce saddled up Big Jim for Abby and his horse Buck and we edged in behind them. 

Sandy Bottom Trail Rides is part of a 500 acre farm that encompasses some of the most beautiful valley's and peaks in the area. There is even a Garnet Mine on the property that was once mined by Tiffany’s and is a stopover on their most popular 3 hour trail ride.

As we wound our way around the hills and I was just dumbfounded at the views. I don't know how many times I said "Would you just look at that!" to my sweet 4 wheeling Polaris guide. His name is Wild Bill, but he told me that he isn't wild anymore.

I told him I wouldn't trust a soul who told me he was the same as he was 20 years ago. 

Bruce is Abby's trail guide. A sweet gentle soul, the two guides are obviously good friends. Bill tells me "Everyone here is like family, we all get along so well."  

Wild Bill scurried us up a path ahead of the horses to a ridge so that I could take some pictures. I was in awe of the vista’s from there and tried to imagine the sunset weddings clients opt for on this ridge.

Abby and Bruce caught up with us and we dropped back behind them on the way to the garnet mine. These trails aren’t your run of the mill, mindless rides. The sure footed horses seem as proud to show off their environment as we were to enjoy it with them.

At one time Abby was in a full yawn as she checked out a valley to her left. Her horse as if to say “Hey, you are looking in the wrong place” stepped up onto a tiny ridge path overlooking an exceptional view for miles. I giggled when I saw this and mentioned it to her later.

"Yes, my yawn disappeared, just like that when I looked over that ledge." she said. 


When we got to the Little Pine Garnet Mine, we dis-mounted, both Polaris and horses. I could hear tapping coming from what looked like a cave on the side of the mountain.

Abby cut on her cell phone light and we went up inside the mine by it's light, I stopped and foraged the mine floor for garnets, not really knowing what I was looking for. Abby continued upwards by holding the jagged rock ceilings.

She didn’t find anything and came back down. 

I hollered out to the tapping figure, "Did you find anything?" He answered back "Two small ones and one nice large one that I won't get out before sundown." 

When we come out Wild Bill tells us to warm our hands on the exhaust of the muffler, but warns quickly, "Now don't go sticking your hand on it." 

Bruce crawls out of a creek bed and walks over to us. He opens his freezing palm and shows us a handful of raw garnets!! He said when storms come and rocks slide, it's easy to find them in the creek beds. He gives them to us. Maybe the guy in the cave should come creek side!

The trail we took down the hillside took us pass grazing goats and cows, part of the agriculture that sustains this land. The land has been in the same family for 4 generations. Jackie Ball is the owner and is hands on in the operations daily, his granddaughter Jacqueline, grandson and trusted guides assist to share their heritage, this awesome experience they live daily. Leave the glamour, the phones, at the door mat and enjoy.


When we got back, Abby and I quickly followed Bruce and Wild Bill, we knew they were going to take us to warmth. A pot belly wood stove sure did the trick. The guys hugged us and we expressed our joy for sharing the day with them. 

We stood and talked a few with Jackie and his granddaughter Jacquelyn. I asked about the goats and cows and told Jackie that I love goat meat. “Do you have a recipe for goat meatloaf?" he asked. I told him that I have the best goat meatball recipe in the world and I bet it would make a good meatloaf. He went to a building "out back" and brought me a package of lamb chops and two packages of ground goat and said, “Send me the recipe.”  

We promised to come back and really meant it. The pace of the day, real conversations, absence of phones and notifications took the edge off. I felt like I caught up with myself that day, not so much headed to a destination as much as being in my destination. 

Back at the cabin, Abby and I showed off our raw garnets and recounted the day to Don as we ate a modified (couldn't find linguine pasta) version of Spinach linguine and salad. 

When it was time for Abby to leave, I tearfully waved her down that treacherous drive. I sat in the cabin booth seat she had just left, still warm, but a memory already. I watched from the window on the hill as she circled a curve minutes down the mountain. 

On this last night at the cabin I lazily journaled while curled up in a comfy blanket and flannel jammies.


I read two magazines and then scrawled out my Thanksgiving menu while sipping awesome Sangiovese wine and melt in your mouth cordial chocolates that Don bought me from the Biltmore House. Don and Snowy are both taking a long nap, in front of the fake fire, the ambience was there, but I was glad it didn’t have fake crackle sound effects.  

Don and I opted out of the “Rattler” for the ride down the mountain. We stopped at our favorite restaurant for an breakfast and I brought home two days worth of awesome French toast!! This may indeed be an omen.

Snowy gobbles a piece of our doggie bag bacon from the back seat as we strap up and ready ourselves for the trip home. I am in awe of these hills — both fearful and respectable of them. It takes a different kind of person to live here. I am kind of that person and then I am not.

I’m part Sandlapper too. Hello Charleston!!