I won’t be visiting any European Christmas markets, seeing the fabulous NYC shop windows, or enjoying the boat parade in SoCal’s Newport Beach this year, my endeavors will be much closer to home. We are heading back to warm, sunny Florida and needed to get in the Christmas spirit. With that goal in mind, we visited a couple of mountain Christmas shops for some good-old NC hospitality and lots of festive atmosphere.

Avery County, NC is the Fraser Fir capital of the US and many of the Xmas trees we buy in Florida are grown in the area. It takes 7-10 years in the field to produce a 6-7’ tree, and they are carefully nurtured along the timeline. Avery and nearby Watauga County are covered with tree farms and choose-and-cut options abound. Through the years I have bought garlands, trees, and wreaths from suppliers here and I can vouch for how fresh they are and the fact they will last way past the holidays. Plus, everyone is so darn nice.

Our first stop was the Sugar Plum Farm (off 19E in Plumtree) with choose-and-cut trees, all sorts of greens, and a large ornament and décor shop. Carolina BBQ is on-site for those who need to take a break and refuel, and there are hayrides the kids will love.

Not far away, in Crossnore on 221, The Snowy Mountain Christmas Shop & Sweets is one of my very favorite places for beautiful ornaments and decorative items as well as all sorts of trimmings. They also sell choose-and-cut trees, garlands, wreaths, other greenery, and delicious treats. Chilly days, smells of fresh-cut greens and delicious baked goods, sparkling lights, and the vibrant colors of Christmas decorations; I love it all.

Bee-Happy

We had a delightful visit to the Hidden Happiness Bee Farm. Thanks to our friends Michael and Virginia for the tip. Located in Deep Gap, about 15 minutes outside Boone, NC, owner H. S. Greene, and his wife run a nice, friendly little shop where you can taste and buy honey as well as various gift items and an assortment of old-fashioned candy. For the Christmas season, he has a cute Beeville display for kids and holiday gifts and ornaments. I enjoyed the active observation hive where you can see the ‘inside story’ of the bees at work and how they completely cover their queen.  But the highlight for us was venturing outside to see H.S.’s 40 hives and hear his stories about bees and beekeeping in the area. He is currently building an expanded education room and will continue to host local school children with educational programs.

I asked H.S. what his initials stood for and he laughed and said “High Speed.” Obviously, I was not going to find out his real name, but high speed fits him well. He is rather like a busy bee, enthusiastically explaining his latest bee projects, as well as the history and scientific background of bees. It’s not fancy, but sure was interesting and I look forward to taking our granddaughter when she is older. It was a beautiful drive to get there and a pleasant interlude in this crazy world.

The hives – with Blowing Rock, NC in the distance.
Beeville.

Just a few typical rural scenes from our life in Carolina. We love to take drives and see where we’ll end up and what we will find along the way. I usually spend a lot more time looking than taking pics but managed to snap these. These shots were from warmer months; now leaves are off the trees, but the grass is still green and the sky is a vibrant blue.

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Elephants Never Forget

Erwin, Tennessee, artist-inspired elephant in support of elephant protection

Memories. Bad ones, plagued the small town of Erwin, Tennessee for more than a hundred years. But this is a story of redemption, how history can be tinged with fable, and how one small town has turned tragedy into hope.

In 1916, a heinous act of animal abuse was committed when a circus animal was mistreated and then hung in the town. The event haunted Erwin ever since.

Animal abuse was rampant in the traveling circuses that crossed the USA at the turn of the century when a mistreated elephant and a bellhop turned ‘trainer’ came together in Kingsport, Tennessee. Her name was Mary and she was declared a danger to humanity when her attempt to eat some discarded watermelon rinds resulted in cruel and brutal treatment from her so called ‘trainer.’ Well, Mary ended up throwing the man off her back and killing him, then deflecting a barrage of bullets that did not penetrate her skin. Quickly dubbed “Murderous Mary” there was a public outcry to put her to death, and towns along the circus’ future route feared her arrival.

Erwin was a railroad town. Even today you see signs of their railroad history in the names of places like the Whistle Stop Deli and the Steel Rails Coffee House.  The library is housed in the renovated station. Erwin is still a hub where many train lines cross.

No one in Erwin came up with the plan, but it was decided to hang Mary and Erwin was the closest major railroad yard with a 100-ton derrick car and crane. Poor Mary was taken to Erwin, and with much difficulty, hung. She was reportedly buried near the tracks, but no one is sure exactly where. Ever since that day the awful deed has tormented the town and its residents. Details lost, replaced by only the memory of a town that hung an elephant.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Mary’s death, town leaders decided to embrace the past, tell the story from their perspective, and accomplish something positive for animal rights.  Specifically, for the protection of elephants. Many don’t know that a few hours away, just south of Nashville, is the home of The Elephant Sanctuary, a 2,700-acre preserve for elephants retired from zoos and circuses. It is a true licensed and accredited sanctuary, no public allowed. The best way to see the elephants is through live-streaming EleCams on the property.

The town began a campaign to raise money for the Sanctuary and to educate the public about elephants and history.  A ‘trunk project’ was created to raise awareness and create dialogue in the community. Regional artists were brought in to paint fiberglass elephants auctioned as a fundraiser during the first week-long event. It was such a success, people demanded to know when the next “herd” would be available to purchase. Today several of the colorful statues liven the downtown community and local merchants have been turned into storytellers, explaining Mary’s sad story, Erwin’s unfortunate place in history, and how important it is to protect and save elephants in the wild.

As one nearby resident said, “We’re telling a new elephant story now.”

Special Notes:

NPR Podcast – Four high school juniors from nearby Elizabethton High, put together an 11-minute podcast about Erwin and Mary for NPR’s first student Podcast Challenge. They won the high school category and their story about redemption, Murderous Mary & the Rise of Erwin, is worth a listen.

If you love elephants – I urge you to visit the website of The Elephant Sanctuary. You won’t be sorry. It’s impressive and I think not very well known. It opened in 1995 and has housed 28 elephants through the years, with 11 currently in residence. Their Mission Statement captures their purpose nicely: The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee exists to provide captive elephants with individualized care, the companionship of a herd, and the opportunity to live out their lives in a safe haven dedicated to their well-being, and to raise public awareness of the complex needs of elephants in captivity, and the crisis facing elephants in the wild.

Maybe I’m starting to get into a holiday mode (I feel the need for something festive at this point)! I couldn’t resist participating in Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Purples and Violets. Lights were the first thing that flashed into my mind and I thought of these two night shots, the first of Brijrama Palace in Varanasi, India, taken from the Ganges during the Diwali Festival, and the second from the incredible Strasbourg Christmas Market. It looks like so many of this year’s Christmas Markets have been canceled or diminished in some capacity, but it appears Strasbourg will still light up its historic streets.

I’ll round-off this post with some flowers from Nuremberg and a pic of the Ganges at sunset.

Such happy colors.

Railroad grade roads

Train buffs and explorers can agree that following the old railroad routes can be a great way to see parts of the USA. Today, many of the old narrow-gauge routes have been paved as narrow roads or used as biking routes as in Damascus Virginia’s Virginia Creeper Trail. We decided to follow the Tweetsie Extension route in Carter County, TN, just across the border from NC. The one-lane road looks as if it was just paved and follows the Doe River through a beautiful country route passing through impressive cuts in the rock formations. The route is well-marked, just off of US19 E in east Tennessee, a few of the markers have some graffiti, and others, as pictured here, are cattywampus, so look carefully.

Since 1882, the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad company operated a route from Johnson City, TN to Cranberry, NC and in later years it continued on to Boone, NC. Locals called the line “Tweetsie” because of the tweet-tweet whistle sounds the train made as it wound its way through the hills. Modernization combined with forces of nature to result in the closing of the line in 1950. Of the 13 original steam engines, only one remains. Engine No.12 has been running regular routes at the Tweetsie Railroad (now amusement park) in Blowing Rock, NC since 1957. The developer of the site bought the engine for $1 from famed movie-cowboy Gene Autry who had planned a California movie career for the engine. The train is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

The route is also part of the Overmountain Men Trail, which played a significant role in the Revolutionary War. You can read more about that important battle here.

A sign of the times.

Baby J wants to try my fall mask . . . I can’t imagine how we will get her to keep one on when she turns two. Enough said.

Fall color, Linville, North Carolina
Linville, NC

I love the way the clouds settle into the mountains, becoming part of the landscape. Grandfather Mountain is completely obscured in the background.

For: Lens-Artists Challenge #119 – My Hideaway & Festival of Leaves 2020

This year more than ever, it has felt like an escape to head north to the beautiful rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina. We first came up to the area knowing no one, and as the years have gone by our hideaway has been filled with new friends and existing friends who have joined us in this peaceful slice of heaven.

Jealously, I had hoped in this year of Covid, with all festivals and events canceled, that the NC High Country would be our secret. But as more Americans have sought refuge in the great outdoors, the area has actually been pretty crowded.

As the leaves have fallen, the crowds have diminished, and I feel like it’s all ours once again.

When leaves are way past their prime, off the trees, dried-up, and crinkly – then it’s time to play! These leaves are made for stomping, shuffling, jumping, and tossing in the air – who knew it could be so much fun.

Fall color, Linville, North Carolina
Fall colors in Linville, NC at 5,000 feet, about a week past peak color.

Miami Villagers
Coral Gables’ Douglas Entrance, the first historic building saved by The Villagers.

I’ve said it before and will say it again, Miami has some interesting, and often very entertaining, history.

Most of my Miami friends know I am involved with a historic preservation group called The Villagers. Formed in 1966, the group is the oldest preservation group in the area and has been the catalyst for identifying and saving much of Miami-Dade’s unique history, with more than 150 projects funded, benefiting more than 75 historic sites and organizations.

That being said, even those who support our fundraising events often don’t understand how we put our money to work. The group has just completed a two-and-a-half-minute video (see below) that demonstrates the types of restoration The Villagers fund.  It features work-in-progress at the iconic Vizcaya, historic properties of the Coral Gables Garden Club and Coral Gables Woman’s Club, and the Doc Thomas House which is home of the Tropical Audubon Society. Check out The Villagers’ website for more details.

Ripkin Lake, Tennessee

Fall colors X 2.

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