Food Feature: Moody Blue Ridge

Letting your hair down at the Hickory Nut Gap Inn

Way up I-85, where the SUVs start to give way to pickups and Georgia gives way to South Carolina, things start to feel different.

This travel-induced mood swing can, in fact, be pinpointed to a specific moment: It is precisely when the bright blue sign welcomes us to South Carolina that a violent thunderstorm erupts, crippling visibility and making the rest of the journey a squinting, white-knuckled standoff between dodging semis and keeping up with the unmarked pavement shifts. It's a frightening driving experience, and it has been a long time since the weather has made me pull off the highway for a good cry.

But this weekend getaway to the Western North Carolina mountains should be worth any amount of consternation the road can dole out because a mood swing is precisely what we seek. As we hydroplane into our third state, we realize that this three-hour drive has become a six-hour test of will, which is capped off by a climb up a narrow, mile-long mountain switchback: the entrance to our final destination, the Hickory Nut Gap Inn, in Bat Cave, N.C.

The journey is an apt translation of the metaphorical distance between here (the inn) and there (Atlanta), and how difficult it is not just to get here, but to get in here. Hickory Nut does not advertise. It's through the referrals of friends that people ever hear of its existence. It takes weeks before a break in the booking schedule allows a reservation for couples because the inn is mostly rented out to groups — about 12 people will fill it, and fill it they do to celebrate just about anything in a setting remote enough to inspire behavior Holiday Inns and Super 8s can't sustain.

All of the guests lodging with us on this weekend have been here before, and each of them has stories about previous trysts.

Bo Trammel, the innkeeper, outfitted in comfy outdoor wear, greets us at the car in spite of the hour and helps us with our bags and our six packs (it's BYOB here), lightly scoffs at our bottled water and replies to our complaints about the weather with, "The forest really needed the rain."

Because we are first-timers, Bo gives us the quick overview and tour: The inn was built in the late 1940s by Herman Hardison, the founder of Trailways Bus Company; each of the rooms is named for the kind of local wood it was made from; you will find no phones or TVs in your room; the gorge that we can't see out the front of the 85-foot screened porch stocked with rocking chairs is the largest on the East Coast; a full breakfast is served around 9 a.m.; and the bowling alley is downstairs.

Hickory Nut is cradled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in a spot that was prime Cherokee real estate before the Trail of Tears. Asheville with its hippie delights is about a 20-minute ride, and the roadside Redneck Riviera attractions of Chimney Rock and Lake Lure are just outside your door — well, out your door and back down that mountain pass.

But this is the kind of getaway marked more by the way it makes you feel, the mood it puts you in, especially if the you in question is an over-commuted Atlantan. The inn almost forces you to stay put, relax and let your hair down. Bo's only caveat is that no one is permitted to hurt themselves, each other or damage property.

Those rules weren't in force in the '70s when rock 'n' roll promoter Jack Miller bought the place from Hardisons' descendents following the plane crash that erased half of Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was Miller's charge to find a suitable hideout for the band to regroup and plot its next move. Rock stars coping with loss express grief in unusual ways. If you ask, Bo can tell you stories of indoor Harley races in the great room just above the basement. Photos from the Skynyrd years still grace the hallway.

Jack Miller and his wife, Bettina Spaulding, lived and partied hard there until they died, both of cancer, both, incidentally, in the Cherry Room. But Jack departed much earlier than his wife, and when he died, Bettina re-married a sailor named Easy Batterson, Captain Easy to his friends.

Easy and "B" ran the place as an inn in a much more selective way than Bo and his fiancee — and incredible chef — Courtney Thompson, do now. B would send carloads full of prospective lodgers away citing her reason: They looked like Republicans.

In an homage to the past, Bo and Courtney maintain a kind of ageless don't-trust-anyone-over-30 method of inn-keeping in their own way. They may be more politically tolerant than their predecessors, but they are still almost as private. One of the reasons they don't advertise is to minimize irreverent visitors, particularly those who come looking for a rock 'n' roll hall of fame experience or to relive what it might have been like to be a member of the Skynyrd posse, circa 1979.

But if it's proof you seek that the Hickory Nut Gap Inn has curative, restorative powers, look no further than Bo himself, a character study in calm. He will appear and disappear to his own residence, the only room in the inn you are not encouraged to explore, throughout the visit. He maintains the same kind of meditative respect for this place as the Cherokees, who considered it hallowed ground. He is like a walking mood, setting the tone for an experience that proves you can't buy, or advertise, this kind of atmosphere.


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