When the first cool morning of October serves notice that summer heat really is gone, I recall family trips to Highlands, Cashiers, and Brevard, North Carolina. Seeing mountain forests cloaked in reds, yellows, and oranges, enjoying a breakfast of ham, grits, and redeye gravy, and taking in the wondrous sights of the mountains were fall rites during my youth. To this day, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t love fall and its cavalcade of colors more than I do. It’s part of my heritage.
Mom and Dad took my sisters and me on many autumn trips to the North Carolina Mountains. We’d take Highway 79 up to Elberton where we’d turn onto Highway 17 and drive through Royston, Ty Cobb’s hometown, until we made our way to Highway 23, which eventually becomes US 441, a winding route that spirits you up to North Carolina. Along the drive, a stop at the Tallulah Point overlook was mandatory. There, a breathtaking view of the gorge always drove home the point that the mountains were, indeed, a special place. To this day, I cannot pass that quaint mountain shop where you can buy honey and look out over the gorge. I always stop for a view of the gorge that provided a setting in Deliverance.
I like the mountains as much as I do the coast, and I especially like that section of Georgialina where Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina converge close to where waters rolling off Whitesides Mountain form the Chattooga’s headwaters. This wild, rumpled part of the Southland is fabled. Here you can enjoy a feast at the Dillard House, risk your life shooting the Chattooga’s wild section four, and if you have a good memory, recall a thrill that took place at Tallulah Gorge like no other.
Where were you some 46 years ago on July 18, 1970? No, I am not talking about the making of Deliverance, although the novel came out that year. I’m talking about a life-daring feat high above Georgia.
I was a student at the University of Georgia 46 years ago. For some time, a buzz had been growing around Athens and northeast Georgia. Karl Wallenda planned to walk a 1,000-foot cable across 750-feet deep Tallulah Gorge. Being a fellow who is wary of heights, I thought the man had lost his mind, but that was his thing, as people like to say. Being a dare devil was in his blood. How much I wanted to see that man walk across the gorge, balancing himself with that long pole, stepping gingerly. School and other things kept me from going, however, and then the years rolled by and I forgot about Wallenda until Mom and Dad and the family stopped by the gorge in the 1980s. We did some exploring and found one of Wallenda’s cable anchors, a huge structure of concrete and steel firmly affixed to terra firma’s granite. Again, seeing that anchor made me regret I had not made the 64-mile drive to the gorge years before.
The trip ended, change arrived, and then life really got busy for me. Many, many years rolled by.
Memory is a funny thing. Something you had intended to forever remember vanishes but a scrap of paper can summon it in a second. I was rummaging around in an antique shop when I ran across the ticket you see in this column. I had to buy it … cost me $5. It was the next best thing to seeing Wallenda walk across the gorge.
The last time I stopped by Tallulah Gorge was seven years ago. I was on assignment writing a travel piece for a magazine. Although my route didn’t take me to Tallulah Gorge, I made a detour to see the place long special to me. I parked at the shop perched on the edge of the gorge, got out, and made my way over to where I could gaze across the chasm. It was a good time to think and remember. I recalled my days at UGA, the making of Deliverance, family trips we made when our parents were still here, and a drive to the North Carolina mountains a year after Wallenda’s Great Walk. That was not quite seven years before he fell to his death in 1978. He tried to walk between two towers on the 10-story Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The improperly supported cable began to swing as winds picked up. Mid-way through his walk, Karl tried to sit on the wire. Instead, he plunged to his death. He was 73.
I hear now and then that his great grandson, Nik Wallenda, may walk the gorge and I hope he does. This time I will be there. In a way, it will atone for not seeing Karl cross the chasm, and it will recapture, briefly, a bit of bygone youth.