Escarpment Blues

Last weekend we took a spin 30 miles west of town in what, when I was a child, we always called “the mountains.” We never even called it “the mountain front,” and it was only after I took geology in college that I learned to refer to it as “the Blue Ridge Escarpment.”

Of course I’m talking about our local landscape’s thrust toward immortality, the ghost range of the Blue Ridge that rises 2,000 feet above the hardworking, utilitarian piedmont plateau of Spartanburg, Greenville, and Anderson.

When I was a child in the early 1960s the mountains were special beyond imagining. They were where we went to cool off, to see the view. For a piedmont child a trip to the Blue Ridge was stunning, alluring, but the experiences I remember from there have now been replaced with the economic realities of an adult world and changed almost beyond recognition.

First there’s the interstate. Sometimes I envy Greenville and Anderson because it’s harder to get into the mountains from over there. U.S. 25, though four-lane, still feels a world or two closer to my childhood, and the road to Caesar’s Head is still a switchback challenge you have to take.

All the way through college in the 1970s I-26 was closed to all but jeep traffic. The slopes on Tryon Peak were so unstable that it took some engineer’s magic spell to keep them stable. Landslide after landslide closed down the speedway dreams of Eisenhower’s interstate system through the Blue Ridge. I still remember how sad I was the day the interstate opened and the future rolled down through Howard Gap.

I-26 takes the mystery out of travel. I know the advantages to modern highways and convenience has a tight hold on even me. I just don’t like the way they feel.

But mostly it’s not the roads that give me the blues. It’s real estate. In the 90s the mountains were threatened with wholesale industrial development, and the old Cherokee name-“the Blue Wall”-began to get some play in our region. Now the resort developers and the county commissioners call it “the second coast,” and as you drive around it’s easy to see why.

When I was a child there wasn’t much of a market for second homes. If you were wealthy you went to an old-time mountain lake like Summit, or vacationed in small villages like Saluda and Flat Rock, places that had been passed down for generations.

People like me went to Chimney Rock, stayed at a motor court and bought fake Cherokee Tomahawks and long bullwhips. We woke each morning in the cool air (at least cooler than Spartanburg) and looked up in awe at the chimney far above. It didn’t take THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS to convince me I had somehow lucked into a quick view of heaven.

Today Lake Summit is still a secluded idyll for those with a inherited lake house or enough new money to buy into that world, and Saluda somehow maintains a sense of the past even though the train is long-gone, but much of the mystery of the mountains has been subdivided into view lots and sold to the highest bidder.

When we drove back down I-26 I fixed on a little mountain shaped exactly like a chocolate drop that sits between Columbus and White Oak Mountain. It’s not technically the mountains. It’s more like a little geologic afterthought, a lovely little flourish after the stunning mountain front.

Out of state developers acquired the mountain a few years ago, slashed a wide road to the top, and laid out a supply of expensive lots. There was a demand. Polk County is growing fast. It makes the top ten lists of retirement destinations. Chocolate Drop Mountain sold out in six months. Isn’t that good economics? Isn’t that something a community should take pride in?

The front side of Chocolate Drop Mountain is still pretty enough for SOUTHERN LIVING, but the backside will never recover from progress, Polk County style. It’s been strip mined for access. It looks like someone took a razor to the back of a healthy head of hair. Chocolate Drop Mountain has become the red clay poster child for a stiff slope ordinance and development regulations in the Blue Ridge.

I miss the mountains of my childhood, and I don’t have a financial stake in mountain real estate, so I’m uneasy with the present. And then there’s Chocolate Drop, where I worry I can clearly see the future.

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