Monday, March 15, 2010

Finding Point Lookout, Part One

Seventy-five years from now, what will people think as they amble through the ruins of our pride…

This story begins with a vintage postcard I acquired several years ago. It shows a roadside stand at Point Lookout on NC 10 in Western North Carolina.

I had never heard of Point Lookout. Where could that be? Another old postcard identifies the same Point Lookout as being on US 70 and overlooking the Royal Gorge.

As someone moderately familiar with Western North Carolina geography, I was stymied. Why had I never heard of a place with the majestic name of “Royal Gorge”?

Upon further reflection I guessed the tourist stop at Point Lookout had been wiped out by the construction of Interstate 40 snaking up the mountain from Old Fort to Ridgecrest. That premise made good sense until I studied a map showing Royal Gorge a full mile north of I-40 and separated from that road by Kitsuma Peak and Youngs Ridge.

After more sleuthing, I learned that NC 10, a.k.a. “The Old Central Highway,” a.k.a. US 70, DID follow a route about a mile north of the present I-40 and was the primary highway leading up to the Swannanoa Gap, until the 1940s. I discovered the road was still there although barricaded at the top and the bottom of the mountain.

A pilgrimage to Point Lookout was not only a possibility but, for me, a necessity.

Finally, I made the much-anticipated sojourn this past Saturday. And it more or less lived up to my expectations. I mean, we have seen forests wiped out to build highways. But how often have we seen old thoroughfares overtaken by the forest? This was a “man bites dog” story, for sure.

A trip like this makes you think about the past, the future and the delusions of permanence. I pictured some pensive anchorite trudging up Old Fort Mountain in the year 2085 - ruminating on the crumbling remains of an abandoned and long silent Interstate 40.

When I finally reached Point Lookout, I lingered for a while and exchanged pleasantries with the people in those old postcards.

One man admiring the view of Royal Gorge had driven all the way from Raleigh. I noticed the camping gear in his car and he explained that he was on his way to explore the Great Smokies. He had been reading about the new park and wanted to see it for himself.

Point Lookout, then and now

Nearby, a boy and a girl were watching the black bear, Prohibition Sally, take a long swig from a bottle of pop. Mom and Dad told them, “c'mon kids, we need to go.” The family had been to Barnardsville visiting grandparents and cousins and were on their way back down the mountain to a mill village in Marion.

Several young fellows were examining their old jalopy with dismay. The radiator was boiling over. One of the guys went to fetch of can of water to cool it.

My reverie was interrupted by a train whistle up the mountain a ways. With metallic squeaks and squeals and a steady “clickety-clickety-clickety-clickety” the train began its slow and winding descent toward Old Fort.

I could feel drops of rain and still had a two-mile walk from Point Lookout to my car at the crest of the mountain.

It was time to go.

[to be continued]



Peter said...

This is great. I was thrilled to see this post. Having gotten a hold of a few similar old postcards a few years back, I was also wondering. My research figured out where it was, but for the longest time I have meant to visit it in person. Thanks for helping me visit it even before I actually can.

GULAHIYI said...

Three or four years ago, when I first looked for this place, I went to the Old Fort Museum. I asked a very nice and helpful docent if she had heard of Point Lookout or the Royal Gorge.
No, she hadn't. But the place is not as obscure as it was back then. More on the changes in the forthcoming episodes of this story.