Wednesday, May 21, 2008

On the Trail of the Rat

Well, you don't know what we can find
Why don't you come with me my friend
On a magic carpet ride
Well, you don't know what we can see
Why don't you tell your dreams to me
Fantasy will set you free
-Magic Carpet Ride, by Steppenwolf

Given the current worldwide shortage in magic carpets, we’ll need to find alternate transportation for the trip I have in mind.

A bright yellow 1941 Chrysler sedan should do just fine. Meet me at Boone’s Corner in Candler and we’ll take it for a spin on the Pisgah Motor Road.

First, though, let me tell you how this all got started. Shortly after I began collecting vintage postcards of Western North Carolina, I snagged this linen-era scene of "Mount Pisgah and the Rat" and encountered a mystery. The Mount Pisgah part was easy. There’s not a more recognizable peak this side of Grandfather Mountain.

But "the Rat"? I pondered over that one. Maybe the rat was one of the smaller hills poking up in the foreground. What were they talking about? I just couldn’t see it. Then, a few months later, I was reading Margaret Morley’s 1913 book, The Carolina Mountains:

That beautiful form with the dome-like top, southwest of Asheville, is Mount Pisgah, and that ridge, a little lower and to the left of the summit, is the Rat. " Pisgah and the Rat ! " — the two names inexorably yoked together because the two shapes make one group, and the lower of them has a form so suggestive that there is no escape for it. They are so near Asheville as to attract immediate attention from the newcomer, who, according to his temperament, is shocked or amused at his first introduction to "Pisgah and the Rat."

In the meantime, I had collected more images of Mount Pisgah and the alleged rat. Perhaps if I viewed the scene in person, the ridge leading up to Mount Pisgah would bear a greater resemblance to a rodent of gargantuan proportions. To check it out, I could drive the Nissan up NC 151 toward the Parkway.

But anybody could do that!

Instead, you’re invited to join me in that bright yellow 1941 Chrysler sedan. Fortuitously, it came furnished with North Carolina: A Guide to the Old North State published in 1939 by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Project Administration. So hop in, hang on, and open up the book to page 445, Tour 21A.

According to the Guide, the following scene awaits when we reach the 4.0 mile point on the Pisgah Motor Road:

Pisgah and the Rat, twin eminences, loom above the range straight ahead. From a distance the Rat resembles a rodent with tail extended and head lowered between its front paws.

Eureka! I pull over to the side of the road, and snap a few pictures with my Kodak Brownie. If I squint and turn my head to one side, I can barely, just barely, picture a giant rat skulking up toward the top of Mount Pisgah.

It's just like Peggy Lee always said:

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is

With a full tank of Ethyl in the Chrysler, I figure there’s no need to end this journey on an anticlimactic note. Let’s break out the booze, let’s have a ball, let’s turn the page, let’s roll on.

After four more miles of travel, we pass Stony Fork, "a colony of summer cabins, a few permanent homes, and a sprinkling of refreshment stands."

Then the road gets steeper and curvier as we wind to the top. I watch the temperature gauge pushing toward the danger zone, so I ease up on the accelerator to keep the radiator in this old Chrysler from boiling over. In spite of our automotive anxiety, the scenery along the way lives up to the promises of the Guide:

In May the woods are gay with azalea that varies from white to deep orange. The bloom of the laurel shades from white to delicate pink, and in June the purplish-red splotches of the rhododendron are profuse. Among flowers in the woods are columbine, bluet, wild iris, Indian pink, ladyslipper, and trillium.

Soon, we manage to reach the top. Just ahead is the Little Pisgah Ridge Tunnel. Anatomically speaking, we’re about to pass through the bowels of the rat. When we come out the other end, we’re that much closer to Buck Spring Lodge, the impressive log structure built by George W. Vanderbilt on his private hunting estate.

Nearby is the parking lot for the trail to the top of Mount Pisgah.

It’s too bad the refreshment stand is closed today. An ice-cold bottle of Double-Cola sure would hit the spot.

So we roll on along the Pisgah Motor Road and in less than a mile pass by the Pisgah Forest Inn, "a rustic hostelry from whose front porch the Pink Beds and the round dome of Looking Glass Rock are visible." Just across the road, the Frying Pan Campground (5,040 alt.) is the highest campground in the Pisgah National Forest.

After a couple of more miles we come to Wagon Road Gap and the junction with NC 284. Might as well take a little drive south toward Looking Glass Falls and the town of Brevard. Just past the Pink Beds, we pull into the U. S. Fawn Rearing Plant:

This is the only plant in the United States that has for its primary purpose the rearing of fawns. People in this area are given permits to capture fawns, which the plant buys at $4 a head and raises on bottles. When they are six months old, they are shipped to other preserves. About 135 fawns are reared each year.

I’d like to stick around for feeding time, but it’s getting late. The sun is dropping fast. And I need to drive you back to Candler before this bright yellow 1941 Chrysler sedan turns into a pumpkin.

It's been quite a day...

...on the trail of the rat.

Pisgah and the Rat slide show with many more vintage images of Mount Pisgah and the Rat, Buck Spring and Pisgah Forest Inn:

Recommended reading - A 2004 Becky Johnson article in the Smoky Mountain News reports on efforts to unearth and rehabilitate the ruins of Vanderbilt's Buck Spring Lodge.

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