Pillar Talk

By Lloyd Rose
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 26, 2003

They've censored the Chimney Rock sign. Back in the 1950s, road signs depicted a line drawing of western North Carolina's famous granite pillar with a smile on it and a waving, welcoming hand attached. A friendly cartoon character beckoning the whole family to have fun. But by the time I was in my twenties, the sign had been replaced by a more realistic photographic image taken from an angle that didn't emphasize quite so strongly what I realize, with the wisdom of age, was the Rock's definite resemblance to, well . . .

Put it this way: Almost any tall, freestanding structure is commonly, if not sniggeringly, referred to as a phallic symbol. And yet, admit it, how many really have the proper shape?

Chimney Rock does.

And so did its signs.

But no more.

Chimney Rock rises over Hickory Nut Gorge, a narrow cleft in the Blue Ridge Mountains 25 miles southeast of Asheville, that allows the town of Chimney Rock room for a single row of buildings on either side of Highway 64/74A. The boulder-filled Rocky Broad River splashes prettily with light rapids, neither broad, in fact, nor very deep.

In the old days, the town had a shabby, precarious air -- a corn-dogs-and-homemade-fudge-and-tacky-cedar-souvenirs ambiance. Now, some of the spirit of nearby Black Mountain, a center for quality North Carolina crafts, has seeped into the place. There are little galleries with interesting work. You can get a cappuccino.

Fortunately, you can also still get corn dogs, at least three different kinds of homemade fudge -- and a souvenir magnet bearing an image of the Rock in all its old phallic glory.

Chimney Rock itself is a 315-foot-high granite monolith jutting out from the mass of Chimney Rock Mountain. In 1902, Lucius B. Morse, a physician, developed it as a tourist attraction, building bridges and roads. And the tourists came. There are delightful period photographs of women in big hats and long dresses sitting in the natural formation quaintly named the Opera Box. The vista behind them explains Chimney Rock's attraction; the place has truly spectacular views.

Today, you can climb up to the Rock -- it's 450 steps from the base to the top -- or take an elevator. From a viewing platform, in the brisk breeze on the bare promontory, you can gaze along the ancient gorge of the Brevard Fault. You're looking at some of the oldest mountains in the world, formed more than 500 million years ago.

An easy three-quarter-mile walk brings you to the top of Hickory Nut Falls, passing on the way there and back various natural formations to which Morse gave colorful names: the aforementioned Opera Box; Devil's Head, which really does resemble a stone demon overlooking the gorge; and Nature's Shower Bath, where even in the driest season droplets of water from some unseen source spatter down on the path.

Though the view from the top of 404-foot-high Hickory Nut Falls is fine, you don't get a good look at the falls themselves. Or any look, really. That's because they're falling, plunging out of sight over what appears to be a sheer drop. On a recent visit, I lay on my stomach and wriggled out on the rock to peer over and see the water drop. All I saw was more rock. The sheer drop doesn't start immediately, and I was looking at a gradient.

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