The ascent to Mountain Lake Lodge is a slow, winding seven miles.
As a child, I found the wait interminable, especially after being packed into the family car with my two brothers and my parents on a ride that had already taken several hours. Almost 20 years since our last visit, I’m just as impatient. But this time, I’m the one behind the wheel, and our dogs are the ones whimpering with angst in the back seat.
Each twist and turn in the road brings a different flash of a long-buried memory. Everything looks familiar and alien at the same time.
As we near the resort outside Blacksburg, Va., I feel as anxious as though I were going to my high school reunion and about to come face to face with my teenage crush: Who will have changed more?
The difference is, I already know the answer, and that’s part of what’s brought me here. The last time I visited Mountain Lake, I was a middle-schooler with unruly hair and unfashionably faded jean shorts, and the resort’s centerpiece was a 47-acre body of water. Now, I’m a married journalist with slightly better hair and clothes, and barely a pond is left at Mountain Lake.
The lake was such an integral part of our family vacations there, not to mention the entire identity of the place. Heck, it’s in the name. But in 2005, the lake started to drain, and by 2008 it had gone completely dry. The levels have been fluctuating ever since, though never coming back to full.
Over the years, my parents and I have kept intermittent tabs on the saga of the disappearing lake and wondered what it meant for the place where we’d spent a handful of family vacations in the ’90s. The fact that it is virtually gone was inconceivable.
So when I heard that the loss had spurred Mountain Lake to invest in refreshing and reinventing itself, I couldn’t resist a return trip. My parents were game, too.
As my husband and I pull into the parking lot, I brace myself.
People have been coming to this elevated idyll for more than 200 years, with the first recording of the lake’s existence by a European in 1751. By 1857, the previously named Salt Pond became Mountain Lake — and the centerpiece of a pleasure resort.
Most of our family’s time here centered on the lake. We took advantage of almost every possible way to get around on it. We canoed. We rowed rowboats and pedaled paddle boats. We cruised around on the pontoon boat that circled the lake — and occasionally got to steer it. We fished, though we always insisted that my dad handle the bait and the fish.
We swam. From the sandy beach, I’d breast-stroke out to the floating dock and pull myself onto the sun-bleached wood. We’d admire the views from the gazebo, where the water below gently lapped against the shore. And if we scored a prime table on the porch of the Main Stone Lodge, we’d be rewarded with more lake views from above the sloping green lawn.
At least at first, I don’t get wrapped up in these reminiscences. I’m too busy checking in.
As was the case when I was a kid, on this return visit we’re not staying in the Main Lodge — recognizable to many as the stand-in for Kellerman’s Resort in “Dirty Dancing” — but rather the adjacent and pet-friendly Chestnut Lodge.
Each room in this lodge has a private balcony overlooking the woods — but not the lake, or what remains of it. After unloading, to recover from the drive, we sit in rocking chairs, breathing in the cool mountain air. From our vantage point, I can see the hitching post where, I remember, employees would tie up the horses that took guests on carriage rides. Now it’s just a quaint artifact.
At dinner — in fact, at all of our meals — we’re foiled in our efforts to snag a table on the porch because of a large wedding party that’s taken up residence for the weekend. Advantage: the past. Also, as my mom reminds us, on our earlier trips, meals were included in the price of the stay, great with three little mouths to feed. Tonight, we’re forking over more than $20 per entree, which I’m fairly certain would have made our circa 1990 eyeballs pop out in disbelief.
Sitting on the lawn, however, is as free as ever, as is a slew of other activities, including nature walks, yoga, disc golf and badminton. Our party treks out to the grassy expanse, where several terraces are separated by steep declines. At the top is a fire pit, followed by a level with a net for volleyball and badminton. Then come the pool and tennis court before the final drop to what was once the lake.
The steep slopes make me plot my downward path carefully to reach the staircases on either side of the hill. Once or twice, I throw caution to the wind and decide to run down the slants instead. Let’s just say I’m not as young as I used to be. (The whippersnappers these days prefer rolling down like logs.) In the grass here, I used to pick over rocks and debris looking for remnants of the original 1851 hotel that was torn down to make way for the Stone Lodge in 1936. I fancied myself something of an amateur archaeologist, and my finds — mostly little pieces of plates — are probably still tucked away in my dresser at my parents’ house.
But even a solitary walk slowed by memories and a desire to delay the inevitable can’t keep me away from the lake for long.
When I get there, I can hardly comprehend the scene. I’d come across a few photos of the depleted lake before and caught glimpses from the hilltop. Still, nothing could have prepared me for this, the cognitive dissonance resulting from what I remember. Weeds, flowers, grass and trees have taken over the beach and the lake bed. The red-roofed boat dock stands sentry over nothing but memories, its planks leading to a hiking trail carved into the flora.
Sad. That’s the word for it, the descriptor my family — somewhat melodramatically — repeats over the next few days. I snap a few pictures. I don’t have time to wallow for long, because the bonfire to make s’mores is about to be lit. Dessert can remedy almost any problem (or at least make you temporarily forget it).
My family has been sitting around the fire pit for a while now, making the acquaintance of Jess Zielske, the staff naturalist. We tell her about our previous visits and how much time we spent at the lake. We sound like grizzled veterans. In my purse is an envelope of old vacation photos my dad had printed from our cache of negatives. I pull them out from time to time to show other people. I leave the collection in my bag all weekend, a talisman, a tangible connection to a time that few others seem to remember.
In the morning, my husband and I join my dad on a history of the lake bed tour with Jess. We hear two theories of how the lake formed, either through shifting soil and rock that created a dam or limestone erosion that formed a basin, allowing the water to slowly accumulate. The truth is likely a combination of those factors. Mostly, I want to hear about what exactly happened in 2008.
Standing in the shade of the boat dock, Jess pulls out a binder with before-and- after pictures of the lake and begins to run through various theories. The end result is the same, with more water flowing out than coming in from natural springs, precipitation and melting snow. The bottom line: Despite years of research, no one knows why the water level dropped and keeps dropping. In fact, no one even knows where the water is going. A test using dyes poured into the remaining water turned up a statistically insignificant trace amount in one nearby stream.
We walk onto the trail that runs through the lake bed to get a better view of the edge of the rapidly diminishing water. To me, the scene is vaguely post- apocalyptic. The floating dock with slips for rowboats sits abandoned off the main dock. A paddle boat — one we sat in? — rests askew in the middle of the greenery, nowhere near water. The pontoon boat is beached on a patch of dirt, from which researchers still launch it into the shallow pond.
Where the lake used to be 100 feet deep, it’s now barely 15. (At the beginning of this summer, it was at 45 feet.) Jess tells us that the draining lake solved at least one other mystery. A man fell overboard while fishing at night in 1921. The receding water uncovered his body in 2008. I guess we’ll never find out what happened to that fishing rod my brother dropped into the lake — I still like to remind him that I had to grab his life jacket to prevent him from jumping in after it.
Opinions about why the lake went away are just as varied as the ideas for what can be done to bring it back, such as lining the bottom with concrete or a giant tarp. In 2012, the board of the 2,600-acre property decided to bring in heavy machinery to the north side. The idea was that moving around rocks and dirt might close up whatever holes might be responsible for the rapid drainage. After some initial hopes that the lake was returning, they were dashed. Today, it’s at its lowest level ever. For now, the resort is letting nature run its course.
The lake level has dropped dramatically several times before, including a similarly low period for almost 40 years beginning in the late 1700s. It rose after that, so you never know.
Standing in the middle of the meadow, I have to admit that even the depleted lake is beautiful. Just in a different way. Nature is reinventing this lake bed, just as the resort has been forced to reinvent itself.
With no lake, Mountain Lake had to do a little soul-searching. What else would attract people here? There would always be a steady stream of “Dirty Dancing” fans, whom the resort hosts for several movie-, dancing- and music-filled weekends a year. There’s even a “‘Dirty Dancing’ Remembered” cottage in the parking lot. (“Nobody puts Becky in a corner!” would be a common refrain during our visit.)
Cult worship of an almost 30-year-old movie does not a business plan make, however. The accommodations were renovated in 2012 (though my husband is amazed by the rotary-style knob on the vintage microwave in our room). The resort also decided to put a renewed emphasis on families and other outdoor activities. Hence the s’mores we partook in, the movie nights and other kid-friendly programming. There’s also Mountain Outfitters, which rents equipment (mountain bikes, Frisbees for disc golf, snowshoes) and leads hikes and other outings.
Mountain Lake wants to impart a sense of adventure to guests. Previously, for us, adventure was my brother and me sitting in the rear-facing back seat of the family station wagon so that driving up the mountain meant tilting forward like some kind of tame reverse roller-coaster. This trip, however, my husband and I have signed up for the Treetop Adventures tour.
I think the aerial ropes course would have sufficiently impressed my younger self. At 30, I’m equally impressed, if not a bit hesitant during the safety lecture. Still, my husband and I spend about two hours scurrying across logs, wobbly bridges and hanging poles and soaring across those outdoor resort mainstays, zip lines.
It’s exhilarating. Hopped up on nerves and adrenaline, I can’t resist shouting “Woooooo!” as we walk back to return our equipment.
Cleaned up, we spend another leisurely dinner in the main dining room with my parents. Then and throughout the entire weekend, we constantly remind one another of days gone by — how one brother subsisted almost entirely on potatoes, how another got carsick, how it once got so cold that we wore sweaters in the middle of summer.
Other guests seem genuinely interested in what it was like “back then,” so we indulge ourselves with a little more nostalgia. Interestingly, almost everyone we speak to, including a friendly family we chat with at the fire pit, has never been to Mountain Lake before. I think the resort must be doing something right. And not just with fancy obstacle courses. The kids around us are rolling down the hill, playing volleyball, poking at the fire. One boy is coming dangerously close to flinging charred marshmallow our way, sending flakes of ash over our heads. My dad can only laugh in recognition — it’s something my brothers would have done.
Mother Nature is playing her part, too, because the cool evening encourages us to linger outside. We’re drawn to the lake, just as when there was water in it. It’s time for our evening dog walk, so we set out again on the lake bed trail.
As the shore recedes into the distance, we melt into the silence around us. The sounds of ’80s music from the wedding at the barn give way to the strum of the bullfrog. Behind us, the sun sets, throwing out swirls of magenta. In front of us, the windows of the lodge glow amber.
I savored the same view once from the water. It’s pretty good this way too.