Mouth of Wilson. I used it as a waypoint during my recent county counting quest and otherwise put it out of mind as I drove through an expansive rural corner of Virginia. It came to mind once again as I passed a sign for another town about an hour farther north and east, Meadows of Dan. How unusual, I thought, to encounter two locations in relatively close proximity to each other with the word "of" embedded in their names. I remembered a similarly concocted town a few miles away from my childhood home called Point of Rocks, sitting just across the Potomac River in Maryland. I tucked the notion away until my return. Interestingly, all of them became known predominantly for something other than the piece-parts of their oddly constructed names.
Mouth of Wilson
Waterfall in Mouth of Wilson Virginia by Jimmy Emerson, DVM on Flickr (cc)
Mouth of Wilson presented a couple of obvious questions. Who was Wilson and why the preoccupation with his mouth? Fortunately answers revealed themselves quite conveniently in Grayson County: A History in Words and Pictures.
When the Frye [sic.]-Jefferson party surveyed the line between Virginia and North Carolina in 1749, a young surveyor named Wilson died. His body was carried to the bank of a nearby creek for burial, hence the name Wilson’s Creek.
Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson surveyed uncharted corners of Virginia including its border with North Carolina, resulting in the definitive map of the colony from that era. Apparently Wilson, whoever he was, never got to see the fruits of his labor. He lived-on in a way many years later when a town grew at the confluence of Wilson’s Creek and the New River. That spot marked the mouth of Wilson’s Creek and the name shortened nicely to Mouth of Wilson.
Nobody much remembered Fry or Jefferson or especially Wilson, although maybe some people had heard of Peter’s son Thomas Jefferson. If by chance people ever caught wind of Mouth of Wilson it had nothing to do with 18th century cartographers. It was for basketball. Here, nearby Oak Hill Academy (map) built a basketball dynasty over three decades. The school never had more than about 150 students at a time and yet it produced a crazy number of professional basketball players. The school’s utter domination of the sport at the high school level continues today (e.g., "The Middle of Nowhere: Oak Hill Academy, the Best Basketball Program on the Planet").
Meadows of Dan
Mabry Mill in Winter by Sheila C. on Flickr (cc)
Flowing waters also underpinned the etymology of Meadows of Dan although there wasn’t ever some guy named Dan to serve as an inspiration. There were beautiful meadows however, and they were found near the upper reaches of the Dan River. One part of the name derived from a 1728 expedition mapping the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina (prior to Fry and Jefferson who improved and extended the line) led by William Byrd. According to the Danville Historical Society,
The surveying party began marking the line at the mouth of the Currituck River on the coast of Virginia, and went westward toward the mountains. When they reached this area, Colonel Byrd and his party encountered "the South Branch of the Roanoak River the first time, which we call’d the Dan."… Colonel Byrd never explained his choice of name for the river. However, the biblical limits of Canaan were "From the Dan to Beersheba." Because the northern limit of North Carolina was in question, "Dan" seemed to be an appropriate name for the river which at that time fixed the boundary in this area between the two colonies.
That likely explained Dan. The meadows portion joined the name much later, as explained by the community of Meadows of Dan,
This broad high mountainous area was settled in the early 1800s, mostly by German and Scotch-Irish settlers that traveled down from Pennsylvania… The Langhorne family, one of the few of English descent in the community, held a land grant that contained much of what is now considered Meadows of Dan… The Langhorne patriarch is credited with giving the area the name "Meadows of Dan". He settled on the headwaters of the Dan River, and grist mills in the Langhorne name were built along the stream.
Few people would know much about Meadows of Dan if it weren’t for two fortunate happenstances. First, Edwin Boston Mabry, a local resident built a wonderfully iconic mill in 1903 (map). Second, the Blue Ridge Parkway ran directly past the mill after its construction as a Depression-era jobs project in the 1930’s. Maybry’s Mill quickly became one of the most heavily visited and photographed spots along the entire parkway.
Point of Rocks
Point of Rocks, Maryland by Bob Wilcox, on Flickr (cc)
I didn’t need to conduct any research to determine the source of the rocky point inspiring a town called Point of Rocks in Maryland. Literally, just west of town stood a point of rocks that I’d seen many times with my own eyes. The cliff might be a notable landmark for bikers on the C&O Canal trail, or to boaters on the Potomac River. Most everyone else would remember Point of Rocks for its nostalgic train station (map), built in 1873 at an important junction where trains routed either to Baltimore or Washington. Of course I’ll always remember Point of Rocks more for the drive-through liquor store of my youth.
Upon Further Consideration
It occurred to me that there may be many more "of" towns. Yet, I couldn’t find them using my usual search techniques and I couldn’t recall any others from memory. Sure, there were a billion examples tied to geographic units, for instance the City of London, District of Columbia, Commonwealth of Virginia, United States of America and the like. Those were all too mundane even to mention. I wasn’t interested in finding more of those. I wanted additional mouths and meadows and points and other strange yet appropriate descriptions of things. I imagined there were probably many very obvious instance that somehow fell into my mental blind spot. What am I missing?
Each Twelve Mile Circle journey has its own specific objectives. The western North Carolina adventure focused heavily on the burgeoning craft brewing scene. Collectively they also share common objectives, principally the pursuit of geo-oddities along with opportunities to pad my county counting totals.
I thought I did well, adding eighteen new counties with fourteen of them found in North Carolina and four in Virginia. In North Carolina I captured Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Jackson, Mitchell, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes, Yadkin and Yancey. The Virginia counties were Grayson, Floyd, Franklin and Patrick. These visits happened in six separate efforts, some of them requiring significant forethought and others pleasantly simple. I’ve numbered the efforts in chronological order and noted them on the maps below to show how I added counties sequentially throughout the trip. This labeling exercise also summarized the journey rather nicely and served as a nice bookend for this final article in the series.
North Carolina was the primary focus so I’ll begin there.
(1) Chapel Hill to Asheville
The logical path would have involved Interstate 85 from Chapel Hill and then Interstate 40 onward toward Asheville. That would have made perfect sense if I’d been trying to minimize driving time. It made no sense for this exercise. I’d already captured all of the interstate counties so it didn’t pay to repeat them.
Instead I devised several intermediary jogs that took my path through the towns of Winston-Salem, Wilksboro, Taylorsville and Lenoir. That slightly jagged track yielded new four counties: Yadkin; Wilkes; Alexander and Caldwell. I lost surprisingly little time on this track too, maybe less than an hour.
(2) Blue Ridge Parkway Loop
The wonderful Blue Ridge Parkway day-trip that included a a cave, a waterfall, the highest point of elevation in North Carolina, and a restaurant placed atop a county tripoint also netted three new counties. I captured Avery, Mitchell and Yancey that day.
(3) Oskar Blues
I mentioned before that Oskar Blues made my brewery visit list because it happened to be located in Transylvania County. I wondered if it had any connection to the Transylvania in Romania, the alleged home of vampires and other scary creatures. It didn’t. They both derived their names coincidentally from a couple of very common Latin words, trans ("across") and silva ("woods"). Thus, any place named Transylvania was merely something located beyond a forest. That certainly described western North Carolina a couple of centuries ago when the Transylvania Company tried to form a colony in that unforgiving part of the wilderness.
The Transylvania Company was organized as Louisa Company in 1774 to invest in vacant, nonpatented wild lands within the chartered limits of North Carolina and Virginia. In the fall of that year, Captain Nathaniel Hart visited the Overhill Cherokees at their Otari towns to negotiate for the lease or purchase of an immense tract of land between the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers… Transylvania Company’s so-called purchase from the Indians was publicly denounced by the governors of Virginia and North Carolina, however, and the scheme was invalidated.
The Transylvania name lived-on when Transylvania County formed much later on some of the same land, in 1861.
(4) Cherokee Loop
We had another entertaining day on the Cherokee Loop that took us onto the lands of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, then onward to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the highest point of elevation in Tennessee. It also netted Jackson and Swain Counties.
(5) Lake Lure & Chimney Rock
I admitted a couple of days ago that I’d orchestrated a day trip to Lake Lure and Chimney Rock simply to capture Rutherford County, and fill a doughnut hole on my map. It was worth a stop regardless.
(6) Asheville, NC to Roanoke, VA
Returning home, once again the logical path would have involved the Interstate Highway System, specifically I-26 and I-81 here. However I had to capture a number of quite obscure rural counties and this became the most ambitious county counting adventure of the trip. It involved a complicated series of intermediary waypoints on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge including two short out-and-back detours designed to prevent doughnut holes.
Just as we left Mouth of Wilson, Virginia on a double-back to capture Alleghany County, North Carolina — the photo at the top of the page (map) — my younger son announced he needed to pee. Immediately. We were in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest facilities of any kind, and on a mission. Nonetheless, being the good father that I am, I pulled over to the side of the road and scouted a suitable tree to shield his act of desperation. That’s when I noticed I was standing within a patch of poison ivy. I grabbed a water bottle from the car and washed off furiously, then sped to the nearest gas station bathroom where I scrubbed my legs with soap and water repeatedly. I escaped mostly unharmed and chalked it up as another hazard of County Counting.
Don’t worry about the kid, he found a more suitable tree minus the poison ivy.
Those four new Virginia counties in an out-of-the-way corner left me within striking distance of finishing the Commonwealth. Virginia is notoriously difficult to complete because it has 95 counties plus 38 independent cities that are considered county-equivalents, for a total of 133 separate units that must be visited. I have five remaining in a fairly straight path. I figure I can knock-out the rest of Virginia in a weekend and I plan to do so within the next few months.
Western North Carolina articles:
The second day-trip loop from Asheville plowed nearly due west onto the domain of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, and then continued into Great Smoky Mountains National Park for another easy U.S. state highpoint capture. I guess it was actually more of an out-and-back although one could cut the corner just a bit on the return trip with a brief yet scenic jaunt down the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Out-of-Place Scene
Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino
via Google Street View, April 2013
We rolled through pleasant countryside along serpentine roads, over hills and dipped into hollows as we followed U.S. Route 19 into the town of Cherokee. Something completely out of place loomed suddenly from the valley floor, not a mountain, rather a massive multi-story building with a huge parking garage. It was a resort hotel casino (map). I doubt there was a taller building anywhere closer than an hour away in Asheville. Here it stood probably fifteen stories high, an urban structure without a downtown.
I’m not a gambler so I never felt any temptation to answer its call. To me the most fascinating feature was the casino’s complete lack of context with all that surrounded it, like a giant middle finger to those who had mistreated the tribe since Europeans first landed on the continent and pushed into the mountains. North Carolina didn’t want casino gambling? Those laws didn’t apply here. I hope the Eastern Band makes a ton of money from their venture given how much they’ve been treated for the last couple of centuries… just not my money.
Oconaluftee Islands Park
We’d been eating out a lot and visiting multiple brewpubs so we decided to do something a little bit different, a picnic lunch outdoors. I’d wondered if that might be possible as I examined Street View the previous day. The main strip seemed pretty touristy. Then I noticed a little green spot (map) while poking through online map sites and identified Oconaluftee Islands Park. That was just what we needed, a little oasis of nature and solitude surrounded on all sides by water, accessible only by footbridges. Children splashed and rode inflatable tubes down a lazy river, ducks and geese floated by, the wind rustled through a bamboo forest, and we enjoyed our respite at a shady picnic pavilion. The price was right too: FREE.
The town of Cherokee served as the headquarters of the Eastern Band. Members of the nation were descendants of a small residual group of Cherokee that remained in North Carolina in the early 1800’s. They avoided the infamous Trail of Tears, however not without their own hardships. They were forced to renounce or hide their own culture for much of the Nineteenth Century, and spent the next hundred-plus years trying to revive it, a process that continues today. They also had to repurchase the land that rightfully belonged to them.
In North Carolina, those Cherokees who escaped removal either through a North Carolina provision called the Reservation Act of 1819 or by evading the United States Army remained behind in a land less state. By law, Native Americans were neither citizens of the United States nor the state where they resided therefore none could hold property… This ambiguous status continued until after the Civil War when the Cherokee question surfaced again. After several years of legal wrangling, the Cherokee formed a corporation. As a business, the Cherokee could hold the land and the land, which was to become known as the Qualla Boundary again, was in Cherokee control.
The entire history of the Cherokee people was explained in detail at the well-done Museum of the Cherokee Indian (map). It was a large facility and it took quite awhile to see everything in the level of detail it deserved. That took us longer than expected. Other sites nearby included the Qualla Arts & Crafts Center and the Oconaluftee Indian Village. I’d wanted to see both of those and we simply ran short on time. Most visitors would probably want to spend at least an entire day in Cherokee. We didn’t have that option because I had an important geo-oddity that required my attention.
We’d reached the summit of North Carolina’s elevation highpoint the previous day. Now it was time to do the same thing for Tennessee at Clingmans Dome, (map), with an elevation of 6,643 feet (2,025 metres). I know what readers are thinking — this is supposed to be an article about western North Carolina, not Tennessee. If it makes anyone feel better, the Tennessee highpoint fell directly upon the boundary between the two states. The Clingmans Dome summit also served as the highpoint for Swain County, North Carolina. That could be used as a justification to maintain the sanctity of the article title. We were only ever a few feet across the border into Tennessee and only momentarily.
I expected this to be another easy highpoint directly within my lazy mountaineering ethos. It was crowded! I knew we were in trouble when I saw cars parked along the access road more than a half-mile away from the official parking lot. Clingmans Dome (map) fell within the confines of Great Smokey Mountains National Park which had 10 million visitors in 2014, making it one of the most popular properties in the entire National Parks system. It was summer. We arrive at the middle of the day. What else should we expect?
Proving the adage that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good, a parking space opened up directly in front of us, practically the best spot in the entire lot. Clearly a higher power wanted me to visit the highpoint, or more likely didn’t want to hear our kids whine because we were going to the spot even if we had to park all the way down the road and walk the extra distance by golly. I didn’t drive all the way out to a remote mountain and up to the top to turn around and head home. From there we trekked from parking lot to summit along with a few hundred of our new best friends, looped to the viewing platform and jostled through the crowds searching for the horizon. I much preferred the experience of North Carolina’s highpoint the previous day, shooing away swarms of insects instead of people. The Tennessee highpoint would be best appreciated during the off-season.
Western North Carolina articles: