March 27, 2023
The wrecked bus and railroad car from the hit 1993 movie, “The Fugitive,” lie along the Tuckasegee River in Sylva, in Jackson County, North Carolina. The train-bus crash scene, the sequence of Dr. Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford) sneaking into the hospital, and the following scene of Kimball walking along railroad tracks into a tunnel were filmed near Sylva.
The bus and car are visible (you can’t actually approach them) just outside town near the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad track. The scene passes for a tourist attraction in these parts.
Lots of movies have been made, entirely or in part, in North Carolina, among them “Last of the Mohicans,” “Dirty Dancing,” and “Cold Mountain.” In nearly all of them the state’s mountains and forests really are the stars. Sylva is one of the outposts of this hard country along a scrubby state road, U.S. 23/74, on the underside of I-40. We came for the fourth time to the stretch of dark mountains that ring Sylva for the “Assault on Black Rock,” the 3,000-foot climb to the summit of Black Rock Knob.
Mountains change the country starting just east of Waynesville. The forest is denser and darker, the distances longer between the worn, ramshackle buildings, one-story houses, trailers, and small industrial businesses, the turns in the highway sharper. In March it’s still cold, a sharp, biting cold, often with snow or frigid rain.
Sylva, about 50 miles west of Asheville, is a busy little factory town. It has its two highway exits, its gas stations and fast-food joints, its Walmart Supercenter. But the locals have worked hard to give it some attractiveness for out-of-towners, cute restaurants, shops, and breweries, most crammed along a four-block stretch of Main Street. Still, when you drive into downtown on West Main you face Jackson Paper Manufacturing, which belches thick clouds of white smoke that on an overcast day hang in the air like an approaching thunderstorm. Not what tourists want to see.
Main intersects with Keener Street, which offers a view of the public library, a graceful, domed structure that once was the courthouse. That’s about it. Western North Carolina has a few such places. They start around Black Mountain, just east of Asheville and continue to Waynesville, which calls itself the “Gateway to the Smokies,” then stretch further west to Bryson City, the eastern access point for the national park.
I quit taking the “assault” too seriously last year, my second go-round. The field gathered was the usual mix of young greyhounds, middle-aged middle-of-the packers, and a few skinny-legged codgers wearing thick jackets. We milled around, stamping our feet in the cold until the starter yelled “Go!” The field strung out quickly, sailing up over the granite carpet. The trail dragged us up, simply up. My lungs heaved.
The course is a fire road that winds higher for three miles of rocks, then levels off for a quarter-mile. It then turns sharply north into a single-track trail through junglelike thickets for a third of mile over twisted limbs, vines, culverts, blowdowns, and roots as thick as logs. A couple of volunteers stood next to an ATV at the base of the single-track, stomping and flapping their arms, their faces wrapped in wool.
I staggered up, gasping as the 5,000-foot chill penetrated my three thermal layers. At the top the jungle becomes a grassy patch shaded by the massive rock of the summit. The trail snakes sharply and crosses the frozen mud to a rock cave just below the summit. The wind howled. Foot-long icicles hung from the rock mass. At the top I felt for just a moment the weak warmth of the pale sun. Then it was down, down, for the headlong descent.
An old friend came to these parts to write a book. She got her inspiration from the old Cherokee trails and the stories of the stalwart people who came to this rough country and fought Indian wars. These places, hemmed in by the sharp ridges, Sylva, Waynesville, Maggie Valley, Cherokee, Dillsboro, Clyde, Canton, never grew much, the jobs were and are mainly in Asheville or maybe Bryson City. West Carolina University is in Cullowhee, south of Sylva. A tourist mountain-fall foliage train runs through in season.
Beyond Bryson City U.S. 74 plunges further into near-empty country then passes through Murphy, near the Georgia state line. The road turns due west but intersects with 60 and 19, which eventually are swallowed by the vast Chattahoochee National Forest. You can tack past the Devil’s Spine to Blairsville, Ga., or further south to Ellijay. You may pass by Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
This is Deep South backcountry, mountains, rivers, spectacular beauty, strange names, towns like islands in an ocean of wilderness. Ellijay, both cute and thick with forest, is just two hours from the maw of Atlanta’s northern suburbs.
We may as well have a place to go as the months speed by, a place two or three hours from home, a kind of virgin place that still is new, a place not heavy with memories. Asheville is the beacon, the glitzy, exotic, offbeat little city in the hills with the lovely resort hotel built from rocks, the graceful cathedral, and in recent years the folks worried about climate change.
The Black Rock junket was a bit worse for me this year, and, if I show up next year will be worse still. More important things are at stake: the awakening to good but rare things, the sublime, bracing mountain chill, the overwhelming rockiness, the loneliness of deep woods, the dark, mystical remoteness that somehow offers a glimpse of eternity, and raises spirits, for me, for anyone.
PHOTOS: MARIANNE BEAMER