Around Bass Lake by Michael J. Leach

For eight consecutive days in October, crisp autumn leaves crackled beneath my feet. Initially, I had selected the inviting Bass Lake trek, located just off highway 221 in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, for the exercise and scenery. But it became so much more than that. As part of the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, this twenty-one acre lake included a wide, 1.7 mile path around its perimeter that proved hard to resist. A circular journey repeated has the advantage of revealing what might otherwise be missed. And, often, it is the people we encounter along the way who offer us the greatest return on our investment.

There’s a natural tendency to focus on the flora and fauna in the mountains of western North Carolina. After all, who would not be mesmerized by the riot of summer greenery at altitude, by raging autumn colors, or the stunning silence of a fresh winter snowfall?  Surprising deer on backwoods trails, spotting new migratory birds for the first time, or briefly holding a rainbow trout before releasing it back into the peaceful flow of a river captures our undivided attention. But we must remember that people are also an integral part of nature’s tapestry, with threads that run deep into the heart of perception. Bass Lake taught me this.

I spoke casually to a number of folks during eight lakeside strolls there. “Good morning. How are you? Nice day for a walk. Beautiful fall colors, huh?” But others appeared, with unexpected purpose. They spoke, and I listened.

The first was an elderly woman, graceful and unassuming, who walked with a cane beneath maple trees ablaze with red and yellow leaves. Slowing to her pace, I initiated a conversation that eventually led to the most unlikely of discoveries. This woman was born and raised in the tiny borough of Foscoe, along NC highway 105, between Boone and Banner Elk. Growing up there, she had actually played with my wife’s grandmother when they were small children! She spoke of simpler times that focused on putting food on the table, canning fruits and vegetables, and attending church. Her hands were the texts that I read to gain an understanding of her. They were worn, deeply-lined catalogs of hard work that had recorded little idle time — long on life, but short on days. I thought of all her autumns, admiring her calm demeanor as she spoke of good times and bad. At the center of her experience was the constancy of family. Husband, children, parents and relatives had forged her identity, as solid and certain as the ground beneath her. They steadied her journey and assigned purpose to her life. She had outlived most of her generation, to become a treasury of mountain history and a friend to anyone who took the time to know her.

The second was a retired Methodist minister from the Piedmont area of North Carolina who walked two beautiful Sheltie dogs around Bass Lake. He was only there for the day, but seemed to absorb every molecule of the crisp mountain air and vibrant seasonal colors that surrounded him. The intensity with which he consumed the present moment reminded me of how much better food tastes when you are really hungry. He spoke of the changing costs of owning a place in the mountains – too bad that everyone couldn’t afford such things. Listening to his words, I understood that he had opted for a life of service to others, instead of the material extras that many pursued. But he expressed no regrets, and had obviously been granted a full measure of life. When he returned to his vehicle to depart, I noticed that he stood for a moment with his driver-side door wide open and inhaled deeply. Then, he sank beneath the Volkswagen’s steering wheel, settled in the Shelties, cranked the weary engine and disappeared from view.

On the far side of Bass Lake, by the remnants of a low rock wall, I met a woman in a wheelchair. She had been positioned there by her son, who had continued around the lake with two small children full of unbridled energy. She seemed quite content to observe them from afar while taking in the fall scenery. I stopped to speak to her and learned that she was a local resident. We exchanged niceties, and our conversation led naturally into a mutual appreciation of the visual feast that spread before us. At some point, I made a passing comment about how sad it was for all those beautiful autumn leaves to fall to the ground and disappear. Surprisingly, she began to detail how much she loved to see the branches of the trees in winter. She described their long, graceful limbs reaching skyward, turning in every direction, their endless variety of shapes taking on a life of their own in the cold mountain winds. I thought about that for a while, and pictured her sitting in a house by a window in winter, observing the less-appreciated, secret life of trees. I realized that what I viewed as an ending was, to her, a much-anticipated beginning. She reminded me of what a privilege it is to be perpetually wrapped in the miraculous handiwork of nature’s designs, free of the limitations of any one season.

During my last walk around Bass Lake, I sat down on a bench in a choice location that looked back across the water and up at the magnificently white Moses Cone Manor. Originally known as Flat Top Manor, this turn-of-the-century estate house rests four thousand feet up on Flat Top Mountain, almost a thousand feet above Bass Lake. Located near milepost 294 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, it was a twenty-three room, thirteen thousand square foot Colonial Revival style home that served as the summer residence of Greensboro, NC textile magnate, Moses H. Cone, and his wife, Bertha. Their local philanthropic efforts during the early 1900’s were legendary, with particular emphasis on furthering the availability of formal education in Blowing Rock and Boone. The Cone’s encouraged public education, helped build local schools, and played key roles in the early development of what is now Appalachian State University. During his lifetime, Moses Cone planted over thirty thousand apple trees on his Blowing Rock estate and added hickory, chestnut, beech, sugar, scarlet maple, and sourwood trees. Beautiful rhododendrons, mountain laurel, azaleas, and wildflowers were strategically placed to accent the property’s immaculate landscaping. He also created two lakes – Bass Lake, and the smaller, fifteen-acre Trout Lake – stocking the first with black bass and the second with rainbow trout.

Following the death of Moses Cone in 1908, his wife, Bertha, continued to run the estate until her death in 1947. In 1949, Cone Manor, along with its thirty-six hundred acres of gorgeous mountain land, was turned over to The National Park Service by the administrators of Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro, NC to become one of the premier stops along The Blue Ridge Parkway. Today, many of the manor’s historic out-buildings have been razed, but the splendid manor house remains, showcasing the crafts of The Southern Highland Handicraft Guild. The Moses H. Cone Memorial Park continues to provide about twenty-five miles of scenic hiking, horse-back riding, and carriage trails, open to the public (free admission) from mid-March through November.

Looking up from Bass Lake now, Cone Manor virtually beamed in the bright autumn light – a beacon sitting high atop a mountain that seemed an ethereal reminder of some universal symbol of home. “Good morning,” spoke the gentle voice of a young woman who sat down on the opposite end of the bench to share the same view. “Pretty amazing, huh?” To be so close, her voice sounded oddly distant. I turned briefly toward her, realizing that she was about thirty years old, with long, jet-black hair, olive skin and beautiful features. An invisible weight hung in the air around her – an uneasy stillness, out of context to her youth. Eventually, further conversation revealed that she had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer and was preparing for the surgeries and treatments that would soon follow. She was clearly struggling to understand her situation, and there was little that I could do but listen. She had been drawn to the water, as many of us are when undue stress or pressure seeks release. And Bass Lake, dressed up in full seasonal colors, offered her the perfect source of emotional comfort. Words were followed by periods of silence, each with their own special timing and purpose. Soft winds rustled through adjacent trees, separating leaves from their branches and placing them gently on the water’s surface. They sailed away like tiny ships toward the far shore.

Mountain seasons illustrate two of life’s greatest lessons — the temporary nature of all things and the certain rebirth of beauty, which often emerges from the harshest of circumstances. At Bass Lake, seasons mark the rhythms of time and serve as catalytic agents of change. They are as reliable as family, and are evident to anyone who takes an interest. With careful observation, they reveal treasured secrets, and, in difficult times, provide a source of golden solace.

To this day, I remain in touch with that young cancer patient. She, too, has emerged from one of life’s harsher seasons, revealing one of the toughest fighters and most beautiful people that I have ever known.

The lessons of Bass Lake exceed its boundaries.

Michael J. Leach

about the author:
A graduate of Guilford College and The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Michael J. Leach recently retired from AT&T as a Senior Systems Manager. While pursuing free-lance writing and photography, he divides his time between Banner Elk, NC and Central Florida.