Next we drove to an area just north of Fines Creek in an attempt to locate site 31HW384. After driving way too far we most likely located the area where the site is. Now it is important that I'm clear about the quality of this road/trail/path we were on (Figure 1). While crawling along at 2-4 mph over rocks and in and out of washes we both heard a load pop. Immediately I was concerned, but because the truck continued without skipping a beat I just figured it was a large rock that slipped out from under the tire and banged against the undercarriage.
Figure 1: Driving out to 31HW384.
It was already noon and we were scheduled to meet with Ernestine Upchurch in Maggie Valley (about a 30 minute drive) at 1pm. Knowing it would have been about a 10 minute walk and another hour to document the site we decided to take a few notes, eat our Subway sandwich on the hood of the truck, and change out of our muddy clothes into something presentable.
We drove back down the mountain and got on I-40 headed south to Maggie Valley. As soon as I got up to around 60 mph I started feeling the truck begin to sway crazily. My first thought was wind gusts, but I looked up at the trees and they weren't moving. A flat tire? Whatever it was it was pretty scary so we got on the shoulder and drove with the flashers on to the next exit (Fines Creek).
I looked at the tires, briefly looked underneath the truck, but didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Of course I'm looking for something like a steel beam dragging the ground....what do I know?. We called Ernestine to let her know we were not going to make it. Next we contemplated calling AAA for a tow or we could just limp along the back roads to the nearest town. We decided to drive about 15 miles down windy-ass White Oak Road to Waynesville. I have never driven a vehicle that was moving in directions such as this. It's hard to describe, but it's kind of like you've got some jerk in the backseat with a second steering wheel that controls the rear wheels of the car. So you are driving along and all of a sudden the back end just swerves to the right or the left. It was a bit unnerving.
We finally made it to Clark Tires (formerly Mountain View Tires) where a mechanic immediately took it for a spin to troubleshoot the issue. After returning he enters the waiting room with a look that had "terminal illness" written all over it. He asked me to follow him, as if the news was so terrible it would be uncouth to describe in front of strangers. I walked with him into the garage and he said, "Ya lost yer backend....and tell ya wut, I almost lost mine while drivin' the son of a bitch....sceered the shit out of me!". While he's telling me this he's pointing at the problem, a cracked frame (Figure 2). He told me there is nothing that can be done. So the news was terminal after all. But I firmly believe that to die in the search of moonshine stills is a good death, a good death indeed.
Figure 2: Cracked frame on my 1996 Toyota 4Runner.
So now it's Day 2 of the Moonshine Project and we are stranded in Waynesville. Next we called Enterprise to rent a car (ya know...they'll pick you up). Got a car from Enterprise and drove to Asheville to rent a 4X4 SUV from National, then followed each other back to Waynesville to drop off the car at Enterprise. This seems like a ridiculous step but it was necessary because Penn State has an awesome corporate account (i.e. less expensive and with insurance) with National. We went back to Clark Tires and emptied out the 4Runner. Jeeze I brought way too much stuff.
We then drove to Maggie Valley and checked into the Best Western. While on the way Ernestine had called to check on us. So sweet. She also wanted to invite us to a little party up a Cataloochee Ranch. She said there would be dinner and music. We couldn't think of a more perfect way to end a day like this.
We drive about 10 miles up the mountain to Cataloochee Ranch through one of the densest fogs I've ever experienced. We walk inside this beautiful lodge (a remodeled horse barn from the 1800s) and sat down next to Ernestine. While having dinner she is introducing us to everyone. Turns out this was a private event in honor of Cookie Wood's stepson that had just passed away a few days ago. Cookie is a cousin of the late Popcorn Sutton and I recognized him from the documentary film The Last One. We had a chance to talk to Cookie for quite a while before the music started.
Around 8pm the 30 or so folks started moving chairs around getting ready for the show. It turns out that Cookie was set to pick with Raymond Fairchild, a banjo master, and the bluegrass legend, Peter Rowan (Figures 3-4). What a surprise! Ernestine told us that Cookie's stepson and Peter Rowan were good buddies and he stopped in to play some tunes out of respect for his lost friend. Below is a video from my iPhone.
Figure 3: A video from my iPhone of Molly and Tenbrooks.
Figure 4: A video featuring Raymond Fairchild melting his banjo.
During a short break I walked outside for a smoke and nip and noticed that the fog was sparkling in the light. I asked someone about it and they told me it was rime ice. Rime ice?! It's fog that freezes! Crazy! After the show we talked with Raymond and Peter for a bit and then headed back down the mountain through the dense rime fog. A strange ending to a strange day.
RIP El Canyonero (1996-2013)