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“Would you mind if I take off my shirt?” he said.
He asked me to take a photo and didn’t want to offend. I said I wouldn’t be offended. He smiled, posing atop the 315-foot granite monolith, the Broad River flowing into Lake Lure below, wintry brown treetops and scalloped shadows of the Carolina hills in the distance. He was just 17, the age of my youngest child. Hairless and thin in the chest, an overgrown Rockwellian boy with a puff of muddy brown hair. He had learned his manners.
He said that he and his father had this thing, to shed the shirt when they reached a destination. And, he wanted to send him the photo. He was traveling from Colorado and was just in from Greenville, visiting colleges on his own. He had visited Bob Jones University and Colorado Christian.
“It’s a great time to travel,” he said, referring to the pandemic. “It’s so cheap I can go anywhere. I plan to hit all 50 states.” I put on my feather-down vest and sat on a boulder. Chimney Rock resembled a granite cylinder rising up from the ground and the hike up the stairs had warmed me. At the top, the slight wind made it chilly on this February day.
The Odyssey, the Devil, and Home
On the topic of travel, the adventurer mentioned his reading. “Finished the Iliad and the Odyssey,” Kyle said, that was his name. Kyle. When I asked which epic he preferred, he said, “The Iliad.” Was it the characters, the story. I don’t remember. We talked about Odysseus and finding the way to Ithaka, the decades it took him to get home. Looking at Kyle, his eyes bright and earnest, I was unable to stem my maternal instinct and the insidious cynicism of mid-life.
“It’s not about Ithaka,” I said. “It’s the going and all he dealt with along the way.” The cyclops, Calypso, an angry sea. “You’re richer for what you have lived.” His gaze and expression were emboldened; so naked were his ideals and his dream of the journey. No doubt, the sophisticates and the naysayers and life will tear him down, chip away at his ideals, his Christian values. I thought of Siddhartha and how he had to leave the palace to find enlightenment. Yes, go Kyle. Go.
“The Alchemist,” I said. “You should read it. It’s about James and he reminds me of you.”
He hadn’t heard of it. Paulo Coelho’s book has taken on a myth like status, translated into languages the world over.
“The protagonist is Santiago, actually. Spanish for James. He goes off in search of treasure, meaning, “ I told him the title again in case he forgot. The Alchemist. Maybe it would help him find what he was looking for. Santiago’s search ultimately leads him back to where he began.
Kyle grew up in Colorado and had visited many of the states. He asked if I had been to Sedona, to Arizona. He was taken with the land formations.
“That part of the country is otherworldly,” I said. “The sky in Arizona, a different thing, like an artist’s canvas of colors. It’s not like here, in the hills, not far from where I grew up farther north in the Appalachians.”
In the hills, the sun hits the sky above the trees and the day feels shorter, a wintry glow, peeking through a matchstick silhouette of poplar and birch and oak. I need the mountains and woods like a body needs air, figured that out after leaving. Hills and streams, wooded paths, creaking trees and the whisper of the leaves. Yes, I love Arizona with its tortuous wide-open, the dry air and rocky outcrops. It is a kind of lonely I crave. An escape that sends me back to the hills.
“There’s not much about Chimney Rock,” Kyle said. He was referring to tourist information, the marketing, surprised by how many places aren’t mentioned and they’re as good as the hot spots. He wanted to do more but thought sharing his age might preclude him. The Blue Ridge Parkway was blocked off beyond the Visitors Center and Folk Museum. Many businesses closed in low season, and others set up cashiers at the door for take-out only. The nightly music venues the region was famous for were also bust. Shut up, cancelled. I wanted to hear the mountain music, old time, bluegrass.
“Biltmore. That was nice,” Kyle said. My best friend didn’t agree. She liked the outside proportions, the grounds, well enough. She and I had visited that week and she said the inside was heavy and dark, with the exception of conservatory with its windowed walls and interior garden. The rest failed to take on the light, to capture the outdoors. To be fair we went in winter on a gloomy day. After three floors, hustled along the labyrinthine paths set up as COVID compliant, I felt a bit like a mole scurrying through tunnels, a bowling alley here, a sitting parlor there, servants’ quarters on a floor inaccessible under current restrictions.
The 1895 estate was extremely large, the country’s largest home with some 178,000 square feet to romp around in. Each of its inhabitants could hunker down in his corner with nary a bit of news from another soul. The Vanderbilts designed the place to entertain and employ and house their stuff, and what stuff. Ten thousand volumes in the library, likely as many prints and artists renderings of great works, early Renoir and notable portraiture, fine tapestries, exquisite materials and the latest in refrigeration technology of the day. George employed the family money well, a lifetime or two seemed not enough for such accumulation, ordered and organized and well planned as it was. The family still owns the estate and employs many, who support and continue the grandeur. The room which connected the breakfast hall and the music room, running just behind the winter garden was never finished. This salon ran along the rear of the main floor with miraculous views and for some odd reason was not completed during Vanderbilt’s lifetime. How is that possible for such planning? The music room housed the Smithsonian museum’s effects during wartime. The room seemed to have as little use as the salon, and it was housing the nation’s valuables. Where else could a nation as powerful and vast hide such possessions without detection? This speaks to scale and practicality. Or, impracticality.
I didn’t get in to any of this detail with Kyle. The estate fascinated me and I missed seeing the grounds because of the weather. I’ll visit again on a sunny day to see it in better light. What a delight it must be for grand occasions. But as a home, for this humble guest, it is not.
Kyle listened without comment to a nutshell version of our reaction to the mansion. He asked about the trails above which led to Devil’s Head. The boulder earned its name. If you look at it in profile, you can make out the pointed chin, aquiline nose, a sloping head and elfin ear. The Devil appears to be looking out below, the crest of his head brighter in the light and wholly split from the adjacent rock, like a demon not of this world. The head seems balanced on a chest which swells out and down. A brow juts out above the eye and the rigid set of his jaw appears to exude a meanness on the mortal world.
I told Kyle when he asked that the high trails were closed due to ice. I left to visit the Opera Box which had a view of Chimney Rock from above and I saw the Devil’s Head on the next ascent. On the way, I heard chunks of ice tumbling down a crevice and saw ice melt like sperm cells swimming south beneath the sheet of ice on the rock face. It was curious to observe the water move beneath the ice. Satan was so precariously balanced, that time and the elements would cause him to come tumbling down.
From the Opera Box I saw Kyle still standing on Chimney Rock. He appeared to be looking at his phone, reaching back to his family and friends maybe, to check in, to tell them about his visit. The US Flag flapped above him. Talking with Kyle made me feel young again, seeing as he did, the whole of his life stretching ahead of him, states he hadn’t visited, so much of the world yet to be seen, heard, tasted. All the challenges, the deeds, the seas he must meet and complete and cross. Did he believe in the Devil with his Christian upbringing, or did he see a world of complex characters in complex situations? Believing in something makes it real, to the believer.
I was ready to leave the park, with a renewed sense of energy from the view, this perch above a mundane landscape. I left the Devil behind me as I head down from Chimney Rock. The air was crisp and invigorating in the lungs.