Subscribers to the 12MC Twitter site likely noticed that I’d been on vacation recently and probably already understood that it foreshadowed another travelogue. You’ll be happy with the next several articles if you like those.
I was in Western North Carolina using Asheville as my base of operations for the week. I wasn’t sure exactly what to call the region. Was it Western North Carolina, or merely Western Carolina? There was a Western Carolina University in Cullowhee and a Western Carolina Regional Airport in Andrews, both in North Carolina, although the name seemed to shortchange people who lived in Western South Carolina. Ultimately I decided to name this travel series "Western North Carolina" because it seemed to be more precise as well as the more common usage even though it offered an overabundance of cardinal directions in my mind. Either way I didn’t get too concerned.
First we had to get down to Asheville, though. I didn’t take the most logical or direct route. That would be anathema to any dedicated county counter worth his mettle. We headed first to Chapel Hill for an overnight stop. My wife had a connection to the University of North Carolina and this was her first trip back there in nearly twenty years. That’s how I sold a concept that would set-up a county counting adventure far away from Interstate Highways on the second day of the drive down to Asheville.
Chapel Hill remained as nice as it had a couple of decades ago so everyone seemed to enjoy the detour. I even noticed an interesting sundial outside of UNC’s Morehead Planetarium (map) that would have been a perfect addition to my remarkable sundials article had I known about it earlier.
We headed to Asheville after Chapel Hill. Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, I spent several days in town and never caught a glimpse of its most famous attraction. I guess a random one-time reader who landed on this page through a search engine query might be surprised, even shocked with my decision. How could someone travel all the way to Asheville and completely avoid the Biltmore Estate — the largest home in the United States — constructed by George Vanderbilt in the 1890’s? Most of the regulars, however, probably knew that 12MC often disregarded the obvious sites for those more esoteric. Plus I’d already seen a bunch of large estates on my recent trip to Newport, Rhode Island. I didn’t need to see another house, not even the biggest one (map)
A tip of the hat goes to Loyal Reader Rhodent who suggested I focus my attention elsewhere. He offered sage advice that led to lesser-known attractions like…
Western North Carolina Nature Center
When I saw the phrase "nature center" I cringed a little because I thought it might be like the little nature center near my home. I expected the typical couple of rooms with turtles, snakes and a few dusty taxidermy birds, and maybe a short walking trail through the trees. The Western North Carolina Nature Center was actually more of a small zoo (map). It featured all the familiar fauna one would expect from the local area tucked into an expansive wooded hillside. The kids loved it. I will also add that the white-tail deer there were the luckiest ones alive. Imagine having shelter, regular feedings and a peaceful place to stay during hunting season!
I began each morning with a walk through a different section of Asheville. The city offered a compact inner-core and I became familiar with its basic layout quickly. Asheville centered on Pack Square Park (map) and radiated out in all directions from there. A larger share of what I’d lovingly call itinerant hippies congregated throughout downtown, certainly more than what I’d expected for a city of its size. They seemed harmless enough, as if the only real "danger" might involve an unexpected drum circle or getting tangled in a web of white guy dreadlocks, or perhaps catching a vague waft of smoke of questionable origin. I’m quite immune to panhandlers and buskers thanks to years of living and working in a highly urbanized environment so I just went about my walks.
Much of my wandering involved the South Slope area, named that way because it occupied a downhill slope immediately south of downtown. What the designation lacked in originality it made up for in accuracy. It was also an area of great transition and clearly hit a tipping point towards gentrification recently. The craft breweries came first and continued to arrive. A couple of years ago this was little more than several rows of small, grimy warehouses and blue-collar businesses in various states of disrepair. Some of those elements remained and I took great delight in finding the original remnants prior to their transformation. And certainly they will transform. Soon. I saw construction everywhere; loft apartments, boutiques and more breweries on the way.
I also enjoyed exploring the neighborhoods just north of downtown like Historic Montford and the areas around Charlotte Street (map) with beautiful homes from the turn of the last century up through the 1930’s. It reminded me a lot of my own neighborhood before people started bulldozing historic homes to replace them with McMansions. Hopefully Asheville has better zoning laws to protect its vintage character.
Asheville provided a great central hub to the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains with abundant hiking, climbing, swimming, and rafting. We would pursue all of those activities in due course. However I can’t deny that an immense concentration of breweries springing from the hillsides attracted my attention too. I like to visit breweries although I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll have an entire article devoted to Asheville breweries coming soon.
Twelve Mile Circle is just getting started on this Western North Carolina trip report. Hopefully there will be something for everyone whether casual tourists, outdoor enthusiasts, hardcore geo-geeks or whatever. In the meantime, feel free to view my public photo album if you simply can’t wait to see where this is all heading.
The Twelve Mile Circle "Complete Index Map" has enough entries on it now that my mind wandered to the spots not yet covered. These tended to be remote, empty places bereft of many people or dramatic topography. That would appear to be an accurate description of central Kansas in particular, seemingly flat as a pancake and lacking much of a population. Nonetheless I drilled down onto the map, spied Interstate 70 and saw a town called Hays. I wondered what might be there.
Actually there wasn’t much there although that didn’t surprise or bother me. Every spot has a story. Hays was the biggest town for miles around with more than twenty thousand residents so I figured I’d find something interesting. It also had a fairly sizable university with twelve thousand students making it quite the college town. Fort Hays University had a museum, The Sternberg Museum of Natural History, which featured numerous fossils from the time of dinosaurs all the way to the Ice Age. It seemed like a lot of these midsized towns of Middle America had fossil museums. I love that kind of stuff. I need to get out there and see a few.
Many readers probably figured from the name of the university that the town of Hays may have had a connection to Fort Hays. That assumption would be correct. It began as Fort Fletcher in 1865 to protect wagon trains. Soon thereafter government authorities renamed it Fort Hays and shifted its purpose, as part of an effort to protect the new railroads from attack by Native inhabitants as tracks began to crisscross the Great Plains. A town grew around the fort. The Fort Hays Historic Site now occupies the original site.
General Alexander Hays
Peeling back another layer of its etymological history, Fort Hays derived its name from General Alexander Hays. He displayed abundant courage during his distinguished military career in the Civil War until his death at the Battle of the Wilderness in central Virginia. Hays was the type of General who led from the front of his troops, within the thick of the battle. He suffered several wounds during various campaigns until his luck finally ran out in 1864. He was shot through the head, not quite yet forty-five years old.
Hays was largely forgotten by history despite his bravery, having been overshadowed by much more famous military commanders on both sides of the Civil War. Very little was named for Hays other than the small fort on an expanding frontier that later blossomed into a town. Other than that there were a couple of monuments placed on battlefields as memorials and one small bland suburban road named in his honor, and that was about it.
I noticed a town nearby to the east one level more obscure, called Wilson (map). It may be best known as the self-proclaimed “Czech Capital of Kansas.” I was amused by the title. How much Czech diaspora could be living in Kansas? It wasn’t like there would be an abundance of competition. Still, one needed to work with what had been granted in these remote places so Czech Capital of Kansas became its calling card. The story became more interesting as I checked into it. Apparently Czech immigrants arrived in Wilson from Bohemia in the 1870’s to help build the railroads. It must have been a welcoming place because they’ve remained in Wilson ever since. Residents even hold an annual Wilson After Harvest Czech Festival at the end of July (unfortunately 12MC just missed it this year; it was held July 23-25).
I couldn’t find the original Wilson who served as the namesake though. Clearly he was important person locally because Wilson was located in Wilson Township, which also had a Wilson Creek, Wilson Cemetery and an Old Wilson Cemetery.
I got an email recently from Vexillographer who had just completed a video about the Jeddito time zone anomaly on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. I had discussed this awhile ago in USA Time Zone Anomalies, Part I
Vexillographer actually visited the anomaly in person and made this video about his experiences. Do check it out — the time zone weirdness found there is amazing. It also includes a nice shout-out to 12MC at the end. Thanks Vexillographer!
The expression "Flat as a Pancake" obviously means that something would be considered extremely flat. There are several U.S. states, led by Florida, that are indeed even flatter than a pancake. That’s not what this article is about. Rather I found a location that may or may not have been flatter than a pancake although it should be flatter if its name did it justice. The Geographic Names Information System identified it as Pancake Flats.
I expected to find virtually nothing about this highly obscure spot northwest of Altoona, Pennsylvania that wasn’t even significant enough to be identified on online maps (for example). Yet, people have been there. Lots of them. It was one of the signature features, albeit a relatively flat feature set amongst much rougher terrain, along the Greensprings Trail at Wopsononock (Wopsy) Mountain. The Bureau of Land Management described it as a "2.2 mile loop. Mainly level, low difficulty."
That was the only Pancake Flats listed although there were 48 other entries for various other Pancakes in the United States.
Pancake, West Virginia
I found very little information about populated places called Pancake. Locations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Texas did manage to stand out from the crowd a bit.
Pancake, West Virginia (map) consisted of little more than an abandoned whistle stop along the South Branch Valley Railroad named for the Pancake family. However, nearly everyone bearing the Pancake surname listed in Wikipedia came from West Virginia. The surname clearly signified something significant along the South Branch of the Potomac River.
Pancake, Pennsylvania (map) was a bit more notable. It gained its name in the early 1800’s. I found a Pancake History that included an excerpt from the Saturday, April 2, 1955 edition of The Washington Reporter, of Washington, Pennsylvania.
An air of mystery hovers around the name of George Pancake, one of the early settlers at the little village of that name just east of Washington. Where he came from, when and what became of him are questions that will probably never be answered. He was here for 12 years, and then drifted on west to Ohio… In spite of all efforts to change, the name of Pancake has clung to this village through more than 135 years. First it was Williamsburg, then Martinsburg, and finally Laboratory after Dr. Byron Clark secured a post office for his patent medicine mail order business. But, everyone called it Pancake, and Pancake it still is because it struck the popular fancy as the name of America’s most popular breakfast dish.
Pancake, Texas (map) didn’t exactly qualify as a booming metropolis either. It was large enough nonetheless, to gain an entry in Texas Online from the Texas State Historical Association.
Pancake is at the intersection of Farm roads 2955 and 217, thirteen miles northwest of Gatesville in northern Coryell County. A post office opened there in 1884 with John R. Pancake as postmaster… The population of Pancake was reported as twenty-five from the 1930s through the 1960s. No further estimates were available until 2000 when the population was eleven.
Interestingly, anytime I uncovered the origins of a town called Pancake it tied back to someone named Pancake. I attempted to find out where the name came from with mixed results. Ancestry.com said it was German: "Translation of German Pfannkuch(e), North German Pannkoke, Pankauke, or Dutch Pannekoek(e), metonymic occupational names for someone who made and sold pancakes." One of those family crest websites — and yes apparently there was a Pancake family crest — said it was Cornish.
On the other hand, geographic features named pancake seemed to derive from their appearance, said to resemble either a single pancake (i.e., very flat and round) or a stack of pancakes. Pancake Flats was a good example of that principal and I found a couple of others that seemed to qualify likewise.
There was an entire set of mountains stretching 90 miles (140 kilometres) in the central part of Nevada called the Pancake Range. That was probably the largest geographic pancake feature anywhere. U.S. Route 50, a stretch once dubbed the loneliest road in America, crossed directly over the range. It traveled across Pancake Summit (map) at an elevation of 6,521 feet (1,988 metres).
There were pancakes in Canada too! I found a nice one in Ontario called Pancake Bay (map). There was even a Provincial Park located on the bay with "3 km of beautiful sand beach and Caribbean blue water."