"Howdy, how are ya?"
It was another day of howdy-doing on the porch for Fred Phofl, owner of Fred’s General Mercantile, local historian and mayor four times over here in the tiny village of Beech Mountain, N.C. Nobody’s a stranger at Fred’s, open seven days a week 365 days a year and ready to sell you anything from shovels to skis, firewood to a fishing license.
"When you live in a small town like this, people count on you," says Fred, who appeared downright Santa-like on a December morning with white beard, wire-rim spectacles and red flannel shirt. For 33 years, Fred has been welcoming folks from near and far who stop by his popular country store. Downstairs, a deli serves breakfast and lunch and hot coffee in a hurry.
A stop at Fred’s is like a visit to Baskin-Robbins — you’ve got to do it when you’re in town.
Just up the road lies Beech Mountain Resort, at that point still awaiting its first major blast of winter snow — if you don’t count the freak snowstorm dumped by Hurricane Sandy on Halloween. By mid-December, wildly swinging temperatures and a lack of precipitation had put Beech, like the other local ski resorts, on standby, watching the thermometer with an eagle eye in order to flip the switch on multimillion-dollar snowmaking equipment the second it hits freezing.
In typical cheerful Appalachian style, the locals here in the High Country of North Carolina, which hugs the border of Tennessee along the Blue Ridge Mountains, seemed confident that snowy days were ahead. All resorts rely heavily on the ability of snowmaking to create a more consistent base and a longer season. But temperatures must be right around freezing (humidity plays a factor in the exact degree) in order to crank up the blowers. "An arctic blast is coming Tuesday," you hear with utter certainty, or "we should be getting 6 to 10 inches by next week." If there were a dance for the Snow Gods, they would be making a ruckus in the streets of Banner Elk.
Gil Adams, director of Skier Services at Beech Mountain, has been skiing these hills for 45 years. He’s worked on the ski patrol since 1970 and can tell you there’s some darn good skiing to be found in these parts. You just have to be patient.
"We had no grooming machines back 45 years ago; we used bulldozers," he says. "Now we have state-of-the-art snow guns that cover 100 percent of the slopes, and state-of-the-art grooming. We’re the only resort in the state with a high-speed quad."
With 95 acres of skiable terrain, it may not be Vail, but Beech is plenty good enough for families, groups and newbies who don’t need the Western megaresort ski experience. There are 16 trails with two quads and six double chair lifts, one main lodge with one main cafeteria and a walkable Alpine Village, complete with a bakery and coffee shop, nursery and a few retail shops. The Youth Learning Center offers an all-day program with ski and boarding lessons for kids ages 4 to 12.
Not far away at Sugar Mountain Resort, college-age snowboarders were making the most of the one run with snow on it. Resort owner Gunther Jochl, who has been in charge for 36 years, wasn’t worried. His high-tech snowmaking technology would kick into high gear the minute temperatures dropped to freezing. His guns are high speed and portable, blasting out more snow in less time than ever before. "We’ll have 100 percent coverage overnight," he promises.
Sugar Mountain is the largest ski resort in the High Country, with 115 skiable acres, 20 runs, one triple and four double chairs. The Sugar Bear Ski School in the Children’s Learning Center offers instruction for kids ages 5 through 10. Children ages 7 through 14 learn to snowboard in the Polar Bear Snowboard School. A tubing park, snowshoeing and ice skating rink offer activities for non-skiers.
Appalachian Ski Mnt., the smallest of the area resorts, is a hidden gem for families looking for safe, easy slopes in a secluded setting. The quaint Bavarian-style resort prides itself on its no alcohol policy and one-on-one instruction. It’s home to the French-Swiss Ski College and a Burton Learn to Ride Center, both recognized nationally for top-flight beginner ski and snowboard instruction. The Burton Progression Park is an entry level terrain park made just for beginning boarders, and one of only 15 around the world.
At the helm of the French-Swiss Ski College since it opened in 1969, Jim Cottrell is something of a High Country ski celebrity. Displayed along a wall near his office in the lodge is a collection of newspaper and magazine articles and photos from decades of events, competitions and award presentations. It’s hard to believe Cottrell has been teaching skiing for more than 40 years, as his enthusiasm for the sport is contagious.
Learning how to ski can be accomplished at any age, he insists, but there is a secret.
"Studies have shown that it takes three times to learn how to ski, to be comfortable and feel in control," Cottrell says. "A lot of people who try skiing once never return. They try it on their own, or with the help of a friend, they aren’t successful and they never try again, which is why it’s really important to learn how to ski with a qualified instructor who can help you progress."
Off-slope activities involve fun and exploration. Try tubing or zip-lining at nearby Hawksnest Resort. Hawksnest has 20 tubing lanes ranging from 400 to 1,000 feet. The adventurous can give winter zip-lining a try. Snap into your harness and glide through a high-elevation canopy of trees on four miles of zip line. Tours of varying lengths are available for ages 5 and up.
Take an afternoon to enjoy a scenic drive along winding rural Highway 194 to the area known as Valle Crucis between Boone and Banner Elk. The region of rolling farmland, woods and streams was a significant missionary area for the Episcopal Church in the late 1800s.
Your destination on this road trip should be Mast General Store, recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as one of the best remaining examples of an old country general store. Look for the old Esso gas sign out front. There are eight Mast stores scattered across the Southeast today, but this is the original, built in 1883. The sprawling two-story store is packed to the rafters with every product and knick-knack imaginable, from backpacks and hiking boots to wind-up toys, books and calendars, musical instruments, jams, jellies and honey, and hundreds of old-fashioned penny candies.
Mast General Store had a reputation for carrying everything "from the cradle to the casket" and it appears to continue the tradition. Look for the old U.S. Post Office in back, which is still in use today, and don’t be surprised if you come across a few old-timers picking banjos or playing checkers. This might be the closest you’ll ever come to Mayberry RFD.
After visiting Mast General Store, head across the road to The 1861 Farmhouse, a restaurant and winery in a beautifully restored homestead where Southern hospitality is alive and well. Owners Steve and Alison Garrett are likely to greet you at the door of this charming country home (open Thursday through Sunday during winter), which serves Southern cuisine in several dining rooms. The Sunday Brunch features Southern favorites such as shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles and French toast.
Originally a two-room brick home built in 1861 by Henry Taylor, who had a store in the Mast building, the abandoned farmhouse was painstakingly renovated over two years by the Garretts and reopened in 2011. A small barn behind the home was converted into a tiny winery, where Steve and several associates create their own wine blends using primarily North Carolina grapes. These are the only wines served at The 1861 Farmhouse, a source of pride for the Garretts, who already have scored awards at various state wine competitions. If weather permits, finish your meal with a coffee or wine outdoors, where you can set a spell on the rocking chairs on the wrap-around porch.
About 30 minutes from Boone, between Sugar and Beech mountains lies the town of Banner Elk, a central location for families who come here to enjoy year-round activities. Along the way, you’ll find traditional Appalachian arts and crafts shops, many selling unique hand-hewn wood furniture.
Back at the ski resorts, the Snow Gods must have been pleased. A major snowstorm dumped 12 inches of snow, and the season appears to be back on track.
It’s all part of the High County mountain magic.