An Enduring Icon Endures No More
In that precious time of boyhood summers, our family would drive from Lincoln County, Georgia, to the North Carolina Mountains. That meant a winding trip up Old US 441. Back then we had no Disney World. We got our thrills at mountain overlooks and Tallulah Gorge stopped us in our tracks. I’d dash from the car straight to the porch. Just like that I beheld the Grand Canyon. I’d stare across a wide, deep chasm, and see red-shouldered hawks riding thermals.
The old tourist stop at Tallulah Gorge looms deep in my memories, 1,000 feet deep. When passing that way I always stop. On a recent trip to the Chattooga River, I drove Old US 441 and made my way to the gorge. There, I met Mary Beth Hughes, operator of Tallulah Point Overlook. “I’ve been coming here all my life,” I told her. “So have I,” said a man overhearing me.
“Well, we’re closing at the end of July,” said Mary Beth.
Closing? A place people have been going to since 1912, closing?
Only a few have run this mountain overlook, an enduring attraction with stay power. Harvey’s Famous Lookout operated from the early 1900s until mid 1980s, then it ran as Tallulah Point until 1989. It’s been Tallulah Point Overlook since 1994.
The Tallulah River runs through the gorge and mountain water runs through Mary Beth Hughes’ blood. Mary Beth and the overlook were destined to meet. After graduating from Appalachian State University, she lived in Boone, North Carolina for six years. Then wanderlust struck.
“In 1987 I got at job at New Morning Gallery in Asheville. Shortly after working there, we started carrying rustic twig furniture. I thought I needed to meet the artist.” Meet the artist, Don Bundrick, she did.
“Two years later we married and I relocated to his home in Tallulah Falls, Georgia, in 1990. A young married couple with a two-year-old son, we needed something to do in addition to Don’s furniture creations. It was 1994 and we knew Tallulah Gorge State Park was being formed. Don, an ex-Outward Bound instructor, had the idea to rent mountain bikes to park visitors.”
Red tape discouraged them, so they decided to sell t-shirts and drinks and rent mountain bikes elsewhere. Tallulah Point was unoccupied so Don talked to the owner who agreed to rent them part of the building.
To Earth’s Edge
“We borrowed $100 off our credit card to buy drinks and candy from Sam’s Club. Friends helped us paint the interior. Artistic friends put handmade items in our store on consignment. There was also old inventory in the shop that the owners agreed to split 50/50 with us.”
They opened Tallulah Point Overlook on what seemed the edge of Earth August 20, 1994. “We had no business plan and no capital. We didn’t even have mountain bikes. That very first day, we made $200, doubling our $100 Sam’s Club investment. We bought mountain bikes in September on our credit card.”
Misfortune arrived the next summer. Thieves stole all the mountain bikes. “Fortunately the shop had taken off,” said Mary Beth. They started a side business, Tallulah Adventures, and rented canoes and funyaks. They offered rock climbing trips, guided hiking, camping trips, and mountain bike rentals. Eventually they narrowed things down to canoe rentals but in time that fell by the wayside.
Their best asset? That wonderful view from Tallulah Point. You cannot drive by without stopping. “We just stumbled into running the Point,” said Mary Beth. “We had no idea what the future would bring.”
Well, the years brought folks like me and they brought change. Mary Beth and Don divorced in 2009. “I got the business since I worked it the most. Don had other interests he wanted to pursue.”
The years brought great memories too. “Burt Reynolds came in. We were too shy to say anything, as we weren’t sure it was really him, but as his party was leaving, I asked a woman if he was Burt Reynolds. ‘Yes,’ she said. I get a kick out of telling folks Burt Reynolds used our restroom.”
Maynard Jackson, former Atlanta mayor, and Randall Bramblett, a musician, visited the Point. “One of my favorite bands is Blackberry Smoke, a southern rock band out of Atlanta,” said Mary Beth. “Last year I met the band members and I was telling lead singer, Charlie Starr, where I lived. He said he and his wife loved camping up here and when she was eight months pregnant, they climbed the steps into the gorge, then went to this great little shop on the edge of the gorge, my place. It made me smile knowing the lead singer had been in my shop.”
The outlook was closed from 1989 to 1994. “When we opened, people thanked us. They were glad to see it open again since many had been coming here since they were children.”
I knew what she meant. For decades the Point has drawn me back. I took my two daughters there. I’d go out of my way to see the place. Going to the Chattooga? The Point is not far.
Mary Beth turned wistful. “Many people tell us they’ve been coming since they were children. Parents who brought their kids now bring grandchildren. It’s a place of family traditions and memories. People are sad that we will no longer be here.”
Killing the SkyeBurger Cafe
Boone, Asheville, then Tallulah Falls—each move took Mary Beth closer to the flatlands. She loves the mountains so she dug in her heels. Tallulah Point Outlook would be Mary Beth’s last stand. Here she would stay and run a cafe.
“I had my son build beautiful rough-sawn slab tables, bought fun colorful stools, and moved our dipped ice cream and fudge upstairs. I hoped to have a little café up there.” She waited for the right time and thought that time had arrived in 2020 but 2020 turned brutal.
“I had most of the equipment. I had remodeled the kitchen and rewired it. I had partnered with a friend who had had the China Cat Café there twenty-two years ago. I was excited to have her back because she had experienced success with the vegetarian SkyeBurger she created in that spot years ago.”
Covid 19 put the brakes to the SkyeBurger Cafe. Then more bad news arrived. Her landlord sent notice that she had to vacate the premises as of July 31. That killed the cafe. “All our plans and efforts went out the window, such a waste, a huge disappointment.”
Mary Beth lost her spectacular view, a chasm with a river falling into it overlaid by blue sky. “I never tired of it, never took it for granted, and every day I’d go on the porch and feel so much gratitude for working there. The absolute best was my perch on the upstairs porch where I would do computer work and keep an eye on the ice cream shop.”
And storms too. “The wind would start whipping and things would blow around like crazy and we’d run to close the doors and windows. I loved the gorge in all kinds of weather and found it to be beautiful no matter what, no matter when, fog, rain, mist, no visibility, sunshine, cold and snow. I loved it all.”
Mary Beth has to pick up and move on. She’s taking her tagline, “Come on in,” with her to Tallulah Falls at 100 Main Street across from Bluegrass Square. “I’m going to call my new place Tallulah Point General Store.” She intends to use the same design elements for brand recognition. “People will know it’s me.”
She’s moving into an old general store that sat empty for several years. “I’m starting over again in an old empty building. I did pretty good the first time around so I think I will this time too.” And there’s a Harvey’s Famous Lookout connection. J.E. Harvey built and ran the old general store she’s moving into. She lived in his old homeplace for four years following her divorce as well.
She plans on having those wooden slab tables her son built installed on the old store’s porch. ‘Inside will be my chrome tables and old style stools where the ice cream will be.’
She hopes to finally have that café and intends to keep as much of the Point feeling as she can. “I get to use my old display counters and antique furniture like I’ve done at the Point. I’ll have the same merchandise. It will basically be the same store but without the view or heavy foot traffic. People will have to seek me out and I’m hopeful they will. I will miss being at the place I loved with all my heart all these years.”
Mary Beth’s oldest son was two when she and Bundrick started the Point. “He used to get off the school bus here. My youngest son started going to the shop with me when he was an infant. I had a porta crib for him behind the counter. When he started walking, I pinned a bell to his shirt so I could hear where he was. Tallulah Point Overlook has been a huge part of our lives. I’m sad to see it go but I am embracing new opportunities with an open heart. Time to go. Time to start something new. Time to downsize. I just pray and hope I can make it in this new location that does not have the built in foot traffic the overlook had.”
Foot traffic it had for sure. Just before I left for the Chattooga, a son brought his father in, a long-time fan of Tallulah Gorge. Mr. Weaver, 93 years young, has been coming to the Point for seventy-two years years.
The overlook at Tallulah Gorge has been a big part of many lives, mine for sure. The next time I round that curve on Old US 441 I’ll stop to see the gorge but I won’t get any ice cream. I won’t see Big Foot lurking in the trees nor will I see the slender female mannequin wearing a bikini top and Army helmet. Nor will I see Mary Beth. As for the next chapter, time will write her story as she leaves the gorge Karl Wallenda famously walked across in 1970. Mary Beth will walk a tightrope too as she starts another business in a difficult time.
The rest of us? Let’s hope someone can convince the landlord to give this icon one more chance. In a world where abysmal events grow more common and more abysmal, it made me happy to peer into an abyss and forget my worries for a while. My parents did and so did my children. My hope is their children will too … if they get the chance.
Image credit: all of the photographs used in this story were taken by the author, © Tom Poland.