The California Bucket List: Your daily guide to the best adventures and experiences in the Golden State

In North Carolina, western mountains lure a writer home

Memories of summer camp in the mountains of western North Carolina bring me back to a safe, sweet place. I can feel my face soften as I recall sitting with friends between two skinny trees, a breeze cooling our faces, canoeing in a lake and being lulled to sleep by sounds of a stream flowing over smooth rocks.

Added to my childhood memories now are a lifetime of vacations within a couple of hours of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which lures 9.5 million visitors a year to its 814 square miles that straddle Tennessee and North Carolina.

These aren't the towering, rugged peaks familiar to Westerners. These lower mountains have a gentle beauty. They are rounded, covered with evergreens that appear smoky blue from afar.

In summer, my mountains, as I think of them, are a relief from the South's stifling heat. And in mid-October, when red, yellow and orange leaves shimmer in sunlight, there isn't a more glorious area than that around Highlands, N.C.

The story goes that in 1875, two developers drew one line on a map from New York to New Orleans and another from Chicago to Savannah, Ga. Highlands, 4,118 feet above sea level, was in the center.

Although it does have a surplus of posh houses and country clubs, it's also a friendly small town of 3,200 that swells with "summer people." Besides the scenery and trails, there's a fine museum and library, a rich cultural life, shopping, restaurants, and good coffee and free wireless at Buck's. The weekly newspaper printed a police report about a man who was not drunk, as believed, just lost.

This summer I brought a blackberry pie to Jerry, a sweetheart of a man who runs the local cable-TV office. Before I said a word, he asked, "Where's Pandora?" She's my dog.

I was pretty sure Norman Rockwell was standing in the corner, paintbrush in hand.


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