Randy Johnson’s “Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian Icon” looks like coffee-table eye candy – a big, heavy volume of beautiful photos.
Remember: You can’t judge a book by its cover.
Yes, many of the photos inside are breathtaking, capturing the beauty of the mountain and its surrounding environs. But the book truly lives up to its title. Here you’ll learn about the geological formation of Grandfather, the first scientific forays into the area, the early explorers of the region and the stories of those who have long called the area home.
But don’t think of this as some dry academic tome. This deeply researched book often reads like a novel as Johnson’s passion for his subject shines. His association with the mountain began in the 1970s when he first hiked it as a college student, and he cut short his graduate career to reopen Grandfather’s trails, operating as bushwhacker, ranger and promoter.
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He’s still an unapologetic fan of Grandfather, arguing that it’s the original face of the Appalachians and delighting in tales of visitors like naturalist John Muir who broke into song when reaching its peak.
But Johnson doesn’t shy away from writing about its dangers. One particularly affecting story is that of Worth “Buzz” Weller, who first visited the mountain with other junior scientists with the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History in 1930, where he found an undescribed species of salamander and a girlfriend, Margaret “Maggie” Talbert. The next year he was back, and, anxious for his salamander search, he rushed out alone on the first day in camp. A storm came up, and it was four days before his body was found in the bottom of a gorge after he apparently walked off a cliff.
Johnson was able to talk to Talbert in 2012, when she was 97. She still recalled her young sweetheart, telling Johnson, “We never even kissed. But I thought him the most wonderful person I’d ever met. He had the most marvelous mind, and was absolutely aflame with love for science.”
Those stories, which are scattered in little insets throughout the book, give added dimension to the book, offering mini-profiles of many of the people associated with the mountain and voices from the community.
Most people associate Grandfather Mountain with the Mile High Swinging Bridge and, if you’re of a certain age, Mildred the Bear. Both of those attractions were the doing of Hugh Morton, the longtime owner of the mountain and Johnson’s employer for many years. But you’re 128 pages into the book before you really meet Morton, grandson of Hugh MacRae, who bought Grandfather Mountain in 1889 from Civil War veteran Walter Lenoir. Morton’s uncle, Nelson MacRae, built the mountain’s first tourist attraction – Observation Point, a vista just above MacRae Meadows.
Many of the early practices at Grandfather Mountain – building the road to the top, allowing visitors to pose with the bears and feed them peanuts and marshmallows – would be frowned upon in later years. Johnson, obviously a friend of the mountain, writes about them through the lens of the times, and notes that as the times changed, so did Grandfather.
He also writes candidly about Morton’s fight with the National Park Service over routes for the Blue Ridge Parkway and Morton’s influence with politicians.
But his true passion is the mountain itself, the challenge it poses for hikers and preserving its trails for the future. His fellow hikers will appreciate the last section of the the book, where he describes Grandfather’s trails, rating them from easy to very strenuous.
Mary Cornatzer: 919-829-4755
“Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian Icon”
By Randy Johnson
University of North Carolina Press, 296 pages
▪ 7 p.m. June 9, The Regulator Book Shop, 720 Ninth Street, Durham
▪ 2 p.m. June 12, McIntyre’s Books, 2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro.
▪ 7 p.m. Aug. 3, Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh
And on TV:
“North Carolina Bookwatch” with D.G. Martin on UNC-TV at 8 p.m. June 24, noon June 26 and 5 p.m. June 30